Introducing Needium – The Social Media Lead Generation & Reputation Management Dashboard for SMBs

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.

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Les médias sociaux: ne ratez pas l'occasion! – La vidéo de ma présentation à la conférence Boule de Cristal du CRIM

(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.

Highlights From the Most Recent BIA/Kelsey Local Commerce Monitor and User View Surveys

On day one of the BIA/Kelsey Marketplaces 2010 conference, Steve Marshall (Director of research at BIA/Kelsey) shared highlights from two studies they’ve been doing regularly for years, the Local Commerce Monitor and the User View.

First, the Q3 2009 Local Commerce Monitor. The survey measures where small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) are spending their advertising and promotional budgets and how their media usage and spending habits are evolving

  • Penetration of online media (77%) exceeds Traditional Media (69%) for the first time in Q3. That’s the percentage of SMBs using each type of media to promote themselves.
  • Newer businesses much more oriented to online media. For businesses created less than 3 years ago, 30% of their budget is dedicated to online. Overall average is 21.8%.
  • 32% of businesses plan to use social media and blogs to promote themselves in the next 12 months.

Second, the February 2010 User View. The survey focuses on how U.S. consumers are evolving their use of traditional and online information sources to find and locate local serving businesses.

  • BIA/Kelsey is seeing more and more fragmentation in local shopping. Consumers say they used 7.9 different sources to for local shopping information in the last year. That’s up from 5.6 in 2007.
  • 82% use Internet as Primary or Secondary source for product purchases smaller than $500
  • 45% use Internet to research non-routine purchases before buying
  • 27% completed most recent product purchase bigger than $500 online
  • Membership in social networks continues to explode: 67% are on Facebook, 30% on MySpace, 20% on Twitter and 14% on LinkedIn. Two years ago, only 16% were on Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist!

Social Graph-Based Commenting Systems

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the chance to meet with hundreds of traditional media company executives. Often, when talking about social media, one of the first “mental” hurdles that needs to be cleared is negative user comments. In merchant reviews, directory publishers are often afraid of negative ones especially as it pertains to advertisers.  In news comments, newspaper publishers are challenged by negative, sometimes aggressive readers. Certain types of news will inflame passion, attract “trolls” and become hard to manage. It’s sometimes an ugly world out there with racism, homophobia and misogyny.

But if you thought this only happens in traditional media websites, think again. Some of the “new guys” are facing the same problem. Last week Engadget, one of the top gadget blogs, had to turn off their commenting system to cool off troll attacks. Quoted in VentureBeat, Engadget’s editor Joshua Topolsky said:

“We have a huge readership, but the vast majority of our readers do not comment. But we’ve had an influx of new readers due to our iPad coverage last week, which blew away our previous [traffic] expectations. Unfortunately, we’ve also had an influx of readers who are very trollish. (…) They’re not coming here to talk about technology. They’re coming to incite arguments. They’ll post things like ‘VAIOs suck, Macs rule,’ or ‘Macs are gay.’ They’ll go off-topic and get racist or sexist just to be inflammatory.”

Engadget flipped back the comment switch after a couple of days and made a few changes including an option to “switch off the comments entirely if you don’t want to deal with them”. They also laid down a series of ground rules for community participation and provided answers to frequently asked questions.

Now, don’t think comments/reviews are going away! If consumers are not doing it on your website, they will find ways to express themselves elsewhere, on their blog, on Twitter or on Facebook. And you’ll need to start aggregating content back to your site (like Google is doing) to improve your user experience. User comments/reviews are very valuable and they serve to build your community, especially if they happen directly on your site.

