We spoke with Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein on his latest venture, Guild – a messaging app that facilitates valuable conversation between professionals. Q: With the messaging space dominated by the likes of WhatsApp, and LinkedIn so strong in the professional networking space, what inspired you to launch Guild? And why now? WhatsApp works fine as a consumer messaging app but I don’t think is fit for purpose for professional use cases. LinkedIn is like a professional version of Facebook and everyone understands why you want a social platform dedicated to professional use even though they functionally do pretty much the same thing. Currently there isn’t that professional version of WhatsApp and that is a problem as people are confusing personal/professional, there are no professional profiles on WhatsApp, no way to delete content after an hour, no email alternatives to notifications, no custom branding, no admin/analytics etc. Timing-wise, recent regulations like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California have made businesses much more cautious and sensitive to the use of apps for work that do no comply. WhatsApp is not GDPR-compliant, for example, and businesses don’t want to risk a €20m fine because their employees are using it for work. Q: Why did you choose the name Guild? Does this name travel well globally, or do you see it being more meaningful in certain regions? We don’t believe that new is always best. We are excited by the opportunities that new technology offers, but also respect much older values and ways of working. So we deliberately chose “Guild” to echo the medieval institutions which were all about craft, quality, learning and community. Those things, and humans’ desire to belong to a ‘tribe’, have not changed. We also want to create a brand that is British/European. Most tech companies are American and we believe it is an opportunity to differentiate with a European brand that plays to Europe’s long history – and it is where guilds originated. Some European countries are particularly sensitive to privacy (e.g. Germany, France) and distrustful of US “Big Tech”. Likewise, in the Middle East. And India, and much of Asia, have long held an interest in European luxury brands. We are positioning Guild more as a premium brand than an everyday consumer app. Q: What do you see as Guild’s particular strengths and/or unique selling points? We will struggle to compete on features in the long run so really it is about the brand, the quality of the experience, and quality of the people using Guild. We have to make Guild the aspirational thing to belong to. If you take a private members club like Soho House, for example, which is also a British brand that has expanded globally very successfully, it doesn’t really do anything that other venues don’t and yet it has a huge waiting list. A lot of our thinking around Guild is similar. The details of the experience are ‘high touch’, the look and feel very distinctive and refined, the hosts of groups have to pay, there are no public directories or listings as everything is invitation-only, private and discrete. Guild is really only for your most valuable professional connections – the cream of your contacts. People who you really value and want to have access to. LinkedIn is not that any more if it ever was. “Guild is really only for your most valuable professional connections – the cream of your contacts. People who you really value and want to have access to.” Q: What kinds of organisations are responding best to Guild’s offering at present? Is this what you expected? We have identified 23 different target segments with quite different use cases. What they have in common is that the groups are all relatively small (10s to 100s), all professional, all high value. We see our main competitor as the business use of WhatsApp, so wherever you see WhatsApp now being used for work stuff – that is our market. That could be anything from awards programme judges to VIP conference speakers, governors/trustees, shareholders, special interest groups, boards, management teams, entrepreneur groups, peer networks, user groups etc. The organisations we are speaking to most at the moment are either B2B media organisations who have high value customers they want to add value to, or professional membership organisations like trade associations or chartered institutes who have lots of sub-groups within their member base they want to engage with better. Q: With MPG’s focus on the marketing of conferences and large scale B2B events, we’re particularly interested in how Guild can be used to grow engagement and deliver better value to the various event stakeholders – including delegates, speakers, sponsors and exhibitors. How do you see Guild playing an important role here? Three obvious use cases we see for events are: editorial boards/councils, awards judges, and speakers. In all three cases you are typically talking about groups of around 10-70, who work across different organisations, but who see value in networking with each other. I have been an awards judge many times, and a speaker even more often, and part of the reason I do it is to meet and network with my peers but often that is not done very well. Most event networking apps now work a little better than they used to but the actual levels of activity and engagement are still low. The quality control and curation still are not good enough. And at all B2B events there