Highlights from Thinking Digital 2016: From drumbeats to Dysons

Insights from Google, IBM and Microsoft, plus an exploration of the V&A's digital projects, the wonders of gut bacteria, and a story about Kevin Costner's dog - it's Thinking Digital 2016. See our highlights from the two-day conference at Sage Gateshead in the mighty fine city of Newcastle.

Kicking off the day was Bill Jinks from IBM, talking about their huge contract with Wimbledon. It’s always good to have a nose around other people’s projects and think how you could apply the same approaches to your own content and campaigns. Whatever the scale of the project the goals will be the same: how to get more people to our clients' websites and increase this year on year?

I liked seeing how they craft different content for the different channels, rather than just pushing the same stuff out everywhere. So the iPad app is aimed at the armchair sports fan with devices on their laps, the app includes useful location info for fans actually at the venue, and the desktop experience allows you to dive into lots of stats while you’re browsing during working hours (shhh).

The background image also changes throughout the year to reflect the seasons in SW1. How many businesses just switch off as soon as the event is over, and don't look at the website again until it's time to whirr up the PR machine the following year?

This attention to detail and emphasis on fast-moving, visual content is what's helped IBM reposition the brand as more contemporary, less ‘middle-aged man from the 1950s’.

Continuing on the theme of thinking about your users and what will help you connect with them in the most effective way, Irini Papadimitriou from the V&A museum gave a helpful tip about donation boxes. If we see someone eye to eye and make a human connection...which means we're more likely to part with our cash. Which is why, when the V&A introduced boxes featuring a large visual of the Queen’s eyes, they saw an increase in donations.

Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure began with the statement: Complexity is the enemy of security. “How many Fortune 500 companies are being hacked right now? 500.”

He pointed out how the same problems keep coming back to bite us. Ransom Trojans – where someone gets access to all your data and demands a payment before they give it back – have been happening to decades. He even showed an image of two ransom notes, 27 years apart, which looked almost identical.

People are still falling for this trick; opening an email attachment and clicking 'enable content’. In extreme cases this leads to more than just losing $180 dollars to the 'honest criminals' doing this, in the Ukraine 225,000 people suffered a power outage after hackers got into the system. 

With the rise of the Internet of Things comes a lot of naivety about security. So many control panels are easy to access online, with no username or password, for example a swimming pool, with instructions for emptying in acid, or beds a hospital ward. What’s to stop someone externally tampering with the equipment? Hackers are usually motivated by access to money, but if someone wanted to access critical infrastructure there are a surprising amount of routes open to them.

Thinking Digital event host Herb Kim introduced Sarah Mieklejohn’s session by reading out the Wikipedia definition of blockchain. It doesn't throw a lot of light on what it really is; Sarah's analogies were more helpful, explaining how transparency and accountability are the heart of the system, whether we're talking about the links between artists and end users in the music industry, or marketers, app developers and users. 

Ed Hipkins’ session was fun (see pic, top right). “I want to play dance music on my drums!” So he got the tech together and made it happen. I like his comment about becoming more creative when you limit yourself in some way, in his case with percussion rather than just thinking he’d buy more instruments and a set of decks. And of course, hearing him play!

I particularly enjoyed James Murray’s session on Bing, Skype Translate and the context of search (not mention his anecdote about the risks of learning Taiwanese so he could make a speech on his wedding day, see above).

So often, when we talk about search to our clients, we focus on Google because they’re so dominant in the market.

He referenced the competition too, saying, “They even own the verb!” But hoover is also a verb…and how many people in the room now own a Dyson rather than a Hoover? Good point! You should never rest on your laurels.

‘What I want is not what I asked for’ is a brilliant way of describing the issue they have as a search engine in providing the results that will actually help their users. A benchmark is what they deliver when someone types in ‘Paris Hilton’: results relating to Paris? Hilton Hotels? Or Paris Hilton? What we need here is context, and this is based on four factors:

  • Emotional
  • Environmental (a system can learn that your favourite haunt is Costa, but if it’s raining you just want to find the nearest café)
  • Social (you’re watching Netflix, but if you’re on your own you’ll watch one thing, if you’re with family you’ll watch something else)
  • External context (your culture and language – what enables Disney to tweak films like Inside Out for different global regions) 

Equally thought provoking was Joe Faith, Product Manager for Google. Great to have contrasting opinions from these tech heavyweights in the course of the afternoon. A slide showing a neat and tidy product development process was quickly followed by something decidedly more ad hoc – even at Google.

He had three tips for making product development a success:

1.       Focus on the user. Easy to say of course. More importantly, focus on adoption, then monetisation will follow. Like Google did with Android (oh to have that budget and just keep pushing it forward until it works!)

2.       What’s the 10x? In what way will it be 10 times faster…bigger…better? Define that, then work backwards. A good way of focusing the mind is to think: how can we charge ten times as much as we do now? What would the customer expect?

3.       Launch and iterate. Front load the tech risk, getting over the hump of things going wrong, early. If things don’t break, you’re too late in testing them.

All good points. Easy to nod in agreement. I found it reassuring when he said it takes a lot of discipline in practice!

A couple of fun talks – Tom Scott on how he became an accidental expert in emojis, and Katherine Harman Courage being totally charming and informative about gut bacteria and how we can re-poopulate the microbiome.  

The ended with MT Rainey, Deputy Chair of Channel 4, sharing stories about her time at Chiat\Day in the 80s, building up the brand that became Apple. Illuminating to hear how Steve Jobs was a big supporter of women in the company – not to artificially tick any diversity boxes (which didn’t really exist at that time anyway) but because he thought it was daft to write off the potential contribution of 50% of the population. Quite right. Her story about Ridley Scott, Kevin Costner and his dog was pretty funny too.

Honourable mentions

The host! Herb is such a smart, personable guy.

The venue! Sage Gateshead is beautiful, and the stage set and lighting made it feel more like a gig at times.

The workshops! I'm already putting Alison Freer's tips on having more productive meetings into practice.

The people! I met some great folk who I really want to connect with.

Lastly, Newcastle! What a great city - and the sun even shone, as you can see from our Instagram feed. Thanks everyone for a great day and see you next year. 

Useful links

Thinking Digital website

With thanks to the Sage Business Expert programme for inviting me along

Click on each speaker name for links to their Twitter account

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