Drinking from the fountain of Silicon Valley on last week’s INMA study tour, it is easy to get lost in the conflation of emotions: gurus talking innovation, wowed and concerned about Google and Facebook, ping pong tables masquerading as culture tools, and the inevitable collision between what is a trend vs. what is a sales pitch.

Before me on a Saturday morning are 34 pages of single-spaced handwritten notes and 20 presentations from 16 study tour stops across San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

How to tackle this mountain? 

We visited Google and Facebook – and were treated royally with generous access to key executives and their unique campuses.

A stop at PARC, owned by Xerox, gave us a bird’s eye view of the emerging world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how the news ecosystem will soon be powered.

Visits to and presentations by Twitter, media server Plex.tv, and video creation platform Wibbitz got us thinking about the fast-evolving world of video, while a stop at Yelp yielded a cautionary tale of how to (and not to) interact with Google.

Visits with native ad software company Sharethrough and digital advertising technology company RhythmOne got us behind the curtains of native advertising and programmatic trends. 

Start-up accelerators like Matter.vc integrate a culture of continued learning, experimentation into their core practice.
Start-up accelerators like Matter.vc integrate a culture of continued learning, experimentation into their core practice.

We got innovation evangelism and practical cultural advice from start-up accelerators Matter.vc and BootUP.

Where it wasn’t realistic to take 30 people to offices too small to accommodate us, we heard from top executives, analysts, and leading lights: LiftIgniter and Urbs.Media on personalisation, Frederic Filloux on his news quality project, and a great panel of venture capitalists and investors at Bloomberg on what’s next in Silicon Valley.

Software company LiftIgniter aims to create better experiences with customised content on any given page for a specific user.
Software company LiftIgniter aims to create better experiences with customised content on any given page for a specific user.

We got grounded in the real-world experiences of media companies Bleacher Report and the San Francisco Chronicle – two very different stories from two very different perspectives.

A visit to Chinese Web services company Baidu took us far out of our comfort zone in the emerging world of driverless car technology and what looks like a revolution that will start hitting us in 2021.

We got our hands dirty with hands-on demonstrations of Virtual Reality (VR) technology at Matterport and Leap Motion.

Bleacher Report aims to be a global digital destination for sports fans, particularly Millennials.
Bleacher Report aims to be a global digital destination for sports fans, particularly Millennials.

To be honest, I’m skipping so many moments and nuances. Our tour leader, Alan Mutter, provided a bird’s eye view of media trends that set the stage for the week. Our participants represented the leading-light media companies from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America and greatly benefited from each other.

Are you exhausted just reading this litany of visits? You see my conundrum back home on this Saturday morning. 

Driverless car technology innovations participants discussed at Baidu could create significant changes in the future news media landscape.
Driverless car technology innovations participants discussed at Baidu could create significant changes in the future news media landscape.

Key themes 

If I were to distill a full week of the INMA Silicon Valley Study Tour, with a heavy bias toward what is most relevant to me, it would be these themes:

  1. Attention: The ultimate currency in media is attention, the key to attention is discovery, and most information remains under-optimised.
  2. Personalisation: Personalisation of content, content architecture, newsletters, alerts, and more is the universal answer to optimising discovery.
  3. Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI-driven personalisation is overtaking tag-driven faux personalisation. There are too many nuances to behaviour for faux personalisation to work.
  4. Scaling AI: Data and analytics (yes, two different things) are already slipping past human-driven tasks to machine-driven tasks. It is not clear to me how AI scales down the food chain of media companies nor what tasks should be prioritised. 
  5. AR, VR, and Mobile Devices: The long-term relevance of AR and VR is their eventual collision with mobile phones, which will mostly disappear within a decade.
  6. Video: I am continually vexed about the trends in digital video vs. the lower levels of engagement on news media-generated video. Yet maybe an answer to this is going to be less about video channels and more about making video ubiquitous through simpler and simpler tools – and integration with text-based reporting.
A visit to Twitter raised questions about the role and future of video.
A visit to Twitter raised questions about the role and future of video.

Google and Facebook

The elephants in the room all week were Google and Facebook. Here is what I took away from interactions:

  1. Inflection Point: Facebook and Google are facing an inflection point: They realise their platforms are being abused. They don’t want to be in a position to make editorial judgments if, for no other reason, they don’t want to be valued, treated, and regulated like media companies. To that end, an analyst said, the media industry response should be “don’t interfere with our ability to succeed as media companies.” 
  2. Fake News: Both Google and Facebook, in their fights against fake news, are erring on the side of de-monetising (depriving sites of advertising) and lowering those sites in feeds. 
  3. Trust Signals: Google and Facebook are feverishly working on trust signals in article content, though they concede it’s early days. This is worth a deeper dive, but imagine this mine field: If content or brands are ranked by history and accolades and the like, that’s great for the New York Times, lukewarm for Vox Media, and awful for a credible start-up.
  4. Machines Solving Fake News: AI could prove a bigger resolver of fake news than 10,000 Facebook editors and gatekeepers. This was hotly debated.
  5. Filter Bubbles: Facebook executives shared that while many are worried about filter bubbles that social media information diets are, in fact, more diverse than real-world information diets. Someone who religiously consumes Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are exposed to a far broader array of information in social spaces.

It was interesting to get inside the mindsets of Google as it relates to fake news, misinformation, and measuring and prioritising quality. They seem to be tackling these from three obvious perspectives: 

  • How can platforms do better?
  • How can news companies better vet and send signals to platforms?
  • How to make consumers more news literate, separating fact from fiction?

Closing thoughts

In the weeks ahead, I will further unbundle what I can – in blog posts, in reports, in presentations. I need more time to prioritise, and there may be subjects that didn’t get their due justice during the study tour that INMA will surface. 

Why do mid-cap companies fail? Fear of losing current profitability in search of future revenue and slow tech adoption.
Why do mid-cap companies fail? Fear of losing current profitability in search of future revenue and slow tech adoption.

For now, I leave you with an insightful observation by Mukul Agarwal, founder and CEO of Bootup Ventures in Palo Alto. Discussing the innovation ecosystem, he told INMA that as the big get bigger, mid-cap companies are failing at higher and higher rates. Corporate failure boils down to two factors:

  • They can’t keep up with technology. 
  • They don’t want to let go of current profitability for future profitability.

Does that sound familiar, media companies?