St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

BloomReach Relevance Report: Collision 2016 edition

The BRRR just flew back from the Collision tech conference in New Orleans and boy are our arms tired. Hey, it’s the BloomReach Relevance Report. What did you expect in the way of humor?

St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter

St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ French Quarter

It was no accident that the Collision folks chose New Orleans for the third Collision. The show goes for eclectic and there are few more eclectic cities in the the United States than New Orleans, with it’s elegant southern charm juxtaposed with its off-the-hook Bourbon Street party scene. This was a conference that had impresarios of the NFL (Brett Favre) and SEO (Rand Fishkin). It included presentations on stage by PJ Morton, keyboardist of Maroon 5 (seen below with Chris Kaskie of Pitchfork) and Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit.

PJ Morton of Maroon 5 talks with Chris Kaskie of Pitchfork

No, it’s not Shop.org or NRF’s Big Show and it isn’t laden with retail-specific panels or discussions. But there was plenty for retailers to learn at Collision and we’ll run some of those down in words and pictures. There was plenty of wisdom dispensed from the marketing stage.

Rand Fishkin of Moz

Rand Fishkin of Moz

Neil Vogel, CEO of About.com, talked about the pioneering internet site’s recent radical reinvention.  The site, a mishmash of advice and answers to questions, launched nearly 20 years ago, when the internet was a very different place. Vogel said that in 2016, the idea of a one-stop site is not nearly as appealing as a strong vertical — for instance a site that is all about health.

“You can’t be everything to everyone,” Vogel said. “You don’t want diabetes advice from the same place you learn to stain floors,” he said. And so he announced that About.com was launching a stand-alone health site, pretty much at that very moment.

Neil Vogel of About.com

Neil Vogel

Of course, he got wild applause from those at packed into the Market Stage area.

“Don’t clap,” he said. “It’s wasting energy. Take out your phones and start clicking on stuff.”

He was joking. Kind of. Not really.

Traffic is king and IAC, About.com’s parent, is hoping this new strategy gets more. It wasn’t an easy move for an outfit that had been doing the same thing, pretty much the same way, for a long time. Vogel described it as, “forcing a huge cultural change, something that has been essentially the same thing for 20 years.”

The lesson for retaliers? Don’t be held back by legacy. The BRRR had a chance to moderate a couple of panels at Collision, including one with Vincent Yang of EverString and Matthew O’Grady of Nielsen Catalina Solutions and another with Dan Wagner of Civis Anayltics.

Among the many things that came up in both discussions about data with the analytics experts is how emotion can get in the way of embracing data. Nobody was suggesting that anyone should simply turn blindly to data, but there is a danger in clinging to the past. It can be hard, emotionally, if an executive perceives that he or she is giving up control of decisions to a machine run by data scientists. That observation applies to retail executives, too, who at times resist the power of machines, because they relied on gut for so long. The answer is to balance the two  — the art and the science.

Panelists at Collision left little doubt that the winners of the of the coming decade will be those who best manage, analyze and act on the right data. Vitaly Gordon, a data scientist with Salesforce, told attendees that data science is important.

More Collision coverage

It’s the electricity of our time,” he said, explaining that soon data science will be so ubiquitous that people won’t give it a second thought. It will just flow — and it will contribute to great things.

“Every time  you create a product like GPS, an intelligent tool that gives advice that is personalized, you make the world a better place,” he said.

Another lesson came not from any stage, but from the overall vibe and mission of Collision. Sure, the organizers are looking to make a profit, but they are also looking to provide a chance for startup entrepreneurs to network with each other, as well as investors, while working to get the attention of a journalist corps that also attends.

Collision speaker mingle before dinner at the Board of Trade

Collision speaker mingle before dinner at the Board of Trade

There are no doubt somber, sober even, networking encounters, but the organizers seem intent on lubricating the socializing with nightly pub crawls and dinners featuring open bars. The gatherings and meet-ups are a reminder that there is wisdom in the crowd. Like leaders in any industry, retail executives can be hesitant to share ideas around solutions to common problems.

A relatively calm Bourbon Street before dark

A relatively calm Bourbon Street before dark

But with Amazon’s dominance it is time to share best practices without giving away the secret sauce that one retailer might believe provides an edge over the competition.

Startups symbolize the future, which came come at you in a blur

Startups symbolize the future, which came come at you in a blur

And maybe the most significant lesson could be seen in the more than 600 startups that attended Collision as exhibitors. The sheer number was a symbol of the future; a sign that change is coming, that those who will come out on the other side are often those who are ready to take risks and try something new.

Canal Street streetcar

Streetcars move down the Canal Street Line.

The past can be comfortable, easy, beautiful even. And sometimes the old ways will suffice. But it is much more likely that something you don’t even see coming will threaten your business. Unless, of course, you’re the one who nobody seems coming.

Photos by Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.