Last week the New York Times took a giant step into the present. It started behaving the way entrepreneurial early-stage businesses behave. Unlike most successful mature companies, the Times is trying to embrace the culture of the startup by bringing its customers into the development process.
The times launched Beta620, a public site for many of its experimental projects, and asked the public to sign on and help them evaluate the projects and suggest how to improve them or even more projects. Under the headline “What’s Going On”, the Times described the site and their goals this way:
“Welcome to beta620. At The New York Times, our software engineers, journalists, product managers and designers are constantly striving to create new and innovative ways to present news and information and interact with our readers. Yet it’s often difficult to try out new inventions on the world’s largest newspaper Web site. That’s why we created beta620, a new home for experimental projects from Times developers — and a place for anyone to suggest and collaborate on new ideas and new products.”
Successful, mature businesses focus on staying successful. They don’t put out products until they are ready for prime time. They don’t want to jeopardize a successful business by presenting something that might not be perfect. The fear is that the consumer might interpret something less than perfect as a defect and lose confidence in the brands behind billions of dollars in profits.
Contrast that attitude with Google, where new products are labeled “Beta” for years, and evolve based on continuing and considerable consumer reaction. New features are added to products after they are suggested by actual users. Besides having the advantage of making your customers feel empowered, the process serves another purpose: it helps Google see changes in consumer behavior as they are happening. The success of new business frequently comes from understanding the consumers better than a more traditional business that may cling to old consumer habits long have they may have changed. For example, don’t just keep pushing DVD’s if the public is now watching shows on digital platforms. Traditional DVD businesses wither while new companies like Netflix and Hulu grow quickly using multiple new forms of distribution.
I remember how frustrating it was in 2006 when I was negotiating to put CBS TV shows on Google. Google hadn’t yet launched Google Video, nor had they bought YouTube. CBS was nervous about how their shows would look on Google TV, and pushed Google on making sure that the viewing experience would be as close to perfect as possible.
The Google folks basically told CBS not to worry. “We just call it Beta and let our viewers test for us and tell us how it’s going. We’ll just keep the “Beta” on the site as long as we want so people will understand if the video freezes or refuses to start.” To emphasize the point that this was a work in progress, the Google management team wanted CBS CEO Leslie Moonves to join them on stage wearing Lab Coats as they introduced the product to the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.
The horrified look on the faces of the rest of the CBS management team said it all. No, Leslie Moonves would not wear a lab coat. The CBS people pushed hard for guarantees that the video would be perfect before the launch (those guarantees never came…and how could they? Who could guarantee anything involving the public internet?
The clash of those two cultures was symbolic of the ongoing relationship between traditional businesses and the emerging digital royalty. While the CBS’s of the world were right to protect their brands because those brands had built multi-billion dollar businesses, the Googles of the world were also right to engage their audiences in the process of product development, because they recognized that so much is changing so fast, it’s virtually impossible to keep up with changing consumer habits unless you track them in real-time. Public Beta tests do exactly that. The difficulty in that world is to make sure you don’t overreact to real time data…instead opting for continuous evaluation and analysis, and regular testing.
In both worlds the companies ultimately have to trust the instincts of their smartest people. But the difference is the quality of data they have to inform their decision. In today’s world, much of it has to come directly from customers or consumers in as close to real time as possible.