Tubular Vision


Apologies in the delay in writing this up. I’m doing a little “timeshifting” of my own.

On Tuesday, I went to two unusually interesting conference / industry things. The first was e-consultancy’s roundtable on social networking and how it is affecting marketing, the second was Chinwag’s “Web TV takeover“. Both incredibly ripe topics, with some amazing contributors, although Chinwag’s was marred as usual by the venue. This is not something that can be said of the e-consultancy event, which was in a room with some of the best views of London I’ve ever seen (see top). 

Anyhow, e-consultancy are going to post the output of that roundtable which is also held under Chattam House rules so I don’t want to go into too much detail but suffice to say, it was fascinating to sit in a room and have a discussion which started out talking about how marketers can use social media and ended up being about how social media completely re-writes the landscape, forcing actual product innovation, deep customer insight and a whole new way to look at the companies’ relationships with their staff. Sort of Hughtrain meets Purple Cow, with a fair sprinkling of Facebook of course.

Web TV promised to be similarly fascinating, whether you’re a traditional broadcaster or a online specialist, the convergence of the two seems inevitable and fraught with difficulty.

As I mentioned earlier, as with previous events, The Slug and Lettuce on Wardour Street really didn’t spare any effort in attempting to ruin the staging of the event, including turning the volume control on their fridges to 11, staff walking out the kitchen shouting instructions, banging doors and so on.

This wasn’t helped by some audience members the wrong side of a couple of bottles of Chardonnay and shouting obscure tangential comments when not engaged in noisy side conversations.

Some really interesting takeaways in any case. Starting with definitions and a useful break down of the structure of the end-to-end delivery.

The whole panel agreed remarkably quickly that Web TV was IPTV and could be broken down into ‘closed’   networks (Virgin, Home Choice etc) and Open ones (You Tube, Joost). IPTV could also be divided between download and streaming (with the note that YouTube looks like streaming, despite technically being download), and the further consideration between what was sent out from a central point (e.g. 4oD) and what could be distributed over P2P networks (Joost).

In terms of modeling the business process, a good summary was given (by, I think Alexander CameronUPDATE (thanks to Sam Michel) by Alan Patrick of Broadstuff Consultancy). The stages are:

Content Creation: Whether that’s UGC, a studio or repuposing archives

Aggregation: Bringing the stuff together to make shows / channels

Distribution: Getting it to consumers. Clearly this being where the ISPs come in. A key point was made that the network operators on mobile arguable make too much on this. Online, perhaps, they make too little.

Reception: The cost of providing sophisticated set-top boxes may be prohibitive but it provides lock in in a way that using a browser doesn’t – although certainly a better experience. Clearly changing habits and technology in the home are as much a driver of this as what the broadcast networks want to do.

Each of these elements has unique (and often substantial) costs. There are only two real ways of making money – advertising and charging the user directly. Clearly the effectiveness of traditional, interuptive ad formats is being challenged (and a long debate over Google’s (and Bright Cove’s) overlay formats took place at this point). However, it was also suggested that customers would pick ad-funded free content over paid-for content every time. Cosmo Lush (what a great name) from 4oD explained that 4oD continued to experiment extensively with monetisation models and did not, for now, have a single settled strategy.

An amusing moment when Mr Lush (as the only real representative of the broadcast media) was asked whether advertising would completely migrate off traditional TV. His answer was “yes”.

He also talked briefly about a currently small market for “download to own” – the digital equivalent of the box-set market of old. This is currently constrained by confidence in ability to store digital media, but could become hugely lucrative.

The conversation then turned to piracy with Ben Lavendar from LoveFilm Alex Cameron pointing out that piracy was actually what people were doing most (the ‘predominant business model’ as he put it). Clearly the digital video content market will face many of the challenges of the music market in coming to terms with that.

BrightCove’s Raghav Gupta discussed whether a central repository for content would emerge. His answer was that content owners would need to think about a “blended distribution” of their content across multiple analogue and digital platforms. I couldn’t help but wonder whether we don’t have a single home for content already. BitTorrent.

However, the most interesting part of the conversation from my point of view came during the questions. If the current (internet) ISPs feel that they’re being relegated to “pipe-owners” in an increasingly commoditised market, how will they deal with ever more huge amounts of IPTV being run over their networks, with everyone but them seeing the benefit? The risk is that they will start to ‘shape’ (bugger about with) the traffic as it goes through their networks or even align with particular content producers and aggregators in return for a share of the revenue. This could be disasterous and threaten the open nature of the internet. It’s a debate we need to have soon, although not a particularly new one (see Net Neutrality).

It was suggested by one of pannelists that the BBC would deliberately kick this debate off around their new (and frankly awful) iPlayer. I hope they do. This is something we need to resolve before internet becomes the distribution channel for all TV content.

