The question may sound excessively controversial, but perhaps less so when worded in another way:


Where should the product development balance be struck between consumer wants and business imperatives?


All consumer products should meet the needs of the target consumers right?  Well yes and no.  Of course if you fail to meet consumer needs a product will fail.  But at the same time not every consumer demand can be met, certainly not at a price that those same consumers would be willing to pay.  For consumer product managers at consumer electronic companies these will be highly familiar concerns.  But now media companies are finding themselves thrust into a product manager’s crash course. 


Throughout the peak years traditional media companies didn’t have to worry too much about product innovation.  They focused on their core competencies of developing great content, and then marketing and programming it.  In the age of the Media Meltdown though those assets alone just aren’t enough.  The fundamentals of many media products need wholesale review (see my previous post for some specific analysis from the music perspective.)  But most media companies will find themselves needing to take a much more proactive role in this process. 


This is because media companies can’t rely on the technology companies to do the product innovation for them anymore.

Historically technology companies have driven the format evolution of media consumption e.g. record player, the Compact Cassette, the CD, VHS, the DVD, High Definition TV etc. Typically the media companies had to play a hasty game of catch up as they worked out what business models they could build around them (and they didn’t always do so willingly cf cassettes, VHS) but the outcome was almost always a new premium media product.  Which in turn normally drove unprecedented revenue growth.  Now though, a major change has occurred. 


Now that all content is (or can be) digitized for, and by, consumers the focus of technology companies is on creating devices that enable convenient consumption and management of that digital content. 

The subtle but crucial difference is that this technology is no longer dependent on a centrally controlled, formal source of content supplied by the media companies.  A record player and a CD player were both close to useless unless you bought some prerecorded music to play on them. An iPod works just fine as a music player even if you've never spent a penny on music in your life – it's just as great an experience whether you download from UseNet or buy CDs from Amazon.  New technology innovation doesn’t any longer create obvious product opportunities for media companies.


There is a clear need for technology companies and media companies to establish new types of partnerships and deeper working relationships to ensure that they can ultimately better meet their business needs.  Otherwise you end up with half hearted efforts such as the iTunes album.


Yet in the face of rampant free alternatives, how can a media company develop products that deliver enough value at a cheap enough price (perhaps even free to consumer)?  The cold harsh reality is that free illegal alternatives will always beat a legitimate service on price and will probably trump it on content depth also.  There are though other ways media companies can differentiate.  Regular readers will know that we've been developing a framework for digital content product development based on The 4Cs of Digital Content: Content, Convenience, Cost and Community. Media product innovation based around these 4 principles will be the media companies' ticket out of the Media Meltdown.


To this end Forrester is kicking off a series of Music Product Innovation reports that will put forward some very specific concepts of what future media products should look like.  The first one will be published soon and is entitled ‘Music Product Manifesto: The Product Features That Will Save Recorded Music From Its Impending Demise’.  (Watch this space for more details).

As we embark on this programme of research we’re engaging with the marketplace and digging deep into our consumer survey data to help us plot out future scenarios.  As part of this process we’d love to hear your thoughts.  So let us know what you think, whether you’re a media company, a technology vendor, a device manufacturer or you’re simply interested in the topic.  Either way we want to hear from you!