Are big product launches necessary?

A commenter in Mark Glaser’s recent post on MediaShift about the USA Today redesign sheds light on a problem that Internet companies seem to struggle with a lot.

“I think there may be a lesson to be learned in how to roll these things out. Most of the problems people are having are usability issues that it is nearly impossible for designers/developers who are in the weeds to notice.”

Similarly, Scott Karp asked the right question:

“Could it be that it’s really the social media revolutionaries who “don’t get it” when they assume that what the people want is to rise up against the media autocracy and take control, when in fact what most people want is to get high quality information from a reliable source?”

Unfortunately, even if you do the user research the recommendations of the studies often don’t fit into tight product release deadlines. And the studies often just support product direction rather than fully investigate a user need.

But the problem isn’t the research, it’s the product roadmap. In order to deliver a big punch in the market and cut through the noise, you need to be bold. And big changes that get noticed by big audiences require a lot of planning and complicated scheduling. Big changes are expensive on many levels.

But do you really need a big punch?

Most of my favorite online services tend to evolve organically as if responding to the way people are using the tools. Last.fm, for example, subtely rolls out new features that can occassionally have a significant impact on my usage. They had a pretty crappy web-based player for a long time. Of course, they upgraded it, as I knew they would, and I found it when it was relevant for me to look for it. There’s no amount of marketing they could have done to make me upgrade, and if they had done heavy marketing I might have actually been annoyed with them and considered a competitor.

The online media market is way too fickle to annoy your loyal customers.

But what about reaching new customers? Subtelty won’t win market share.

Admittedly, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, but the lessons of the web services market can be instructive. When you empower people to build businesses (or audiences) with your core offering, then you create a multiplier effect and reach all kinds of markets that you might never reach otherwise.

Winning market share in online media can happen by giving people the ability to distribute your offering for you, to create loyal customers for you out of their own customers, to build their own buzz for your product because they have an incentive for it to succeed.

Building the kind of passion required for a distributed customer model like this will never come from big bang marketing. It comes from fostering trustworthy relationships, establishing meaningful brands, proving tangible value, and responding quickly to market changes.

It’s not about noise. It’s about relationships.

I tend to agree with most online media insiders who appreciate the conceptual breakthrough for USA Today online and the balls to act on it, but I would be surprised if any of the positive comments in the blogosphere came from USA Today readers. And if USA Today damaged their relationship with their readers with this redesign, then they have made an incredibly costly mistake.

Online services need to roll out important new features constantly. But the days of hitting the market hard with a new product launch are fading. It works occassionally for major releases of things that are really new and require a reeducation of the market, like the iPhone. But fewer and fewer things fit into that category.

At the risk of invalidating everything I’ve said here by quoting a man who’s social and political beliefs go against just about everything I believe, Eric S. Raymond’sThe Cathedral and the Bazaar” included many astute observations about the way Linux development was able to scale so efficiently. Among the lessons is the classic “Release early and often” mantra:

“In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are tricky, insidious, deep phenomena. It takes months of scrutiny by a dedicated few to develop confidence that you’ve winkled them all out. Thus the long release intervals, and the inevitable disappointment when long-awaited releases are not perfect.

In the bazaar view, on the other hand, you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena…or, at least, that they turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release. Accordingly you release often in order to get more corrections, and as a beneficial side effect you have less to lose if an occasional botch gets out the door.”

Product Managers and Marketers need to bake these concepts into their thinking as well or risk missing the wider opportunity, the ultimate in marketing and distribution efficiency — customers as partners.

Photos: marble2, ccarlstead

Membership has its privileges

Mark Glaser asks his readers this week to submit the answer to the following question:

“What would motivate you to contribute to a citizen media site?”

I can’t imagine that anyone is going to be able to answer that question in an interesting way. It’s the wrong question. It’s kind of like asking why do people sing at church? Or why do people meet their friends at the pub?


Photo: -bartimaeus-

If the church asks you to sing, you sing. If your friends tell you to meet at the pub, you go to the pub. The community and purpose of doing things together is already implied, so you do whatever everyone else in that community does if you want to be a part of it.

Jon Udell starts to dig into the critical mass hurdles for social networks in a recent post where he quotes Gary McGraw saying:

“People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network, but I’m already part of a network. It’s called the Internet.”

The real question is not about getting people to do things. There are too many things to do and too many people to socialize with in a day already.

The question is about forming meaningful communities and the kinds of things that will help a community flourish. Meaning comes in millions of different shapes and sizes, but there are lots of precedents in terms of ideologies, aesthetics, and methods.

News, for example, is inherently about being first to report on an event. Successful community-based news sites enable people who care enough about a topic to either be the first to report on it or be clued in before less speedy outlets pick up on something. It feeds into a competitive and sometimes gossipy human nature. Just ask your best reporters why they became reporters. Digg appeals to the reporter in all of us.

I used to attend a charity event called Rebuilding Together where groups of people would assemble and fix up houses and schools around the city of San Francisco. There was a core team who selected applications for fix-it team deployments. Then there was a leader who would drive the work to be done by each team at each site. On the chosen date, people would jump on a project and invite their friends to join. It was impressive to see what a focused group could accomplish in a day, fixing plumbing, painting, cleaning, rebuilding fences, etc.

Why did people do it?

There was a purpose. We were helping people truly in need. The commitment was lightweight. It was 1 day a year. It was well organized. I didn’t have to debate with people about how things should be done. The result was impactful, a total overhaul of a building. It was fun. I had a laugh with my friends and met new people.

Often when people start asking how you get to critical mass, they’re losing the plot. Sure, it would be great to worry about scaling a site rather than fighting for a Digg. But if you and your community are doing something unique and valuable, then size really shouldn’t matter. And in many cases, it makes sense to make the community exclusive and smaller rather than bigger and diluted, anyhow.

