Author Archives: Ian Lamont

Lean Media book covers: How we used feedback to choose 2 finalists

Thanks to all of the people who shared feedback on the first round of 9 cover designs for the Lean Media book project. I really enjoyed reading through your comments, which helped me see the proposed designs in a new light. Like any design-oriented Lean Media project, the feedback is not intended to be a popularity contest, but rather to inform the creative team. At the end of the day the creative calls will fall upon my small design team, which includes myself and the designers at TLC Book Design. But your feedback played a definite role in deciding on how to proceed. In this post I will share how we used test audience feedback, and then reveal the two basic finalist designs and variations (we need feedback on those, too!)

Here’s the email I sent to the designer about the feedback on the round #1 designs:

So I went through the designs. Lots of thought-provoking ideas! I also had potential readers in my target audiences take a look, and they gave feedback as well (,250634.0/all.html and on Facebook and Twitter, too). I find it fascinating that some covers I didn’t care for were well liked (such as #9) while others I was open to found few supporters (#5). In others we were more aligned.
In the end, the two that I would like to move forward are #3 and #6. Here are some comments from me and testers:
  • Stands out as a thumbnail
  • Easy to read title and subtitle
  • Obviously there is some important concept taking place
  • From a reader, this was unexpected but he or she is right: “the colors and shapes all reflect the tripartite concept verbalized in the subtitle.”
  • Color is too bright (maybe #4 color better? Could also try some other colors)
  • The stock symbol does not actually reflect the concepts in the book.
For this one, it would be great if we could get a symbol that reflects one of the 2 main conceptual diagrams, or use the diagrams themselves, or some element of the diagrams. I’ve mocked them up in Google Sheets but as I said during our meeting in Portland they still need a pro design. I’ve attached the sheets versions for your reference.
  • I thought it was fun, and had an easy to read title and subtitle
  • “I like the more subdued colour and the highlighting of key words in the subtitles”
  • “Reminds me of classic manuals. I took it that it was showing how busy things are, and why you need to get lean.”
  • Byline is very difficult to see. Perhaps a little bigger or bolder?
  • “Looks a bit dated and busy, the opposite of lean.”
  • “Good concept, contains elements of different types of media and technology, but it looks a little cartoony, maybe even geared toward kids.”
I found it interesting that some readers thought the busy-ness was a positive attribute, while others thought it clashed with “lean.” My take on this is the media ecosystem is indeed very complex, and Lean Media helps people concentrate on what’s important.
Regarding the color: I would actually like to see what it looks like with a starker (more contrasty) color scheme using different palettes – maybe try a medium green color, charcoal, and a burnt red for the background instead of light blue?

Based on my feedback, as well as the feedback that some of you provided, Monica at TLC designs took the #3 and #6 designs from the first round and created four mockups of each. These second-round contenders are displayed below. Which ones work for you?

Round 2, Design #1

Lean Media cover a1

Round 2, Design #2

Lean Media cover a2

Round 2, Design #3

Lean Media cover a3

Round 2, Design #4

Lean Media cover a4

Round 2, Design #5

Lean Media cover b5

Round 2, Design #6

Lean Media cover b6

Round 2, Design #7

Lean Media cover b7

Round 2, Design #8

Lean Media cover b8

Lean Media in action – gathering feedback for the book design

Lean Media book design concepts

As I have noted many times on this blog, I actively solicit feedback from potential readers about chapters, diagrams, examples, and other elements of the book. Feedback helps me understand my audience, identify elements that are working well, and also head off potential problems. It’s Lean Media in action. This week, I am soliciting feedback about book cover designs, and hope you can share your opinion on the designs listed below. While anyone can leave feedback, I am especially interested in people who work in the media industry or create/produce entertainment or informational media of any type, including books, music, film, news, websites, videogames, advertising, and live performances.

A little background: I am working with TLC Designs in Austin, Texas, to come up with visual concepts that convey some of the themes that are central to the Lean Media book: A strong creative vision, lean thinking, and different types of media. When asked what other book covers I liked, I indicated that strong visual images were important, such as the figures on How to help your friend with cancer. I also wanted to stay away from the overused business book style that only feature text, usually dominated by a big catchy title

I further asked the designer to avoid pastels, cursive or serif fonts, and nostalgic accents in the book design. Finally, “[the look and feel] needs to project authority & modern design without being avant garde,” I said in the questionnaire.

You may be wondering why I did not get more specific about colors, specific visual pieces, or other elements that I want represented in the book design. The answer: I am not a designer, and I am content to step back and let professionals do what they do best. In my experience working with TLC in the past on the redesign of the In 30 Minutes series, the designers were extremely talented at taking my rough guidelines and concepts and turning them into striking covers that really define the brand!

