Sunday, December 23, 2007

Future Gazing - Predictions for 2008...Local Search

As promised, here is the second installment of predictions for 2008.

This time I've got no excuses for ambiguity, foolishness or obvious statements so, here's a leap of faith and a wish that if they are in any way valid, you'll be on the positive end of them...

Local Search

1. Reviews

Growing skepticism as every local search guide starts to offer reviews and review communities. Businesses get hurt, gloves come off and the users catch a really good glimpse of faulty models.

Reputation management takes off on a niche agency level and becomes one of many possible shiny new service offerings within the struggling CMR community.

Those sites that implemented the right models will see a slowed but steady increase in UGC while the others see acute growth at the start of the year with a sharp drop off in Q2.

2. CRM

As small businesses start to recognize the value of two way communications with their customers, there will be an increased interest in CRM solutions for the small business person and as such, the local search providers will start to capitalize on this by adding offerings to their mix. Some smaller niche sites have a head start and I believe that the mainstreams will take it to the next level.

This is one of my favourite topics and I’m really looking to 2008 for it’s big debut.

3. Retail Based

As users come to expect more from their local search engines, it will become necessary to tie retail based results into the engines. The complexities surrounding inventory will be hashed out this year paving the way for full-on retail search by product-type, brand, and SKU in 2009. Krillion leads the thought process here but many more players surface.

4. Networks

Newspapers, radio and TV broadcasters start to get aggregated into network models. Smaller players will get the ball rolling but larger media companies will enter with higher levels of sophistication and ultimately revenue opportunities.

It will be the year of packaging local to the masses for non-search based networks. Yellow Pages publishers will want a piece of this display-based pie (naturally).

5. Social Network battle

Local search engines come to the realization that they are not social networks by nature. Hopefully, they will focus on their claim to be local search experts without trying to over extend their services to the point of unfocused mediocrity.

Partnering with the Social Networks becomes more attractive and more difficult as bidding wars start to surface. Supply and demand makes it possible for the networks to pick and choose.

Mini applications (although they are tired) will put some thorns in the sides of publishers.

6. Maps

Accuracy issues are resolved this year. Despite some outrage over UGC being applied to the correction of map applications, the ability for outsiders to do this is a long sought after development and will become a service offering for agencies managing multiple accounts or marketing directors.

The true value behind mapping isn’t unleashed yet this year. It’s still sorting out bugs and getting media revenue matched up with GPS. Q3?

7. SEO

Vertical directories start to compete heavily with the national directories and gain visibility in the organic playing field.

Rich media throw wrenches into the algorithms (for a short while)

Some developments in advanced taxonomy take place. The inclusion of pronouns etc. to get deeper SEO results combined with the human engines that are cropping up will enhance user experiences and challenge SEO agencies.

8. Mobile Searching

Thanks to the swank new devices introduced in ‘07, user experience is enhanced to the point of full local search adoption among the holders of those devices. The Google OS will seal this deal and make it ultra-intuitive to search locally, communicate findings and maintain them portably.

Users will want more though, and the current content will frustrate the masses. Fortunately for the industry, this won’t mean abandonment. The need is clear and users will be (without choice) patient while the products come together.

I know there's more as this industry is bursting with momentum in a ton of directions. I thought I'd mention the easy ones.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Future Gazing - Predictions for 2008...Social Networks

Well it wouldn't be a real blog if it didn't have some predictions to nail bite over in the New Year. Some are obvious but may be underestimated in their impact. You may even spot a contradiction but keep in mind the year is long. I've split them into two categories: Social Networking and Local Search.

Disclaimer - I blame Neo-Citran for any ambiguity or downright foolishness.

Social Networking

1. Attrition

The first part of the year will most likely see continued growth in membership to social networking sites. Mid-year, the growth will plateau and there will be a fall in user frequency. As application fatigue deepens within the early adopters, the same bug will hit mainstream users. The underwhelming selection of tools that in the main provide little value continues to grow out of control.

As a media person, I hate to say it but the overt onslaught of ads on the networks will diminish the user experience. See 5 & 6 for market's response.

2. Privacy

To date, mature advocates “looking out for our youth” have lobbied privacy issues. I believe that privacy issues will start to become a focus amongst youth themselves in the coming year. As news releases continue to leak about job candidates being assessed through their online profiles etc., the issue will become more tangible to this group.

While teens wield limited power in the courts, their actions will speak for themselves and the caliber of profile information will deteriorate to vague tongue and cheek commentary.

The use of social networking for investigative purposes will continue to rise. Police, financial institutions and other parties will exploit the exhibitionism and this will further encourage a cut back to disclosure (even among innocent by-standers).

3. Consolidation – Unduplicated Reach

As users invest more time on networks that have the bulk of their BFFs, the need to use multiple platforms diminishes. While there may be some shopping around, it’ll be tire kicking for the most part. Leaving networks with inflated numbers of members and a discrepancy in usage that creates a lack of clarity on loyalty.

4. Measurement

Major advancements towards understanding the inner working of a social network will take place in the New Year. User segmentation by behavior and other identifiers will come into vogue. The challenge will be to maintain some level of consistency as the above factors begin to erode the quality of profile data available to mine. Decentralized networks will challenge solution providers and I think some will step up to the plate.

5. White Label Mania - Hyper Social Networks

Much like blogging, everyone will feel it necessary to create their own cultures and white labeling platforms will enable this. So micro-communities will start to take shape much like the Facebook networks only not.

6. Decentralized Social Networks

The world will be ready to take back the reigns by the end of the year. The idea of maintaining a social network in a closed, private desktop environment may become attractive to those wanting to clean house and control their own applications. Look out for widgets here.
Underlying themes will be ownership and control for the consumer.

7. Voice

This is a bit of a no-brainer but enabling calling on social networks will have to happen. Insert Ribbit here?

8. Niche Agencies

A new crop of agencies (this is already happening so I'm cheating a bit) will grow out of social networking. Niche agencies will occupy themselves with reputation monitoring and management (basically online PR).

So tools to measure will continue to flourish and Google will most likely offer one for free.

9. Video

I was going to keep this to 8 but video is nagging in the back of my head (thanks to an IM brawl's not over). I've got some half-baked notion of Google's OS for mobile and YouTube - I'll have to clarify when codeine is not affecting the thought... I guess I've got 11 days.

So there they are 8 for '08 plus the refugee that squeezed in for Social Networking. Stay tuned for Local Search...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Toys for the Elite...ASMALLWORLD adds Depth

"Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.”
William Shakespeare

ASMALLWORLD announced the addition of new features to its network today.

ASW, the elite social network has made moves towards deepening interactivity on their site. The site is known for it’s exclusivity and niche targeting but has had some struggles with user frequency and loyalty in the face of mainstream networks’ rich content offerings.

Among the enhancements are an improved friend search engine that allows users to find members by interests and clubs, photo sharing capabilities, an event guide that allows users to post global events to a public calendar, and a "fabulous" hotel finder. The enhancements are not earth shattering. Rather, they fall in line with ASW's profile of prudence. Rolling out tried and tested Web 2.0 features eliminates inconveniences and social uproar.

The site remains true to its original intent, which is to connect elite networkers for business and pleasure. The by-invite-only site has been growing steadily since its launch in 2004. While a large proportion of the members are entrepreneurial and/or business leaders, there appears to be an ever-increasing number of gurus in media, entertainment, fashion, the arts and sports. The latter provides for rich content for the signature ASW Magazine, which spotlights members and publishes interviews on topics related to their profiles.

Another area of growth appears to be the ”guides” section. Taking full advantage of the network’s commitment to trusted members who have existing social networks of quality, ASMALLWORLD also offers select information most specifically in the tourism vertical as members have a high propensity to travel and eat well. In this environment, hotel and restaurant ratings and reviews have an ideal trusted affect.

It looks like Erik Wachtmeister, Chairman and Founder of ASW, has rallied the right troops behind him. Joe Robinson recently joined the company as President and CEO. Judging by today's release and his "hit the ground running" style member correspondence, he’s already making waves with the experience he's brought to the table.

