How media companies can think more like startups

One of the central themes of the RoadMap conference we just finished doing in San Francisco earlier this week was the importance of design, and how companies both big and small need to think about design in an age of ubiquitous connectivity — and not just design in the sense of how something looks or feels, but how it works and the relationship users have with it. That might not seem like something that has immediate or obvious implications for media companies, but I think plenty of traditional players in the industry could learn a lot from the lessons that founders like David Karp of Tumblr and Evan Williams of Medium provided at RoadMap.

The massive growth of a site like Tumblr, which is now bigger than Wikipedia with more than 20 billion pageviews a month (something I have argued should make Facebook more than a little nervous) is even more spectacular when you consider the fact that David Karp — who designed a prototype of the service when he was just 19 — didn’t have any intention of creating a gigantic web company that would one day be valued at close to $1 billion and have over 160 million users.

Create something you want or need

As the Tumblr founder said in our interview, all he really wanted was a tool that he could use to post images and thoughts online. There were image-hosting services like Flickr (s yhoo) and micro-blogging networks like Twitter and full-fledged blog platforms like WordPress, but nothing that fit what Karp was looking for or was as easy to use as he wanted. So he built it. A number of other founders at RoadMap echoed that sentiment: build something to fill a need that you have, and if you are lucky then lots of other people will have a similar need, and you will have a useful service.

So what is the takeaway for media companies? It’s fine to say that an entrepreneur should focus on filling a need that they have themselves, but where does that leave a traditional media player? You can’t just redesign a newspaper or a newspaper company from scratch (although people like John Paton of Digital First Media and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger are certainly trying hard to do so anyway).

What I think you can do, however, is to think about who your user is and what they want, both when it comes to your traditional product (i.e. a newspaper or magazine) and your digital services or products. This isn’t something most media companies are particularly adept at, just as thinking like a startup and focusing on innovation is a struggle for many — in the past, media companies just pumped out content and more or less relied on captive audiences to subscribe to or consume that content, without thinking a lot about what they wanted from it or how they wanted to consume it.

That’s the kind of thinking that results in me-too digital apps that repackage print content with a few digital bells-and-whistles, rather than really trying to understand what users want when it comes to news or other forms of content on a mobile device. And one of my criticisms of the rush to paywalls is that they don’t allow newspapers to really get to know their readers likes and dislikes.

Who are your users and what do they want?

For an example of the opposite, all you have to do is look at what Marco Arment — a designer who used to work at Tumblr and also runs a service called Instapaper — has done with The Magazine, a digital-only and mobile-only editorial product that he launched recently. There are virtually none of the trappings of a digital magazine that has been ported over from the print world, for the simple reason that Arment created it to be digital-native. And it is almost an artisanal approach to editorial content, since he picks the writers and edits it himself, to fill a need that he felt existed in the market.

Another good example of thinking outside the usual boxes is Circa, which Matt Galligan and Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh (who was trained as a journalist before he got into the web-humor business) started as a way to provide news in a different format that works better on mobile — as a series of edited summaries of stories rather than the usual repurposed print or web content. Whether users respond to this idea or not remains to be seen, but at least it is trying to reimagine how we interact with content in a mobile age, and it is looking carefully at what users actually do with it.

Most traditional media companies are happy doing surveys of readers so they can target them better for advertising, but how often do they actually think about — or ask — what those readers really want when it comes to their product? Have they thought as hard about the features as David Karp did when he decided to replace comments with the reblog button? Or are they just pumping out the same kind of content and putting it in slightly different packages and hoping that it works?

Getting to know their readers (or users) better, and understanding exactly what they want and don’t want, isn’t just something that would be helpful for media companies to figure out — it could be the only thing that is standing between them and extinction.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and Zert Sonstige