In any case, I believe a solution will soon be found to this problem and it will come because of strong identity systems and social graphs. I foresee a time when everyone will log-in using a “real identity” provider. Real identity systems make people more accountable. The other angle is the social graph, i.e your network of “friends”. Logging-in with a “real identity” provider will allow you to see comments from your network of contacts in priority and extend to a few degrees of separation. So, not only will people use their true identity to comment and contribute, they will also see the participation of their social graph first. Consumers will always have the choice to see everything and your friends will be able to recommend comments from strangers to you. Chris Sacca at LeWeb thought we would soon get rid of douchebags because of that. The big question here is: will the non-exposure to external viewpoints create groupthink? Solving one problem might create another…

Additional reading:

  1. Mashable discusses the Engadget situation here.
  2. ReadWriteWeb’s “Open Thread: Dealing With Real-Time Negativity
  3. Editor & Publisher’s “New Tools Aid in Policing Web Comments

Getting to the Next Stage: Praized Media Hires Siemer & Associates to Find Strategic Partner

One of the first things you learn when you launch your own startup is to actively monitor opportunities in the market and move quickly to leverage them. In my case, it happened three times in the last three years.

The first strategic move happened back in the fall of 2006 when Sylvain Carle, Harry Wakefield and I founded Praized Media to help local media companies leverage the rising force of social media and online word-of-mouth. I also started blogging about what I call “local 2.0,” the intersection of local search and social media. At the time, most people believed that this convergence would not happen. Three years later, it’s one of the hottest sectors.

We made the second key move in fall 2008. Having launched our first social local tools (for WordPress, Movable Type, Facebook and our hub site) a couple of months before, we were approached by a few major media players who signaled to us they would be interested in using the technology we had built within their own online platform. This gave us the confidence to develop white-label enterprise versions of our social local media software, which has been in the market since spring 2009. Building on the popularity of our initial module, we developed many more enterprise modules described here.

The third strategic move is happening now. Last fall (what is it with fall???), we were approached by two US investment banks who aspired to represent us if we ever wanted to find a strategic partner for Praized Media. A few companies also hinted to us that they might be interested in investing in or acquiring Praized Media. Based on that enthusiasm, Sylvain and I (along with our board) discussed the pros and cons of going to the altar with a strategic partner vs. continuing alone.

The market is super-hot for technologies like ours. In the last three months, there has been a flurry of acquisitions and funding events in the “social local” space (we’ve created a document listing them if you’re interested). We could go on the road and raise new VC money to fuel our growth, but anyone that has raised those kinds of funds before knows that this is a brutal process, even when your market is hot. It takes a lot of time and energy, and for small companies, the process forces you to take your eyes off the product/company development roadmap. At the core, Sylvain and I are product/technology guys and that’s what we want to do. In the last two years, we’ve built world-class real-time social local search technologies. We’ve assembled a five-star (pun intended) social local technology development team. We’re notable thought-leaders in our space.

The future of local media will be centered on Aggregation / Discovery / Social / Search and our technology stack enables that. We believe what we’ve built (team and technology) represents the cornerstone of the next-generation local media company (traditional or pure play), and we want to focus on building that vision with a larger organization.

For all those reasons, we have decided to hire [praized subtype=”small” pid=”858569eeccb433824aca7193236f55ce” type=”badge” dynamic=”true”], an investment banking firm in Los Angeles that specializes in digital media, to represent us in our search for a strategic partner. We’re obviously supported a 100% in this decision by our board and the whole team is excited by this new move. For our current customers, collaborators and service providers, it is business as usual as this does not impact our day-to-day operations (actually, it frees up more time!). Given current market conditions, we are extremely confident we will find the right strategic partner.

If you’re interested in discussing more the opportunity, you can contact Siemer & Associates at (310) 496-4510 or info@siemer.com.

The Real-Time Local War Is Heating Up

A deluge of important news in the local social space this morning, all very relevant from a local strategy point of view.