Having accomplished the task of aggregating “exclusivity en masse”, I believe that time is on ASW’s side when it comes to improving user experience. It seems a lot easier to make enhancements to an existing network than to draw new users through hit or miss product launches. There’s something to be said for slower growth while gaining a deeper understanding of user needs.

From a business model stand point, the remaining challenge will be to monetize deeply into their niche network and to continuously mine new value from a finite audience.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Social Intelligence...Log Savvy

I had a nice chat today with Mark Searle, Co-Founder & CEO of Log Savvy, somewhat of a pioneer in the field of analytics for Social Networks and Online Communities. The Berkley California based company released its Enterprise Vision Engine Version 1.0 in April 2007 providing community developers, marketers and analysts with detailed visibility into the behavior of their respective communities. The company was selected by AlwaysOn as an AO100 Top Private Company Award Winner and was named a Red Herring 100 Winner last year so naturally, I wanted to know more...

With the explosion of social networking and the volumes of data generated through Web 2.0 enabled platforms, tracking user behaviors has become a challenge. Using buzz meters like Andiamo and conventional log files analytics may capture vital information like number of unique users, rate of growth and keyword popularity but the new paradigm calls for different measures.

Communities are built upon a number of activities that require external data sources. Video sharing, blogging, micropublishing, multi-player online gaming and wikis are only a handful of contributors to the ever-increasing amount of activity data that has sprung out of social networking. As a result community datacenters are archiving massive amounts of customer transactions, profiles, calls, page views, content downloads and emails. Due to the sheer volume and complexity of the data however, it is rarely mined.

When I asked Mark about the core value proposition of Log Savvy’s solution he quickly responded “If you have a community, you need to know which members are influencers and why. Ultimately, they are the drivers of community growth and revenue”. He went on to describe the value in understanding the difference between the user that is driving interest, discussion and leadership in music vs. the individual who is clearly a genius at online role playing games. Following vertical leader behavior can eventually give great insight into how purchasing influence flows through social networks

While influencer behavior is undeniably a killer app, content plays a major role in this type of analysis. The tool identifies the most addictive user generated content, provides a visual depiction of how buzz flows to the mainstream, measures most engaging content, and tracks viral activity. The tool also allows you to learn what behaviors drive the most content, participation, and traffic.

To date, most community owners are completely unaware of how their users are behaving. Mark alluded to the current measurement of “Macro” behaviors. This is the ability to track revenue in an e-commerce environment or any other transactional activity that has a defined closed path. It’s the micro activity however, that tells the more accurate story. Understanding micro transactions has been the challenge for the discipline of behavioral targeting for some time now.

In the main, behavioral targeting has been struggling to gain insight on micro activities (this user visited a gardening site 2 times this week and therefore must want tulip bulbs) to paint a consumer mindset picture. While there has been some advancement in self-learning behavioral tracking solutions for web sites (especially e-commerce enabled), the challenge has been to obtain critical mass of information from which to extrapolate reliable data. The solutions have also been focused on analyzing fairly short paths to desired transactions. Having a laser focus on the multiple layers of a community and empowering the community to harness this understanding is something unique to Log Savvy.

Log Savvy’s solution is a log analytics engine, which is designed for efficient execution of log-data processing and analysis. The true breakthrough here is that the solution understands, anticipates, and adjusts to log data changes and is able to correlate with non-log data sources such as customer profile or friend-connection databases.

Log Savvy is focusing on Digital Media, Blogs and Forums, Social Networks and Gaming as their four core verticals. The product is currently attracting the attention of mid-level community builders. The bigger social networks are working on proprietary solutions to capture the kind of detail that Mark’s team has been focusing on. Time will tell whether they might find a short cut through acquisition?

In the meantime, Log Savvy is well positioned to aggregate an enormous amount of intelligence on social networking behavior across a number of verticals. I’m looking forward to watching the company in 2008.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Keeping Eyes on the Road - Nucleus' Marketing Dashboard

Pondering once again on how agencies are battling for ownership in the digital world, I caught up with Chris Van Buskirk, VP of Consulting Services and Co-Founder of Net-Ways to learn more about dashboards and how they will play a major role in capturing ROI, operational complexities and ultimately, client satisfaction.

Net-Ways launched their Nucleus product in 2003. Originally focused on managing client side marketing activity, the product has come a long way to centralize marketing intelligence for big brands like Dell, Mars, Nestlewaters, Quick, Gefco, Kia, Printemps, and Carrefour France. The 2007 version allows marketers to centralize all marketing activity making it accessible to multiple layers of management as well as outside agencies. The system captures marketing budgets, strategies, correspondence and any related data and works as a flexible intranet with on the fly reporting helping to flatten the world of international marketing powerhouses.

To date, marketing initiatives have been for the most part, handled manually. It seems that every new Marketing Director enters their role with a “system” (usually an excel spreadsheet) to manage budgets, create media blocking charts and measure return on investment. The reality today is that the average tenure of a Marketing Director is 18 months making it near impossible to streamline historical data and optimize media activity through historical data.

The use of MOMs (Marketing Operations Management), MRMs (Marketing Resource Management), EMMs (Enterprise Marketing Management and DAMs (Digital Asset Management) is not necessarily new. With major players like Unica and Aprimo competing in the space, the advancements are fast moving.

The difficulty in the past has been the ease of use and customization of the systems. Taking the time to map out workflow and adopting new processes for well-established brands is difficult and expensive. As opposed to its competitors, Nucleus was built from the ground up as an ASP making the implementation and customization quicker and more intuitive. Although every business has different structures and requirements, these advantages have gone a long way to positioning Nucleus as a leader in its field.

Chris alluded to the value he is able to generate for his clients. The ability to optimize globally and to gain insight into performance on an extremely focused basis is well worth the investment. I was taken through a demo that showed the ability to measure the performance of initiatives on a number of levels. The ability to see highly effective direct mail campaigns by product, by market, by target and by individual brand manager are only a few of the obvious benefits to consolidating marketing intelligence. APIs can capture online media, unique phone numbers and any other measurable media.

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments is the system’s ability to services franchisee and agent networks. An example of this is in the use of the web-based system for Quick, a Belgian restaurant chain that has implemented the system and uses it to give local franchisees the ability to access existing media campaigns so that they can customize the messages and translate from French to Flemish and vice versa. After customizing their print campaigns, they are given high-resolution professional grade, ready-for-print files to execute in their local markets. This localized activity is later tied back to the centralized sales performance plan. Chris says that this is only the tip of the iceberg. As video becomes mainstream in the local landscape, the API is set to handle TV spots as well as any other rich media applications.

The biggest challenge faced by all providers in this space is the adoption of the new system. As with any other technology, it’s only as good as the user’s ability to harness it’s full potential. Changing the way large corporations think about performance driven marketing is one thing but changing habits is a whole other story.

Centralizing fragmented activity is the name of the game. It’s clear that implementation of a MOM, MRM, EMM, DAM or any combination of said acronyms, is the direction marketers need to move in to get an edge of performance based marketing. With large brands coming on board, we may see a major shift in agency adoption of one or a number of systems.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Four Contenders - Mingling with Social

Inspired by yesterday’s reading of GigaOm’s blog about WordPress’ experimentation with Social Networking, I decided to look a bit further into the subject. It seems there are a number of contenders that appear to have a framework to mobilize a networking platform.

As eMarketer estimates the by 2011, US ad spending on social networks is expected to reach $2.5 billion, it's no surprise that a number of suitors will make their way towards the dowry.

Of the many channels vying to get social, the four that seem most aggressive are email, blog, instant messaging and yellow pages. Here are some thoughts on each:


Quick Stats:
  • According to comScore 2007 data, Global E-Mail (does not include non browser based e-mail) receives 556 million unique visits per month.
  • eMarketer reports that email penetration is at 91% among Internet users between the ages of 18 and 64. The same report shows that search engine use is the second highest in penetration.
  • Yahoo has 80 million users worldwide. According to Yahoo, users spend an average 24 minutes per day using the services. This is more than MySpace, Facebook and YouTube combined (24 min compared to 21 min daily). (Thanks Dave!)
  • The only stat I could find on Google was that there were 20 million unique US users to since November. (Thanks Eric!)
Address books, contacts friends, whatever you want to call them they are the common denominator when it comes to social networking. Browser based email has a big piece of the social pie here. The second step to almost every network around is to import contacts from existing email accounts.

