Musing from the TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2010 Conference – DAY 1

No doubt there will be a gaggle of reviews, reports, regurgitations and rehashing of what went on at Day 1. So, here are my personal musing, in no particular order, of what I felt at the conference, what I sensed and what I experienced. I figured all the smarter, nerdy heads will cover the conference at a cerebral level. This is a stream of consciousness – a gut data dump – as it were.

1) Before I get to the conference, Brian Morrissey of Brandweek tweets how the men’s room at the conference is jammed but the women’s room is “clear sailing”. I think – “that’s a change – usually it is the other way around.” But it certainly set the tone in my head.

2) The conference itself was conventionally unconventional as it was on the second floor of an office building. Lots of space and lots of nooks and crannies where startup and confabs gathered.

3) The uniform of the day… Jeans or jeans like object – an occasional pair of shorts popped up. T-shirts of various sizes and shapes. No business casual here – at least not much. Did I come to the right place or did I land in a college campus???

4) Large presentation room reminds me assembly at an all boys prep school.

5) Where have all the women gone!!!! I saw 8 startup companies present today and of all the 20 or so people – not a woman among the lot. Hmm….

6) Where have all the women gone who did not graduate yesterday go? Most women here are staffers, volunteers or support staff. Are they old enough to drink????

7) So much inspired thinking – so little market access. Most of the startups have hopes of selling to “big brands” but with little notion of how difficult it is for a brand to implement a niche idea – no matter how brilliant.  After having worked on 40 ventures at Bell Labs New Ventures Group – I can spot winners a mile way and I can spot trouble even faster. The “motherly” side of me wants to warn these entrepreneurs. I want to say; “Don’t bet your whole business on selling to big brands – that is really really hard!” But I say nothing because this is their moment to shine and I don’t want to take away from their joy. The realities of life will crowd in on them soon enough.

8 )  All this technology is bottled up a without clear market access strategy. When I ask the startups how are you going to market – I get fuzzy; “oh we work with agencies” or “We want to sell to brands”. I even had one startup say to me that 95% of possible leads are not useful to him because they are too small. Uh – what happened to “walk before you can run”?

9) I can see how 4 or 5 of these technologies could be combined for some kick ass marketing programs – kinda like a huge tinker toy set for marketers. I think I will go build myself something from all these parts. Hmm – I feel like a system integrator all of a sudden. Is that right?

10) Is it me – or does this feel like high school again where the “popular, cool” people hang together and everyone else tries to connect with them? Well, this is no surprise since I think the medium age of the conference might be – uh – 23 (utterly non scientific SWAG).

So ended DAY 1 of TechCrunch Disrupt Conference. I will tell you one for sure. I am not breaking out my jeans – I like dressing like an adult.

Go figure.

Judy Shapiro

What do Ninja Turtles, Facebook, Hush Puppies and Pokémon all have in common?

The answer reveals the secrets to creating a viral marketing machine.

Back when I worked on the Hawaiian Punch business for P&G, we spent a fair amount of time analyzing how “fads” became popular with kids. We tried to understand what ignited meteoric “viral” success. We learned some ingredients of viral campaigns –  ease of acquisition, transmission and novelty –  but we never really cracked the code of how to predictably recreate a viral marketing engine.

For the last few years, there have been a host of books presenting research on how to create a viral marketing engine. These texts add insight into the dynamics of viral marketing, but they fail to define how to execute viral marketing well. How, for instance, do you realistically and reliably identify influencers or content creators or mavens?

Then, just as these concepts were making their way into marketing models, newer work by Duncan Watts seems to suggest that many previous models are not, scientifically speaking, valid. He argues that influencers are not all that influential after all. For something to go viral, he believes, is a function of among other things – “right time and right place,” he says.

How then can marketers effectively utilize this seemingly arbitrary dynamic? While researchers like Watts are still experimenting with new models, I’ll offer my own. My model lacks any published scientific study, but it is a theory grounded in understanding that breakthroughs happen when we blend science with human nature. So here goes.

