Go Ahead, Ask Me Anything!

This week I participated in an AMA hosted by GrowthHackers.com. For those of you not familiar with the acronym, AMA, it means “Ask Me Anything”. It was a live Q&A session where anyone in the GrowthHackers community could post a question to me, and I had 90 minutes to answer all the questions. It was a blast, and I wanted to share some of the highlights here.

I want to give a special shout-out and thanks to Anuj Adhiya, who invited me and coordinated the event.

While all the questions I received were great, here are the highlights:

Arsene Lavaux: In your opinion, what’s the most effective way to grow a direct-to-consumer TV subscription business?

Netflix wrote the playbook here. It starts with offering must-watch content. Plain and simple. To date, it’s been impossible to launch a new video subscription service without well-established content. A new subscription service must have enough “anchor content” to attract the early adopters. Once they have that content foundation, they then need to continuously feed the audience with new content that they will love.

Netflix did this by amassing a large library of must-watch content via licensing from the big media companies. That base of content provided them a solid foundation which gave them enough time to develop their own original content. They were *extremely* lucky with their early hits, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Two immediate hits rarely happens. As they’ve increased their originals output, they’ve become less and less dependent on the large media companies for a core catalog. Netflix will eventually be able to stand entirely on its own with just its originals (as HBO does).

Brilliant vision, strategy, and execution. Reed Hastings is my hero. :-)

Arsene Lavaux: Where do you see the future of e-learning?

I started an e-learning software company back in 2004. E-learning has always been full of great promise and opportunity, but there has never been a wildly successful e-learning company. It was certainly very difficult launching an e-learning startup. Most people strongly dislike online training courses as they tend to be too rigid for most learners — you must read text or watch videos in a certain sequence and then answer questions, etc. Even highly interactive e-learning courses tend to be linearly structured. Not everyone learns in a linear fashion.

On the other hand, the Internet is awesome at self-directed learning; between Google and YouTube you can get an answer to just about any question, or learn how to complete just about any task. But it’s up to you to ask the questions, and sometimes you don’t know what the right question is, or even what you need to learn. So there are limits to self-directed learning.

So I don’t know what the future of e-learning is, other than that it needs to address non-linear learning as well as low-intent learning (ie, non-self-directed). But I would bet that the mainstreaming of AI and “Ambient Computing” (ie, the future of Alexa-like services) will play a big role in how we educate ourselves moving forward. Ultimately, it will probably look something like The Matrix. :-)

John Phamvan: You mentioned in your bio that TV user experience has not evolved nearly as fast as the other media verticals — and that’s clearly true. What user experience would you like to aim for? What’s (v1 of) the ideal?

The biggest innovation in the TV experience has been the shift from linear TV viewing (ie, watching on a pre-defined scheduled) to on-demand viewing (ie, watching on your personal schedule). That is a huge innovation, don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t yet resulted in new ways of discovering what to watch.

Almost all the on-demand video user interfaces mimic the legacy experience of the Blockbuster rental store. Remember spending an hour at the rental store, browsing aisles after aisles of DVD boxes, trying to find the perfect movie for the evening? We’re still doing it, we’re just at home now. With the exception of search (for when you already know what you want), our VOD user interfaces haven’t changed from the old-school video rentals stores we had in the 80’s. We still browse rows and rows of box art, sometimes giving up before making a decision. We continue to be forced to judge the book by its cover.

Despite the enormous conveniences of on-demand search and playback, I believe SVOD services like Netflix and Amazon neglected an important aspect of the linear TV experience: the serendipity of discovery. Serendipity is like magic: it happens to you, not by you. No effort is required. Life bombards us with a million decisions throughout the day, our entertainment should be an escape from all that work. Remember how we used to turn on the tube simply to see what’s on and flip through TV channels? That impulse to see what’s on is driven by the same impulse that has us pulling out our phones to check Facebook and Instagram throughout the day. It’s the unpredictability of a “variable reward” that creates these urges. We don’t know what we’ll get, but it might be awesome! Or it might be trash. And we keep on rolling the dice. Ironically, it’s the lack of user control in linear TV that gamified TV viewing before “gamified” was even a word.

So I think the big opportunity for the entertainment industry is to figure out how to incorporate the excitement of serendipity into new digital video services, like we get from surfing our Facebook feeds, and previously from linear TV. Real product innovation is required; it’s not enough to simply put traditional linear TV channels in digital products. Digital users demand much more. Like Facebook, the app must offer up content that is personally relevant to each user, and the user must feel in control of the experience. This is where the traditional linear TV channel comes up short: no personalization and very little user control. We need a new video discovery paradigm that incorporates the variable rewards and immersiveness of linear TV, while still being highly personalized and controllable by the user.

For more of my thoughts on this, see this blog post.

JLP: TV is drifting away, it seems to me, because it doesn’t have instant gratification (I want the content I want but NOW). Do you think TV should/will follow Netflix’s path?

It’s true that the linear TV audience is shrinking, especially among younger demographics. One reason is because it is not as convenient nor immediate as all the other on-demand entertainment options that now exist (YouTube, Netflix, Minecraft, SnapChat, Facebook, etc). People have become conditioned to get what they want, when they want, on any device. They are also becoming more savvy about how to avoid advertising. All of these combine to create strong headwinds for traditional linear TV. Yet, linear TV is still a cash-cow for large media companies, both in terms of advertising and in terms of affiliate subscription revenue. This creates a huge challenge and dilemma that media companies need to navigate.

But yes, from a user perspective, Netflix provides a great path for the industry to follow.

