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Managing new media projects: from

concept development to commercial


exploitation
By: Sofea Zahara

June 16, 2003

A white paper about developing and running a new media project from start to finish,
and making some money on the way. The lessons introduced cover the range of
technologies from web sites to mobile but with special relevance to multi-platform
'hybrid' concepts such as television shows linked to the web or mobile.

The paper emphasises the importance of a few key ideas: platform fit, simplicity,
revenue and reusability. It is based on over 8 years experience of running such
projects on CD-ROM, kiosks, web, TV and mobile and will share some of the
mistakes made as well as some of the successful lessons learned.

First think up your idea!


The most difficult part of concept development is usually the concept. New concepts
are hard to imagine and new successful concepts even harder. Actually it is quite easy
to have half a good idea but working it into a successful money making venture takes
time, teams and imagination.

It is worth starting by looking at successful formats that have worked elsewhere and
think about changing key components of them. What would happen if you targeted
the same idea at a different audience or changed the content or switched platform?
Some ideas start by considering the fundamental characteristics of the device that you
will be using. Imagine for example that Nokia has released a new phone that takes
photographs. What possible web, TV or hybrid concepts could be created that takes
advantage of this development? Perhaps a TV show that allows people to show off
their best pictures or an online gallery? These are rather weak ideas but could be
developed further by considering a specific audience. Perhaps a show for teenagers
that allows them to review new clubs, bands and holiday destinations by submitted
images and text messages from their mobiles.

There are a number of characteristics shared by successful formats: simplicity,


revenue, repeatable, viral, multi-platform, self-sustaining and cultural fit.

Simple
Successful formats are often extremely simple; 12 people live together in a house and
are voted out by viewers week by week until the one who is left wins a prize (Big
Brother), all the material you see on the TV show is available online in a searchable
archive (Delia Online), you can investigate the characters from the drama by reading
their diaries on the web (Dawsons Creek), you can buy all the items introduced in the
show via an ecommerce store, you can take the role of a detective and carry out
experiments to find out who committed the crime (Planet Science Who-dun-it?).
Revenue
Even at the beginning of the concept development process you should start thinking
about sources of revenue and ideally these should be components of your format.
Look at how your audience will actually pay you money: subscriptions (web, TV or
email/text alerts), mobile phone revenue (call cost sharing or reverse billing),
premium charge telephone lines, ecommerce revenues including books, music,
merchandise or introduction fees from other retailers. Of course not every multimedia
format has to make money directly. Sponsorship and support from national
broadcasters, publishers and other companies play a big role in many projects but in
the current climate even these may be more successful where there is a component of
self funding. Rights sales on successful formats are also sustaining many of the most
successful formats as they are licensed around the world.

Repeatable
To maximize the licensing revenues and the longevity of your idea, your format
should also be repeatable. It is expensive to develop a new show, web site or platform
game and the possibilities for further versions of the show need to be considered.
Consider how each version of the format will differ and the sorts of embellishments
that could be added over time. Will the audience remain interested in second and
subsequent versions of the material?

Viral
In the current new media market your concept will be competing with many others
and needs to build recognition if it is to be successful. Ideally your audience will
promote it for you by telling their friends about it but your format may contain ‘viral’
elements that make this easier and therefore more likely to happen. Certainly your
web and mobile elements should make it easy for your audience to tell their friends
about your show. E-cards, free messaging, group prize contests and send page to a
friend are all possible tools to facilitate this.

Some formats will go further by allowing the audience to contribute material that gets
incorporated into the show. This can be extremely successful in building audience
loyalty but as many dotcom companies discovered relying on audience contributions
as the sole source of your content is unlikely to sustain the concept. Avoid therefore
having a format built entirely around reviews, letters, contributions or audience
generated music or video.

Multi-platform
There are strengths and weaknesses in most of the technologies used for delivering
new media concepts and your idea should play to the strengths. The web has few
revenue models (except ecommerce) with audiences reluctant to pay subscriptions or
pay-per-view, television supports limited interactivity and mobile phones are limited
in their ability to handle media. But television is fantastic at delivering high quality,
high bandwidth material very cheaply to huge audiences, mobile phones are great for
low bandwidth interactivity and the web is unrivalled in giving audiences the
opportunity to research and respond to information.

Your concept will therefore be more likely to succeed if a multi-platform approach is


taken using the individual strengths of each medium. Look at combining the
immediate voting power of mobile and premium rate phone lines with the richness of
the web and the audience power of TV.

Cultural fit
A final component of a great concept is its cultural fit. It must work with the audience
for whom it is intended and build on prevailing and emerging trends and attitudes.
Consider whether you have access to any exclusive content that could form the basis
of your idea: an expert on some topic, a collection of artefacts, a place or an author or
artist.

