As you probably know if you read this blog and follow me on Twitter, I’ve been thinking about local commerce, local search and discovery for the last 13 years. That means thinking how to create a better match between consumers and local businesses.

I’ve been following with high interest the rise of vertical peer-to-peer marketplaces like Airbnb and I finally had the chance to try the service a few weeks ago when we reserved a Florida house for a family vacation. As you probably all know, Airbnb offers homeowners the opportunity to rent their home or a room to tourists. You can build a very detailed profile and the site relies on strong identity checks and reviews to build up trust. After doing a lot of research, we finally settled on a house that seemed adequate for our family and it had 16 glowing reviews from strangers. Owner was extremely friendly in all his communications and we were looking forward to a well-deserved vacation.

When we arrived, the house was a little more rundown than expected (be aware that “rustic” has an interesting meaning in real estate) but nothing that we haven’t seen before, as we travel a lot in North America and Europe, and we’ve seen a wide variation of accomodation quality. I’ll skip the next two days for the sake of brevity but sadly, we had to take the decision to leave the house earlier than planned. We found too many ants and saw three roaches-like bugs over a 48-hours period in the house. The solution would have been to spray the house with repellent but we feared that this could be harmful to our toddler. I realize that Florida sometimes brings its lot of “domestic” insects but for the price we were paying, we felt it wasn’t worth it. This house wasn’t for us. We thought of complaining to Airbnb but, according to their policies, they require photos and we didn’t take any (it’s not the first thing you think about when you’re in a hurry to leave a place!) We lost our money and rented a hotel room for the rest of our stay. All in all, a very disappointing experience.

My local search mind started thinking feverishly (or maybe it was the hot Florida weather?): given that it’s probably a recurring problem in that house, why is it that, in 16 reviews, nobody mentioned ants and roaches?

Were they fake reviews? No, I don’t think so.

Were people ok with bugs? Maybe that’s a possibility, although I highly doubt everyone is fine with bugs (you just need to Google for the word cockroach in TripAdvisor)

And that’s when it hit me.  In Airbnb, you deal with individuals, not faceless corporations.  Tenants might be more hesitant to leave a negative comment about a fellow human being. There is a reason social media experts have been saying to corporations they need to have a human face and voice. It keeps the conversation more cordial. In addition, tenants and owners can review/rate each other, which means a negative rating from an owner can prevent you from possibly renting a house ever again on Airbnb.

Turning to eBay, the grand-daddy of marketplaces, I also realized that reviews from strangers in a peer-to-peer marketplace eventually become meaningless. You can read many complaints about that on the web. In a review site, what’s often missing is a like-mindedness filter, to let you know if people have the same taste as you. Yelp has that same problem.

I also realized that Airbnb is going after a vertical (hotels) that is more complex emotionally than many local purchases:

  • Vacation = positive moment in life. You mess up my vacation, I’m mad.
  • Dollar amount is bigger. I make a bad choice, I’m mad.

In addition, the hotel ecosystem comes with basic standard:

  • You know brands stand for something, a level of quality. Sheraton, Hilton, Best Western.
  • There is also a standard 5-star system, where in effect you can opt-in to lower quality (and lower prices) with full knowledge.

It also got me thinking about trust and social media. Ken Larson on Quora says:

“We really do not know who to really trust. To an extraordinary degree the age in which we live is requiring us to redefine trust and the degree to which communication and expectation contribute to it. Consider simpler times a few years past (say 50). Trust was necessary in many venues as a means of survival on a day to day basis. We relied on others extensively for our well being from our local store to our banker, from the policeman to the politician. And we knew them all better, we could reach out and touch them and we were not viewing them in sound bites and web sites, nor were we being bombarded with multiple forms of input to digest about them.”