When we think about wildly popular trends, from Pokémon to Facebook, they have a few things in common. They were all easy to share, they all presented a novel experience and the activity was largely democratic – easy for most people to participate.  But they also share one other, very important ingredient – they all powerfully satisfy our insatiable human need for “fun”. Yep, that’s it.

Now before you reject “fun” as being too lightweight in strategic value to drive business, it will be instructive to look at the iconic viral success stories for answers.

Let’s start with Ninja Turtles or Pokémon. Their success was grounded in the fact that their fun was incredibly engaging on many levels. They provided different modes of play (cards, video games etc), the fun was easy to transport and play could last hours. “Fun” explains the venerable viral success story of Hush Puppies because Hush Puppies reminded us of when we were kids and fun ruled. Fun by association works as well.

Now let’s look at, arguably the most successful viral engine ever – Facebook. When we apply the “fun” filter we see they carefully baked “fun” into every crevice of the user lifecycle – from encouraging friends to find each other and once found, to the plethora of fun ways for the friends to remain connected.

With this new understanding of balancing the latest scientific thinking with the human element of fun, here’s what a workable viral marketing engine might look like:

  • Enable easy content distribution.
    • Bake in the “6 degrees of distribution” as Watts demonstrated to ensure that messages can be easily transmitted.
  • Elevate “fun” to a strategic initiative in customer lifecycle management strategies.
    • Concentrate on creating a fun experience throughout users’ experience – from the moment you try to acquire them through every interaction with you.
  • Promote as broadly as possible.
    • Duncan Watts advocates for mass reach in digital campaigns because without enough reach, you may not have enough “fun distributors” to get the job done.  Tonnage is one of the secrets of viral success (counter intuitive as that sounds).
  • Timing can improve the odds of viral success.
    • Until the day that some clever researcher can scientifically figure out how to time “fads” (and maybe the stock markets too), this is probably the most challenging element in this model to execute. To stack the “timing” odds in your favor, troll the edgy blogs to see what’s percolating.
  • Create community to extend the fun.
    • Create an opportunity for people to relive the fun via community building programs, whether this is a Facebook group or a formal community. Done well, it is a powerful brand extender.

So there you have it – the new viral marketing engine based on the dual foundation of scientific research coupled with the pure joy of delivering fun. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Facebook people. They made “friend requests” fun and built an empire.

Reprinted from a MediaPost article on October 13, 2009

Judy Shapiro

Why Facebook is succeeding and MySpace isn’t

The techno-pundit circuit has been good enough to provide detailed explanations of what went wrong with MySpace along with lots of advice about what MySpace needs to do now. All this intelligence made all the more accurate given their perfect 20/20 hindsight vision. 

But most answers I read seemed fuzzy and unclear until, that is, I met up with the 16 year old son of a colleague who happened to be in our office one day. 

This fresh faced young man came in with his expected teenage uniform – jeans, t-shirt and his PC. He was quietly but intensely doing something on his PC when I started to talk about how we use our Paltalk Facebook group and I must have snagged the young man’s attention because he lifted his head in interest. Seeing an opportunity to learn from him, I started to ask him what he thought of Facebook. “Oh, he said, “all of us in school are on Facebook now. Yeah”, and then he added on his own, “we all stopped going to MySpace. No one ever uses their real name on MySpace.”

In that one exchange I understood what went wrong for MySpace and in my view, that 16 year old accurately put his finger on the heart of the problem (all the high paid consultants notwithstanding). MySpace simply failed to find ways to help users establish connections that “stick”, connections born of a trusted bond.  As a result, MySpace became a haven for spammers, causing a loss of more trust and the decline trust spiral began.

