When Hacker Culture Collides With Business Reality

What I Learned at TechCrunch Disrupt

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro

In some ways, the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in New York is a metaphor for the state of the tech industry, especially technologies created for the marketing/media/publishing industries.

Last time I attended the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference it was before the AOL/ TechCrunch acquisition and Michael Arrington's booming, benevolent, and belligerent voice echoed throughout the startup community. Michael was the tech community's biggest advocate and most visible smartass (can anyone forget the Carol Bartz interview?) And he was loved for it because he represented the hacker culture so perfectly.

Flash forward to 2012 and this year's conference was decidedly different. When Arrington interviewed Ron Conway and Dave Lee (from SV Angel), he looked downright glum. No sparkle. No sizzle. No soul.

But despite gloom, the real stars of the conference, the 150 technology companies who, to my utter delight, offered a dizzying array of marketing solutions such as: enhanced e-commerce solutions (e.g., LiveNinja, Kinobi, AdStack, Tagbrand), data optimization technology (e.g., Twake, OpenGarden, InVision, Buzzoola), social marketing platforms (e.g., Social Passport, Whit.li, BNWGN, EasyShout) and content creation/syndication technologies (e.g., Veel, Qmerce, TvTak, Punch, AtContent, LiveAll).

In fact, I'd say about 80% or more of all the technology companies represented at the conference were built for marketers or publishers. I had the privilege of chatting with almost all of these CEOs, and in doing so came away with some important lessons for us marketers.

1) The chasm between marketing technology and the marketing industry continues to widen.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone to see so many marketing technology companies given the low barriers to entry today. So, it should also come as no surprise that marketers are simply creaking under the weight of it all and exhibiting full on tech fatigue. GM's recent Facebook $10MM budget cut is one very public expression of this.

It's clear social marketing is , philosophically speaking, important but it's clear how many questions have to be answered before a cogent business model will emerge:

  • How do agencies, who rely on media billings to generate fees, sell technology platforms profitably?
  • How do brands tap into all the technology available easily without requiring multi-department buy-in to execute one tech program much less multiple programs at the same time?
  • What is the revenue model for technology companies who are often forced into white label programs just to create a channel for their products?
  • How can publishers monetize the increasingly competitive "content is king" business model given the flood of new content from brands, consumers and social networks?

Perhaps this is why most marketers and publishers shy away from conferences like this. Cool factor aside, these new technologies still lack any clear operational model which makes marketer adoption really hard. So while I felt like a kid in a tech candy store where I had the place to myself, it was sad that I saw virtually no fellow marketers there.

2) When hacker culture collides with marketing realities, marketers must wrestle with the collateral damage.

Facebook's weak IPO performance was a heated and somewhat bewildering topic of conversation for most. Facebook's weak performance made perfect sense since Facebook is emblematic of the bad things that can happen when hacker culture collides with complex, mature marketing models. Here's what I mean.

True "hacker" culture celebrates, (as Ron Conway advocated in the conference), the now famous Facebook "break things" philosophy, which Zuckerberg explains as: "Break things and move fast. The idea is that if you don't break anything, you're probably not moving fast enough." This makes total sense for tech companies that need to go through rapid development cycles to iteratively advance or demote new functions, as is the case if you happen to be creating an app in 24 hours.

But it falls apart once we realize that tech CEOs are particularly bad at understanding what professional marketers really need or want. It gets even worse downstream as marketers get caught up in the hacker culture's rapid-fire dev cycles that are antithetical to the pace of real world marketing.

In short, while the tech boys are breaking their toys – it is often the professional marketers (a.k.a. adults) who are left cleaning up the operational mess brought on by a lack of metrics and operational scalability.

This culture collision starts to explain why marketers are facing tech fatigue and why Facebook's IPO languished. Just maybe, investors were unconvinced that Facebook could deliver the marketing goods since marketers themselves are getting weary of cleaning up the messes.

I came awayrealizing it's time us marketers started talking about making our own grand tech pivots rather than just letting the tech companies do all the pivoting for us. Then maybe, just maybe, we won't just get pulled along by the sea of tech change, but we may even begin to drive the sea change.

Now that would be a pivot worth watching.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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