Different regions and brands are becoming notable players in the technology space. Industry leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York to discuss the evolution of tech communications at this Airfoil-hosted roundtable.
Sandra Fathi, president and founder, Affect
Bill Hughes, CCO, Pitney Bowes
Katrina Klier, MD, marketing and communications, digital, Accenture
Brendan Lewis, director of corporate comms, Foursquare
Bennett Porter, VP of marcomms, SurveyMonkey
Jon Schwartz, senior director of business and brand comms, NASCAR
Karina Sokolovsky, senior PR director, eBay
Janet Tyler, co-CEO, Airfoil
Charles Zinkowski, SVP, US deputy tech practice director, H+K Strategies
Centers of attention
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Innovation clusters are being identified in surprising locations all over the US and the world. Please identify some of these “under-the-radar” hubs and how they have come to earn the moniker.
Janet Tyler (Airfoil): Three main things go into creating an innovation hub or cluster. You must be able to recruit for talent and money, investment, and capital. It's getting a little easier with investment. You have platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and all these cool crowdsourcing apps that are lowering the risk for innovation and allowing it to happen anywhere. I have recently been reading about Iowa, the Silicon Prairie. Innovation is happening in Iowa. That's a sign it can happen anywhere.
Brendan Lewis (Foursquare): There are additional factors to the three Janet noted. The desirability of the town is one. New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston – they're like Major League teams. Then you have other cities that are not as big, but they're looking to build a presence. Civic leadership is trying to attract people to those places, especially as we become more and more of a services economy.
You also have to factor what would make a city cool to live in. You can't ignore the music and arts scene, climate, and such things. Austin, TX, has really exploded in the past few years. I was just at a conference in Nashville, which is really making strides in this area.
Bill Hughes (Pitney Bowes): I grew up in North Carolina, the home of Research Triangle Park, which actually started back in 1960. Companies in the area had the banks and many great universities from where they could pull talent.
What's driving this area to be an innovation hub now is interesting. In a recent chat I had with the president of the College of Charleston [in South Carolina], he noted Boeing's move into the city and how the school is trying to expand its curriculum to address technology. There actually isn't one major bank or VC firm in Charleston, but with tax incentives and the like, cities like this are still making inroads to become tech centers.
On a broader level, there's also more money out there and the barriers to entry for startups are not as high as they were.
Jon Schwartz (NASCAR): Staying in that area, there has been a lot of socioeconomic development in Charlotte, NC. There are big banks there. The city is blossoming with new museums. Our very own NASCAR Hall of Fame is there and it's very advanced from a tech standpoint.
NASCAR recently bought its digital rights back from Turner Sports. As such, we had to recruit some 80 or so employees. It was a great exercise that helped us gauge the market for tech staffers – and we were able to attract some top-tier talent from the area. Charlotte might not come to mind as a tech hub, but our experience certainly shows it to be one.
Katrina Klier (Accenture): Millennials want to live where they want to live and work where they want to work. Technology fosters that virtual environment so much more than it ever did before. Having these tiers of tech hubs enables companies to get the best talent regardless of where they are physically located.
This is a wonderful thing for the tech sector because it allows for the bringing together of minds, ideas, and people that would be much more difficult to convene otherwise. It also helps from a money-flow perspective, as the cash need not be located where your company is technically headquartered.
Charles Zinkowski (Hill+Knowlton Strategies): This all presents a very interesting scenario for agencies. Do we need an office in Iowa? As virtual as we all like to be, some clients still want somebody who can be in there on five minutes' notice to sit in a war room with them all day. Las Vegas is another city where investors and tech startups are emerging. Do we need a presence there? This truly dictates the course of business.
Bennett Porter (SurveyMonkey): Our company was founded in 1999 in Madison, WI – not really a tech hub. After a couple of years, it moved to Portland, OR. In 2011 we bought Wufoo, a company that lets users build online forms and was founded in Tampa, FL. Technology allows such companies to develop anywhere and there is more capital out there, but there are still factors that will limit growth in certain pockets.
If you don't have an infrastructure around a startup community, it's harder for that community to get started. You need good lawyers that know how to do startups. You need marcomms pros that can guide you on this journey. It's much more than just having the technology to make you global. As marketers, we need to figure out how to make ourselves available to support these micro-communities that are popping up.
Sandra Fathi (Affect): An interesting development here is that as new tech hubs emerge, an exodus is taking place is some major cities due to factors such as cost of living.
