Connecting with Bill Sobel

Amy Webb understands data. In fact, according to her book, Data: A Love Story, she "gamed" online dating sites like JDate, OKCupid and eHarmony – and met her eventual husband.

But that's just the start of the interesting things about her. Webb is a digital media futurist and founder of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency that spots near-term emerging technology trends and develops strategies for media organizations, Fortune 100 and 500 companies, large nonprofits, universities and government agencies.

She's also the co-founder of Spark Camp, which Fast Company described as "the ultimate summer camp for influencers" (only it actually happens year round). The camp encourages "creative conversations between genius strangers.”

Woman of Influence


Last year, Forbes named Webb one of the “Women Changing The World” and the Columbia Journalism Review included her on its “20 Women To Watch in Media” list.

This week, she sat down with CMSWire to share her thoughts.

Sobel: You are quite the Renaissance woman. You graduated from Indiana University/Jacobs School of Music with a concentration in clarinet performance and have a master's in journalism from Columbia. Now you run Webbmedia Group. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

Webb: In a sense, I’ve been doing the same thing all these years, just via different outlets. My parents started me on piano lessons when I was four, and my teacher insisted on rigorous music theory study. Learning music is learning to study and recognize patterns quickly, and then interpret those patterns in a meaningful way.

Studying music is not unlike studying math, or computer programming or languages, all of which I started when I was quite young. It also applies to the kind of journalism I did, which was to look for patterns and trends. For me, that initial skills set from music has been transferrable again and again.

While I don't work as a marketer, I’d say that pattern recognition and trendspotting is a key component to effective marketing. When we’ve worked with marketers as clients, I often urge managers and executives to participate in exercises with us recognize patterns in order to imagine their own futures.

Sobel: I was impressed with what you describe as your “Digital FuturePrint,” where you focus on reshaping an organization for disruptive tech trends in the next two to five years. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Webb: In the decade since Webbmedia Group has been advising clients, I've seen one mistake that’s endemic. The latest, buzziest app/gadget/tool has a snake-charming effect on executives. These days, founders are putting on great shows and making big promises. I either see companies immediately invest or try to acquire, or I see them become paralyzed and unable to make any decision about that technology — or indeed any similar technology within the same sphere.

It’s difficult to make a sound decision when confronted with something that’s really cool. But as we all know, “really cool” doesn't equate to “sound business model.” We developed a decision matrix that forces an exec or manager to objectively evaluate a new project/ product/ app/ etc. It’s called our F.U.T.U.R.E Test and it’s been deployed by many organizations with successful results.

Our Digital FuturePrint uses that test and others as part of our assessment and near-term strategy for companies. The rate of technological change is so fast that consumer behavior towards it has become somewhat unpredictable. For that reason, we strictly focus on near-future strategy, which means at the most we’ll look out seven years. We’ve been right on all but one recommendation: near-field communication (NFC) in iPhones. We quickly revised our recommendation to Bluetooth LTE.

Sobel: In 2012 you developed a program for public libraries in the 21st Century with the Knight Foundation. Essentially the goal of this key performance indicator (KPI) report and InfoStat Scorecard is to provide the all libraries with a concrete set of metrics that can be used to measure success in a digital age. Can you talk a bit about that?

Webb: We were asked by the City of Chicago to re-imagine the future of libraries, given the prominence of e-readers, the proliferation of home computers and, to be frank, our decreased reliance on book lending. In Chicago, as in many large cities, the library has become an extension of city agencies rather than a true anchor of the community, where the public can learn, share ideas and transfer knowledge. And the library hasn’t marketed itself well, especially not to millennials.

As a result, the people who might benefit the most from using the library’s resources never visit. We worked on a Digital FuturePrint for Chicago to detail all the ways in which a modern library should incorporate technology and digital media in the coming years, and one thing we noticed was that libraries haven’t been using data effectively -- if at all.

Traditionally, libraries measure circulation and foot traffic, but those really aren’t metrics reflective of all the services a modern library provides. So we developed a set of 80 KPIs so that the library cannot only analyze its effectiveness, but so that it can more effectively identify potential collaborators and seek more diversified funding. It’s hard to argue in favor of closing library branches or cutting staff hours if the library has hard numbers proving just how important it is to a local community. People forget that data can tell a far more compelling story than anecdotes or traditional narratives.

