The Neiman report “Be the Disruptor” is a very insightful read for anyone in the media who has to think about media as a business and how to make it work.

It delivers on being an “Innovator’s Dilemma” tiny ebook focused on the media, a space that has faced some aggressive disruption even here in Africa. This means if you’ve read the Innovator’s Dilemma, it’s more a refresher read and less a discovery of new ideas.

One concept covered in depth here is the issue of Jobs to be done. It’s a way to figure out why your product is, what it should be, and how to design and distribute it. We’ll not do justice explaining it ourselves so we’ll pull as-is from the report:

The problem is that too many newsrooms’ strategies are based around exactly this assumption—that their businesses can best be explained in terms of key demographics, price points, or distribution platforms.

Instead, a better way of thinking about the business you’re in is through the lens of a theory that we call jobs-to-bedone. The basic idea is that people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution—and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service.

The key insight from thinking about your business this way is that it is the job, and not the customer or the product, that should be the fundamental unit of analysis. This applies to news as much as it does to any other service.

To illustrate the importance of focusing on jobs-to-be-done, let us give you an example in a totally different industry: the furniture store IKEA. It’s been incredibly successful: The Swedish company has been rolling out stores all over the world for the last 50 years and has global revenues in excess of $32.6 billion. So why, when there are so many furniture store chains out there, has IKEA been so successful?

A big part of it is that rather than being organized around particular products or demographic profiles, IKEA is structured around a job that many consumers confront quite often as they establish themselves and their families in new surroundings: “I’ve got to get this place furnished tomorrow, because I have to show up at work the next day.”

IKEA has made a number of strategic decisions in order to best fulfill this job. For example, IKEA stores are often built in quite distant locations. This might seem counterintuitive, but it enables IKEA to set up huge warehouses so that everything a customer needs can be purchased in one trip. IKEA offers same-day delivery; customers might not be able to fit everything they need in their cars, but they don’t want to have to make multiple trips and can’t afford to wait until tomorrow for everything to arrive. Similarly, because having children running around the store might distract them from remembering everything they need to buy, IKEA introduced day care facilities. And in case you get hungry during your shopping trip, you don’t even need to leave the premises—every IKEA store has a restaurant.

Everything IKEA does revolves around doing the job of “I need this apartment or home furnished, and I need it done quickly and efficiently.”

Let’s look at another example of a job—but this time, we will use one that the media industry is more frequently called upon to fulfill.

David is in line for his morning coffee. He’s probably got 10 minutes while he waits to order and be served. It’s going to be wasted time so David pulls out his smartphone. He opens up Twitter and scans through his feed for an interesting article. A New Yorker article catches his eye, he clicks on it, and starts reading. Just as he finishes it, the barista calls his name; his coffee is ready.

What we’ve described here is actually a huge job in the media market—“I have 10 minutes of downtime. Help me fill it with something interesting or entertaining.” David chose to hire Twitter, but he could have hired a newspaper that was lying around the coffee shop. Or he could have hired a game off the App Store. Or perhaps he could have started replying to his e-mail.

Understanding the world through the lens of jobs-to-be-done gives us an incredible insight into people’s behavior.

Next time you’re sitting in a doctor’s office, watch all the people with exactly this job: “I’ve got 10 minutes to kill; help me fill it.” Traditionally, the office would help patients fulfill this job by leaving magazines in the waiting room. Nowadays, many patients find this job is better fulfilled by their smartphones or iPads—allowing them to curate and read the articles and websites that are of interest to them, rather than relying on the office manager’s taste in magazines. Before the smartphone, magazines were popular because they were competing almost entirely with non-consumption: if patients didn’t pick up the magazines, they were left sitting there with nothing to do. But compared to a random magazine, getting to read what they’re interested in on their portable device is a vastly superior choice.

Similarly, the job of “I have 10 minutes to spare. Help me fill it with something interesting or entertaining” arises on David’s commute home when he’s on the subway. He finished his New Yorker article from this morning, but unfortunately, Twitter isn’t an option now because his cell phone doesn’t work underground. At this point, for millions of commuters all around the world, one name pops into their heads: Metro.