I have a client in Orlando, which a recent Wired article highlighted as a top tech city in the US. This company develops mobile apps and grew from 300 to 700 people in three years. It struggled to hire in Silicon Valley and New York, but had no problem getting people to relocate to Orlando, with its lower cost of living and beautiful weather. This company has outposts in San Francisco and New York, but is headquartered in Orlando. Such stories are becoming more common.
Zinkowski (H+K): Working in cities like that creates a sense of loyalty to the company because you often don't have as many options of where else to go in that city. That loyalty is great, but there is also the challenge as it relates to the infrastructure in that area.
Lewis (Foursquare): This all brings up another challenge to communicators in the tech sector. The reporters you're dealing with aren't necessarily based in these new emerging markets, which is tough. I'm located in SoHo, so I can get together with reporters easily and often. If you're a tech company based in Boise, ID, though, it's a different story.
It's also a challenge from the reporter's side, as they have to manage this inbound stream of more emails and calls while not being able to build that in-person relationship. You have to wonder how much of an effect that has on press coverage.
Fathi (Affect): Just to touch on Orlando a bit more. Disney is churning out incredible software developers and technologists, not to mention marketers. Again, not a city you would automatically think of as a tech hub, but there is a lot of talent there.
Porter (SurveyMonkey): More important than location is mindset. Is Silicon Valley a place or is it a culture? It's both, but what's important to developing technology hubs is having a mindset where failure is accepted. At different places around the world, the propensity for failure, or the acceptance of it, is different. Some places just play it safer than others, but for a city or region to be a tech hub, it needs to be a place where it is not seen as a negative for someone to launch their fifth startup after having learned from failures along the way.
That mindset does not exist everywhere. Until a place embraces that and doesn't hold failure against entrepreneurs, it can never really be a technology hub that will flourish.
Karina Sokolovsky (eBay): Failure can be seen as a badge of honor. New York has that mindset and it's part of why it has become an innovation hub.
For our company, which is based in San Jose, CA, New York is an important place to be. It's the place to observe consumers' shopping habits. We have always brought offline experiences online, but through eBay, PayPal, GSI, and other companies we own, we're starting to bring online experiences offline. A lot of brands today sell on eBay directly, so our presence in New York enables us to have those business development efforts on the ground.
Influencers are also a huge part of our PR strategy, including tech influencers, as well as those in music and fashion. These folks shop and sell on eBay, so being where they are helps us tremendously. It helps us innovate.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): The very nature of tech communications is changing because companies not broadly known for their tech prowess are focusing on tech to bolster their broader outreach. How has this impacted your efforts, as well as the wider PR sector?
Schwartz (NASCAR): NASCAR is really a good example. It's a professional sports league, but we're all about developing technologies. Whether it's using a corn-based ethanol or going from using leaded fuel in our racecars to a biofuel, which we did a couple of years back.
Our partnerships also play a role here. Our new Fan and Media Engagement Center is based on a partnership with HP, a renowned tech company. It helps us understand what's going on in social media and respond in real-time. Speaking as a communicator, a key job is to dispel myths. One of the biggest ones about NASCAR is that it is not a tech company.
Tyler (Airfoil): Tech companies used to be all about the features, the benefits of those features, and how they matched up against competitors. That was how tech companies were branded. Smart communicators quickly realized that it was better to talk at a higher level about innovation, however you define it. Starbucks, for example, talks about innovation all the time. I'm not saying it's a tech brand, but it can certainly learn from how traditional tech brands are marketing themselves.
Zinkowski (H+K): Ford is a client, full disclosure, but it's a perfect example. Four or five years ago, I went into war rooms with Ford to find ways to separate it from GM and Chrysler. We bet on technology as the difference-maker. We wanted to be in the conversations with Google and eBay, not GM and Chrysler. We would talk to tech reporters. We went to CES. It was a process. We got a lot of questions. But we redefined Ford as a consumer electronics company.
Broadly speaking, any company that is using technology to its advantage is a tech company.
Schwartz (NASCAR): Ford is a partner of ours, along with Chevrolet, Toyota, and others. They drive awareness for us. They are all innovators, too, and as NASCAR stakeholders, they are influencing our brand to focus on tech even more.
Zinkowski (H+K): This is actually creating a more clustered universe with nontraditional tech companies competing for space with traditional ones. The eBays and CAs are fighting for the same space as the NASCARs and the Fords. They're all targeting the same influencers now.