Yesterday, I got the first round of book design ideas from TLC. They look great, but what I need to do now is whittle down the options so the designer can move forward with just one or two designs. Several of them definitely resonate with me. Which ones work for you? Feel free to share your opinion and observations in the comments. I will also be gathering feedback from other sources, including social media and Kboards.

Here are larger versions of the covers:

Cover #1


Cover #2


Cover #3


Cover #4


Cover #5


Cover #6


Cover #7


Cover #8


Cover #9



The number of book readers declines even as self publishing skyrockets

I’m nearing the end of revising the third draft of my Lean Media book. While researching industry trends, I found two fascinating pieces of data. First, Bowker’s data for ISBN registrations for self-published books:

ISBN registrations self published Bowker

Printed self-published books with self-purchased ISBNs or “free” ISBNs from Createspace and other providers have doubled every few years. While the ebook ISBNs look anemic, this data does not include self-published ebooks uploaded to Amazon KDP which do not require ISBNs (for more context on this issue, I recommend reading recent Author Earnings reports). It also does not reflect traditionally published books, which have suffered greatly thanks to low-priced self-published alternatives.

Here’s the second data point I wanted to share:

Americans buying books Source: Nielsen 2015 Year In Books ReviewThe data is from the Nielsen 2015 Year In Books report. It indicates the number of Americans who buy books is declining. It’s possible those who are still reading are buying more books, but it’s certainly not enough to keep up with the massive growth in the number of available titles. This translates to a lot of disappointed authors and struggling publishers.

Modes Vu’s lean approach to art photography publishing

Last month, N.E.O. Bernhardsson, a Hong Kong-based publisher, reached out to me after reading about Lean Media online. Independently, he and his Modes Vu team have developed a system that uses Lean Media principles and processes to develop art photography books featuring relatively unknown photographers from China and elsewhere. This post and interview will describe how the Modes Vu system works, and share some takeaways that may help other people considering Lean Media for their own projects.

Three principles analysis

When examined through the lens of Lean Media’s three principles, Modes Vu has it all:

  1. Reduce waste: The editorial team is small and relies on standard processes to keep costs down. For instance, the prototype books use templates that minimize the need to turn to design talent. Modes Vu also uses inexpensive digital printing to prototype (more on that later).
  2. Understand audiences: Sales of the prototype and online reactions help the team decide which images and book projects to pursue (details below).
  3. Focus creativity: External feedback and internal reflection are key to focusing the creative efforts of the team and the photographers.

Workflow analysis

On the Modes Vu Tumblr, the team outlined its experimental approach:

modes vu experimental process

It may look different than the standard Lean Media workflow:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.7

However, I actually think it’s quite similar. The Modes Vu stages fit into the Lean Media workflow as follows:

Idea: Talented photographers using smartphones post images to social networking sites for others to see and react to. The Modes Vu editorial team approaches them to determine if they are interested in producing a Workbook.

Prototype I: The Modes Vu Workbook is the bridge between the digital and print publishing worlds. The team chooses 48 photographs from a single photographer, and flows them into a 4.5” x 6” book template. Instead of using expensive offset printing, which would require a large order and warehousing costs, Modes Vu uses print-on-demand (POD) digital printing which allows single orders to be printed at a low cost ($15 retail) and shipped to buyers all over the world. Images of the pages are posted to Tumblr and Instagram to gauge online reaction. Sales of the Workbooks are another form of feedback. Meanwhile, the photographer and editorial team consider whether to advance the project to the next stage.

modes vu bugging out cover

Prototype II: Greens are slightly larger POD editions, based on images from the Workbooks as well as new photographs from the same artist. The cost is slightly higher ($20). The layouts and presentation of the photographs are different, but the team uses similar feedback mechanisms and reflection to determine whether or not to proceed to the final stage, and what the composition of the work should look like.


Flex launch: MODES are high-quality photography books between 80 and 100 pages long featuring the work of a single photographer. Modes Vu takes the hard launch approach; the final product is frozen and no further iteration is planned. MODES No. 1: JAM is scheduled for later this year, and will cost $30. More editions are planned, and Modes Vu has considered running it as a quarterly periodical if there are enough subscribers.

There are a few twists, however. For one, Modes Vu has no involvement in the initial ideation, when the photographer is working on his or her own. N.E.O. writes:

We come in here after seeing their photographs on tumblr or Instagram, and make an edit of 48 images out of their likely hundreds of images. In some cases, the photographer has a clear concept (idea), but more often they are shooting intuitively and capturing images of a similar type and sensibility, but have not explicitly thought to make a book or to make a “work” out of these images. As we edit the book, as well as design, layout and name the title, we help in taking the raw material (many hundreds of images) and distill and refine it into a book.

