How to Fail Online from the Seduction of Induction

It’s a different medium, so why do you think that the same content will work in it?

As simple as that question might appear when other people are asked it, have you ever asked it to yourself as you ponder what your traditional media company is doing online or mobile?

I hammer that question at the media company executives who the late psychologist Abraham Maslow might have meant when he observed “When all you own is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.”

I don’t know of a newspaper that isn’t looking for ways to put its traditional printed contents online and on mobile phones. Neither do I know a women’s magazine that isn’t trying to do the same. And I don’t know a TV or radio station or network that isn’t trying it, too. The contents from one medium will automatically work on any other medium, right?

Wrong. The mistake is called inductive reasoning. And inductive reasoning loves company. Your media company, for example.

Permit me to give you an academic explanation about how unconscious use of induction can lead your media company astray online. I’ll then provide an examples and a bit of advice about how to avoid inductive mistakes.

Inductive reasoning starts with a presumption. The presumption for most media companies is that if a new medium looks in some way like an old medium, then that new medium will be capable of doing everything that the old medium does. Romance novel authors have their own term for this inductive reasoning — they call it wishful thinking. The reasoning goes something like this:

O is similar to P.
P has the attribute A.
Therefore, O must have the attribute A.

In this case, O means online, P means print (or broadcast), and A means the ability to do what your media company has done for decades. Online looks somewhat like print or broadcast, doesn’t it? So, it must have the same capabilities as print or broadcast, right?

If that were true, then this conclusion would be, too: Steve Jobs is male, wears glasses, and was born the same year as Bill Gates. Bill Gates loves Microsoft Vista. Therefore, Steve Jobs must love Microsoft Vista.

Though a Web page might look somewhat like paper and a computer display monitor might look like a television, they aren’t paper or a TV fed by dialup, DSL, cable, or a fiber optic line. So, why do you conclude that much, or even most, of what your media company does in print or broadcast will work on the Web?

You can try to induce the Web to be like paper or cable TV. Maybe you’ll partly succeed. But you won’t be anywhere as successful as if you instead had tried to deduce what the Web does and create services based upon deduction rather than presumption. Avoid induction, use deduction. You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell you how elementary that is.

For example, an editor recently asked me to help his newspaper publish its local news on mobile phones. “How can I fit a city council meeting story on such a small screen?” he asked. I question why he’d even want to send city council meeting stories to mobile phones. “Because those are the types of stories that newspapers publish and cell phones can now display texts,” he replied. He was laboring under the presumption that if a new medium looks in some way like an old medium (in this case, it can display texts), then that new medium will be capable of doing everything that the old medium does.

As a consultant, I get paid to state the obvious, namely that nobody but the most bored policy wonks trapped in malfunctioning city buses would use the tiny screen of a cell phone to read a 500-word city council story. Channeling “Lou Grant” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Grant_(TV_series)], the editor asked me, “So what the hell are we supposed to do with mobile?”

What we can do with mobile is deduce that it has small screens; that people use their phones mainly while they are mobile; and that most Americans are mobile by automobile. So, find some popular content that will find on that small screen and be most useful when mobile, even when in an automobile.

I reminded him that, in this era when Americans are awakening to higher gasoline prices, among the most read content in his printed newspaper was a page-two box that lists the locations of the four least expensive gasoline stations in his city that day. I suggested that his newspaper register a mobile phone short code number or name (such as “fillup,” which is still available as I write this column) and program his newspaper’s Internet server to send the list of least expensive gas stations to anyone you texts a message to FILLUP. A mobile phone short code costs $500 per month, so have a car dealer, fast food restaurant, or some other advertiser related to mobility sponsor the service, I suggested.

“But that’s not the type of story newspaper generally publish,” he pronounced. No, but even the reporters who wrote the city council meeting story will thank him next time their cars’ low fuel lights glow, I told him.

“But what about the city council story?” he lamented. Forget it, I replied. Leave that legacy content for legacy media or maybe the Web. Stop trying to induce that all your content from one medium can be used in all other media. Instead, deduce what can work in a new medium and do just that.

Though the example I used involved a newspaper, the same holds true for trade journals, women’s magazines, broadcast programming, or any other form of legacy media.

Don’t let inductive reasoning seduce you. Stop trying to shoehorn one medium’s content into another. Being an “all-media company doesn’t mean yours should try “repurposing” the same content everywhere. The seduction of it will just induce headaches and failures.

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