The Second Great Democratization of Media

/ Mar 17, 2016

AOL Alpha VR Virtual Reality

By Drew Lesicko

The OTT industry is the fastest changing business landscape we have ever seen. There are so many platforms doing so many different, quickly evolving things that keeping track of all of them is hopeless. Staying ahead of them would seem impossible, so I tell my team to think of the impossible and make it possible. It’s the only way to stay afloat in this sea of constant change. This means a product launch approach that makes many uncomfortable — getting projects out the door before they feel perfect.

We launched Vivv, our custom image and video application, after just six weeks of work. There’s no describing how nervous I was when we shipped the first live version. It racked up over 200k downloads in the first few weeks, and the early feedback allowed us to make it into one our strongest offerings. The lesson: push things out quickly, iterate based on data, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Holding yourself and your team to constant innovation is challenging, but it’s also incomparably exciting.

I think the opportunity for constant innovation is a product of what I like to call the “Second Great Democratization of Media.” YouTube’s appearance in 2005 was the catalyst for what has been referred to as the first “democratization” of media – where the ability to produce content was brought to anyone with a webcam.  Suddenly, your toddlers could become viral sensations for finger biting without sending in VHS tapes to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (and you could make money off it). This freedom caused the sheer volume of content to skyrocket and quickly surpass the amount of content ever produced by traditional media. So, if the First Democratization was making content production open and available to all, then the Second Democratization we now find ourselves in is making the consumption and distribution of content open to more possibilities than ever before. Content consumption is now a” Choose Your Own Adventure” story: viewers decide what time, what place, what screen, what networks, what shows, what devices, etc. The combinations and possibilities are seemingly endless — a simultaneously overwhelming and exciting truth.

With so many options available to the digitally-inclined viewer, how can we possibly stay ahead of the curve and get our content in front of the right eyes? My team is not afraid to break things. It’s a rule we live by. Perfect is too often the enemy of good enough, and striving for that perfectionism out of the gate is the biggest mistake you can make in turning the impossible into reality. Put something out there, let it be broken, and you give your team the valuable feedback that leads to novel solutions. Not only will this strengthen your product, it will also set you on the path to real success. My team sticks to an aggressive development cycle, launching new products every six to eight weeks, and constantly iterating. It simply makes for a better product in the long run.

Constant and thoughtful iteration is the second pillar to successfully staying in front of the OTT race. This is a cornerstone of the development process because it illuminates opportunities for improvement. This means constant data collection, which in turn means constant reflection on where and how to improve. You should always have comprehensive data on the technology and even the content itself. Take HBO for example. They experimented early with direct to consumer access to their content in international markets like Denmark and Sweden. Well before we had an inkling of HBO Now, HBO Nordic served as a testing ground for what an OTT streaming service would look like. The content powerhouse’s constant and thoughtful iteration changed the way the television industry today operates. At the same time, Netflix remains a tremendous exemplar, smartly utilizing user data to shape their original content and discovery features and make prescient changes to their UI. Netflix has set the curve for many in the industry.

We may nominally be in charge of the delivery of over-the-top content, but we don’t consider ourselves the OTT team. That would be limiting and stifle the creativity we need to make the impossible possible. Just being the OTT team would not allow us the freedom to break things and iterate at the speed we do. It is much more helpful to think of your team in this industry as research and development. R&D teams necessarily have to think outside the box, get messy, break things, iterate, and try again to make things even better. R&D teams are the reason this industry is moving at the speed of light, and I think it would serve all of us well to borrow their approach in our work on all sides of content creation and distribution. It’s only with that big-picture fearlessness that we can start making the impossible, possible.

Drew LesickoDrew Lesicko is the general manager and product director for AOL Alpha, AOL’s R&D and experimental products lab. Since joining AOL in 2012, he has overseen strategy and development of mobile initiatives across AOL’s 20-plus brands, including TechCrunch, Engadget and Moviefone, and launched more than 10 new products across mobile and emerging platforms. 


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