I really liked this blog about Yahoo and Google planning to use their email platforms to create social networks from them. My favourite comment on the subject comes from Joe Kraus, who runs Google’s OpenSocial project, he said: “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.”

It looks like both Yahoo and Google may be banking on this in the future.

I'm intrigued by Yahoo’s "Inbox 2.0" project. The idea of prioritizing mail through visual enhancements according to how important the contact is for instance, sounds interesting. Using email signatures in a way that showcases rich profile information may be the strongest case for this channel.

Google and Yahoo have the masses to impress. The challenge will be to get users to create and implement the permissions attached to the multiple signatures they will inevitably need to get the most out of this platform.


Quick Stats:
  • The latest number (as of today) of blogs covered by Technorati is 112.8 million. However, this is only a fraction of the estimated number of blogs online. Blogs from China for instance, are not included in the count (representing tens of millions).
  • Six Apart (TypePad) has more than 40 million users (bloggers) globally. Source: Corporate FactSheet
  • Blogger would match if not surpass this number leaving the rest to the smaller platforms in the landscape.
  • WordPress for instance, has almost 2 million bloggers. With an average of around 9,000 new blogs created each day. Monthly WordPress activity averages over 2.7 million posts on per month (over the past 5 months).
Anne Zelenka writes that blogs just might become the next social network citing that some of the product features appear to be well suited for the space. Anne went on to describe blogging’s contrast to social networking in that it offers a person-centric way for individuals to come online.

I agree with this view but I also believe that bloggers may have varying identities making it difficult to manage them in one space. A dog-loving nurse may not want to have her pet journal world collide with her private cigar aficionado friends she’s met while blogging on Cohiba-World.

Along with collecting and maintaining member contacts, for social networks to work, they require consumer oriented CMS systems that are dead easy to use and nice to look at. Blog platforms are richer versions of open CMSs and so, have a good deal of the groundwork done.

Chris Messina’s DiSo project (distributed social networking concepts) will certainly be worth watching as it unfolds. OAuth may address the colliding world issue and I’m particularly interested in the concept of “WhiteListing” as I feel this has a multitude of applications for a number of players.

Instant Messaging

Quick Stats:
  • ComScore data shows global unique users of Instant Messengers was at 390 million unique visitors for the month of October 2007
  • In April 2006 – comScore Networks released results of an analysis of instant messenger (IM) usage in various parts of the world for the month of February 2006. Some highlights included:
    • Eighty-two million people, or 49% of the European online population, used IM applications to communicate online in the month of February.
    • Sixty-nine million people in North America, or only 37 percent of the online population, used IM during the same timeframe.The analysis showed that IM is most heavily used in the Latin American region, with 64 percent of the online population using IM in February
I had an interesting chat with Rajesh Bathia, one of the founders of the other day. Buddystumbler is built on the premise that user behavior is king when it comes to capturing and maintaining active social networkers. The product is still in its infancy but the concept has been mapped out.

Upon registration, users dump all their chat contacts into the platform and go on to create profiles attached to their handle. Rajesh talked of some interesting partnership plans that allow users to display their status, blog and photo updates within the chat environment. Registered users are able to browse the entire network (Rajesh hopes that this will be a major combined share of AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Google).

While there are many factors that make this approach very natural, I am haunted with Joe Kraus’ comment about creating a new brand vs. extending the usage of those that already exist.

Yellow Pages

Quick Stats:
  • comScore reports 808.6MM IYP search queries in Q1 of 2007 (including Google & Yahoo) this amounts to around 269MM queries per month
  • comScore’s 2006 release of IYP Share Data as showcased on Greg Sterling’s blog last summer showed that the majority (over 85%) of all Internet searches occur on the major search engines Google, Yahoo and MSN.
This leaves yellow pages publishers scrambling to re-invent themselves to gain share in consumers’ ever-fragmenting daily media usage.

The new generation of yellow pages sites have taken some time to abandon their structures which have been deeply rooted in their rigid print legacy. for one, has made great strides towards positioning itself as a player in this space. The first real movement towards the directory channel's new image was its circa 2004 proclamation that yellow pages are truly the "local search experts". Since then, publishers have been rushing towards social networking opportunities as research continues to point towards localized word of mouth as the holy grail of profitably putting buyers and sellers together.

While those publishers who are heavily ensconced in their past through branding are struggling, sites like MojoPages and Yelp have been built from the ground up to harness the power of socializing in a directory context. These sites among other new entrants allow users to connect with friends and other people in their neighborhoods to share reviews and feedback on local businesses.

With social networking enablers like Montreal-based Praized, yellow pages publishers may be able to transform themselves effectively if they act quickly. Time will tell.

I think the biggest challenge is that directory usage has historically been categorized as just that. Looking to make friends on a yellow pages site brings with it a multitude of issues. Users looking to get an address or phone number are now being asked to fragment their time further to share reviews and look up profiles of other reviewers. User experiences may be compromised as the focus shifts on socializing vs. having accurate, rich directory data.

To date, there has been some success through plugging directories into social networks but the evolution of pure play yellow pages to social has been difficult.

In summary, I have to defer to my theme comment of the day (thanks Joe), “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.” It's hard to argue with the hundreds of millions of email users that have and will continue (for the foreseeable future) to use the application as a mainstay.

With the growing concern over the time wasting going on within the pure play social networks, finding a work around might be the key. To this end, I'd hedge my bets and cast at least a strong vote in favor of email.

In the meantime Google, can you please make it stop snowing? Or at least moderate it?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

“Look Mom, No Jacks”… jaxtr

More disruptive telephony...

Described as a “social communications startup” jaxtr launched in March 2007 and is based in downtown Menlo Park. Co-founders Phillip Mobin and Touraj Parang’s vision was to bring voice to social networks and blogs.

As a free service (in beta), jaxtr links existing phones to the web. Registered users bypass international mobile fees as they receive calls worldwide while keeping their existing phone number private.

Work, home or mobile numbers, can be added or updated on the jaxtr interface allowing incoming calls to get routed to the phone of their choice. Callers can be blocked all together or users are able to specify on a per-caller basis which callers can reach them live and which get routed to voice mail.

The service is not limited to those potential callers who visit a user's profile or blog. A jaxtr link can be added to an email signature so that global friends can call users on their phone with a simple click. Outside callers do not require any software downloads, avoid incurring international phone charges and don’t require user registration for jaxtr.

The service is obviously in demand as their user base has doubled every month since the launch of their public beta in March. jaxtr currently has over 5 million registered users who have added a jaxtr link for their phone. There are another estimated 2 million users of the service that are unregistered inbound callers.

As for their business model, jaxtr plans to offer premium services for jaxtr power users, but the basic service will remain free. Megan Zoback, spokesperson for jaxtr was unable to disclose what the premium services will consist of but she did mention that outbound calling was part of the new version to be released in the next few months.

Rather than focusing on partnerships, the company is focusing heavily on their own product offering and working to maintain leadership with its unique user experience.

While the audiences that are naturally drawn to the service come from the social networking sphere (including bloggers), Megan alluded to a trend emerging among small business users. jaxtr allows small businesses to reach out internationally by placing the widget on their websites. Users of the service are given full reporting on incoming calls complete with visual voice mail. Interestingly, the real estate sector seems to have picked up on it as a leader with realtors jumping on the opportunity to capture calls in conjunction to their listings.

What I find particularly interesting about jaxtr is its unique ability to protect privacy. One can only imagine the applications for the use of anonymity for voice. The system acts like a vocal spam filter that has obvious potential in the online world with possible wings in offline.

The company is financially backed by August Capital, Mayfield, Draper Richards, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Founders Fund and other top-tier venture investors.

I’m looking forward to their full launch in the new year and will post more then.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Grassroots Democracy - OurStage

Today I caught up with an old friend and colleague to talk a little bit about what’s happening in the music industry.

Lora Kratchounova is the VP of Marketing at Boston based Ourstage, a community in which emerging artists can upload their original music and video to have it judged by a completely objective crowd. The content is ranked and rated through an innovative platform designed to discover real talent.

