Putting the Tech in TechCrunch

How TechCrunch’s Nicole Wilke keeps the site ahead of the curve.

At TechCrunch’s San Francisco offices, Wilke talked with Piano CEO and Traffic publisher Trevor Kaufman about how her early interest in technology — being the kind of kid who begged her dad to buy her books like “Teach Yourself PERL in 24 Hours” — led to a career working on product at Disney, Wired, and now TechCrunch. As she builds out TechCrunch’s technology stack (which, full disclosure, includes software from Piano, the company that publishes Traffic), Wilke is intent on making user experiences as seamless and sophisticated — and lucrative! — as they are inside of the Silicon Valley giants TechCrunch regularly covers.

TREVOR KAUFMAN: Where does the product team fit in a media company’s org chart?

NICOLE WILKE: A lot of people don’t know who product should report to because product interacts with everyone. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to have product report to editorial, even though we work with editorial a ton and editorial is key to the business. Editorial is one stakeholder a product manager has to consider, but we often have to support interests that editorial doesn’t want to think about — or maybe is even at odds with — such as revenue.

Product really needs to be on equal footing with editorial and with revenue. I try to think of the various groups — our events business, editorial, our video operation, our revenue team — as customers of our product team. We’re almost like an agency, developing things for them and advising them on strategy.

To some degree, journalism still has a “church and state” concept, where editorial operates apart from the business. Where does product fit?

I once had an elevator conversation with a publisher. “Whose side are you on — editorial or ads?” he asked me. Thinking quickly, I replied, “Neither — I’m on technology’s side.”

I understand why the church-state separation is important to journalists. And I understand that I work for a business where I’m measured against my ability to help the company achieve financial success. But these things don’t have to be at odds. For example, when we did the Wired redesign, we rolled out a new ad product that was a wallpaper-style takeover. But we were able to develop the product in a way where, when the space wasn’t sold to an advertiser, editorial could use it for their stories in a gorgeous, splashy way. And it became a massive success because both parties had something in it for them.

How was it to go from a publication like Wired, which has a print version, to TechCrunch, which only publishes online?

There are good things about having a print edition. It means that you probably already have a large creative department and you’re used to working against deadlines. And having print in your DNA holds you to a certain level of excellence, because you’re used to your content going out in print, and then that’s it, so it better be good.

The problem is that a print publication is such a labor of love, and so expensive, that if it’s the focus it’s going to shackle the digital operation. And because it’s this shiny thing you can pick up and touch, it’s the thing people naturally want to focus on.

How do you keep tabs on your user base?

Looking at audience metrics only tells you so much about your users: where they’re coming from, how often they’re coming, what content they read. So the webmaster@techcrunch.com email goes to me. A lot of it is spam, but I also get a lot of good feedback from it every day. If one person sends an email screaming, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But, over time, you notice patterns.

I also talk to people at our events and other social gatherings. Here in San Francisco, when you tell people that you work at TechCrunch, they always have some sort of reaction. Paying attention to that reaction over time, you notice themes and you can start to tease out something meaningful. For example, a very consistent theme I hear is, “I love going to TechCrunch, but you guys publish so much news it’s hard for me to get through all of it.” So we’ve been thinking about how to make the site faster to get through or how to surface only what the reader is actually looking for.

We also do formal user testing, targeting people who visit this much, who live in these areas, or what have you. We then do surveys and in-depth formal interviews.

I firmly believe that I don’t know the best approach to any given problem, nor does anybody else in the building, necessarily. But if you actually ask the people who are using it, you can get qualitative data to figure that out.

Do you think about the audience in segments — the loyal audience, the social audience, and so on?

When I think about product decision, I ask, “What’s the most valuable segment of the audience and what are their needs?”

People who see us on Facebook because we write a story that blows up are clearly different than people that make it part of their day to come to TechCrunch. You care about serving those loyal readers because they’re the most valuable. But if a huge swath of the audience is doing something, like coming only once, then you might also want to cater to them.

You obviously want to try to make one-and-done visitors into repeat visitors by asking for their emails or getting them to follow you on social media so you can keep spoon-feeding them content and turn them into more frequent visitors.

What you want to avoid is focusing resources against a small group of people who are not very valuable.

More and more publications are trying to have readers pay them directly. Is that something that TechCrunch has considered?

Like all publishers, we have to look at how we can get paid for what we do. Historically, the answer has been display advertising, which we still do. But display is a volatile business, and I’ve seen so many twists and turns there just in my career.

So companies want to diversify, and I think that that makes sense. There are a lot of different ways you can ask your audience to pay for what you’re doing. We’re diversifying with events, which a lot of other companies are doing, too.

Subscriptions are another way businesses are diversifying. It’s in vogue these days to have a subscription offering. But I prefer to think of them as membership offerings. A subscription has connotations of, “As a subscriber, I get your paper every day or your magazine once a month or whatever the case may be.” I’m not a fan of that.

Membership is different. Membership means that I can go to this club, I can hang with this crowd. If I were designing a paid product, I would think of building for members instead of building for subscribers.