Tyler (Airfoil): Innovation is hard to define, though. When I think of Ford, I focus on the interior, the touchscreen, and the like. With Nissan, for example, I think about the Leaf and environmental sustainability. Very different, but both innovative. To me, it's almost less about technology and more about innovation and how you define it.
Lewis (Foursquare): Ten or 12 years ago, a technology company was seen as a backend infrastructure entity that tried to tell its story through the end-user experience or through a consumer company it worked with, all in the hopes to make it accessible to people. A decade and a half later, all these consumer companies are trying to tell their tech story and making it more accessible to people. That's the overriding factor that is changing tech communications – the fact that it's so much more accessible to people.
Codecademy didn't exist 10 to 12 years ago, but now people are picking up tech as a hobby or they know the nuances and the deep drill-down of it a bit more. The accessibility factor has always been a focal point of the story, but the way it's being told is now coming from a completely different angle.
Hughes (Pitney Bowes): Today's generation has grown up with technology. They have been doing all the things we're doing today for a lot longer than us – and they started from zero.Schwartz (NASCAR): Consumers expect more from companies now – and that includes being tech savvy.
About five years ago, we really focused on being green. We burn fossil fuel. We have more spectators drive to our events and burn fossil fuel than any other sport. Literally hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil gets used during race season. Slowly but surely we built this green platform. We're now the sports world's leader in sustainability. We recycle more tires, bottles, and cans. We have a biofuel. We recycle about a quarter of a million gallons of oil a year. It's innovation – and our fans expect it.
Hughes (Pitney Bowes): Technology allows companies to be more green, so this is a tech story, too.
Schwartz (NASCAR): We have a racetrack in Pennsylvania that is completely powered by solar, so much so that it sells power to the region. It powers homes around the region. This is becoming part of our DNA and it's very much a tech story.
Hughes (Pitney Bowes): Examples such as this highlight how technology enables companies to change direction so quickly. Technology also plays a role here in terms of analytics, which will allow consumers to become even more powerful. They will be able to affect more and more change. In fact, it will force brands to anticipate trends before their fan base recommends those kinds of things.
Klier (Accenture): So much communication is done via technology – be it the Web, email, cell phones, and so on – it allows people who have a common interest to have a conversation. It also allows brands to realize that issues such as sustainability and green technology are a bigger and bigger concern for their consumers. They want companies to help them do things such as create a zero-waste supply chain. This has technology and innovation written all over it. Technology enables the conversation and it will enable brands to act.
Zinkowski (H+K): I was with PricewaterhouseCoopers for five years and I considered it a tech company between all the apps and mobility. With Big Data and the like, healthcare and financial services companies are starting to enter that conversation, too. From the tech agency side, this is exciting because it allows us to work with traditional and nontraditional technology companies.
Hughes (Pitney Bowes): Much like the lines are blurring between tech and non-tech companies, the difference between tech and consumer PR agencies will be harder to see, too. There are just going to be agencies.
Tyler (Airfoil): We worked with Starbucks for five years and consider ourselves a tech agency. They told us, “You seem to be really good at innovation communications, so you get us. You understand competition. You work in technology.” Just a very interesting example of where a non-tech company saw value in a tech PR firm.
Fathi (Affect): You would be challenged today to find a company that is not a technology company. Technology is ubiquitous. True traditional tech companies are shying away from talking about their technology. They want to highlight the lifestyle or the feeling you get when using their technology. Look at Apple's marketing. It shows pictures of family and interactions and experiences you can have. It's not talking about underlying bits and bytes.
Then on the flip side, traditional industry suddenly wants to talk about innovative supply chain. Take Walmart, which surely considers itself a tech company. Think about all the technology it is using to deliver a fairly non-tech experience to the shopper that walks into the retail location.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the challenges and opportunities presented to communicators by consumers who are increasingly savvy about IT and technology?
Porter (SurveyMonkey): This all really comes down to what the consumer wants. The people of this generation are all digital natives. They are used to one-click buying and ease of use. More than that, they expect it from all industries. It's not about being positioned differently from others. It's consumer demand.
Schwartz (NASCAR): Think about in-flight Internet access. Many airlines have it, but some don't. But if you get on a plane for a cross-country trip expecting Web access and then don't have it, it changes your entire day. It's an expectation brands simply have to meet.
