I have been deferring this blog post about the Fatwire "debacle" or "uber-gaffe" at the Gilbane Boston 2008 conference last week, because I have been wanting to do more than simply post an eyewitness account and debate what ratio of North American Puritanism to Political Incorrectness was at work in the room.
There has been media coverage, blogging, and tweeting about the incident, so I won't recap. The morning after the conference ended, I attended a Boston KM Forum meeting where Lynda Moulton, a Gilbane analyst and organizer of the Enterprise Search Track, said that it was the single most talked-about event of the conference.
The conclusion seems nearly universal: that Yogesh Gupta, president and CEO of FatWire, made a big mistake, that he didn't know his audience, and didn't react accordingly when the room started to turn against him (by proceeding with the demo rather than switching gears). Why do a demo with a site that could be perceived as offensive, when what you're demonstrating could be shown on any kind of site?
For me, the message goes beyond "Know your audience" to "Engage your audience."
Gupta's own presentation underscored that engagement with customers is no longer about Web Content Management, it's about Web Experience Management. (The keynote's summary in the conference program could serve as an oddly prescient bit of advice from Gupta to himself as he moves forward with the bad press: "In today's connected, competitive, and web 2.0-enabled business environment, word of mouth and user reviews often have greater influence over purchasing decisions than traditional marketing messages. Thus, building engaged relationships with customers, partners, prospects, and other audiences… is essential to success.")
FatWire knows the engagement business. This is the company which, at last year's Gilbane, pulled off the most engaging vendor-floor gimmick I have seen – they handed out big green buttons with their logo and a four-digit number. If you could find someone else, either in the vendor area or anywhere at the conference, whose number matched yours, you both would win a prize. (I can't remember what the prize was but it was good enough to get me, and many others, to approach strangers in the name of a common goal.) The game worked best if you wore your button prominently, displaying the FatWire branding for all to see, so it was a win for FatWire as well as a win for the participants who made connections even if they didn't win a prize. A gimmick so effective that I remember it a year later, long after the batteries died in the other swag I received that day.
I would have liked to see Gupta do more to engage the audience at this year's conference, especially when things went south. When the cry of "That's offensive!" went up, I was praying that Gupta and his technical co-presenter would suavely agree, and then show how FatWire's interactive technologies could change the experience for the end-user of the site. (For example, by reading an end-user's profile, local time of day, and the IP address of his computer, the site could detect whether the user was at home (where children in the house might be awake) or at work, and sanitize the site appropriately - making it look as innocuous as the now-defunct workfriendly.net used to do, or turning "unsafe" images to static a la Flickr's SafeSearch.) I think Gupta should do something like this at future demos - purposefully start off with a controversial page, perhaps referencing last week's incident ("When I showed this at the Gilbane Conference in 2008, people were offended. What do you think?"), let the audience take offense if they will, and then manage their experience so skillfully that they are impressed by the technology rather than by his questionable choice of demo material.
I know hindsight is 20-20, and it's tough to think on your feet, but he might have been able to turn last week's situation to his advantage, perhaps by asking for a show of hands ("Who else finds it offensive?") and drawing the crowd into a discussion ("North American Puritanism vs. Political Incorrectness, anyone?"). He had already lost their focus on his traditional-marketing demo; it would have been better to scrap that portion of the presentation and confront the issue directly, rather than treating it as an interruption to be moved past. As the old (offensive) joke punchline goes, "Your weekend's shot, you might as well mow the lawn!"