As opposed to YouTube’s rating system, where artists could upload material and then rally their troops to rate it, OurStage’s democratic approach to sorting content allows “the crowd” to decide which artists should rise to the top through a series of competitions. The content is uploaded and served randomly for judging. The crowd is always exposed to two pieces of content to evaluate at a time. This gives the exercise a more contextual spin.

The proprietary system ensures that users listen to or watch a minimum of 15 seconds of content prior to submitting votes and comments. Users are asked to pick a winner and to explain why one piece of content outperformed the other. As thousands of users select their favorite content through these “show-downs”, the system quickly identifies the most popular songs and videos and then selects the top twenty for a 'finals' round.

OurStage's competitions begin on the first of each month, concluding with a week of final elimination rounds the last 7 days of each month. The #1 song and the #1 in video are selected as the $5,000 Grand Prize Winners each. Additional prizes include spots at music festivals (e.g. Bonnaroo, Virgin, Bumbershoot, 10K Lakes), CD sampler spots (Paste, CMJ, Relix), industry exposure, and much more.

Ourstage currently has 37 channels of content 22 of them are dedicated to music and the rest to video. Split into genres, crowds can participate in competitions focused to their affinity.

The site launched in private beta in March 2007 and had 40,000 monthly users by June. Today Ourstage is seeing over 700,000 unique users per month and has 150,000 registered members. With exposure across the social networking platforms, the miniature version of OurStage will continue to grab attention through sharing.

An interesting twist to this platform is the ability to drill down to a local level. OurStage has the ability to pin point emerging talent by genre and zip code across North America (for now) making it a rich repository of information for the entertainment industry when they decide to further explore the world that is local.

As the site gains critical mass, the business model will most likely revolve around sponsorships, advertising and the Q1 2008 release of their white label product.

In the meantime, artists are taking advantage of the platform. Some are actually being discovered from it.

Since uploading her first track to OurStage in May 2007, Amanda Kaletsky has consistently placed in the top 20 of the Country/Americana, Pop and Acoustic Channels. Her popularity with the OurStage fans earned her a spot as a finalist in the Starbucks Music Makers competition in September. The new exposure earned though OurStage combined with a lot of hard work and self-promotion led Amanda’s track “Everything lies” right into the hands of an MTV music coordinator and a coveted spot during a recent episode of The Hills.

Three factors make this a business to keep an eye on:
  • Contextual review of content
  • Local content aggregation
  • The white labeling of it

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Wisdom of Widgetry...Netvibes

I recently saw an interesting panel discussion on Widgets & Gadgets. Since then, I’ve been doing a bit of research on what seemed from a Mac fan, to be a fairly open-shut case. Not so, the world of widgetry appears to be bubbling into an explosive area.

Carrie Lysenko, Manager of Online Applications at the Weather Network specializes in widgets and gadgets. Part of her panel presentation discussed the evolution of their “weather-eye” widget, which launched in 2004 as a small data ad containing localized weather information for those that downloaded it on to their desktops. Carrie showed a major growth curve in usage from just under 600,000 monthly Canadian users in 2005 to an estimated +2 million in 2008 generating around 470 million page views.

Benefits to the widgets aside from the obvious user value, included brand persistence, traffic generation to the core website, viral marketing through sharing, new ad inventory and of course revenue.

Another presentation by Chantal Rossi of Google Canada showed an enormous growth curve as Google left Q3 with 9,000 widgets and entered Q4 with over 20,000. As a web-based product, users are able to place widgets on their iGoogle page or any other web site. Google gadgets are made with professional and consumer generated content. Sports associations use their game gadget to communicate schedules, live scores and other fan content while the film industry creates movie trailers. Google has used them to demonstrate products like Google Earth.

Progressing on Friday’s topic of creating mini applications for social networking sites, it’s becoming increasingly clear that developers could out-niche themselves if they focus too hard on one API’s offering. Today’s APIs are generally focused on web-centric applications. The future of widgetry however, is highly decentralized. As media consumption is fragmented across multiple devices, widgets need to be nimble.

Some of the most innovation on widgetry is happening in France based Netvibes.

Tariq Krim as a pioneer in the personalized homepage space founded Netvibes in 2005. lets individuals pick and choose their favorite widgets, websites, blogs, email accounts, social networks, search engines, instant messengers, photos, videos, podcasts, and any other syndicated media on the Web.

I had a discussion today with Netvibes' PR Agency, Vincent Chang, of the Antenna Group. Vincent talked about Netvibes’s universal Widget API that allows developers to code widgets that work anywhere from desktops to iPhones.

The universal aspect is what makes Netvibes unique. To date, networks are competing with one another and launching closed APIs making it time consuming and cost-prohibitive for developers to cover the fragmented audiences.

Another advantage to the universal focus is towards the consumers. Currently, feeds are fragmented and are not following the “always on” spirit of the connected consumer. Self-selected media should be available everywhere the consumer wants it to be. It’s been difficult for developers to find a one-stop API to build out widgets and gadgets that are nimble enough for consumers to use across all platforms. Netvibes appears to be listening.

Netvibes has attracted over 10 million users in over 150 countries and a long list of top international media publishers including CBC, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Die Welt, Le Monde, El Pais, El Mundo and Columbia Records. “Developers are flocking to build once and re-use their widgets”, said Vincent of Netvibes Universe.

While Vincent was unable to comment on Netvibes’ business model, it’s clear that Tariq’s Krim’s vision is all about mainstreaming the use of widgetry. The fun will really start when widgets start interacting with one another to enhance the user experience and become a staple in media consumption. With publishers streaming high quality content across devices, Netvibes is perfectly positioned to capitalize on its mass consumption.

Netvibes is launching their consumer-oriented product tomorrow in San Francisco. Vincent says, “The new era in widgetry will be revealed”.

Oh to be a coder in San Francisco...

Further Reading:
Here's a great article from The Economist written February ... "Web deux point zéro"

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Net on Niche...Social Agents

A link for the folks at Techlightenment landed on my laptop today and I thought I’d better follow up…

I recently blogged about “the parents crashing the party” and how national advertisers will quickly infiltrate what started as a cool, clutter-free user experience with their standard ad units and spam-like feeds.

It doesn’t have to be that way…

Techlightenment is one of several new agencies that are popping out of the woodwork to capitalize on the long…tentacles (sorry Mr. Anderson I just can’t say it again) of social networking sites. Techlightenment focuses on building applications specifically for Facebook but in my research, I’ve found that agencies with a slightly broader focus are also playing effectively in this space.

A few weeks ago I saw an impressive case study presented at an IAB conference that incorporated a Facebook application on behalf of a national advertiser.

This summer Telus Mobility engaged Teehan+Lax, arguably Canada’s finest user experience consultancies, to build a concept for the "MyFaves" rate plan using social networking platforms. The agency was challenged to create a relevant experience for the youthful audience targeted by this product.

The “MyFaves Fishbowl” was launched in July on Facebook, MySpace and espacecanoë. The application allows users to build a customized fishbowl and add fish (representing the friends included in the “MyFaves” program Telus is offering on their rate plan).

By November the program had generated 66,000 installs, 12,000 active users and 3,000 members (members of groups discussing fishbowl contents etc.). But the numbers only tell a part of the story. It’s the engagement that comes with them that adds a new dimension to the media play. The time it takes to build a fish bowl, select backgrounds and select friends to add while Telus gently tells its story in the background. This interaction leaves most other online media applications like banners, in the dust.

I think it’s important to note that the application was built to sit on several platforms. The bowls are embeddable in any online environment.

This platform agnostic approach to development will be key to the niche players in this space.

I had a quick chat today with Jon Lax, co-founder of Teehan+Lax about the apparent rush of national advertisers towards the social scene. Jon suggested that the biggest issue in this space is the advertiser’s ability to conceptualize applications that make sense rather than just establishing a presence. He alluded to the volumes of MySpace pages created by businesses that for the most part, brought little value to the network.

Jon also commented on how quickly Facebook users are getting “application fatigue” making it very challenging for advertisers to position themselves as truly valuable to the users.

Teehan+Lax have launched their second Facebook campaign for Telus this week. The “Telus Mobility Gift Guide” allows users to pick the phone they’d like to receive for the holidays and then post their wish on Facebook.

