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Help Me Interview Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast

By - September 21, 2009

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We’ll be opening this year’s Web 2 Summit with an interview of Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast. I’ve asked Brian to come for the past three years, and he’s always had a conflict. In those last few years Comcast has continued to grow, in particular when it comes to its footprint in the digital world.

Besides its role as a major cable television player, Comcast is one of the largest providers of broadband in the United States, and as such plays a major role in nearly every story now playing out across the Web ecosystem. Net neutrality? Check. Bandwidth caps? Check. Migration of television models to online? Check. Learning how to become a smart brand by joining the conversation online? Check.

More on Comcast and Brian:

Under his leadership, Comcast has grown into a Fortune 100 company with $34.3 billion in revenues, 24.2 million customers and 100,000 employees. Comcast’s content networks and investments include E! Entertainment Television, Style Network, Golf Channel, VERSUS, G4, PBS KIDS Sprout, TV One, and ten sports networks operated by Comcast Sports Group and Comcast Interactive Media, which develops and operates Comcast’s Internet businesses, including Comcast.net.

Comcast Interactive is an interesting play as well – a distinct entity with a number of newly purchased assets (Fandango, Plaxo, Daily Candy, etc) that may or may not find itself competing directly with Yahoo, MSN, and AOL someday, not to mention Google. It’s clear to me that one of the next great battles online will be for the real estate currently known as your television (the other, of course, is your mobile device).  

I will be covering all of this and more with Brian, but as I do every year, I really seek your help with what to ask him on stage. So what do you want to hear from Brian Roberts?

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Web 2 Preview: DigitalGlobe: The World Is The Index

By - September 11, 2009

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I had an extraordinary day yesterday, in terms of who I got to talk with. Not only did I meet with several of FM’s partners – two Fortune 500 marketers, a major platform partner, and a major blogger – I also got to watch the launch of Ad Stamp and the complete schedule for the Web 2 Summit. But a highlight of the day had to be my chance to steal 30 or so minutes with the founder of DigitalGlobe, Dr. Walter Scott.  

Now why was I talking to Dr. Scott? Well, he’s presenting at the Web 2 Summit this year, and I get to work with him on how Digital Globe fits into our theme of WebSquared.

In Dr. Scott’s case, this task pretty much a layup.

Now, Web 2 is known for in depth interviews with titans of business like GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, or former HP CEO and pending Senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina – all of them are coming this year. And it’s known for having the stalwarts of the Internet industry represented as well – leaders from Google, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL, Newscorp, and Microsoft will also be there.

But Web 2 is also known, I hope, for the High Order Bit – the short, mind blowing presentation of a new idea or new data that makes you step back and just say Wow.

To me, that’s what happened when I really grokked DigitalGlobe, a company with a billion dollar market cap that successfully went public in the midst of the worst recession since 1931.

What the company does is pretty simple, actually. It sends super expensive satellites into space, and takes high resolution, geographic-data tagged pictures of every square foot of the earth. It then makes these images available to anyone willing to pay* (and sometimes to those who can’t but really need the data, as it did with the recent LA fires).

Those images are, of course, digital. And they comprise, to echo my writing about search, nothing less than a database of surface reality, albeit from the point of view of outer space. This reality is objective, factual, and indifferent to politics. It can inform a mind bending number of new use cases. If you think about this database from the point of view of an Internet entrepreneur, well, It could become, to wax into a bit of hyperbole, fuel for a whole new ecosystem of value.

Allow me the use of a metaphor, one with which you are all quite familiar.

So think of search. What is search? Well, search is a database of everything that is worth knowing about on the web. It’s made by a crawler that pings web real estate and creates an index/database of what it finds. It’s served up as an application through a user interface that takes your queries and matches them to the best results in that database.

Simple, but that simplicity largely fueled Web 2 as we know it.

