“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’s “The 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.