The Modes Vu team is also willing to stop development of a project at the Workbook stage, based on feedback, internal discussions, and other factors, including:

  • Sales – Naturally, sales seem like the ultimate confirmation of a work. It is not necessarily indicative of the quality, however, as sales are also the result of hype or lack of hype. (This goes back to the previous point about publishing being name-driven.)
  • Digital reactions – Likes, reblogs, page views, etc. after we release the book online. We scan the full content of the Workbook and Green alike, and each spread make up a single post that can be liked or reblogged on tumblr.
  • Editorial – After an edition has been put out, our editors reflect on the published work and use their own judgment to decide whether it is good enough to proceed to the next stage.
  • Development – It is necessary for the photographer to have produced new images in the time since the release of the previous edition. The idea is that the iterative process creates a context for the work – a story that lets the viewer understand it better. This way, the experimental publishing process, when made public, becomes its own marketing campaign.

After learning about Modes Vu, I asked N.E.O. if he would be willing to take part in an email interview. He agreed, and answered the following questions about the Modes Vu approach:

What is the inspiration for doing Modes Vu as an iterative production?

A couple of years ago I worked on an independent art/photography/fashion magazine. It was pocket sized, printed on newsprint so it was very cheap per copy. That meant a lot of freedom in giving away promotion copies, and also creatively because you’re self-funded, so I realized the advantage of low costs.

On the other hand, each issue was over 200 pages and took a year to complete. This was taxing for everyone involved because it felt like a long slog with no feedback until a year later.

Another source of inspiration is practicing photography and writing. How do you ever know if a photograph is good or not, or when a text is ready? I also found the ability to go back and take a second look at a draft, months later, is incredibly valuable.

From here comes the digital print, on-demand, no-cost production and distribution model, and the iterative process of publishing.

One final reference is the time I spent at a commercial magazine. Sometimes, complete issues of the magazine were scrapped and re-done, to the dismay of everyone who’d put in the work. I find having a controlled, explicit process helps manage expectations and reduce friction, and is really a way of management to respect individual contributors by making expectations on both sides known.

Where is Modes Vu based, and who is on the team that chooses the photos and designs the books?

We’re headquartered in Hong Kong but really location independent since only the very last step of the process is physical – the book itself – and printing and shipping is all handled by our US printers. The printers are in the US simply for the reason that they offer this integrated process of publishing, printing, and shipping.

We have editors in the US and China and collaborators all around the world.

We have a design template for the cover and a fixed format for the Workbook and Green, within which the editor works. The editor selects the cover image and works with the author to choose a title. The editor also chooses images, pairs them and does the layout. The fixed format means that a single editor, working with the author, can finish the entire title without the need for a designer. This reduces costs, increases speed, and creates a coherent series.

Besides exposing, promoting, and preserving the works of these photographers, could you describe the business goals (if any) for Modes Vu?

Modes Vu isn’t a full-time project at the moment, but I believe that this model could be successful in bringing new print publications to market. Our current goals are to get the MODES series out and to publish it quarterly. In the case that we’d turn this into a full-time thing with a few hundred subscribers, we’d be able to support our operations from that income as well as actually pay photographers based off that revenue.

Who is your audience/readership, and how do you gather feedback about the workbooks and greens?

The majority of our customers are from the U.S., possibly because the platforms we use and the ‘online circles’ we are in are U.S. dominated. The second largest customer base is in China.

As mentioned above, the feedback comes in the form of likes, reblogs, sales, and we also look at the photographer’s development of the work.

How many series books do you sell or hope to sell? (or how many do you hope to print and distribute?)

The MODES editions will be done in print runs ranging from 50 to 300 copies. We’ll do re-prints if there’s demand for it.

It looks like there is a size difference between the workbooks and series (and the greens too?). Is there also a quality difference in terms of the printing technology or paper being used? And a related question: Why are “greens” green?

Workbooks are 6×4.5” because 6” is the shortest the printer can make them, and 4.5” instead of the minimum 4” because the often square photos would be significantly smaller in a 6×4” edition and a larger percentage of the image lost in the gutter due to the glue binding.

Greens are instead 5.5×8.5” and staple bound, meaning they lay flat when open so you can layout the book across the spread without losing anything in the gutter. This together with the larger size forces a rethinking of the layout, and therefore also the selection and sequencing of images, and almost the entire concept of the book. You have much more freedom in playing around here than with a Workbook (seen especially in JAM) and this helps develop the concept.

