Thursday, January 31, 2008

OpenSocial Vampires in Miami...

There were some interesting discussions this morning at the Social Networking Conference in Miami. The event which attracted over 600 attendees, started with an engaging presentation about the “Open Social” project.

Patrick Chanezon, Google’s “API Guy” presented the emergence of Open Social by charting it on a Gartner Hype Cycle Curve. Patrick believes that Open Social hit the “Trough of Disillusionment” just prior to launching it’s 0.6 version which included security features that prevented hackers from leaking through the mini-apps and into the networks. He feels that “Enlightenment” arrived with its the release of 0.7 last Friday.

Patrick ended his presentation by describing Shindig and its imminent launch (1 or 2 months from now). Shindig was described as the “implementation of a social server without worrying about all the plumbing”. While he told social networks to wait for it, he urged developers to get cracking on building applications that could later be adapted with Shindig.

After the presentation Michael Jones, CEO of UserPlane and Derek Gordon, VP of Marketing at Engage where spotlighted as panelists to the subject. Michael pointed out that speed to market was the key to success in the world of widgetry and mini applications. Applications that are pre-existing at the time a social network launches (he’s speaking to the white labeling opportunists I think) are much cheaper to market and to adopt than applications that could get lost in the sea of existing applications if they launch too late.

I asked Michael about his thoughts on Mini application fatigue and what the winning ingredients might be to cut through the boredom of user choice. Interestingly, we got into the discussion of pull media and how the applications will have to provide some value and interactivity.

Derek Gordon chimed in, pointing out that the niche applications that are launching may not have mass appeal but that the sheer amount of them will appeal to many individuals. Still a bit of a sceptic, I asked about the broadcasting side of these applications. My point is that even though smaller clusters of truly engaged users of the “insertridiculousappnamehere app” may exist, the social graphs they are leveraging are in effect, getting spammed and this is contributing to the overall fatigue of applications as a total concept.

It got interesting (for me at least) when Michael commented on the fact that application fatigue is actually an implementation issue. Citing the Vampire application from Facebook as an early example of spammy applications of no utility, Michael said that the control over the volume of broadcasts had simply not been considered.

The realization I made (I’m sO naïve), is that Facebook may have been using the fluff application that had no sponsorship or commercial interest tied to it, as a test on the legs of the social graph as it could apply to future applications and their potential to create legions of engaged consumers for when people start asking them how they plan on making money.

More mañana...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Social Network Advertising...Push or Pull?

As marketers, we’ve been beaten to death with the notion that consumers are in control. Because consumers that are in control tend to "pull" their media consumption, I've started to explore how social networks are measuring up.

It seems they've entered the space at a time when consumers have a well developed idea of what they want out of their online experience. Historically, consumers have been somewhat limited to one dimensional publisher content.

Pull media traditionally found its roots in traditional vehicles. Consumers could select which magazines to read, which TV shows to watch or what radio station to tune into. Sponsored content was a part of the deal. Epitomizing the Pull media concept was Yellow Pages and other directory publications where without sponsored content, the utility based medium would not exist.

Since the inception of online advertising (just over ten years), we have witnessed a number of applications employing Push and Pull technologies. With half-baked notions of how the Internet could effectively provide Pull advertising solutions to marketers, it started with a Push.

Banners and buttons littered the highways and portals pushed content to the consumers according to what they thought consumers would find appealing. The only element of Pull was established through exceptional brand awareness as most traffic with the exception of Yahoo and AOL (among a short list of others), was generated to existing offline media brands.

Then, email became the cornerstone of customer acquisition and CRM strategies. Early experimentation began with opt-in as a way to employ the appeal of Pull.

Finally, search in all its forms, transformed consumer expectations of media consumption. In my view, no other online application has defined Push more clearly than search.

So what about social networks? In theory, they are based on utility. Utility generally means Pull. But after the users have set up their profiles, contacted their friends and downloaded their widgetry, what is left for them to Pull?

In my research on this topic I’ve created very top line lists of what I deem as Pull and Push characteristics of the networks.

Pull (Consumer Control)
  • Downloading widgets, applications and tools
  • Interactivity within the tools
  • Control over profiles
  • Ability to create blogs
  • Searching for friends and applying certain parameters to the search
  • Access and blocking tools to help moderate who sees what within a user profile
Push (Limited or No Consumer Control)
  • Friend status messaging - this includes the poking and the notification of downloads of applications
  • Chat
  • Email
  • Banner ads
From what I gathered, it appears that the Pull factor loses it’s steam after the profiles have been set up and the environment has been customized. Enter the clever Knock, Knock cartoon which to me, represents the advertisers' solid understanding of "who's there". The question is, how many people are ringing the doorbell and what else could they possibly be looking to pull from the department?

Even in those media vehicles that have intersected the concept of Pull and Push like subtly sponsored content and Beacon, their success relies heavily on "news feeds" that consumers have virtually no control over. At the end of the day, consumers are being pushed to keep up with the Joneses through real time broadcast of activity.

I think my point (or question) is that although the networks act as an incredible marketing tool using the power of conversation and the customization afforded by Web 2.0, is it possible that we are just jumping from one push oriented portal to the next?

In my view, there are a lot of opportunities for social networks to embrace pull tactics. I'll explore this topic more closely and share some examples of how the integration of Pull media could change things for social networking and the advertisers it could potentially attract.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Affiliate Programs Going Social

With all the books I’ve been exposed to on the social networks these days, I thought I’d check in with Amazon’s tail to see how it’s being wagging.

The last statistic I read on the revenue generated from books outside of the top 100,000 titles (long tail) was in the 25% range. I would not be surprised to hear an updated figure of much higher proportion.

Since the coining of the phrase in 2004, there has been an enormous growth in the development of Amazon’s affiliate program participation. It appears there’s been a migration pattern from larger media properties to small businesses to professionals and now with the emergence of social networks, to the individual.

Although anyone can participate in the Amazon affiliate program through their blogs or websites, some start-ups have harnessed the power of social networking to create a network of shared bookshelves. Social networking applications like iRead and Visual Bookshelf have enabled users to share their tastes, comment on each other’s books and generally keep track of what “friends” are reading.

Shelfari, one of the first social networking plays in this space was quick to see the value in connecting readers through Web 2.0. The site offers readers a place to share their books and get recommendations from other readers. Based in Seattle, the network quickly caught the attention of Amazon as a major stakeholder in its business and last summer, started its distribution outside of its network through a Facebook application.

Having employed the magic of widgetry and aggregation to create a healthy volume of book shelving, Shelfari now has over 1 million registered users that are actively sharing and recommending books within their network and Josh Hug, CEO of Shelfari confirmed that they are working closely with google & myspace on the "open social" initiative that will allow Shelfari to be embedded in all of the other popular social networking sites.

While Josh did not comment on any tools currently being developed for publishers (aggregated research etc.), the network does provide authors with a platform to reach out to their fans. “It provides a very personal way for Authors to promote their books and get direct feedback from their largest supporters” he said.

Positioned as a bookworm tool to flash conquered text, individuals are actually marketing on behalf of the social network. The alternative play for Amazon would have been to offer individuals with affiliate program tools but in this case, a middleman makes sense. The streamlined billing and social networking aspect makes it a very attractive partnership.

I guess the challenge will be to keep users engaged in the application and network.

This is only one example of how affiliate programs are taking off in the social networking scene. Aside from this model I can see a lot of potential for slick loyalty programs to surface.

Some Quick Stats from Facebook:

Shelfari - 421 + over 1 million users in its network
Visual Shelf - 28,826 solely operates as a mini application
Books iRead - 22,870 solely operates as a mini application

Monday, January 28, 2008

Target Trips...Into User Generated Content

In keeping with today's theme of user generated content, I could not resist sharing this example found in the New York Times today of how some big brands are not embracing user generated content and how it could backfire.

