"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 29, 2012

Innovation–Really Nothing New

Much has been written recently on innovation, and in fact it is worth the attention.  Innovation is what has characterized America for decades, which is in jeopardy because of a 19th Century school system which favors narrowly-defined performance, diversity, and cooperation over risk-taking and creativity; and a business machine which favors takeovers of small startups by big corporations, thus co-opting and neutering the far out-of-the-box garage weirdos who come up with very cool shit.

There have been studies which have tried to dissect the innovative process, and disaggregate its components.  Innovation, for example, improves when creative people from different disciplines share a workspace. The creative energy generated – the free flow of outrageous ideas – animates each individual.  Innovation at any point, say others, is a function of the encouragement of innovation at all points before.  Taking risks on the playground by hanging off the top rung of the monkey bars encourages a risk-taking behavior which is essential to innovation.  Instead of vigilantly insisting that kindergarteners color within the lines, teachers who ask young children to ‘build anything you like’ from random pieces of toys and Legos are encouraging innovation.  Companies like Bell Labs which had the money and lack of competitors to enable it to think innovatively and absorb multiple ‘failures’ (failure is considered a positive step to success in the innovative start-up world) could put a hundred scientists in a room and ask them to ‘build anything you like’. 

In an interesting article in The Atlantic (6.27.12), http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/whats-the-secret-to-viral-success-its-so-obvious/259057/ the author contends that most of what is called innovation is really based on past successes.  This is not a simple repetition of the old saw – ‘nothing is ever new’, but illustrates how in a viral world, viral builds on viral, and innovations take off.

BuzzFeed, the Web's crown prince of social media has an uncanny knack for churning out posts that eat up the Internet. One week ago, BuzzFeed's Jack Shepherd pressed the publish button on "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity," an undeniably faith-restoring collection of inspiring pictures that I read and shared, along with more than 7 million other people. For those of you who don't dream in traffic numbers: Seven million page views for one post is astounding. It's the Internet equivalent of "The Hunger Games," or a walk-off Game 7 grand slam.

How did BuzzFeed do it?  How did they come up with such an innovative idea – one that would generate an astounding number of hits?

Slate's Farhad Manjoo was one of the 7 million. He was also curious: How does the Web's hit-maker make its hits? Over the last couple weeks, he "spent many hours and opened hundreds of browser tabs in an effort to reverse-engineer posts I found on BuzzFeed." What he found came as a disappointment. BuzzFeed's writers weren't baking from scratch. They were hunter-gathering. "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" was basically a long riff on a shorter post at NedHardy.com. Every big hit at BuzzFeed seemed to follow the same template, Manjoo wrote. A writer would find popular stuff somewhere on the Web ("most often at Reddit"), find other images and examples from the rest of the Web, and publish a more comprehensive piece.

"The secret to [BuzzFeed's] viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it better," Manjoo wrote. "Repeat the process enough, and you're bound to get a few mega-hits.

"That's not genius. It's a machine."

It may be a machine, but BuzzFeed’s success is emblematic of the Internet social networking and viral age.  YouTube is the clearinghouse for everything.  Upload some wacko videos to YouTube and a million others download and share them; and many of those millions upload their own wacko videos and the number of viewers on a particular theme doubles.  Why is YouTube so successful?  Because it is the go-to site for everything; and it costs them very little.  Is the YouTube model innovative?  Yes, not because of its content but because the idea of being a viral clearinghouse was new.  In a way BuzzFeed was even more innovative – but perhaps less profitable - because its geeks have to search for items on other websites, compile and post them.  The real element of success for both YouTube and BuzzFeed was the conclusion stated above: Find cool shit that’s already viral, package and post it; and viral builds on viral.

The example of Lionsgate film studios, producer of the wildly popular The Hunger Games is another example of viral success:

Between 2000 and 2005, the studio had two $100 million hits besides Michael Moore's blockbuster Fahrenheit 911: Saw and Saw II. In the next five years, it hit nine more $100-million home runs. Four contained the word "Saw" and three were other sequels/adaptation/reboots: Transporter 3, Rambo, and The Forbidden Kingdom. This year, The Hunger Games has already notched the fourth-biggest movie opening of all time and grossed more than $600 million worldwide. Lionsgate is currently the fourth-highest grossing film studio in America -- above Paramount and 20th Century Fox -- with The Expendables 2 and a distribution deal for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 coming later this year.

How did Lionsgate do it?

The secret to its viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it new. Manjoo wrote that of BuzzFeed. But it's just as true for Lionsgate and movie companies, who are rightly obsessed with sequels, reboots and adaptations, since the top 39 movie openings in history are all sequels, reboots, and adaptations. "We're creating an affinity audience of young adult franchises," CEO Jon Feltheimer explained at a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles this spring. Movies are are a tricky business. Turning blockbuster books into blockbuster movie franchises isn't so risky.

The obvious point is that the only thing a business planner knows is the past; and if one movie was a blockbuster then the odds are that a sequel or adaptation will be one as well.  The more interesting point, however, is the viral nature of the popularity.  Movie companies no longer base sales on old-fashioned advertising, but rely on the buzz that is created on the web. Not only do studio media geeks initiate viral marketing, they monitor the buzz and augment it.  Celebrity pix, clips, hip interviews, personal shots, beach antics, hyper-real trailer bits, all ramp up the hype.  Suddenly the movie is everywhere – YouTube, BuzzFeed, and a million Facebook pages. The Atlantic reviewer concludes:

We'll end with a brief anecdote. Two years ago, a monthly magazine published a successful article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last year, it published another article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last week, it published yet another article about women and society that launched the loudest national debate of them all. The name of that magazine? If you don't know what magazine I'm talking about, scroll to the top of this page (The Atlantic).

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and Lionsgate are really different companies with really different cultures and really different definitions of success. But they share this in common: When you're in the hit-making business, you only know one thing for sure: What has already worked.

An even better example is the recent and related Time Magazine cover of a woman breastfeeding a six-year old child.  That photograph went viral as quickly as any.  Savvy marketers saw the viral outbreak, and threw out stale articles and went with the story about the story…and the story about the picture…..and pictures about the story. 

The real innovation here is the understanding of the new Internet, viral, social networking environment in which we all live and increasingly interact.  It doesn’t matter if the ‘new thing’ is only new for a few weeks.  There is money to be made; and those who can quickly capitalize on others’ successes will make money.  It is not so much that BuzzFeed and Lionsgate had a new idea – after all, building on former successes is not new – but that they knew how to make hot ideas even hotter.

For those of us who like ‘real’ innovation – truly new ideas, creative and insightful films and books, original takes on literature and art, small but revolutionary discoveries in science – all this BuzzFeed stuff is merely the recycling of popular, inane, and silly materials.  This, of course, is not the point.  It is to make millions out of a vast popular culture whose groupies have plenty of disposable income; and the examples presented in these articles are right on the money.

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