How do you know if a Social Media Startup will Fly?

Last week I was at an intimate round-table event where two bright and enthusiastic social media entrepreneurs touting around a new location-based service. On the face of it their proposition had something going for it – they began their talk with a whole host of scenarios where it could be useful, and a number of different groups of people it could work for. For as long as they were talking, the picture they painted was vivid, but as soon as they stopped, that image disappeared.

When the topic under discussion was thrown open to the group, there were a lot of tough questions posed, some around the specifics of the social media space, and others which were simple basic business:

  • Is the service really different enough from what’s out there already?
  • Is it going to serve an actual need in practice?
  • Does it gel with the way people are already behaving?
  • Who is it for – will it “own” a particular group or demographic to begin with?
  • How will it generate revenue and make money?

Watching the owners of a social media startup being comprehensively grilled was struck a chord with me at a deep level. I have been through the ringer myself trying to get something off the ground that seemed entirely plausible, that generated enthusiasm, but which didn’t get anywhere, and which should probably have been abandoned a long time before it actually was.

The Key User Question in Building Critical Mass – What’s in it for Me?

In our case, the key question that we never really got a satisfactory answer for was how to build the traffic to critical mass. For network-based social media services, the value of the service is proportional to the square of the number of people already using the service. So, having 1000 people using such a network is about 100 times (102) more useful than having 100 people using it. Hence, for the earliest adopters, the value must lie somewhere other than in the practical use of the platform itself. At the most basic level, the platform must be capable of demonstrating their status as an early adopter – being ahead of the crowd.

Enabling the growth towards critical mass, where the platform becomes useful for users other than the earliest adopters, requires answering one question repeatedly for all groups of users, for all stages of development and launch – what’s in it for me?

Users won’t do something for the benefit of your platform unless you make it worth their while. In our case, the time and effort involved in sourcing or authoring appropriate video was probably prohibitive for early adopters – the platform did not facilitate them showing off their early-adopter status. Without content, there could be no audience of people to either comment on, vote on, or even just view the content. In hindsight, this was the kiss of death to our own venture.

Believing in Oneself whilst Listening to Others

I am not sure how much the social entrepreneurs we met were listening – I suspect they took some of the tactical considerations for success to heart, but I’m not sure they will be seriously questioning their key premise. Getting a startup off the ground certainly requires sufficient self-belief to generate enthusiasm in potential partners and users alike, but that must be mixed with being receptive to good advice. Overall I felt that what I witnessed had too many holes in it – the answers to the basic business questions were too equivocal, too complicated, and, ultimately, not quite plausible.

I really wish that I had been given a similarly rough ride before I had committed to spending a lot of time, effort and money on my own doomed pipe-dream. Did I learn anything in my adventure? Yes, definitely? Would I attempt to create a pure social media platform again? Possibly under the right circumstances – but I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t sure that all the basic business questions has been posed and answered plausibly and unambiguously. In particular, I would want to see a clear plan for building traffic and measurable sign-posts that would offer early exit points if it didn’t to take off.

Roundup of the Week (w/e 27/02/2011)

Without a doubt the key market development over the last week or so has been the major change in Google’s search algorithm. Taken together with Google’s commitment to take greater account of social media, this signals a profound change in the terrain of SEO and online marketing more generally. Organisations that already use social media in concert with websites other channels to pursue genuinely useful content-based marketing will have little to fear. Content farms and organisations who play the game more cynically will have to change tack pretty sharpish.

Search

  • Google Announces Massive Search Algorithm Change
    Google just changed its search algorithm and effectively declared war on Content Farms like Demand Media. The change has only taken effect so far in the US, but will be shortly rolled out across all of its search domains. Google aims to filter out sites that are simply there to capture traffic and sell premium ad-space whilst promoting sites with genuine original content.
    Given Google’s recent spat with Bing over the quality and reuse of search results, as well as Google’s overall dependence on primacy in the search market, they simply couldn’t afford to allow the quality of search results to continue to decline.
    Silicon Alley Insider
  • Google Social Search Integrates Twitter, Quora and Flickr
    Internet users are relying more and more on location based services and peer recommendations than general search results. Accordingly, Google has updated their social search to feature three new levels of integration, including Twitter, Quora and Flickr.
    The general search landscape is being transformed rapidly by the inclusion of social media. This will present a challenge for SEO-conscious enterprises, who will need to depend more on the genuine provision of useful content across social media as well as more traditional web-based content outlets, rather than simply producing content to feed the SEO-machine.
    CMSWire

CMS

  • Apache Chemistry Official
    The Apache Chemistry project, the open source implementation of the Content Management Interoperability Specification (CMIS) standard, left the incubator stage and was promoted to a full Apache Software Foundation project.
    Though many commercial vendors have offerings permitting the repurposing of CMS based content, this open source project heralds the mass adoption of more formal content reuse techniques. Technology only offers the fulfilment of cross-platform content – the bigger question is how to intelligently manage the different contexts of information use across desktop, smartphone, tablet and in-app content re-use.
    CMSWire

