Thursday, August 21, 2008

Selling picks and shovels to the goldrush

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

I was at a conference the other day, where one of the speakers said that the average consumer has more information at her fingertips today than the CIA did ten years ago. I suspect neither the speaker nor I is in any position to judge the accuracy of this, but there’s a truth in it nevertheless, that consumers are nowadays better informed than they have ever been.

Since 1997, the CIA themselves have published their World Factbook online – the authoritative source for data like the land area of Azerbaijan (86,600 square km) and contextual information (it’s slightly smaller than Maine).

The CIA were part of a flood of content-owners who started to make available their information on the early web – from governments to libraries, academics to companies. Now, ordinary people could research anything from Greek mythology to the demographics of UK voting, for which they would previously have needed access to a specialist library (even if one existed nearby).

So a body of knowledge emerged online that enabled research and decision-making. But the sheer volume of information made it difficult to navigate, and so the next stage of the web’s evolution came about with the development of sites which sought to make sense of all this complexity.

The most well-known, Google, launched in 1998 and quickly transformed users’ ability to find their way through the mountain of online knowledge. Price comparison sites developed to help shoppers compare retailers, aggregators launched to put financial products side by side, and other sites like UpMyStreet combined publicly-available data on local property, schools and crime to present users with a picture of their neighbourhood.

All these sites aimed to make sense of what was out there, but in their own way. Each is rightly obsessed with what its consumers want, but broadly provides one way of finding it – like visiting a library, but having to ask the librarian for everything.

Recently though, this thinking has been challenged by a number of sites which allow users to build their own tools.

Facebook was amongst the first, publishing an API (a software ‘key’ that tells developers how to create applications that will integrate with the site). Within weeks thousands had been written, creating a wide range of new features and games for facebook users, and making facebook one of the most popular sites on the web, overtaking its key rival MySpace earlier this year.

Ning isn’t a social network, it’s a site that lets you build your own social network. Public or private, you can build a network for anything you like; a group ski trip, where everyone can post their pictures, videos and comments and stay in touch; an internal company network for employees to share information; a project network for people in different locations to coordinate on a common venture.

Ning puts its social network creation tools in the hands of users, and lets them get on with deciding what to do with it.

And in search, Yahoo has just launched a new service it calls BOSS - Build Your Own Search Service. The toolkit enables users and businesses to create their own search engine – customising the output to their own needs, combining it with other data sources like the user’s own preferences to produce search results that are specific to that site. A travel agent could use the tool to put results from searching their site next to Yahoo results, so a user has more options and doesn’t need to leave the site.

There’s an old adage – that selling picks and shovels to miners on the goldrush was more profitable than being a miner yourself. Mark Zuckerberg, facebook’s founder, clearly appreciated this, and he’s part of a trend that’s subtly altering the architecture of the web, as more and more sites open up the engine room that drives them, allowing a flood to creativity to surge in – and moving the emphasis from informing to equipping consumers.