I just finished reading Bharat Anand’s 2016 The Content Trap … recommended by one of my students – @SocialMediaCou3 – and I wished this book had crossed my radar 3 years ago! Yet, as we work our way through the pandemic and higher education’s response for the future, this book remains very relevant.
Anand is a professor at Harvard Business School and this book begins with a look at digital strategy for businesses, and then concludes with an examination of what that meant for his own business – teaching in higher education.
Anand starts by looking at what made companies successful in the past – make the best product, maintain focus, track your competitors, and mimic what they do when they succeed. In many ways, this reminded me of the Six Sigma and Lean mantra’s of improving efficiency and effectiveness. But in a digital age, it is getting harder to get noticed and get paid for the products you develop. Anand contends that companies are falling in to the Content Trap, focusing on products (or content) rather than focusing on connections.
Anand noted how Apple originally built a beautiful computer – the Macintosh – but only gained 3 percent of market share, because the other option – Microsoft and PC’s – focused on the ability to share documents, spreadsheets and email easily – in other words, connections. Anand suggested that the first connection to focus on was user connections. Don’t create, create to connect.
Second is recognizing product connections. Napster and music downloads did not doom CD’s…they were following the same growth and demise that records and cassettes had before. What many did not notice was that free music led to increased concert attendance, and most artists made their money not from music sales, but from concert sales.
Harvard Business School originally stayed out of the online market because it did not fit their case study and small group approach to learning. But when they developed an online program to prepare students for their on campus program, they found that students signed up globally, not to then attend their MBA, but rather to learn the language of business and advance in their own businesses. Rather than young recent college students, many of their online students were successful global middle-aged workers. They discovered that people were making connections between their product and their own life.
Anand’s final connection is functional connections. Rather than mimic others, he suggests that success comes from being different, not being similar. It reminded me of the quote from Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead fame –
“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only one who does what you do.”
There are some real nuggets in this book. He starts with the premise that everyone today – politicians, students, artists, entrepreneurs – can reach and interact with others directly…or as he said, everyone is a media company.
- Borrow the principles. Forget the particulars.
- The value of bundling is not in combining products — it’s in combining customers, especially and ironically: customers with different preferences.
- Neither content quality, quantity, nor availability determine price. Reader preference for content does.
- It’s about the use case, not the device. (It’s about the use case, not the content.)
- Understand what differentiates you. That’s what people will pay for.
- Give the game away. Sell the power-ups.
- Operational excellence is futile.
- Predicting triggers is futile.
- Media consumption is inherently social.
- Embrace piracy.
We have been under lockdown here in Virginia for the past two months, and as Memorial Weekend starts, most states are starting to open back up. During this time, I have continued teaching my Northeastern online classes, as well as work with doctoral students with their dissertations. All six of my doctoral students were doing qualitative studies using interviews, and while one had already planned on web conferencing for his study, the other five had to resubmit IRB modifications to remove face-to-face interviews. Northeastern is also moving from Blackboard to Canvas this coming summer and fall. These would be interesting times at any time, but the pandemic has certainly layered new nuances to what we do.
An interesting factoid that Anand presented was the following quote:
“Will the classroom be abolished, and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home?”
One could believe that this was in response to the emergency shift online that most schools did this spring, but in fact, this quote comes from a 1924 New Republic article, discussing the impact of radio on education.
It is therefore interesting to think about how higher education is going to move forward post-pandemic…and I think it would be useful to reflect on staying out of the Content Trap in that future. As we look to update our existing programs and create new ones, how do we create connections, stay different, and add value to our students instead of focusing on our own bottom line. Anand I think rightly suggests that context matters more than content. Rather than creating (or recreating) lots of courses and mini-courses that mirror others, we need to create the right courses that are important to OUR students and helps them connect with others and their future.