Reflections on the Monaco forum
The 2009 Monaco Motor Sport Business Forum is over and I’m writing this on a wobbly table in the work-in-progress that is Nice airport.
There’s been a lot to take in: hours of recorded speech which will take a few weeks to sift through. It’s been a fascinating couple of days – although when the lady from Porsche dropped the word “emotionalisation” into the mix, mid-way through a marathon session of death-by-powerpoint, I was briefly gripped by the urge to throw something. Apart from that, and a couple of changes to the line-up that had been circulated before the event, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Part of the reason for coming was to take the pulse of the motorsport economy, and hopefully not reprise the Groucho Marx gag, “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.”
So how is the patient? Certainly not suffering hallucinations. There was little of the gaga optimism that was epitomised last year by Donington’s Simon Gillet, although the otherwise eminently sensible Tony Fernandes was a little premature in talking about getting to the front of the grid. You have to be a bit crazy to do what he’s attempting, but at least he has a solid and successful track record in business, and he doesn’t change the subject when you ask where the money’s coming from. He is one of those scruffy millionaire types that demonstrates their abilities with the cut of their jib rather than the cut of their suit.
There is a clear division on the subject of new media: the panellists on the first day took what I’d call a more progressive view, talking about how there was no point in trying to charge the public for content they can find for free, and challenging the notion that having a high number of unique visitors was a worthwhile metric. If I were to level a criticism at this view, it’s that the people who subscribe to it are still somewhat unclear as to how to ‘monetise’ it.
Ah, dread word! Rather like ‘decimate’, this uncomfortable-sounding verb is undergoing a transition through popular misuse. Technically it means to convert debt into currency; in the hands of internet proponents it describes the process by which they try to rifle your wallet while you browse.
I digress. On the second day we were firmly in the territory of the numbers merchants, as delegates from World Superbikes, World Touring Cars and MotoGP bludgeoned us with data, including how many millions of unique visitors they had on their websites. The bad mojo had clearly leaked into the computer system, which would sporadically refuse to change slides when they clicked the remote.
The common ground between these camps is that they are still scratching around for a way of establishing a revenue stream. Most websites still don’t make money, and even the ones that do are not generating enough. Expect to see, over the coming year, more ‘free’ widgets and games that are driven by data capture. Once they know your email address, how old you are, and what you’re interested in, that data becomes a saleable commodity. When entrepreneurs talk about ‘personalisation’, this is what they mean.
It’s becoming clear to the business community that having high traffic volumes doesn’t equate to profit. That may not come as news to many of you, but don’t forget that the internet is still like the Wild West to many people in business. For many of them, their only interaction with the industry is when they decide to revamp their website(s) and invite tenders from web design companies, only to be deluged by flim-flam. They must feel like the bemused punter in that Not The Nine O’Clock News hi-fi shop sketch.
My colleague and patron Ian Burrows nailed this during the media panel yesterday:
YouTube and Twitter have millions of users but they don’t make any money – although some people are using Twitter to create revenue, Twitter itself isn’t bringing anything in.
This may change over the coming months. The much-derided new retweet system is clearly designed as an enabler for e-commerce (or, to put it another way, a means of enabling people you’ve never met to pop up and try to sell you something).
The WRC is embarking upon a big project to engage viewers over the internet. This is laudable and I hope it demonstrates the virtues of openness, but we’ve got to face facts: as a championship it has nothing to lose by giving its offering away, because that offering is worth a fraction of F1’s value. As an example of the relative magnitude of the F1 audience, around 90 per cent of the monthly page impressions on Autosport.com are for F1 news; the next largest sector is MotoGP… at five per cent.
We are told that there are web developments afoot in Princes Gate, but don’t expect to see the wholesale liberalisation of TV footage – or a plethora of interactive feeds – just yet. Bernie is wary of investing huge sums in new technology after the debacle of his interactive TV service, which cost megabucks to set up and run (the digital TV compound and the equipment in it took up most of a 747). The only way to justify it was to put it on a pay TV platform and charge a premium. It was a flop then and it will flop if they try it again – unless the premium is a sensible one.
Uh oh. An elderly American couple has sat at the next table and are giving a running commentary on the people coming through the security gate. This is hell. Must dash.