They’re called Greens originally because we didn’t want to have a typical artist book design with a clean white background but instead chose a green color that would stand out more in shops and at book fairs. A second idea is that some of the books grow and shoot of green sprouts, and become the second edition, a Green. In Chinese, the Greens are called 小草 which means little grass.

The paper and printing is slightly better with the Green edition.

Compared to the iteration from Workbook to Green, does a similar feedback/internal discussion process guide the selection of photographs for the Modes edition?

Yes, the MODES titles are chosen from the Green editions. Not all titles pass from Workbook to Green, or from Green to MODES edition.

You mentioned they will have a print run between 50 and 300 copies. Is this using offset or digital printing? What is the expected retail cost?

If we end up doing 50, it will be digital print. If we do 200-300, it will be offset. Retail price will be $30. We are also using an external designer for the cover format and possibly for the layout of each edition too.

To learn more about Modes Vu, check out the website, tumblr, and Instagram account. It’s possible to order Workbooks and Greens and have them shipped from the U.S.-based POD service. I ordered the Workbook and Greens for JAM, and am looking forward to the full-sized MODES No. 1, which will be released later this year.

Goodbye soft launch, hello flex launch

The Lean Media flowchart has undergone several iterations. In 2015, it looked like this:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.4

The idea was feedback cycles could take place at any stage of the production up to the hard launch. The soft launch was an integral feedback stage, as it allowed a highly polished version to be exposed to a public audience and potentially tweaked before the hard launch.

Last year, I did away with the hard launch. My thinking was, in an era of digital production and distribution, why should creators even consider a final hard launch? A digital publisher can continue to make updates and improvements, and audiences can continue to revisit the media if it’s available online, in an app, or via a streaming service. In my publishing company, even print editions are regularly updated using low-cost print-on-demand services.

I further included only one prototype element in the chart, with the understanding that many prototype iterations might be involved. The updated version 0.6 looked like this:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.4 550px

But a few things bothered me.

For one, neither flowchart captured the path of serial media like a TV show or podcast, which have an official launch but keep on iterating in response to audience feedback and other factors.

Second, some creators will never touch their works ever again once they launch. However, I waved that scenario away as a legacy of 20th century thinking that will surely change as creators and producers embrace new approaches to creating media.

Feedback from a reader (and Lean Media practitioner) made me realize that I was not being realistic:

On soft launch, I frankly think you’re overextending the concept. At some point, you need to move on, both as a creator and as a business organization, and focus on new projects. Sure, certain very popular books are updated with new translations, forewords, or added chapters. And popular films may come out in special director’s cut editions. But still, the intention of the publisher for both of these examples is a “hard launch”. That they return to making a new edition doesn’t change this – the intention. I think what changes now, with what we do and what others can do with a lean, iterative process, is the way of making something. But hard launches will still remain.

He was right. And I realized that there are actually 3 distinct approaches that I somehow had to address in the framework and flowchart:

  1. Hard launches are more or less fixed; the team has no intention to iterate further and will move onto new projects afterwards.
  2. In contrast, a soft launch involves releasing a product to a small group of audience members in order to gauge interest, tweak features, and adjust marketing before the formal rollout.
  3. Staggered launches usually involve serial or multiformat media in which later versions draw upon the failures and successes of earlier releases.

So I have created another iteration of the flowchart that replaces “soft launch” with “flex launch.” In a Lean Media context, the flex launch version is highly polished, in a final or near-final state and is available to the public. It can take any of the three approaches described above. In a soft launch, a work can be quietly launched to a subset of the marketplace, such as a limited geographic area or a single distribution channel, with the goal of attracting feedback. Staggered launches for serial or multiformat media will also iterate based on feedback. However, the classic hard launch will still be used by some creators in connection with a major marketing campaign across the entire country, and no intention of iterating.

Here’s what the newest version looks like:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.7 with flex launch

What do you think?

This chart explains the rise and fall of the music album, 1955-2015

In my forthcoming Lean Media book, I talk a lot about the digital-driven convulsions of traditional, 20th century media. Some sectors of the media industry have had it worse than others, though, such as newspapers and recorded music. This post will look at one data point from the music industry that illustrates how much things have changed in recent years.

The chart below shows RIAA-certified diamond music albums from 1955 through 2015. You are probably familiar with gold-certified albums (500,000 units sold) and platinum (1 million units sold). The RIAA diamond certification represents 10 million albums sold in the United States. In other words, diamonds are monster hit records like Thriller and Hotel California.