The irony here, is that the very resistance has catapulted the brand into the blogosphere.

PS: I found this through a great French blog (aggregator)

What a PR hornet's nest...

Advertsing in a UGC World

Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres
Spanish Proverb

“Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”


The social slide of publisher content has had a major impact on the audiences that are being drawn in to well established media properties. Big media brands are no longer attracting the same audiences they used to. While media fragmentation in general has long been discovered and analyzed, publishers need to start concerning themselves with their shifting audiences.

For many years reader loyalty to the publishers was a relationship held between the publication and its subscribers. With limited knowledge of how users interacted with the traditional versions of their publications, publishers were to some degree relegated to hypothesizing their audiences’ opinions and overall relationship with their product.

It’s true that once the publisher migrated to digital formats they were in a much better position to understand their audience. Early web analytics provided much needed data on user frequency, geographic and in some cases demographic information. Publishers could suddenly identify which stories got the most traffic and which ones had viral halos.

It took years for publishers to realize product innovation from the data they had access to. Eventually newspapers started to beef up their technology and automotive sections and classifieds took off according to the statistics that had become available. Most of the advancements were based purely on quantitative data.

Puzzling (often alarmingly low) traffic numbers have alarmed the publishers to the reality that the Internet has leveled their world. In the past, readerships were based on some of the following factors:
  • Circulation areas – geo-specific publications were limited to their territories
  • Affinity – Entertainment, Economic, News, Politics etc.
  • Visual Appeal & Brand – Cover shots, headlines & teasers
  • Tone – audience education level and socio-economic background
  • Cost per edition
Today, search, RSS feeds and social networking has changed access to content. Users are no longer interested in the source of the content but rather, how relevant the content is to quench their thirst for knowledge.

The result of this shift has caused a disruption in audiences that can be clearly seen from the user generated content that is quickly accumulating across publisher sites. When it comes to attracting fortune 500 advertisers, it’s no longer about the number of readers attracted to a particular publication. It’s about individual pieces of content and the quality of its audience.

This theory applies to all media properties online. Even a local directory with user generated reviews can lose credibility quickly when readers and potential advertisers discover poorly written user content filled with typos or clearly biased opinions (regardless of how trusted the sources might be). User generated content provides a unique insight into the viewers and readers of publications online.

Here are just a few of the many implications and preliminary solutions:
  • Advertisers
    • Will look for premium content vs. premium publisher brands.
    • Planning will have to become more fluid as opposed to static annual allocation
    • Media agencies will require savvy, proactive planning tactics and solutions to help align their clients' budgets with appropriate content.
    • Automated contextual advertising engines will be scrutinized for inappropriate alignment of sentiments, opinions and general content appeal.
  • Publishers
    • User generated content requires monitoring and mining for intelligence. While it’s easy to give this job to an entry-level employee, publishers need to put marketers in these roles. Individuals that are focused on preserving the overall spirit of the brand are better candidates than clerks simply scanning for obscenities and spam.
    • Focus on areas that are driving the most desirable user generated content vs. concentrating on high volume traffic. Scoring matrices will have to be developed.
    • Move from using UGC as a listening tool to a talking tool. It’s true that users feel slighted when their comments are not posted. One possible solution would be to create a communicative tool to justify moderations or to dig deeper at the source.
While user generated content will sometimes provide an unexpected and in some cases, unpalatable glimpse of readership, it’s important to understand that in this day and age, it’s not necessarily a reflection on the publication’s brand but rather that of a fragmented audience.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Surf & Scrub... ReputationDefender


On a final note about managing reputations this week, I thought I'd explore the personal side of reputation management solutions.

Amidst the news stories of how employers are using social networks as reference and sensitive information checking tools, it's no shocker that services would appear to scrub online content that may negatively affect an individual's chances for employment.

I looked into Menlo Park, CA based ReputationDefender's services today. ReputationDefender was conceived in mid 2006 as a service that offers a monthly subscription based service that scrubs the internet for all content related to an individual. The service is still in beta, but has launched with subscribers receiving monthly reports detailing all references and content pertaining to the individual online so that they are then able to select what areas they would like to have deleted or "destroyed".

Most social networks allow users to submit requests to have items removed from their networks. The process can take some time but it is definitely available. For individuals that have been tagged in photos without permission, there are tools allowing them to disassociate themselves by removing tags.



ReputationDefender's value proposition may be found more in the reporting than in the destruction of negative content. They do not act as legal counsel and will not send cease and desist notes around the web. They simply go through the clean-up process on behalf of the customer.

The business reminds me a lot of the incorrect listings issues faced by the online yellow pages industry. While all the directories allowed businesses to submit correct information, the process was arduous and the results were either unsatisfactory or unacceptable in terms of time to correction. Finally, solution providers like Localeze stepped up, built partnerships with the major directories as "trusted sources", and put subscribing clients in the fast lane for listing corrections.

While the commercially driven need to manage reputations online is well established, the idea and demand to manage personal reputations has not yet reached its full potential. As late adopters continue to flock towards the social networks, the boom for this sector will emerge and echo for that matter.

I believe this type of service will become just as relevant as anti-virus software. The winners will be those that can provide the sleekest reporting and the fastest results. Early players to the field may benefit from their establishment as trusted sources with the major social networks and their unquestionable influence on the API features made available to procure the services.

A natural extension for this type of service would be to provide copywriting services to create positive content across the web. Once again, I'm drawing parallels with the Localeze model where the business profiles were created and pushed through the platform insuring consistency and SEO friendly rich data.

Let me guess what's next for personal reputation management companies....SEO friendly resume copywriting & management?

Reputatition Defender's Blog has a great NYTimes article about the usage of social networking investigations in the workplace...How to Lose your Job on Your Own Time

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reviews with a LouderVoice

Writing to you live from my reviews and reputation management rabbit hole... I had an interesting exchange with Conor O’Neill today. Conor is the Co-Director of Argolon Solutions' new venture, LouderVoice.

The Irish based company launched in May 2007 with a platform that allows its members to write reviews on their own blogs, so that they can be aggregated and distributed to partners. A secondary part of the business allows blogless reviewers to set up a LouderVoice reviews blog on their network with the option to transfer to alternative servers as desired.

The driving factor behind the platform is to build a trusted community and Conor feels that reviews that are tied back to personal blogs providing deeper background on the person behind the words, is much more transparent.

With its growing collection of detailed, user generated content, LouderVoice is offering a platform for rants, raves and indifferent expressions from consumers. As a result f the content-rich collection, Conor pointed out that more and more of their users' reviews are topping Google in SEO. By building out identities specific to reviewing products and services, the play stays true to its content. As an added feature, the site allows reviewers to push content on the go via SMS.

To date, Conor describes the content as seasonally driven. With a lot of music and movie reviews reflecting the winter habits of hibernating consumers. Restaurant and hotel reviews tend to pop up in the summer. "The main thing we see is long tail content with plenty of completely unique reviews that are not seen anywhere else and a lot of local content" added Conor.

Developed through Microformats, the LouderVoice functionality is a simple add-on to an existing blog.

An API is currently under development to allow LouderVoice partners to provide review writing/reading features on their sites. Their customers send reviews remotely and can view all relevant review summaries/ratings on the partner site. The first partner (to be named) integration will launch in March.

LouderVoice is currently adding features like a very lightweight tagging system for review collection and the addition of video sites, podcasting sites and social networks as new source streams. The goal is to house all reviews written by an individual, no matter where they are generated, so that they can be found via one site, building the individual's reputation.