JLP: How do you deal with uncertainty? How to tell what to do when you don’t know what is going to work and what is going to succeed?

I’d say very few things in life are certain. This is especially true with new products (and new TV shows, for that matter). To reduce risk, we test our hypotheses as early and as often as possible. This means testing assumptions upfront with consumer surveys; then building prototypes of the product and getting people off the street to play with them and provide feedback; then iterating on the concept incorporating the feedback; and finally launching the actual product to a small set of consumers to collect data and tweak the product as needed before launching it to the whole wide world. All of this is possible with software products, but is much harder with hardware products and content, like TV shows. That is why investments in content companies are much riskier than investments in software companies.

Anuj Adhiya: I loved your “Winner Takes All” Monopolies in Media” post. I was fascinated by your statement that the opportunity is still there for someone to figure out how to successfully apply Network Effects to news consumption. If FB themselves haven’t figured out how to do this (yet), how do you see an independent “social network just for news” by a brand new player doing this? Also, hasn’t Twitter to an extent become a news/information network and what do you think of their chances of becoming what you envision?

Yeah, I hate to say it, but unless someone can figure out how to effectively incorporate network effects into News discovery and consumption, I believe it will likely remain a commoditized feature of platforms (FB, Google, Apple), rather than a viable stand-alone service. The opportunity is certainly there for a new player to figure this out and become THE mainstream destination for news, but it won’t happen without some network effects magic.

Twitter had a network effect going early on, but it seems to have lost it as it crossed the chasm into the mainstream. Now, the vast majority of users are passive readers and don’t contribute any value back to the network. And their growth has stalled as a result. Maybe that is the fate of News overall. I suppose Reddit (and Digg before) has been flirting with network effects around News, but they haven’t entered the mainstream and probably never will.

If I had the recipe, I would be building it right now (and not answering questions here, so good news that I don’t have the recipe!) .

Music may ultimately share the same fate as News, but I am rooting hard for Spotify to remain independent! They are in the process of pulling this off without network effects. Instead, they are leaning on their leadership position in AI-driven music discovery, which does create high switching costs for their more engaged users.

Rahul Singh: What advice would you give to young marketers?

My advice to young marketers is for you to learn as much as you can about what’s happening in the realm of augmented reality and machine / deep learning. I think we are on the cusp of another landmark technology transformation, perhaps even bigger than the shift to mobile was several years ago. AR + AI + (what I call) “Ambient Computing” will transform the way all live and they way we interact with technology. And it’s really only a 12 to 18 months away from being tangible and mainstream. We’re starting to see the tip of the iceberg with Amazon Alexa — even though Alexa is still in such a nascent state. When Apple launches AR glasses next year (?), the speed of the mainstream acceptance will skyrocket.

As marketing and product people, we need to catch up to this technology, which is currently outpacing us, and define the use cases that will fulfill its potential. So much promise, but still limited utility. That’s on us to solve.

Jason Palmer: What is more important — product quality or time to market?

Shhhh, don’t tell anyone I said this, but there are occasions when products must ship by a certain date. Usually it’s in coordination with a big event that has an immovable date, like Christmas. This is much more common with hardware products (or software attached to hardware) than it is with pure-play software. In those cases, it’s imperative to keep the MVP (minimum viable product) scope constrained enough such that you don’t have to sacrifice quality in order to ship on time.

But other than those circumstances when products are inexorably tied to dates, it’s always better to ship your product AFTER it’s met an acceptable level of quality, regardless of date. Post-launch optimization should ideally be focused on growth, not on quality.

Sarah Friedman: When you notice a lack (or drop) in audience engagement/adoption of new products or functionality, how do you pivot your strategy and what tactics do you deploy?

The most important thing to do with any product is establish KPI’s upfront. These set your north star and determine whether you are on-path to achieving the product’s user and business goals. With KPI’s and a flexible A/B testing system, you should be able to perform tests that will guide you closer and closer to achieving your engagement goals. Without KPI’s, you’re in the dark and no tactics will be dependable.

You should only pivot your strategy after you’ve exhausted all the optimization opportunities via A/B testing. At that point you probably need to step back and re-think the product at a higher level.

James Dunn: What would you say are the top lessons you’ve learned from your career? What advice would you give your younger self just starting out knowing what you know now?

So many young professionals focus on their career in isolation from everyone and everything else around them. That is very natural, but also a little short-sighted. A career is not something you build on your own; you do not hire yourself nor do you give yourself promotions (well, most of us don’t). Career advancement requires other people recognizing the value that you bring to them and to the organization overall. The fastest way to accelerate your career is to lift up those around you: your manager, executives at your company, your co-workers, and as you move up in an organization: your staff members. Lifting up others is often a natural outcome of doing an exceptional job in your day-to-day role, but it also should happen outside of your job description.

I actually wrote a blog post on this recently. It doesn’t matter what your job is, or whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor… The more you help others around you, either directly or as an outcome of your work, the more you will be valued by those above, below, and around you. And the more you are valued by others in your company and in your industry, the more they will need you. And being needed is what fuels your career growth.

Mark Davies: How do larger companies with multi platforms like virgin media, sky, or HBO innovate at such large scale and stay current to the ever evolving user?

This is a huge topic worthy of a book. It is what we talk about almost every day at work, and there is no simple answer. There are many different forces at play within these large media / distribution companies, and often they are conflicting. What I can say is that regardless of any specific strategy to address these challenges, what is badly needed are GREAT product managers to help navigate these large companies. I am working on a longer blog post on this topic, so stay tuned… :-)