Overview of the Web 2.0 Summit 2008

I felt fortunate to attend my third Web 2.0 Summit, November 5-7, 2008, in San Francisco (thank you, Andreas!). I really thought it was an excellent event and fairly different from the prior ones I attended (here are my comments on the 2005 Conference and 2006 as well.) What was most different was the strong and well-coordinated thematic focus on "World Meets Web" -- it truly permeated and unified the sessions and discussions. The concept behind this is that we've come a long way with the web and it has become a major influencer on the global society. How do we use this new found medium for the betterment of the planet and to deal with all the issues we face? It couldn't have been a more timely theme,  nor punctuated better than Al Gore's closing comments, as he noted Barack Obama could not have been elected without the web! Talk about web meets world....

The format was generally the same as previously. Wednesday morning provided the only workshops, where you have the choice of attending several tracks that run simultaneously. (This is where you typically wish you could be in two or more places at once so you don't miss anything.) Starting Wednesday afternoon and through the conference closing late Friday, we all assembled in a large conference room for the engaging interviews with true industry leaders as well as the “high order bits” (short, 10-20 minute talks by various domain experts).

There's lots of info online of course about the Summit, and in the interest of time and efficiency, I'm not going to bother deep linking to everything. Here are the bios for all the speakers, and many of the presentations (and video) are online too. My main goal is to share some of the insights I captured from the various speakers and events.

For the workshops, I chose topics related to presentation and advertising, as this relates closest to what I'm working on now (developing new web personalization and ad serving capabilities for Sun).

The first talk was a bit of a strange start, as a little ways into it I realized it had nothing to do with the web (at least directly). Go figure. Nancy Duarte's topic was "Telling Meaningful Visual Stories" and was really about creating compelling presentations. It was targeted partly at least to the many entrepreneurs that attend, with lots of guidance on how to make compelling pitches to VCs. But I think there are lessons to be learned for presenting info on the web as well. Some key takeaways:

  • To connect with the customer, become a story teller. Share experiences, be vulnerable perhaps, believe that your own story can touch customers. (This is something that cannot be outsourced!)
  • Consider your audience first and how to reach them, then develop the content. A presentation is not a “document”.
  • Break out of the mold – start with a blank page, not a template. Change your environment, get a different perspective, collaborate and brainstorm on ideas. You want to inform, inspire, persuade.
  • Avoid complicated architectural diagrams, as they don't resonate. "Tell" your architecture as a story.
  • Use metaphors. Include conflict to grab attention. Produce ideas and stories, not slides. Be transparent, be different. Your stories can change and influence!

The next workshop I attended was "Consumer Brands Tackle Marketing 2.0," with some high profile marketers from leading companies. Some nuggets from that panel:

  • Technology changes, people don't.
  • Social media offers new opportunities for gaining customer insight, if you know what to do with it. Consider "perpetual marketing," as the engagement doesn't end. We're still evolving how to use social media consistently in marketing programs.
  • The audience defines the message. Good creative still wins, technology can't overcome crappy messaging and content.
  • Traditional media has the reach but many in the audience won't be interested. For example, if you advertise Pampers on national TV, what percentage of the audience cares? This is really where we can differentiate advertising on the web, by targeting interested and relevant audiences much more closely.

As I mentioned, we're working on more personalization initiatives here at Sun, and one outcome is that we're bumping up against our own privacy policy. There's a fine line there about what we can and cannot do. I asked the panel about how they deal with it, and mostly got shrugs! David Knox from Procter & Gamble did say they had just changed their privacy policy to enable global opt-in/opt-out on their site, instead of by section as it was previously. Their approach was to email every single customer and inform them of the new policy.

So it seems everyone is trying to deal with this, and there is no perfect answer. I think the best thing is to be transparent with what we're doing. We need to revisit Sun's privacy policy to see how it can evolve to match the evolution of our web and personalization capabilities. When we do make a change, we'll need to communicate it appropriately.

The last workshop I attended had the not-so-helpful title of "Please - Not Another Network Panel." Sponsored by Yahoo, it actually focused on web advertising and ad networks. I'm pretty new to this area so didn't follow all the subtleties of the conversation about how these mega-networks work, but I managed to learn more about that side of the industry.

And with that, it was lunch time, then we headed in for the start of the mega-conference. The focus on web meets world was clear from the start, as the first interview was with Larry Brilliant, head of google.org, Google's philanthropic arm. Google committed from the start to putting 1% of revenue, profit, and resources into philanthropy. We'll see this theme repeated throughout the conference – the web has made you millions (or billions), so how will you use that to make the world a better place?