LouderVoice V2 is planned to launch in February with added Web 2.0 features allowing users to follow their favourite reviewers and an internal reviewing function for those who aren't bloggers. The site will also be re-designed with a sleeker look and feel and more robust navigation.

What I find refreshing about the model is that as opposed to offering cash for specific product reviews like ReviewStream or ReviewsArena (among a growing list of others), the site is offering a reputation building vehicle, blogging tools and blog traffic as an incentive. This allows them to avoid the sketchy “this review is a paid advertisement” disclaimer other review writing networks are tied to on all of their aggregated content.

Conor described three revenue streams for the business. The first is standard contextual advertising on the site which is well suited to review-style content. The second is a partner/white-label model and the third is a partner customer feedback system (more centered on the SMS interface).

Varying approaches to combat trusted reviews are cropping up everywhere. As privacy concerns are surfacing about portable reputation engines, LouderVoice’s model provides a timely and unique alternative. With LouderVoice’s potential for rich content and its focused review writing environment, it looks like they have the right ingredients in place. As usual, it's a numbers game, driving consistent content will be a challenge. Conor appears to be up for it.

The product is currently being rolled out in Ireland and UK with marketing plans to follow for Europe and North America.

More Thoughts on Reviews and Reputations...

I fell down another familiar rabbit hole this week. This time about user generated reviews and the plight of managing their sources. I've got a call this afternoon that might change the perspective I'm about to share but here's the thought as it stands...

It occurs to me that one of the most bustling groups of content generators are activists. As review writers are rarely called upon to disclose their associations or personal interests, it would be hard for say, a golf course operator or an SUV manufacturer to control or accurately source the motivation behind negative reviews written by an environmentalist.

There are currently 500 groups listed under "activists" within Facebook (that's only one applicable search term). A group against animal cruelty has 2,900 members and various global warming groups have well over 2,000 in aggregate.

With all the solutions under development in this space, I have not come across one that can detect personal views on issues relating to religious or ethical belief systems. Although Facebook profiles often disclose semi-accurate user details of this nature, in the main, it will forever be a challenge to determine these influencing factors. Unless of course, the reputation tracking solutions are able to tap into Facebook and other social networks' group level membership details. However, if this becomes a reality, privacy concerns may lead to quick attrition within those groups. Anonymity is a key trait to a true activist.

To date, I believe that reputation management solutions cover fairly one dimensional user statistics like age, sex, social network memberships and some vague activity data. I wonder (out loud) if there are any solutions being developed that have a behavioral component to them?

The promise of reviews are reminding me more and more of one of my favourite movies, "The Gods must Be Crazy". Everyone seems to be exercising their own definitions of their true purpose and potential while ironically, wreaking havoc on community.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Identity Fragmentation and Social Networking

Jason Falls shared some great insight on his post today about the categorization effect of the big social networks. Understanding the varying demographics and psychographics of the networks is critical to understanding the evolution of both sites and the media opportunities available within them.

For fun, let's compare the Facebook and MySpace networks to big box malls. Each one has a good variety of appealing groups (stores) and services (applications) and each one provides a general food court where users can do what they are naturally compelled to do (in this case communicate) with friends and acquaintances (even though they risk running into people they don't want to eat in front of).

Although the larger networks provide groups for anything from cat lovers to Jaguar owners, I believe that passion drives inclusion. Social consumers wear their interests on their sleeves and while the major networks allow them to wear group badges, hobbyists are fundamentally looking for the full outfit, the real deal, a mecca for their passion.

With white labeling solutions like Pringo and Ning creating a new ocean of micro-communities, it seems inevitable that users will start to divest their time and activity from the major social malls like Facebook and MySpace to do some boutique shopping of sorts.

Belonging to groups on the major networks is like users toting around bags from their favourite stores. The appeal is more about status and association rather than true involvement and interaction with like-minded individuals. In my view, the major networks have too many mainstream distractions to provide focused interactivity to specific interest groups.

To make things more complicated, subject enthusiasts can be very competitive. Not only do groups on the mainstream networks have transparent profile building hierarchies ("I own this store, but you may carry my bag"), they also in some cases have a lack of trust. This lack of trust stunts contribution and interactivity. At the end of the day, the appeal of joining the groups boils down to wanting to carry someone else's bag.

One area that acts as a true conduit to interactivity is the blogosphere. While there are certainly the same types of profile building games going on, the volume and quality of content by subject is richer, the communication is less inhibited, and WYSIWYG rings true.

I believe that white labeling holds a lot of promise for the future of social networking. I have concerns however, about the aggregation of the micro-networks as I feel that this might bring us all back to square one where instead of users browsing and communicating with specialty stores, they are tied to SEO and revenue-driven directories guiding them through a climate controlled mall.


Social Networking and The Key To Anne's Diary...Biometrics

I had a great chat this week with Emily Want, CEO of Anne’s Diary. A subsidiary of Logica Holdings Group, the site launched in November and quickly gained the valuable reputation of becoming one of the Internet’s “super-safest social networks”. Inspired by one of Canada’s cultural literary gem’s Anne of Green Gables, it’s not hard to see why safety is critical for its chosen demographic.

The Toronto based site’s commitment to providing a safe environment for girls between 6 and 14, is echoed in their partnerships with Fujitsu Microelectronics and123ID to provide biometric login kits for fingerprint authentication that replaces password authentication for each incoming member on the network.

The biometric solution uses Novell’s Modular Authentication Service to enroll users into Novell “eDirectory”, eliminating the children’s need to remember logins or risk intrusion from outsiders.

To sign up, users pay a fee of $119.25 US per year or $12.95 US per month and receive a starter kit. The starter kit includes a fingerprint reader that is tied to the member’s identity once it has been approved. As part of the approval process, parents must submit contact details for a guarantor (similar to a passport process). Once the guarantor is contacted through Anne’s Diary, the member is given an ID and may join the site.

One of the site’s features is a direct line into the Ontario Provincial Police representative Robyn MacEachern. Robyn is a Police Officer and a specialist in Youth Crime Prevention. She has partnered with Anne's Diary to help not only keep the site as safe as possible, but also to give advice to other people about how to stay safe online.

The site provides young girls with an opportunity to connect with one another around the world as modern day pen pals. The site also offers a private diary area, games, e-cards and a book club to promote interactivity. Another focus of the site is the theme of empowerment where girls are given guides on self-esteem and career tips. The chat area of the site is monitored for inappropriate contact and due to its tight security, the source of inappropriate content is quickly established and removed.

Partnered with Simon & Schuster, the site has a strong pipeline for new material to share among its members. A boy’s version of the platform is currently in development and will focus on being a playhouse of sorts. I won’t give away the chosen book for the site but it’s equally clean in content and just as magical in terms of childhood favourites.

Currently, the small but growing membership of Anne’s Diary is Canadian but Emily confirmed plans to roll out globally. Interestingly, Japan appears to be one of the most attractive markets for the site as Anne of Green Gables has consistently been one of the top ten selling books in the country. The books are widely used as a language- teaching tool due to its easy reading and downright clean content. In this vain, the site holds a lot of potential to become a learning tool in itself connecting young people globally in chat forums where they can take their vocabularies for a spin in real time.

Currently, the business model is focused on membership but sponsorship opportunities are available on the site and Emily is working on affiliate programs to generate traffic to the network.

One of the obvious challenges faced by the site is its rate of growth. Delivery of the starter kits can take a minimum of 2-3 weeks. The laborious process involved with the validation of each member makes for slower adoption but as Emily pointed out, it’s well worth the trouble.