Now consider a new dataset for search, the dataset owned by DigitalGlobe. The “crawlers” are DigitalGlobe’s satellites. The “real estate” being pinged is every square foot of the earth. As with the web, some parts of the world are worth pinging more often than other parts. (“We don’t hit Greenland very often,” Dr. Scott told me. But during the Olympics, the company took a picture of Beijing *once every 8 seconds.* Imagine if this technology was around during Tiananmen). The data that satellite crawler captures is stored in a vast index/database. And that index is served up as a product through a UI, though in DigitalGlobe’s case, the UI is not yet scaled to a mass consumer use like Google.

Wait, check that, it is, in a way. DigitalGlobe provides the imagery you see in Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. And while that information is really cool, and provides the foundation for a huge number of interesting applications (and controversy), things get really interesting when you bring two key pillars of search into the equation: Freshness and comprehensiveness.

Freshness is what is sounds like – how often does the crawler check back to the source and see what might have changed? And Comprehensiveness is equally self-describing – but in the case of satellite imagery, it’s not so much how *much* of the earth you have in your database (that would be the whole darn thing), but rather, how high the resolution of that data can be.

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The data fueling Google and Microsoft’s web applications is good, but it’s not very fresh, and it’s resolution is limited. But that doesn’t mean DigitalGlobe doesn’t have far fresher data and way better resolution. It does. It just doesn’t sell it to Google. (And as I think about the company, I can’t help but think Google or Microsoft must be sharpening their pencils, sketching out scenarios for how they might acquire DigitalGlobe. But I get ahead of myself).

Imagine a time when DigitalGlobe’s crawlers scale across every square inch of the (interesting bits of the) earth at second-by-second freshness – the way Google’s crawlers do for the Web. And imagine a time when the data from this crawl becomes available to all of us, in near real time. Is it possible? Of course it is. You need more satellites, more CPUs, more storage, and some pretty amazing UI and use cases.

Far as I can tell, we have those components already made, just like Google’s infrastructure was not so much about its component parts as it was about how they were put to work in the service of a culture changing service.

Is your mind blown yet? Mine is, but then again, that happens a bit more frequently than your average bear, I’ll admit.

Back here on earth, I asked Dr. Scott two questions that bear repeating. First, who are DigitalGlobe’s largest customers (and how did they use the data)? Far and away, he said, the company’s largest customer is the US Government. Why? Well, they buy high resolution data of, say, a particular Afghan village, datestamp yesterday. Then they give that data to soldiers on the ground, who go into that village and ask folks questions like “What were those heavy loads being moved around in the town square by these five men at around noon yesterday?”

Why, might you ask, why doesn’t the US use its super secret spy satellites to give ground troops this data? Well, because the information on those spy satellites is classified. It’s super secret. But DigitalGlobe’s information is commercial, and unclassified. In essence, the US Government uses DigitalGlobe for the same reason it uses FedEx to move military supplies around the world: it’s just faster, better, cheaper, and easier.

OK, so there’s the answer for why the US Government is such a big customer (and it’s not just military, of course. There’s NASA, there’s NIH, there’s Agriculture, you get the picture, no pun intended). What was my second question?

Well, my second question was informed by the concept of search and my rhapsody around the implications of the world as a database. Might DigitalGlobe consider offering a fresh, high-resolution database of its imagery to developers world wide – replete with business rules for commercialization? Imagine the use cases – for the images are not simply images, they are laden with latent meta-data – interpretive data on everything from how crops are growing to how traffic is moving to how governments are treating their citizens…..might DigitalGlobe consider doing such a thing?

“That would be cool,” was Dr. Scott’s only answer (he is an officer of a public company, after all.)

It sure would be. That would be so WebSquared.

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*From the company’s own product descriptions:

DigitalGlobe’s CitySphereTM product features 60 cm or better orthorectified color imagery for 300 pre-selected cities worldwide. These GIS ready cities are available as off the shelf products and ready for immediate delivery.

