Habit: a formula for success in tricky times
Over the last few weeks we have had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of business leaders to understand how they are adapting to the current crisis. These range from global corporates to early stage start-ups across media, information, technology and entertainment – or MITE. Even with such a broad range of organisations, there’s a common thread that unites them.
It sort of works as an equation – and though it may not offer a panacea, it may be a predictive shorthand for which companies will come out of the crisis strongest.
We think you can boil it down to this: Community + Content + Delivery = Habit.
(Reductive, we know: but this is a blog, not a book, and we only have a thousand words.)
First, let’s start with the right-hand side of the equation: the answer.
All MITE businesses depend on habit. We need people to have regular patterns of behaviour in order that we can predict sales. Some models have this baked in: subscriptions, whether SaaS, B2B or consumer, are increasingly the holy grail. But other models which superficially don’t have the same mechanism – newsstand titles, book publishing, cinema – still rely on the habit of people regularly visiting their local shops or reading reviews or turning to their screens at certain times. Habits which shape consumption decisions.
The challenge of C-19 is that it is changing user habits incredibly quickly. In those 100+ conversations, almost everyone has spoken about the increased urgency to evolve their strategy.
The winners will be those who can turn these new habits into longer-standing patterns of behaviour. So the question is: what creates user habit?
We have always said that what unites our different sectors is that they have an audience: whether readers, professional groups, theatregoers, or gamers. But this is only the start of it. A successful MITE business has to do more than just serve up content or services to its audience: it really needs to fundamentally understand what that audience wants in the circumstances of the day, and how that audience wants it delivered.
Across the MITE sector, audience is the key. But the best way to serve an audience is to think of it as your community. During this troubled time, being able to serve them content or product which they find useful or which improves their work or quality of life will serve you well. Even if you can’t monetise it, show them you are on their side. The impact on your brand will be positive. But you need to give them what they want, not just what you have – which leads us to:
Even before Covid, the MITE businesses which were failing were the businesses which have failed to invest in content. For some businesses – notably pure software – ‘content’ might be read as ‘product’. But the principle is the same: without good product, in an increasingly demanding market, you will fail. The pandemic has only exacerbated this.
Too many MITE businesses, when faced with challenging economic circumstances, have cut back on content providers: even now, TV businesses and many publishing businesses are slashing production budgets. Sensible in the short term perhaps, but potentially disastrous in the long term.
As a sector, we have often made the mistake of ‘watering down the beer’ every time we have a problem. The trouble with that is that if the beer is poor, fewer people will come to your pub. So you water it down more. And even fewer will come next week. Eventually, you are serving water and no-one is coming.
Of course, you need to balance immediate economic reality with the likely long-term return. But without a product that serves your audience and creates a community, you will lose out when people start to make tough choices. And if you have let down your community with poor product, you won’t have an audience when the market returns.
In many ways, this is the trickiest part: we’re not just talking UX here, but the very fundamentals about understanding by which mechanisms you can deliver your product, with what regularity, in what format, on what platform…
Innovation is not just about content – it is as much about delivery. And that doesn’t just mean a digital version of an old format, or a fancy upgrade. True innovation comes from a deep understanding of the audience through real customer discovery processes. And it comes from the bravery to act upon the results of that research.
The phrase “customer discovery and innovation”* underpins all this. You cannot truly innovate in content or delivery without understanding your existing and potential customers. But so many MITE businesses still operate on a principle of ‘build it and they will come.’ This is not sustainable.
COMMUNITY + CONTENT + DELIVERY = HABIT
What the pandemic has done is thrown each of the elements of left-hand side of the equation into question: people have discovered that they belong to communities they didn’t expect; so they have sought out content and products they had never previously needed; and they are trialling new ways of interacting with this material. And they are finding that some of these are actually better than the old way of doing things. New habits are forming quicker, across all generations, and at all workplaces, than at any recent time.
SO MUCH FOR THE THEORY
This does not mean that those businesses which appear existentially challenged – for example, theatre, cinema, events – should fold up their tents. They have the first two parts of the equation in spades (last year was the best for cinema for 50 years, and theatre and events also did brilliantly) but they need to think about delivery.
The National Theatre’s YouTube roll out is a great example of this. They have a community, and they have content: through a new delivery platform they are trying to reinforce the old habits. In these cases, it is about inculcating longing. A desire to return to the old ways. It’s a valid ploy.
BALANCING THE EQUATION
Ultimately, it’s pretty simple: look after your community, give them what they need at a difficult time, and in a way they can use, and you will earn their loyalty. Don’t take them for granted, and try to move with (and develop) their habits.
Then we can all move forward into the new world. And it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.
*The phrase “customer discovery and innovation” was coined by our friend and client Terry Dawson of Digital GoToMarket while he was Head of Strategy at LexisNexis International. For more information, please visit Digital GTM’s website.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.