Taking every precaution to provide a safe, monitored environment is coming into vogue. Although MySpace’s recently announced its plan to work towards creating safer environments (see, this CBC article), this process would create an enormous stumbling block for the networks that have based their success on the “everyone can join” platforms. For now, the alternative measures are still in development and each have their own drawbacks.

Anne’s Diary is certainly an experiment of quality vs. quantity online. Time will tell if the slowed adoption rate will be an impediment or the winning factor for the network. In any case, it’s a network to watch. In a competitive environment where most social networks merely pay lip service to security, Anne’s Diary is walking the talk.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Publicis Woos Google

Filed neatly under the category of disrupting the level playing field, advertising agencies that fall outside of the Publicis Group and in some cases re-sellers of the Google product, will be nail biting tonight as, Publicis announced a major "cooperation" with the Search giant a few hours ago.

Publicis, the world's fourth largest advertising group, bought a leading edge Internet ad agency Digitas (formerly Modem Media) for $1.3 billion last year. Having a good understanding of the depth of Digitas’ capabilities and forward thinking, I believe this deal to be monumental for both partners and sadly, crushing for agency competitors.

While the details are very scarce, the idea would be that Google would swap its technological know-how for Publicis's analytical and media planning expertise.

I’m impressed by the magnitude of this announcement and will post shortly on my thoughts.

Disclosure: I was the Media Director at Modem Media Canada from 98-01

Mii Thoughts on Social Networking

I’ve been pondering a lot about the gaming industry and how it relates to social networking. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not alone. I stumbled upon a fabulous post from Germany on PR Blogger, where Thomas Euler talks about "what the social networking industry could learn from the gaming industry". From what I've seen, gaming is embracing social networking.

Online games (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) have been around since the 70’s with Mazewar’s virtual world allowing players to roam around and shoot each other. For those interested, Wikipedia has a fascinating outline of its evolution from serial cable to ARPAnet in ‘74. Early gaming enthusiast may also recall playing PC based Doom into the wee hours in their offices in the early 90’s.

Over the past ten years online games have progressed significantly through broadband, rich interfaces, mobility and lowered production costs.

It’s no shocker that the gaming industry has had a head start on developing interactive technology for the third screen. Microsoft Xbox and Sony’s PS2’s mainstream Internet connectivity revolutionized the industry by connecting users not only by same interests but by real time activity.

Nintendo’s Wii seems to have introduced a missing link providing a stream of active gamers with a higher propensity for physical involvement. In the context of social networking, one could go as far as to imagine that meeting Mii’s online for tennis matches may one day materialize in a real time game or meeting (enter the local search aspect or even the draw of the travel sector).

Thomas points out in his article that gamers often spend hours together online. Not only is time a factor, but also the intensity of the interaction can be remarkable as multiple players are focused on common goals. Sports create an amazing conduit for relationships. Gamer relationships provide the depth of companionship and the thrill of competition while a network provides a constant stream of potential opponents (friends).

Most gaming interfaces have features like chat, photo uploading, personal profiles (through avatars) and contact managers. All of these lay a perfect groundwork for effective social networking.

I’m particularly interested in the Mii network being developed by Nintendo. Aside from their sleek use of widgetry which I will save for another post, following are some of the channels and features they’ve launched with the console that I believe are clear steps towards building out a social platform (followed by revenue generating platforms):
  • “Everybody Votes Channel” users select a question from a list, place votes and come back to see the results. There are National Polls and Worldwide Polls, where users can see whether voters in one country think differently from the rest of the world. (Think of the branding opportunities!!)
  • “Check Mii Out Channel” is the place for Miis to mingle. Users can show off Mii creations and download Miis that others have created. Users are able to participate in Mii contests by creating and judging Miis for specific contest themes (Do you see sponsorship opportunities here?).
  • “Posting Plaza” In the Posting Plaza, you can submit, exchange or just browse Miis posted by others in your region or worldwide.
  • Users can search for specific Miis, by the name of its creator or by a number specific to each Mii. You can tag your favorites, browse for popular Miis and import them to your own Wii system.
  • "Photo Channel" By inserting an SD memory card into the Wii users can manipulate shots in all kinds of ways like adding effects or creating puzzles and mosaics. Users are also able to put favorite MP3s on their SD cards to create slideshows with soundtracks.
  • Portable Miis - If you're heading over to a friend's house, load up your Wii Remote with Miis and transfer them to your friend's Wii. Each Wii Remote can hold up to 10 Miis.
  • Mii Parades - Users can opt to turn on the WiiConnect24 feature, register at least one Wii Friend and use the traveling Mii Parade feature. This makes users' friends' Miis appear in their Mii Parade. Likewise, the users' Miis will eventually appear in their friends' Mii Parade where thanks to the Mii Mingle feature, they can well...mingle of course.
These features are not bad starters and considering an estimated 17+ million consoles sold world wide since their launch is late 2006, they may be on to something.

It’s still early to predict the success of these features as they relate to building sustainable online communities. The point is that the framework is being built and that gamers spend a lot of time together. More time, I would guess than users on networks like LinkedIn or as one of Thomas’ friends commented, Xing.

Here's a great article on the US $17.9 billion gaming industry from AFP outlining the momentum behind the three main contenders.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on gaming and the media developments within...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

NBC Attracts Talent Through Social Network...Quarterlife

quarterlife, one of the first network-quality series produced specifically for the Internet, launched on quarterlife.com and MySpaceTV in November airing the first 36 of its short (8-10 minute) webisodes on Thursdays and Sundays.

The series also airs on other distribution partners such as YouTube, Facebook, and Imeem, one week after each episode airs on MySpace.

The series was created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the creative team behind the shows “thirtysomething,” and “My So-Called Life” as well as the movies “Legends of the Fall,” and “Blood Diamond”.

As the name suggests, quarterlife deals with life issues arising at the twenty-something stage. The series portrays the daily lives of six creative people in their twenties and has all the formulaic ingredients that series addicts have come to know and love.

Shortly after its internet launch, NBC announced that they would pick up the show and an equity stake in quarterlife.com which has been developed as a social networking platform to support the series. Naturally, NBC also plans to run the series on NBC.com.

After the internet series has completed its run, NBC plans to air an hour-long television premiere of the series. The TV broadcast of quarterlife will mark the first time a web series has been aired by a major network.

quarterlife.com, the social network, is targeted to the same demographic as the series. Its community includes resource channels customized to quarterlifers like careers, love, health, finances, education and activism.

As well as providing information resources, the social network aspires to be a portal for creative expression. Current and upcoming tools include:
  • User portfolios where artists can upload their videos, photos music and writing.
  • A workspace and repository for all uploaded media, where users will soon have tools to write, edit photos and videos, and organize their creative efforts.
  • A private area where works that aren’t ready to be shared, or are too intimate to share, can be safely kept.
  • Information on schools, grants, and techniques where users and experts will be able to post content.
  • Features for online community involvement with the ongoing creation of the quarterlife series. Members of the community will be encouraged to upload their own videos and blogs, etc.
While the social network has many appealing features in its portfolio, it looks like NBC plans on utilizing the site as a talent incubator. Having breezed through the terms and conditions, it looks like all uploaded member content becomes the property of the site (and NBC) and can be edited, copied, distributed, and monetized as they see fit.

There's unquestionable potential for new talent to gain exposure through the site. As mentioned in this NYTimes article back in December, within a 48-hour time frame, a link on the home page of YouTube helped generate more than 700,000 views of the first episode of “Quarterlife.”

Some artists may see this as a new lucky break platform but others (usually the best ones) might feel exploited. In any case, if executed properly, the new social network could attract an interesting talent pool and possibly, some ad inventory.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Social Networking Wants a Piece of You…Literally

There was a sensational article in the Globe and Mail yesterday. Siri Agrel wrote about how emerging niche family tree social networks like GeneTree.com and 23andMe.com are collecting DNA samples to provide ancestral analysis to its members. Registered users order their DNA kits online and send in cheek swabs so that they can meet distant relatives and start relationships with them online.