With over 37 million km2 of 3 inch to 2 foot resolution color imagery of select American and international markets, DigitalGlobe’s Orthorectified Aerial Imagery is part of our complete offering of the most current high resolution aerial and satellite imagery and the largest library of earth imagery available anywhere. In addition to the largest library of aerial imagery anywhere, we maintain a complete, highly accurate USA basemap at 1 meter resolution or better, with major cities at 6 in to 2 ft resolution.

Why I Love FM's Ad Stamp

By - September 10, 2009

Today my company Federated Media announced a new ad format for a group of our publishing partners. We call this beta program “Ad Stamp”, and those of you who’ve been watching the space closely, and reading my thoughts on marketing here, won’t be too surprised by what you see.

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However, with Ad Stamp there is more than meets the eye, and I wanted to think out loud a bit about why I believe this format works, and how it might reflect some of the trends I’ve been watching and commenting upon in this space for years.

First and foremost, what is most striking about Ad Stamp is how much space is dedicated to the marketer’s message (see image at left – the temporary and one time pushdown at the top is pushed back up in this mock up). Ad Stamp coordinates three large units across roughly 50% of the total space available on a site – an “ad edit ratio” not unlike most premium magazines. An initial visceral response might be “That’s too much!”, but I don’t think that’s how audiences are going to react.

Why? Because in the main, I think the rise of ad networks and the relegation of marketing impressions to increasingly competing “third rails” on the sides and tops of sites has created a “Nascar effect” where more than five – if not 15 – messages blink numbly and disparately at their subjects. This is not a quality environment for readers or brand marketers, and it’s a premium publisher’s job to create a quality environment for both. (For a longer treatise on this see my post “The Rise of Independent Media Brands Online“).

It’s our belief that delivering 100% of the real estate reserved for marketers to *one marketer at a time* could be part of a strong solution to this concern. Ad Stamp, while still an early test program (and one we hope to roll out to all our sites) does just that. The authors of sites involved in our initial test – sites like Serious Eats, Mashable, Apartment Therapy, Business Insider, Dooce, and Boing Boing – all responded positively to early mockups of Ad Stamp, and all for the same simple reason: It makes the site look better.

Looking good is just one part of the thinking behind Ad Stamp. Other premium publishers are doing similar, larger executions (see the OPA news for more), but FM takes a decidedly social twist, as you might expect. To that end, an equally, if not more significant part of Ad Stamp is a new unit we call “the Conversationalist.”

The Conversationalist unit (an early execution is shown below) takes some of the best work FM has done over the years (content-driven, conversational ad units), and brings it full circle into the realm of high quality brand marketing. The thesis is this: When a reader comes to the page, he or she initially sees the uncluttered, focused brand message via the coordinated pushdown and tower on the side. (Both of these units are now quite standard across the premium publishing web, but are not often coordinated from a creative and messaging standpoint.) Given that FM sites are A/ a branded environment; B/ a conversational media environment; and C/ that brands are conversations; the next step is pretty logical for an enlightened marketer: Provide the reader with a space where he or she can converse with the brand.

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That’s where the Conversationalist comes in. Developed in part through work FM did with American Express, Microsoft, and many others, the unit can pull in and curate nearly any conversation deemed relevant by the marketer. Nearly every brand on the web now has Twitter, Facebook, and blog presences, for example. Some have an extremely sophisticated approach to social media (witness American Express Open’s Open Forum or Asus and Intel’s WePC, for example). In short, brands are becoming social media publishers, and they have a lot to say, and they are increasingly ready to begin a dialog with their customers. The Conversationalist is where they can do just that.

Consider the scenario of a movie campaign, for example, or a mobile phone launch. Both types of campaigns are driven by awareness – the marketer wants to announce the presence of something new and timely. Ad Stamp provides a large canvas for just that. But both campaigns also create a ton of conversation across the Web. The Conversationalist provides a place to curate and add to that dialog – via Twitter and Facebook feeds, blog search, and more.

We’ve noticed that ads which offer up a chance to join a dialog or engage with contextually relevant content perform one to four times better than ads without these features. It’s my belief that combining a clean, clutter free environment with the opportunity to converse is a strong alternative to the Nascar-network blight that seems to be creeping into high quality conversational sites.  

