What do the Huffington Post, “The Simpsons,” Minecraft, and Led Zeppelin’s first album have in common?
All of them started as experiments. The Huffington Post was launched in the mid-2000s as a link list and blogging site, leveraging the celebrity network of co-founder Arianna Huffington for content. The Simpsons began in 1987 as short animated clips shown during the commercial breaks of a sketch comedy show on the upstart Fox television network. Minecraft was created in 2009 by a Swedish game programmer, Markus “Notch” Persson, as a part-time project. Led Zeppelin I was recorded in a few weeks in 1968 after the British rock band toured Scandinavia, with production self-funded by guitarist Jimmy Page and the band’s manager.
When the artists, creators, and producers launched these experiments, there was no guarantee they would do well. But the way they innovated greatly increased the chances of success. They moved fast, used low-cost methods of production, and kept the teams small. When they released early versions to the public, they paid close attention to what audiences liked—and didn’t like. This feedback could be incorporated into subsequent releases, and could also help drive marketing and business decisions.
All of the examples listed above are examples of what I call lean media. While their creators went on to enjoy great success, lean media is not just the domain of superstars. Lean media methods can be applied to products designed for niche or local audiences, or products that have a short shelf-life.
Further, lean media projects can take place in a variety of environments. There are many examples of people working out of a coffee shop or basement recording studio, as well as professional production teams working for established companies. All kinds of people and organizations can leverage lean media techniques to create innovative, exciting new works which resonate with audiences and help achieve business goals.
The lean startup movement
My way of evaluating the success and failure of new media products changed after attending an October 2010 talk by Eric Ries, a software developer and author of “The Lean Startup.” Earlier in his career, Ries co-founded a company that attempted to capitalize on the instant messaging craze. As CTO of IMVU, he was responsible for developing a product that used avatars to connect with multiple IM applications. The team planned lots of features, which took six months to develop.
The initial product was an utter flop. Very few people downloaded the software, and only after interviewing and watching people use the software did they realize most of their initial assumptions about their target audiences were wrong. Testers liked the avatar concept, but hated the IM connections. IMVU ended up throwing away thousands of lines of code before finding a model (based on a 3D virtual world) that worked.
Ries realized that IMVU’s initial top-down approach to product development was flawed. The team had wasted months creating a complex product that no one wanted. However, once they started to listen to what their users were saying, interesting things started to happen. They were able to steer IMVU into areas the development team had not previously considered. Today, IMVU has millions of registered users and a huge database of virtual goods.
Based on his experiences and discussions with CEOs and managers from other companies, Ries articulated the lean startup methodology. Central to the production, marketing, and growth of a venture is validated learning—the process of “demonstrating empirically that a team has discovered valuable truths about a startup’s present and future business prospects.” It is a rigorous approach to product development that emphasizes getting early versions of the product in front of users, carefully measuring the results, and quickly iterating.
Another concept that is central to the lean startup methodology is the minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP is more than a technical prototype — it’s a bare-bones product that can be shown to early adopters to validate assumptions. Through a deliberate cycle of building, measuring, and iterating, a real product that has real demand can emerge. With real demand comes repeat orders, lower costs, and eventually growth (and profit).
The iterative cycles are structured to achieve product/market fit. Marc Andreessen, a co-creator of the Netscape Web browser and a top Silicon Valley venture capitalist, gives the following definition:
“Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”
It sounds so basic. Make something that people want. Yet countless technology companies have made the fundamental mistake of building an app, a gadget, a platform, or something else that people do not want. They may have achieved product/solution fit, in which a team creates a great product that solves some problem … but it’s not a problem that customers care about!
Bringing lean ideas to the media world
Ries’ focus was on software and technology startups, but I realized some his ideas about product development, feedback cycles, and eliminating waste could be applied to media content as well.
I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products that leveraged lean methods had many positive attributes. User feedback could be observed and incorporated sooner. The products were cheaper to produce, and they made it to market more quickly.
Conversely, products that took the “big launch” approach — large teams, top-down directives, secretive launches, etc. — tended to encounter problems. They required more staff and budget commitments, took a long time to complete, and more often than not led to mediocre products or expensive failures.
Just as Ries had articulated a framework for lean tech startups, I wanted to create a lean framework that was specific to media ventures. While media and technology startups share some commonalities, I believe there are some marked differences in the way a band, video producer, games designer, or an online editor approaches developing products (content) and connects with customers (audiences). Hard-to-measure intangibles such as creativity, design, and brand really do matter.
What causes media products to fail?
I’m a media person. I’ve been involved as a producer and manager in various media businesses since the early 1990s, including the music industry, broadcast television, online tech news, and book publishing. Over the years I’ve been involved with scores of product launches, new brands, and innovative media experiments. Some succeeded. Most failed. For years, I was apt to blame failures on insufficient planning, poor marketing, staff issues, and lack of management buy-in. I could also point to factors beyond our control, ranging from economic crises to technological shifts.
In hindsight, I now believe that a counterproductive way of thinking about media creation contributed to many of the failures. Over and over again, in many different companies, I participated in the creation of expensive, intensive, and secretive productions. This formulaic approach—which I call the big launch playbook—may work for a small minority of productions. But it sets up many other ventures for failure.