Through all these reflections, I came up with an equation for trust. To have trust in an ecosystem, you need:

  • A strong brand (can be an umbrella brand or an individual brand)
  • Real identities (everyone uses real names and pictures)
  • Detailed Descriptions
  • Solid knowledge about local prices (being able to compare prices for same level of quality)
  • Reviews/recommendations
  • Social graph (friends or friends of friends have bought the product/service)
  • Detailed enforced standards via a certification program

Looking at this list, Airbnb is executing perfectly on almost all criteria except for one: standards. Airbnb has “host obligations” but I don’t think anyone is really enforcing those. Did you know BestWestern has a 30-page standards book you need to respect if you want to be a franchisee? Without solid standards and a certification program, I won’t be going back to Airbnb. They currently have a great brand, but they’re putting that brand at risk every day.

Update 1: less than 30 minutes after I posted this online, I was contacted by Airbnb to discuss my case.

Update 2: because we did not follow the “procedure” (contact the owner and/or Airbnb to try to solve the issue AND capture proof of our allegations), Airbnb could only offer us a $100 credit. Given that we lost about $600 and that we’re probably not going to use Airbnb again, that obviously wasn’t satisfactory.

 

On Monday, I probably watched the best keynote I’ve ever seen at BIA/Kelsey conferences. David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, author of Everything is Miscellaneous, and Senior Researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University gave us his thoughts on local/social.

I will never be able to capture his whole speech in this post but here are some of the thoughts that blew my mind.

Talking about networks and markets, he obviously said the very famous “markets are conversations”, describing them as being connected, real and out of control but he also added “markets are networks”. People are shopping for things (like  a new car) and this base of shoppers is changing every minute as people drop out of that process and new people come in.

Talking about huge networks like Facebook and Twitter, he explained to us why these networks happened so quickly. He told us the web is made of interests, people talking about stuff. They have an interest and they’re meeting with people with similar interest. meeting of interest. If we engage on the Net with other people online, it’s because we share the same interest. The big question is what happen when companies arrive and want to have a conversation. Traditionally, businesses have a single interest: profit. Consumers are weary because interests are not necessarily aligned. Why would I engage on the Net with companies if we don’t share same interest?

He said he didn’t like the expression “social media” as media has traditionally stood between people but that’s not happening with social media because “we are the medium”. We are a medium that passes things along. We move it because we found it interesting and thought that you would find it interesting as well. The stuff we share is so compelling that we put our reputation on the line to pass it along.

He also talked about the impact of social media on our sense of time. It used to be, when you graduated, you lost track of people. You only saw them again when you went to your reunion. If you left a job, you lost track of your former colleagues. Our kids will have their friends/colleagues/contacts with them for the rest of their lives because why would you push someone outside of your memory, delete them, unless they’ve done something bad?

And with mobility, we get ubiquitous connectivity. We can connect with any of our contacts at any time. We’re now filling “moments” all the time, for example, when we’re waiting. We’re filling up everything, with no empty time. We’ve reached plenum, a plenum of interests, filled with what we care about.

Talking about “local”, he said it’s becoming embedded in the Net more and more but that when we get to ubiquitous access, things will change. The Internet will match our real lives. We are inventing the “blur” between online and offline (the real world).

As for things that are challenged by social in the local space, Weinberger mentioned pricing. Owners were used to set their prices but with daily deals, for example, they’re losing some of that pricing power. The notion of inside and outside the store is also blurring. We want to know everything about a business. The outside is becoming the inside. The shared common space where we engage with one another is becoming the inside of the store. A good example is the mayorship in Foursquare.

He concluded by mentioning three imperatives for local media companies (and merchants): Align, add, and get out of the way. It’s not about you. Consumers know better than you what they need, what they want.

Next week, I will spending the week in San Francisco and in Santa Clara for a series of meetings and BIA/Kelsey’s ILM:10 conference. The conference is being held in Santa Clara December 7, 8 and 9. The agenda is jam-packed with interesting topics and speakers. I’m looking forward hearing the following people speak:

Tuesday, Dec. 7

  • Opening Keynote: Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO, Yelp. I’m interested in hearing about Yelp’s recent usage and revenue growth, to see if it can maintain its relevancy in a Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare world.
  • The Big Money in Local ” panel with Dev Khare, Vice President, Venrock and Kara Nortman, VP, M&A, IAC/InterActiveCorp. I want to know what kind of investments they are looking at today, probably no Groupon clones… :-)
  • Stephen Weis, VP, Digital Sales, Hearst Newspapers (participating in “Traditional Media, Revolutionary Thinking” panel). Hearst owns very interesting local properties in newspapers, directory publishing and online. Curious to hear how the integration is working and where they’re finding economies of scale and synergies.