For now, Ad Stamp is limited to about 20 sites in the FM family, in two distinct categories – tech/biz (around 11 million uniques) and Home (about 10 million). Should this new format prove successful, we’ll roll it across all of FM, and it’s my hope the rest of the industry will adopt similar formats. We’re all in this together.

In summary, Ad Stamp is a response to what I wrote in a previous post about all of this more than a year ago:

Brands are, in essence, defined by the conversations your consumers have about your products or services (and yes, I am indebted to Cluetrain and Ogilvy and any number of other great thinkers, even Hopkins, who might justifiably be the bridge between direct response and brand advertising).

Brand advertising in traditional media has been about getting in between the ears of a target consumer in some way and “building brand equity” through media executions. In essence, brand advertising has been, up till now, an attempt to influence the conversation that potential consumers will have after experiencing the advertising.

With conversational media and marketing, that concept is time shifting. Now brand advertising can *join* and even *initiate and convene* those brand conversations. And that requires a different skill set, one media folks are just starting to explore. To date, we’ve just begun to figure out how to execute marketing in this new form of media in ways that work for all parties concerned – the content producer, the marketer, and the consumer. But that doesn’t mean we won’t. It just means we have very interesting work ahead of us.

I am thrilled that by working with the amazing folks at FM and our extremely thoughtful publisher and marketing partners, we’re taking what has been a lot of theory on this site (OK, call it bloviating if you wish) and turning it into very real advances that are becoming reality in the field. I feel very, very fortunate. And as always, let me know what you think, as your input over the years is what has always led my thinking.

A Preview: This Year's Web 2 Program (Newly Added Speakers!)

By - August 31, 2009

web 2 09.pngI may have been “on vacation” over much of the past month, but as usual, I was working, and part of my work was framing out and filling in the program for the sixth annual Web 2 Summit. Tim O’Reilly and I had a very hard job trying to top last year’s program, given it featured Lance Armstrong, Al Gore, Edgar Bronfman, John Doerr, Jerry Yang, and so many more.  

But I think we’ve managed to top it. Pasted below is a note we sent out recently with an overview of the program. But even since then, we’ve had a couple of pretty major new additions, both from the world of government and policy:

- Aneesh Chopra –  America’s first ever appointed CTO will join us this year, in conversation with Tim O’Reilly (for Tim’s take and a video of Chopra, click here). A charasmatic figure and proven leader, Chopra is charged with developing national strategies for technology investments – overseeing the U.S. Government’s $150 billion R&D budget.

- Austan Goolsbee – Chief U.S. Economist, member of the Council of Economic Advisers, serving the executive office as staff director on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) – an outfit established within the Department of Treasury charged with analyzing and understanding the state of our financial markets, banking and commerce systems in order to inform decision making around economic policy. Between the CEA and PERAB, Austan is working to fix America’s economic standing both domestically and internationally. No small feat. (See his interview with Jon Stewart here).

More on the rest of the program:

Day one covers broad ground — opening with an in-depth conversation with Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast — and moving into a series of powerful High Order Bits and discussions around government policy and healthcare. Then Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, will share his thoughts before our dinner Q&A session with maverick Mark Cuban, hosted by ModernMom CEO and Dancing with the Stars champion Brooke Burke (Mark had his own stint on Dancing With the Stars, as you may recall…).

After kicking off with morning workshops, day two features insightful one-on-one conversations with Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, and Qi Lu, President at Microsoft, who’s leading the recently announced partnership between the two companies. Later in the day, media gurus will discuss the future of their industry, including Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of the New York Times, CEO Dan Rosensweig of RedOctane, and CEO Richard Rosenblatt of Demand Media.

Mid-day we’ll check in with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, then launch our new High Order Ignite program — a session of dynamic, rapid-fire presentations that highlight ground-breaking and viable technologies that may well change the world. After a focused session on sensor and augmented reality applications, we’ll wrap up the day with Twitter CEO Evan Williams.

