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Surfing on a Blockchain Couch-Island

Do you still need to care about blockchain? Or the blockchain? Or a blockchain?

Serial Marketers hosted blockchain expert Jeremy Epstein, also of Never Stop Marketing fame, for a candid Q&A session last week. Below, you’ll find some highlights, with the full thread in the Serial Marketers #events channel.

Jeremy is one of the first people I knew who cared about blockchain and cryptocurrency. He somehow manages to care regardless of what Bitcoin’s price is on a given day, so there’s always plenty to learn from him.

The conversation led me to set up my account with my blockchain-integrated Brave browser so I can collect tips from visitors and share donations with publishers. Of course, that means I now have my own referral link, so sign up early and often (I also take tips in doughnuts, which are not a form of crypto but actual pastries). You’ll find lots more inspiration below.

Does blockchain still matter for marketing? Will it? How? When? Why? Let’s turn to Jeremy, with some excerpts edited for clarity, grammar, and length.

David Berkowitz: Jeremy, please introduce yourself.

Jeremy Epstein: I’m honored and excited to be here. I’ve spent most of my career trying to understand emerging technologies before they jump the chasm into the mainstream. I had a startup (think TaskRabbit, but WAY too early), did 6 years at Microsoft, and started Never Stop Marketing to help large brands understand social media (this was in 2008). Then, in 2012, I joined Sprinklr as VP of Marketing where I was until mid/late 2016. Since then, I’ve been “all in” on blockchain/crypto.

DB: So what got you into blockchain/crypto in the first place? Did you have some kind of lightbulb moment?

JE: I bought about $1k worth of Bitcoin in 2013, thanks to the recommendation of Fred Wilson’s blog, but I didn’t really think much about it for a while.

DB: And then you bought a small island.

JE: Ha, I wish. I sold most of it when it doubled soon thereafter and then only had “dust” BTC [Bitcoin] after. Anyway, I ad these Bitcoin and thought, “WTF are these things anyway?” I started reading everything I could on blockchain, crypto, game theory, mechanism design, consensus algorithms, and well…as they say in crypto, “I fell down the rabbit hole.” There was one moment, however, which I can still remember…

DB: I feel like we should have Hans Zimmer scoring this.

JE: I was on my couch, and I just kind of sat up and said, out loud — no joke, “HOLY SHIT! This thing is a tsunami of disruption and basically no one knows it is coming.”

DB: Okay, so you were on your couch island and realized no one was doing anything about this. What’s the first thing you did?

JE: You’re like a marketing version of Jimmy Kimmel. The way that I try to get my head around an idea is by blogging it. I blog 5 days per week (#plug blog.neverstopmarketing.com). I call it my “workshop” and I just wrestle with the ideas there. So, if you go back to that timeframe, you’ll see that I start blogging about crypto ALL the time. I kind of became obsessed with it, but the writing for me is the key.

Once I decided that crypto was the way to go, I pulled a page out of the Sprinklr marketing playbook and created a collaborative e-book called “Blockchains in the Mainstream” which had 33 of the biggest names in the industry talking about it. Keep in mind, this was summer 2016 when the price of Bitcoin (that’s my reference for a lot of things these days) was about $600.

[Editor: As I write this, it’s about $8,700, which means it could be anywhere between $411 and $29,000 by the time this gets published.]

Vu Pham: What percentage of the blockchain applications that you see in the news do you think are legitimate uses for blockchain, versus people using blockchain just to have the buzzword?

JE: If you think about “blockchain” like you would the early days of the Internet, there are two ways that new “blockchain apps” will get implemented. The first is, “How can we use this new tech to do what we already do, but better, faster, cheaper?” This is like Intranet. So, you’ll see examples from Walmart, IBM, and some banks of using “blockchain” as a distributed ledger to keep track of supply chain, customs manifests, and much more…e.g., provenance of weed as it moves from grower to retailer. Those are nice and will reduce a lot of inefficiencies that come from having multiple systems of record that every organization has these days since there was (until this tech came along) a way to have consensus between multiple parties without a trusted intermediary before.

I don’t know how “real” those are. I’ve heard a lot. IBM suffers in this space from questions of credibility vis a vis HyperLedger (think Watson all over again). MSFT and others are doing some cool stuff, but I’d say these uses are more “business process optimization” than business model innovation. It’s hard to say how advanced they are because I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them. Like the difference between Intranet and Internet, I think the sexy stuff is on the public Internet, or in this case, public blockchains where the real business model innovation is happening.

