Reflections on EconSM conference

A few quick reflections on the EconSM conference before hopping on a plane… The event title, the Economics of Social Media, was certainly what attracted me, making this the first conference I’ve attended as a delegate rather than a speaker for probably five years. Just about the most pressing single issue for the media industry as a whole is what the business models will be for the emerging space of social media, neatly encapsulated in the event theme. In addition, Rafat Ali’s PaidContent has clearly established itself as one of the most authoritative publishing sources on the space.

It was great to find several hundred people in the one room where you could assume a high degree of understanding and knowledge on social media. There is something indefinable yet recognizable about a social media geek (or suit). The cast of attendees, let alone speakers, was very impressive, representing most of the really serious players in social media, including the large mainstream media organizations.

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EconSM: Social media meets news

This was a great topic and a very interesting discussion, though it didn’t break new territory. One of the key themes was the perennial of what will be the business models for “serious” journalism. While the panellists all referred in some form to the “clinical depression” that the newspaper industry is finding itself in, there was also much optimism on the opportunity of creating and distributing quality content at low cost. The panel was heavily weighted to establishment players, giving the discussion the tone of incumbents. What was touched on but not really covered was the business models supporting the nexus of mainstream and social media. There are a wealth of new models for monetizing participation that go beyond plying people with ads, though not a word on these. Moderating user generated content was another key issue, with legal issues, taste, and keeping value for audiences. However the mechanics and costs of moderation were not covered. As with the last panel, we got some solid discussion, but few answers. Selected comments from the panellists:

“The zeitgeist in the newsroom is awful. We need to stop bellyaching and do something about it.”

“Journalists got snotty about bloggers. They deserved the slaps they got. We think there’s a place for traditional journalism to go against social-generated media. They’re complementary. The feedback mechanism of the blogosphere is pretty good for filtering user-generated news. As long as it’s transparent and relevant, it’s good to have it out there.”

“Newspapers have to stop rolling over and playing dead.”

“I was speaking to the 12-year old who runs Google News; he was saying that people don’t care where people news come from. I think people care where news comes from. It’s not just established brands; there are some great new brands, like PaidContent.”

“People still want a high quality product. Younger people still read the New York Times, just from the website rather than the paper.”

“The cost of putting up our site is so low, but we’re still high quality. It should be very easy to cover that in sales.”

“Google News is a parasite on the system, but it’s a useful parasite. Sam Zell is completely wrong.”

“We feel that free is better. We want to be part of the conversation. I wouldn’t dream of not being free.” (Referring to the WSJ’s new venture D: All Things Digital.)

Kara Swisher, Wall Street Journal

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Economics of Social Media – the role of Hollywood

I’m at the Economics of Social Media conference in LA. It’s now the third session, Social Media meets Hollwood. I’ll try to review some of the earlier discussions later.

The session was primarily about how mainstream media is complemented by social media, by building conversations about broadcast programs and among their viewers, and also how they are now creating social networks in their own right. On the former issue, it seems like a real no-brainer to facilitate conversations about programs, to build relationships and access. It is very interesting that networks are now presenting themselves as experts in building social networks, and making that a core part of their offer to advertisers. If they (or probably just a few of the existing mainstream broadcasters) can indeed leverage their existing relationships and expertise into this new space (as brought out in George Kliavkoff’s comments), this will provide a solid safety net and platform moving forward.

Here are some snapshost of issues raised by the panellists (not 100% verbatim).

“Anything that can do to raise rating, we’ll do. The more that people do online to be engaged, the more time they’ll spend watching the show. There were concerns that the online activities would cannibalize, but the opposite has been true. It’s helped ratings.”

“We’ve found that charting conversations about programs before they start accurately predicts their success.”

“If we have a sponsor who wanted to access a particular market, and there isn’t an existing social network, we’ll build the social network which will be underwritten by the marketer.” (There will be an announcement shortly on this)

George Kliavkoff, Chief Digital Officer, NBC Universal

“As discussion starts on our site, it radiates out to other parts of the web. It’s very powerful.”

