Media companies – like their counterparts in Software, Hardware, FinTech, Telecom, Retail, Travel and Insurance – are seeking to get a jump on potential disruptions (and disruptors) with media labs focused on changes in technology, consumer habits, distribution and industry scale.
Some are investing in next generation companies. Others have contributed to forward looking efforts such as industry collaborations (i.e. NYC Media, CableLabs), industry incubators (i.e. YCombinator) or academic consortia (i.e. MIT Media Labs).
We’re mostly focusing on media companies that have built internal labs. These efforts are designed to develop new versions or variations of their existing properties for new channels, such as social media; train and socialize their colleagues; help partner with (and migrate) their own advertisers; and make strategic investments. If they hit the jackpot, lab prototypes may “graduate” into monetizeable, full-blown products.
EXAMPLES OF MEDIA LABS
• BBC R&D Labs
• Bloomberg Labs
• Daily News Innovation Lab
• Dow Jones R&D Lab
• Fusion’s Center for Innovation & Engagement
• Hearst App Labs
• IPG Media Lab
• KQED Labs
• Post Media Lab
• Public Radio BizLab (WBUR)
The Lab efforts are also focusing beyond media as the companies seek to tie in new ways to work with advertisers and local organizations (i.e. electronic newsstands, card linked offers, geo-location services).
Although the tech changes, the goals for media labs remain remarkably consistent over the years. Back in the mid-1990s, Hearst Media Labs pioneered an approach that:
1. Produced an annual digital conference with industry leaders to inspire Hearst executives. Attendance was mandatory – even for Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.
2. Trained Hearst executives on digital media and advertising in a training center located in the basement of the old Hearst building.
3. Coordinated with Hearst Ventures to make investments in companies such as Netscape (an investment that, in itself, possibly footed the bill for all the operations).
4. Developed HomeArts, a women’s oriented website culled from several Hearst properties. HomeArts eventually merged with iVillage, and successfully IPO’d.
HomeArts represented the Labs’ graduation into productization. Since then, Hearst has actually re-entered the Lab world with Hearst App Lab, reflecting the urgency of mobile’s new challenges. Other media companies have also gravitated towards the media lab model. But we’d note one significant change: there is a more conscious integration of sales functions.
The New York Times, for instance, shifted resources away from its R&D Lab in 2016 when a new executive team concluded that the Lab didn’t have a clear relationship with revenue.