Sobel: Speaking of libraries, one of your current interests is something you call “The Lendership Economy” — essentially the shift from ownership to lendership. One example you described was the death of Blockbuster and the birth of Netflix. But it goes way beyond video. Can you explain a bit more?

Webb: At any given time, Webbmedia Group is tracking more than 100 near-future trends. One that I find especially interesting is what we call “The Lendership Economy.” A few weeks ago, Rent The Runway’s co-founder Jennifer Hyman announced its “Closet in the Cloud,” an unlimited subscription service for fashion-forward women. For $75 a month, you’ll get three designer accessories (handbags, necklaces, scarves) at a time. Return one and get the next in your queue. If it sounds a lot like Netflix, you’re not far off.

In fact, I hear a lot of startup founders now calling themselves the “Netflix of X.” At Webbmedia Group, we consider RTR’s latest move to be part of a larger trend we’re seeing in lendership. Platforms are quickly replacing brick-and-mortar retailers and CD cases. The appeal of having access to the latest dress/movie/song, along with the ability to re-borrow it, increasingly trumps consumers’ desire to actually own and store it in their closets.

In fact, you may be part of the lendership economy without even realizing it. If you own a Kindle and you’ve purchased books for it, you’ve actually purchased a license for the book – not the book itself.

Impermanence puts enormous pressure on CMOs to tell a different story. As the lendership economy grows, brand visibility will become more important, as will the consumer’s relationship to the brand. We expect to see new subscription lending platforms for prescription glasses, baby gear and equipment, home and office furnishings, art and even personal technology.

Sobel: We spoke about the relationship of boomers and millennials and some of the research you are doing in that area. In a recent tweet you noted, “millennials have a different relationship to technology. Unlike boomers, they don’t give drunk photos the same weight.” Can you share your thoughts about that?

Webb: Recently, I met with a group of business leaders to advise them against using data to make assumptions about millennials. Everyone's eager to hire/ monetize/ exploit this generation using big data as their guide. "The numbers don't lie!" one of them argued.

I’ll offer you the same explanation as I did for him. Marketers love data. Human resource execs love data. But what they love is the idea of data, really. One CEO told me his company uses a social media background checking service as part of its millennial hiring process. If the service finds any drunken photos posted to Facebook, it counts as a big negative mark. So I asked that CEO if he ever got drunk in college. He nodded yes. I asked him if he was opposed to a college kid experimenting, having too many beers one night. He said no. So it's not behavior he objected to. It was the fact that the behavior had been captured and published.

Millennials are the most surveilled generation in our history. They've been exposed to computers, recorders, and mobile phones since birth. In fact, millennials' parents have uploaded millions of hours of them biting each others' fingers and emerging from Novocain hangovers. Why on earth would they think posting a photo, laughing with friends, beer in hand would be problematic?

We're more connected than ever before, and we're creating massive amounts of data with each click, swipe and page view. Millennials have a very different relationship to technology than the boomers who now market to and manage them. You can't just collect their data, whether it's from social networks, or watching them click from site to site, and assume that previous behavior correlates with future action. Not without building a new model that accounts for the particular characteristics of this age group. The problem is that many company execs – and the data/ predictive analytics firms they hire – decontextualize the data they're using to make important decisions. Without context, I can assure you that those numbers do lie.

Sobel: Our readers are focused on digital marketing and social business solutions. What advice can you offer them?

Webb: About eight years ago, Webbmedia Group tracked all of the new mobile phones and their specs, and we'd make those charts available to our content and marketing clients. It was six pages long. If we were to create that same chart today, it would require more than 50 pages.

My point is that technology is evolving quickly. We’ve gone from PCs to smartphones to wearables in under a decade, and that’s just hardware. When you factor in all of the apps and software, as well as platforms and backend systems, that’s a lot to monitor. Savvy marketers tend to pick a few areas of specialization and track what’s happening just within those areas.

Marketing firms should divide in order to conquer -- assign a different segment to each staff and ask them to become experts. CMOs within larger organizations can do the same with junior staff, or they can deputize other members of the organization to share knowledge. There’s another option, of course. Hire us! We offer a subscription service for CMOs and marketing firms where we’ll come to your office once a quarter and tell you all of the tech trends you need to know to keep you ahead of your competition.