Summer in the city

Chinwag event 

You kind of have to take your hat off to Chinwag for having a go at organising a massive summer bash for an industry once again in rude health. Big Summer ’07 is their attempt to bring the industry together for a big event, oodles of (social!) networking, a drink and a dance.

Well I met some nice new people, some very nice old people (not old old people, old acquaintances), had a good burger and some salad, and…. stood in queues and listened to people whinge about queues, rain and burgers.

I guess it’s a vicious circle. If the industry is on its knees then no one wants a party. If the industry’s booming then everyone expects waiter service and caviar, rather than being reminded of the last time they were in a student union without enough bar staff. Something tells me the sponsors’ pockets were deep but not that deep. Still I guess it’ll prevent a few unsightly hangovers.

Surely the next one should be some sort of Chinwag flashmob. Then everyone can bring their own drinks or drugs or whatever, and agency.com can still sponsor the lanyards.

Would you like widgets with that?

Lots of widgets (Mac OSX) 

Tonight’s media widgetised was the fourth in the Chinwag live series of events. This one is part of a broader collection of discussion groups about the effects of widgets, and I’m delighted to be speaking at the next one, being organised by Ian at NMK and Beers & Innovation.

Staging was massively improved but more importantly we were also treated to an exciting panel and an engaged audience. Steve Bowbrick kept things moving along swiftly and Fergus Burns of Nooked and Kaj Häggman of Widsets both had massive depth of experience.

I suppose it’s unsuprising that there was a few detours into the definition of the term. We ended up with the “content or service atomised and made available for sharing”, as well as “website peel offs” which is a nice take. Interesting discussions too about the common runtime environments and sandboxes that are coming from Microsoft and Adobe.

Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about this year being the year of the widget. If that means anything, we’re going to have to work out what these things are for and how they provide business value as well as consumer value.

The response to the question about whether widgets were just complex affiliate marketing wasn’t brilliantly complete but three basic models did get talked about in a variety of terms

  1. Widgets as affiliate-style traffic generation, allowing relevance and atomisation but returning users to a base website
  2. Widgets as branded utility
  3. Widgets as the whole experience, just in the wrong place (as it were)

(I’d add a fourth, widgets as just a subset of the broader church of mash-ups, SaaS and web-service integration) 

One thing irked a little. The panel as a whole and the chair in particular were very scathing about widgets on mobiles, the claim being that the networks have excessively locked down handsets (preventing widgets) in order to protect revenues.

Well, I’m not saying networks don’t think about protecting revenue streams but I think this is exceptionally over simplistic, especially when networks could benefit enormously from the traffic such tools would generate. For all the that the widget-merchants on the panel talked about the importance of user-focus and usability, no one could see the problem with opening up mobile phones to the random and unpredictable behaviour of unpoliced widgets. Widsets may well provide the decent security and usability framework that is required. The alternative is an unthinkable security and usability nightmare as Andrew Orlowski points out here. How exactly will Vodafone or Orange’s oursourced call centres handle calls about a malfunctioning widget!!

PPC earth tremor – 50 evenings mildly disrupted

Earthquake - residential damage

Tonight was the promisingly named “PPC Earthquake” for Chinwag(#3). Each of these events has had an unusual noun appended to it (I suspect for searchability and Flickr tagging purposes), but this little bit of hyperbole was the most impressive and misleading to date. Unless they meant it would involve mindless destruction of my evening.

Putting aside the poor staging – constantly interupted by technical failures and squeeking doors – and the rude audience members carrying on conversations during the proceedings, our host for the evening Mike Butcher ranged between bored and aggressive as the pannelists (with the exception of Nigel Leggatt from Microsoft) said not very much at all about anything.

Considering the amount of general press and blog attention for the new Yahoo platform, the discussion tonight was fairly redundant as we cycled to the conclusion that the big three would scrap it out, unless…. er…. someone else came along to challenge them.

Mobile search might be interesting, but everyone agreed not quite yet. At one point someone in the audience said “shouldn’t we be more user-centred”, meaning – I think – why are the main engines not providing better user experiences (incidentally a point I would dispute, they’re all pretty bloody good from all the tests I’ve seen). But the point did have relevance tonight. Get someone to oil the door, fix the lights and apply electric shocks to the pannelists when they’re saying nothing. That would have been more centred around tonights poor ‘users’.

For what it’s worth, I think Chinwag, should either declare itself an industry event (i.e. about the structure of the industry and industry politics, and pick some really contentious industry debates – who’s best placed to do search, an open debate on advertiser funding etc.), or broaden the debates to cover something actually new, something outside the audience’s comfort zone.

I suspect their current mild ambivalence to matters of interest is caused by the need for a sponsor, although senior people from big mouth media (tonight’s sponsor) were noticably absent from the event. This is a particular shame since 10 minutes of Steve might have made all the difference.