Being “good enough”

At this year’s BookExpo, I moderated a three-publisher panel whose participants discussed the current state of travel publishing. The most memorable moment (for me, at any rate) came when one of the publishers looked across the table and said,

“If we were competing against just ourselves, we’d have this all figured out. But we’re not. We’re competing against TripIt, and Travelocity, and even frequent-traveler programs that offer ‘good enough’ content at the point of purchase.”

Late last week, I came across a paidcontent article, “Create your own disruption to avoid media meltdown”, that I should have loved. Disruption, media, a color chart: fodder for the Magellan sweet spot.

You may have guessed already: I didn’t love it.

The piece, written by the author of the Forrester report it summarizes, gets some things right. Audiences – customers – are most decidedly in control now. And there are services (my examples include Monster.com, Craigslist, TripIt) that have disrupted the traditional media model.

Unfortunately, the analysis gets two important things entirely wrong. Forrester cites the Internet, broadband, smartphones and the iPad as examples of “new technology [enabling] customers to make choices’ about how they interact with products.” I’d argue that these are examples of sustaining (not disruptive) technologies.

These technologies make the existing product offering incrementally better. Broadband supports faster file transfers, but it’s Netflix, not Comcast, Verizon or AT&T, that disrupted Blockbuster. The iPad is a solid rich-media device, but it is being used to extend reading, not eliminate it. Getting content ready for the new platforms may challenge publishers, but on their own the devices don’t change publishing.

In describing disruption as the point at which “[c]ustomers re-evaluate traditional products and expect more than they currently get”, Forrester makes a larger and more concerning mistake. As defined by Clay Christensen, disruption starts when customers accept less than what they currently get, because the original products were over-engineered or did not meet a latent requirement.

Think of things like desktop publishing (lament the typography), open-source software, GoogleDocs (hardly Microsoft Word) and Craigslist (no display ads; just text), again. These tools can disrupt existing businesses precisely because they focus on a component of the established value proposition. They’re not a direct assault, and they are not just technology. They are customer-focused solutions.

I think Forrester gets the lessons right (particularly “become your own disruption”), but in calling sustaining technologies “disruptive”, it increases the likelihood that we’ll miss the real threat: product and service offerings that are “good enough” at the moment we need them. As travel publishers and others have found, these threats often look less complete than the current offerings.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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