How Small Improvements Nudge Out The Competition

by Dan Blank on June 12, 2009

Publishers and media companies are all looking for the big answer – how to create a profitable publishing and media company. They are searching for that one thing – that huge idea that will push their business model from a flat line to a steep upward angle.

But that one thing doesn’t exist.

There is no single idea that will reshape your business, deliver ever increasing revenue, keep costs manageable, bring in new customers, please existing customers, align to the needs of business partners, and speak to the competencies of your business structure.

Why? Because serving customer needs and creating great products is just not that easy.

And this is a good thing. Good, because it empowers each and every member of a business to make a contribution; to deliver on business goals; to make a product better; and most importantly – improve the lives of customers.

This is not a privilege reserved for a select few – it is an opportunity made available from everyone from the top dog down to the lowliest intern. (sorry, interns.)

And it goes beyond revenue, beyond page views, beyond any metrics that can be expressed as a quantity. Qualitative metrics are an equally important measure of your value in the lives of your customers. Even in a recession – there are ways to improve products and serve customers that might not deliver immediate growth, but set you up for significant post-recession success.

Here’s my favorite metric:

How many smiles are you creating within your industry each day?

I don’t mean smiles that says "Yes, I liked that article." I mean smiles that says:

Because of you, my business is more secure;
Because of you, we are bringing in more customers;
Because of you, we are edging out our competitors;
Because of you, I have solved a problem that was keeping me up at night;
Because of you, I am thriving in my career, and better able to provide for my family.

Can this be seen in page views and revenue? Maybe, but that only tells one piece of the story. And it only speaks to one way that you and your team members can contribute to business goals. In reality, everyone can have a significant role in serving customers, making products better, and growing the business.

Small Things

Big successes are really made up of a series of small improvements. Each becomes an essential part of the whole, and each has the same goal: making your customers happy. Let’s look at one example of how from this week:

This week, the next version of the iPhone. I watched the 2-hour presentation where Apple introduced this product and several other upgrades to its existing lineup, and I was floored by the attention to detail, and how each was measured for improvement. Some examples:

  • 40% greater battery life in their notebook computers.
  • 60% greater color gamut in their laptop screens.
  • 45% faster installation of new operating system.
  • 230% faster to move a mail message.
  • 50% speed bump in their web browser.
  • 50% smaller operating system size.
  • 50% speed bump to open an image.

Plus other small improvements to make their products more environmentally friendly:

  • The creation of a new manufacturing process (unibody construction) for their laptop computers that creates less waste.
  • Every notebook meets environmentally friendly product standards.
  • Smaller packaging.

All of this, and they are dropping prices on many of their major products by hundreds of dollars.

What you are watching them do is measure everything, and each year, working to create constant improvements. In the presentation they call them "little touches," "small benefits" and "refinements."

People ogle at Apple’s products, but from a design perspective, the product is not the goal. Revenue is not the goal. Those are almost by-products. The goal is to solve problems and deliver something that makes people’s lives better.

This is even more imperative in business-to-business media. Wherever I go, I am reminded of who my company serves:

  • Jewelry store owners who are working to find growth in a tough market.
  • Furniture manufacturers who have run their family owned business for years, and are now struggling to survive.
  • Librarians who are trying to deliver on increased demand for their services, while facing budget cuts.
  • Product designers who are trying to understand new technologies, and how to use them efficiently.

  • Media executives who have an unmatched passion for their industry, but trying to understand what it will look like in 5 years, and where they fit in to that future.

The brands I have the pleasure to work with are making my community a better place. And that is why small improvements can have such a profound affect.

Small Things Add Up

Each day, each week, each month – what is one thing that you can do to make your product better – to better serve your audience and solve their problems? How can you measure yourself by customer experience?

When you identify ways to solve customer needs, you are inherently identifying ways to create new revenue streams. Quality pushes quantity, not the other way around. Revenue and page views are end result metrics – they are outcomes of making great products that serve critical customer needs.