I built the chart using a list of diamond albums that Billboard ranked, which excludes most greatest hits compilations, soundtracks, and live albums unless they contain mostly new material (such as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). Here’s what the RIAA diamond distribution looks like:

RIAA diamond albums 1955-2015

So what happened? In the late 50s there was a single diamond album — Elvis Presley’s Elvis’ Christmas Album — but then a long drought until the late 60s. At the time, low-cost singles ruled the U.S. album charts, and young people weren’t as interested in full-length LP (“long play”) records. It wasn’t until the Beatles and other rock bands expanded the idea of conceptual or themed albums that sales began to take off. Young members of the Baby Boomer generation had more money. As they entered the workforce they invested in larger home stereo systems, and bought more albums. “Generation X” (those born from 1965 to 1980) followed a similar pattern.

Diamond albums were released nearly every year from 1967 until the early 2000s, with a big spike in the mid to late 90s. The 90s was an especially profitable era for the music industry, which leveraged music videos, new digital technologies (including compact discs) and point-of-sale data to groom hit-makers and produce a slew of global hits. For each diamond album that was certified, you can assume there were scores of platinum and gold albums that were released in the same year.

And then sales plummeted. From 2005-2010 there were no diamond albums. You can thank Steve Jobs, Internet-connected PCs, and changing consumer tastes for this. Apple’s iPod ecosystem let people buy only the songs they wanted instead of the entire album. Many turned to their PCs to manage their song collections, and to the Internet to discover (and share) new music. Mobile phones and streaming music have only accelerated that trend. In the meantime, CD players have been disconnected, and music videos are now considered second-tier marketing tools. Now, the only recording artists who can hope to get RIAA-certified diamond status are the biggest global superstars. Adele managed this feat in 2011 with 21 and in 2015 with 25.

Below you can see the list of albums as well as the year they were released and the number of platinum certifications (that is, “15” means 15 million albums sold in all). I’ve removed Billboard’s quality ranking for the 88 on the list, but check out how Billboard ranked them as well as the contextual blurbs about each album.

Artist(s) Album Name Year Released Platinum certifications
Elvis Presley Elvis’ Christmas Album 1957 10
The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967 11
The Beatles The White Album) 1968 19
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin I 1969 10
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II 1969 12
The Beatles Abbey Road 1969 12
Carole King Tapestry 1971 10
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV 1971 23
Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon 1972 15
Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy 1973 11
Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti 1975 16
Eagles Hotel California 1976 16
Boston Boston 1976 17
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life 1976 10
Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell 1977 14
Billy Joel The Stranger 1977 10
Fleetwood Mac Rumours 1977 20
Various Artists Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack 1977 15
Van Halen Van Halen 1978 10
Pink Floyd The Wall 1979 23
AC/DC Back in Black 1980 22
Michael Jackson Thriller 1982 32
Def Leppard Pyromania 1983 10
Lionel Richie Can’t Slow Down 1983 10
ZZ Top Eliminator 1983 10
Van Halen 1984 1984 10
Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA 1984 15
Madonna Like a Virgin 1984 10
Prince Purple Rain 1984 13
Phil Collins No Jacket Required 1985 12
Whitney Houston Whitney Houston 1985 13
Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet 1986 12
Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill 1986 10
Various Artists Dirty Dancing Soundtrack 1987 11
Def Leppard Hysteria 1987 12
George Michael Faith 1987 10
U2 The Joshua Tree 1987 10
Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction 1988 18
Garth Brooks Garth Brooks 1989 10
Hammer Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em 1990 10
Garth Brooks No Fences 1990 17
Garth Brooks Ropin’ the Wind 1991 14
Pearl Jam Ten 1991 13
Metallica The Black Album) 1991 16
Nirvana Nevermind 1991 10
Kenny G Breathless 1992 12
Various Artists The Bodyguard Soundtrack 1992 17
Mariah Carey Music Box 1993 10
Hootie and the Blowfish Cracked Rear View 1994 16
Boyz II Men II 1994 12
Various Artists The Lion King Soundtrack 1994 10
Shania Twain The Woman In Me 1994 12
Green Day Dookie 1994 10
Mariah Carey Daydream 1995 10
Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill 1995 16
Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995 10
TLC CrazySexyCool 1995 11
Matchbox 20 Yourself or Someone Like You 1996 12
Celine Dion Falling Into You 1996 11
No Doubt Tragic Kingdom 1996 10
2Pac All Eyez on Me 1996 10
Garth Brooks Sevens 1997 10
Various Artists Titanic Soundtrack 1997 11
Celine Dion Let’s Talk About Love 1997 10
Backstreet Boys Backstreet Boys 1997 14
Jewel Pieces of You 1997 12
Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death 1997 10
Shania Twain Come On Over 1997 20
*NSYNC ‘N Sync 1998 10
Dixie Chicks Wide Open Spaces 1998 12
Creed Human Clay 1999 11
Santana Supernatural 1999 15
Britney Spears …Baby One More Time 1999 14
Backstreet Boys Millennium 1999 13
Kid Rock Devil Without a Cause 1999 11
Dixie Chicks Fly 1999 10
Britney Spears Oops! I Did It Again 2000 10
*NSYNC No Strings Attached 2000 11
Linkin Park Hybrid Theory 2000 10
Nelly Country Grammar 2000 10
Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP 2000 10
Shania Twain Up! 2002 11
Norah Jones Come Away With Me 2002 10
Eminem The Eminem Show 2002 10
OutKast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below 2003 11
Usher Confessions 2004 10
Adele 21 2011 14
Adele 25 2015 10