Klier (Airfoil): The part between purchase and experience is a key challenge for tech communicators. There's so much that happens on the consumer side between “I've bought something” and “I'm really enjoying the experience I was promised” that marketing doesn't touch on. Consumers buy something that is supposed to work with all these different items and it doesn't. This is where consumers get frustrated. They buy something that is supposed to work with all these different items and it doesn't.
Tech marketers can make consumers believe they can't live without the product, but they can't help them with deployment or debugging of that product. That's a challenge.
Sokolovsky (eBay): I attended this year's Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. The big theme was content. Last year, about 18 tech companies went. This year, it was more than 100, so technology was a big theme, too. A lot of session speakers encouraged attendees to think about liquid content as their brand message or their brand message as liquid content.
Technology, whether mobile or social, gives us new opportunities to deliver that content directly to the consumer. This content can help fill that gap Katrina was talking about. There will be a great opportunity for brands to rethink the way they demonstrate new technology, which will also help late adopters get into the game.
Schwartz (NASCAR): Brands have to determine their definition of technology and then how they go about expressing that through their communications channels.
Sprint, a NASCAR partner, talks about unlimited data and all their different products, but it doesn't talk about the fact it has so many patents, which is really a differentiator.
Mobil 1 sponsors driver Tony Stewart. A couple of years ago, an entire campaign was built around him where he got out of his racecar and said, “Yes I won the championship. I'm a skilled driver. I'm at the top of my trade. The reason I won was because I have four more horsepower and that's thanks to the technology of Mobil 1.” It was a very interesting way of tying technology into the brand message.
Klier (Accenture): Regardless of sector, storytelling is a huge part of communicating. In technology, however, it really is vital. Brands tell a story and then drop little pieces of that story here and there for consumers to pick up. Your customers – both current and potential – then build their own story about your products and your brand based on these little tidbits they pick up along the way on Twitter, on a website, from a friend, or at a conference or event. Digital technology and communications truly is the ultimate democratization of a brand.
Hughes (Pitney Bowes): The consumerization of IT has a different impact for a b-to-b company. It's very hard to establish a conversational relationship in 140 characters. The access and utilization of technology absolutely supports brands. The problem is that it's hard to tell the result.
Taken a step further, if everything is done through technology and responding to tweets, Facebook, or LinkedIn, relationships are no longer necessary in business.
And going back to Big Data, the problem there is just how incredibly complicated it is and how incredibly expansive it is. We're looking for predictive behavior and responses from our customers to anticipate what they will be interested in. That information could certainly help us, but it's harder for a b-to-b company than a consumer company to get there.
Fathi (Affect): We actually work with many b-to-b companies on social media and it's easier to measure ROI for them than consumer brands because their customer knows the brand so well. The company also knows the customer so well. I have found that b-to-b companies understand the idea of measurement better as well as the concept of having to justify and not just use these tools as some amplification of a message. They have been measuring for years and can see the impact of that much more easily than, say, a soda company whose products are on various shelves and it's much harder to tell if their social media activity is actually driving sales.
Beyond that, social media is a way to get much closer to their customers, to increase the impact of those personal relationships because that salesperson that once had 100 accounts can now have 1,000 accounts and have a personal relationship with all of them. I don't see the infiltration of technology into those relationships as distancing the human factor. It enhances it and increases productivity. For b-to-b companies, it's incredibly powerful.
Porter (SurveyMonkey): There is a creep factor consumers have about Big Data. The fact that your credit-card company could know that you're going to get a divorce before you do is creepy. A way to get over that is to explicitly ask customers to buy it. Ask their opinion. That's where the idea of explicit data and surveys comes in.
With implicit data, you see trends happening but don't know why. With surveys, though, you can now get data back in real time and see the trend lines. Then you can have this implicit data working with the explicit data, but you've asked people to buy in and offer their opinion. You've engaged the customer and gotten data back in a usable set.
Fathi (Affect): To that point, another interesting thing about Big Data, which is really important to discuss in this forum because tech space companies truly have access to tremendous amounts of data, is that the analysis and extraction of insights is often more costly than the benefit. Not everyone can monetize those insights and get the ROI.
Schwartz (NASCAR): We use Big Data in a different way. We look to get real-time analytics about the conversations going on about our sport. Analysis of those conversations helps us quickly determine where to put resources. We're the biggest party on earth. We're the most chaotic and loudest environment imaginable. This data helps us cut through that clutter and in the quiet, calm sanctity of our little center, we use real-time analytics to provide real-time solutions.
