10 Insights From SocialDevCamp Chicago

This post originally appeared in TECH Cocktail.

SocialDevCamp Chicago took place this past weekend and had so many poignant moments and key takeaways that it took a while to digest. From high profile keynotes by representatives from GrouponGoogleCheezburger Network, talks on the business and technology sides of the social web and lively, moderated unconference discussions to a weekend long hackathon – the event certainly had something for everyone. This post hones in on the most interesting takeaways for entrepreneurs, developers and web enthusiasts. Lists of trends or tips were very popular with the presenters and so in true SocialDevCamp style, here my top 10 insights from the conference:

  1. Being social is not an add-on but mission-critical. When the conference title has “social” in it, you know it’s a pretty important theme. Groupon CEO, Andrew Mason said that the company’s unparalleled growth was merely a product of its times where the social nature of the web makes companies grow faster than ever before. Social proofing with one’s network serves to test concepts and ideas and highlight for us what’s important. The “curated by friends” model is taking word-of-mouth to a whole different level. Community is breathing life into any web presence. And so whether it is augmented reality, having online-offline tie-ins, crowdsourcing deals or enriching the experiences for brand advocates, social and its myriad online manifestations are hot, hot, hot.
  2. Environment has environmentalists, women have feminists & so the web needs webinists. Chris Messina, the Open Web advocate at Google made a thoroughly entertaining and compelling argument for maintaining the integrity of the social web as it is today. The central tenets of his speech were what he termed “POP computing” and generativity, inspired by Josh Zitterman’sThe Future of the Internet & How to Stop it. The death of URLs, lean-back devices where freedom is traded in for usability, app stores with a curated non-transparent model and instant personalization are some of the things that comprise the “POP computing” phenomenon – the move to a clean and frighteningly sterile Internet. Generativity includes being flexible, adaptable, providing easy access and making it easily transferable especially to non-experts with the goal being to federate social ties more effectively. It’s easy to think of the future of the Internet as far removed from our own purview. But Messina left the audience with the powerful message that maintaining freedom, choice and innovation on an open web is ultimately our responsibility either as developers using OpenID or OAuth technologies or laymen taking the time to understand the nuances of net neutrality,
  3. Go work for Groupon – they’re funny, smart and apparently have some cash to spare. It was quite the Groupon love fest at SDC with Mason’s lunch keynote and the product team shedding some light on the Groupon way of development. Mason quipped that Groupon is representative of consumers and hence can “talk to ourselves in ways that doesn’t make us want to throw up.” When asked about his company culture, he said that he “doesn’t want to be the kind of company with passive aggressive signs on the refrigerator asking people to get their moldy stuff out” and was not afraid to “sound the stupidest…and [hence] more interesting.” For engineers, joining a company like Groupon rather than starting something on their own might be a great option, Mason said, because they probably wouldn’t see problems of a huge scale in a startup. So if you’re a polyglot excited about solving problems, being around smart people and singing to loyal customers, look up Groupon…they want you.
  4. Please KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Simplicity is elegant and effective and that was repeated through multiple sessions. Mason said that you really just have one and a half seconds for your users to get the value proposition and his product team, Suneel Gupta and Shinji Kuwayama echoed the same sentiment. Ben Huh of I Can Has Cheezburger? fame pointed out that while human nature has a tendency to admire complexity it rewards simplicity and that admiration and actual revenue come from two very different places. He asked the audience to focus only on what users would do if they had 40 seconds on your site.
  5. Mobile does not equate to being an extension of the web. Computer usage is plateauing while our mobile phones continue to become intricately fused into our lives, changing social behavior one habit at a time. While the mobile industry might be rewriting social norms, make sure your mobile product is not explicitly changing behaviors. The mobile platform is definitely its own entity and it makes no sense to think of it as a mere extension or adaptation of the online experience. Also, as an added benefit, thinking of a mobile experience/app forces you to prioritize features.
  6. Don’t quit playing games with your users’ hearts. Game mechanics are definitely here to stay. Users like their achievements, badges, awards earned for engaging with your product/service and the more gaming elements they interact with, the more addictive it becomes. An obvious big picture trend is the tie-in of gaming with location and loyalty programs. So, for the health of your product, don’t quit playing games.
  7. Enable all the incurable builders. The 36-hour long weekend hackathon produced some great work but even beyond the developers that participated in the challenge, the atmosphere was one aimed at enabling developers and entrepreneurs. Code sprints and other challenges initially attracted hackers by dangling prizes, but towards the end, people got a rush from being part of a team that produced something. Channeling this could benefit less tech-savvy, non-profits and help increase the technical pool as well.
  8. Features don’t cut it but experiences sure do. The Groupon product guys stressed the importance of honing in on the customer experience – keep asking what customers want, need and feel when they use your product. Mason quoted a study that said people who focus on experiences rather than products have happier lives. Long-term success stems from an emotional attachment being created with your user through engaging experiences.
  9. Move over lean, MPH (Mr. Potato Head) methodology is here. Ben Huh uses the MPH strategy when growing the Cheezburger network which has a portfolio of sites like LOL Cats and Fail Blog among others. If a significant component of your site/product is lost, it will be ugly but no one dies. Some of the key tenets of the funny yet brilliant MPH philosophy:
    • Partner with businesses that have proven structural independence like Gmail or WordPress.
    • Make it easy to try before you buy and to get in and, easier still, to get out. If users can’t get out of something, they won’t get into it in the first place.
    • Prove before you spend anything.
    • If you spend time building something, it should be a competitive advantage. Outsource all the irrelevant stuff.
    • Ask if you can you plug in/out for a better, cheaper or faster solution.
    • Minimize the cost of failure to almost nothing because then risk becomes palatable and that ultimately ups the chances of success.
  10. Oh ye of little faith, the Chicago tech scene is definitely alive and growing. Having interesting (grown-up) startups like 37signals and Groupon in the area definitely helps create a talent pool of people who can then deploy their own business and tech prowess in startups thus fuelling the entrepreneurial ecosystem like in the Valley. An interesting upcoming startup is Nowspots, a real-time advertising technology provider for local publishers created by the Brad Flora (Windy Citizen) who won the 2010 Knight News Challenge.

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