Media analysis and the lack of production-focused frameworks

When I first started to devise the Lean Media framework for media production, I expected to encounter others working on similar methodologies. So far, though, I have yet to find any structured frameworks that are expressly about making media.

That’s not to say that media people don’t think about what we do. We in the media have long been prone to reflection and analysis. By definition, we like to communicate with others, and express our ideas and creativity. We also enjoy explaining our visions and goals, and dissecting the work of others.

Until recently, media analysis was heavily focused on meaning and impact. There once was a class of professional media critics whose responsibilities included reviewing and analyzing new books, albums, TV shows, and videogames. I used to be very familiar with the way media critics worked, because at one time I was the editor of a weekly newspaper arts and entertainment supplement and had to write many such reviews myself. Our focus was usually the quality or significance of various works, and occasionally the processes used by creators. As you might expect, our opinions were filtered through our subjective biases, which were closely tied to popular or respected styles.

Meanwhile, in the op-ed sections of newspapers and magazines, the political and social pundits have long opined upon the societal impact of specific media works or entire genres. The pieces are almost always critical. One month it might be a screed against political bias in the news, followed the next month by a warning against the negative influences of violent video games or offensive music. There is often a nostalgic sheen to such pieces, contrasting the depravity of current works with the noble qualities of media from past ages. The hand-wringing over “Fake News” is the latest manifestation of this trend.

As an undergraduate at the Boston University College of Communication in the late 1980s, I was exposed to a third type of analysis, centered on the research, theories, and big ideas about media. At the time, there was a great deal of scholarly concern over how film and broadcast programming influenced people (perhaps as a result of the nonstop criticism in the popular press). In our Mass Communications lectures, we learned about the “magic bullet” theory, which tried to explain how messages in mass media impact audiences, as well as other ideas about the dissemination and acceptance of information via popular media.

The lectures, which were led by top journalism and communication scholars, would be peppered with references to Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and other communications scholars. Seminars would be more focused on a specific topic—for instance, in a class on television programming, we would pick apart Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Film studies would feature heavy duty analysis of the classics, such as Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane. It was all very interesting, but also very intellectual and abstract.

When it came to production-focused classes, it was a different world. The theoretical arguments from Mass Communications 101 did not have a place in the studios and darkrooms scattered around campus. Our instructors imparted lessons on the hard practicalities of writing a news story, positioning cameras for a television program, or learning how to read the ratings scorecard for Boston-area radio programs. There was also an emphasis on basic skills, from fact-checking a news story to achieving the right contrast in a scene for a film project. Recognizing that technology was advancing at an increasingly rapid pace, they tried to instill in us a flexibility toward the methods and mediums we might encounter, while encouraging a willingness to experiment. There were many opportunities for hands-on work, whether it was writing a documentary script, designing a marketing campaign for a fictitious radio station, or setting up a broadcasting studio for a new program.

As it was difficult to reconcile the heavy duty theory from the classroom with the practicalities of producing media, there was an opening for a practical framework (or even frameworks) for media producers. It took a few decades and exposure to some cutting-edge ideas from high-tech, but the Lean Media framework is now available for creators and producers to use.

Lean Media book update: Starting the third draft!

Lean Media book draft

The Lean Media book project is still on track. In November, I wrapped up the second draft and sent it out to a group of beta readers including media professionals and lay readers. I am now synthesizing their feedback and determining what parts need to be brought back into the third draft. There are some common themes that came up, including:

  • Request for more visuals
  • Lighten up on the business school background
  • Boost contemporary Lean Media examples

These are areas that I intend to address in the third draft. There were also many other suggestions about specific parts of the draft, some of which I will incorporate and others that shall be ignored. Keep in mind that Lean Media feedback doesn’t entail following every whim of test audiences. It’s up to the creative team (myself and my editor) to determine the core vision or focus of the book and improve the media based on what we think matters most.

