Digital Minds: 60 seconds with polar explorer Ben Saunders

11/02/2010

By: Danny Meadows-Klue

ben%20saunders%201.JPGBlogging from the North Pole, polar explorer and record-breaker Ben Saunders attracted millions of fans straight away. Using a simple PDA and a satellite phone, he proves the power great content has, and as a one man publishing business he shows how simple web media can be. Danny Meadows-Klue caught up with him in warmer climates to ask about blogs, technology and the role of the web in the most remote place on earth.

How does your travel blogging help connect people to your expeditions, compared to more traditional approaches?
I grew up fascinated by expeditions and explorers. As a kid I loved dusty library books about Captain Scott and dog-eared copies of National Geographic. The internet allows me to share my own expeditions in real time, with an almost limitless audience, and it allows followers to interact with me while I'm in the most remote places on the planet.

How did you get into the digital sector?
I bought the domain name bensaunders.com in 1999 - I had a dial-up AOL account at the time. My first major expedition was still a vague plan on the back of an envelope, but I had a feeling that an online presence (back then it was called a homepage) would be a part of it all somehow.

What's most impressed you recently and why?
The Big Picture from the Boston Globe (when there's so much guff about the internet killing newspapers, it's great to see one forging ahead and doing something really cool) - http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/. The Flash game Machinarium is glorious: http://machinarium.net/demo/ and Xero - http://www.xero.com/ - means accounting and bookkeeping finally make sense (and verging on fun, dare I say it), even to a doofus like me.

What frustrates you most at the moment in digital?
Online banking. I do my business banking with Barclays, and their online security is bonkers - you need to type your surname and remember a 12-digit customer number (it won't allow a browser to store either) then you have to plug your card into a calculator-sized machine to generate a unique 8-figure login each time you want to see your account. To get from their home page to my bank balance takes five clicks, six keystrokes on the PIN machine and 32 keystrokes -more than typing in the entire alphabet- just to see my balance. And then their statements are difficult to navigate (even for someone who navigates for a living) and only go back a few weeks. I marvel at how a company regarded as a leader in its field can do such a poor job of something so elemental. And I don't want to pick on Barclays - every example I've seen is near-hopeless, particularly when small companies like Xero are so many light years ahead of the banks when it comes to handling finances online.

What's over hyped and under hyped right now?- and why?
Overhyped: 'social networking', and the iPad. Underhyped: simplicity and clarity.

What was the 'ah!' moment for you - the moment where you suddenly realised the scale the web or digital marketing would play in your business?
I've blogged live via satellite phone from five major expeditions, three of which were solo. The potential that this level and intimacy of communication held struck me part-way through a 72-day solo expedition in 2004. I was nearly a month into the trek and had just seen some fresh polar bear tracks -always an alarming experience- when I realised that I had no idea what polar bears drank. I knew they were mammals, and that all mammals needed drinking water to survive. I knew also that they hunted for months at a time on the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean, where there is no water. I have a stove to melt snow, but at -40 degrees c., if you tried to eat snow it would damage your mouth. I was a supposed expert on the high Arctic, yet I had no idea what polar bears drank. I eventually decided to post the question as a competition on my blog as I knew we had one or two schools following my progress. To my amazement, nearly 500 schools around the world replied; I was blown away by the audience my walk was reaching.

(And the answer is that polar bears don't drink anything - they derive water from breaking down fat in their diet.)

Many senior directors still just don't get the scale of what's happening. How do you convince them?
My expedition website in 2004 received 8.5 million visitors in six months. That’s enough people to fill the Royal Geographical Society's lecture hall 11,333 times over. At one jam-packed-full RGS lecture every week, it would take 218 years to tell that many people about that expedition.


What's the most common mistake people make in digital media or marketing?
Jumping on bandwagons for fear of being left out, and making things more complex than they should be.

Where do you spend your time most online, and why?
I live in Gmail (I was a reluctant Gmail convert but now swear by it) and spend far too much time on Twitter. I'm loving Xero and I get occasional doses of inspiration from Gym Jones - http://www.gymjones.com

What are the big changes yet to come, in marketing, media and beyond?
Hopefully newspapers will have figured out how to thrive online. As Rosental Alves put it so succinctly, the paywall model (that the FT and NYT are implementing) is "the opposite of frequent flyer programs. It punishes frequent online readers."

And any final words of advice to people developing their own digital careers?
Telling an engaging story. A lot of companies feel they're getting left behind if they don't have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter stream or even a newsletter, but these are all just channels of communication - if the message you're sending out isn't compelling then it'll be drowned out, regardless of how you send it. I'm becoming more precious of my time, and less hesitant when it comes to clicking 'delete', and I suspect I'm not alone.

Ben Saunders, 32

Polar explorer

Ben Saunders is a polar explorer and a record-breaking long-distance skier, with four North Pole expeditions under his belt. He is the youngest to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton. He has blogged live from his expeditions since 2003 and has spoken about his use of technology at the planet's furthest reaches at the TED and Pop!Tech conferences. In November 2011 he sets out -on the centenary of Captain Scott's last expedition- to make the first return journey to the South Pole on foot. At 1,800 miles it will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and the first time Scott's epic trek has been completed.

www.bensaunders.com

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