are still buyers and sellers present and the buyers almost always want to hide from the sellers, so do not want to make themselves available via these apps. Guild could work for delegates but would have to be properly curated and managed by the event organiser to ensure relevance – just opening it up to all attendees is unlikely to work in my opinion. The danger with sponsors, of course, is that the experience is too salesy/spammy and so members of any such group in Guild would quickly leave. However, if handled properly by the B2B media business and the sponsor, then communities of interest/expertise could work where there is an anchor sponsor who provides real added value and insights. These sponsors are therefore more likely to be selling premium/high value products or services and be prepared to invest time and money in treating their best prospects, or existing customers, with a really high level of attention and service using Guild. Q: Do you see Guild playing an important role in building and serving genuine communities around B2B events? Absolutely. Guild allows people to continue the conversation between events. Before the event that would be about shaping the editorial program, discussing topics that should be covered, suggesting and finding speakers, exciting people about the agenda etc. During the event it is about capturing the buzz and excitement of the event itself as well as networking and meeting up. After the event it is about reflecting on the event itself, highlights, new ideas or inspiration or contacts made, getting feedback to improve the event for next time, capturing ideas on the format, and starting to plan for the next event. You would just need to think through who would host the group, how long it would last, and how many participants you should have – our current thinking is that fewer than 150 (but more than 20) is about right. Too many participants and it risks feeling too anonymous or noisy. Q: Do you see Guild significantly changing or disrupting the way in which B2B events are planned, taken to market and delivered? I don’t think Guild will become a substitute for events in the way it was once thought virtual events might be. In fact, quite the opposite. We still believe that, however good we make Guild, face to face is the best way to build relationships and trust and meaningful connections. Guild is a better way to maintain and nurture those relationships so it is best as a complement to the physical experience. Guild should extend the event experience, blur the digital and physical more effectively, help nurture stronger emotional bonds and improve engagement between professionals with a shared interest. Q: How do you see Guild becoming embedded in event strategies and event marketing in the years to come? I think there are obvious ways to improve the current experience for speakers, judges and editorial boards/councils. For high end sponsors, and high value delegates, Guild should be used pre, during, and post event to increase the excitement and engagement at each stage to build a stronger emotional connection with the event brand. This will improve turn up rates, conversion rates, repeat business, brand perception etc. It is too early to know the optimal ‘choreography’ of how Guild would augment and complement an event, and it would depend on the scale and nature of the event itself, but currently we believe the Guild experience should begin 6-8 weeks before the event and last 2-4 weeks after the event so the lifetime of a guild related to an event might only be 3 months. However, for some ongoing communities of interest then the guild could be year-round and ongoing with spikes of interest, and the physical meeting of the group, occurring at the event(s). Q: We’ve heard that the notification sound for Guild will be quite unique. Can you tell us a bit more about it? I own a set of hand bells which were among the last to be cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the East End of London before it closed. The notification sound for Guild is the high ‘G’ bell. It sounds a little like the standard WhatsApp ‘ting’ but has a less digital, more soulful and nuanced tone to it. Q: Finally, you’ve become a role model for many entrepreneurs, in particular due to your success with Econsultancy. Some would say you should be taking it easy now, but you are instead jumping into a very competitive market with a new app. What is it that makes you want to keep taking on new challenges? I suppose it is a compulsion that all entrepreneurs have. You just feel you have to do it. You have an idea, or a passion, and you know you will regret it if you don’t at least try and make something of it. Working with great people, doing something new, and creating a brand or business that has value and which people respect… why wouldn’t you want to do that? Ashley Friedlein is President of Centaur Media and founder of Econsultancy (with Matthew O’Riordan in 1999). Econsultancy was sold in 2012 to Centaur Media. One of the most influential figures in digital/marketing, Ashley is an author of two successful business books, a respected industry commentator and blogger and works across a range of businesses as an advisor, mentor, investor and consultant. In May 2018, Friedlein announced the launch of Guild – a private professional messaging app. He has described the app, set for full rollout in Autumn 2018, as being as easy “to use as WhatsApp, advertising free and GDPR compliant”.