As the term suggests, the “big launch” is focused on the launch. There is a lot of planning and building in secret, with everything building up to the official launch date. Producers and creators are guided mainly by creative instincts and prior experience, external cues of what is doing well in the marketplace, and internal feedback. There is an emphasis on professional production processes and expensive marketing campaigns. Audiences seldom have a chance to see or experience the product before the official launch. If they do, it is usually through pre-launch marketing campaigns (think of the Star Wars clips released in the runup to the launch of The Force Awakens) or focus groups, by which point the development phase is nearly complete. After launch, there may be an opportunity for feedback-inspired improvements. In many cases, such improvements may be very limited, or focused on marketing rather than changes to the core product.
Conceptually, the big launch playbook looks something like this:
Teams can make elaborate plans and spend lots of time and money developing something that audiences are supposed to like. However, the true test doesn’t come until the end of the process when it’s released to the world. If it doesn’t work? There may be some low-hanging fruit that can help put the product on the right track. But in many cases, it may be too late or too hard to fix it.
The lean media playbook
The lean media playbook emphasizes the following elements:
- Small teams. Individual producers or small teams drive the project forward. Keeping the team small lets members move more quickly.
- Reduction of waste. Producers work with the tools and resources at hand, and avoid complex, expensive, or time-wasting processes. Creating a satisfying media experience for early audiences is more important than obsessive attention to detail.
- Audience feedback. Teams monitor audience reaction to early versions of the product to gather measurable data (metrics) and qualitative feedback (commentary).
- Iterative development cycles. The team improves a product based on metrics, audience feedback, and their own sensibilities and instincts.
Conceptually, the lean media framework looks like this:
As the diagram indicates, audience feedback plays a major role in the development of lean media products. Feedback can be qualitative (i.e., based on audience comments or observations of their behavior) or quantitative (based on metrics or other forms of numerical data).
For instance, when The Simpsons first appeared as short commercial “bumpers” on the Tracey Ullman Show, quantitative data included television ratings. But there was important qualitative information, too. When producers bundled the clips into longer reels and showed them during costume breaks to live studio audience, the resulting laughter validated the idea that The Simpsons could be developed into a full-length program.
Lean startup practitioners favor actionable data that can help product teams understand what is working and make hard decisions about how to proceed (or not; if the data does not support moving forward, the team may “pivot” to something else). In the media world, qualitative feedback may be more accessible, particularly during the early prototype stages. The feedback may cover:
- Design elements
- Aesthetic considerations
- How it makes them feel
Ideally, audiences will share feedback with the team at the earlier stages of development, starting with the idea itself. Of course, no product or prototype will be ready the day your brilliant plan is hatched, but for certain formats it is possible to talk with audiences about the concept, or show simple outlines or wireframes. Use those comments to inform development of the working prototype.
Once a working prototype is available, don’t keep it under wraps—let your test audiences try it out! Use the audience feedback to shape progressive iterations of the prototype, with the goal of getting even more actionable feedback and metrics for the soft launch.
What is a soft launch? You may have heard the term before—it’s common in both the software industry as well as with the launch of certain types of physical products. Firms conducting soft launches quietly release their products to a small group of customers in order to gauge interest or tweak features and/or marketing messages before the main event.
In the lean media context, a soft launch is the initial public appearance of the product, or elements of the product such as the design, important creative elements, etc. Depending on how audiences react, the media product in question may only need some minor tweaks—or it could require a major overhaul.
The hard launch is the point at which the product is stable in terms of creative vision, production, presentation, features, and messaging. It may not be necessary or even possible to make significant changes after this point, although motivated teams will constantly be looking for ways to further improve their creations.
Some lean media considerations
Are all low-budget productions lean media? Not necessarily. Audience feedback must be incorporated into the development process, to let producers better understand what audiences like—and don’t like. Otherwise, it’s just a low-budget production operating under the big launch mindset.
It should also be noted that adding audience feedback to the mix does not mean internal feedback is being thrown by the wayside. Nor should producers feel obliged to incorporate every whim of their early test audiences. Rather, the team needs to evaluate and synthesize this information, and make decisions on how to proceed. Some audience signals will be easy to interpret. Others will require the team to balance other considerations (creative, production, marketing) to decide on the best way forward.
Where does it all end? Ideally, the product will grow into something that enjoys great success. Think of some of the examples cited in the introduction, or some of your own media favorites that started lean and grew into something significant and long-lasting.
In reality, however, many products will never get out of the development stage. Maybe audiences don’t like it (no matter how many improvements are made), so the creators go back to the drawing board. Or perhaps the team is working on several products at once, and when one of them shows promise, they drop their work on the others to push the winner forward.
The lean media framework is itself still at the prototype stage. I am sharing ideas with early audiences (you) to gather feedback and make additional improvements, with the goal of creating a simple guide to the basic lean media concepts. Feel free to leave your comments or share your experiences below, or check out the lean media book website, which contains additional draft chapters and examples.
Ian Lamont is the founder of i30 Media Corporation, which publishes In 30 Minutes® Guides. He has written for more than a dozen online and print publications, and served as the managing editor of The Industry Standard. To learn more, follow @ilamont on Twitter, or visit the lean media website.