Based of the hypothesis that bloodlines are an attractive common denominator that will draw thousands of people together in a warm and fuzzy online relationship, the networks offer all the fixings one might expect at an online family reunion. Chatting, photo and video sharing and blogging of family memories are all part of the deal.

The idea of using DNA to trace your ancestry is not new, online kits have been available for a couple of years now. The DNA Ancestry Project was one of the pioneers in the field but now the concept has been catapulted into Web 2.0. DNA Ancestry Project’s GeneBase.com has captured over 500,000 users since its launch.

Two overt hurdles faced by the new network are the questionable accuracy of the data returned to the customers, and the obvious implications of how a little bit of information (that may be incorrect) may lead to serious litigious fall-outs within the user base. The following disclaimer is available on the GeneTree website:

“4. GeneTree’s Disclaimers and Liabilities.

4.1 GENETREE DOES NOT WARRANT TO CUSTOMER: (A) THAT THE SERVICES PROVIDED BY GENETREE WILL MEET THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE CUSTOMER; OR (B) THAT GENETREE’S SERVICES WILL BE FREE FROM DEFECTS OR FREE FROM ERRORS.

4.2 FURTHER, IN NO EVENT SHALL EITHER GENETREE OR THE CUSTOMER BE LIABLE TO THE OTHER FOR ANY INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, PUNITIVE, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES WHATSOEVER. “

23andMe.com was created by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Sergey Brin and its business has a couple of tiers. On the one hand it is collecting fees from the DNA kits it sells to the public, and on the other, it services the “medical research field”. While I did not chase down the exact nature of the services it provides to the medical industry or the revenue it generates through it, here’s an excerpt from the site’s Terms and Conditions:

“One of 23andMe's goals is to contribute to scientific research and the advancement of genetic knowledge. To achieve our research goals, 23andMe may enter into partnerships with commercial and/or non-profit organizations that conduct scientific and/or medical research.”

“Please be aware that under certain circumstances personal information may be subject to disclosure pursuant to judicial or other government subpoenas, warrants, or orders. In the event that we are legally compelled to disclose your personal information to a third party, we will notify you with the contact information you have provided to us in advance unless doing so would violate the law or a court order.”

The cleanest of the bunch appears to be GeneBase as they destroy the DNA samples immediately after they have been analyzed. But according to their “Modifications to the Agreement and the Service” section of their T&Cs, this could always change…

“Genebase reserves the right at its sole discretion to modify the site, these disclaimers, this agreement, and the terms and conditions of this agreement at any time. Any changes to this agreement will be reflected in this section of the Genebase website. If you continue to use Genebase services after a change is posted to the Terms and Conditions section of the Genebase website, this means that you have accepted and are bound by the changes.”

What baffles me is that amidst the global outrage of privacy and security issues caused by social networking in general these days, novelties like Google global maps illustrating users sharing the same genetic markers are able to entice hundreds of thousands of people to literally give a piece of themselves to what some might call an information abyss.

All of the sites go to great lengths to explain their security measures. The reality is, security is very difficult to guarantee. Below is a very small list of databases containing sensitive information that were hacked or compromised online. While financially based information may have more obvious tangible effects, I'd hate to be on the receiving end of "wooops, someone has your DNA profile" - talk about identity theft!

AOL data scandal
UK Child Benefit Scandal
US Regional Bank Hack
AT&T Hack

On a less harmful, but generally annoying note, sharing information with a commercial medical research company could easily be interpreted as sharing DNA profiles to a pharmaceutical company. While the contribution to modern medicine may be a fringe benefit, the larger, meatier opportunity for sites to monetize their data would naturally be found in DM databases. So, if you’re genetically predisposed to diabetes, you might one day find yourself subtly embraced by ads for sugar-free candy and over the counter drugs that just happen to address some of the symptoms associated with this condition.

Are you willing to give a piece of yourself?

Producers Take 2.0...TurnHere


In the cut-throat film industry, there appears to be a bright light surfacing for artists with great potential who may be limited by location and the closed, cigar-smoking inner circle of Hollywood’s upper crust.

I spoke with Marc Prager, Vice President, Creative Services & Strategy of TurnHere this afternoon to do a bit of digging in the world of web-based video production they have played such a key role in exploding over the past year.

While it can’t exactly be referred to as the “film industry”, Marc’s description of TurnHere’s “branded content field” could potentially unlock doors for aspiring directors and producers at other levels. With distribution partners like Google, YouTube and Yahoo Video to name a few, exposure to good quality content now has the ability to reach talent scouts at accelerated speeds and volume.

TurnHere offers producers around the world with opportunities to climb their “Ambition Ladder”. Producers that meet their network criteria are able to put their creativity to work by starting out with short films for their partners like CitySearch and then moving up the talent chain to creating longer pieces like involved author interviews for their publishing powerhouse partner, Simon & Schuster.

TurnHere currently has a network of over 3,000 producers around the world. Last year, the network produced thousands of web videos across the US and in more than 50 countries. Based on their current partnerships, the clients have been focused in the travel, hospitality, real estate, media and small business sectors.

Their production model is based on local talent and as such, the once hidden talent pool from areas outside of Hollywood are now able to build their careers and reputations. Marc holds an altruistic view of the opportunities afforded by his growing network. “It’s great to watch producers move on to bigger and better projects knowing they got a head start with us” he said after describing the training ground TurnHere is able to provide to new talent.

Videos produced by TurnHere are in template form to maintain a form of quality control on behalf of their partners. Producers shoot their content, edit it and upload it to TurnHere’s editing crew for feedback and approval. Producers are responsible for all post-production and are scored through an aggregated system developed by the company. While the effectiveness of videos at a granular level has not been cracked through sophisticated technology to date, positive client feedback, continued adherence to deadlines and dependability afford the producers with increased exposure and broader projects.

As sophistication grows in the field of "buzz monitoring", it may behoove the talent scouts to invest in these technologies. It may also be interesting to see a partnership arise with TurnHere and one of these monitoring providers to help quantify the quality of their content network. I can’t help but wonder if this might disrupt the talent agencies that for years have cashed in on pitching demo reels to agencies and movie producers.

How many more middlemen will bite Web 2.0’s dust?

SMBs' Shiny New Ad Platform ... Ad It Last

Right on the heels of the raging debate on cutting out online media buying agencies, I present you with a short description of Ad it Last.

I've been bouncing back and forth through time zones in discussions with Christina Tutone, CEO of Ad it Last. Ad it Last is the first full buy+build+deliver media system online made for mainstream use. By mainstream I mean SMBs, agencies and eventually, marketing directors of Fortune 500 companies.

The site launched in October 2007 offering overseas media sellers the opportunity to sell into the Australian market through its online procurement platform. The system also allows global buyers to buy media for the Australian market. But the most valuable market appears to be the local one. Giving SMBs the ability to buy and build their own media in what Christina describes as an eBay-like simple, environment, goes a long way to ridding them of the agency or consulting hurdles they would currently have to jump to get to the media buys they’re after.

To date, the AO100 award winning system supports build functions for print, online and radio but Christina plans on rolling out some exciting new online build technology for both flash and video ads.

Born in Australia, current media partners include such heavy hitters as The Age, Fairfax, a leading provider of Australian online news and classifieds and Sensis MediaSmart (Telstra) the online media division of Sensis that offers Search, Display and SMS advertising.

While the system is based on self-procurement, the lean Melbourne based team provides buyers and sellers with human support online or via voice.