Last, but definitely not least, our third day will include conversations with the CEOs of Intel, Adobe, AOL, and Jon Miller, head of digital for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. We’re also bringing back our famed Teen Panel, where we’ll hear from the generation that will most shape the future success or failure of our industry’s efforts. And in a manner more fitting than we could have planned, we’ll close our conference with the man who started it all — Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

And those are just the highlights. Let’s not forget the slew of new speakers we’ve added including:

Erin McKean, CEO of Wordnik. (An API for language? Why not?!)

Sundar Pichai, VP at Google. (Responsible for Chrome OS, Google’s pointed response to Windows.)

Steve Schneider, Program Director at WestEd. (Walking the talk, Steve has plans to launch the first-ever standard for technology literacy across the U.S. by 2012.)

Cynthia Warner, President of Sapphire Energy. (If Sapphire’s biofuel plans scale, we have reason for hope in the world of energy.)

If you’d like to come to the Web 2.0 Summit, let us know by requesting an invite. I have discounts for Searchblog and Twitter readers (ping me here or jbat at battellemedia dot com), and I really look forward to seeing you October 20-22 at the Westin San Francisco!

All Business Starts With A Community

By - August 19, 2009

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Today I was on my way back to our house after dropping my kids off to camp, and I decided to stop by a local cafe for a quick coffee-n-chat. Now, in August, “our house” means a century-old family place on an island, an island that rather pugnaciously refuses to allow large chain stores to set down roots. So it’s fair to say that this island is sort of a Galapagos of small business. There are no Mickey D’s, no Safeways, and no Starbucks. It’s all locally owned – nearly every single “year rounder” who lives here is a small business person.  

The local cafe I stopped by is a hangout – a place where the community comes to eat and drink coffee, to gossip and share information, to learn the latest, to connect. It’s a social network in its truest sense. It’s driven by content – the conversations and knowledge of the staff and customers, and it’s driven by community. Commerce is a by product of the two.

But the commerce is not limited to just the coffee and egg sandwiches on the menu. Not by a long shot. Like nearly every other cafe and community restaurant on the island, there’s a bulletin board, and everyone who has something to promote puts up their business card or their flyer. And you know what? It works.

I love this picture. If you really think about it, it tells you just about everything you need to know to succeed as a business in the digital age.

Twistory 101: It's All About Small Business

By - July 24, 2009

biztweetbird.pngThe world’s abuzz this week with word that Twitter is getting serious about business – the proof point being Twitter’s new subdomain “business.twitter.com” and the “Twitter 101″ handbook currently living there, a white paper of sorts aimed at helping companies figure out how to leverage the sometimes befuddling service.

This all reminds me of Fall 2004. Back then, Google was coming on hard in search. And while the world viewed Google as an upstart stealing query share from the incumbent Yahoo, the real drama was happening on the business side. By the Fall of 2004, Google’s AdWord and AdSense solutions were warranting serious attention from the same ecosystem of SEO/SEM that previously had focused on Overture’s offerings.

In this Fall, 2004 thread on Webmasterworld, where SEO types hang out to talk shop, search marketers debate the relative performance and profitability of Overture compared with Google. Prior to that year, Overture was the undisputed king of paid traffic. But in ’04, Google started pulling ahead, and since that time, it’s never looked back. Why?

Well, there are myriad reasons: Google had a better consumer facing search experience than Yahoo (Yahoo bought Overture in 2003), and Google’s AdWord service including a quality ranking score (as well as paid ranking like Overture), for example. But I believe something else was at work, an upward spiral of adoption by small business advertisers.

What do I mean by that?

