Let me illustrate the “fat launch” mindset with an example. In the mid-1990s, a Taiwanese broadcaster hired me to help produce a daily English-language television newscast. Why have an English TV show in a market that had more than 20 million Mandarin and Taiwanese speakers, but only a small population of foreigners residing in the country? There were several strategic drivers:
- The political leadership (which controlled Taiwan’s terrestrial broadcasters) wanted to transform Taiwan into an international business hub, and thought that English-language media would help improve Taiwan’s image.
- The broadcaster believed there was a large enough audience to support such a program (and until advertising or some other funding source came online, the broadcaster was willing to subsidize the experiment).
The broadcaster devoted a lot of resources to the newscast. It reassigned several reporters, camera operators, and editors to work on the program, and hired two anchors, three translators, and a producer/narrator/scriptwriter (me). It was actually a great team, and we worked well together. We were told to follow a standard television news format, and were given an early morning weekday slot. We had a few weeks to get some processes in place and do a few dry runs, and then we launched. As part of the fat launch marketing, there was some local press coverage and other promotions. But the program itself was never shown to test audiences before the launch date.
After the launch, we didn’t really know what our target audience thought of the program, because ratings weren’t available for a few months. When we asked our expatriate friends for their opinions, more often than not the response was, “I couldn’t get up at 6:30 in the morning to watch it.”
When the ratings finally did come in, it was clearly a disaster. Very few people were watching the program—the ratings for the program were less than 1 percent. A lack of eyeballs meant few advertisers were interested.
The team tweaked some elements of the newscast in an attempt to make it more appealing. Later, we were able to expand the audience thanks to distribution on a local airline. It wasn’t enough, and the station management eventually lost interest in the newscast. We were shifted to an even earlier slot, if I recall correctly. Two years after the English news program launched, the broadcaster pulled the plug.
When the cancellation was announced, I believed the failure could be attributed to the fact that there wasn’t a big enough audience in Taiwan for a daily English newscast. There simply weren’t that many English-speaking expatriates in Taiwan. But after hearing Ries’ talk, I began to see the failure in a whole new light.
Forget prototyping or audience surveys. We created a professionally produced (and expensive) program, based on a format that seemed safe to media executives and advisors seated around a conference room table.
Audience feedback: The only feedback we sought at the beginning was internal. There were no focus groups to help identify problems or guide program development. Further, once the newscast launched, we largely ignored the limited feedback that we did get, such as the complaint that the program was too early or most of our audience consisted of local people who wanted to study English.
Even if we had taken a lean approach to developing the program, it wouldn’t have guaranteed success. However, doing so would have potentially headed off a very expensive experiment, and perhaps even led to an interesting product focused more on the needs of our actual audience — English language learners!
In fact, around the same time a local media company created a very successful franchise that established a daily English language television tutorial (complete with skits featuring native speakers) and a companion publication that grew to hundreds of thousands of subscribers. It arguably has done more to help Taiwan’s international business credentials by helping local people speak English.
If I had to do it all over again, what would I do differently?
As a low-level member of the production team, my options would be limited. The directive had come from on up high: The network must create an English newscast. There was nothing I or anyone else on the team could do to change that directive. However, there was some flexibility to make changes on the ground, especially after the network lost interest in the project.
This is a common situation. The company president or the director of programming or some other senior business/creative person drives the project forward, based on his/her understanding of strategic needs or creative priorities or market sense. If the launch goes poorly or some other project clamors for resources, that’s when the executives’ attention begins to wander.
A disengaged boss certainly makes it much harder to ask for additional resources (in fact, the team will often see staff, marketing budgets, and other resources moved to other projects). However, the production team may find itself with more freedom to tinker with the formula or experiment with certain aspects of the product.
At the Taiwanese television network, we did a fair amount of experimentation within the bounds of covering the news. One of the anchors did some short documentary-style features. The translators started to use a wider variety of news sources for their reports. I found myself going out on shoots with the reporters. I once even convinced a cameraman to lend me his gear so I could tape a report from a Pearl Jam concert!
But we largely failed to use audience feedback as the basis for changes. Although the basic newscast format could not be altered, we could have done more to serve the audience of local English-language learners. The low-hanging fruit would have been adding captions. We might have been able to lobby midlevel management to let us create a new segment later in the newscast that explained (in Mandarin) certain concepts or English words.
If the program were broadcast today, there would be all kinds of opportunities to leverage the Web, mobile phones, and other tools to serve this audience. Some ideas that spring to mind include online vocabulary lists, short video segments featuring the anchors or other television personalities, or some sort of “English news flashcards” app. These would not require large resources to try out, and metrics and audience feedback could let us improve the ideas that work while killing the projects that failed to catch hold.
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