SANTA MONICA, Calif.--It was a breezy evening in late April at the swanky Casa Del Mar hotel, and waiters in black vests had just started pouring Chardonnay.
Newly appointed Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan, dressed in white, was the belle of the ball--one of the few power women in a typically male crowd of technology entrepreneurs and investors at a mixer on the hotel's seaside patio. Not so much as a line, but a circle of people were waiting to swap business cards with her, following the opening-night panel at social media tech conference EconSM 2008, which featured Morgan.
On the perimeter were two unusual party guests--a gray-haired English gentleman about 30 years older than the average attendee, and his brown-eyed 30-something wife. They had bought $600 conference tickets like everyone else, but their name tags marked them as outsiders: "Ian Dunbar; Animal Behaviorist" and "Kelly Dunbar; Sirius Puppy Training."
A business development guy from Web video advertising company VideoEgg looked once, then twice, at Kelly's name tag. He asked if the badge was a hoax. After she explained, glass of Chardonnay in hand, that she and her husband are professional puppy trainers trying to figure out how to build an online community for new dog owners, the light went on.
"That's a great vertical," he said.
From puppies to social media
Outside a seemingly incestuous circle of Web technology executives, their investors, and their employees, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone--like a parent or a teen member of MySpace.com--who could define "social media." Even executives from Bebo and Microsoft speaking at a recent social media conference had difficulty agreeing on one definition.
That's always been the irony of the tech industry. People invent terms like "Web 2.0," "push technology," and "pen computing" to describe concepts that most of their cohorts only pretend to understand. And then a new series of frothy conferences devoted to its study are launched.
That event circuit is often populated by most of the people of the last big thing. Joanna Shields, for example, the president of social network Bebo who spoke at EconSM, used to be managing director of Google Europe (during the search engine marketing trend of 2002 to 2004). And before that, she was a vice president at RealNetworks during the dot-com heyday (and the broadband entertainment trend of 2000 to 2002).
What's different this time around is that social media is inherently about people. Technology executives aren't just talking about chipsets or geospatial positioning devices. They're trying to understand how people share photos; how they shop together; how they network; how they update friends on big news. Human behavior is at the core of social media, a layer on top of all those "tubes" and Internet connections.
And yet social media technology could be making us less social. Even a group of teens lamented at a recent tech conference in Silicon Valley that without those memberships to MySpace and Facebook, they might spend more quality time with their friends and family.
Still, everyone from Nike to Nickelodeon is trying to figure out how to create a social sphere around themselves. Sometimes it takes a group of outsiders like a crew of dog behaviorists to shed light on the strange culture of nerdy technologists and their wealthy investors.
Outsiders looking in
In mid-April, Kelly Dunbar received an e-mail from Fast Company advertising a discount rate on EconSM 2008 tickets. She had recently been obsessing about social media and successful community Web sites, inspired in part by the thriving membership of the newly minted "Internet newspaper," the Huffington Post.
More than a year ago, she and her husband had launched their dog site, DogStarDaily.com, a hub for puppy training tips, videos, and a regularly updated dog blog. But it still only attracted about 8,000 visits a month. So Kelly and her stepson Jamie, a 24-year-old graduate of Brown University, were examining how to use social sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, and YouTube to attract new visitors. They were easily sold on a social media excursion to L.A.
It was harder to swallow for Ian Dunbar, who is prone to calling a URL an "Earl." He's famous in the dog fancier world for expertise on helping humans train their animals. He literally wrote the book on puppy training. He could teach you a one-minute sit-stay trick for a Jack Russell, but doesn't know the first thing about FriendFeed.
Yet Dunbar understands the world is changing fast--and dog-training amateurs are grabbing the limelight on YouTube with tips on doggie roll-overs and jumps. His professional fame hasn't translated online yet. So he wants to turn his puppy-teaching acumen into a marketable online franchise, with six-minute how-to videos, audio books, and a thriving community of dog lovers. That way, he can go directly to the public, without the need for traditional media.
It's an expensive enterprise, however. The Dunbars have put about $20,000 into their site, DogStarDaily.com, in the 18 months they've been working on it. And they've made about $400 so far from book sales and ads. They don't pay anyone, but they have about 20 professionals who blog for free.
Ian's son Jamie, who studied visual arts in college and recently moved back in with his parents, just joined the DogStarDaily team in March as its video editing and social media expert. He's learning as he goes.
The Dunbars support themselves through Ian's 27-year-old puppy training academy in Berkeley, Calif., but they'd like to build a successful online "vertical" so that they could travel regularly or work remotely from a place like Barbados--or not work at all.
