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May 08, 2007

Listening Without Fear

There comes a time in the life of any idea when that idea must be tested. Sometime after the “aha” moment, but long before the “eureka” moment, an idea must be poked, prodded, and probed. And no matter how emotionally attached to the idea you may be, you must be prepared to open it up to a jury, and listen, without fear, to whatever verdict is rendered.

For the GIO, the two Media and Content deep dives in Los Angeles this week will serve that purpose. For the past two months, while traveling from New York to Mumbai to Seoul to Shanghai to Helsinki to London, the GIO team has nursed a handful of innovative and promising ideas along the way and solicited input at every stop. Today we put a few of those ideas to the test.

It was a tough jury, to say the least. The participants in today’s dive included two students (one from Syracuse University and another a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Media Lab), two academics from USC’s Marshall School of Business and Columbia University, a tough-minded venture capitalist from Lightspeed Venture Partners, an unapologetic blogger and chief evangelist at Six Apart, the head of market development from Facebook, and executives from Canadian wireless giant Telus Communications, Motorola, Autodesk, Sony Electronics, and Reuters.

The first idea we decided to test was one that we’ve blogged about often throughout this focus area. It is the idea that through an easy-to-use, affordable mobile platform, rural parts of the world, particularly those that are impoverished and undereducated, would be able to improve their socioeconomic condition. We presumed that the cost of cell phones and services is just one stumbling block to adoption that would eventually be addressed. And we posited to the group that an iconic language, that could be used universally, would skirt some of the literacy issues that hold rural inhabitants from embracing the Internet.

Suffice to say we received some pushback. Many in the group seemed daunted by the prospect of developing a universal language, and chose instead to try to solve specific problems that rural people were dealing with, like how to get market prices for mangos in Mumbai. “It’s hard to think about expanding the use of mobile phones without defining the context of the problem that is trying to be solved,” said Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. “Let me go figure out what the pain points are first, then I can figure out what types of information are needed.”

Of course, sometimes a simple, accessible, powerful platform can uncover pain points that were not previously apparent. For example, no one could have predicted the many uses for the Internet before it was unleashed and placed into the hands of millions of users. Perhaps the same would be true of this mobile platform. (It’s worth noting that there were several deep divers that were very excited about the possibility of this idea and had evident passion for pursuing it.)

The next big idea we sprung on the group was the concept of digital persona. This is an idea that presupposes that there is a segment of the population that wants to control its own personal data, license it out to trusted marketers and content providers, and update it as their needs change. Some people took to calling it a “digital locker,” others know it as a digital marketing profile, or digital identity.

There was some pushback on this idea too. During our dinner the night before, one deep diver stated unequivocally that people don’t know what they want, and so cannot be trusted to create and maintain their own marketing profiles. In fact, they won’t even want to. To which another diver responded, “Maybe that’s true, but people do know what they don’t want, so maybe that’s a good place to start.”

The idea seemed to have some legs though. Matt Jacobson, head of market development at Facebook, said that he was willing to pay for a service like that as long as he could get something out of it, a challenge he characterized as ensuring that the “juice is worth the squeeze.” We then turned our attention to determining what kind of an organization would be trusted to store this valuable digital identity information. There was some hand-wringing over this tough question for a bit, until chief evangelist at Six Apart, Anil Dash, reminded us all that “we have already abdicated our identities to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the least qualified organization in the world.”

The group also tackled the delicate issue of building a brand in a world in which negative information about a company or a brand can spread like wildfire, and viral anti-marketing is just as prevalent as viral marketing, how can a company go about shaping and controlling its brand? It’s an idea that first came up in New York (which seems like a hundred years ago) and the group was just as engaged this time around.

Jacobson was pretty clear about the best way to deal with viral anti-marketing: embrace the fear. Back in the fall of 2006, Facebook redesigned the site, adding a feature called News Feed, which allowed users to track the activities of their friends. Almost a quarter of Facebook’s 4 million users at the time joined an online rebellion against the new feature. So what did Facebook do? They listened. “We gave our users a chance to complain about things, and that elevated the conversation,” said Jacobson. “It was a very humbling experience, but we gave people the ability to turn the News Feed feature off. One of the lessons we learned was that listening without fear is the mantra.”

By embracing the criticism, and reacting to it, Facebook not only avoided its first major brand crisis, but it has managed to increase its user base to 19 million active members since then. Other deep divers dealt with viral anti-marketing in other ways. Anil Dash, chief evangelist at blog software company Six Apart, engaged one of the company’s worst public critics by placing him on the customer advisory board. “People feel an extraordinary amount of engagement now,” said Dash. “And it has made us so much better at our job.”

Now that’s listening without fear. And after listening to this very learned group's comments on our ideas, there is a belief that the idea have survived, perhaps stronger for having been through the fire. There was a lot more in this dive, too much for one blog post, so stay tuned on other great insights from this dive and look for another post on tomorrow’s dive, which is sure to be just as compelling.

May 8, 2007 in Media and Content | Permalink

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