Before you skeptics reject the simplicity of this answer, consider MySpace’s fate with that of Facebook and the answer becomes easier to fathom. Facebook started as a way for college kids to connect with their trusted peers (trusted only in the sense that they went to the same university – but hey – trust is fluid depending on the context). These students already shared a trust bond, they were already part of trusted community and Facebook provided the platform that let people create these “trusted”, sticky connections. Further, as Facebook grew, it was able to attract a mass audience because it expanded by staying true to its very DNA – its ability to let people make trusted connections. It was a killer strategy and a risky move, but it is now paying off just as, paradoxically, MySpace seems to be feeling its way through the digital dark. 

If one tests this theory to see how it stands up in real life, we see this principle operating at many of the most successful social networks out there. For example, LinkedIn thrives as a professional network because you invite “trusted connections” and video based communities achieve a higher level of trust than a text chat community because one can see who one is talking to. These are just a few different strategies to achieve a similar goal – create ways that let people make trust bonds with each other and within communities.

The core concept I am advocating is that we learn to transform online trust from something we do to avoid digital harm into something we can expect in a next generation web. I am advocating that, like Facebook began, we learn to create the trusted digital society of tomorrow.

In fact, I favor the name the Trusted Web for the next gen web in the hopes that injecting trust as a proactive expectation of the internet is a requirement that should drive our innovations. 

People joining together to make a difference is what trusted communities are all about. Trusted communities are something we all need to help create together – for all of us in technology, education, government and business.

The ties that bind are the one based on trust. Let’s help shape what that means in the next generation web – The Trusted Web.

Judy Shapiro

Untapped potential – the Susan Boyle phenom

                                                          

I admit it – I am probably one of the only people on the planet who does not like American Idol (or Britain’s Got Talent version). It requires too much of the entertainment value to come from the inevitable humiliation that hopefuls are willing to subject themselves to.

 

But Susan Boyle gave me a reason to believe in human potential again and it was a breathtaking moment. Her triumph was the vicarious triumph of anyone who was written off just because of how they looked or because of who their parents were. 

 

It was a moment of triumph for many of us. This is where the social media shows its true power and influence. Within minutes, uTube had the footage. Within hours, there were blogs posts and interviews and Susan Boyle became an overnight digital brand.

 

Astonishing was the speed of her rise. Astonishing was the speed of her broad reach. Most astonishing still, was the desire so many people had to relive and share her amazing experience. And the new digital social media … from Twitter to Paltalk to uTube …  lets us share more broadly and more spontaneously than ever before.

 

Now that’s tapping the biggest source of potential – the human sprit.

 

Judy Shapiro

Multiple Digital Personality Syndrome (MDPS)

                                           

I can hear some techno-therapist reassuring his reclining client that Multiple Digital Personality Syndrome (MDPS), while serious if not properly managed, is a perfectly normal response to our unending ability to become anyone we want – whenever we want — in cyber space.

 

This new techno-malady started innocently enough about 5 years ago when we all needed to create zillion of different accounts with different emails and passwords for the sites we wanted to enter. To organize this potentially chaotic situation, we evolved different personas.

 

I, for one, have my generic email, my personal email, my work email, my linkedin and so forth. This seemingly innocent fracturing of our digital personality driven by a short term need has mutated into this new syndrome, MDPS, so that now, many of us have complex multiple personalities reflected in well designed profile pages on multiple social networking sites.

 

Now while many would look at this MDPS as a slightly amusing by-product of Twitter, LinkedIn, FaceBook, MySpace et al, I see danger lurking in these multiple profiles.

 

If I want good advice about a computer problem from someone I met online, it would be useful to know if this person has credentials to warrant my trust. If I enter a chat room to discuss a topic that I am passionate about, I want to chat with real people – not bots.

 

I wonder how will we learn to balance the need for accountability with the right we have to reveal only as much about ourselves as we choose. I see that this issue will play itself out over and over again in the next few years as social networks dominate how we search, how we shop, how we even meet other people.

 

Perhaps, we must create a new type of balance that starts with the human element. We must start by introducing mutual trust and authentication into the digital ID environment. Much as we have it in the real world where, dependent on the circumstance, different types of identification are used to gain different levels of access. We must translate that model into the digital world too.

