Credit: Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

News organisations around the world are starting to pay attention to their readers’ needs and adopt a user-first model.

That is the case for The Local, a news outlet for English-speaking expats, published in nine European countries.

Its Swedish edition uses reader surveys and audience data to create editorial products that its readers want and need.

Read more: How BBC World Service engages younger audiences by fulfilling six reader needs

Sure, "product thinking" is a piece of jargon. What it really means, according to Paul O'Mahony, editorial product manager at The Local, is simply to make sure the publication is useful to its readers.

"Why do people buy products? It’s to fill a need or solve a problem in their lives," he said in a Journalism.co.uk podcast.

The "product" in product thinking can be anything, from a new article series to a podcast or a comic. The key to success is to provide your readers with valuable information they cannot find elsewhere. 

The Local's membership is a good example, giving subscribers unlimited access to all nine editions. Throughout the pandemic, the news website has become a go-to source of coronavirus updates where authorities do not communicate in English a lot. Subscriptions have grown from 13k to 50k over the past two years.

Editions from different countries collaborate all the time, swapping tips and stories, so individual publications can benefit from a much larger pool of audience data. One example of a successful new product launched in several countries is the "Word of the day" series that explains a local word to foreigners.

Another example is a monthly "What changes" article series where The Local informs foreign residents about upcoming changes in legislation or other areas of public life that could affect them. Originally created in France, the series was a hit with existing users and it also helped convert new readers into subscribers.

Product thinking is not limited to written articles. Podcast "Sweden in focus", created a year ago, answers listeners' needs with a solutions mindset. At a time when the right-wing populist parties are on the rise, O'Mahony is looking at projects that worked elsewhere and lessons we can learn from them.

Podcasts are good for subscription conversions too; 65 per cent of listeners are paying members, of whom 60 per cent say the podcast makes them more likely to renew their membership. Among non-members, half say the podcast is making them consider signing up.

Read more: 'Actionable user needs' make for more efficient newsrooms

To know whether a product is successful, The Local runs user surveys and makes changes based on readers’ feedback. The make-up of its team gives the publication a head start as most journalists are expats themselves and can use their experience to figure out what the readers may need.

Surveys, on the other hand, tend to ask practical questions and often help journalists unearth new topics or angles they did not think about before.

"We had an email from a reader last week who said the cost of living made them reconsider their subscriptions. They are going to cut Netflix and a few other things but they said they will never cut The Local because that was their most important subscription. And that’s where we want to be in people’s lives."

Listen to the full Interview with Paul O'Mahony here.

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