“But Australia is so far away” you say? Well Ad it Last is currently moving into New Zealand and the US and holds patents covering the system globally.

The idea of selling remnant media space online is not new but past models have not provided turnkey solutions to the entire media buying and delivery process nor have they aggregated multiple channels effectively. In most cases, the auction-based sales were targeted to advertising agencies that had canned spots to deliver to the media properties.

Ad It Last’s focus on local media and the SMB sector makes it unique and gives the local media industry something to seriously think about.

I’m fascinated by the disruption here and wonder if and how players like turnhere and spotrunner will come into play…

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Top 5 Media Rep Peeves - The Retort...

Well, we know that there are two sides to every story and as promised, I interviewed a number of media reps to get a better understanding of their gripes with media planners. I got a lot more than I asked for. It seems there's a view on agencies in general and their diminishing role in the marketplace.

Again, some of the comments were generalized and I may have reached some reps on particularly bad days but in the main, this is what they had to say in contrast to yesterday's post...

1. Inexperience
Media planning is often referred to as an entry level position within the advertising business. Often, media planners/buyers are hired right out of school and handle anywhere from 5 to 20 media accounts (of varying sizes). Sales reps are concerned that their lack of experience is a major barrier to positioning their products and proposals to the clients. They feel that a lack of understanding will translate into a lack of passion and enthusiasm for the products they sell. This not only results in poor sales but also in poor creativity when it comes to overall advertising on behalf of the client.

2. Hurry up and Wait
Sales reps are called in to provide out of the box thinking and to provide proposals with slim turn around times. From the time the proposal is submitted (which rarely gets a "thank you"), the sales reps are left with radio silence. While everyone understands that planners are busy, one rep pointed out that they are hired by clients to return calls and they simply don't do their jobs. While planners gripe about long turn around times for RFPs, some reps feel that unresponsive planners get what they deserve. The priorities naturally fall towards collaborative planners that treat the sales rep as a partner. Some pointed out that while planners blame their busy schedules for unreturned calls, they always seem to manage to get away to full day golf tournaments, expensive 2 hour lunches, media parties or other perks at the expense of well, guess who?

3. False Sense of Entitlement
A number of reps pointed out that media planners place expectations on them for swag, event tickets and other perks that are sometimes unwarranted or completely off base in terms of a rep's budget. There's a growing concern that planners base their buys on whether a supplier afforded them an iPod or tickets to a hockey game. Again, the results reach all the way up to the clients who may be losing out on effective media opportunities due to planner's personal interests.

4. Due Diligence
Planners are notorious for calling reps in the final hour to point out holes in their proposals. The reps gripe about the length of time the proposals sit on planners' desks before they are reviewed. "If only planners reviewed the hard work we pull together for them when they receive it instead of waiting until the night before the plan is due" was echoed across the suppliers. The same unresponsive planners then spam the reps that have been following up for in some cases weeks, with emails and phone calls expecting immediate attention followed promptly by cartwheels and fire eating. The reps feel they are in many cases, blamed by the agencies for their own lack of due diligence. They feel that planners mistake them for "the bottom of the food chain".

5. Cookie Cutter Planning
Reps cited that planners position themselves to clients as out of the box thinkers while in reality, they shy away from plans that are unconventional or may require more work. While the reps understand that planners are not the keepers of creative production, there is mounting frustration over the lack of internal communication at agencies that create hurdles to bigger opportunities for the clients.

Interestingly, a lot of reps felt that agencies were barriers to the growth of the industry. The middleman of the industry (the media agency) is faced with shrinking margins, a lack of incentive to promote fresh thinking and quite frankly, a lack of talent. One rep went as far as to say that if you cut agencies out completely, advertisers would still be buying media and the effectiveness of the media bought would not suffer by any measure.

This is an interesting point as it appears that networks and media publishers are starting to pour investments into hiring in-house strategists and self-procurement technologies that would allow advertisers to buy directly.

The reality is that clients use agencies to do the grunt work. Further to that, clients are much more likely to switch agencies these days making it more attractive for publishers to establish direct client relationships as they may outlast those of the agency's. Like media planners, marketing directors are equally wooed by fancy dinners and tickets to see a hot event. Looking through the eyes of a media rep and based on yesterday's comments by "one good sales rep", it's not hard to understand where they'd rather put their perks.

Can't we all just get along? There must be some ways to improve this dysfunctional relationship. Do agencies need to re-think their structures? Should agencies be training planners on the softer side of rep relations?

More on this shortly...




Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Damning Nation and the $15 Billion "Toddler"

Mark Zuckerberg has been slammed in the blogosphere and other media for his interview on 60 Minutes and after having watched the interview, I can't help but to reflect on how eager reporters are to criticize successful individuals and more specifically, young ones.

He's often referred to as "a baby" or "a kid". Not only are these labels false, they're downright derogatory. 23 year olds vote!

The most obvious burn was for Beacon. His decisions and subsequent actions were positioned as immature in the interview. Kara Swisher of AllThingsDigital went as far as to call him a toddler. Based on Kara Swisher's definition of a cheerio-eating drooler, I could think of a number of past situations that were equally "toddlerish". Take DoubleClick's scandal seven years ago and how about Microsoft's growing list? Both companies fought tooth and nail to maintain their positions. Age didn't play a role - (Shouldn't they have known better with all their experience?) but Mark was criticized for not acting quickly enough to create a Beacon opt-out which he did shortly after the outcry.

Regardless of Facebook's future, Mark Zuckerberg deserves some respect for having accomplished as much as he has by 23. I'm saddened by the cruelty of some of the bashing because to me, it appears that there are many bitter aging under achievers that won't take a deep breath and applaud a savvy businessperson when they see one much less, learn from one.

Being a well-seasoned public speaker with years of CEO experience does not give immunity to error. I'm not a fan or foe of Mark, but I could only imagine the pressure he must be feeling to grow up. Is that fair?

Here's a link to the interview.

Top 5 Online Media Planner Pet Peeves


In over ten years of online media planning & buying, not much has changed in the trenches. This week I reached out internationally to media buyers and sellers to catch a glimpse of the sore points of the roles that are responsible for making the dollars in this industry stick.

I interviewed a number of experienced planners and sellers. Although their comments where often generalized, with this collection I hope to shed some light on what media sellers should look out for and be conscious of.

The Planning Peeves
  1. Follow-up Spam
    Repetitive follow-up from the moment a proposal is submitted. Planners grieve that reps seem to think that creating a media plan takes 24 hours. The reality is that plans take time and the reception of a proposal is the first stage of many. There are after all, a number of media publishers that are RFP’d and each one has varying turn around times. Once the proposals are all collected, the planners can get to work and piece together a client-facing proposal. The onslaught of publisher phone calls during this process are distracting and take the planners focus away from what they are ultimately paid to do.

  2. Reps aren’t Listening
    One planner complained that reps are consistently looking after their own interests and developing proposals that either far exceed budgetary parameters or are underwhelming in creativity. When planners are looking for simple sizes and straight forward media opportunities, reps jam them with rich, complex offerings and when the reps are asked to provide out of the box ideas, they tend to propose boxes and banners.

  3. Contacting Clients Directly
    In acts of impatience or lack of trust, reps often email, phone or visit clients directly without contacting the agency or including them in the discussion. From an agency stand point, they are hired to be the broker, to protect the marketing directors from the ever-growing number of publishers pitching proposals that are often out of context or off in timing. The thought of a sales rep walking into a client’s office and asking about their business is horrifying to the media planner. It gives the appearance that they are not doing their job efficiently. Planners swear that no matter how effective the sales reps feel this is, the clients don’t appreciate it and at the end of the day, the planners are the ones to process the media strategies.