When Metro was first introduced, it didn’t try to compete head on with the incumbent papers. In fact, for most high-end consumers of newspapers, it is vastly inferior. Yet despite this, and while virtually every newspaper has had its readership decline as a result of the explosion of information available on the Internet, Metro now has over 67 daily editions in 22 countries.

How has it done it? Well, it has targeted the job that has arisen in David’s life. And it just so happens that every day, millions of people around the world also have this exact job.

It’s much easier to understand the success of Metro when you view it through the lens of job-to-be-done. The job of “help me fill the time” is a widespread one, but folks who are on their way home from a day at work are focused on one thing: getting home from work as quickly as they can. Until they get on that train, their willingness to stop for anything—including to pay for a paper—is probably pretty low.

However, hand them a paper without asking them to pay for it, and chances are, they’ll take it from you. With that in mind, the Metro was made a “freesheet”—the cost of producing it is subsidized entirely by advertising from businesses hoping to target commuters. The stories are intentionally made short, punchy and easy to read. The aim? Allow readers to complete the paper (and expose them to all the ads) within 20 minutes—which Metro worked out was the average time spent on a train commute home. With a traditional newspaper, a copy left behind on a seat means the next reader gets it for free, depriving the paper of revenue.

In contrast, a Metro reader who picks up a copy left behind has just saved the newspaper the cost of distributing one more paper. By targeting the job-to-bedone, Metro has dramatically bucked the trend of declining circulation.

This is just one very simple example of a job that arises multiple times in pretty much everyone’s life every day.

So how can you find these jobs?

Asking the right questions

As managers think about what their news organization can do to thrive in a changing world, they must ask:

  • What is the job audiences want done?
  • What kinds of employees and structure does the company need so it can fulfill that job-to-be-done?
  • What is the best way to deliver that information to audiences?

One way to figure out what jobs the audience wants to be done is to look at what successful competitors have accomplished and then ask what people were trying to do when they hired the competitor. Craigslist, for example, is a network of websites that feature generally free online classified advertisements with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, items for sale, and so on. The site, founded in 1995, currently covers 70 countries. Craig Newmark created Craigslist because he intuitively understood audiences’ frustration with classifiedsin newspapers. If a consumer wanted to post a classified ad in a newspaper, he had to pay (usually by the line) for a listing that might be buried between dozens of similar entries. It was frustrating for buyers and sellers to find a match. It wasn’t easy to search. You’d have to put your phone number in the listing, and you’d often get calls even after the sale had taken place. And, in a digital world, it was slow—ads would take a day or more to post. Craigslist has been hugely successful because it does a better job than traditional news organizations of providing classifieds by making listings easily discoverable, by making it easy to hide your e-mail address, and by allowing consumers to post for free in real time.

Another way is to simply watch people and get a deep understanding of how they live their lives. Both Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony Corp., were famous for disparaging market research. Part of the reason is that too often, consumers are unable to articulate exactly what it is they are looking for, their thinking constrained by the solutions that already exist in the market. The approach Morita took at Sony? “Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do.” This idea might seem contrary to how many large media businesses are run—but it can be hugely valuable in generating insight for new business opportunities.

Successful companies understand the jobs that arise in people’s lives and develop products that do the jobs perfectly. And if a company does this, customers will instinctively “pull” the product into their lives whenever that job arises.

The jobs are consistent—it’s the products that change

What’s very interesting about the jobs that consumers want done is that they are consistent over time. As industries are disrupted, different products emerge that are better able to complete the job—but the job stays the same.

The camera market is a great example. The success of digital pointand-shoot cameras was driven by them addressing a job that frequently occurred in consumer’s lives: “I want to capture this moment, and share it.” Given most peoples’ budgets, digital point-and-shoot cameras fulfilled the job quite well, particularly in comparison to their filmbased forebears.

However, competitors who are better focused on the job that people hire cameras for are now killing the digital point-and-shoot camera.