Surrogate Audiences and Lean Media

The following draft chapter needs your feedback! Please leave comments below or contact the author at

Regardless of whether they use Lean Media methods or not, media pros frequently rely upon surrogate audiences to understand the market for new media.

Surrogate audiences are groups of people who like media that’s similar to what you are working on. Let’s say you are producing a new TV show, Rodent World, which explores the exciting lives of squirrels, mice, rabbits, and chipmunks. People who follow an existing program on another network called Extreme Rodents are a surrogate audience. An understanding of what makes them tick may help you and your team as you build out Rodent World.

Or, if you are developing a new blog about mutual funds, you could turn to the audience of a website that you used to work on that covered the stock market. There is an assumption that if people liked your previous work, then surely they (or people like them) will become fans of whatever new, similar work that you are developing now.

When media people say, “I understand audiences” or “I know what the public wants” they are actually referring to surrogate audiences, as opposed to an established audience of an existing work. There are even a small number of experienced media professionals—people on the caliber of filmmaker Steven Spielberg or reality television producer Mark Burnett—who are so in touch with surrogate audiences’ tastes and their own teams’ creative talents that they are able to crank out a seemingly nonstop string of hits over periods of many decades.

Music executive L.A. Reid, who helped produce and/or develop a long string of hit artists including TLC, Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Meghan Trainor, calls himself a “superconsumer” who knows and respects the tastes of the music-listening public. The Reids and Spielbergs of the world have a sixth sense for understanding the intangible elements that audiences desire, and are able to craft media that satisfies them. However, there are risks in making assumptions based on surrogate audiences, as we shall shortly see.

Why use surrogate audiences?

Surrogate audiences are an attractive alternative to using test audiences or market research. They remove a lot of guesswork about audience preferences and behavior. Often, surrogate audiences can illustrate trends or point the way to an audience hit.

Some readers may remember The Monkees, a mid-60s TV sitcom about a hapless Los Angeles pop band. The Monkees was a totally manufactured band, devised by TV executives and recruited by Hollywood talent scouts. The idea was inspired by a growing interest in rock music. The surrogate audience consisted of millions of young people who listened to easygoing pop bands such as The Beach Boys and Herman’s Hermits and laughed at the goofy Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.

While the members of The Monkees could all play instruments, they never built up a grassroots following by playing clubs, touring, or self-recording singles for the radio. For the first two years they didn’t even write their own music—they simply played tunes that had been written for them by studio professionals.

The Hollywood entertainment executives who devised The Monkees took a gamble by assuming that the surrogate audience—fans of real mid-60s pop bands—would like the fake band presented on television. They were right. The tunes were catchy, the TV scripts were good, and the four actors clicked. Audiences loved them. The Monkees became such a sensation that the music eventually overshadowed the TV show, with recording and touring continuing after the TV series had ended.

Another example of surrogate audiences leading to success involves the craze for adult coloring books. It was a bizarre idea that enjoyed success in the 1960s as a mildly subversive pastime, then exploded once again in the early teens following the release of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and several other titles released by European publishers. Buyers liked the nostalgic and soothing themes, and publishers and illustrators in other countries took notice. Many were rewarded for their efforts, with tens or even hundreds of thousands units sold. The popularity of the adult coloring books category was cited as one of the reasons overall printed book sales experienced a recovery in the United States in 2015.

Making assumptions based on surrogate audiences can be tricky, though. Maybe it is difficult to market to a surrogate audience, because another media entity controls the audience. Or perhaps the new media does not resonate because the field is too crowded. For instance, news websites that have tried to mimic the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have found that audiences are hard to connect with because the leaders are well-established and there is too much free news available online.

Another scenario in which surrogate assumptions can backfire: Audiences don’t care for the new product because the intangible qualities that made the original media so great are not present. Hollywood is famous for producing sequels that don’t have the magic of the original (Jurassic Park III, anyone?) or are poor “me-too” clones that simply are not very special. Bands often worry about the “sophomore slump,” so-called because of the tendency of second albums failing to live up to audience expectations after an exceptional debut effort.

Then there is the problem of audiences moving on. Korean singer Psy scored a global hit with “Gangnam Style,” but his similarly catchy and goofy follow-up “Gentleman” couldn’t match the success of his earlier hit.

