I’ve long fancied myself an innovator when it comes to new technology.
It is thrilling when I can be the guy who tells my friends they need to check out something that everyone’s going to be talking about in a couple of months – the same sort of self-satisfied feeling one gets when he or she turns their friends on to a great new band or alerts others about a celebrity’s death and gets to see “that” look on their faces.
This week I studied the diffusion of innovations, the way new things are taken up in a population. Because we are often tasked with persuasion, strategic communicators need to know what qualities make an innovation spread successfully.
From a media standpoint, reinvention happens constantly as publications and communications tools struggle to remain relevant and popular. I’ve managed more redesigns of pages and platforms than I can even remember over the years. As much as people generally resist change, a fresh look or updating of features can breathe new life into a newspaper, a magazine, an app, a website, and so forth. If change is only superficial or change made for the sake of change, the impact fades quickly.
Aesthetic change serves as a powerful catalyst for getting attention, but the real meat on the bones of an evolving product is the attention paid to the way in which it adapts to better fit the needs and wants of individuals and groups.
When the nationwide newspaper USAToday launched in 1982, critics mocked the use of colorful info graphics to illustrate random points, but I have to give them credit for being way ahead of the curve considering how popular info graphics have become and how unpopular most traditional newspapers are these days.
To survive, newspapers will need to become more like the animated, dynamically updating e-paper version of USAToday that we saw in the 2002 movie Minority Report. As big data and mobile devices increasingly become factors in the next incarnation of the Internet, I don’t know who can accurately forecast the exact hybrid of new media we will turn to for information in 10 or 15 years. My hope is that investigative journalism will survive and those publications that effectively use multimedia will thrive.
Diffusion scholars say we will have a pretty good idea of successful innovation in the making by the degree to which a product is perceived as better than what came before it, providing prestige, convenience, satisfaction, or economic advantage to those who utilize it.
We are unlikely to see radical departures from what we now think of as media, absent any visionaries who manage to sell us on adopting something wholly new. Some have hailed the iPad as a game-changer, but it is really just a more portable extension of the PC and reflects the values and past experiences of those who were already using the web to browse for information.
One reason to feel optimistic about the iPad’s capacity to reinvent the newspaper or magazine is the simplicity and ease of use. It is far easier for someone to grasp how an iPad app works than to, for example, understand the mechanics of RSS feeds, despite the later being a more versatile tool.
Requiring the learning of new skills creates a barrier to adoption of innovation. However, I make an effort to acquire those skills so I can influence and otherwise get a leg up on others who aren’t as savvy. I’ve abandoned some applications in the past where I perceived the benefits were exceeded by the learning curve. I’m more likely to explore something new if I can download a trial version to make that determination than not.
The experts tell us innovation accelerates if others can see visible benefits. Marketers sell us on the benefits of products, but once the abstract becomes tangible, people start asking out of curiosity. Once we are instilled with desire to possess something (and by extension own the benefits it produces), it gnaws at us until we feel compelled to adopt it for ourselves. My mind weighs the pros and cons, generating excuses why I desperately need something that I might not have even imagined prior to my initial exposure to it.
These are the core qualities identified by diffusion of innovation that give us a checklist to guide development of new and reinvented products.
In looking at the rate of adopting social media, I put Facebook and Twitter side-by-side for the sake of comparison. Facebook requires less skill to begin using than Twitter, which involves odd-looking hash tags and use of shorthand to fit messages within the 160-character limitations. Facebook is more homophilious to existing social systems, like a virtual extension of talking to one’s neighbors. Twitter, in contrast, is more like casting a big net in hopes of catching breaking news or a shared link to great content.
Twitter’s new video app Vine similarly limits users to six-second clips, making it more challenging to use than, say, YouTube. Some of us revel in how cleverly we can use those six seconds while also valuing the low time commitment that comes with such brevity.
At the risk of sounding lazy, a news story with long paragraphs to read or a video with a runtime of more than two minutes requires more effort than I may be willing to extend, which increases the importance of snappy headlines and captivating teaser images or summaries. It isn’t laziness as much as a necessary selectivity to curate toward the most relevant content.
Another type of shorthand is the recommendation of a friend or someone I consider knowledgeable about things that interest me. Thus, when I get angry about Adobe forcing users of its software to buy a cloud-based subscriber version, the company mitigates and shapes some of the discussion by informing and involving someone like Photoshop expert Scott Kelby to play devil’s advocate in favor of the benefits to be gained by adopting the innovations the company is pushing. Put simply, I value the feedback of someone who has experienced something I have not or who possesses more knowledge about a given subject. Critics can become advocates if properly swayed.
I’m intrigued by the rate of adoption by users of apps like Foursquare, which requires persuasion to self-identify one’s location (which seems completely counterintuitive in a dangerous world).
Newspapers and magazines might learn something from the music business.
Digital music brought legal wrangles over copyright infringement and file theft over peer-to-peer networks. Three years after Napster, Apple introduced the iTunes store and changed the way we got music, providing an affordable means of getting only the songs we wanted and signaling doomsday for record stores. More than 10 billion tracks later, there’s a shift toward cloud-based music services like Pandora and Spotify.
Why would anyone prefer to rent music rather than owning it? These subscription-based services give users access to a wider variety of music, available on demand for a low monthly fee rather than hogging precious space on hard drives that can crash. I compare it to the way I used to buy DVDs at Walmart, yet now I simply crank up Netflix and no longer have to find matching storage cases for my home entertainment center.
What are the implications for newspapers and magazines desperate to increase revenue lost by fewer subscriptions and displaced advertising revenue? If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be a highly paid consultant because media is in a tragic free-fall. Some publications have instituted pay walls separating users from content, either entirely or by selling access to a limited number of articles per month. At the very least, consumers are unlikely to adopt these new business models unless the benefits (to them, and not just the newspapers) of such innovation are made obvious.
At some point, publishers will have to find a way to change the availability of the product so that supply no longer exceeds demand, like building a dam to control and harness the power of raging waters to produce a supply of electricity.
At a time when the value of the product has crashed due to the availability of information for free online, media must create new value in the form of higher quality content (that is distinct and original rather than regurgitated from the same widely available source material) with innovative presentation methods that are visually stimulating or equip consumers with knowledge that gives them an “edge” in some way.
Then, and only then, will readers be swayed to again invest their hard-earned money.