“There are lots of launching pads for everyone.”

Alan Citron, General Manager, TMZ.com

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Robots, aged care, and emotional bonding with machines

Newsday has an interesting article out titled Independent at any age, examining how the elderly now have increased options to lead independent lives rather than being shunted off into homes. While most of the article deals with the issues such as occupational therapy and visiting programs, the final section moves on to how robots can assist senior citizens to live independently. I was interviewed on how robots are being used in health care generally, particularly in Japan, and quoted in the last section of the article:

“Most of the seniors live alone or are lonely,” said Teruo Sasaki, director of the Chicago trade office of the city of Osaka, which is a robotics hub. “They start to not say anything. If robots can speak to them, they will start answering. ”

Sasaki watched a video of how one robot, stationed at hospital doors, caught a patient wandering out. When told by the robot that she wasn’t supposed the leave, the patient went back in.

Japan’s robotics investment has been driven in large part by the numbers of seniors. The 60-plus segment is projected to go from 26 percent of the population now to 33 percent by 2025. Compare this to the United States, with about 17 percent now and an estimated 24 percent in 2025.

Many Japanese feel that their nation should be self-sufficient in caring for the elderly.

“Rather than having a very large influx of immigrants, they prefer to have robots in their environment,” said Ross Dawson, chairman of Future Exploration Network, which follows the future of technology in society, from headquarters in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco.

But Japan’s high-speed investment into made-for-seniors robots has raised some debates, including how much human-ness we can take from machines before it’s too creepy.

Dawson said, “You can hire some of these robots and put them in your stall or exhibition stand or something,” he said. “But in terms of looking at age care … to try to pretend that the robot is a person doesn’t help.”

I have written before about robots in aged care in Japan, therapeutic robots such as Paro the seal, Japanese robot otaku, and other similar examples. The point I was making in my interview for this article was that the primary role of robots in aged care – at this stage in any case – is practical, such as dispensing drugs, finding lost objects, calling for help, assisting people to move around, and so on. Many people think of robots as humanoid, but in fact most robots have no need to look like humans, and it is usually not functional to try to do so. There is an entirely distinct application for robots, which is emotional bonding. In this case again, trying to make robots look human makes the task far harder. We find it difficult to build emotional ties with something we can distinguish as a machine, which is trying to look and act human, and failing. However we can definitely build emotional bonds with furry toys, especially if they respond to our stroking and voices in ways similar to small animals. Many people love R2D2 from Star Wars, which is distinctly uncuddly, certainly not humanoid, but endearing in its behaviors and interaction. The whole space of emotional robotics will rapidly evolve, driven initially by the value for the elderly, and soon after in child care and the family home. Clearly robots are not substitutes for humans. Yet before long we will consider it commonplace for people to have emotional bonds with robots.

The state of social networking software for the enterprise

Social networking software is at the center of technology hype, with MySpace, Bebo, Cyworld, Facebook, Piczo and many others attracting extraordinary valuations. Yet social networking is not just about friends and personal networks. Applying social networks in the enterprise is a sweet spot that has massive potential value. At the heart of the issue is how you tap the true potential of an organization, by bringing its most relevant expertise and resources to where they can be of most value. It’s worth reviewing the background to the space, given recent developments, and also because it remains a very high potential space, which will evolve substantially further over the next years.

In 2003 there were three major vendors of social networking platforms for the enterprise: Spoke, VisiblePath, and Contact Networks, while Interface Software integrated similar functionality into its CRM application InterAction (since bought by Lexis-Nexis). All three vendors showed great promise, which in all cases has yet to come to full fruition. The original intention of each was to suggest the best path through your contacts to the person you wanted to meet. VisiblePath and Contact Networks focused on applications entirely inside the enterprise, with the value proposition centered on being able to identify who within your organization could best introduce you to key contacts at prospective clients. At the time Boston Consulting Group also introduced an internal application that provided similar functionality, listing who inside the firm would be most likely to be able to introduce you to the people in the marketplace you wanted to meet. Spoke had a unique model at the time, providing both social networking applications inside the enterprise, as well as a public version of their application. If you signed up, Spoke indexed your Outlook, and established your “relationship strength” with all your contacts, based on a complex algorithm including how often you emailed each other, how quickly you responded to emails relative to those of others, use of attachments, and much more. As such, instead of providing just a “degrees of separation” between you and others, as with LinkedIn, it recommended the strongest path of relationships between you and the person you wanted to meet.