For example, you can take the USD in your savings account at Capital One (or whatever), and turn it 1:1 into USDC (a stablecoin) via Coinbase.com for no fee. Then, you can deposit into a crypto-bank such as Compound.finance, dydx, dharma, or BlockFi for 3.97% [interest] because they don’t have the back-end requirements associated with guaranteeing trust. It’s orders of magnitude cheaper. BTW… This is NOT investment advice. Crypto is still risky. You are on your own (#disclaimer). I’m running a fund now for accredited investors in crypto as well, so I have to cover the bases.

DB: With this fund, what kinds of companies are you investing in?

JE: It’s not so much companies, it’s the tokens associated with protocols (which is the software that is used to run a decentralized network) and are the native payment mechanism for things like security and other services that ppl/computers provide.

DB: What’s wowing you now with applications of blockchain for marketing?

JE: It’s been tough sledding on the blockchain+marketing side of the house for a while now. The theory behind the CMO Primer for the Blockchain World has been examined by many people, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in the Blockchain MarTech Landscape (ht: Scott Brinker) over the past few years from 22 to over 400. But we haven’t seen much traction in enterprises yet. Never Stop Marketing has done “Blockchain Immersion Days” for agencies and brands, so the interest is there and it’s growing, but it’s slow.

That being said, I think the big story of the space is the Brave browser. It’s a privacy-first, ad-blocking browser that compensates you for looking at ads (in a Basic Attention Token or BAT) and which has a dramatically higher click-through rate than traditional ones.

[Donny Dvorin, who worked with Jeremy and is now Head of Sales at Brave Software, said the browser now gets 11.5 million monthly active users.]

DB: Is there any kind of threshold you see you need to hit for when you think Brave will make a real difference and hit some tipping point?

Donny Dvorin: I think it’s about seeing 10% of US users using Brave is when marketers will really start paying attention in a big way. So if you think there are 250 million US adults in the US, that’s about 25 million users on Brave in the US. That’s the tipping point.

JE: It’s actually cool… I have blog readers who use Brave because of the blog and then send me a tip as a verified publisher. Every month, I have earned BAT for the posts I put up. Not a lot, but great proof of concept. I think influencers/thought leaders will enjoy this…once the flywheel gets started, of course. Plus, readers who might otherwise be cut off from paywall content can make micro-BAT payments for access on an article basis (though that remains to be seen, of course).

[Ed.: As noted above, he just influenced me. Also, while Brave has a waitlist of 12,000 advertisers, I’ve worked with them to get you fast-track access to run a test. Contact Donny at donny@brave.com and mention Serial Marketer. This is not a sponsorship; I just liked that Donny was offering readers something of value.]

DB: Are you talking to CMOs much at all about blockchain these days?

JE: As much as I would like to, the answer is no, except for the stage I speak on at the Blockchain Research Institute annual convention. But that’s ok, I’ve spent enough time w/large enterprises to know that the innovators are the people in this group, at the edges who run the pilots. I saw that with the Internet and with social. I prefer spending my time with the CEOs and leaders of the protocols/tokens. Those are the folks literally inventing the future.

DD: I speak to a lot of CMO‘s now in my position as head of sales at Brave. And ironically Blockchain does not come up a lot. I would say the biggest trend right now is privacy and data regulation, which we spend a lot of time talking about.

DB: Jeremy, any last words on this?

JE: The arrival of public blockchain technology is the software that will “eat the world” of any business/organization that makes its living as a trust broker in one way or another because it reduces the “trust tax” by orders of magnitude. Three years ago, it was all promise. Today, there are actual products you can use that literally couldn’t exist then. Don’t dismiss it, even though it will take longer than I personally want.

There’s a lot more in the Slack channel, especially if you want to get into technical detail. Thanks to everyone who participated and made this conversation so much richer. As for Jeremy, beyond the plugs above, you can also find him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

I hope to do more of these Q&As. Keep recommendations coming, and feel free to raise your own hand if you have ideas.

This column was originally published in the newsletter. While I share the introductory column here, other updates such as jobs, events, and commentary on news are exclusively available to subscribers. Sign up now to make sure you receive it.

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