Mobile

  • 20% of Employees Use Smartphone at Work
    Almost 20 per cent of employees use a smartphone for work, up sharply from 13 per cent just a year ago, according to new research from Forrester.
    Corporates need to start acting in order to take advantage of their staff use of smartphone through a sensible knowledge and content management strategy, rather than simply reacting to the threat such expansion in use might present.
    Mobile Marketing News
  • 140 Million Android Portable Devices by End of 2011
    There will be an installed base of 140m Android portable devices, including smartphones and tablets, by the end of 2011, according to IMS Research forecasts. The market intelligence firm says the recent unveiling of Google’s Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system for tablets, along with enhancements to Android Market, will do much to enhance growth prospects for this segment.
    Apple may be in the driving seat at the moment in the tablet market, but Google are almost certain to dominate in the longer term – the main question is how well they can tie together that base with their undoubted flair for open exchange of content and information.
    Mobile Marketing News
  • Apple Subscriptions for Publishing Apps not SAAS
    Apple’s new subscription rules, which take a 30% cut of all subscriptions done through the app, apply to content publishing apps and not SaaS apps, Steve Jobs has said in a new email. Whilst this does, on the face of it, seem like good news, the lack of definition between publishing apps and SAAS still leaves a very significant room for commercial interpretation on the part of Apple
    Given Apple’s track record for frequently changing tack on Apple Store guidelines, one wonders whether this ‘clarification’ really makes anything very clear. Apple seem to operate very much in the moment when it comes to guidelines, so this conceptual ambiguity only serves to leave yet more guideline gerrymandering on the cards.
    Silicon Alley Insider
  • Windows Phone 7 Update a Disaster
    Microsoft just rolled out an update to Windows Phone 7, and what should be routine has turned into a fiasco. For some phones, the update just fails and you have to reboot the phone (without the update) — for other phones, the update “bricks” the phone, i.e. turns it into a paperweight.
    Following so close on the heels of the contraversial link up with Nokia, it would seem that a disastrous mobile OS update is about the last thing that Microsoft needs right now
    Silicon Alley Insider

Tablets

  • HP Touchpad on Sale in April?
    As with other tablet suppliers, the rumour mills are put into full operation to maximise marketing message in advance of launch, so any announcement should be accepted with caution. Current noises-off suggest an April launch for the HP Touchpad, with its Palm-derived WebOS.
    If there is one thing that Apple is good at, it is the creation of desire and its subsequent prompt fulfilment – when they have a product launch, they have stacks of product ready to buy. Other tablet suppliers who are yet to release their big product are suffering from prolonged pre-release rumour mongering – the boy who cried wolf syndrome. Nevertheless, HP’s release of the Touchpad and its subsequent progress are sure to be of significant interest – will they steal a march on Microsoft given the latter’s late entry into the tablet market.
    Engadget

Apps

  • Chrome Browser Becoming OS within an OS
    Little by little, iteration by iteration, the Chrome browser is quietly morphing into a full-fledged multitasking operating system in its own right. The release of functionality this week shows an aggressive policy aimed at eventually supplanting Microsoft’s Office suite and eventually Windows itself. The announcements included support for new file types in Google Docs, the ability to run background apps and, perhaps most significantly, Google Cloud Connect, which allows users to sync Office documents to Google Docs. Chrome browser is slowly becoming Chrome OS on another OS.
    Perhaps the biggest attraction of Google’s Chrome model is the sheer mobility it encourages. You could move between totally different machines in different locations, with a different OS and hardware and still be confident that provided you can install the browser, you can do whatever you need to without the headache of installing apps and ensuring versions match up. As very fast broadband becomes more widely adopted, its hard to see how this proposition won’t be attractive to many users. Others may talk about the cloud, but Google is still the only company who define what that means to everyday users.
    Tech Crunch
  • Google is Getting Strict About Android App Payments
    Google has suddenly pulled the popular Visual VoiceMail app from the Android Marketplace, seemingly because of a dispute over in-app payments, according to GigaOm. After two years with no problems, Google notified PhoneFusion on Tuesday that it was pulling the app for a violation of section 3.3 of the distribution agreement for the Android Marketplace, which requires developers to use Google’s payment system for in-app payments. Visual VoiceMail is free, but the company sells add-on services like transcription through its Web site.
    Although Google have made their own subscription platform a lot cheaper – only a 1/3 of the cost – of Apple’s. However, by beginning to act publicly on subscription rule enforcement, Google run the risk of validating Apple’s model and thereby strengthening its hand. This risk seems to be outweighed by Google’s desire to capitalise on the the runaway success of Visual VoiceMail.
    Silicon Alley Insider

