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.