6 Takeaways from Europe’s Hottest Tech Conference

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Source: Web Summit Blog

General Assembly’s corporate learning team was in attendance at Web Summit 2015, November 3-5, 2015, for its final year in Dublin. Bringing together some of the leading names from large brands, agencies, media, and startups–not to mention investors and the odd celebrity–Web Summit is the leading tech conference in Europe, with over 20,000 people from 100 countries in attendance.

Here we provide a digest of the most prescient trends, themes, and insights. Filtering out the noise, the sales pitches, and the occasional dud speaker, let’s discuss the most compelling takeaways from the three days:

1. Slack’s secret victim

Source: Yummygum Blog

Source: Yummygum Blog

Stewart Butterfield opened the conference trumpeting Slack’s superiority over email, at least for internal communication.

But the consensus at Web Summit was that email is still one of the most important ways of communicating with consumers. David Steinberg of Zeta Interactive, Christine Herron of Intel Capital, and Steve Dempsey of Independent News & Media all cited the resilient power of email, especially when it comes to reaching existing customers.  Almost all online transactions still generate email receipts and follow up. There will be smarter ways to email in the future though, ways that integrate other media and developments in data analytics to offer greater personalisation.

While email may be here to stay, from glancing around at the thousands of screens in the audience’s hands, it became apparent that Slack and other messaging apps may have some other victims in mind.

The real threat posed by the enterprise software Slack (and its consumer-facing counterparts) is to older social media channels. Some people in the audience were Slacking through private channels with the rest of their team, instead of using Twitter to converse with the wider conference. Even the humble website may yet be under threat (see “The new status quo” below).

2. There is no tech bubble…

…but there may be a Big Data bubble.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.15.14 PM

The panelists of Tomorrow’s Tech Landscape. Source: Frank Whelan Media

Most investors were largely positive about the tech economy. A panel discussing ‘Tomorrow’s Tech Landscape” concluded that, barring a Mad Max-style descent into anarchy, we can expect 2025’s tech market to easily be two or three times the size it is today. Any bubble that occurs, they said, will occur on a micro level. The most likely candidate? Big Data.

Indeed, a recent article cited that every Euro spent on a Big Data project, will return, on average, only 55cDespite much promise, many organisations simply aren’t equipped with the skills base or the discipline to bring effective data science to bear on customer data.

Nico Sell, founder of Wickr (a private messaging service who have a ‘zero-data’ policy), spoke of how the security risk of storing company data can sometimes outweigh the benefits, as evidenced by the collapse of Ashley Madison.

John Sculley, the former CEO of Pepsi and Apple, told us that only 2% of enterprise data is actually getting used; the rest is cluttering up data centres–costing the bottom line instead of adding value.

He said that the antidote is to focus on the customer, not the technology. This explains why Sprint in the U.S. keeps haemorrhaging customers, while T-Mobile goes from strength to strength.

3. Startups are moving into more traditional markets

alpha winner

Yasir Khokhar pitches Connecterra. Source: Web Summit Blog

There were also many signals that, no longer content with solving the sexy, consumer-focused problems (manicure on demand, black car on demand), more innovative startups are starting to tackle the bigger, harder challenges that have traditionally fallen to large enterprises.

At Web Summit, Audi sponsored PITCH, a competition to find 2015’s best startup. In the Alpha competition, for companies with less than $500,000 raised, Connecterra won by tackling a problem in the world of agriculture–they combined bovine wearables and a sprinkling of data science to help increase milk yields across the developing world. The crowd raised an eyebrow when first being pitched this ‘Fitbit for Cows,’ but Dairy Monitor impressed the judges with its focus on improving farm productivity. Other problems being tackled by entrants included wireless brain diagnostics, paramedic management systems, and crop analytics.

4. The ‘Adblockalypse’ and what this means for media and brands

Felix Baumgartner skydives 120,000 feet, sponsored by Red Bull. Source: Brightcove Blog

Felix Baumgartner skydives 120,000 feet, sponsored by Red Bull. Source: Brightcove Blog

A recurrent theme was the rise and rise of ad blocking software, with a gamut of different approaches proposed for how brands and media tackle this threat.

The ‘content is king’ message that brands need to become publishers is becoming ever more important now that ad blocking has arrived on iOS 9, following growth in use of ad blockers of 35% in Europe in the 12 months to June

By posting genuinely valuable in-stream content, the smartest brands such as Red Bull are able to get organic distribution where others fail. Red Bull’s content is so good that they even sell it–movies via iTunes and magazines direct to consumer.

But getting to this position is really hard.

In order to solve the problem of creating content at scale, many brands bought clunky software rather than investing in people and creativity. In order for brands to learn how to tell great stories online, they really need cultural and organisational change. Some will learn, most will fail.