Time will tell whether the overall social networking fatigue will catch up with this development specialty. In the meantime, it’s certainly creating a breeding ground for creativity and innovation.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Small CityMedia... A Next Generation Local Ad Network

I had a nice chat today with Katherine Wiggett, President of London, Ontario based, CityMedia. Katherine has been busy over the past four years pulling together a portfolio of hyper-local Canadian content.

CityMedia offers local media partners a number of services directed towards monetizing their inventory.

Capitalizing on the market’s readiness for locally targeted online media, CityMedia has aggregated newspapers, radio stations and community news sites to deliver advertising opportunities to (for now) the hungry national channel.

“The model is a win-win” said Katherine as she described the media partners’ desire to drive revenue through their online presence. The challenge to date for these smaller publishers has been the absence of solid revenue models as well as lack of resources to implement the required infrastructure and sales effort behind online sales. CityMedia offers a straight revenue split for media inventory sold. The media publishers are able to keep their own identity and sell their own inventory alongside the network.

The network is currently focused on selling through to the national channel but Katherine is confident that as critical mass is developed, the local advertisers will follow. This follows the same trend we’ve witnessed in the local search space. Katherine says that the network has already attracted national advertisers on its platform.

CityMedia offers solutions ranging from banner placements to audio file conversions (which are later uploaded as measurable MP3 media units).

CityMedia also works on a consultative basis to its media partners by delivering appropriate strategies to drive page impressions and user interactivity to the individual properties. In essence, CityMedia is a distribution channel that monetizes existing content as well as an ad network. Affiliate product revenue could become a growing piece of the puzzle for local media publishers requiring richer content.

The back-end is a proprietary system that works well with all major ad serving technology. The media is re-tagged to create streamlined reporting through the CityMedia interface. Publishers are given logins to upload sold inventory to their properties and are given revenue reporting from the same system.

Networks have made a comeback over the past year due in part, to the shear amount of content that is now available. Whether the networks focus on blogs, social media or local content, the landscape is in its infancy (…again).

When it comes to hyper-local content, it’s a matter of gaining critical mass (and quickly) across the nation. CityMedia is on the right path and has been drumming up interest recently. With around 10 newspapers joining the network each week over the past few months, Katherine just might get the masses she’s after.

More on networks shortly…

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Flash Developer's Prince...Ribbit

I’m not sure, but I think the prize for the biggest online tease (this week) should go to Ribbit. Having read John Foley's post today about the company's plans to unveil "Silicon Valley's first phone company", I couldn't help myself...I just had to dig deeper.

Based in Mountain View CA, Ribbit has software that integrates mobile calling with online applications. There are other players in this space. Namely, Russian based Flashphone which is currently in beta and is targeted purely to consumers. It's Ribbit's love-in for developers that has caught my attention today. Looking at their team of hard core software and communications veterans, it's natural that Ribbit will effectively rally Flash developers worldwide to broaden the use of their platform. This could disrupt many existing business models.

Here are three major points I've gathered that make Ribbit a perfect disruptive storm:

  1. Because it runs on Flash there is no downloading involved to use the service and therefore is accessed on any browser on any web site.

  2. Flash has reached 99% penetration worldwide, and so the applications will be accessible to virtually everyone instantaneously - much like reading PDF files, adoption will not be an issue.

  3. Ribbit is focusing heavily on Flex developers to take the software to its full potential. On December 13th, there will be a developer's event where Ribbit plans to demonstrate how easy it is to code Adobe Flex and AIR applications to make/receive calls, record and send voice messages, manage contacts and tap into all the other cool things a class 5 softswitch infrastructure has to offer.

Saleforce has been testing an integration with Ribbit's platform since October. John Foley's post has a demo that shows how the application could work specifically in a CRM environment. Highlights include attaching voice mails to proposals and transcribing voice mail to text (the data mining opportunities in the context of sales management software must be great).

The developer blog alludes to some upcoming features in their 2nd beta release. Users can register to the service, manage and access the account anywhere online. It's beginning to look an awful lot like a social networking opportunity to me. With cell phone penetrations estimated by eMarketer to exceed 100% in the US, and the addiction teens have to their mobile devices, the marriage between browsers and calling is one that holds promise. Even if a social network isn't built around the platform in some way, it will certainly still turn heads in the space.

In the local search and directory business, I can only imagine the features that could be developed in Flash. Currently the space is just getting over the rush of click to call features online but with rich web applications turning data management and its esthetics on its head (again), the sector may be in for yet another shake up.

On December 13th I'll secretly wish I was a Flash developer in San Fransisco dreaming up fabulous scenarios for applications based on such a simple yet powerful premise...voice.

Tomorrow I promise not to pick on Skype.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Chat about Facebook's Strategy - FriendVox

I spent some time looking at FriendVox today. FriendVox is Facebook’s integrated Instant Messenger application that has been in Alpha for some time now.

There has been some recent chatter about why its even necessary for Facebook to have a separate system built upon its platform when the network already allows you to search for friends across your existing external instant messaging platforms.

I guess the difference here is that the tool is proprietary to Facebook and that the data may be used in the future for contextual advertising purposes or other. This combined with Facebook’s foray into the mobile world where instant messaging has already been nestling quite comfortably make the move a logical one.

The tool is integrated with an application called "Socialistics". Socialistics is a tool that tracks your friends’ activities with pretty charts and graphs. The application streams current profiles and delivers notifications on the fly. So, not only are all member contacts (even the unwanted ones) in one central location, but now they're super-accessible. The fact that it's built to be ensconced in one’s social graph will go a long way to building a loyal user base.

Chatting is a natural fit to the environment. Currently there are over 700 topical chats in the form of old school posts ranging in topics from “I Never” to “Addicted to That 70’s Show".

It's the mobile aspect that intrigues me though. Facebook has just launched its mobile application so that the network's main functions are now available on the go across most if not all mobile devices. Linking an instant messaging service would compliment the user-experience nicely. It is after all, big business. Frost & Sullivan projected the global market for all mobile messaging services—SMS, MMS, mobile IM and mobile e-mail—to exceed $100 billion by 2010. $15 billion (for IM) is not bad in the grand scheme of things...

With all the mini applications lurking around the Facebook platform today, it will be interesting to see what kinds of mash-ups will be developed across the messaging platform once it has been deployed and adopted.

Look out Skype

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mobile Gaming - Coming to Town?

Today I had the pleasure of discovering Greystripe and it's mobile network opportunities with Jenny Burlington, Senior Manager, Business Development.

What it is
Based in San Francisco, Greystripe is the world’s first ad supported mobile gaming network. They are effectively driving mass consumer adoption of mobile games and applications while providing advertisers with a unique platform to reach highly engaged users.

Working on open network carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Bell Mobility, the AdWRAP network delivers full screen images, videos, and scrolling banners and dynamically delivers them into mobile games and applications. The patent-pending AdWRAP technology automatically adds the AdWRAP advertising client to mobile games and applications.

Greystripe reaches millions of mobile game players through its portal. Their licensed games and ad content are also distributed worldwide through 30+ partners around the world. Social networking sites that offer downloadable content distribute the Greystripe product to their users.

Current targeting capabilities include country, carrier and game. Keeping in line with adoption rates, the most popular approach to date is through run of network advertising making this vehicle highly appropriate for global brands and commerce enabled sites like eBay.

Ease of entry to Mobile Advertising – Greystripe is an end-to-end solution providing marketers with an advertising network as well as creative services to translate ads effectively across the mobile platform. Greystripe has also managed to penetrate the mature mobile markets through their network making it easier to extend reach with one solution.

Rich Content – The downloadable games are developed by top tier developers creating rich user experiences (worth putting up with ads).

High Response Rates – In the mature markets click though rates reach between 10-15% levels while the US sees average click through rates of 4-7%). The ads are full screen providing full brand exposure/association.

Recent IDC numbers show revenue from sales of mobile games in the US rising from $600 million in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2008. Mobile advertising is projected by analysts to be a $10 billion market by 2009.

The ad-supported model while in its infancy appears to be working. GameJump reaches millions of mobile game players in over 150 countries. There are currently over 1,000 applications available for download.