Wednesday, Dec. 8

  • The “Google at ILM 2010: Refocus on Local/Location Services” session with Wesley Chan, Partner, Google Ventures and
    Carter Maslan, Product Management Director, Local Search, Google. Recently, Google has been signaling their huge interest in “Local”. It will be interesting to hear it directly from them.
  • The “Pandora: The New World of Local Radio” presentation with Cheryl Locagnero, Senior VP of Advertising Sales, Pandora and
    Brian Mikalis, VP of Performance Sales, Pandora. We rarely talk about music and radio at the Kelsey conference. I think we could learn a thing or two from these guys…
  • The presentation from Matt Idema, VP, Yahoo! Local. Are they still a player in local? I think they still are but they need to tell their story to the industry. This will be a good opportunity.
  • The presentation from Jim Sampey, COO, Cox Target Media. I just want to know his thoughts about group buying and what’s their strategy and execution plan there.
  • The “Checking In on Location-Based Services” presentation with Andy Ellwood, Director of Business Development, Gowalla and Gillian Heltai, Director, comScore. Are location-based services a business or just a feature?

Thursday, Dec. 9

  • The keynote address from Steven Johnson, I’ve heard him speak two or three times already and he’s always sharing leading-edge insights. Definitely looking forward that presentation.
  • The “Facebook Spotlight: Working With Facebook ” session. Facebook is now a must in “local”. It will be interesting to hear where they are in terms of strategy, how they integrate places, check-ins, deals, etc. in a cohesive way.
  • The “local sales” panel with Court Cunningham, CEO, Yodle, Todd Rowe, Head of Global Channel Sales, Google and Geoff Stevens, Executive VP and GM, Global Business Development, WebVisible. Local sales is hard. Curious to hear about their success and discuss retention rates as well.

On Monday December 6, I’ll also try to attend Mobile Monday Silicon Valley to hear about “2010 Year in Mobile Review and 2011 Predictions”

If you’d like to connect while I’m in California, send me an e-mail at seb AT needium.com

Today is the second edition of the Local Social Summit conference in London. I’m keynoting in the afternoon and will talk about “What, Where and Now When? – Time and Local Search”. Description: In the last 18 months, the rise of the real-time Web has created many interesting business opportunities but is this only the tip of the iceberg? Is the real-time Web hiding a bigger, more strategic opportunity? Is the temporal Web the next big revolution after “location”? Seb will present his latest thoughts on the subject.

You will find the presentation on Slideshare.

It’s a follow-up to the first presentation I did this week: Opportunities With Real Time Local Search and Content

Four years ago, around this time of year, Praized Media’s co-founders got together for the first time to discuss the possibility of launching a startup. We were very excited about the blogosphere and the quantity of local content being created in this new space. We thought there was an interesting business to build at the intersection of local search and local conversations happening in blogs. The first products we released (two years ago, almost to this date) were local directory and editorial tools that can be integrated within WordPress and MovableType, two leading blogging platforms. We also launched a Facebook application. All of those tools enabled structuring and aggregating of local conversations around merchant profile pages.

Turns out we were right about conversations but wrong about where and how the bulk of them would take place. We didn’t foresee the rise of the statusphere. In 2006-2007, the place where local “conversations” were happening was definitely blog posts (and associated comments) and consumer reviews in sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. Fast-forward to 2009-2010, the blogosphere still exists but local conversations are now happening on Twitter and on Facebook, mostly in status updates. Check-ins are also part of the conversation and are being used in Foursquare, Gowalla and other location-based social networks. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is now a mass-market. Facebook has close to 500 million monthly active users. Twitter has rocketed to 190 million monthly users, writing 65 million updates PER DAY!

