Without a doubt 2009 will be challenging. It almost seems banal to mention it. However in my past few days of being disconnected from the online world I normally inhabit I’ve had some time to just think about 2009 and what may prosper if the right conditions are in place. Out of adversity often comes innovation and some interesting business models, I really hope that 2009 will be a year we look back at and can point at as the beginning of something really interesting and fruitful. I wish I could do snappy and smart 2009 predictions like Stowe Boyd, so in the meanwhile this will have to do:
The Obama campaign has very publicly shown us one way forward, where the campaign is based around words like “we” and “us”, rather than “I” and “you”. Democracy where people bankroll the campaign of a candidate and have a say through initiatives like Open for Questions. Other smaller scale experiments such as the experiment in participatory democracy in Morecambe documented in Us Now and initiatives such as Fix My Street are putting more power into the hands of the people. The flipside to all of this is that those who are devolving power or asking for the people to contribute have to listen or it will seem worse than the status quo.
Social innovation/responsibility as a thing to concentrate on
Many agencies have relied for too long now on building microsites for clients advertising their new shiny wares. Hopefully the talent engaged in this formerly lucrative and slightly vacuous business and in building things like the sheep throwing apps on Facebook can be engaged in something more useful and fruitful for the world as a whole as wished for and encouraged by Tim O’Reilly. How to pay for it? Government could maybe stop funding industries which have proven to fail and start to fund more agile evolving ideas which will have a great long term regenerative effect.
Identity brokerage rather than advertising
Facebook is very keenly in need of a business model. It seemed amazingly naieve at FOWA last year to be hearing Mark Zuckerberg talking about building audience and worrying about revenue later when a well respected and highly experienced industry figure like Tim Bray started his totally revised talk with a slide which said “I’m Scared”. My feeling on this is that Facebook has been preparing a business model around Facebook Connect for a while. It will either sell “pay per user” licenses for Connect to third parties or it will charge for improved placement of the stories which come out of user actions on your FB connected site. There are a few rumors around suggesting that this has already happened with Digg (although it possibly was more of a signing up agreement rather than a fiscal agreement). If Facebook wants to be an identity provider dealing with your “real identity” verified through your actions and your social graph, the clear but moderately unpalatable business model is for it to become an identity broker/provider, charging third-party sites for the privilege of “authentic” users.
Subscriptions are a sensible route to revenue which people are starting to think about as a model for sites like Facebook. Having worked in publishing for many years I know subscriptions fairly well and they do work as a business model. One thing which doesn’t work quite so well are charging subscriptions for features people are used to for free. Some suggestions are that there could be a charge for photo hosting or video storage or even for a large number of friends. Some of these really would restrict current growth drivers (photos, which are widely credited with encouraging user growth and attention) and charging for a very large number of friends would really only hit people who collect fake friends (or I guess the very very popular).
One thing which could really work here, and in the world of APIs and distributed data would be microtransactions. Facebook and MySpace are both working on payment solutions for microtransactions and they could be lucrative. However, in my opinion they’d really only be lucrative if they’re portable to other sites. If you can only pay for things which reside on Facebook or MySpace themselves they won’t gain anywhere near as much traction as if they’re useable on other sites where your identity can follow you.
One interesting new model for content providers which I think is going to get really interesting is charging for data. It’s not new, it’s been around for large datasets for quite some time now, but it’s getting interesting with people like Amazon starting to provide options.
Faceted distributed identities
One thing we really need to understand and provide a solution for is that we’re not the same person to all people/contexts. We are constantly, often without realising it, very chameleonic about how we relate to different people in different situations and media; tuning our tone, our message, often even our appearance our appearance. Despite this we are still recognisable as the same person. This faceted identity will, I believe, be one of the biggest challenges to centralised identity brokering plays such as Facebook Connect, and for large scale OpenID+profile providers. I am the same Chris, but slightly different everywhere I am. I am context sensitive, however I want to be the same person in terms of authentication credentials wherever I go and I want some of my activities wherever I go with that digital identity to follow me back to the central mothership site where my master profile resides.
Oh, and can we in all networks which contain friend graphs of any sort bring in asymmetry. Friend or follow. It makes such a difference conceptually, removes awkwardness and is so so simple at the datalayer.
Audience research tools
I’m very much in favour of blue sky research and moreover of building technology solutions which fill currently untapped needs, however I think everyone needs to get smarter with pre-build analysis of audience. The Facebook ad creator is still a revelation in this space.
Shared resources - API will be the “word” of the year
Many organisations are waking up to the fact that it is better to build toolkits and then leave it to developers to build client software. It’s the perfect evolutionary approach. Provide scaffolding, allow people to build, then survival of the fittest in terms of fitting the end user’s needs. This sort of approach should help content providers to survive the downturn more fully if they can work out some form of monetisation strategy which doesn’t just rely on adverts.
Co-operatives as new business units
One of the hard to swallow outcomes of Agile methodologies and just-in-time practices is that you only need some resources for specific parts of projects. In this keep it lean time it would be foolish to keep specialists on hand for the duration of the entire project. You can either pull in generalists, which is never quite as satisfactory, or multi-skill existing specialists, which is a possible option. Alternatively you could build up a multiskilled team of specialists on an ad-hoc basis. I can forsee more and more projects using this method where teams come together to do a project part time and then disband. What will be the longer term outcome of this way of working? I think we’ll start to see collectives and co-operatives start to emerge, people who sometimes work together and sometimes work independently from each other. This way organisations which see the value in quality can afford to have that, and people who are able to perform specific roles will work for many organisations in a mosaic way with networked working springing up around them.
Organisations finding out that they are only as good as the edges of their customer experience
The first thing often to get cut in organisations is customer service in a reactive way, let alone the proactive listening we all know should be going on in social media. It’s short termist at best. Even worse is to cutback on training for staff on reaching out to people and how to interact with members of the public both offline and online. Also I can see that some companies may choose to stick with advertising because they know it, rather than engagement online which is new to them. The edges of some organisations will start to look a bit frayed.
Quality and sustainability, not sell them cheap and pile them high in a landfill
Sounds bizarre even mentioning this when I have just built an entire study of Ikea bookcases (Expedit/Billy with some severe modding), however it’s something I feel will make a big appearance in 2009 (not the bookcases, the return to quality and sustainability). I’d personally put the Billy bookcase if properly constructed into the quality camp anyway. We have a couple of them which have now moved twice with us and like Paul Morley I think they are a functional design classic.
I’m talking more about excessive upgrading of the new, shiny and yet cheaper things, which aren’t necessarily better. I’m more than proud of my over 20 year old Meridian hifi, bought second hand on eBay which is going strong and is sounding just as good as the reviews I remember pouring over as a music obsessed teenager. It would have cost a fortune new, is built like a battleship, and has in terms of years now outlasted the Arcam CD player, a NAD DVD player and several other items of mid-price hifi.
I’m also thinking of the ecological perils of fast fashion and am rather heartened that some cobblers are seeing an upturn in the downturn. My feeling is that people and organisations will start to invest slightly more in higher quality and longer lasting solutions when the disease of the “now-culture” dies down.