So if this is the first question:

What is the one thing you can do today to better serve your audience’s needs?

Then this is the second:

How are you linking this back up to revenue generating products that serve those needs?

If you are an editor, you might want to consider the following: What is the one ACTION you want your audience to take when they read your articles? Some ideas:

  • Signing up for a newsletter.
  • A single link you want them to click on.
  • Registering for a webcast.
  • Downloading a white paper.
  • Contributing to a survey.

Nuances of product design are such an inherent part of the Apple because they realize that is how they express their relationship to their customers. Every element – how it looks and how it functions – is to include only the most useful things. The rest is cut away.

In the same regard, what are small daily changes that an editor can make to drive business goals? The action for their audience is not "to read," but rather, "to solve."

Measure

Unless you are measuring the performance of what you are doing, how do you know what is working? Here’s an example of what I mean:

Let’s say a blogger looks at their monthly page views. If those metrics go up, the blogger thinks to themselves: "I worked hard last month, and obviously, I am doing the right things." But the reality is much different. If you look deeply into the metrics, you will often find one or two things that are working really well, and a hundred things that are barely delivering on the needs of their audience.

You will often find one blog entry that delivered a sizable chunk of their traffic. Or a single day that drove more page views and a higher level of engagement than others. Or one source that delivered most of the traffic.

Without understanding these nuances, the blogger is flying blind – pursuing tactics without a strategy.

Look at metrics, but use them not to look back, but to create a strategy for moving ahead, create benchmarks and set goals.

Likewise, connect with your customers and your readers as often as possible. Consistently gather research, ask for feedback, and review metrics on their behavior. How else will you understand your customers better than your competitors?

If You Don’t Fail, You Can’t Succeed

Every failure is one step closer to finding success.

"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."
-Thomas Edison

When you do fail – share those failures. Whether it is a failed product, a failed attempt to connect with readers, or a failed ad campaign. Share it with everyone on your team, to ensure they understand why things work, and why things don’t work.

Whenever you learn something about your audience, your customers, your advertisers, and your industry – share that with your team. Likely, each of you collects a separate set of data & information about those you serve; when you bring this information together, it gives you a powerful tool.

Help. It’s Your Competitive Advantage

Profitable businesses are inherently about helping. Getting in the way will not create a loyal customer base, even if you can manage to sell it. Seth Godin calls this "permission marketing," and you can see it’s affects all over the web in things like "banner blindness," where web users ignore ad banners because they are so common, and so easy to recognize as information that is not helpful to their goals.

Helping does not just apply to customers – it is a 360 degree process of listening to your co-workers, your advertisers, your business partners, your customers, and anyone who touches your industry.

It is the nuances of understanding their needs that allows you that rare chance to grab an idea that will solve needs better than your competitors can. Think about it this way:

Are you someone that your industry goes to for help?
Or are you just another hand in their face, asking for their precious resources?

  • http://www.twice.com/ Doug Olenick

    None of these:
    40% greater battery life in their notebook computers.
    60% greater color gamut in their laptop screens.
    45% faster installation of new operating system.
    230% faster to move a mail message.
    50% speed bump in their web browser.
    50% smaller operating system size.
    50% speed bump to open an image.

    Are small improvements. These are major steps forward. Apple did not deliver a slightly better product it delivered one that is tremendously more powerful, so powerful that it could drop the price on the original to a quarter of what it was originally.

    The difference between what Apple can do and what a publisher can accomplish for its base audience really can't be compared. We are not in the business of solving their problems, but merely supplying some info so THEY can solve their problems. We do not know the ins and outs of each retailer, vendor or distributor. Each faces unique issues depending upon their region, size and product categories. Trade magazines tend to speak in generalities because we cannot attack the specifics.

    I agree that a singe over-arching idea to save publishing is probably not out there. What I think has to happen is the online publishing world has to mature to the point where some of the ideas currently being implement, micropayments, etc. will be seen by the readers as something they will do to attain the information they want.

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