  4. Billing without Reporting
    Unidentifiable invoicing was sited as a major thorn. Media planners are barraged with invoices to approve before accounting can pay them. To date, publishers have not been successful at billing with comprehensive information. Some publishers don’t provide campaign titles or in worst cases they don’t even provide client identifiers. The result is an invoice that sits in a miscellaneous file until it’s followed up on.

  5. Pushing sales goals up the food chain
    There appears to be an accountability trend starting up where reps are pushing the planners to up their spends or face consequences. Penalties could include higher CPMs for future campaigns or forced non-guaranteed impressions. One planner complained that a rep actually griped, seriously, that he wouldn't be able to buy a cottage if the agency didn't increase spending for the year. To a media planner, who is often underpaid for the ridiculous hours he or she works, this is like nails on a chalk board.
The Bonus Peeve:

Under Delivery
This is a problem with smaller independent sites that have no network to depend on for inventory back-up. Clients are sold a set number of impressions and sites are simply unable to fulfill the requirements. Planners are frustrated with the lack of transparency at the early stages of the planning process. The media would be bought regardless, so it would behoove the publishers to be conservative in their estimated inventory proposals.

Interestingly, SEM was described as the "wild west" and that reps specializing in search were the most difficult to deal with.

Stay tuned for the sellers' retort and some thoughts on mediation...

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Better Mousetrap? Clikity Split

Today Jim Clouse, CEO of ClikitySplit took me through the new local search site that is sure to cause waves in the space.

The Tennessee based company launched only six days ago and is based on a visual mapping platform.

Currently populated with over 135,000 hotels, the search engine allows users to select criteria and have all listings appear on the map in the form of visual billboards. Green dots are collapsed free listings and the red dots are those listings that are actively advertising with rich content.


Jim is going full steam after the traditional search engines citing that the current algorithms throw a major wrench into the user experience and relevancy of their searches. The ClikitySplit model displays all options and lets the users decide what is relevant to them.

While there are a few technical bugs left to sort out (less than a week old), the interface is intuitive and quick considering the rich content it holds.

There are currently four advertising options for local advertisers. The differences are not in ranking or positioning but rather in the content they are able to communicate to users. Advertisers can choose from creating basic billboards containing “quick info” and “specials”, or move up two levels and go full torque with a premium listing that allows them to upload video and audio media to their billboards.

The system is self-procured but advertisers can get support if desired through an account management team.

Perhaps the most interesting piece from an advertiser perspective is the batch uploading tool. For centralized accounts, advertisers can upload an entire database to create hundreds of billboards and then customize them individually through an administrative back office that can be tweaked for permissions. This piece gives ClikitySplit a quick entrance to agencies handling larger national brands as well as centralized marketing directors of franchised operations.

The obvious hurdle to jump will be in capturing market share but Jim was bullish on this. He’s confident that ClikitySplit is the better mousetrap and users will eventually choose applications that work for them. This and a major media effort coming out over the next few months may start the ball rolling.

The platform is built for mobility and applications that work on phones and other devices are planned to launch as early as April.

The company is currently is discussions with potential mobility partners. It will be interesting to see if it gets snapped up with all the M&A’s currently going on.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Local Surfing and the Problem with Tagging


We all know that local search is still not where it’s destined to be but I’m concerned with the apparent tagging frenzy that is taking place right now. I believe it’s driving irrelevant impressions, interrupting the user experience and creating a massive mess to mop up later. In my own research I’ve been struck by the reality that I’m made to surf for local content rather than find it easily through any given local search property. In a Web 2.0 world, how 1999 is that?

One of the larger issues faced by the publishers in local search is the natural inconsistency in inventory by vertical and geography. Over the past few years the industry has pushed itself to simplifying the buying process through arbitrage models. Small businesses are offered “buckets of clicks”, pay upfront and wait for the clicks to come in.

So, it’s in the publishers’ best interest to deliver the clicks in as little time as possible and are therefore motivated to heighten the ad appearances across the media property in the hopes that consumers will click.

As part of this drive to deliver clicks, the notion of tagging has taken off, with publishers offering advertisers the ability to self select categories or “tag” their businesses with in some cases, unlimited tags. The practice is often positioned as SEO and eager business owners are left to their own creativity to develop copy, categories and tagging. The result is an ever-increasing pile of irrelevant data making it difficult for users to find what they’re looking for and ultimately for advertisers to get the truly qualified leads they're after.

Traditionally, the yellow pages industry was more regulated in categorization. Advertisers would gain presence in 3-5 relevant categories, pay and wait for the calls to come in. Rigidity aside, at least consumers got what they were looking for. Maybe this is why directories have such an attractive model – church and state are so clearly defined that the advertiser value of simple inclusion is transparent. Performance models have disrupted this.

I don't mean to pick on the publishers here but this issue is only going to get worse as advertisers continue to invest in their properties. Cleaning up business profiles and bad tags is not something you want to be saddled with in the future. These misplaced listings are starting to look a lot like invasive spam.

Here’s an example of a search done on CitySearch for Pizza in Tampa - the third listing is for Salon Jack - Beauty & Fitness, Barbers, Spas etc...


The same search using YellowPages.com- my search was for businesses that included pizza in the business information. Mettler Toledo is the world's leading scale manufacturer and currently advertises under pizza in Tampa...



And finally SuperPages.com - the second advertiser is "ShopBrite - fast delivery services"...



Ok, I was almost drawn into SuperPages because I thought the delivery advertiser for pizza in Tampa (maybe a restaurant aggregater of sorts) was relevant but upon clicking I landed on this…a results page for courier services?


The bottom line is that the user experience is being compromised in all cases. Self-procurement needs to be supplemented with publisher quality control and that might mean that pricing strategies need to be revisited. Its been almost 6 years since the advent of performance based models and online directories moving to them. Bucketing clicks is not doing the users any favours and in turn, it's doing nothing for advertisers.

Presence still has a value and publishers need to start looking at putting a price tag on it. A hybrid at the very least??

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More on Trust or…TrustPlus

Jumping down the reputation management rabbit hole once again today, I had a great call with Maggie Wells, V.P. of Marketing and Business Development at TrustPlus.

TrustPlus has built the backbone to create communities of trust with completely portable online reputations. The Waltham, MA based company launched in September 2007 with its system to give buyers and sellers the tools to recognize and eliminate fraudulence, assess potential friends, know which reviewers are reliable, and in a dating scenario, protect themselves and others from online predators.

The application provides a customized reputation score in any online scenario through an algorithm that is weighted by a number of criteria, including who the person knows and the context of the interaction.

Online sellers are able to aggregate their reputations in one place and leverage them everywhere they sell online. This allows online sellers to sell more and as Maggie pointed out, at a premium.

TrustPlus currently supports sites like craigslist, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, eBay, Friendster, and Amazon.

One of the most interesting applications of the tool sited by Maggie was the issue of “Innkeeper Madness” in the travel industry. The solution allows users to get a better understanding of a hotel rating based on real reviews rather than reviews left by people that are in some way connected to the industry or the establishment’s family or friend circle.

TrustPlus is focused on four main verticals:

Classifieds
Online classifieds are notorious for putting fraudulent sellers online. The solution provides users on sites like Craigslist with an opportunity to see ratings left by those who interacted with a seller elsewhere like on eBay.

TrustPlus also specifies the context in which users were rated, which can reflect on more than just business ethics.

Dating
After a date, users are able to rate the user through a selected number of criteria. The system is designed to avoid subjective comments but does allow daters to comment on the validity of photos and marital status.

User Generated Content
Reviewers take their reviewing reputation with them and users are able to identify valid reviews and businesses that are rated based on the aggregation of validity from those reviewers.

