Why Smart Publishers Care About Tech Conferences

In Europe by Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson

PARIS: Last week’s LeWeb, the largest technology conference in Europe, attracted nearly nearly 2,400 attendees from 50 countries. Started in 2005 by Loic Le Meur (founder and CEO of Seesmic) and his wife Geraldine, it has become perhaps the premier Internet related conference in Europe and a key venue for the launch of new products and initiatives from companies. Attendees represented a diversity of companies, from mobile carriers and device makers, to social media networks, small startups, and search providers — but very few from the publishing community. Why is that?

Audience at LeWeb 09, holding up their iPhones (Photo taken by Robert Scoble)

Audience at LeWeb 09, holding up their iPhones (Photo taken by Robert Scoble)

Sure, the discussion was largely focused on social media, online marketing, mobile opportunities, and content distribution. But this was hardly geek shop talk. Instead, the audience was full of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and business development managers. Presenters spoke about business models, emerging opportunities, mobile content, best practices in social media and other such topics, none of which required a computer science degree to follow.

Publishers who ignore such tech conferences are missing out on the next wave of innovation — on the very evolution of content creation, distribution and consumption. Companies and people at this conference (and others like it) are shaping the future. As content creators and distributors, book publishers are increasingly dependent on such companies and need to be present and, ideally, even have a hand in their evolution.

Content creation and distribution used to be controlled by publishers, but many companies and innovators who attend LeWeb are providing free and low-cost tools for everyone to create, market and distribute content, whether that means creating a media property, adding e-commerce to a personal Web site, or building mobile applications and e-books with little to no technical expertise.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman calls this “The Great Inflection,” which is, essentially, the explosion of “low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies — from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service.” This represents both competition and an opportunity for book publishers; I would argue it’s more of an opportunity.

How so?

Mobile Matters Most

There is no doubt that the way to reach millions of people is through their mobile devices. The makers of Tapulous, an iPhone game, reported at LeWeb that that game reached 20 million users in only 18 months. Shazam, a music recognition app for multiple mobile platforms, has 50 million users worldwide and gained some 50,000 new users in February 2009 alone.

While developing a mobile app is different than publishing a book, there are opportunities for book publishers to partner with mobile app developers and tap into already existing user communities. A developing trend in mobile applications is the use of in-app commerce, or links to pay-for downloadable content. Are there existing mobile applications where a link to an e-book purchase is relevant? If the right app doesn’t exist yet, partner with a company to create it.

Another opportunity for publishers is through mobile carriers, especially in Europe. European mobile phone operator Orange announced the launch of its own App Shop at LeWeb. What will make this different from iTunes and other app stores is that Orange will create local storefronts with dedicated shop managers to tailor content to each market. For publishers, this could mean getting relevant books placed in the storefronts or negotiating to get a book pre-loaded onto mobile devices.

App sharing and discovery is also becoming an important area. With the explosion of mobile apps, the Top 25 lists in the iTunes app store cannot fully represent which apps are best for each user. Services like Goojet.com provide customized mobile homepages and app sharing for mobile users. Publishers would be wise to make sure that their content is available through Goojet and similar services.

Get Social

At a panel discussion covering branding and word-of-mouth marketing, Richard Binhammer, Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs at Dell, remarked that Dell made $6.5 million in sales as a result of Twitter in the last year. He attributes this success not to a larger corporate policy about social media, but to the way Dell employees engage with customers online. “People don’t necessarily want to connect to the CEO…people want to connect to the engineers.” Which people in publishing do readers want to connect with? Is it publicity people? Perhaps? Or the editors — the content curators? Are those people interacting with readers online?

As social media becomes more a part of corporate strategy on developing customer relationships and building an audience, entrepreneurs are responding to companies’ need to track and evaluate their social media activities. Tweetmeme, which tracked the 25,000 tweets about LeWeb after the first day, is a service that will create customized statistics and reports about activity relating to specific keywords. While some of their premium services are not free, Tweetmeme announced that they will offer a free version in 2010.

It goes without saying, if you haven’t already done so, find out what people are saying about your books and your company online. Then use your online community as a sounding board for new ideas and, as a “roadmap” for creating new services and products.

Putting it all Together

Timothy Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, spoke about how he leveraged Web technology and online networks to market his book across the world for less than $25,000 ($18,000 went to a PR firm which produced a single print article in a national publication, and the remaining money was spent mostly on travel).

He tested several working titles using Google AdWords and chose the title that got the most clicks.

What’s more, he found that blogging and social media proved more effective even than The Today Show, when an off-hand remark from a well-known blogger landed Ferris’s book in the Amazon top 5 for almost 3 days. His The Today Show appearance boosted the book into Amazon’s top 12 for just a few hours. (You can view a video of Ferris’s entire LeWeb presentation here. )

Admittedly, tech conferences are full of companies that will likely fail in the coming years, ideas that will never get off the ground, and abstract discussions about “transparency” and “experimentation.” On the other hand, you will also find companies looking for partnerships, premium content, and new customers. The atmosphere is innovative and optimistic. Who knows, you might strike a deal with someone creating the next big thing…whatever that might be.

WATCH: More than 94 videos from LeWeb on Ustream.tv

READ: Thomas L. Friedman on “The Great Inflection”

DISCOVER: The various LeWeb participants listed on the conference website

BONUS: Should Famous Authors Bother with Traditional Publishers?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York. Find her on Twitter @hannahsjohnson.