The real threat is to ad-buying agencies who have spent 15 years learning how to optimise display advertising while pumping websites full of bloated adware. At the same time, media companies (whether news orgs, blogs, or YouTubers) have spent that same amount of time learning how to create compelling narratives in the digital space. Brands should look to partner with these creators and wean themselves off buying ads.

Meanwhile, in-app mobile advertising (which cannot yet be blocked) still represents one of the best ways to reach a targeted audience at scale. But Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans described this reign of in-app mobile advertising as a ‘stop-gap.’ He cautioned that we need to keep one eye on where things are going: first came desktop browsers, then mobile web, then mobile apps. Something new is bound to come next.

5. Messaging: the next runtime?

Source: Android Community

Source: Android Community

One of the true highlights of Web Summit was a whirlwind 61-slide-in-20-minutes masterclass delivered by Benedict Evans, who told us that Mobile is Eating the World.

He talked about how the next ‘runtime,’ the next layer of software we use to communicate with customers, could well be the messaging interface, although there is competition from the mobile platforms themselves who are looking to create new paradigms.

In his presentation “M is for Messenger,” David Marcus echoed Evans and outlined how Facebook is trying to steal a march on Apple and Google by becoming the new, indispensable “operating system” of the next decade. Marcus heads the messaging team in Facebook, whose acquisition of WhatsApp and unbundling of Messenger now look like masterstrokes.

In a few short years, Messenger has gone from 300m to 700m monthly active users. Drawing inspiration from Asian apps such as WeChat, Line, and KakaoTalk, western messaging apps are now looking to reinvent everyday communication, including with brands.

When users are interacting with brands, a current pain point is the lack of context web, and even app, experiences provide. It’s painful changing a flight or making a purchase on a smartphone. Among the many annoyances are: creating an account, filling in the same information time after time, receiving multiple, unthreaded emails. Engaging with customer service is often like starting a brand new conversation every time.

Brand integration with messaging could mean great things for users who want to make purchases and changes with smartphones. For instance, if you ordered a t-shirt from your phone, it means that you could receive a receipt, see a live map of your package en route, change your delivery address, and reorder the t-shirt on a different colour, all without ever logging in.

A bonus for brands is the potential to do away with the need for siloed, standalone apps. Due to low adoption rates, even airlines can only reach ~2% of passengers with push alerts, whereas Marcus claims they will reach 80% of KLM passengers on any given flight through Messenger alerts when these go live in 2016.

Given 63% of adult smartphone users no longer download new apps to their devices, brands need to fit in with existing behaviour, and messaging provides the perfect interface to do so.

Brands can blend humans with automated chat bots to provide superior and efficient customer service. With natural language processing, virtual assistants like Messenger’s M can start to understand requests like “plan a trip,” “book tickets for tomorrow’s game,” “buy flowers for my wife,” or “book a restaurant.”

Results can be much more relevant than a traditional search engine, especially since the underlying platform can adapt as it learns more information about the user.

But how much control are we willing to give up to the platforms?

6. The new status quo is all-powerful platforms…

The famous chart showing the decline in NY Times homepage visitors. From the company's leaked Innovation Report. Source: Nieman Lab

The famous chart showing the decline in The New York Times’ homepage visitors. From the company’s leaked Innovation Report. Source: Nieman Lab

…and brands need to accept and embrace this new reality. The Guardian have been a leader in this space: they have never had a paywall and have recently been experimenting with Facebook Instant Articles. In a presentation they warned that, as brands prepare for the end of traditional advertising, those who cede control over their consumer will have a greater chance of surviving the transition from owned spaces to external platforms. By distributing to a platform rather than trying to funnel traffic to your own site or app, brands benefit from scale, and don’t have to sacrifice quality or brand voice.

Publishers like the Guardian and Buzzfeed follow the audience wherever they spend their time, whether on publisher sites or on third-party platforms such as Facebook, Google News, AOL, or Snapchat. Companies who are open to partnering with tech platforms, instead fighting against them, seem to be winning, particularly in the media space.

The companies that thrive in the next 10 years will be the ones who learn how to make the most of this reality: First, they will need to redesign their products to take advantage of the increased efficiency of the new system. Ultimately, they will need to redesign the entire business model.

In conclusion

Moving forward from Web Summit, it’s clear that companies need to prepare for a new digital landscape in which email slowly gives way to messaging; data needs to be weighed up as a liability versus an asset; less-sexy industries see startups encroach on their territories; and in which websites and apps give way to chatbots and content platforms. The challenge is not how organisations master new technology, it is how they adapt to the new reality that technology creates.

Tom Szekeres is an instructor with General Assembly’s corporate training team. He is based in London.

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