New, new uses, or new to you?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some thoughts about innovation inspired by the close of The Economist’s Project Red Stripe, to which Jeff Jarvis responded. Jeff’s post was interesting, as were the comments, but one in particular from Malcolm Thomson stood out:

John Robinson says rightly “A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body.”

But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

Many months ago, I collaborated on a project looking at the future of retail. I’d been asked to take part in two discussion sessions by the company writing the report, and four of us sat around a big whiteboard thinking about trends in retail, and what the future might hold 5, 10 and 15 years out.

Our main conclusion was that the final recipients of this report, a global company who wanted to be prepared for the future, were woefully unequipped to even make the most of the present. Many of the most basic things that you’d expect such a company to do online were not being done and it was clear that, given the culture of the organisation, they were not likely to get done any time soon. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t Web 2.0, more than that they hadn’t even made it as far as Web 1.0 yet.

Much of the media – and other sectors too – struggle to understand the developments of the last 5 – 10 years, and find it difficult to work existing technologies into their business, even when there are clear benefits to doing so. But it’s not like things are actually changing that quickly, especially if you stay on top of developments. As Tom Coates said about the broadband vs. TV ‘debate’ last year (his italics):

These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

When businesses talk about innovation, they frequently mean “new” in the sense of “brand, spanking, no-one-has-ever-done-this-before new” or “first mover new”. Because they see the landscape as changing at an alarming rate, and they see innovation with the same blank-paper fear as the blocked writer, the whole thing becomes terrifying. Add to that the fact that they do not have a good solid grip on the state of the art as it is now, and you end up with a group of petrified execs standing on the brink of a chasm they fear is too wide and too deep to risk jumping, because the only outcome they can see is crash and burn.

Another type of innovation is the “new use” – taking tools that someone else has created and using them in an innovative way. How do you use all this Web 2.0 stuff that people are creating all the time and work it into your business? How does it bring value to your audience? What symbiotic relationships can you nurture that will enable you to do something different? This is the sort of innovation that I think the media needs to focus on.

Some are trying very hard to do this, some are just paying lip service, but many aren’t trying at all. Comments are a great example of a relatively new technology – it’s only been around for a few years – which the press have embraced en masse, but entirely failed to use effectively. The point of comments is that it allows writers to have a conversation with their readers, and for stories to continue to be developed post-publication, yet in the majority of cases comment functionality is slapped on to the bottom of every article – regardless of whether that article would benefit from comments – and readers are left to fight it out by themselves. Little of worth is added to either the articles, the publisher’s brand, or the commenters’ lives.

Creating a boxing ring online is not an innovative way of using comment technology, it is obvious, old-school, and short-sighted. It’s creating conflict to sell newspapers, increase hits or get more viewers for your TV slug fest.

Equally, using video to replicate television is like using Thrust to do the shopping – it makes no sense and is a massive waste of money. There are plenty of big hitters already doing TV rather well, and in an era of 24 hour rolling news, the last thing that we need is to replicate that online. Rather, the media should be using online video to do things that TV cannot do, to get places TV cannot go, to examine issues with the sort of depth and nuance that 24-hour rolling news couldn’t manage if their very lives depended upon it, to tell the stories that TV has no time for.

Where are these media outlets – newspapers or otherwise – who can honestly say that they are using even just comments and video truly innovatively? In so many cases I see new-school technologies used in old-school ways that transform it from groundbreaking to mundane. One case in point was Ben Hammersley’s BBC project about the Turkish elections. Yes, he was using, and Flickr and he was blogging and using RSS, but with a distinctly old-school flavour that robbed the tools of their own potential.

A pneumatic nail gun can put nails through steel girders, but if all you do with it is build a garden shed, you might as well have used a hammer.

Finally, technology may not be new, but if it’s “new to you”, it can have real value. It used to be just blogs that provided an RSS feed, but then the tech press started using RSS, and now it has become standard across the majority of major news sites – no one sensible is without it. Other outlets might be using blogs or or wikis, but that shouldn’t stop you from assessing how best you can use these tools yourselves.

But businesses are inherently neo-phobic, and this has resulted in the Great Race to be Second: the burning desire of companies everywhere to watch what others do and see if it succeeds before they follow suite. Neo-phobia also leads companies into a state of group-think, where they use technology only in the same ways that they’ve seen other people use it. RSS is another fabulous example of this – news outlets will only provide a headline and excerpt news feed, rather than a full feed, because they are scared that if people can read their content in their aggregator, they will not visit the site and if they don’t visit the site then valuable page views and click-throughs are lost.

Every now and again I see an article saying that full feeds increase click-throughs, the most recent being Techdirt, and their argument is compelling (their italics):

[I]n our experience, full text feeds actually does lead to more page views, though understanding why is a little more involved. Full text feeds makes the reading process much easier. It means it’s that much more likely that someone reads the full piece and actually understands what’s being said — which makes it much, much, much more likely that they’ll then forward it on to someone else, or blog about it themselves, or post it to Digg or Reddit or Slashdot or Fark or any other such thing — and that generates more traffic and interest and page views from new readers, who we hope subscribe to the RSS feed and become regular readers as well. The whole idea is that by making it easier and easier for anyone to read and fully grasp our content, the more likely they are to spread it via word of mouth, and that tends to lead to much greater adoption than by limiting what we give to our readers and begging them to come to our site if they want to read more than a sentence or two. So, while many people claim that partial feeds are needed to increase page views where ads are hosted, our experience has shown that full text feeds actually do a great deal to increase actual page views on the site by encouraging more usage.

But even if the assumption that partial feeds drive traffic to ads is correct, there’s still no excuse for having partial feeds, because ads in RSS have been around for ages. I don’t remember when Corante started putting ads in the RSS feed, but they’ve been doing it for ages and I have never had a single complaint about it. I don’t know what the click-through rates are compared to the ads on the site, but I’m sure that it would be possible to experiment and find out. It is undoubtedly possible to design a study that would give you the right sort of data to compare the effectiveness of partial, full, or full with ads feeds, but I’ve yet to hear of one.

And therein, I think, lies the rub. We don’t always know what will happen when we introduce new technology, but instead of experimenting, the majority prefer to go along with group-think and the old-school ways. They want innovation but only as a buzzword to chuck around in meetings – the reality is just too scary. Yes, there are mavericks who get this stuff, but they are frequently hamstrung by the neo-phobes, and have to spend their time pushing through small, bite-sized changes whilst they wait for the dinosaurs to die off.