The question then becomes, “Are you offering a service that a lot of people find unique and valuable?”

I think a lot of publishers fail to understand the size of a potential market, what’s unique about an offering, and the value of that offering to the people who do actually care about it.

Then there’s also the issue of recognizing what you can actually deliver. You have to play to your strengths.

Yahoo! Answers is a good example of that. The idea of getting immediate answers to any question you can think of from real humans is outrageously ambitious. There are lots of ways to get answers to questions out there. But Yahoo! played to its strengths to get it off the ground, then it just took off. It’s easy. It’s fun. It works. And, therefore, it’s meaningful. And now there’s nothing like it out there anywhere.

Of course, not everybody can point a firehose of traffic at a domain, but there are plenty of cases where Yahoo! failed to create a community by pointing a firehose of traffic at it.

So, what makes a meaningful community that has a definitive purpose? Yeah, well, that’s an answer you can get from Cameron Marlow, danah boyd, and a lot of people a lot smarter than me.

Though perhaps this is all just echo blogging and the real question gets to something people already understand. Maybe the question is simply: “How do you make membership in your community desirable?”

Wikipedia defines “privilege” as follows:

A privilege—etymologically “private law” or law relating to a specific individual—is an honour, or permissive activity granted by another person or a government. A privilege is not a right and in some cases can be revoked.

I think the answer is in there somewhere for everyone who is struggling to get their community to do stuff.


Photo:Manne

A human-powered relevance engine for Internet startup news

Here’s a fun experiment in crowdsourcing. I’ve been getting overwhelmed by all the startup news coming out of the many sources tracking the interesting ideas and new companies hunting for Internet gold. Many of these companies are really smart. Many are just, well, gold diggers.


And with so many ways to track new and interesting companies, I’ve lost the ability to identify the difference between companies that are actually attacking a problem that matters and companies that are combining buzzwords in hopes of getting funding or getting acquired or both.

There must be a way to harness the collective insight of people who are close to these companies or the ideas they embody to shed light on what’s what. Maybe there’s a way to do that using Pligg.

While shaking my head in a moment of disappointment and a little bit of jealousy at all the new dotcom millionaires/billionaires, the word “flipbait” crossed my mind. I looked to see if the domain was available, and sure enough it was. So, I grabbed the domain, installed Pligg and there it is.

It should be obvious, but the idea is to let people post news of new Internet startups and let the community decide if something is important or not. If I’m not the only one thinking about this, then I can imagine it becoming a really useful resource for gaining insight into the barage of headlines filling up my feed reader each day.

And if it doesn’t work, I’ll share whatever insight I can glean into why the concept fails. There will hopefully at least be some lessons in this experiment for publishers looking to leverage crowdsourcing in their media mix.

The importance of purpose in peer production

What is it about Nick Carr’s recent challenge to Yochai Benkler’s views on the peer production model that feels wrong? He says that peer production exists prior to a commercial market and that a commercial market will break down the peer production model.

“One thing that has become clear is that the success of social production collectives hinges on the intensive contributions of a very small subset of their members. Not only that, but it’s possible to identify who these people are and to measure their contributions with considerable precision. That means, as well, that these people are valuable in old-fashioned monetary terms – that they could charge for what they do. They have, in other words, a price, even if they’re not currently charging it. The question, then, is simple: Will the “amateurs” go pro? If they have a price, will they take it?”

Nick’s challenge is accurate, particularly when a peer production model doesn’t have a strong enough purpose to hold it together through adversity.

And Jason Calacanis has done what almost anyone in his shoes would also try by offering to pay Digg users for their “labor” on Netscape instead of on Digg. He wants to win.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the top 20 people on DIGG, Delicious, Flickr, MySpace, and Reddit are worth $1,000 a month and if we’re the first folks to pay them that is fine with me–we will take the risk and the arrows from the folks who think we’re corrupting the community process”

I guess it’s the assumption that people are motivated first and foremost by money that bothers me. No doubt I’ll do something for money if the benefit of doing it for love or because it’s right is less than the benefit of having the cash. I want to give my family all the advantages that I can.

But I think Nick misunderstands a value proposition inherent in the concept of communities.

There are a lot of people who put a lot of energy into building their church community when that time could be spent elsewhere making money. And I doubt most churches would suffer any significant memership losses if a nearby competing church offered to pay people to switch churches. They participate in the church community because the investment returns have personal and social value that have nothing to do with their material wealth.

People who moderate online communities like some of the more active Yahoo! groups invest themselves because of their interest in things like social influence or sometimes even for other selfish gains. The really successful groups have an undeniable and crystal clear purpose.

For example, the San Francisco Golden Gate Mother’s Group is a highly engaged community of women with new babies who help each other with the day-to-day challenges of urban motherhood. The community holds itself together by the shared desire to raise children well. That mission couldn’t be any simpler or more important to a first time mother. Even the least-engaged member understands that answering someone’s question now results in better answers for you when you need help in the future.

Paying people to participate wouldn’t make them better at what they do. I’d argue it might actually make them worse. If Netscape was a brand with a purpose that mattered to me, then Jason wouldn’t have to pay me or even the best bookmarkers to participate.

Nick also challenges the notion that peer production can operate without management overhead. I think he miscalculates the role of management in peer production. Yes, it may be required, but management is a service to the group, a service to the mission. Management in peer production could probably be outsourced.

I do think Benkler may actually underestimate the importance of a clear and cohesive mission for the group. Without a core purpose that the members of the group find important, a competing commercial market could very well break down the community.

But that then begs the question of how valuable the community was in the first place.