The craze for vampire-themed TV shows and books peaked around 2011 and faded as teen audiences turned to The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction. Angry Birds was the hot mobile game of 2010, but a few years later it was impossible to get audiences excited about sequels, much less Angry Bird: The Movie which was released in the summer of 2016 and quickly disappeared from view.

Finally, a big problem with making assumptions based on surrogate audiences is it gives short shrift to the creative soul of the team. Producing media turns into an exercise of copying other ideas or returning to the same formula that worked the last time. Certainly there is an expectation of continuity in serial media or follow-up efforts. But trying to please a surrogate audiences often leads to a lackluster creative effort that is drab and uninspiring.

How different industries refer to prototypes

The following post is excerpted from my draft manuscript about Lean Media. Please leave comments below to help me improve the draft!

Looking at the Lean Media flowchart, some creators may be aghast at the use of “prototype” to describe early or incomplete versions of a work in progress:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.6, including idea, prototypes, and soft launch stages

The concern is understandable. The term comes from the engineering world, and suggests something that is mechanical or physical in nature. A prototype is essentially a basic working version of a product that is used to test concepts, materials, or performance. How can this term possibly apply to early versions of a media work?

There is actually a long history of media borrowing or sharing terminology from technical fields. Consider the following examples:

  • A model is a non-functional representation of a product that can help engineering teams visualize design elements and identify potential issues related to fabrication. The term is also used by photographers, illustrators and the publishers they work with.
  • Demonstration models are polished versions of products that can be shown to prospective customers in a showroom or exposition hall. The term is also used in the software industry to refer to a rudimentary application that has basic functionality which can be demonstrated to users or customers. In the music industry, an artist might record a “demo” in his or her home studio to distribute to prospective collaborators, record labels, or performance venues.
  • In the software industry, a wireframe outlines basic interface elements such as buttons and selectors. The term is widely used in the world of website design.
  • A software alpha is a working version of an application used for internal testing to identify bugs and rough edges. Beta software is more fully-featured and customer-ready, and is frequently available for customers to try out in real-world situations. The two terms are widely used in website and video game design.
  • Software engineers use a decimal-based numbering system to describe builds, or iterations of the product. Alpha versions might be numbered 0.1 or 0.2. A beta version of the software would be numbered 0.9, with patches indicated by an additional decimal (0.9.1, 0.9.2, etc.). The public releases would start at 1.0, and gradually incremented to reflect bug fixes, new features, or other improvements. Major new releases would occur at 2.0, 3.0, etc. Some publications and websites have adopted a similar terminology to indicate advanced coverage of a topic (such as the magazine Business 2.0). The system has parallels to the Opus numbering system, which assigns numbers to works of classical music in the order they are produced by composers.

Media terms for prototypes

However, not all engineering terms have media equivalents. Media professionals rely on their own terminology to describe works in progress. The terms are often unique to specific formats:

  • In the book industry, authors and editors work with outlines, drafts, and manuscripts. Publishers will generate printed proofs to review the text, typography, and binding.
  • In a recording studio, a take designates a single instance of a recording of a song without any post-production. A rough mix refers to a recording that has a minimal amount of post-production adjustments of vocals, instruments, percussion, and other sounds. The producer and/or engineer will carefully calibrate the final mix, before sending it off to a special engineer who creates the master that will be encoded for digital distribtution to the public.
  • Film professionals work with screenplays, scripts, and storyboards at the early stages of a production. Once shooting starts, the director, actors, and other people on the team can look at the dailies and rough cuts.

Because there are so many terms used across different mediums, I have opted to use “prototype” to describe early versions of new media prior to the soft launch. Not only is it easy to understand, it also conveys the iterative nature of Lean Media projects. The first prototypes will be very rough, but over many iterations may reach a fairly polished state. Polished prototypes make it easier to gather useful feedback from test audiences, but it is still possible to leverage early prototypes, as we will see below.

Understanding the other stages of Lean Media

The other terms used in the Lean Media flowchart are not difficult to understand.

  • The idea can be a simple proposal, description, outline, sketch, or wireframe that can be discussed by the core team and perhaps a small number of potential audience members.
  • You may have heard the term soft launch used in connection with the release of new software titles or physical products. Firms conducting soft launches quietly release their products to a small group of customers in order to gauge interest, tweak features, and adjust marketing before the formal rollout.

In a Lean Media context, the soft launch version is in a final or near-final state and is available to the public. It can quietly launched to a subset of the marketplace, such as a limited geographic area or a single distribution channel. Or it can be launched in connection with a major marketing campaign across the entire country. However, unlike media that takes the traditional big launch approach, creators using a Lean Media soft launch will pay close attention to audience feedback and make changes to the media as needed.