In the United States, online financial information and investing media has exploded in recent years. Where once there were just online replicas of offline newspaper/TV commentary and anonymous spam-ridden bulletin boards, there is now a proliferation of stimulating and diverse financial content written by both professional and amateur investors. These include professional blog sites (like Bill Cara, Big Picture, and The Kirk Report), aggregator sites like SeekingAlpha (who handpick articles from the world’s top market blogs and investment newsletters), expert investment communities like Covestor and Social Picks, crowd-sourcing sites like piqqem, to name just a few…
In contrast, despite London’s status as a financial hub, the online financial information and commentary scene in the United Kingdom still seems like a barren wasteland. There has been little apparent new development in recent years. Financial commentary is dominated by offline publishers like Bloomberg, Reuters and the Financial Times. To date, blogging has yet to become a big part of the UK investor scene. Most private investor discussion seems to be taking place on bulletin boards that would not have been out of place in the late 1990s and which don’t appear to have progressed much in terms of functionality in at least the last five years. Strangely, the web’s social networking phenomenon has barely touched the UK’s online financial sector.
This is surprising given that the data suggests that demand for alternative content in general is there – according to Hitwise, the market share of blogs is now greater in the UK than in the US: 1.09% vs. 0.73% of all traffic respectively as of May 2008. Over the last 3 years, UK Internet traffic to the Blogs and Personal Websites category increased by 208%, compared to 70% for News and Media generally. The recent success of political blog sites like Guido Fawkes suggests that there is interest amongst the British public in alternative media. The issue seems more to be around the supply of alternative finance content – there just do not seem to be many finance bloggers out there. This is paradoxical given the strength of UK financial services. The City of London has some of the smartest investors and analysts globally. However, their views remain directed through institutional channels (e.g. equity research) and their voices are apparently not being heard more broadly by the public on the Web.
To an extent, this reflects an apparent general reticence by the British to blog. In the States, the last five years have seen an explosion in alternative media, with vast numbers of independent commercial blogs, the most famous such examples being The Huffington Post, Engadget and Gawker Media. In contrast, the UK has been slower to adopt blogging with the same fervour – in the Guardian’s recent list of the top 50 global blogs, the UK performance was surprisingly weak given the bias towards English language content. The main UK appearances were Holy Moly (a celebrity blog – no. 27), the Offside (a football blog – no. 35) and the F word (a feminist blog – no. 41). A number of explanations have been offered for this dismal show. In a recent article, Shiny Media’s co-founder, Ashley Norris attributed the lack of UK blogs to a number of factors, namely:
1. The limited number of UK online eyeballs (and related difficulties in monetising non-UK ad inventory);
2. A lack of imagination in the UK ad industry (who prefer to work with established media brands or mega portals);
3. A lack of UK media entrepreneurs;
4. A lack of VC support (European VCs apparently don’t tend to be too interested in media unless it is supported by a technological innovation); and
5. Too much competition from established media (including the chilling influence of the omnipotent BBC).
In the UK financial information space, the most notable exception to this dearth of innovation has been the Financial Times’ Alphaville which launched as a live financial blog for market professionals in 2006. This has been a huge success but it is interesting that it took a traditional media outlet to really popularise blogging. Whether that says something about the British respect for authority is debatable but indeed, the other finance blogs with significant readership are all based around traditional media (The Economist’s blog, Interactive Investor’s blog, Robert Peston). There are of course some exceptions to this – Cash and Burn springs to mind or specialist media focused finance blogs like Media Money.
Even the FT’s Alphaville has remained a phenomenon largely contained within the confines of traditional media, given that professional FT journalists have been driving the content. Interestingly, in October, the FT launched a new forums feature on Alphaville called “The Long Room” – named after a bar in Throgmorton Street that was once a notorious hub of financial chatter. The Long Room is designed to allow finance professionals to set up their own discussions. This part of the site is however something of a “closed shop” for the City of London, because the Long Room registration process requires users to demonstrate their finance credentials and then be invited into the Room in order to view and/or contribute to the discussions. It is hard to ascertain whether creating a kind of Morton’s members club for the UK online financial community was intended to: a) wall off the content to prevent it cannibalising the main site, or b) introduce a quality filter to prevent the conversation deteriorating to the level of the UK private investor bulletin boards. While one can sympathise with the second objective, it does seem a shame given that the US experience is increasingly showing that, if the right filters are applied, then investors outside of the traditional financial community can be as, or even more, insightful than professional investors or market commentators.
Nevertheless, that gripe about exclusivity needs to be caveated with a recognition that, in terms of functionality, the Long Room is cutting edge in the UK scene and the Financial Times are to be applauded for innovating. It remains to be seen to what extent the Long Room represents the tip of the iceberg for UK financial blogging. Will the site lead to spin-offs as individual commentators develop their own online identities and followers?