Create teams of four people from different local media companies with varying job responsibilities and ask them to create a new, financially sustainable product in 36 hours and you might be surprised by the results. Of course, the likelihood of the team creating something industry-shattering is unlikely. But ask them to focus on their customer and not the product, and something amazing does happen.
I recently served as a coach and trainer for participants in this exact scenario at a local media innovation workshop at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. This workshop grew out of the Reese News Lab, a program I’ve directed since 2011, and this session was one of my final tasks at the school.
The participants representing 20 local radio, television and print companies were asked to create something of value based on a topic they randomly drew out of a hat. “Something of value” kept us unabashedly focused on the principle of desirability.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. It requires talking to our customers and users. It requires questioning assumptions. It requires testing values and revising accordingly. It demands we deeply understand what we’re doing for our customers not just how we’re doing it.
We forced participants to go well beyond asking “what do you want?” Henry Ford taught us the uselessness of that in his probably apocryphal quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
But it’s when you begin asking “why” that you begin understand what you could do for your customer. I encouraged workshop participants to ask “why” five times to get to the underlying motivations for people’s actions. If someone had asked why people wanted a faster horse, the answers would have been more enlightening. Maybe it was to get to town faster or to save more time to be with family.
As I’ve previously written, there is great value in determining value (and we used the Mab Libs from that post during our workshop). We helped people learn how to begin defining the value of the products they were contemplating. We didn’t ask them to create the actual products, just to pitch their ideas for a product that delivers significant value to their customers (whom they also had to go find).
The winning team presented their idea, Bases Covered, as a planning service to help consumers discreetly organize event logistics (think wedding proposals). This team found their potential customers were overwhelmed by the thought of surprising their future fiancé while also capturing the moment. By connecting them to local businesses providing services like photography, food and even planning, this team had the start of an idea that delivered specific value.
I hope the workshop at UNC is a recurring event and maybe they’ll even let me come back to lead a session or team again. It’s important to keep learning and trying new ways to provide value to our local markets, and it demands we continue interacting with our local communities on how best to do that.