Running a media business and building media products require very different skills. The problem is that these two things are often carried out by different people, using very different ways to measure success. 

For News UK, which has bet the farm and all the cows on digital paid content, having one core unifying metric to measure success was the best way to engineer a cultural change across the company. As News UK chief marketing officer Katie Vanneck Smith told the Digital Editors Network in London yesterday:

One of our biggest challenges is [changing] culture, so our advice would be find the rallying cry metric that matters for your business. So ours would be total sales, and the thing that really matters for all of us.

Katie Vanneck SmithJournalists, marketers, advertising, technology, everyone who works in this business wants it to be healthy, wants to be in a business that’s in growth. So for us total paid sales and having a metric that we can say has been in decline for years but is now in growth, that’s been probably the best thing.

This fits nicely into the News UK mantra of ‘people will pay for our quality content’. For a sense of corporate direction, it’s difficult to beat that overall figure as a way to build a strategic narrative, given it relates to both consumer reaction and revenues.

But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of building products, that sort of grand direction can be counter-productive.

Stijn Debrouere, a fellow at the Knight-Mozilla Foundation, and currently working at the Guardian, distinguishes between metrics used for accountability, such as that total sales figure, and metrics based on customer behaviour:

The CEO can expect [you to meet accountability metrics] but it doesn’t actually tell you how to do your work. If you were working at Airbus on jet engine design, the CEO would want to know how many customers you have, how many planes you are selling, because the more planes you sell the more money you get.

But if you are building that engine, knowing how many customers Airbus has doesn’t tell you anything. What you need is metrics that go deeper that tell you how you are performing and how people are using my product. 

So if you want to create a startup-like product development process within that business, you need to allow teams the freedom to set metrics based on the short term goals that will define how each step in that process produces a better product. 

When you do your metrics at the start of your project, you don’t even know what you are doing yet. But when you do it all afterwards the damage is all already done. 

What you really want to do is not only learn from your data, but create a learning loop, where you split up what you do into the smallest possible chunks. You build something, decide what your metric is for that particular project, build that tiny thing, measure it, then depend ing on the outcomes decide whether you should continue in the same vein, try something very different, or drop it all together.

The question any media executive should ask is: how do I allow product developers to build their own learning loops within the broader focused goals of the company?

Katie Vanneck Smith will be speaking at Media Marketing Strategies in London on September 19 and 20. You can find a full speaker list, and details of how to register, here