Pew Internet said in October 2009 that 19% of Internet users now say they use social media services to share updates about themselves, or to see updates about others. That’s a huge number! It dwarfs consumer reviews and check-ins by a large factor. And according to a recently published ComScore report quoted by Brian Solis, “23% of Twitter users follow businesses to find special deals, promotions, or sales. Of that, 14% of Twitter users reported taking to the stream to find and share product reviews and opinions.”

Last year, I also discovered local user reviews are not that exciting from a monetization point of view as they happen at the end of the consumer purchase decision process, at post-purchase. The real money is earlier in the process, when consumers realize they have needs and when they start doing the research. I wrote about this in July 2009. And can you guess when business directories are being used most often? When consumers have needs (“I need to order take-out”) or are going through life events (“I’m getting married!”), early in the consumer purchase decision process.

When we built our real-time local activity stream and real-time local search technology last summer, it allowed me to see the enormous quantity of “local” information being publicly shared on Twitter and Facebook. Millions of consumers are now sharing activities and opinions about local businesses using Twitter and/or Facebook. They are also expressing needs such as “I’m hungry”, “My car just broke down” and “Does anyone have a dentist to recommend?”, even in smaller cities. I coined a new name for this: the “Needium” (the “need” medium). Local businesses would definitely benefit from hearing the voice of the consumer and engaging with them but these activities are happening on many sites and can be hard to discover through the noise. In addition, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are extremely busy. Realizing this, we rolled up our sleeves and came up with this new game-changing product:

Introducing Needium.com

Needium.com (http://needium.com) is the social  lead generation and reputation management dashboard for SMBs. Needium monitors social media sources and detects business opportunities based on local user needs and life events. It also listens for merchant name mentions to enable reputation management functionalities. Needium aggregates and structures that information in a Web-based dashboard where merchants can log-in to easily join conversations (and more) without having to monitor all social media sites individually. Based on merchant information in our structured database, a series of pre-configured results are automatically created for them, using their location, categorization and some user social actions collected from publicly available social media activity streams.

Take for example, this account for a Holiday Inn hotel in Boston:

The left-hand side column, Opportunities, is where merchants will find the latest business opportunities we have discovered for them. If advertisers feel the opportunity is interesting for their business, they can communicate directly with the consumer using the “reply” button. In that column, they’ll find consumers asking explicitly for their products and services (see screenshot below) or find implicit statements as well. For example, a traveler from a different city saying “I’m going to Boston in 3 weeks” will potentially need a hotel room and might patronize restaurants and museums. In each status, we show the user name, the status update, the time when it was made and the source. We use a combination of verb and noun synonyms, taxonomy and semantics to identify these opportunities.

Hotels in Boston (Needium) - 2

The middle column, Mentions, is where SMBs will find references to their business name. If they feel they need to reply to the comment (to correct an issue or thank a user for their comment), they can communicate directly with the consumer using the “reply” button. Again, we show the user name, the status update, the time when it was made and the source.

Hotels in Boston (Needium) - 3

The third column, History, is where you find the various replied done by the merchant. When you click on “reply”, a light box pops-up (see below). Merchants can then type in their message/reply and hit “send”.

Hotels in Boston (Needium) - 4

Each column comes with its search box, enabling merchants to search for specific opportunities or mentions using particular keywords.

The business model is simple: monthly fixed-fee subscriptions. The product will be available in self-service and in white-label to leverage large sales channels like Yellow Pages, search engine marketing firms, newspaper publishers and other local sales channels. Additional services available are Twitter and Facebook accounts creation and a fully-managed service where we take care of the SMB communications with consumers on Twitter and Facebook (think of it as “community management” in a box).

We believe reputation management is now a commodity, a must-have in social media filtering but that the real big opportunity is in social lead generation. Our Yellow Pages experience and expertise helps us find and surface the real SMBs business opportunities happening in social media. We think the current quantity of leads is just the tip of the iceberg. We are already working on better semantic analysis, social hints as well as a few other techniques to get an even better signal out of the noise. With that improved analysis, with more people signaling their location every day, with usage growth, hundreds of local opportunities per day in most major Yellow Pages categories will be made available. This is the true evolution of word-of-mouth marketing and tremendous value will be created by channeling this “local voice of the Internet”. As we’ve stated before, we believe local conversations on the Web are the great local search disruptor and we will be happy to work with you to empower you to capture these new revenue opportunities. If you’re interested in a test account, please contact me at sprovencher AT praizedmedia.com. You can also follow Needium news on our Needium-specific Twitter account.

