Today, Barnes & Noble revealed the details behind the company's prior warnings that things in the holiday quarter didn't go well. Specific weak spots are appearing everywhere for the company, in its retail business, in its college store business, and in its Nook device business. Even the growth in sales of media for Nook devices, at nearly 7% over the same quarter in the prior year, was not growth enough to inspire confidence. Especially given that future sales of electronic content depends on robust sales of the hardware itself.
The company's dilemma will one day be a classic case study of the effect of unrelenting digital disruption, both how a traditional company can innovate under digital pressure as well as how hard it is to steer such a traditional ship in a digital direction. At this point, no single recommendation, no matter how digitally disruptive, will fix the company's problems. But once the company gets through the widely discussed option of splitting the company into two units -- the retail arm (with website) that company chairman Riggio wants to buy and the Nook unit (with college business) that Microsoft and academic publisher Pearson are already invested in -- there will be a chance on both sides to practice a fundamental tenet of digital disruption: openness.
Yesterday The New York Times picked up the hopeful news from the global music business that the revenue free-fall from $38 billion a year more than a decade ago appears to have stopped at $16.5 billion, leaving the industry at less than half its pre-digital size. This bottoming out of the revenues will come as some relief to industry executives who have wished and prayed for this day because, until it actually arrived, nobody knew for sure what type of revenues to expect in the future. That can make running a business pretty tough.
The music industry is everybody's favorite example of digital disruption done wrong -- including mine, since I covered music for Forrester several times. I have some classic stories I could tell to illustrate the point about executives who believed that suing customers was the path to profitability and so on, but I'll spare you those. However, as the author of a book called Digital Disruption, I actually owe it to the music industry for teaching me a few key principles of how to manage digital disruption:
At first impression it may feel a bit wrong to publish a book called Digital Disruption in a form as old-school as a hardcover book. In fact, as I’ve traveled around talking about the book, several people have half-jokingly suggested it was hypocritical to do so. I have taken the ribbing with a smile, but when people have the time and interest, I explain to them that publishing in both eBook and hardcover is exactly what digital disruption requires.
Some erroneously assume that digital disruption only applies to cases where digital products replace physical ones. It’s true that when mobile banking replaces teller banking or digital music wipes out CDs, we call this digital disruption. But as I show in my book, there are many more ways that digital disrupts, ultimately creating more disruptions, more rapidly, in more industries, including – as I write in the book – industries as analog as pharmaceuticals and military camouflage.
Wednesday night, Sony hosted what was reported to be a crowd of more than a thousand people at a rare, Applesque new-product demo. There it debuted the next-generation Playstation, officially dubbed the PS4. The event lasted two hours and featured some of the most accomplished game developers in the world, all on stage to promise that the PS4 was going to make gaming even more lifelike, more responsive, and more addicting than it already is.
I could have saved the company the two hours and the cost of hosting the event. Because boil Sony's announcement down to its essence, and you get these simple words: Sony believes the future will be like the past and has built the game console to prove it.
Don't get me wrong; the console is definitely next-generation (or at least, the specs are next-generation, since the console itself did not make an appearance at the event). It has stunning graphics and the kind of processing power necessary to create lifelike movement and even give game characters artificial-intelligence capabilities that should make hardcore gamers hungry with anticipation for the end of the year (the most specific Sony got about the release timeframe).
When companies adopt digital, they do old things in new ways. When companies internalize digital — make it part of their mindset — they find entirely new things to do and new ways to do them. They become digital disruptors, and they swiftly go on to take over the markets they set their sights on.
The best proof I have of the power of mindset to put a company ahead during an era of transition has nothing to do with digital or even business. The evidence comes from the Comanche Indians, who dominated the American Southwest through the 1700s and most of the 1800s because of a spectacular new technology they not only adopted, but internalized: the horse. As perfectly described by S.C. Gwynne in his bestselling book, Empire of the Summer Moon, dozens of tribes across the Great Plains had horses. But most of these tribes saw the horse as a new way to do an old thing: to get from point A to point B. Just faster and with more things in tow.
Comanches, on the other hand, internalized the possibilities of the horse, aligning their entire “business” around them. That mindset opened them to new possibilities that others missed. They became skilled breeders, they rethought their cultural practices and values, and they tested the limits of horses to see just how far this enabling technology could take them. For most of the 1800s, Texas Rangers and US Army majors struggled in vain to subdue the Comanches.
You’re going to hear a lot about digital disruption in 2013. And not just from the traditional culprits, like Silicon Valley startups or Israeli engineers or Russian coders. You’ll hear about digital disruption from big companies like GM and G.E. Even agribusiness giant Monsanto has released apps designed to give farmers the digital tools they need to improve crop yield, right down to the square meter. Amid this digital melee, it's important to understand what digital disruption is and what it is not. Important enough that I've written a book about it.
If you’re not careful, when you hear stories about traditional companies like HBO setting up software development teams on the West Coast, you may conclude that digital disruption is about apps. Or if you listen too closely to the pitches at startup conferences, you may think that digital disruption is about social media. Or social TV. Or whatever new flavor excites the digital elite.
Every few years we marketers think we have digital figured out. First it was websites, then it was about eBusiness strategy, then came social, and more recently, we're all about mobile. These are all good things, to be sure, but conquering any one of these – or all of them together – still misses the larger point: Digital disruption is bigger than any of them on their own, and it is nowhere near finished turning the marketing and advertising world upside down.
Consider the Super Bowl. Every year the big game captures more eyeballs and, along with them, more ad dollars. Some point to continued TV spend as evidence that people are in denial about the role of digital, as Adobe did with its clever spoof on Super Bowl ads this year. But note that some of the most prominent ads in Super Bowl 2013 encouraged an expressly digital component – from Budweiser's name-the-pony campaign to Oreo's crowd-pleasing Cream or Cookie campaign, tagged with "Choose your side on Instagram @OREO." The most elaborate of these was the Coke Chase, a Twitter-based real-time voting campaign that earned @cocacola nearly a thousand more Twitter followers on game day, according to Twittercounter.com.
These are worthy – and relatively cheap – forays into making TV ads more, rather than less, relevant in a digitally disruptive era. But these all miss the broader point about the power of digital. Digital won't just disrupt the way brands communicate with consumers, it will afford those brands the chance to build a direct digital relationship with those consumers. If they don't blow it, standing idle while someone else grabs that relationship first.