Hardware

  • 2011: Year of the Solid State Device (SSD)
    Disk manufacturers are putting a new spin on an old product: Solid State Drives. New technology, increased power costs, space limitation, and new business requirements are driving advances in storage. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are part of that new technological push toward more efficiency, increased agility, and higher demand.
    Solid State Devices (SSD) based systems offer rapid startup and reduced mechanical complexity compared with hard drive based systems. With the continuing long-term downward trend in the cost of memory, it is hardly surprising that offerings like the MacBook Air appear attractive. Will this year be the year of the SSD?
    Dzone.com

This Week’s Excitement

  • More Evernote
    I got my API key through for Evernote this week, now I can start playing around with its Edam API, to create some more interesting ways to interact with the content.
    www.evernote.com/about/developer/
  • More MVC and Razor
    Microsoft’s new version of their MVC framework (MVC3), including a new way of including dynamic functionality, called “Razor”, hits all the right notes. They have basically been watching what their development  community has been doing and then adopting all the best practices – which is as it should be.
    www.asp.net/mvc/mvc3
  • Google Trends
    I’m sure most of you have tried out Google Trends – it had only grabbed my passing attention – but there is no doubt that it is a tool of major importance in trying to gauge interest in particular issues over time – it is also a brilliant way of assessing the likely effectiveness of your keyword alternatives in SEO.
    www.google.com/trends

Turn Twitter Searches into Research Archives using Google Reader

Ok, so you are plugged in to endless Twitter feeds to get the low down on what’s going on – but how do you turn this into a useful research resource?

You can keep a track of what is being tweeted and collect it in an archive by using a combination of the Twitter advanced search and Google Reader. Using Twitter’s advanced search allows you to filter out what you don’t want and only keep what’s of interest. Using Google Reader means the captured search feed is then archived for later review – hence building a knowledge base.

How to do it:

  1. If you don’t already have a Google account, set one up
  2. In Firefox (preferably) go to Twitter Advanced search – http://search.twitter.com/advanced – and set all your search criteria, don’t forget to choose language – change the number of results to 50
  3. Iterate to perfect – search, look at the results, use the back arrow to return to the form with the details pre-filled, then search again
  4. Once you’ve got a results list you like the look of, click on the RSS (Feed for the Query) link on the RHS – if you haven’t already chosen your default, you will be asked what to use to subscribe to the feed – choose Google
  5. The Google Reader interface will be loaded and you will be asked for confirmation for subscribing

Now you will have an archived, updated RSS feed with your Twitter search in it, that you can review whenever you want – you can even then use it as the raw material for a Yahoo Pipe, or other feed consumer.

The Dangers of Painting Technology Trends with Too Broad a Brush

When it comes to the debate on the relationship between Social Media and Knowledge Management there is an article that though quite old now (Sept 2008) is still very often cited as authoritative – “Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War” by Venkatesh Rao. Whilst seductive on first read, this piece demonstrates for me the danger of using too broad a brush to trace the outline of unfolding trends in technology.

Rao’s blog paints a picture of two generations – the Baby Boomers and Generation Y-ers – fighting it out with two different paradigms of how they relate to and handle knowledge – through top-down Knowledge Management on the one hand, and free-for-all Social Media on the other. According to Rao, in the middle of this are the Generation X-ers, involved in both and allied to neither.

There is certainly always an inertia involved in any discipline when new ways of doing things emerge – people work long and hard to become established in their field, and they will naturally try to fit what emerges into paradigms with which they are already familiar. It is also natural that people will cleave to ways of doing things that they grow up with first – this certainly does not mean that people are stuck in ways of doing things dictated by their age – there are enthusiastic older users of social media just as much as there are younger people seeking to impose order and taxonomies on their knowledge.

Rao’s post is part and parcel of a wider mindset that views the unfolding of technology and knowledge-exchange in simplistic terms, uncomplicated by culture, race, class, education, profession, personality and so on. The whole notion of the Baby Boomer, for instance, is one that is located in a specifically western developmental paradigm – the use of computers and the web has followed a distinctive trajectory in other countries and continues to unfold with a specifically local flavour depending on the environment – familiar western demographics are not universal. If the sentiments in this blog reflected reality, marketing would be simpler – we could just pursue everyone simply based on generation. Wherever technology and techniques are adopted, they become embedded in and reshaped by the local cultural and social environment.

The history of the internet as much as any other unfolding of events, past or present, is not so easy to characterise or periodise – people are complex, their mass behaviour is often chaotic – otherwise, why would we need to get a grip on knowledge in the first place? Whilst it is perhaps easier to divine the likely future behaviour of corporates, where the profit imperative is clearly driving things, for everyone else there is no single dimension – age, race, class – which can be used to group and characterise behaviours. One of the joys of the net is that the way people adopt and use particular sites and technologies is unpredictable in the extreme – which is why we all necessarily indulge in some level of futurology.

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