Sources of influence
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Perhaps more than most sectors, consumers and third parties are crucial in the marketing equation for tech brands. And traditional media still has its place. Who are the key influencers you pursue?
Lewis (Foursquare): We've always been direct to consumer. We're a consumer advent starting with check-in. We're actually going the other way now to the merchant side. For us, though, it has always been a very permission-based thing. It's very logical to conclude that the people using our service are our ultimate influencers. They're the ones who leave a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on the traffic on our site, the new version of the app we're doing, the restaurants we recommend, and so on. All that information is going to be incredibly relevant to merchants, as well as the people we'll ultimately be selling stuff to.
When you look at it, it's all intertwined on who an influencer is. The traditional press is great, but it's one part of an equation that used to be a much larger part of the equation. Now it comes down to a series of reviews, the spike in traffic, the people who write great reviews on Google Play Store or iTunes talking about how great the new enhancement we just introduced is. That's a hell of a lot more valuable than a good write-up in a tech publication.
Tyler (Airfoil): It's not that different than it used to be. Maybe there are fewer traditional media outlets, but they still matter in the mix of things.
To me, however, three huge influencers in this space are Mary Meeker, a venture capitalist who issues an annual report on Internet trends, Arianna Huffington, and AllThingsD's Kara Swisher. In some ways, it's hard to define exactly who each of these women are because they do so much, but what they say can really matter to a tech brand.
In addition, while Swisher and Huffington are obviously media figures, Meeker is tougher to place precisely. She issues that report and it gets a huge wave of media coverage. Does that make her media? I'm not sure, but it makes her an influencer.
Lewis (Foursquare): Here's an interesting story. Earlier this year, there was a well-chronicled photo of a guy [tech evangelist Robert Scoble] wearing Google Glass in his shower. He was actually trying to prove how great the product is. But it can absolutely go the opposite way, too. You've got these self-anointed – or somehow-anointed – enthusiastic influencers and they do something like that and a rash of articles comes out after that to say the product isn't as great.
Zinkowski (H+K): What defines an influencer varies by the client, even in the tech sector. I still have some tech clients that want the above-the-fold Wall Street Journal piece. That's fine, but other clients understand that the real value is when that piece is re-tweeted 10,000 times to followers. That certainly has more of an impact than a print story that is viewed by one person and then left on the subway. Technology is redefining what the key factors are.
For a number of clients, we have a list of traditional media and a list of influencers. Our major question: who are the people that we need to put you in a room with to have a conversation? Is it [Techonomy's] David Kirkpatrick? Someone like that who can just carry on a conversation and know about the next 20 years of technology.
Tyler (Airfoil): At the end of the day, that's what I was doing 15 to 20 years ago. Don't overthink it. A communicator's job is to know who influences your brand and has a bigger say in your brand's story and get to know them.
Klier (Accenture): You have card-carrying members of the press, The Wall Street Journal and the like, that you call for that above-the-fold story, but that often spurs other “press” that isn't traditional and isn't formal. And at that point, quality of reporting becomes an issue for companies.
As a communicator, you have to factor the positives and negatives of that. On one hand, that broader reach can certainly bring a spike for your brand. On the flip side, you could be looking at a story that gets re-tweeted a million times with inaccurate information.
Schwartz (NASCAR): To define the influencer, you must first define your objective. For us, a lot of that revolves around the sport – our races. And those influencers can be anyone from ESPN's Darren Rovell, with his tens of thousands of followers, or someone who reaches Madison Avenue when we're looking for sponsorship partners.
On the tech side, our fans use second screen – whether it be a mobile phone or tablet – for a whole different user experience to complement the viewing broadcast. They expect us to have the technology to get them data and information that they can't get sitting in the stands or watching on TV. I go back to the re-acquisition of our digital rights and how that is propelling us. Perhaps more than most other brands, our fans are the influencers.
Sokolovsky (eBay): We've actually found a great community on Tumblr, so we've launched Inside Source as our official presence on the platform. In fact, we employ a lot of the media to write for us. They focus on fashion trends they're seeing on the runway, awesome cars that you can build from parts you buy on eBay, or film. That community of niche cultural influencers is still relatively small when you think about the 100 million users we have. But we nurture them and view them as the next round of influencers for us.
I was eBay's first employee in New York and the reason the company placed someone there was to build networks. And the intersection of technology with the various niches we are a part of is so apparent. We hear from so many people in the fashion and art worlds about the need for a personalized homepage on eBay. When you go to eBay, you're not seeing things that don't really matter to you. That technology launched last fall and is advancing more into a curative experience that is all influenced by what high-profile shoppers are telling us.