Time will tell whether micro-payment models will push through the advertising for users that may prefer quicker access to the content. The ads appear in two prior to games launching on the mobile device. The quality of the ads will most likely play a major role in the effectiveness of the medium.

Another challenge will most likely be the proliferation of television content on handsets and the ad opportunities they will bring. eMarketer forecasts that there will be 100 million worldwide users of paid or sponsored mobile broadcast video services by the end of 2009.

As for the local opportunities, Greystripe has not fully explored the ability to target at the localized level. This could be a critical mass issue. There may be some interesting opportunities with their ad serving technology however to provide dynamically targeted ads when applicable.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Local Search via WiFi - SkyHook

Ted Morgan, President & CEO of SkyHook presented at Kelsey’s ILM ’07 conference this past week.

What is it
Skyhook is a WiFi Positioning System (WPS). It’s location platform uses existing 802.11 radio (WiFi frequency) to deliver accurate positioning. WiFi has proliferated over the past 5 years. Tens of millions of access points have been deployed privately, corporately and publicly. Each one of these access points sends a signal beacon announcing its existence to the surrounding area. The beacon travels between 150-200 meters in all directions.

Due to the shear volume of beacons, the overlap of their signals creates a natural reference system for determining location. Skyhook’s system can locate up to a 20m accuracy level (to date, unparalleled). Currently the service works across the US but Skyhook plans to map the globe with their system.

Looking at Skyhook’s coverage map, it’s reminiscent of a cellular coverage map. The platform works extremely well within densely populated urban centers. As the purpose for the deployment of WiFi access points is mainly to provide high-speed wireless coverage inside public and private buildings, WPS has excellent coverage and performance indoors. These attributes distinguish WPS from other satellite or terrestrial positioning systems, which struggle to deliver positioning information in urban and indoor environments.

Skyhook’s software application is called Loki. The application allows you to quickly find location-dependent content. The content includes weather, movies playing nearby and local news. Local ads are incorporated into the content and AdSense ads runs along the sidebar. Today, about 500,000 people have downloaded Loki. Skyhook is obviously counting on more to come.

Access - Most mobile devices lack native positioning systems or rely on technologies that struggle in densely populated and indoor environments. As a software-only system, WPS addresses these issues by offering the highest indoor availability and the best overall urban reliability of any existing location platform.

Accuracy – 20M is not bad considering GPSs limitations in this area. Google just launched MyLocation, a mobile mapping tool that triangulates your location based on your distance to cell towers.
But the technology is only accurate within 1000 meters on average. The only advantage Google may have at this point is its coverage outside of urban areas where WiFi is less likely to exist for the next few years.

Strong Markets – the fact that the network is strongest in densely populated urban areas gives Skyhook a good opportunity for quick penetration. Its accuracy in these areas will go a long way to winning satisfied customers.

General Thoughts
Location based content has been used for a number of applications. One of the more entertaining ones described by Ted Morgan, President & CEO of SkyHook was for mobile gaming. Capture the Flag for example is a popular game in Manhattan, where connected players claim certain city blocks as their own until conquered by opponents. Gaming is coming up more and more these days. I’ll follow-up on this topic and how advertising relates later. But Morgan went on to say that the true killer application for this platform was navigation (maps) and local search.

The biggest challenge will be to get the right content partnerships. Currently, it’s unclear what SkyHook’s strategy is. On the one hand, it has an excellent platform for targeting and on the other it has its Loki software.

The software is in beta and has a lot of development to go. It’s channels are somewhat limited and rather than providing a directory, it’s clear that there are selected content partners populating the site. One gets the feeling that there’s a lot missing. Also, similar to Facebook, it feels like there’s a lot of downloading to be done. Mini-applications are required to gain access to cool features.

Another one to watch…

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Self –Procurement & The "Money" in the Middle

This morning’s session on Local Search at the Kelsey ILM Conference, offered a number of tactical solutions to using local search for smaller businesses. Gib Olander, Director of Business Development at Localeze, hit on an interesting note. After re-iterating the benefits to local search for small businesses, he laid out a few barriers to entry.

Olander commented on the use of self-procurement of media and how small businesses shy away from it because of the complexity of booking and managing campaigns.

I’m not sure I agree with this outlook. A few weeks ago at the Warrillow Conference in Toronto, there was a compelling discussion around the idea that small business owners are at the core, consumers themselves. Consumers are becoming increasingly tech savvy.

I think the combined factors of consumers (small business owners) becoming increasingly confident in online applications (thanks in large part to social networking), and the media publisher’s strides in developing user-friendly interfaces will make self procurement a more viable approach.

Perhaps we should start giving SMEs a little bit more credit. It’s clear that the majority of businesses are not yet fully versed in what the web has to offer. But it seems unrealistic to insist on the need for multiple middlemen.

I imagine a day when developing customized API based systems will be as easy as it is to blog today.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Conversational Marketing - The Wildfire

There was an excellent keynote presentation last week at Interactive to the Max in Toronto by Sean Moffitt, President of Agent Wildfire.

Sean did a great job of laying out the rationale behind the urgency of harnessing the web to build brands. More specifically, it was about the need to embrace the social aspect (word of mouth) of the web and to promote the conversations between users and brands.

An old favourite video kicked off the argument:

Rather than paraphrasing the presentation, I've jotted down a few important data points from the deck:

Globally there are:
  • 850 Social Network users
  • 100+ Million Blogs
  • Avg. # of Blog Links - 12
  • Avg. Facebook Friends - 164
  • No. of Per Person Brand-Related Conversations Each Year – 4,65 Source: Agent Wildfire Presentation 2007
  • Generation X's Split of User Generated Content Consumed vs. Corporate Generated Content is 35% to 65% and the younger Net Generation's split is 51% (user generated) to 49% (corporate). Source: Harrison Group 2007
  • Business & Ad People as a “trusted profession” – ranked 17 & 20th out of 21 professions Source: Gallup
  • 76 percent of consumers don’t trust advertising Source: Yankelovich
  • 2/3rds of brands have re-branded themselves in the last 3 years Source: BrandChannel
These were only a few of the many statistics throughout the presentation that made an air tight case for the importance of building conversations with consumers.

Sean also pointed out results from a recent survey that showed 70% of companies are currently spending less that 2.5% of their budgets on "conversation marketing". The same survey showed that 81% respondents project that by 2012 they would spend at least as much on conversational marketing as traditional media.

The biggest challenges to getting to that enormous shift in spend were outlined as:

  • 51.1% - Manpower restraints
  • 46.9% - Fear of loss of control
  • 45.4% - Inadequate metrics
  • 43.5% - Culture of their organizations
  • 35.8% - Difficulty with internal sell-through

"Fear of loss of control" was truly the theme throughout the day (and has also been over the past few weeks in other conversations).

Historically, marketers have relied on the dollar vote from consumers. This is were I argue tirelessly about the obsession these days with clicks and immediate ROI. If you ask me, the idea of letting go and allowing consumers to participate in the growth of a company can't be more logically sound.

Kudos to Sean for laying it all out last week!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pure Plays vs. Traditional Agencies - Who Gets the Conch?

Saw some great case studies at Interactive to the Max in Toronto today. Marketing Magazine hosted the event in association with IAB Canada. I have volumes of notes on the content and need to distill them over the next few days.

Today I thought I’d comment on the “Smackdown” session at the end of the conference. Geoffrey Roche, Chief Creative Officer, Lowe Roche and Mike Kasprow, Vice President, Creative Director, Trapeze held an open debate about whether advertisers are better served through pure play digital media agencies or full service traditional agencies.

Geoffrey argued that the full service agency has better mobility in that a creative concept can be born and executed quickly within the agency walls. He also pointed out the fact that campaigns require different media depending on what is trying to be achieved. He likened the digital agency to a displaced fridge during a kitchen renovation. Stating that a digital agency only has the fridge and its contents while the rest of the appliances and many ingredients found in the kitchen (traditional agency assets) are still intact and have multiple uses.

Mike politely retorted “using a traditional agency is like going to a restaurant and ordering dinner knowing that 30% of it is being outsourced”. Traditional agencies simply do not have the expertise to deliver the effectiveness that the channel can deliver.

And so went the debate.

