For the first time, Europe’s biggest tech and digital conference descended on warm Lisbon instead of rainy Dublin. Originally from the Emerald Isle, Web Summit had simply gotten too big, putting a strain on Dublin’s infrastructure. Portugal, and Lisbon in particular, has been eager to pull in startups to fuel new growth into their economies. It was no coincidence that both the Mayor of Lisbon and the President of the country spoke on the opening night. This was their moment to shine.
Lisbon itself is a wonderful city for a conference like this. The affordability, wide range of hotels and places to stay, plus the sunny climate and sunny people all make it an attractive destination. There were large Web Summit logos strategically placed in the city’s most photogenic places, as a clear attempt to win social media while promoting the beauty of the city at the same time.
Enough Portuguese brown-nosing, let’s get to the conference!
At first glance the amount of information to consume seemed impossible. Stages everywhere, talks every 20 minutes, panels, debates, one man shows, demos, pitches, endless ways to keep busy all day long. There was a very wide variety of topics from virtual reality to scaling business to SAAS software to advertising and adblocking. The CEO of Tinder. The CMO of Facebook. The Co-founder of Reddit. The guy who led the team that made Pokemon Go. Gary Vaynerchuk! As a first time attendee I felt that the level of the speakers and organization was very high, but others pointed out downfalls that I’ll get to later.
Digital Marketing Themes
As I was there with my team from work we were looking for more advertising and marketing related topics. Here are some of the common themes and highlights:
Social Media stars
Jake Paul, the 19-year-old internet star was on hand to talk about his content creation process. I found it refreshing how structured his answers were. He kept each answer short and precise (maybe that’s because he is so used to Vine’s 6-second limit). His message was simple: there is no short cut, you have to put in the time to learn how a medium works. He had been making videos and putting them online since he was 10, it wasn’t until he was 17 that he started to blow up. Put in the time, understand how it works, no shortcuts.
Advertising vs. Adblocking
Maurice Levy, the CEO of Publicis, said that he likes adblocking because it forces advertisers to come up with better ways of reaching customers in less-annoying ways. His view was not shared by groups like VentureBeat who argued that it is causing content piracy since publishers have no choice but to go behind paywalls. At least the Web Summit understood the need and actually created a debate format between the founder of Adblock Plus and one of the executives at VentureBeat. It was one of the most interesting moments of the conference. You could agree with either side, even though I would still side with the publishers on this. What’s more annoying, bad ads or content you have to pay for? For a lot of the content we want to consume, the paywall is more annoying.
The social media stars all touched on this point, so did Joseph Gordon-Levitt: content has to be authentic for people to engage with it. The Co-founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, gave one of the best presentations of the entire summit. He talked about how different communities on Reddit are fostering authentic and profound interactions because they are people who are truly passionate about the communities they engage with. The form of the content doesn’t matter. It could be a six paragraph essay about why a certain mattress is incredible. It could be a joke or a meme that makes it to the top. What matters is that it doesn’t feel like it was produced by a marketing team in order to get the most impressions.
Platforms matter less and less
Building on Ohanian’s point, there was a common theme of the idea that each separate platform matters less and less and it’s really only the content that matters. No one is particularly married to any one platform for the features itself, since so many of the social platforms are copying each other’s features. People will go where they have the strongest community, where they have the best interaction and where they find the best content. Gary Vaynerchuk, the only one to get a standing ovation for ripping apart traditional notions of social media, said that the only important thing is attention. Wherever the attention is, that’s where you need to be.
Test and fail and learn
Gary V was on fire. His signature style of blatant positivism was so refreshing from the pre-determined soundbites of top executives. He said that even if you jump on a nascent platform, try some stuff out and it doesn’t work, or the platform folds and you lose your investment, it’s not a failure, you fucking learned something about new content formats. You learned more about yourself or your brand than you could have if you followed a path that millions of others have blazed before you. Get out there and do it, then evaluate your success. Don’t evaluate the opportunity and close yourself off before you even begin.
Storytelling in Augmented and Virtual Reality
This was the most tingly part of the conference. VR and AR are advancing so quickly that we will see massive improvements over the next year. Not in a few years, in this coming year. And the potential to change everything we know about storytelling comes along with it. The visionaries working on this technology deserve a lot of respect and for entrepreneurs wondering what to do, Robert Scoble said very clearly that a new billion dollar business (or a few of them) will emerge in this space in the next few years. Strap on to cash in.
Drawbacks and unfortunate realities
For all the breadth of Web Summit, there was not enough depth. I think that Web Summit is trying to go mainstream, and in doing so left a bit of a bad taste in people’s mouths who have working in digital or technology for the past 10+ years. Here are a couple of criticisms from discussions with people we met:
- 20 minute limits are great for one-person presentations but it’s not enough time to get deep into subjects that matter to the audience. By the time the introduction and “how’s it going?” questions are done there is precious little time left to get to the good stuff.
- The fast-paced format also made it extremely difficult to hop between presentations, since so much time was spent trying to find a seat and then slowly filing out while others tried to file in. We ended up watching panels and presentations that weren’t really relevant only because we had a seat towards the center and didn’t feel like fighting the crush to exit.
- We know who you are. A lot of stage time was spent on introducing products, “my name is XXX and I’m the XXX at XXX, a company that helps XXX do XXX.” We know, that’s why there’s Linkedin, just get to the issues!
- No interactivity. There were no Twitter walls, no “send us your questions,” no questions at all between the audience and the speakers. This was probably one of the biggest reasons why a lot of the talks went off topic immediately and never recovered.
- No Snapchat, no Google, no Instagram, no Twitter… While the line up of speakers was impressive there were some glaring omissions that would’ve been welcome to me.
- Assume a higher level of base knowledge. I know that Web Summit wants to go mainstream but it needs to assume a certain base knowledge of digital and technology in the audience. Too many talks hashed out points that weren’t innovative 6 to 8 years ago, let alone today. Get to the specifics! That’s why we paid money!
Not sure if we will go again next year, but I do need to give a shout out to the cereal truck with Lucky Charms!
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