Steps in the development process


Having an idea is only the spark that begins the development process. You will then
need to follow a series of steps to get it developed and delivered. These include
brainstorming your idea, market testing, financing, rights protection, technology
planning, prototyping, construction, testing, delivery and on-going management or
maintenance. They are unlikely to proceed in a strict order but will overlap. Many of
these tasks are also iterative. Lessons from a later task will feedback and force
rethinking of an earlier step. Financing for example may expose a weakness in the
idea that will force some changes to your plans.

1. Assemble your core team


Before starting the concept development process you will almost certainly have to
assemble a small team of people to help you with each stage. It is unlikely that you
have all the necessary knowledge or skills yourself and in a process that is similar to
creating a film you will need to draw on all sorts of different areas of expertise:
money, technology, design, marketing, legal issues and project management for
starters.

At the OTHER media we assemble a development team of 3-5 people who work on
the initial stages of a project. They will include a designer and a technologist to help
visualise what we are creating, someone expert in budgeting and costing together with
1 or 2 people to think through the concept in detail.

2. Brainstorming
Even with the basics of a concept we will hold a series of brainstorming meetings to
develop the concept beyond the initial idea. We are regularly responding to requests
for ideas from clients outside the business rather than developing ideas from scratch
but the process is the same. Each person at each meeting will have received a brief
explaining the opportunity or client that we had identified and some background
information on possible ideas. If you are starting with a new team it is important to
spend some time getting to know the individuals, their experiences and their expertise
before brainstorming about the concept.

Although each concept is different we have a set of ideas that we have developed
before and inevitably we may start by trying to apply what we have already done to
the new problem area. We have a number of checklists that we might use to remind us
of things we have done before. Discussing the content opportunities allows us to
understand some of the potential for the material while exploring the technologies we
have used before lets us think about the concept from a different perspective. Here are
a few of the questions we might ask during an initial brainstorming meeting:
Content opportunities

1. What are we starting with? A TV show, a web site, a collection of content


items or artefacts, an identified audience need?
2. Are there characters we can create or use to tell a story or explain an issue?
3. What has happened before? Where is the audience starting? Is there a back
story that we can tell?
4. Can we find rich detail to tell about the content, characters or idea?
5. How will the story unfold? How important is the order of revealing the ideas?
How much will the information change over time?
6. Can we find something that responds to people’s competitive or compulsive
nature such as collecting, voting, celebrities, gossip, bargains, gambling or
auctions?
7. What visual, audio, music or film material is available?
8. What are other people doing with similar material online, on TV and over
phones?
9. Can we take this content and insert it into another format?
10. Who is making money and how in this content area?

Technology opportunities

1. Games. Are there simple games, quizzes, “play along” opportunities we can
create?
2. Forums. Is there a conversation we can have with the audience through email,
forums, chat, instant messenging or bulletin boards?
3. Search. What would people be searching for in a rich database of information
around the concept?
4. Ecommerce. What are the ecommerce and merchandising opportunities?
5. Polls. What surveys, polls, questionnaires and voting can be included?
6. Contributiona. What can be ask the audience to contribute, send in or upload?
7. Personalisation. Is there a membership function that can be built upon? Do
different visitors receive different experiences?
8. Alerts. Will people want timed information or regular reminders by SMS or
email?
9. Content management. How will the content inside the project be updated or
discussion moderated?
10. Aggregation and syndication. What information can we pull in from
elsewhere? What information can be publish to other sites that will help drive
audience to our project?

3. Market testing
It is important to test your ideas on a representative audience. For many of our clients
this begins with the client themselves who will be paying for our work. We prepare a
full presentation including some storyboards to demonstrate our thinking. Storyboards
illustrate the flow inside a web site or the interaction sequences between a member of
the audience and the TV, mobile or web. We may also create some high quality design
visuals to give an idea of the “look and feel” to our project.

At this stage we are looking for ways of improving and changing what we are
planning to build. The more that can be decided at this stage the less the impact of
changes later in the process. It is, however, often very difficult to tie down all the
details until the prototyping starts.

4. Financing, budgeting and revenue


A full treatment of financing is beyond the scope of this paper but it is important to
include some of the budgetary issues at this point. Our first aim at the OTHER media
is to be very realistic about the amount of money the project will require.

We create a budget with all the tasks that will need to be completed to get the project
into production and all the other costs such as hosting, servers, SMS sending costs,
rights acquisition. Of course exact figures are hard to define especially if new
software is going to have to be developed. It is rare however for either an external
financier or client to agree to an unspecified investment. They may agree to a
budgetary range or cap their investment at a clearly defined limit.

We based our budgets largely on the cost of time to perform each task and this has
proved to be increasingly accurate. Reusing ideas from previous projects has the huge
advantage of being a known cost unless radical reimplementation is necessary.

