Who is Always Right?

While searching for an old letter, I found an April 1997 article in which New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell analyzed the process of innovation. He focused on HDTV showing how, rather than being discovered in a “Eureka!” moment, the technology was pushed by government policy. But it was a different point that caused me to clip the article and reference it now. Gladwell also mentioned a web company that relied on beta testers to refine a software tool. “Customers,” he wrote, “are no longer the passive recipients of innovation. In many ways they are the engines of innovation.”

In the margin of the page I wrote: Why not in publishing? The question reflected my sense then, and to some extent now, that publishers do not pay sufficient attention to what customers could tell them. And if this suspicion is correct, then content manufacturers are missing the boat. Product upgrades, driven by customer feedback, may be the defining characteristic of new media. The novelty is not a particular media type such as podcasting or videoblogging. The revolution is about feedback, a concept closely tied to customization.

Regular readers may recall that I have likened content production to intermodal transporation — suggesting that our job is, first, to get a customer’s attention and then to figure out what types of information that customer wants, and how they want this delivered. A real life example of how this is already being done will illustrate the point.

Riding home from work last night with my carpool buddies, I heard a fascinating science tale on National Public Radio, about a sea creature that spins complex and sturdy glass structures much as a spider weaves a web. At the end of the report the announcer said I could find pictures on the NPR website. Of course! NPR is not simply in radio. It is in the audience-gathering industry. And having gotten my attention, and lured me to the web page this morning, NPR offered me easy ways to get downloads of future research stories, All Things Considered reports, or pieces done by Nell Boyce, the reporter who did the sea creatures piece.

This is the sort of customization that all media must embrace. But it is only the first step of listening to the customer. When working on complex pieces these days, I find that the first published version gets echoed through specialized web sites and mail lists. Weeks or months later, I get feedback from people who are deeply interested in and better informed on the topic than me. Incorporating that feedback into future reports is an audience-builder — and probably a public good.

Listening to the customer has its dark side, namely pandering. I suppose if we just counted hits, we would run endless stories about Paris Hilton (or at least pictures) and forget about the state budget or the war in Iraq. But pandering may be a problem specific to mass media, which has lowest-common denominator considerations. New media are niche media. And in these smaller content communities, the customer may indeed always be right.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media