Social Networks.
With the friend-making frenzy and the photos and videos that are sometimes better left unshared, TrustPlus helps users to tier friends giving social networks the basis to build around “permissions”.

Users are able to dispute ratings they feel are unfair, and since anonymous ratings are prohibited, raters who launch unfounded malicious attacks could quickly lose credibility.

The TrustPlus business model has a few levels. Maggie stressed the value of reputation online from a business owners perspective. While TrustPlus is offering the service for free at this time, plans to monetize the profiles are in the making.

Another level of revenue will come form their partnerships with online payment players like BidPay that let classified site users who use TrustPlus accept credit card payments from buyers. As these payment platforms help buyers transact using their credit cards without revealing the card's information to sellers, the marriage seems to work well. Buyers are able to access a seller's reputation and make their purchase with a debit or credit card in one step, while maintaining their privacy and security. TrustPlus earns a revenue share off credit card purchases made through the system.

For times when users are looking for a higher level of security, TrustPlus is partnering with hard identity providers like HonestyOnline and Trufina and will act as a reseller. This gives users access to id validations and criminal background checks.

Since its launch three months ago, TrustPlus has aggregated 500,000 profiles and the tool is generating an average of 100,000 unique users per month. The nature of the product (users reviewing each other) is highly interactive and Maggie is projecting that unique users will hit 10 million per month by the end of 2008.

I can see a number of applications for this tool in the local search space. Rather than focusing resources on closed proprietary systems, it might behoove publishers to look into these types of solutions. Portability is hot these days and what could be more applicable than a reputation?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Keeping it Clean...HonestyOnline



Social networking in its earliest form (online dating) has always presented the challenge of true identity. The freedom to create any number of profiles and personas online has unfortunately, created a breeding ground for mistrust, fraud and downright dishonesty.

I had a great discussion with Ric Fleisher, Senior Vice President, Business Development of HonestyOnline. The Bethesda, MD based company offers consumers and media properties the ability to get “verification badges” for a small fee. The badge can then be dropped into any appropriate site to certify the user identity of the consumer.

Applicants provide their name, address and date-of-birth and place their order. HonestyOnline then authenticates the identity and proves that it is not a false one. The service then asks users to complete an “identity quiz” to confirm that the identity is not stolen. If users want to take it a step further, they can get “certified” with background and sex offender searches. Assuming the results are clean, users are sent an electronic credential that is viewable by others online.


The product is well positioned for online dating as lies on dating and social networking sites run rampant. Age advancement or regression has been a major problem in these environments. E-commerce sites that sell products with age restrictions can also benefit from the tool.

The “keep it clean” tool offers sites the ability to maintain trusted communities with credentialed members adding a level of comfort to the user experience.

Ric explained that the service provides a quick way to tier memberships. Members who take the time to vet themselves tend to have better online presences and experiences.

The business model is three-tiered:
  • Individuals
    • get certified directly through HonestyOnline at a cost of $5.00 (for verifications) and $10.00 for certification (crime record check)
  • Partner Sites
    • bake the verification costs into the membership fees OR
    • offer the service as a stand alone option through a revenue share model with HonestyOnline.
For partnering sites, in both cases, they benefit from promoting the use of the service. The adoption rate appears to be picking up.

The service today covers the US and while information abroad is accessible, the company is concerned with quality control and is therefore holding off on international checks for the time being. Ric mentioned that one of HonestyOnline’s differentiators is that it uses a number of sources for the verification process and is continually updating its partners to provide airtight security.

While the focus to date has been on Social Networking and Dating, Ric discussed the application in the context of recruitment. As an extension to its existing offering, HonestyOnline will soon be running educational and employment credential checks to provide job seekers with badges to place in their online job search applications. I personally took that as a hint towards the likes of LinkedIn or ZoomInfo…we’ll see.

The company recently partnered with Mate1.com, a Canadian based dating site with over 18 million users.

I wonder if this tool will expand to the point of decreasing the number of profiles within these sites. Adding this layer of policing will certainly keep sites clean and reduce risks to the other users in a given community but I wonder if it will cause a major dent in memberships with the disappearance of dishonest users.

For good or bad (purely from a media stand point), calling users’ bluffs like this may be the right thing to do but the resulting shake out might have a dramatic impact on these networks.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

If You Buy it They Will Come...Pringo

Delving into white labeling today, I had an interesting chat with Pringo’s Director of Business Development, Greg Hall.

Pringo is a B2B focused private label social network platform solution. The Los Angeles based company officially launched in early 2007 but the software has been under development for many years. As businesses have started to awaken to the concept of open consumer communication online, white labeling a social platform has become an attractive option. It seems Pringo has been waiting for this moment to arrive.

The value of building a social network is clear. Producing an interactive environment can attract visitors, build community and even sustain brand loyalty. As a B2B solution, Pringo has been developing platforms for business to consumer use as well as corporate intranet initiatives.

Pringo offers businesses concept to creation of fully customized networks. The finished product can be a stand alone new brand or a seamless integration into an existing web system. The company has developed over 400 features, a complete content management system, hosted or non-hosted solution. Pringo's service is fee based but offers a revenue sharing opportunity for media inventory it inevitably creates for businesses to re-sell.

Currently it has partnered with extremely niched businesses but Greg alluded to one of the most valuable opportunities being major media companies. Print publications, TV broadcasters and radio stations have shown major interest in utilizing the solution to create and monetize new advertising inventory.

The best example Greg gave was for radio. Traditionally, radio sites are one-dimensional and completely under-utilized. Building a social network around loyal listeners could help to stimulate conversation, create content and ad inventory.

There are challenges in selling through the product though. Corporations realize the major investment involved in moving towards Web 2.0 and many are weary of making mistakes or outsourcing. There are a lot of issues that suddenly appear when deploying this type of strategy. Some of the issues include:

  • The build or buy dilemma.
  • Investing in a team to manage a social network and the user generated content.
  • Legal and privacy responsibilities that arise out of offering public forums.
  • In the case of media companies, re-training the sales teams to suddenly sell online ad inventory (traditionally positioned as added value in the radio world for instance)
  • Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by companies is the fear factor of “letting go” and allowing consumers to speak openly about business offerings and experiences.

Interestingly, in my experience and research, the presence of negative chatter along with positive appears to be working to the benefit of big brands. Recall the notion “any media is good media”. The concept behind opening a two way communication is to gain real insight into a brand and to arm itself with as much feedback as possible to improve upon consumer experience

Greg observed that most companies have the resources to manage this type of initiative. It’s a matter of re-focusing existing roles and applying them to this channel. He also called upon the media agency’s role as a sales channel to bridge the training gap which in theory makes sense (in theory). When I think of the struggling newspaper industry, I can’t help but agree.

I was impressed by the demo in general but for me the winning feature was the ability to create a points and rewards system on the platform.

Social networks can be customized to offer a variable point system based on actions performed within the network. For instance, every blog posted could be awarded 10 points while inviting new users to the network may be worth 50. These points can then be used as currency towards prizes or product discounts that are appropriate to the network. The possibilities are endless here and when thinking about the offline opportunities this presents, my imagination went wild.

Some of the current sites include boomj.com, buddyuniversity.com and ecotreadsetters.com. The company will soon be announcing some major partnerships that will surely give them heightened attention in the industry.

While it’s interesting to see niche interest networks pop out of the wood work (and Greg assured me there were many…), I’m really just looking forward to watching traditional media properties implement platforms that will generate new revenue streams.

I’m also looking forward to a day when social networking isn’t used as a catch-all phrase for media systems as I believe that the label is cramping its creativity and future. But that’s another topic…