The mobile effect
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Does mobile have a different impact on tech communicators as compared to PR pros in any other sector?
Zinkowski (H+K): Mobile doesn't turn us into 24-7, but rather 25-8. That 3am call is more the norm now, especially as we go global. We work with brands large and small and people can chime in on any brand at any time. They can get data from consumers at any time and decisions are made and changed based on that. And those decisions must be made quickly. Truthfully, in just the last two or three years, this 25-8 reality has cemented itself.
We also have to show an ability to use technology to our advantage to let reporters or bloggers who also engage in that technology know we're on the same page in that regard. That mobility factor has changed who we are as tech communicators.
Klier (Accenture): I'll take this question from a content standpoint. I was at dinner in Las Vegas recently. The proud Midwesterner I am, I ordered a steak and it was horrible. I asked the waiter if something could be done and he danced around it. Then I pulled my phone out, checked in on Foursquare, mentioned to him that I also had a blog, and, voila, I got a well-cooked steak. They even comped me a glass of wine.
Why did this happen? Because I had a mobile phone in my hand on which I could tell everyone, through different apps and platforms, about my experience at this particular restaurant. The power of mobile is amazing and every brand, tech included, needs to really focus on their content strategy and how it connects the online and offline experience. You have to think through what people actually do with particular devices. Mobile phones are more in the moment and pertain to geographically specific matters. A tablet is better served for medium- or longer-form content that I might take in on an airplane or on my daily train ride.
Schwartz (NASCAR): Nearly half of our fan base uses a mobile device during an event. In developing content, we understood the frustration many felt that our mobile content did not match our website. Consumers have very different expectations for what they receive on a mobile device, but that impacts the content you create on all platforms.
Fathi (Affect): There is no more “it can wait until Monday” in the tech industry. In fact, there is no “it can wait until 9am tomorrow morning,” either. Things can blow up at any moment and in any time zone – and mobile is a huge platform to facilitate that. Damage can be done from a digital platform so much faster.
This has greatly impacted how we work. It's also changed the content of what we work with. Even when we write press releases today, a very traditional format, we think about how it will look on the mobile phone. With videos, we certainly think about producing them in a mobile-friendly format. We think about the shareability of content, which puts the focus more on infographics or slideshows. Consumers want the same richness of experience on their mobile phones as they get on larger devices. As communicators, especially in this sector, our job is to make sure they get that.
Zinkowski (H+K): Everybody thinks they are their own CEO now and can say anything they want at any time to anyone. You have to manage the expectations of working with clients and the like as well.
Fathi (Affect): Companies are also changing how they work operationally because of the mobile phone. JetBlue is doing something very interesting in this regard. If someone checks in at the gate, online, or on a security line at a terminal and is concerned they will miss their flight, the airline has put a system in place whereby someone inside the terminal can find that person and escort them in through security so that they don't miss their flight.
The operational infrastructure necessary for that to happen is incredible, especially considering that no one at the airport is actually monitoring that information. Mobile is not just changing communications. It's changing operations across industries in so many different ways.
Porter (SurveyMonkey): As communications pros, we used to worry about the 24-hour news cycle. With mobile, it's never-ending. The echo effect of a news piece is incredible. One piece of media can turn into a tsunami. Mobile empowers people to continually consume one piece of news, so even “24-7” doesn't quite capture it.
In addition, the growth of mobile has meant we have to retrain our people. We get 2.2 million survey responses a day at SurveyMonkey, almost 10% of those on mobile. Our people need to write survey questions specifically for the mobile phone. Nobody is going to take a 30-minute survey on their phone, nor will they answer a 100-question survey. Our surveys need to be quicker. They need to be something consumers can complete while standing in line. We need to get rid of matrix questions because they don't format well on a mobile phone.
Mobile has not only changed the way we do business, but our staff has to adjust the way they interact with people on their mobile phones, as opposed to a tablet or PC.
Sokolovsky (eBay): We are able to isolate mobile so much better than other channels when we measure PR's impact. Some people are downloading the eBay app after seeing it on Today. Mobile actually helps us with the analytics of PR and marketing because we can isolate downloads and immediately see spikes in activity.
Q&A: New takes on tech
Kevin Maney, former tech columnist at USA Today and co-author of New York Times bestselling book The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed By Anticipating the Future – Just Enough, spoke with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid about emerging innovation hubs and how mobile is becoming the “remote control” that enables everyone to utilize tech tools in ways they never could before.
