When launching online products, listening to the audience is more important than speed.
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
Here's a pat on the shoulder for media managers who are in a twist because they don't have the new products everyone's talking about. They haven't yet launched an online city guide, aren't sending video to cell phones and aren't sure what they're supposed to do with Twitter. It's OK. Really, it is.
News companies should be looking at those things, but the race is not always to the swift. If recent history is a guide, traditional news companies sometimes put more emphasis on launching and promoting new media products than on listening to their customers.
•At the start of the decade, news sites hosted "live chats" around news topics or guest experts. Turnout was often so low that staff had to seed the conversations.
•Four or five years ago, local TV stations launched news Webcasts – brief news and weather updates in video form – that required a concerted effort to produce but gained little traction with viewers.
•Shortly after that, podcasting was the rage. News sites promoted podcasts like mad, despite the fact that, as recently as 2006, 1 percent of Internet users reported downloading a podcast on a typical day.
Each of these examples centered on a new technology with a lot of buzz but relatively low audience interest or adoption at the time. Each was marketed so heavily that media companies began to believe their own hype. And many of the early experiments continued for longer than they should have.
Of course there were some genuine success stories in the mix. But very few of those initial efforts attracted meaningful audiences or are still around today. Meanwhile, emerging pure-play competitors (news aggregators, media-sharing sites) were figuring out what people actually wanted and delivering it to them.
Was there an advantage for the sites that rushed to launch these products? Some probably gained experience that will help them with today's technologies. Perhaps they gained a sense of innovation that will help the corporate culture embrace future change. Some would make the case for "establishing a brand" – although in today's Internet world, brand rarely trumps quality in the long run.
On the other hand, a lot of labor and promotional resources were invested in projects that didn't work. That can just as easily foster a suspicion that the Internet itself doesn't work and the company is taking shots in the dark. If you want to kill a newsroom's enthusiasm for change, make people spend precious time on a project that delivers mediocre results.
Technology, available skills and audience preferences have evolved so much that most sites don't seem materially hampered or helped by what they did or didn't do five years ago. They all have a fair second chance with some of the concepts that foundered the first time around:
•Video is mainstream now. Three out of five Internet users watch online video, and one in five do so on a typical day. Traditional news-and-weather Webcasts are still out there, but many sites are showcasing interesting and entertaining clips for office workers who enjoy a "video snack" during the lunch hour.
•Podcasting is getting there. A survey conducted by eMarketer in January put the "active" U.S. podcast audience at 6.5 million and projected growth to 10 million in 2008.
•In a way, Twitter (the text-based social networking service) may be the modern-day equivalent to live chats. During October's California wildfires, San Diego public radio and TV station KPBS relied on Twitter to share rapid updates.
How should we approach these and the numerous other "must-do" products? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Offer your customers what they want, not what you want to give them. Sounds obvious, but we screw this up all the time. Why did TV sites launch news Webcasts? Not in response to consumer demand, but because TV managers thought the idea was a good fit and wanted it to work.
2) Plan around the content, not the tools. Starting with a technology goal is always a bad sign. It's not "let's find a reason to use Twitter." It's "what's the best way to get this information out?"
3) Practice healthy skepticism toward the fabulous products other Web sites are launching. The trade press overflows with new product announcements, but we rarely learn how those initiatives are doing a year later. Test-drive the product and call someone who's already doing it.
4) Always monitor the research and keep an open mind. In a matter of months, major disruptions can dramatically change the way people consume media. A concept that failed two years ago might take off today.
This is emphatically not an argument for hanging back and waiting for a technology to mature before adopting it. Media companies must be aggressive and smart about developing new content, services and delivery vehicles that people will actually want.
The prize will go to those who know how to listen and react to their customers, not those who launch the most products the fastest.
Anything we do in this space will be a gamble, but we needn't take shots in the dark.###