We present our budgets with as many assumptions articulated as possible. If, for
example, we are building an ecommerce site with 25,000 products we would state this
and expect the client to pay extra if 50,000 products were later to be included.

For some of our projects the clients are increasingly interested in paying via a revenue
sharing option dependent on the success of the project. We would recommend a non-
refundable advance against these royalties and very clear agreement on the basis on
which further payments will be made. Take care not to limit the royalties to a specific
time period and then to discover that the client delays the launch of the project.

You may be able to obtain partial support for your project through local, national or
EU development funding particularly if it has a cross-European or strong cultural
angle.

5. Legal and rights issues


Rights will normally cost you or your client money. You need to make sure that an
agreement is in place before your project is fully developed or funded. This is
especially true for video and music rights. What else could you use if the material you
want is not available? It is a good idea to have alternatives for some of the content.
Make sure that when acquiring rights you get the full set you need. Video clips of a
performer dancing on a TV show will require both video and music rights. Also
ensure that you have the rights for all the places and formats where you want to use
the material. Internet and television rights are often agreed separately and having
worldwide rights for one and French rights for the other may make your project
impossible to sell.

Seek professional advice to negotiate rights and also to protect your rights in the
format you are creating and prevent someone else simply copying your successful
idea.
There are other legal issues that you will have to consider including trademark
protection and emerging privacy and data protection laws. Take care for example to
make sure that when you invite mobile phone users to receive regular alerts using
SMS or email that you require them to opt-in rather than opt-out as this is soon to
become law in the EU. You must also make it clear how to stop receiving such alerts
by allowing them to unsubscribe easily.

A final legal aspect that needs to be considered is the contractual relationships


between all the parties involved in the project. It is likely that you will enter into
Service Level Agreements with third party services such as payment, hosting and
mobile messaging. It is vital that these are written in your favour and this needs
professional advice and support.

6. Technology planning
This is a hard area and once again specialist help should be sought. It is possible to
both over specify and under specify the technology you need particularly for a multi
platform project. There are a number of interlocking factors to consider: platforms,
levels of service, bandwidth, hosting, loading and scalability.

Your first choice is the platform or platforms that you will be using. Make sure that
you understand the availability and functionality of each device you will use. This is
particularly true if you are proposing to use interactive TV as most countries have
several generations of incompatible set-top boxes. Find out what is really possible in
your target countries; talk to the operator themselves to check that there are not high
access or bandwidth fees to allow you to do what you want.

The same applies for mobile devices. Each manufacturer will be keen for your format
to drive usage of their latest handset but what is the real audience who have already
invested in each device and know how to use it.

In particular you should investigate bandwidth realities of all the devices. Of course it
is possible to stream video over the web but if demand becomes high the quality
degrades for your whole audience and the costs of scaling up can be considerable. The
commonest mistake in planning an interactive TV project is to imagine that each
viewer has access to an individual stream of controllable video. Although technically
feasible, the bandwidth requirements would make this impossibly expensive. Instead
your audience is sharing the video experience; you can switch stream but this requires
a second channel.

Payment and voting systems are a second area where scalability needs to be thought
through very carefully. Make sure that your mobile or premium rate supplier can
handle thousands or hundreds of thousands of simultaneous calls if your interactivity
is linked to a TV show. Even large broadcasters have had problems servicing the
popularity of some of their voting systems. Ideally you need to find a technology
partner who can demonstrate a proven record of scalability. You don’t want to have to
pay for 100,000 simultaneous users until this becomes necessary but you do want to
be able to handle this number if and when they arrive.
Explore your payment options before selecting the most appropriate for your
application. Remember that most have a set-up cost and you will have to predict the
sort of levels of traffic before being able to make an informed choice.

There are many to choose from in most countries:

a. Subscription
Requires a payment site with secure credit card clearance.

b. Reverse billing on mobiles.


Subscriber agrees to accept text messages and pays a higher than normal fee per
message. You receive part of the fee.

c. Scratch cards
Expnsive to distribute without a media partner. Card holder buys the card and
scratches off an area to reveal account number and password. Requires a full payment
site to validate card numbers.

d. Advertising
Possible if you can guarantee high volume traffic to a web site. Disliked on mobile
devices.

e. Sponsorship
Needs high visibility project.

f. Ecommerce
Needs full ecommerce site and high quality merchandise.

g. Premium rate telephone numbers


These are relatively cheap to set-up although some audiences (such as children) are
reluctant to use them.

7. Prototyping
Almost every project will require a prototype, pilot or “proof of concept” to be
created to show potential investors, broadcasters, rights holders or simply to iron out
all of the technology pitfalls and issues before the main construction phase. As an
estimate 10-15% of the budget should be spent on this task although it is often
necessary to invest this before the project budget is secured.

