A proposal for a Lean Media Framework: Input and iteration required

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(Updated) I’m a media guy. I’ve been involved as a producer and manager in various sectors of the media industry my entire adult life, including the music industry, broadcasting (radio and TV), newspapers, magazines, and, starting in the 1990s, online media. I’ve experienced the shift from analog to digital, and the many struggles that have resulted from this sea change.

More recently, I’ve become a startup guy. I co-founded a mobile software startup that released a classifieds app. I’m currently trying to bootstrap an e-publishing venture around In 30 Minutes® guides, and have released more than a half-dozen titles on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and other ebook distribution platforms. These guides are aimed at mainstream audiences who need help getting up to speed with mildly complex subjects, ranging from health to technology. The guides include ebooks/books as well as online components — see the website for my Google Drive guide and posts such as What Is Dropbox? to get an idea of the products and information being offered.

A few years ago, before the mobile startup, I heard Eric Ries give his Lean Startup stump speech at MIT. It immediately clicked with me. His focus was software development, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied not only to software, but to media content as well. I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products/projects that were developed with these qualities in mind had many positive qualities. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and if they were new brands, they got a huge head start. They were also more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the big media approach — bloated teams, top-down directives, planned by committee, limited feedback cycles, etc. — encountered problems. They required huge staff and budget commitments, took years to complete, and seemed to have a higher rate of failure.

But I also realized that there were some problems with applying the Lean Startup framework to media content.

First, out of all of the “Lean” media products that I had been a part of or had seen close-up, very few could be considered successes. My blog about the Harvard Extension School is one (more than a half-million page views, thousands of dollars in revenue) and an online community for Computerworld (probably 10 million visits before it was retired) is another. But other products floundered or failed out of the gate, and even after iteration, they failed.

Second, it wasn’t hard to find examples of fat big media products that were hits. Turn on the TV, and you can see examples on every channel. A reality TV talent show that takes millions to produce, is planned for at least a year, and follows a format of a three-judge panel with at least one British judge, has a very high chance of success. In the music world, there have been many albums that have taken years to produce and have broken every Lean rule in the book, yet have sold millions of copies. To illustrate, Def Leppard started writing the songs for Hysteria in 1984, yet the album wasn’t released until 1987. The songs on Hysteria didn’t take long to write. But finessing them, producing them, marketing them, and launching them took years. This is the exact opposite of Ries’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept, or even the variation known as Minimum Delightful Product.

Third, it was hard to isolate certain factors that are commonly found in media products but are seldom seen in the software world. “Brand” and “star power” can be hugely important in new product launches for media, but in the software world (aside from Apple) it’s more about the product and what it can do. For media products, another difference relates to creative processes and team dynamics, and the feedback cycles that exist within teams (think of the Beatles in the studio, the New York Times editorial processes, or the Saturday Night Live script readings). There is also the huge disruption that is taking place around business models, which clouds everything around media.

From Theory To Practice

When I launched a mobile software startup, I finally had a chance to put Lean methodologies to work with my co-founder. We made mistakes, especially at the beginning, but eventually released a product that proved to be very popular with consumers, and had high engagement and retention rates. I felt that when we followed the Running Lean philosophy, it worked very well for product development.

When I started my second venture this summer, the ebook experiment, I pledged to myself that I would attempt to actively follow the Lean philosophy. Get products out to the marketplace as soon as possible. Measure. Iterate. Improve. Some of these processes were already ingrained, owing to my earlier experiences with rapid product development in the online media and music industries, as well as the mobile software startup, and my grad school experience, which emphasized iterative product development. But I was more methodical with measuring and incorporating feedback. I also paid a lot of attention to revenue, something that I had not been focused on with any previous venture or media experiment.

As the ebook venture progresses, my mind has been circling back to the inconsistencies I observed earlier. Yes, Lean methodologies do work for media content. They can lead to better products, and better sales. However, the Lean approach does not take into account important factors — such as brand and creative processes — that can determine the success or failure of media ventures.

The Opportunity

Therefore, I believe there is an opportunity to build a new Lean framework that is specific to media ventures — a Lean “mod” for media, if you will. The goal of building a Lean Media Framework is to help startups and established companies build innovative products, platforms, and business models that have a higher chance of success and can contribute to new models of creation, distribution, and consumption.

In the old media world, an idea like this would have been developed by a single writer or a small team of collaborators. An essay would appear in a communications journal or The New Yorker. If it got traction, the author(s) would get a book deal.

In the spirit of Lean development and distributed knowledge, I am starting with a simple blog post (which took two hours to write) and throwing these concepts out to my favorite forums for discussion and iteration. Share your thoughts below, tweet to @ilamont, write a blog post, or do whatever you think is appropriate to carry the discussion forward and iterate until we have something that we can share with a wider audience.

Update: More thoughts and discussion here:

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7 Comments »

  1. Derek

    November 10, 2012 @ 12:45 am

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    Hi! I was led here from Mathew Ingram’s GigaOM article: I find your proposed framework really interesting! Just one question, you stated:

    “However, the Lean approach does not take into account important factors — such as brand and creative processes — that can determine the success or failure of media ventures.”

    Would you be able to elaborate on this? (from your experience with the ebook project).

    Thanks and great work!

  2. ilamont

    November 10, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

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    Derek,

    Thanks for your comment. I started to write a reply here, but it got to be so long that I decided to make it a separate blog post. You can find it here:

    Lean Media: The Importance Of Intangibles And Brands

    I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback.

    Ian

  3. Arek Dymalski

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

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    I suggest to involve guys from LeanPub in this initiative. They’ve already made great effort in this matter (in terms of platform). To me the biggest challenge in case of media will be avoiding vanity metrics (I.e. Number of downloads, views etc.)

  4. Kerry

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

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    There are several others trying agile publishing, though the fact that I can’t name any off the top of my head may show how successful they’ve been. It is a concept that makes more sense in many areas, particularly time sensitive research.

  5. ilamont

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

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    Kerry: I have been in contact with Frank Days, who has applied Agile methods to marketing campaigns. See “A seven step approach to agile marketing” I’m actually meeting him next week. I’ll ask him about how Agile might work with other types of media content.

  6. ilamont

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

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    Arek: Thanks for the tip. I found the site and read the “LeanPub Manifesto“. It’s very aligned with my thinking, and I will reach out to them.

    However, as an author, I think several other issues need to be addressed as part of a Lean Media approach:

    * How does “brand” and “creative processes” fit into the framework?
    * How do you drive feedback cycles for topics that don’t have a built-in audience?

  7. Ipso Facto » Blog Archive » Lean Media in the music world: From Led Zeppelin to the Deftones

    April 15, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

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    [...] I’m fascinated by these examples, because it shows that great music can be made with limited resources. When I say “limited resources,” I am not just talking about money, but also time and even technology (according to Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin’s drummer “played the percussion part to ‘Ramble On’ on a guitar case, a drum stool or a garbage can”). They proved that you don’t need huge budgets, lots of process, or the most expensive gear to produce something that fans like. In that sense, it fits the Lean Media philosophy. [...]

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