A Conversation With Ted Leonsis on Social, Local and Mobile

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Ted Leonsis understands social media better than you. Let’s just start there.

And he doesn’t just understand it academically, or as a learned practitioner, or even as a social media services innovator (which he was). I’d like to think social media is visceral to Leonsis, but that would miss the mark, too. The truth is he gets it at a truly fundamental, source level.

The chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment (which owns the Washington Capitals hockey team, among other things), Ted, as some have said, is “community,” to use a twice-removed term for what is today social media. And what they mean by that is this owner of major professional sports teams, this man who oversaw the birth of “local online services” in Digital City and transformed what it actually means to be online at all (while at AOL in the 1990s through early 2000s), this man who today produces award-winning films, and who is still ticking off goals from his bucket list drawn up after surviving a plane crash, is iconic in this sphere. And oh yeah, he’s still into hyperlocal: he’s on the board of Groupon.

Redgate Communications was sold to AOL in 1994 and along with it came its owner, Leonsis. Between then and his departure in 2006 (ted is still chairman emeritus at AOL) numerous things were imagined, devised, created, implemented and launched to wild success (and some duds). Things like instant messaging, advancement of online chat, AOL Local, a millions-strong ‘member directory’ that foretold Facebook and on and on.

But rather than listing accomplishments, I figured  it better to go to the source for his take on how the intimately intertwined social media and hyperlocal as both behaviors and activities have evolved, and how entrepreneurs might take advantage of what’s coming next.

I talked to Leonsis as part of a broader interview for The Social Media Monthly, but he had some great things to say about local so I wanted to post them here:

So, when did you become aware of the power of user-generated content and what became known as the online community?
Well, in 1988, I started a company called the Redgate Communications and its core belief was that something magical was about to happen as communications pipes got bigger and words and pictures and videos got digitized and would more easily flow over those bigger pipes and that there would be services and products and really good things happening… and my belief was that something populist was about to take shape because when you looked at the previous technologies – the telephone, the television – they started out small and mostly in urban centers and then they exploded to be accepted everywhere.

And then I saw the power of community being involved in some of the BBNs, back in 1987, 1988, 1989 and just believed that the more people that got involved and connected with each other that there was magic behind that.

So, that’s when it kind of came alive for me.

Fast forward a little bit to AOL in the early ‘90s.  How did “community” evolve into the spotlight at AOL? 
I give Steve Case (AOL CEO at the time) a lot of this credit because Steve had this middle western, neighborly sensibility about him and he really always would talk about how neighborhoods work and how people would become close and friendly with neighbors and they would be leaning over the fence and they would talk to each other, not at each other, and that was going to be part of the coming magic of this new market and industry. And so, when it starts from the top down it was very easy, frankly, to get budgeted because you would say “I want to do message boards and email and instant messaging and parental controls and moderate the chat rooms” and all of that was looked at kind of with equal importance.

So, it does start from the top down and then we saw that the bigger the community, the more the lights are on, the bigger the party, the better are our business.  So, there was a pivot as well which was we wanted to do the right things in the right way but it ended up being ‘the better we did, the better the business was,’ so it self-reinforced.

I have been surprised … everyone is now focused on this opportunity of local, social and mobile

Where do you think social media or social /local entrepreneurs should be focusing their energy right now?
Well, I think there is too much “me too” thinking and activity right now and probably the thing I have been surprised at is everyone is now focused on this opportunity of local, social and mobile, and there are literally thousands of Groupon clones, and the world doesn’t need that 1001 Groupon clone… and where I think the big activity is going to come is right now we have broad-based publishing for “social” like Facebook, like Groupon, like Twitter. I think we will start to see deep verticalization. We saw that in search and all of a sudden travel has deep verticals like Kayak.  So, I think we will start to see the age of the specialists instead of the generalists and social media interests that are deep, going into vertical industries and markets and niches.

Do you think the future is “mobile first” as it already has been the case in many places like Japan and Korea and the Netherlands?
Laptop computers and desktop computers are looking more and more prehistoric and devices are important.  Look, since we spoke … look at what Amazon just introduced [Kindle Fire].

And so my belief is that the tablet world is key and smartphones … and they are really becoming how you browse, how you consume your information, how you stay connected and I expect that’s where all the innovation will continue.

How about your own investments – what areas are you looking at now to be big in the future?
Well, I think the whole sharing space will continue to be important. Companies like Zipcar and Exclusive Resorts and AirBNB and the like.

I think because of the economy in this generation — looking to just rent, not own, if you will — I think the sharing economy is going to continue. I also think this verticalization will continue to be vital and very important and then I think this curated commerce, in-context commerce will be vital and then anything that’s to do with video and video sharing… video’s becoming the killer app on the net.