Well, I was covering the search space pretty closely back then, and one of the metrics touted by both Google and Yahoo were the number of advertisers who were using their service. Google didn’t publicly announce those numbers, but my sources inside the company did whisper them to me from time to time. Overture, on the other hand, touted their “active advertiser” numbers in their public filings. Its number of active, paying advertisers crossed 100,000 around the time of the Yahoo acquisition, and upwards of 200,000 a year later. Who were all those advertisers? That early in the search revolution, they sure weren’t the Fortune 500, or even the Fortune 5000. They were SMBs – the lifeblood of the US economy, responsible for two thirds of jobs and the driving force of a nascent recovery from the 2001-03 recession. These businesses live on the edge of profit at all times, and they are always the first to find tools that might help them succeed. By ’04, tens of thousands of them had found paid search.

As far as I could tell, Yahoo stopped disclosing the figure after the acquisition closed. And as I was strolling the halls of the first Web2 conference (October 2004), I got a phone call that might explain why. The call was from a source at Google, who wanted me to know that Google had eclipsed Overture in the number of total active advertisers. I couldn’t confirm that number, nor could I get Overture/Yahoo to respond, so I dropped the story (can you imagine a blogger in the tech world not printing a story like that now? How times change.).

twit101.pngAnyway, I was reminded of this anecdote while reading through “Twitter 101″ and it occurs to me that to really succeed, Twitter must be useful, really useful, to small businesses. It was those tens of thousands of small businesses who drove success at Overture, and then at Google. Search became an essential channel for lead generation, and Google became the dominant player in that channel.  

Billions ensued.

While a lot of the attention around business success on Twitter focuses on big brands like Comcast, JetBlue, or WholeFoods, the ecosystem that will really drive value, revenue, and profit for a TweetSense like execution will be the small business ecosystem. And absent a clear service like AdWords for Twitter, a user manual of sorts that explains why Twitter can help business makes an awful lot of … tweetsense.

Vark Goes Twitter

By - July 07, 2009

aardvark_twitter.pngI’m on vacation this week, ostensibly, building a treehouse and taking time off. Hence the light posting schedule. But I’ve also been tracking Aardvark, the lightweight question answering service that uses your social graph, IM, and email accounts as a channel to intelligently route complicated questions to those who might best answer them, and as readers know, I’m intrigued.

So when Max Ventilla, Aardvark’s CEO, told me he was finally integrating Twitter, I knew it’d be big news.

As explained on the Vark blog, using the service on Twitter is simple:

Now you can ask Aardvark a question via Twitter: Just include ‘@vark’ and a question mark (‘?’) in your tweet Aardvark will find the perfect person to answer, and Direct Message you their response in a few minutes (Set up Aardvark to recognize your Twitter handle here: http://vark.com/profile/twitter)…..Aardvark is all about providing the questioner with a magical experience of getting any question answered in about five minutes, and providing the answerer with a gratifying experience of helping someone out in a moment of need. We think asking questions via Twitter is a natural way to bring this experience to more people.

I feel the same way. I’ve used Vark on Twitter in private beta and it worked great. Now that the service is public, I have a feeling it’s going to become one of the most useful applications on Twitter. Next step, Groups, and then watch out….

When Value Is Created, Let It Be Curated At Scale

By - June 25, 2009

Facebook’s opening up even more, as CNet reports. Facebook has posted an update to its “Publisher” settings – basically, the instrumentation to your status updates – that makes it possible to broadcast the value you create in the social web through composition – of a status update, a blog post, or any other action that you might wish to declare. You can instrument it to be seen only by your network, or your network’s network, or everyone – and it’s that everyone part that makes Facebook a lot more like Twitter in terms of the ability for developers to create interesting executions based on that firehose. Think about what Microsoft did with ExecTweets, but with Facebook scale. Of course, that’s just the tip o’ the iceberg. Exciting stuff.

Thoughts on Online Marketing

By - June 21, 2009

Many folks have asked me when CM Summit videos would be posted, several are up now. They include the opener, above, in which I give a short overview of the state of online marketing from my perspective – start at about 6 mins in if you want to miss the throat clearing of setting up the show and thanking folks I’ve worked with. Perhaps the key thoughts: People Don’t Join Ad Networks, and Publishers Are Communities of Mind.