Huffington Post Labs, the innovation hub of the media organisation, launched its first project on August 29th, TechCrunch reports. The project, dubbed Highlights, is a user-generated web page displaying the most popular sentences from articles and blogs of Huffington Post. Readers give prominence to a sentence either by highlighting it with a new button that now appears on Huffington Post, or by copying the snippet.
To avoid the front-page content getting more highlights just because it is more easily accessible, and therefore getting more traffic in turn, the innovators made sure the sentences are also weighed by the ratio of highlights to page views, which should help stories from deeper in the website surface and not get overlooked. The idea came from the wish to solve the problem of too-much content being produced by Huffington Post, and a lot of it neglected by users as a result, stated Labs co-founder Conor White Sullivan for TechCrunch. The innovation team is now working at adding Highlights to other publications, TechCrunch being one of them.
However interesting this innovation is, it is the trend behind it that media innovation researchers should pay attention to. HuffPo Labs is only one of many media organisations which are developing their own innovation hubs, such as The New York Times Company Research & Development Lab, The Globe Lab of the Boston Globe, WaPo Labs of the Washington Post. Are news publishers becoming tech companies?, TechCrunch asks.
Started by two people who came from outside HuffPo, both previously having worked at startups, and then joined by a third member, they made The HuffPo Lab function like a startup within the company. Their way of operating is “doing projects quickly in eight week sprints and seeing if they work”, Sullivan said for TechCrunch, stressing that the Lab has the advantage of working for the HuffPo ecosystem with millions of page views where it is easy to see if an idea works or not, but also that the Lab can work without the pressure of corporate bureaucracy.
Client down the Hall
The Irish Times launched it Digital Challenge in 2012, CNN reports, to revive its digital efforts which lost the momentum since the launch of the website in 1994. Young companies at early stage of development spend eight weeks at the Times developing their pitch with the goal to prove to the Times that their project has the largest revenue potential and offers the best advancement for the user experience in order to get a prize worth 50.000 EURO from a venture capital fund.
BBC Worldwide Labs, another “intercompany startup incubator”, as CNN dubs these new forms of injecting fresh ideas into media companies, often perceived as slow and cumbersome operations, does not offer a financial award as such, but an opportunity for startups to work with BBC as the first customer and therefore commercialize their projects with excellent visibility. With the complexity of BBC being perplexing to outside collaborators, the project should ease the way to the startups into understanding the company.
Common to the two examples is that startups are embedded in the companies, although they work independently, and the innovators are close to those who will be or are implementing their innovations. This type of communication is designed to avoid the usual “noise” that occurs in the old-way cooperation between a large media company and an outside startup, CNN reports. Also, both companies hope to develop a relationship with the startups they incubate into scalable, larger future partnerships.
The practice of internal startups has already been adopted by non-media industries, such as PepsiCo10, a business mediator which acts as a matchmaker between startups and various Pepsi Company brands, which is close to its third year.
Outside of Beaten Tracks
Some of the conclusions from the above examples are the following:
- In the fierce competition pushing them towards constant digital innovation, media companies need thinking outside of the box, which is hard to find among the company employees, already set in their old ways. Fresh minds, with a new direction of thinking, often people outside of the media companies, whether organised in Labs or incubator startups, get out of the beaten tracks and are able to provide the needed innovation.
- Young stratups have the advantage of eagerness to prove themselves, which is conducive to fresh ideas and positive rapport with the client.
- Being embedded in the company, the Labs and incubator startups have all the proximity to the client and the communication with the client they need, without the usual communication ‘noise’ when big companies work with outside innovation service providers.
- As distinct operational units they keep their independence are not oppressed by corporate bureaucracy.
- Working with the company resources from the start of a project, such as the large numbers of users the companies have and their digital platforms, the innovators in Labs and startups can test their ideas more efficiently than if they operated outside of the company.
Whether the innovation labs and startups are the future of media innovation is yet to be seen, but they have certainly become the present, worth careful monitoring.