09/06/2013 02:19 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Hand over the remote: Why giving consumers the power to choose is the right answer


I've heard three statements over the last several months that have made me stop and rethink how devices and platforms affect how consumers interact with the content and advertising we work so hard to create.

• The first was from AOL's digital prophet, David Shing at CES, who described automobiles as "a 16-foot mobile peripheral."

• The second was from a friend, who said "mobile is now nothing more than an investment term used by people developing for the platform."

• And the third, heard at an industry conference, described mobile devices as "remote controls for the real world."

When this is added to research from AOL (Seven Shades of Mobile) which revealed that 68% of time spent with mobile devices occurs within the home - in other words, a place where laptops, desktops and other computers are readily available - my thoughts were crystalized: Consumers don't use connected devices in siloed, isolated environments.

So, we need to stop developing uses, media, and business models as if they do.

Consumers have demanded greater control and freedom in this relationship since televisions started coming with remote controls. As the media and technology worlds continue to evolve, we need to make sure we focus on flexibility and give consumers the power to add their own twist to the use cases, consumptions, and interactions they participate in. There are no right or wrong answers if we keep giving people the power to choose. Our jobs as content creators, technology designers, and advertisers who underwrite these experiences, are to make sure the consumers always feel like they've received more than they expected from an interaction. These are implied negotiations, and like all good negotiations, both sides have to feel like they got a little more than they bargained for. Surprise and delight win every time.

The biggest mistake we can make is to deluge consumers with a seemingly never-ending, undifferentiated series of product and service "choices." That route forces us to attempt to increase perceived value by lowering price. This happens in all areas of our tech ecosystem - from hardware (see PC price erosion), to connectivity costs, to "how low can you go" media prices. No one wins in this scenario.

But when we think beyond our specific slice of the interaction and experience pie, the whole pie gets larger. And by maintaining an open approach, consumers will show us - and quickly - whole, new ways to think about what we're doing.

Netflix, with much fanfare and now an Emmy nomination, did a great job of this with "House of Cards." Traditional media was disturbed by how much it cost, the way it was being marketed, and the monetization (or lack of) plan. But in the end, they gave consumers as many choices as they could - platform, binge or slow consume, watch extra content or not. And it worked. AOL's HuffPost Live does an excellent job of this, and, in my opinion, takes it one step further. HuffPost Live allows users to watch their "broadcast" live, in long form on-demand segments, as syndicated clips, on many platforms (OTT, mobile, tablet and desktop. And, with recent partnerships with AXS and Clear Channel, on TV and Radio. But what HuffPost adds is one more option for the consumer: do they want to sit back and watch what's going on, or do they want to lean forward and create something others can enjoy? Participation can take many forms - twitter interactions and comments all the way to one of the 10,000 on-screen conversations with hosts and guests. Most importantly, there's no right answer except for what's right for the individual consumer.

If we make this type of flexibility the new norm, the whole ecosystem will benefit, and when that happens, even greater forms of innovation are sure to follow.