So with the vision of the Pets.com Internet heyday, the three of them hopped in Kelly's 1997 Honda CRV and drove 370 miles to Los Angeles. It was their first road trip as a new business team.
Looking for inspiration
After a night out at an Italian restaurant on Brentwood, the DogStarDaily trio was ready to learn about social media and eager to hear speakers like Digg founder Kevin Rose (who didn't show up) and YouTube executive Jordan Hoffner (the star of a video session) at L.A.'s Skirball Center.
The evening cocktail party turned out to be less fruitful schmoozing than they hoped. Executives from upstarts like Ning and KickApps spent less time explaining their social-networking applications and more time trashing each other. At one point in the night, a Kickapps' representative told Dunbar not to work with Ning "because Ning owns everything."
Dunbar's take: "I could not believe how snarky people were about their competitors. But then that's the grand irony--that the conference is about social media. That cracked me up."
The threesome was most eager to hear a morning session on the "social video explosion," which featured executives from YouTube, Seesmic, Veoh Networks, and Revision3. The Dunbar team want to host a collection of 1,000 short-form and long-form videos for their site on dog-training topics. (Right now, they have about 200 videos, but their technology is slow.)
The panel of executives gave them hope. Jim Louderback, for example, CEO of Internet TV network Revision3, was bullish about companies that create new niche shows of video content that can attract loyal followings of people. (Of course, that's the business of Revision3.) Advertisers are willing to pay rates as high as $80 per thousand viewers to reach people in a valuable niche like technology, he said.
"Your audience doesn't have to be huge, it just has to be loyal. 100,000 followers can do the job," Kelly Dunbar thought to herself afterward.
During a conference break, Ian Dunbar met Gene Mauro, vice president of business development from Bunchball, a social-gaming application that measures the "science of engagement." Their technology helps people learn to use a Web site or game and rewards them with points. Dunbar perked up to this technology because it basically helps train people on how to use a Web site, which crossed over into his occupation.
"I said, 'Oh wow. We're people trainers, too.' So much technology that we forget it's all about people. People want to be known and valued, and in this huge Web space, people just get lost and it's just numbers and click-throughs," Dunbar said.
After a demo of the technology, Dunbar wanted to use Bunchball to personalize his own Web site. But Mauro gave him a ballpark figure of about $50,000 to use the technology, a high multiple of DogStar's monthly operating budget.
That afternoon, conference presenters were preparing to interview AOL President Ron Grant onstage and Bebo President Joanna Shields live from London via a video uplink. (AOL had newly acquired the social network for $800 million.) But the video-chat technology wasn't working and there was an awkward pause.
Ian Dunbar chuckled in his seat. He had been feeling like a "miserable old fart" among the youthful, competitive scene, but that glitch made him realize that even the rich, fast-paced world of technology has its flaws.
During the session, Dunbar also was struck when Shields said that "community is the content." He realized that his site needs to appeal to women, given that as many as 90 percent of dog trainers are women. Now, he felt like a social media executive.
"It made me a bit competitive, like 'Let's go hell for leather for this,'" Dunbar said. "Why shouldn't we be one of these start-ups."
The three left the conference $3,000 lighter--including the price of tickets, two hotel rooms, meals and gas--and with more inspiration than actual how-to knowledge of social media.
At a dog-training or fancier conference, for example, the professionals onstage will deliver a how-to lecture like how to change the behavior of a dog. At this event, Yahoo executive Jeff Weiner was artfully trying to dodge questions about Microsoft and the company's plans for its Hollywood unit.
"Listening to the Yahoo stuff, I'm amazed at how enormous these companies are, but one part of the company doesn't know what the other part is doing," Dunbar said. "I'm working with my wife and son; we giggle and laugh; we write up a to-do list; and it's done within a week."
Back at their Berkeley hills home, which doubles as the headquarters of DogStarDaily, the three Dunbars are hopeful about turning the site into a powerhouse social network for dog lovers. Soon, they will have audio books available for sale on Lulu.com--recordings they made in a downstairs billiards room of their home with the help of a local band's lead singer. They also plan to produce 40 or so short-form videos this summer and launch personalized dog pages for community members.
They're doubtful that the site will become the next YouTube, but they're having fun together in the process.
"I'm not so sure how much I took from the conference. I didn't get any new radical ideas, but the bonding experience was worthwhile," Jamie Dunbar said.
His father summed it up. "The funny thing is, the whole gestalt of social media is now making people less sociable. It's why my industry is so popular. Dogs are universally accepting."