EconSM Conference: Social Media Sans Search

Yesterday’s Economics of Social Media (EconSM) conference in LA, the first event from the team at PaidContent, was an impressive debut, both in terms of attendance and the range and “quality” of speakers on the stage. I’m not going to attempt to summarize all the individual sessions; rather, I have some general observations and interesting tidbits from the show. PaidContent’s staff offer “blow by blow” posts of each of the panels here and elsewhere on the PaidContent site.

Even though this was explicitly not a search conference, still missing was any discussion of “social search.” Also somewhat surprising was the general absence of speakers from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (obviously that was intentional). Google and Yahoo were each on one panel (separately) and Microsoft was completely absent. AOL was represented indirectly by former employees now with other companies. The conference in general had a more traditional media angle.

Broadly speaking the panels at EconSM addressed several big themes:

  • Is there a business model for social media, or what is the right business model for social media?

  • How can and should marketers think about user participation and “control” in the new world of “on-demand” consumer behavior?
  • How is social media impacting traditional content producers (record labels/musicians, news, Hollywood) and what are they doing in response?

Unless I missed it in the initial part of the first panel, “The Social Media C-Level Superpanel,” there were no explicit definitions of “social media” laid out. Even though user-generated content and related buzzwords are typically understood by insiders there’s an entire range of behaviors and activity that fall within the broad rubric of social media. There’s also quite a big difference between media adding social or viral layers to their established efforts (e.g., NBC, NY Times) and social networks per se (e.g., Bebo, MySpace, Piczo). Accordingly these concepts represent very different things, as a practical matter, to content producers/publishers and marketers depending on their objectives and position in the marketplace.

One of the important discussions raised by Bebo’s Michael Birch in the first panel, which unfortunately didn’t get enough attention, was about the potential creation of new business models around “engagement.” This is part of a larger debate within the advertising industry as a whole. But while everyone can all agree this is an important topic, there’s no immediate, practical answer to how to place a monetary value on “engagement,” which is one of the key benefits of social media. In that vein, John Battelle in a later panel raised the somewhat rhetorical question, “How do you measure the ongoing value of a conversation where the customer buys once a year?”

Advertising executive Rishad Tobaccowala brought a very grounded view to the discussion. He spoke about the traditional advertiser’s perspective and the need for scale in social media to make it attractive to marketers. He also spoke, paraphrasing someone else, about the “Crapacopia” of social media – the low or uneven quality of non-professional content – and an alternative model of “editing” in collaboration with the community. To that end, he brought up the Nikon “Stunning” campaign in which the company gave cameras to users and then offered the best of the resulting photographs on Flickr and as part of the official ad campaign.

Tobaccowala also made the provocative observation that “advertising” was dead but that we were in a new era of “marketing” and that social media offered a tremendous “conversational marketing” mechanism or platform.

The panels devoted to “Hollywood,” which included Google/YouTube, and the newspaper/news industry were quite interesting. The juxtaposition of these panels for me was striking. The newspaper panel was largely about the survival and fortunes of the industry in a time of user disengagement from the traditional product. While the Hollywood panel was about the marketing and fan engagement opportunities that social media was bringing to its traditional products. While the optimal online video ad models had yet to be determined, all the entertainment industry panelists were extremely bullish on the opportunities they saw.

I missed the final panel on deals because I had to negotiate the LA rush hour traffic back to the airport. But the penultimate panel on mobile focused on the bureaucracy of the carrier infrastructure and the need for standards and greater usability. Yahoo’s Marco Boerries also cited the Apple iPhone as a game changing device, if for no reason other than its expected influence on other mobile handset makers.

The most interesting comment on this somewhat contentious panel was from Amp’d Mobile CEO Peter Adderton who saw the Apple phone as an MVNO using the Cingular/AT&T network. I’d never thought of it that way, but he’s right.

In a way, for me, search was the “elephant in the room” – the ubiquitous consumer behavior and navigational scheme that penetrates most of these sites or platforms. Yet, in another way, it was refreshing to get away from the G, Y, M domination of most online marketing discussions. Again, the conference was very strong and informative; however, next time it would be good to see “social search” on the agenda.

Postscript: PaidContent rounds up all the coverage. Staci Kramer clarifies why there was limited participation from Google, Yahoo and no participation from Microsoft. (To clarify my statements above, I wasn’t suggesting there was an effort to exclude these companies, rather the folks behind the conference intentionally decided to limit the available speaking slots.)

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search Engines: Social Search Engines

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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