Gideon Fidelzeid: During this roundtable discussion, much focus was placed on how non-tech companies are not only focusing on technology in their marketing, but are actually becoming tech companies to some extent. Can you provide an example of such an organization?
Kevin Maney: There's probably no better example than Nike. Ten years ago, it was a shoe company and that was it. Between its partnerships, technology, and advertising, it created this website called Sparq. If you're a real workout fanatic, you can buy the Nike shoes with the little chip that keeps track of your heart rate and miles. You can upload that data on the website and compare it to other athletes who are training.
Beyond the performance benefits, it becomes this whole social networking opportunity. The technology itself is impressive, but the way Nike has marketed it has helped transform the brand's image from that of the shoe company it was to the technologically advanced company it now is.
Fidelzeid: Once considered the domain of Silicon Valley, many cities across the US, even the world, can now lay claim to being major tech hubs. Please highlight a few.
Maney: New York is on fire, which you could not have said confidently 10 years ago about technology. In order to gauge such things, I've often found venture capitalists to really have their pulse on where the hot tech spots are, with Andreessen Horowitz being among the top ones.
Cofounders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz are among the smartest people I know. Marc is a total Silicon Valley guy. However, the company did something remarkable recently by bringing in New York City's Chris Dixon as a partner. There is no more impressive stamp of approval on New York as a tech start-up market than that.
I'd also mention India, where I've spent a lot of time in the past couple of years. Few would have put India on a list of innovative areas. It was widely known for software services. I came to discover that the Indian technology industry didn't even exist until the mid-1990s. It came into being by latching on to this whole services question. There wasn't room for innovation. It was not what they did. But that's changing. One example is the Aakash Tablet, which is being developed in India.
Innovation is thought of in a completely different way in India. They think about it for the bottom of the pyramid. When they look at tablets, a product that costs $600 or so just doesn't make any sense for that market. Realizing that tablets aren't going anywhere, they focus on developing products that will distribute information and knowledge through a country of that size. They ended up developing this tablet that costs about $60.
I'll also mention Detroit and the car industry. Ford has essentially come to think of cars as roving computer networks. CIO magazine recently highlighted the cities that are generating the most technology. Detroit is number five now.
Fidelzeid: Where does the continuing rise of mobile – especially as it relates to big data, optimization, and analytics – enter the equation?
Maney: There have been three times in history when these gigantic, backroom business technologies have been given to the people. The first time was when the personal computer came around in 1970. About 20 years later, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and Marc Andreessen created the first graphical Web browser. Those two things together gave the Internet to the people for the first time.
So what's behind those back walls at big corporations and institutions now? It's this idea of big data, optimization, and analytics. We're at this ripe point in time when that stuff will be given to the people. So the next question: what is the equivalent of the personal computer or the World Wide Web in this case? It's a combination of a couple of things still being played out.
IBM's Watson, for example, has natural language capability. It actually understands the context of the question you're asking and then goes back to endless pages of information to reason out that answer and bring it back to you. Watson only happens in IBM's labs now, but I believe it is the seed of the next Web browser or the next personal computer. And it's going to be delivered to us through mobile devices.
The mobile phone is going to be your remote control to big data, analytics, and optimization in your own life. You'll be able to do things that help you understand why you're more productive on certain days, for instance. All this data about you and others that can change your day-to-day life will be out there and you can optimize and analyze it all. Best of all, it will all happen by the simple act of asking a question through a cell phone interface that you carry around in your pocket. I'd bet you will see this within the next five years.
Fidelzeid: How would Kevin Maney describe what a tech company should be in 2013?
Maney: Off the top of my head, I'd say it can't be a one-hit wonder. The two dominant tech companies based on most conversations now are Facebook and Google, but they are essentially still one-hit wonders. Maybe they'll evolve beyond that, but Facebook is the social network and Google is a search company. At one time, AOL was a one-hit wonder and it was amazingly powerful. It was the Google of its time, but it's a shadow of its former self.
IBM is an example of what a tech company should aspire to be. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011. The reason for that longevity, not to mention its ascent to a $105 billion company, is that it's never been a one-hit wonder. It has constantly evolved. Obviously, it's always been in the computer industry and data processing. However, it had been willing to build this entire PC division over 15 or 20 years and then sold it because it was no longer a good business. They did the same with the whole data- storage division. IBM is constantly looking at the market and understanding where the profits are.
