Friday, May 29, 2009

What publishers can learn from urban planners

Vikram Savkar, Publishing Director of Nature Education, made a terrific point in a recent meeting organized by Patty Seybold. He said that modern urban planners try to bring different groups of people together when designing a city because it stimulates innovation. His insight was that perhaps information is like people in a city: bringing different types of information together in a single place could stimulate innovation.

Perhaps Publishers could learn something from urban planners in designing information environments that help users to come up with new ideas. Could we design places for information to "meet" other apparently unrelated information? A kind of information singles-bar, with Publishers as the matchmakers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where does user-generated content fit in?

Here's an example of how free content, paid-for content, and user-generated content can work together to create something really useful.

I love camping. I mean proper camping with a tent. Suppose I decide that I want to go on a camping holiday in the USA. Unless someone has given me a hot tip, I would probably start with a Google search: "what is a great place to go tent camping in USA in the summer". I would search around and find some general travel advice sites. Let's say I decide to go camping in Colorado.

I will likely then buy a guidebook to Colorado both to plan where to go and to take with me as a reference when I go. But where should I pitch my tent? The guidebook has some recommendations for good campsites and I decide to book one since the guidebook warns me it is very popular in summer. But which site at the campsite should I reserve? What better than to find someone who has stayed at this campsite and can recommend a site that has (for instance) a great view, is flat and not too far away from the playground for my kids. Even better if someone has posted some photo's of the choice sites so I can see before I reserve. Great. I can't wait to go.

A traditional publisher view of this scenario might be "there's no way I can include that much detail in my guidebook, if I had information on the best sites in every campsite the book would be a thousand pages". And they would be right. But there's another way of looking at this.

This is no an either/or scenario. User-generated content does not kill off the publisher. It is simply that in my search for somewhere memorable to camp, different information sources help me with different parts of the puzzle.

For my question: "where to camp in USA in summer?" a Google search and a general travel advice site was useful

For my question: "where to go in Colorado?" a guidebook was best for me

For my question: "which site is best to choose at this campsite?" the personal experience of a fellow camper was helpful

What if I created a publishing environment that provides some free information on initial holiday planning, the opportunity to buy a guidebook, and a section where people can share experiences and photo's? There's a good chance I would choose to buy a guidebook that was part of such a system. If all the information was cross-referenced and inter-linked, it would be even more compelling.

My guess is that there are many, many scenarios similar to this. For each one there is an opportunity to blend free, paid-for and user-generated content into something really useful for customers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Complex or complicated?

Humans like to solve problems. Whether it is finding the answer to life, the universe and everything or simply finding somewhere to have lunch, solving problems is satisfying. So it is frustrating when we cannot find a solution. I suggest that there are many problems today to which there is no solution or at least no single solution. These are complex problems.

Complex problems are problems with many interdependent variables. There are so many possible combinations of the variables that it hard to see what is going on. The variables are changing all the time as well and so are the interdependencies. Changing in a non-linear fashion makes it very hard to predict what is going to happen. There seem to be many possible solutions and all of them look feasible. The more we work on the problem, the more details we uncover and the more complex it seems to become. And the further away a solution seems to be.

Complicated problems at first sight appear to be similar to complex problems but as we work on them we see the problem becoming simpler, until eventually the problem is solved. However complicated the problem was to start with, we have untangled it and come up with a solution.

In short, complicated problems have a solution. Complex problems do not. Complex problems have many possible solutions some of which may be more likely than others. Some solutions may solve the problem for a while but fail when the variables change again.

When we have solved a complicated problem we can move on to solve the next one. We don't need to think about it again. Complex problems need a permanent structure in place to continually inspect what is happening and build solutions for the new situation. You solve a complicated problem but you cope with a complex one.

The confusion arises when we try to solve complex problems as if they were complicated ones. It is very natural for us to do this, since we want the satisfaction of finding a single solution. It is also much harder to manage a complex situation than to manage a complicated one, so we tend to prefer that most of our problems are complicated. It's easier that way.

I suspect that much of what is happening in the online world is complex. If follows that learning how to recognize and cope with complexity will be the key to success in the online world.

Social Networking is here to stay (guest post)

This is a guest post from a colleague, Sandra de Gelder. She attended a conference on Corporate Social Networking recently. These are her insights.

Online social networking is here to stay! Online collaboration, collective intelligence, user generated content and crowdsourcing are all growing in popularity. Social media play time is over, it is time to look ahead. Time to investigate how your target audience is changing. How the internet is changing and how you can change the way you connect with your customers.

Insight #1 – The Power of Online Communities

Power continues to shift to communities over brands – ultimately resulting in communities becoming institutions. Online communities allow people to create something together and to select what to buy/read/do based on peer recommendations and actions. E-commerce will merge with social networks. You have to think how to allow the community to help define what is best for them.

Insight #2 – Digital Natives

Social media are most popular with people between 16 and 35. People born after 1980 are referred to as “digital natives”, they grew up with the internet. Digital natives share a set of characteristics that set them apart from “digital immigrants”, especially the way they interact with technology, information and each other – globally. They select, evaluate and process information in different ways: they are non-hierarchical (they listen to their peers, not their seniors, e.g. they will choose to read a blog over the NYT article on a particular subject); they take short-cuts for information quality assessments; they have a short attention span. These are the customers of the future and if you are too slow to cater for them you risk being overlooked.

Insight #3 – Marketing 

Social networking is a way to connect with customers, and allows you to move away from traditional (push) marketing. You need to “fish where the fish are” and connect to where your customers are. You should only build your own community if the existing social networks are insufficient. If you do make sure the needs of the community come first – brand second. If you put your brand first you will fail. Instead of marketing managers you need to hire “social media strategists” and “community managers” and you need a strategy based on an objective – not on the available technologies!

Insight #4 – Customer Relationships Management

Traditional brand marketing will fade away forcing a shift to rely on social networks. Social networks will centralise all activity on the open web – cutting into traditional email. People are going to rank and rate our products and you will not be able to stop it. You must prepare for all products to be reviewed socially and encourage social recommendations. Then aggregate social recommendations on your web sites to encourage trust. People will expose (personal) information to a company as they start to trust them. Once you have earned your customers trust, you can run influencer and word-of-mouth programmes to help ‘fans’ become advocates.

Insight #5: The Future (not so far away, Forrester predicts 2011-2013)

Fully personalised web experience, sites will be serving content based on social relevance. Registration pages will go away. Communities will define products. Companies will build products based on collective opinions and desires.
Social networks will become the next-generation CRM and VRM systems (SalesForce has already partnered with Twitter).

Among the speakers at the Conference were:
Jeremiah Owyang, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research and Urs Gasser, Excecutive Director Berkman Center, Harvard University (leading think tank in academia focused on the internet and its impact on culture)