The secret of good prototyping is to illuminate all the features of the project without
having to build everything. For a web site, the OTHER media would build the main
core page, specify the full navigation/site map and build (at least in storyboard form)
any particularly complex functionality. This would ensure that there are no surprises
later. For a mobile application we would create a functional mock-up using existing
components to show the sequence of events that the viewer would perform. An
interactive TV prototype would probably follow the web site model as above.

During prototyping the project manager’s priority is to prevent too much detail being
implemented instead of the big picture being explored. You should also use this phase
as an opportunity to create a full set of questions to be answered before the
construction phase.

8. Construction and testing


Assuming that the planning in the previous phases has been done properly then the
construction and testing should be relatively straightforward. There are however many
things that can and do go wrong and is worth anticipating some of them and forming a
strategy for dealing with them.

9. Quality control
Take care to monitor quality throughout the production process. It is often hard for
developers to check their own work successfully.

• Implementation takes longer than expected. - Software development is


notorious for taking longer than predicted. Make sure that additional features
are not being added to slow down the process. Check that the development
team really understands what is wanted.
• Functional changes during construction. - Small changes are inevitable as you
see the finished project coming together but keep bigger changes to a second
phase.
• Unavailability of content. - Ask for content and be clear about formats etc as
early as possible. Make sure that everyone understands what will happen if the
content does not arrive
• Delayed sign-off - Agree timescale for sign-off approval at the start of the
project and try to make sure that few people need to be involved.
• Staffing problems. - Prepare for team members being ill or taking holidays by
planning in some slack into your project plans.
• Conflicts with other projects. - Again, don’t plan your team’s time down to the
last minute. It is inevitable that they will be needed for other activities.
• Testing time gets squeezed. - Start the testing before everything is finished and
have a separate team with a clear set of tests to make this happen. Design your
project so that some of it can be tested before everything is complete. Testing
will highlight problems that need fixing and then testing again·
• Building everything yourself - Find external agencies and contractors that can
help you complete things on time. Outsource the unfamiliar.
• Platform difficulties - Recognise that technology will let you down. Make sure
that you have a full set of deployment hardware to test the work as you are
proceeding.

10. Delivery and marketing


One vital part of the project is knowing when development is finished and the project
ready to launch. It is easy to want to go back and redo some aspects instead of facing
the audience but this should be resisted. Deliver and then improve. This is not a film
and most new media projects evolve after launch as some things are successful and
others not.

Make sure that you have planned a proper strategy for marketing your work
particularly if it is mainly online. Many web projects produce disappointing initial
results because no one knows they are there. Marketing online is an art rather than a
science and will take weeks or months of effort (and results don’t show immediately).
the OTHER media has a specialist team to help clients get exposure for their work
online.

11. On-going management or maintenance


Few new media projects stop with delivery. They need constant attention, moderation
and feeding with content. A good content management system will allow a team of
non technical staff to make this happen. These tools allow new content to be added
along with images, video and music. the OTHER media’s content management
system, OTHER objects also allows the timetabling of future content changes
allowing for example a whole month’s daily fresh content to be prepared in one go
and released every day as required.

If you have allowed contributions from your audience then this will normally require
editing and approval before it is published. This helps keep quality high and can avoid
legal repercussions such as libel. A well known British TV show became the target of
a sustained attempt to beat the moderators by a group of people texting their
comments into a linked chat area. The cost of moderating every contribution was a
significant drain on the resources for this show.

There are technical maintenance and planning costs that need to be considered post-
launch too. You will need to keep a close watch on the levels of traffic you are
achieving and respond to increases by scheduling upgrading of both hardware and
bandwidth.

Conclusions
Running a successful multiplatform new media project is a major undertaking
requiring many different skills and the avoidance of many pitfalls. It can however be
very rewarding particularly if you can develop a reusable format or reusable
components that can be applied to a variety of different projects.

The key is a mixture of luck, simplicity and good planning. Over several projects you
will learn what works and be able to use these ideas as a platform for future work.
Don’t be over ambitious for your early projects, select the easiest technologies and
make sure that you understand what is and isn’t possible.

There are a number of interesting avenues to follow out there that may provide the
basis for new formats and creative ideas. Two that we are watching at the OTHER
media are Multimedia Messaging for mobile phones (MMS) and location-based
services. Multimedia Messaging allows images to be captured and transmitted via the
phone and this allows new forms of contribution and involvement for both web and
TV projects. The next generation of mobiles are also likely to be location aware; able
to compute where they are in a town or building. This can form the basis for
delivering information based on location or as the foundations for some highly
addictive games.

the OTHER media has been in this business for nearly nine years and we are often
asked whether it has become repetitive and predictable. While it has become easier to
cost and plan some sorts of projects the really creative mixes of television, web and
mobile are as exciting and chaotic as ever.