This week, TechCrunch published international traffic growth trends for Twitter and they are impressive. The source is Pingdom.

Pingdom took a look at Google Trends for Websites traffic data for Twitter.com to see where the service is experiencing the fastest growth in terms of monthly usage. Again, that means its findings are far more fit for deducing overall trends than they are able to accurately detail Twitter’s user numbers, since a lot of people use desktop and mobile clients for tweeting.

Regions/countries that are growing are:

  • Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela
  • Asia: India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia
  • Europe: Italy, Spain, Russia (Pingdom mentions that most European countries are growing but that these three have experienced extra sharp growth)

Additional pieces of data in the TechCrunch article:

For your information, Twitter COO Dick Costolo at the beginning of this month said they are currently at 190 million users, who are collectively posting some 65 million tweets per day. And last April, Twitter’s lead engineer for its International team, Matt Sanford, said over 60% of registered Twitter accounts were already coming from outside U.S. borders.

What it means: I wanted to specifically write about Twitter’s international growth following this tweet from my friend Perry Evans. He wrote last week, following a European trip where he probably met many European media companies: “Twitter, you have a major uphill battle in Europe. Everyone I met in media circles this week seem exceedingly skeptical of your prospects”. I wrote back to him on Twitter saying: “They were skeptical of Facebook two years ago as well…”. When I spoke at the EADP conference in 2007, many senior Yellow Pages execs in Europe didn’t think Facebook was relevant. History proved them wrong. Ten years ago, I could have written a blog post titled “Google is not going away”. Most senior execs at media companies didn’t think Google would be a direct threat. Twitter has been growing and will (has?) become an important international media company. To dismiss them is to risk being fooled for a third time.

(see English translation below)

Le 8 avril dernier, je présentais “Les médias sociaux: ne ratez pas l’occasion !” devant plusieurs centaines de personnes présentes à la conférence Boule de Cristal du CRIM. Ma participation à cette conférence était décrite comme suit:

Les médias sociaux numériques tels que Facebook, Twitter et les blogues bouleversent le Web. En effet, plus de 80 % des internautes canadiens visitent régulièrement un de ces sites et une grande proportion y participe activement. Plus qu’un phénomène passager, il s’agit de l’apparition d’un puissant média de bouche à oreille qui amplifie les commentaires des usagers Web. Quelles sont les meilleures pratiques pour les entreprises ? Y a-t-il des opportunités d’affaires intéressantes ? Sébastien Provencher, spécialiste des médias sociaux, partagera sa vision du Web social dans le futur du monde des affaires et ses conseils pour ne pas rater le bateau.

J’offre dans cette présentation des conseils stratégiques et des tactiques détaillées pour l’utilisation des divers médias sociaux (Facebook, Twitter, blogues, etc.) dans le contexte d’une entreprise. Voici la vidéo de 27 minutes sur SlideShare. Vous pouvez suivre cette présentation vidéo avec le document de présentatique ici. Ce billet est aussi une excellente occasion de vous rappeler que je suis disponible pour des mandats de consultation et pour donner des conférences et formations. Vous pouvez me rejoindre ici.

Sebastien Provencher Conférence Boule de Cristal CRIM avril 2010

Sebastien Provencher Boule de Cristal CRIM avril 2010

Last April, I presented “Les médias sociaux: ne ratez pas l’occasion !” in front of hundreds of attendees of the CRIM’s Crystal Ball Conference. Loosely translated as “Social Media: don’t miss the opportunity!”, I offered strategic and tactical advice to companies wanting to start leveraging social media in a business context. You can watch the 27-minute video presentation (in French) and/or follow with the actual document as well.

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