Summarising Being Digital 2009 from Mashup

Tony Fish runs Mashup, which has quickly grown to be a solid addition to the technology travelling circus in the UK. Being Digital is a flagship for them.

You could trawl the Twitter feeds for #BDE as a hashtag, but the jumble of asynchronous information can be a menace to understanding.

Charles Cohen of Probability Plc gave us a quick “don’t do list” for start ups:

Don’t go public as it means you can’t ever tell jokes, make things up or speak ‘off script’ in public again. Being public means losing entrepreneurial control to a large extent, and agreeing to play by the market’s rules.
Don’t do a ‘Barney deal’, which has lots of PR song and dance routines but never delivers and is never followed up. The clues are press releases, the word “synergy” and a lack of clear delivery timetables in the information.
Don’t do deals to get investment. Deals should be for the business, investment for the investment. Mixing the two is almost always fatal, and you should have known that your investors know nothing about entrepreneurship.
Don’t do commercial deals with huge companies when you are small, unless you are 100% certain that you have 200% of the resources needed to deliver to them. Large companies will suck you dry, taking 6 months to sign a deal and then demanding endless services and meetings (which satisfy their internal needs and give nothing to your startup)

The right answer is to start small, deal small, deal ‘stupid’ and get the business tested and working before reaching higher. Raise small money first, test and refine and then look for investment.

The first panel session contained some interesting business stories (and myths) from the speakers:

Justine Roberts of reminded us that the community owns the service and have ultimate creative control

Hughie Phillips of MindsEye Media reminded me that real world events combined with digital engagement tools can create really exciting interactive art and experiences.

Nicholas Wheeler of ITN On gave us some strong truths about the reality of engaging with the public online through niche channels. Music and Celebrity are still the big public draws. However ‘old school’ media companies really do are learning how to generate debate and interaction online.

Charles Rees Jones of Ogilvy One made me sit up straight with his idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ the brand through their process of ‘the big ideal’. Brands cannot expect to ‘use’ digital engagement, but will be defined by it.  Nice to see they walk the walk with their own internal social network ‘Ogilvy Brains’.

All those in the social media world struggle with the issues around brand related content, brand commissioned content, and advertising supported content. We fear the loss of creative and personal control in having to be ‘safe’ enough for advertisers, but we want the money it brings. We don’t want to be seen as owned by brands, but need their cachet to help us reach beyond our current pools of community to the mass market. We are attracted to brand related content, but the brands don’t quite get it yet, and still appear a bit heavy handed and ‘logo aware’ which kind of misses the point of engaging with the online audience.

We do at least think that we have increasingly interesting and relevant content in advertising. It is getting better, but it is not there quite yet.

Even established news carriers are shying away from content or editorial policy: they are allowing it all to flow through (facts checked, we hope) and allowing the technology to give prominence to the stories which customers are actually asking to see. Again, the public decide what they want, and are not being told what they should see.

(There is a really good business here in having a system that feeds up ‘requests’ from a mass audience for news on specific subjects, and then tailoring that news feed – drawn from hundreds of sources – to each recipient. You can have that idea for free. If you make it, you can buy me a beer or two.)

Having brands that are really fearless about online criticism, mashed-up content and user-generated content is still a long way down the road for most companies. A few have got there: Dove from Unilever (but not really Lynx, I suspect), Dyson and Waitrose on Mumsnet, and a few brave clothing and music companies.

All of that to one side, most of the audience really wanted to know was how to drive the growth of their own business through social media. That idea appeared to fizzle out in the start knowledge that you can not ‘drive’ your business, but what you can do is use social media to prospect for the customers who already knew they wanted the solution that you offer (and can help you design and improve that offering). Social media is not very good at pushing things, but you can feed out lines until a large community gets hold of the line and pulls on it hard.

I quite like my new internal model of social media as 200 million ropes dropped into a dark room until you feel someone pulling, then dropping down to join the party. Social media is made of strings that pull, not sticks that push.

What makes Mashup events so strong is the way in which the audience participate strongly. Which makes it harder to summarise the to and fro of the room with the panels, but does make for some great serendipity.

For instance: a round the room chat on libel laws and obscenity showed that we would probably rather get insurance, react fast and settle cheap than give up our fearless self-expression.

Deep down in the core of our thinking on social media is the huge blockbuster hit. Driven by the needs of VCs to make $1bn exits, we rush to get millions of users. Yet we could all bootstrap our lives off the idea of “1,000 True Fans” who can pay us $100 each a year. The real future of social media might well be smaller niches, better served. Blockbusters will always exist, but the cost of entry to that market is accelerating away from the resources available to normal start-ups.  However, social media and the net give anyone the chance to reach those 1,000 fans all over the world, wherever they are. That is a great advantage to bootstrapped web-based start-ups.

Interviewing Shane Richmond of the Daily Telegraph showed us all the issues involved in competition for customers at the level of big media. The urge to monetise content (and the costs of infrastructure) might drive you behind a pay-wall, and yet that stops the public really interacting with your content. In a recession, people are more defensive about their valuable content. This gives a problem if you subscribe to the idea that social media can create value. After a long talk around news aggregation (and the revelation that you cannot copyright a fact!), it seems that we came down to the idea that anything that brings users to you is a good idea. What you do with them to create value is up to you.

We also learned a lot about how we have shifted from editorial gravitas to personal recommendation as the main source of our news input – we go where people we trust suggest we go for news and links, then we get back to the editor we trust for the in-depth analysis.

What the world has not yet got to grips with is the impact of the huge crowd of experts who can genuinely contribute value to reportage and editorial. I personally struggle with the problem that, when I read a story about a subject in which I am an expert, I realise that most journalists are rushed and – at best – partially accurate and partially informed. If that is true on subjects where I know things, surely all the other topics, on which I previously trusted the newspaper to inform me, are equally inaccurate? Would a crowdsourced reportage and editorial help us? Would it be no better (or worse) than Wikipedia? How would we get people to give the right amount of expertise at the time it was needed?

Ultimately, crowds are moving in, and technology is helping them. How the traditional print media, broadcasters, and advertisers react to that is up to them. The game is not yet played out, and the solutions are not yet here, and may never stop evolving.