Here are some salient points that arose from the discussion:

  • Digital agencies live, breath and eat the medium and are therefore better versed in its possibilities. (Mike)
  • In a meeting, if you’re not the one coding (or close to coding), the questions that might come up in the concept stage from the client will create delays. (Mike)
  • Media agencies are not compensated fairly although they are the ones that are finding the audiences in this fragmented landscape. (Geoffrey)
  • Canadian digital budgets have not warranted (to date) a complete shift in agency direction. (Mike and Geoffrey)

I couldn’t help but wonder whether an entirely new structure needs to occur in this day and age. Would it make sense to have a brand agency that focuses only on strategic messaging (the what) and then an agency that deals with the tactical deployments (the how). In the late 90’s, the digital agency buzzword became “practices”. An account manager has access to the practices in order to conceptualize a fully integrated program on behalf of the client. Practices include DM, Search, Print, Outdoor and so on.

But in real life, the meetings don’t happen as often or to the caliber as they should prior to presenting the client with smart solutions. When the “practices” are not fully involved in the beginning stages of a program, the entire system falls apart. Miscommunication stunts creativity. An account manager, who has experience with DM and outdoor is well versed in the potential for their client. However the same account manager, who is not a coder, simply doesn’t have the library of information about online possibilities at his or her fingertips.

The topic is much larger than this. The current digital agency landscape has fragmented itself. We now have agencies that are full service, ones that are focused on SEO and SEM, email specialists, directional agencies and most recently there are social networking agencies starting to pop out of the woodwork.

Some of the most forward thinking agencies have built out dashboards so that they can control the brain of the project and outsource where they need to. The significance of the dashboard is that the client begins to rely on this singular reporting mechanism to streamline all media. The dashboards also allow these agencies to own the data and present the fully integrated results to the client.

Ironically, most of the truly engaging case studies I’ve seen over the past few weeks, have been presented directly by solutions providers or media publishers. These individuals are so laser focused on their capabilities and on ways to innovate and inspire that they have become agents in themselves.

We weren’t going to change the world this afternoon but one thing was clearly agreed upon: at the end of the day, in this fragmented space, he who ultimately delivers the audience wins.

Elite Social Networks or Loners In Lounges?

There's been a lot of chatter about the closed social networks out there like A Small World, Diamond Lounge and Reuters Space. They've been billed as highly targeted vertical communities with desirable audiences and bright futures.

But having checked out some of these communities, it's very clear that their success is relying heavily if not entirely, on the socio-economic make-up of their members. Following the theory that "it's lonely at the top", it makes sense that users in these closed environments will stray to mingle with the masses.

Here's an extreme analogy:

When traveling with 5 colleagues and only one is a member of the First Class lounge, the sole member is faced with a decision; ditch the other 4 and sit alone to enjoy a free drink and peanuts while not making true eye contact with other peanut eaters, or spend 30 minutes socializing with the others who clearly have some common ground and money to buy nuts and a drink (otherwise they wouldn't be traveling together).

While there's a clear opportunity to connect like-minded individuals within the closed communities, it's important to remember that these networks more often than not, really don't "own" the user in the way they hope to.

Currently, the elite networks are missing major components of true social behaviors. While there may be an undeniable cachet to being invited into the circles, new members are often quickly disappointed by the limitations of the sites.

Online user behaviors transcend group dynamics. People use email, instant messaging, watch videos, upload photos, use search and directories as priorities. Providing sub-standard applications to accommodate only a few of these behaviors will not build sustainable communities regardless of how closely their members' socio-economic commonalities are tied. The combination of limited value in terms of "cool stuff" and the clear draw of targeted media placements will soon make users take their elitist ways to or depending on how you look at it, out of the ghettos.

In the meantime, the open networks have had an opportunity to grab critical masses, aggregate all demographics, and overlay psychographics and behavioral data to create platforms that will gladly offer elitist "groups" every opportunity to create their own playgrounds.

Who knows, with all those bored A types, eccentrics and gainfully unemployed refugees, it's an offer they may not be able to refuse.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Levi's Mobilizes Teen Market - A Case Study

I saw an interesting mobile marketing case study this evening at CaseCamp in Toronto.

Brady Murphy of Vortex Mobile and Lisa Rowe of Armstrong presented their “Mobile Marketing for Levi's @ Virgin Fest Toronto” case study.

Here’s a summary:


Levi's wanted to re-capture market share from competitors like Parasuco, Seven and other emerging brands that have attracted their elusive 17-24 year old target.


Implement a grassroots campaign appealing to their target's inherent desire for 15 minutes of fame. The idea was similar to American/Canadian Idol in that people were able to vote for the next Levi's model.

The Virgin Fest
was selected as an appropriate venue as it delivered the right audience.

Scouts were sent out to search for trend setting candidates to enter the contest to be the next Levi's model. A tent was set up at the event with all makes of Levi's jeans. Selected candidates were fitted with the best pair of jeans for their body type, photographed and then given a unique voting ID.

The unique voting ID is a simple application that is increasingly being used for various purposes (polling opinions at conferences being one of them).

So, the candidates were given their unique codes plus instructions on how their friends could vote for them by text messaging their short code. And so it began…

One of the elements that made the voting a success said Murphy, was “the ballot counter”. As friends would text vote, they were instantly given latest statistics on their friends’ votes. Murphy went on to explain that this created a major lift in voting activity. "It made the promotion believable" claimed Murphy.

Another interesting feature of this campaign was the use of MMS to download the Levis pictures of the candidates directly to the phones. Once downloaded, friends could forward the picture to other phones or emails. The viral component of the campaign was tremendously enhanced through this.

The third factor that made this campaign a success was the use of social networking by the candidates to gain votes. 25 groups were created on Facebook and MySpace involving 3,500 members and 2,000 wall posts.

Finally, there was an "instant win" feature implemented. Gift certificates were awarded instantly to voters who called at particular points of the campaign. The tenth voter might have received an instant SMS response saying “congratulations, you won a $100.00 gift certificate”.

Due to the rich elements incorporated into this campaign, the activity outlived the duration of the contest. 57% of unique votes occurred after the event was finished.

Campaign Results – 11 days of activation

• 314 models recruited
• 22,000 sms votes generated
• 1,000+ MMS downloads
• Forwarded messages (not calculated)

"The number of SMSs generated through this year’s campaign outperformed 2006 by 106% and their inaugural event in 2005 by 800%" said Murphy.

This case study is one of many that show the potential implementations of mobile marketing to teens.

I was impressed by the way in which this campaign truly spoke to the market using the right environment (Virgin Fest), the right messaging (find your fit and be famous), the right platform (text vs. email) and the freedom to use tools outside of the campaigns’ parameters (social networking sites).

Monday, November 19, 2007

CRM - It Can't be that Hard

I’m trying to put my finger on exactly why I feel that localized, small business CRM is going to explode over the next year. I know it wasn’t Google’s announcement of their partnership to and it’s not like contact management systems like ACT! and Goldmine really fascinate me.

Maybe it’s the idea that millions of small businesses with a newfound interest in online media (specifically email marketing), could really use a comprehensive CRM system that provides marketing automation with the same level of sophistication as some of the systems being used by national advertisers.

Just like content management solutions have long been integrated into directories, wouldn’t it be prudent to offer a marketing system to compliment the existing services?

As publishers are under increasing pressure to provide performance models, they must play a larger role in yielding higher conversions for their advertisers. This way they can manage inventory (or offset the cost of a lack of it).

I think I’m starting to get impatient about this topic. It feels like it’s been years since the capabilities have existed. Why isn’t anyone connecting these dots? Granted, they may be busy buying up Pay-Per-Call platforms and what not...but I really believe that this is a huge piece of the puzzle that could go a long way to differentiate one local search or online directory from another.

With all the advancements in this field namely's multi-tenant "platform as a service" roll out this year, it seems like this investment is a no-brainer.

I have too many thoughts on this to map it all out in a blog. I will have to take this little favourite topic of mine offline for a while and maybe spell it out to those that might listen.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blocked Traffic on Social Networks & The Advantages of Being Anti-Social

IT Security companies are effectively communicating (or marketing) the need for corporations to be concerned about security and loss of productivity due to employees wasting time on social networking sites. As a result, the valuable traffic to these sites may start to diminish during peak media messaging hours (9-5).

