Product vs. Production

Mar 14, 2023

Mar 14, 2023

Last week TikTok launched TikTok Trivia, a spin on the once popular HQ Trivia — a live, twice-a-day, 30-minute trivia game with a shared cash prize.

HQ Trivia kicked off in 2017 and peaked in March 2018 at 2.4 million live players. A year later, it had dropped to sub 500K (and kept falling). Now Tiktok hopes to capture the cultural zeitgeist too as it continues experimenting beyond async, short-form video — into compelling categories like social and live.

Going by last week’s launch, TikTok Trivia seems to have only subtle differences from HQ Trivia. But, the public response was more savage than subtle and even ex-HQ Trivia leads weighed in with informed criticism. The launch fell flat.

So what did TikTok Trivia miss? Building a product and building a production are two remarkably different things, but the success of every live media platform depends on both. The wisdom is in knowing the difference between the two, when to focus on each, and how to do both extremely well.

Why ‘Live’ is Different

Every product with “creation” at its core requires “production.” But for products that aren’t live, the production largely happens async and off-screen.

Let’s take classic TikTok: creators spend lots of time in production, filming and editing videos until they get it just right. The product gives them the tools to do it and a place to publish. This is true of photo-sharing apps too; you take a bunch of selfies and try a ton of strategic crops and filters before posting one to Instagram.

On the other hand, live products — Twitch, IG Live, Clubhouse —need pre-show preparation and live production. You might queue up guests and plan out the content of a stream, but it’s all theory until it’s live. Hosts are judged on their live performance and ability to adapt to audience feedback in real-time. Success means optimizing the now instead of just the potential to go viral later.

In short — it’s hard enough to make live products work at all, but without an equal understanding & attention to both product and production, they just can’t.

Product versus Production

At Clubhouse I often felt the tension between product and production. Here’s one question I often asked: How much of a creator’s success depends on the tools built into product versus the individual’s talent, skills, and creativity? I constantly refined my perspective as I jumped back and forth between being startup operator and host.

So, where do I draw the line between product and production? To distill it down:

  • Product is what’s programmed — what the host can’t control. It’s responsible for creating the container (basically the UX) and the constraints (the format, mechanics, etc.).

  • Production is everything the creator or “host” can influence. It’s responsible for delivering great content (e.g. scripting) and establishing a connection with audiences (e.g. great hosting).

  • Both product & production contribute to defining some elements — communicating context (e.g. what’s the format of the show) and taking on the task of curation (e.g. bringing audience members up to ‘stage’).

Importantly, the fine details on what falls under product vs. production can and do change over time. Elements of production can be taken out of host control and built into the product, and the reverse is true too; hosts can get creative in how they use or work around the product to achieve their goals.

Looking at TikTok Trivia’s initial launch, it seems like the focus was more on building a robust product and bringing in big viewership than on the production. Just a few examples — the game took too long to start, lasted too long, had a seemingly nervous host whose comedic riffing read as uncomfortable, and the nods to live production came off as amateur instead of authentic. To be fair, there’s lots of time to improve, but the initial impression is that there’s a flawed understanding of what matters in delivering a great player experience.

Principles for Building in Live

Live media is fascinating and uniquely capable of bringing people together (I wrote more about this in my recent piece on collective experiences). And with async getting saturated by the dominant platforms, we’re going to see more experiments with live — from these platforms themselves and new entrants. We’ve seen it with Tiktok, Twitter, and now even Netflix is testing the waters.

To that end, here are 5 principles I’ve come to believe in for building in live:

❶ Start with a “production-first” mindset.

The seed of every live media idea should start with production, not product. Think about how you would deliver the experience you want in the simplest way — either IRL (e.g. a one-man show in the subway) or using the simplest existing tech available (e.g. zoom). Use production first to simluate core product ideas.

From there, think about the elements of production that are critical to build into the early product — to create the basic container & constraints that systematize and standardize the experience and start to define its purpose. When you do the opposite (start with product and make production an afterthought), it’s more likely to fail and result in what I call product-production misfit (see #3 below).

❷ Build product to standardize & scale.

The continuation of #1 is that production alone doesn’t scale. I’ll use live theater as an analogy: it works for a small crowd, but as the audience grows, you need a bigger theater, better sound, lighting, maybe even extra screens or tech (those tiny binoculars?) to help people in the back see actors’ facial expressions. The game is figuring out how to invest in product to scale without losing production quality.

Scale is also relevant to company-building. On the spectrum of tech product to production, purely-tech products have historically been capable of being built with a much leaner team (and hence at lower cost). Production, by nature of it’s necessary human elements and creative variety, isn’t as lean or low-cost. The generative AI horizon is interesting in its promise of bringing product and production closer together — to more easily productize production.

❸ Beware of product-production misfit.

At times I’ve noticed that a product doesn’t seem to match with the style of content or production. It’s not a science for sure, but I believe there’s such a thing as product-production fit and the opposite, product-production misfit.

Have you ever seen a YouTube video and thought it should have been a TikTok video instead, or vice versa? Some types of content and production are better suited for certain types of products. It’s one reason creators rely on lots of post-production to adapt and repurpose content across many platforms.

Circling back to principle #1, one of the best ways to mitigate this issue is to start first with production, then build product that fits it. And over time of course, it becomes a much more integrated, iterative process of shaping both in harmony.

❹ Find a host that supercharges the format.

A great product still fails at the hands of the wrong host or creator. And for a centralized, live product like TikTok Trivia, there’s basically one shot on goal! For a distributed, UGC product like Twitch or Clubhouse, there are many shots.

That said, it’s still incredibly hard to find the right host for a specific format. At Clubhouse, we repeatedly saw the impact a specific host could have on a format’s success or failure. In fact, every live platform is proof of this principle — sometimes you’ll see a format that’s been dormant for a long time suddenly spike in popularity at the hands of a compelling host. Tiktok Trivia’s launch week host was heavily critiqued and it factored hugely in the overall reviews.

❺ Don’t take the live out of live.

Part of the appeal of live is a sense of real-time presence and connection to other participants and even to the ‘show’ host and guests. One way to create this feeling is by allowing unexpected elements in a show and variability across shows.

Take Saturday Night Live as an example — it’s common to see cast members accidentally ‘break’ into laughter or comically deal with a faulty prop. Whatever your opinion of the content itself, SNL feels live. Something that can corrupt this is building too much of live production into product, hence cutting opportunities for variability and surprise. Basically you want live to feel live, so figure out how product can help amplify this rather than mask it!

If this working theory resonates, please consider scrolling up to ‘like’ it, share it with someone who might enjoy it, or give it a little love on Twitter. 🙏 And, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic or my writing in general — DMs open. 📨