Brian Lakamp is the President of Digital for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment and oversees the company’s digital strategy, which includes iHeartRadio. He previously served as Executive VP of Digital Media at Premiere Radio Networks, co-founder of online music startup Fluxe, and Senior VP of Digital Policy at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Over the past two years, I’ve been tasked with helping to grow the consumer audience for iHeartRadio, Clear Channel’s digital all-in-one music service, in the midst of an incredibly crowded and noisy field. If I had to summarize everything I’ve learned up to this moment in one sentence, it would be this: Building a successful brand from the ground up is incredibly difficult (yes, even with the backing of a large and well-established media company).
Too many people get into this world without realizing that the success rate for consumer apps and online services is low. The path is long and not for the faint of heart, and your budget is often small.
Yet, if none of this deters you, here are the five things you should keep in mind when growing your consumer audience.
“It’s about the consumer, stupid”
If there’s one mantra we follow at iHeartRadio, it’s that the consumer is always first. Before launching new features, we conduct extensive market research and host focus groups to determine exactly what consumers want — which helps inform what we should build.
Changing consumer behavior is incredibly difficult. It’s much easier to build a product that’s tailored to established consumer patterns, particularly if you’re an unknown brand. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of doing your homework at the beginning in order to really understand your audience — and of continually asking them for feedback that you can incorporate into your product roadmap.
Above all, you should constantly ask yourself whether what you’re doing benefits the end-user. If the answer is “no,” don’t do it!
When it comes to marketing, go big or go home
If you’re launching a consumer app, bigger really is better when it comes to marketing. In order to reach listeners, we’ve had to think big with massive live events like the iHeartRadio Music Festival, radio promotion, album release parties, exclusive artist content and partnerships with major media, technology and auto companies.
We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have these kinds of resources, and of course, not every company will have them right out of the gate, but it’s still hugely important to be strategic about the ones you do have. I see far too many start-ups relying on a half-baked word-of-mouth strategy, instead of having a solid marketing plan in place.
In addition to using paid and earned media, partnerships are one of the best ways to build your following. Wherever possible, try to find partners with large consumer audiences that you can tap into. If your budget is tight, opt for a barter relationship instead of a paid one.
Keep it simple and move fast
When it comes to product development, we’ve found time and time again that the best strategy is to keep things simple and move fast. In our business speed and urgency are paramount. If you don’t have those two things, you might as well not even get into the game.
This philosophy can also help to set the tone for your product strategy. At iHeart, we’re constantly fighting our natural inclination to layer on additional functionality and instead aim to keep things simple and make our existing features the best they can possibly be. For consumer apps with killer developer teams, this can be one of the hardest skills to master.
Remember to keep things intuitive and make sure that all features serve a real need. If your interface is cluttered or difficult to use, consumers will give up quickly and move on to another service — probably your competitor’s.
Be everywhere your users are
Since iHeartRadio’s inception, we’ve had a very clear mandate from Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman: Be everywhere our listeners are, with the products and services they expect. We need to come to the user, not the other way around.
To that end, when we’re creating an iHeartRadio product for any of the five screens (TV, car, mobile, tablet and desktop), we focus on a “consistent but catered” approach. The experience is uniquely iHeart, but it’s also native to that particular environment.
In cars for example, controls are minimal and safety and simplicity are key. On tablets, we create with a touchscreen experience in mind and opt for bigger, bolder visuals. And on the desktop Web, we give users a fully featured experience with all of the bells and whistles.
When it comes to your multi-platform strategy, the watchword has to be “thoughtful.” It’s easy to do more harm than good by slapping content intended for one platform onto another. Always think about the context in which your user is consuming, and map backwards.
Dream big, but know what you’re in for
The recent mainstreaming of “startup culture” through phenomena like SXSW and Bravo’s “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley” has attracted plenty of would-be entrepreneurs wanting to be the next Twitter or Facebook. But just as hordes of hopefuls audition each year for “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” only a select few ever reach true star status.
There are always going to be companies that manage to catch lightning in a bottle, but by and large the road is long and littered with cautionary tales. There are a myriad of ideas out there and thousands of options for consumers to cull through, especially within the exploding consumer app industry,
My advice to anyone who wants to get into this business is to avoid romanticizing it. Think long and hard about whether this is what you want to do, surround yourself with people who can give you solid business advice. Lastly, be prepared to put in a lot of work.