Executives at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia took great pains earlier this year to make certain the company's redesigned Web site looked flawless before rolling it out to the public.
After all, this is a media company whose magazines, books, products and programs feature ideas about attractive and tasteful lifestyles. Why not a beautiful Web site?
That was a big mistake, Wenda Harris Millard, the company's president of media, said this week during a panel discussion at Advertising Week. We put beauty before utility.
She said the front page, with its video player and jazzy graphics, included only about five links to actual content, so the things people were looking for couldn't be found.
The mistake, she said, was in failing to understand that when the reader or viewer or listener becomes the user, what she's looking for is much different -- at least initially.
Indeed, many executives attending the fourth annual Advertising Week conference admitted that they had misjudged exactly what consumers want these days. Figuring that out may be the advertising and media industry's top challenge, they said.
One reason is that consumers today can afford to be more demanding. They can choose among television, radio and magazines, or skip those altogether in favor of video games, music downloads and text messaging.
Today's audience also depends less on media companies for the entertainment itself, executives pointed out. User-generated content like a friend's video or a stranger's blog may suit a consumer's taste more than a film, TV show or song offered by a major corporation.
WHAT ARE AUDIENCES LOOKING FOR?
Even at Facebook, the social network that has become a hot spot for young adults, executives can misjudge their audience, said Mike Murphy, vice president of media sales.
Among its missteps, he noted, was the company's introduction of an automated news feed showing what acquaintances are doing on their own Facebook profile pages -- a sort of gossip column among friends.
When Facebook first introduced the feature, Murphy said, members temporarily revolted until it introduced greater controls over what information their friends could see.
He said the site learned it must communicate and educate its users and take into consideration what the audience is looking for before launching a product or feature.
Murphy also said media companies and advertisers should be realistic about their place in the minds of consumers. This is a market that will punish brands for pretending to be something they are not, he said.
Beth Comstock, president, integrated media, at NBC Universal, also conceded a number of missteps. I could probably fill an encyclopedia with the mistakes we've made over the last year, she said on an Advertising Week panel.
One was the company's approach to the audience on iVillage, the Internet community site for women that NBC Universal bought for $600 million.
We knew there was this powerful community, but we didn't understand how powerful and what turned them on, said Comstock, whose company is majority-owned by General Electric Co.
Comstock also said some in the industry had mistakenly predicted last year that premium content is dead -- it's all about user-generated. Instead, she said, the media pie has gotten bigger -- and there are audiences for both types of entertainment.
That holds true when it comes to advertising, too, which in the last year has seen a number of companies employ user-generated ads in campaigns.
Unilever Plc is among those, having put together a consumer-produced ad to promote a Dove product during last year's Academy Awards.
There are going to be lots of places for consumers to play a role, but I don't see them replacing the professionals, said Babs Rangaiah, director of media planning for Unilever USA.
Still, he said, user-generated is not going away. Big media has essentially controlled all the creation of content and distribution, he said. Now that is available to consumers, and that's a big thing that is here to stay.