Five years ago, cameras on smartphones, music players, and other small multipurpose devices were vastly inferior to most digital point-and-shoot cameras. However, the cameras on these devices had one big advantage: You would almost always have one of them with you. While digital point-and-shoot cameras were quite small, they were still bulky enough that you would think twice about carrying one in your pocket. If you knew a moment for a photo was going to arise, then you’d probably be willing to put up with it. But if an unexpected opportunity for a photo arose, then chances are you probably didn’t have your camera with you.

Given the fact that the job of capturing a moment would arise in consumers’ lives whether they had their camera with them or not, many people found themselves increasingly hiring the cameras on their phones. Manufacturers realized this, and sales of phones and other devices that had a camera in them exploded. This, in turn, enabled manufacturers to significantly narrow the photo quality gap between their products and point-and-shoot cameras.

But what has really turned the screws on the point-and-shoot camera is the other part of the job that consumers hire the devices for—sharing. Photos taken on smartphones and other media devices can now be instantly uploaded to online services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You don’t have to go home, plug the camera in, and download the photos so you can then upload them to share on the Internet or over e-mail. You can do it instantly, right from the device.

Now, there are still going to be those times when we know the job will arise, and we’re not satisfied with the quality that a phone camera will take. These are the times when we would have hired a digital point-and-shoot for the job. But in this instance, the pointand-shoot camera has been squeezed from the other direction—by a drop in the price of digital SLR cameras and the emergence of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Today, for three figures, you can purchase a camera that is more sophisticated than cameras that used to cost five figures. These new cameras take photos that are vastly superior to a point-and-shoot, and they continue to get cheaper, smaller and easier to carry.

Usage statistics released by the photosharing website Flickr demonstrate the appeal of cameras at the low and high ends of the market, with the point-and-shoot losing ground. The most popular cameras for posting photos on Flickr are smartphone cameras. And the most popular non-smartphone camera on Flickr isn’t a point-and-shoot, but rather the Canon EOS 5D Mark II—a high-end digital SLR.

While the middle-of-the-road pointand-shoot was once the best solution for the job given most peoples’ budgets, that is no longer true. As the technology has evolved, alternatives have come to market that are better able to fulfill the job of consumers. As long as the pointand-shoot manufacturers continue to compete against each other rather than refocus on the job that their product gets hired to do, we predict their market share will continue to erode.

The eroding ‘middle ground’ for news As with cameras, journalism’s “middle ground” has eroded as new products have appeared at either end of the market for news and information. At the low end, products and services like Metro and Twitter are serving consumers whose need is simply “Help me fill this 10 minutes right now.” If you were to look at the market only by industry segment, you’d think that Twitter’s key competitor is Facebook. However, we would argue that far from just competing with Facebook, Twitter is also competing with news and media organizations in fulfilling jobs that millions of people around the world have every day.

At the other end of the spectrum, for the job of “I will be in an airplane or on a train for four hours, and I want to be intellectually stimulated,” sites like Longreads and tools like Instapaper and Pocket (formerly Read It Later)—the latter of which now boasts more than 5 million users—are enabling users to find and save longer-form storytelling for offline viewing. These tools strip out ads, creating a visually appealing, consistent and customized equivalent of a weekend newspaper or a periodical. And they aren’t just competing against other apps and websites, but against an airline’s in-flight entertainment system, The New Yorker, or a book.

Ultimately, when a company gets it right, audiences will reward them for satisfying a job they have in their life. As managers at media organizations consider instituting changes to their business model—perhaps by charging for content that they previously freely provided online—they should ask whether their organization is doing such an outstanding job of satisfying consumers’ needs that consumers will pay for their content. This is particularly the case if you’re in a commoditized space where other organizations are providing very similar content for free. In addition, it’s critical to avoid falling into the trap  of believing that you can charge for content just because it costs money to produce.

Instead, the content must be so compelling that users will pay for it. This requires targeting the right jobs.

Once managers establish what jobs consumers want done, a series of new questions arises for managers: How can they improve their existing products so  they perform the job better than any other competitor? What existing products are no longer competitively viable in serving customers’ jobs-to-be-done and should be cut? And finally: What new products could be introduced that address a different job-to-be-done for their audience—or perhaps a new audience altogether?

You can also download the whole report directly here.

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