What the Venetians could teach us about social business
For a good 500 years, spanning the 12th to 17th centuries, the Republic of Venice was the world power of maritime trade, with an influence that spanned Europe, Africa and the Far East. Its influence today is greatly reduced, but it’s still a fitting venue to discuss the future of the digital economy as we’ve been doing at the Digital Economy Forum.
The likes of Google, Amazon, Cisco, Intel and some big Italian brands, Barilla and the bank Intesa Sanpaolo, have led a series of discussion here on topics ranging from social- and mobile commerce to social media marketing to innovation and entrepreneurialism. Italy, it must be pointed out, is a curious market to lead some of these discussions. The impact of the digital economy here represents about 2% of national GDP, well behind that of France and the UK. Still, there are some interesting things happening in the market here that could have a spillover effect into the wider digital world.
The impact of mobile
Italians are mobile-mad. While broadband penetration rates remain relatively low, the mobile penetration is staggeringly high here. High enough even to impress Nokia. And there are examples of innovative geo-based projects that predate by years what’s happening today in the wider wired world. No wonder then that Amazon is eyeing big things from mobile here, and throughout much of Europe. Diego Piacentini, SVP of Amazon, has this to say about mobile and tablet commerce:
- Mobile commerce (and shopping apps in general) is more than just “shrinking the screen” of the online store to fit a PDA or iPad.
- Mobile has unique features to be exploited not possible with a PC: price comparison via QR codes, photos and even speech recognition.
- consumer experience shifts from “I want that” to “I bought that” anywhere, anytime.
- handsets will be the most common browsing device, beating out the PC in the next few years.
- Tablet shopping = couch shopping.
Social media marketing: even banks get it now
I spoke with Fabrizio Paschina, head of advertising and web for Intesa Sanpaolo. He has a small team of four that in the past year started to respond individually to the many questions they were seeing posted by consumers daily about their products. Here’s what they’ve achieved in just two months:
- Simply by responding to customer queries posted on various public forums they managed to eliminate 90% of the confusing and negative sentiment about the brand and its products. 90%! Clarifying confusion could be the biggest way to clean up your brand image with a demanding public.
- Banks are sitting on impenetrable product brochures with detailed information, some helpful, some tiny fine print. A smart customer outreach team can, in response to a query, Tweet or post the relevant bits of information to confused customers and “really build a connection” with the public.
- My favorite insight of the event: for banks, the low-low interest rates of today mean they’re not making much money from their high-margin products (loans and mortgages). It’s imperative then that banks adapt social media outreach “where we can earn a valuable customer relationship.”
Manage customer data to predict the future
This was a challenge put forth by Stefano Maruzzi, country manager of Google Italy. Maruzzi used these three words – “predict the present” – to sum up the challenge facing all consumer brands in the digital age. Making sense of the massive output and outpouring of data consumers produce on a daily basis, much of which touches brands directly, is the key to business survival. The key to understanding shifting tastes, fickle public sentiment has never been more crucial. Luckily for brands, these conversations have never been so accessible.
If you want to see an Italian version of the digital future, call on the Americans!
It’s lost on nobody here that this event is organized by the U.S. Embassy in Italy. Ambassador David Thorne, with a background in finance and publishing, has been sitting in on every panel and asks some probing questions. And the counterparts in the Berlusconi government? Not a single Berlusconi
dinosaur lackey appointee is in attendance, nor have they even beamed in with a few encouraging words to the attendees. This truly discourages the Italian entrepreneurs in attendance. At one point, American entrepreneur Susan Koger, by way of introduction, mentioned in a panel that she started Modcloth at the age of 17 (now the second-largest growing privately held company in the U.S.) That’s a precocious success story we are unlikely to see here in the bel paese as long as the current gerentocracy remains in power here.