By providing both a public platform as well as an enterprise version, Spoke provided a far richer scope of connections for both groups to tap. Spoke was the gold sponsor for the Living Networks Forum I ran with Business Development Institute in New York in December 2003. To illustrate the ideas of the living networks, we set up Spoke on screens around the venue and got people to register on Spoke before the event. This meant that attendees could explore their network connections live at the event. For example two people who met at a coffee break could go to a screen and find out who they knew in common, and discover the overlap and potential of their personal networks. [Disclosure: while Spoke sponsored my 2003 event, I have had no contact with them for over two years.]

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Interview on client relationships in the management consulting industry

Michael McLaughlin, editor of Management Consulting News, recently interviewed me about how consultants can implement knowledge-based client relationships. A couple of brief excerpts from the interview are below – go to the full interview on Management Consulting News for the rest, in which I discuss trends in the industry, managing procurement professionals, the role of brand, consulting firm marketing programs, and related issues.

McLaughlin: What is a knowledge-based client relationship?

Dawson: It struck me early on that knowledge is the real heart of the value consultants provide. I don’t mean just the knowledge of the consultant, but the way that the consultant applies it so that the client learns or is transformed as a result of the engagement.

I distinguish between black-box consulting relationships and knowledge-based ones. In a black-box relationship, the client engages the consultant to come up with solutions, processes, or implementations and, hopefully, a result is achieved for the client. But, at the end, the client is none the wiser.

In contrast, a knowledge-based relationship has a higher degree of interaction and, as a result, the client actually learns to change. Maybe your client becomes better at making decisions, or managing processes, for example.

McLaughlin: If you look out over the next few years, how do you think the profile of a successful consultant will change?

Dawson: One of the driving forces in the economy is increasing specialization. As time passes, consultants will need deeper specialization.

Clearly, that in itself is of limited value. In part, increased specialization implies that greater collaboration within a firm will be necessary to succeed with clients. But as individuals, we need both an area of deep specialization and carefully selected areas in which we have a generalist understanding.

The importance of the individual practitioner, whether you work solo or you’re a specialist within a larger firm, is waning. The ability to work effectively in teams will continue to be the real driver of success.

Personal networks are another factor that has been important in the past and will continue to resonate. Clients are increasingly seeking out consultants, not just for their expertise, but for the consultant’s access to the unique insights of others in their networks.

Read the full interview.

40 biggest players of Australia’s digital age

B&T has just launched Digital Media magazine, “Australia’s journal of the new media revolution”, with the cover story on their inaugural issue: “40 Biggest Players of Australia’s Digital Age”. I am named as one of the 40 biggest players in digital media in Australia, saying about why I matter (no this is not from my PR release :-)):

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“Ross Dawson is one of the truly big thinkers of the Australian digital media industry. He has been described as a guru of the online media and Web 2.0 movement, which embodies everything from online social networks such as MySpace through the user-generated content revolution epitomised by YouTube. As a strategic consultant with the Future Exploration Network, Dawson is a regular on the speaker circuit across Australia, the US and the UK, and has authored two books and more than 50 articles for a wide range of journals. He was also the creator of the Future of Media Report 2006, which has been downloaded 35,000 times.”

I’m probably an odd one out here, with most of the others on the list the more obvious CEOs of digital media companies such as News, Fairfax, Yahoo!7, and Sensis, and leaders of major advertising and online marketing companies. I’m certainly happy to be recognized for the work I’m doing here, particularly since I don’t work only in the digital space, and I focus much of my attention and energy in the US and elsewhere. However my intention is to live up to the billing, and do a lot more this year and beyond to help shift how business in Australia thinks about and taps into our marvellous digital world.