Great tech companies know how to keep the core and change everything else. IBM has been brilliant at that. I don't see that so far in companies such as Google and Facebook, much less the Twitters of the world. They're all still one-hit wonders, but I keep a keen eye on those companies to see if they can manage to keep their core while still evolving.
Fidelzeid: Your book, The Two Second Advantage, focuses on the ability to anticipate what customers want and need before they even know it. Can you highlight how that philosophy is being demonstrated in the tech sector today?
Maney: The seeds of this book were planted when I first met with co-author Vivek Ranadivé, CEO of TIBCO. He wanted to be seen as a thought leader and not necessarily write something that read like marketing-speak. He had half an idea about where technology was going and I had half an idea about new research into the way human brains work. We soon realized these two concepts fit together.
A lot of research has been done over the past 15 years about how human intelligence works. A big part of it is predictiveness. You're constantly predicting what's just about to happen. Essentially, it's the way your brain is intelligent.
As neuroscientists have come to understand this better, they've started to partner with computer scientists to figure out how to take knowledge of how that works and build it into the way computers function. As big data grows larger, the idea that a computer could answer a question by going back and searching all of that data is just way too slow. Our minds don't work that way. If somebody asks you a question, you don't go back and search every bit of data you ever had. What your brain constantly does is build these little models of how the world works and how things happen. When something comes in, you're constantly processing through these efficient models of what happens.
We need to get computers to learn from the big data, to build these little models of how things work so they can process things in real time and get predictive about what's about to happen. There are long-term goals of actually making computers that are somewhat smart and talented like humans are. In the short term, though, companies are actually starting to make use of some of these ideas in very targeted ways.
At Sam's Club, for example, every shopper has a card that knows who you are and what you've bought. It can aggregate the data from everybody to start understanding trends, but it can also aggregate the data about you individually and match that against what's happening. As such, it starts to understand that if you buy a big screen TV, peanut butter, and a bag of chips, your wife is probably pregnant. In turn, the next time you go to the checkout counter, it can actually make a suggestion or give you a coupon for something it knows you are likely to buy. In fact, stories came out that Sam's Club had to dial back some of the predictiveness because it was spooking people. It was actually getting too good.
Many companies are doing these kinds of things and it can definitely translate into the communications function. There's so much data now. There's so much innovation in the tech world now. The capability now exists to listen, analyze, get predictive, and understand that some story is about to get to a point of breaking out. I imagine this is going to be a regular tool for communications professionals before very long.
Fidelzeid: Media relations remains a key factor in any communicator's toolkit. However, the rules and possibilities are changing notably. Please describe how the relationship between communicators and the media is evolving and how that impacts the ways PR pros should interact with you.
Maney: The best way to tackle that is to explain what I – and people like me – do now. Steven Levy is still fully employed by Wired, but he's a rarity these days, as most media types are doing a matrix of things.
I have editors at five or so of the big magazines who are friends or former colleagues that I can contact to say, “I have a story that I'm interested in doing,” and they'll listen to me. I'm not a contributing editor at any one magazine. I don't have a contract with anyone. I have these relationships all over the industry. I have a few things that I do on the Web. Techonomy, for example. I also started my own blog, Fsew!, that actually talks about this very idea of branded journalism, branded content, and companies and journalists working together, which is really where the communicator-journalist relationship is headed.
There's a definite place now for journalists and companies to work together in a way that helps both but hinders neither. There's a place for this now because long-form, good-thinking journalism is getting harder and harder to place and even fund. But with the ability and platforms to create content now, journalists are seeking opportunities for longer-form pieces and companies can provide that platform, whereas even if a traditional publication loves an idea, there are fewer pages for it to go on.
Of course, I still doggedly protect the journalistic perspective and clearly tell companies that if they want to work with me, I'll only do so if we're actually giving something important to the world. It can't be because I want to sell your product.
If I were to advise any communicator on how to approach me, I would suggest that the opening line be, “I have something really important to say. I have this really cool story to tell.” Don't treat me as if I'm somebody on the other side of the wall to whom you are going to heave the bag. Treat me as a partner in this process. We might actually figure out together if this a story and where to go with it. Maybe it is something for Wired? Maybe it's a book? Is it something we build a Web app around? That's the core component of the relationship. It's not “I have something to pitch you.” It's more “I have a story to tell, you're the right person to tell it, and let's figure out how to do that.”