 

The technologies are here … now. Web 3.0 needs to become The Trusted Web; otherwise the web will soon feel like what today many experience in inferior, bot filled chat rooms – a pseudo experience meant to emulate real interaction between real people.   

 

Let’s keep it real people. Let’s create the Trusted Web.

 

Judy Shapiro

What’s the point?

                                 

I find myself in an usual business at a very unusual time.

 

After spending years working with technology leaders in telecommunications, software and security, I wanted to explore the expanding role of social networks in our everyday online worlds. So I went looking for opportunities in this new “cool” space. Not so easy given my decidedly lack of “coolness” (I haven’t seen “20 something” in a few decades). Yet nonetheless, in a sheer stroke of great luck and timing, I recently landed at Paltalk — the leader in social networking, about 4 months ago.

 

I settled in to learn about this space. I wanted to understand how can our networks provide us with the kind of verified information that our real world networks provide us all the time? How do we integrate the collective power of the Twitters and Facebooks and UTube’s into our everyday online activities? What’s the best way to stay transparent in our social networks, yet remain safe to prying digital eyes?

 

As all these new concepts were rolling around in my head in those first early weeks at Paltalk, the economic floor began to give way and everything changed. Day after day the bad news was rolling in – first the financial sector, then the business sector. The speed of the financial decline is breathtaking. And the awful ride is not over yet.

 

But business at Paltalk is good. In fact, just today, Jonathan Blum wrote an article entitled; A surprising winner in the downturn: consumer video conferencing, and Paltalk is the primary beneficiary of this trend. In fact, we seem to be the only highly profitable and financially healthy company in the social networking space.

 

Why you ask? I’ll share our secret – but be warned – it is a radical idea.

 

Our secret is that we spent 10 long hard years developing serious technology to deliver a well designed rich media, interactive real time communications platform. And then we did not just give it all away for free (though some of our best features like SuperIM are totally free). We reserved our highest quality video and audio technology for subscribers and subscriptions makes up the vast majority of our revenue. Unlike our competitors, we did not build a business model around ad revenue that, in hindsight, never materialized. Nope, we banked on people willing to pay for great quality. Gee – what a concept.

 

And now as I see an eerie déjà vu of tech bust of 2001 (only bigger), I wonder why we did we not learn our lesson? What’s the point of a just cool company like Twitter with no real business model beyond a vague allusion to some monetization strategy in the future.

 

The point is that “Cool” has no currency – I don’t care what the cool bloggers and reporters and VC’s think. Making money is cool today.

 

That’s the point!

 

Judy Shapiro

What’s face time?

    

Whoopi Goldberg had a funny special on Bravo a while ago about modern life as it is being experienced by those of us weaned on free love and then conscious parenting… She observed, rightly, that while our children are smarter than we are, we are raising a generation of “barbarians”. She was commenting on the fact that our children are proficient tweeters, and IM’ers and texters. But they have too little interactive with real people in the real world.

 

Enter face time.

 

I would bet that some enterprising young graduate student has already tracked how much less face time kids have today versus even just a generation ago. It is obvious – the only question is how much less face time do our kids today have versus even 20 years ago. I would bet the actual figure would horrify most of us.

 

Our kids spend more time in front of devices instead of spending time interacting with human beings. And they are the worse for it. It was Whoopi’s point and it is well worth noting.

 

So what to do? Instead of bemoaning the situation and throwing up your hands in surrender. Fight fire with fire. Use technology to solve the problem it created.

 

Enter video chat.

 

You heard me. For those of you who think it is not for them – think again and get over it. Our highly mobile kids need to be with us even if they are not with us. Video chat has become so easy, that most anyone can figure it out. There are a few ways to do this, including a free video chat software from a company called Paltalk. With this software (and a webcam) you can see your kids and they can see you. In fact up to 10 of you can see each at once. Go get it and get on with it.

 

Face time – delivered technology style.

 

Judy Shapiro  

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