Editor’s note: We are republishing an excerpt from the book “Community-Powered Journalism: A Manual for Growth and Sustainability in Independent News” written by Kevin Davis and Mark Lee Hunter. It’s part of the newly launched The Fix editorial series where we’ll republish the most interesting excerpts from the CPJ book together with short Q&As with the authors.
When people use the term “minimal viable product,’’ they are usually referring to the first step in an iterative technology process. This would be the “first build,” with just enough functionality to prove the concept of a project and produce data that supports and guides iterative improvements.
When applied to community-powered journalism, however, the minimal viable product takes on another meaning. The core assumption of a community-centric news organization is that its core revenue generation activities and editorial focus will be built on the community served. Our minimal viable product, therefore, is the one that meets that community’s needs better than any other. It achieves viability when we secure the first cohort of target members who can support our mission and scope of our operations.
In “This Is Marketing”, Seth Godin argues that in any business, “You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.” That requires us to reach the individuals who benefit directly from our offer of targeted, value-added, actionable information and insight.
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Not long ago, we asked the founder of a nonprofit news organization in the United States what he knew about his market and the people he served. He replied that his market was “whomever reads us.” That’s true in one sense, but it misses a larger point. When you see your audience in the aggregate, you rarely know much about them as individuals. Some people need us more than others do. We must get past the assumption that what we do matters equally to everyone on the planet, and focus first on the people who share our cares, concerns and values.
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By focusing on “the smallest number of people you would need to influence to make it worth the effort”, says Godin, we put aside the need to grow as fast as possible, and instead focus on understanding and meeting the needs of our core users first. The next tasks are to understand and serve them better than anyone else can do (as we’ll discuss in Chapter Six). Then, and only then, can we say: “To whom else can we provide this level of service and value?” Put another way, the first customers show us the path to the next customers.
We recently worked with a portal for NGOs in Russia that was facing a revenue crunch as it sought to grow. It had hundreds of members – the NGOs who provided content – and the solution to the revenue shortfall was to ask each of them to pay a membership fee for the first time. The portal brought those groups demonstrable benefits, which could be measured, and the fee was a fraction of the value of the benefits. The initiative worked.
If some members do not perceive the value of your offer, as we saw in another case that involved an association of research institutes who wished to open a lobbying office, then there is no short-term alternative but to reduce or cut services along with the fee, or to lose members who are unwilling to pay. That could mean your idea of the MVP doesn’t match what your members really need. A viable product is not always or necessarily an ideal product.
More from The Fix: Media products: When to build it yourself?
Q&A with the authors
It’s harder (and more expensive) to convince a reader to buy a subscription if he already decided he doesn’t need it, compared to readers who haven’t made their mind yet. How do you think media managers should balance this risk while launching their MVP reader revenue products?
The way to balance the risk is by mitigating it, and the way to mitigate it is to focus first on a community of users – people who need what you plan to build. It’s easier to persuade someone who’s already looking for what you can deliver. If they aren’t, they are not your community.
This means that before launching, it’s necessary to determine the needs of an identifiable community. You will look for people who resemble them in key ways later. There’s a lot to do before you worry about the never-minders, and by then you’ll get better at what you do, and you’ll have a better shot at convincing them.
Your MVP should include a specific feature: Capturing data about what motivates your users, to help identify the wants and needs of others like them. This needs to be embedded in the design, and in subscription or donation processes.
This data plus listening and engagement practices will continually inform the development, growth and monetization of a news or information product or service as it makes the leap from MVP to full production.
If you would have to review this chapter section for the 2022 revised & edited edition, would you change something? If yes, what would that be?
No. The core takeaway remains the same: “Our minimal viable product, therefore, is the one that meets that community’s needs better than any other” remains as true today as when we published just over a year ago now.
More from The Fix: Put readers at the center of everything