Back in September according to this BBC article, a UK law firm, Peninsula, estimated a loss of 233 million hours per month or £130 million a day by employees “wasting time” visiting social networking sites on the internet.

The estimates were based on a survey conducted of 3500 UK companies, suggesting that some employees spend up to two hours a day visiting social networking sites at employers’ expense.

While findings of the survey were alarming, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) told AFP that the total ban to networking sites would be “something of an over-reaction”.

But earlier this month, Barracuda Networks released a survey based on data contributed by several thousand customers. The survey showed that 44% of companies using Barracuda's Web filtering technology block access to MySpace, and 26% are doing the same to Facebook. The analysis showed that while 19% of companies blocked both the sites, half said they block one or the other or both.

In a separate survey of Barracuda 228 IT security workers, results showed that 53% of businesses restrict Web surfing. This number is expected to increase by 23% in 2008 to 65 percent.

The top motivations behind these restrictive measures were:

• Prevent virus or spyware (70%)
• Control employee productivity drain (52%)
• Lessen the load on bandwidth (36%)
• Liability issues (28%)

In August, Sophos, an international provider of IT security and control, released a report that showed 43% of 600 polled workers said their employer blocks Facebook access completely.

According to Sophos, 41% of Facebook users are willing to disclose personal information to complete strangers. And details such as employment history and mobile phone numbers found on Facebook could be used to launch corporate phishing attacks, security experts warn.

Social networks have been making major strides towards becoming directionally focused. Some have partnered with online directories; some have added business advertising opportunities and many have started to cultivate reviews. If this trend continues and corporations continue to block the major social networks from their employees, ironically, the anti-social characteristics of today’s directories and local search engines may be their greatest advantage. Consumers who tend to plan dinners, movies and other after work activities online may be forced to use less social environments.

I’m getting more data on this…

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reviewing Reputations - Advertiser Generated Content

I was doing some research on the many Reputation Management companies that exist to help national brands and small businesses quantify and qualify what’s being said about their brands and then counter balance if and where necessary. While this work has traditionally been the job of a PR agency, the blogosphere brings complexity to the issue.

The sheer volume of information that requires tapping, analyzing and monitoring and real time management as a result is the driving challenge. Changing the title from Public Relations to Reputation Management implies a more appropriate sense of urgency.

One of the sketchier departments of the new “Reputation Management” organization is the area that recruits review writers en masse thereby creating a network for national brands to tap into for content generation. Writers can get paid anywhere between $10 to $200 on while advertisers are charged double for the luxury of accessing the network with content that for the most part, is quite positive (shocker…).

Most of the other reputation management companies position themselves as PR agents online but 9 times out of 10, their service listings reveal that they are simply SEO specialists that have a team of copy writers that post positive reviews in as many areas online as possible. That means everywhere from Bebo and Buzznet to any other site that is viewed as a consumer forum.

Some of the content generating services disclose themselves as such in their writing but others try to be stealth about it. In both cases, brands could be jeopardizing trust with their consumers.

Media savvy consumers are developing intolerance for breeches of trust and advertorial spamming. In some cases, consumers post colorful comments about their feelings towards businesses that have clearly hired copywriters to persuade a purchase or shift an opinion about a brand.

Small businesses should also be concerned about their reputations.

Last year a Kelsey Interactive Local Media report indicated that the traffic on local social search sites built on reviews, such as Yahoo! Local, Judy’s Book and Yelp, collectively grew 44% from August 2005 to August 2006 (compared with flat growth among the top five IYPs) and to at least partially justify this growth, according to Hitwise, a September 2006 Harris Interactive Poll showed that 67% of respondents are “likely to post reviews,” while 79% are “likely to be influenced” by them.

To respond to this trend, publishers are struggling with the concept of launching review functions without well-established content (I thought users were supposed to post them??). The assumption here is that users will break their loyalty to one directory and move to one that offers richer content.

While no content generating service would admit to working in this area, some of the tip off’s that look fishy in newer local search services include:

  • Reviewer Profiles that reveal over 500 reviews posted within a short time frame (under two weeks)
  • A disproportionate volume of reviews on national brands for a local tool
  • Reviewer profiles that are focused on one vertical (like 50 reviews in one food type category)
  • Uni-sex reviewer profiles that comment on gender-specific businesses

There are more, but these are some of the more blatant ones that I have come across in my research.

To get around this content issue some directories, including Google’s, are aggregating reviews from outside sources. While this doesn’t eliminate the existence of fraudulent reviews, it helps to dilute their paths.

Business is built on reputation and building a reputation takes time. Consumers know this. So why has the online channel turned this into a race? I guess word of mouth will start to trump anonymous reviewer profiles in any case so this may be a moot question answered through social networks.

In the meantime I’m trying to decide who should be more concerned about their reputation – the national brand or the publisher that may or may not be telling the truth about them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Public Philanthropy...Blogging Goodness

One of the many obvious benefits that blogging has brought to national brands is the ability to communicate their local community involvements and showcase their social conscience.

More and more studies are showing that doing good is good for business. So, companies are exploring new ways to exercise philanthropy. Some donate profits to good causes; some affiliate themselves with charities and some sponsor local little league baseball teams. Some brands like Dove are going as far as to create new causes!

Here's a viral campaign launched by Unilever for Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty"

From a research perspective, the information gathered from blogs and discussion boards is helping companies to choose which causes are priorities within their target groups. With products like Nielsen’s Buzz Metrics or Umbria’s MediaSense, companies are able to get a sense of how consumers are responding to their efforts or lack thereof.

According to a Jupiter Research study, bloggers are opinion leaders.
While user-generated content on the whole is increasing in volume and momentum, bloggers are not yet representative of the North American population but they do tend to have higher levels of education, affluence, more time spent online, and have obvious passion about issues they write about. Bloggers may be early indicators of mass trends within their respective fields of interest.

Thanks to Al Gore and other influencing factors like global weather changes, the environment appears to be at the top of the list for consumer discussion topics.

Recent research conducted across Canada by TNS Canadian Facts shows interesting demographic trends. There are three key insights:

• The trend is incredibly strong with youth. Given a choice to do business with companies who are socially and environmentally responsible, 41% of 18-24 years old surveyed agreed. (An Umbria environmental blog report showed a major male skew).

• The second demographic factor to consider is aging baby boomers, many now over 50. 43% of this attractive buyer target would consciously choose to do business with companies who are socially and environmentally responsible.

• The third powerful group was the female consumer, recognized as buying or influencing 80% of purchases. 42% of women vs. 33% of men consciously choose socially and environmentally responsible companies. Interestingly, the numbers increase significantly in boomer women with 57 % of women over 50 make this choice.

Umbria Inc., a market intelligence company that specializes in blog research and consumer generated media (CGM) for market insight, recently completed its first blogosphere research report outlining changing consumer attitudes and behaviors on environmental topics.

Umbria's research, based on data collected from more than 40 million blogs from mid-June through mid-September, 2007 showed that consumers are increasingly discussing environmental issues in online social media, with nearly 10,000 mentions per week* over the course of the summer months.

The study showed that virtually all industries are affected by consumers’ growing environment concerns. The top 10 personal changes discussed online by consumers were:

• General home: 19.7%
• Automobile: 2.9%
• Packaging: 9.6%
• Products/goods: 7.2%
• Lights/lightbulbs: 6.4%
• Paper: .9%
• Travel: 5.3%
• Shopping bags: 5.0%
• Stores/shops: 4.0%
• Electronics/cellular: 3.3%

While the environment is only one of many issues that consumers care deeply about, the principle behind the benefits of aligning brands appropriately remain the same across all others.

For this environmentally focused study, specific brands bubbled to the top of conversations. As expected, not all were referenced positively. The five brands mentioned most frequently were Toyota/Prius (majority leader), Google, General Motors, Exxon Mobil and GE.

The insights gathered using the Blog metrics tool provide invaluable data to companies that have interests in aligning with these targets. Whether it’s used as a barometric measure of consumer attitudes or to understand competitive standings, this type of research has long legs and a lot of walking to do.

Look for more blogger-based display media solutions coming to the party.