Google is focused on three key initiatives:

  • Inform & Empower -- mostly a third world focus on empowering communities to get better information and accountability from their governments.
  • Predict & Prevent – Early disease identification and prevention. This touched on another recurring theme, “instrumenting the world.” We have great new sensor capabilities and can tie the sensors together via the web for almost real-time, unprecedented insights into the global ecosystem.
  • Renewable Energy -- specifically, we need a form of renewable energy that is cheaper than coal. At that point, there is no financial barrier to adoption.

Bottom line: "It's time to use technology to make the world a better place."

Mary Meeker gave her usual dizzying blitz of a zillion financial slides in about 15 minutes. It's pretty hard to digest that quickly but my takeaway was that, while the economy may be tanking, there is still plenty of growth and opportunity for Web innovators.

Rajesh Jain from Netcore Solutions (see his blog at emergic.org) explained how there are about 10 times as many people with cell phones in India as have Internet access. As a result, SMS is huge, offering ease of use, low cost, and easy value added services. There's a huge direct to consumer reach. He used the term “invertising” for invited ads in SMS messaging.

Up next was super-VC John Doerr, who helped fund Sun (amongst many other companies) years ago. He talked about Obama being the first President who will have a CTO, and suggested (Sun co-founder) Bill Joy would be a perfect fit. He felt energy research is our #1 priority and expressed a big concern that we're not graduating enough scientists and engineers. He also felt it was absurd that we train foreign students, then kick them out of the country once they're trained. I loved the way he summed it up:  "We should staple a green card to their diplomas!" Makes sense to me.

Doerr offered up survival tips for start-ups during the economic meltdown (which he described as more than bad mortgages, it's a "crisis of confidence"). I think much of this is great advice regardless of how big your company is:

  • Hunker down, take on the long view, focus on your core
  • Act now, and with haste (before funding gets cut)
  • Protect the core of your business (don't lay off the key people!)
  • Have 18 months worth of cash in the bank
  • Defer facilities investments
  • Re-evaluate R&D priorities
  • Renegotiate all your contracts
  • Everyone in the company needs to SELL
  • Give equity instead of cash
  • Secure the cash (i.e treasuries, somewhere safe)
  • React quickly to leading indicators and KPIs
  • Over communicate, don't sugar coat bad news
He was quite bullish on the iPhone and said they're seriously investing in it as a platform. He likes cooliris.com. He likes companies focused on the conversion of IT and "green technology."

Next up, Tony Hsieh, the personable CEO of Zappos.com. I think the Zappos story is well-publicized so won't go into details, other than to say it's quite impressive what they've done. This web-based "shoe store" is now a $1B business and expanding quickly beyond footwear. A few key points:

  • The company is "powered by service".
  • The goal is to WOW each & every customer.
  • Business is built by repeat customers and word of mouth.
  • It's good to have people call your customer support line. There is no better branding opportunity then speaking with your customers.
  • Company culture = company brand.

Larry Lessig, the outspoken Stanford Law professor, talked about the current failures of our government. He says it's come to the point where the Number One job of our elected representatives is to get "tenure" (i.e. raise enough money to get elected over and over again). Money destroys trust. We must change congress to fix our economy.

Day one ended with Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang on the hot seat, grilled somewhat mercilessly (but fairly, I think) by conference promoter John Battelle. Jerry took the hard questions graciously and stood his ground. He explained Yahoo's strength as a consumer brand that enables people to get what they want from the 'net. It's the starting point.

He talked about recent efforts to open up the Yahoo platform with the Yahoo! Open Strategy, enabling third party apps to integrate with Yahoo services. There is opportunity for all in the creativity that will come out of opening up the platform.

What I hadn't realized was the large press presence and how they would pick up on what was being said. While discussing Microsoft, Yang said he thought Microsoft should buy Yahoo. I was surprised when this casual statement during a conversation turned into national news.

As you can see, it was quite a stimulating Day 1!

As an aside...
I was amazed at the proliferation of iPhones in the audience (and Blackberries -- the lady sitting next to me had one of each on her lap) and somewhat dismayed at how many people were looking down constantly with an eerie blueish light on their faces from the phone displays. It didn't seem to me they were paying attention to the conference, and I wonder about this newest contributor to attention deficit disorder. But perhaps they're just better at multitasking then I am.

Continue to read about Day 2...


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I helped design, build, and manage download systems at Sun for many years. Recently I've focused on web eMarketing systems. Occasionally, I write about other interests, such as holography and jazz guitar. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/garyzel


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