  1. Yesterday afternoon, PaidContent detailed AOL’s, Yahoo’s and MSN’s aggressive plans for local. All three are attracted by potential local advertising revenues. The article says “Microsoft could integrate content from local bloggers”. As for Yahoo!, they recently “rolled out a new service called “Neighbors,” which lets users ask others in their neighborhood questions”.
  2. In this interview with Stephan Uhrenbacher, Qype’s founder, he reveals the site now has 17.7m monthly unique visitors. He also says that in Germany, Qype is ” larger than the yellow pages in terms of traffic”. From reading between the lines, Qype is thinking about implementing a game mechanism (or reward system) and a check-in system à la Foursquare, two features I recommended in my “perfect local media company in 2014” presentation.
  3. Google just shipped QR code stickers to the 190,000 most popular Google local US businesses. A QR code can be scanned/photographed by a camera phone and links to the Google profile page in Google Maps when activated. The Techcrunch article adds “Local businesses can also set up coupon offers through their Google directory page, which would turn the QR code into a mobile coupon”. Mobile + QR code + coupons = monetization strategy for the real-time Web. Another important data point: “There are now over a million local businesses which have claimed their Google local listing”. Does Google need the Yellow Pages sales forces anymore?
  4. Citysearch partners with Twitter to offer tools to small businesses. Citysearch will display “tweets” on merchant pages, offer the opportunity to merchants to create their Twitter account and offer a reputation management service. A Gigaom article says “Citysearch says it has direct relationships with some 200,000 local merchants”. These things will all be required features of any local search site within a few months.
  5. Techcrunch reveals this morning that Aardvark, the social Question & Answer service, is considering an $30M+ acquisition offer from Google. The service allows people to ask questions to their friends and to the network using instant messenging and social networks.

What it means: expect these kind of partnerships, acquisitions and features deployment to speed up as industry players try to capture market share of the real-time local/social Web. Expect Facebook to make a lot of noise as well in the next few weeks (the aforementioned Gigaom article asks “who wants to take bets on how many hours till Facebook Local launches?”). They are the 900-pound gorilla. In 12 months, we will already have a good idea who will win and who will lose in that space.

I don’t want to sound like an informercial but my company Praized Media foresaw the rise of social Q&A services like Aardvark and that’s why we introduced our Answers module (currently used by Yellow Pages Group) which enables consumers to ask local questions to their network of friends. Based on market evolution, we’re also developing a white-label reputation management service that will enable social media monitoring and small merchant Twitter sign-ups (like what Citysearch is doing) because we believe it’s going to be needed in every local media company in the future. Our real-time search module also allows any media publisher to display related “tweets” on merchant profile pages. And we’re also preparing an eCouponing module to monetize all that real-time activity. We’re basically building the whole social media toolkit for local media publishers. End of infomercial. 🙂

The Self-Media Decade

We’re almost at the end of the first decade of the 21st century (yes, it went by really fast!) and it’s probably time to reflect on what characterized the last ten years. Each decade gets its own descriptive “brand” and this one won’t be different. The seventies were all about “the peak of hippie culture“, social change and related values. The eighties were all about the individual, economic liberalization and some would say money and greed but it also saw the end of the Cold War. The beginning of the 90’s was very nihilistic with the grunge movement but finished on a high note with the start of a long period of economic growth, an amazing era of technology innovation and the dotcom boom.

So, what defined the 2000’s? We obviously could talk about September 11, the dotcom bust and the recent worldwide financial crisis but those are punctual events. They definitely influenced the zeitgeist but they are not the zeitgeist. I believe the decade that’s ending was all about “me” and the extreme democratization of media. I call it “The Self-Media Decade”.

It all started with the reality television phenomenon in 2000. Survivor, the famous TV show, ignited the genre and there’s been no looking back since then. Every time you watch television today, you see “real” people in “real” situations. In parallel to that, blogging and blog platforms arrived on the market (LiveJournal in March 1999 and blogger.com in August 1999). Throughout the decade, millions of people took up blogging. Some blogs became a real alternative to newspapers and magazines, journalists started blogging and the line with mainstream media started blurring. In the newspaper industry also, Craigslist democratized classifieds, allowing anyone to post a classified ad online for free. Their first real expansion out of the San Francisco market happened in 2000.

Another parallel was the arrival of Napster, also in 1999. By enabling downloads of individual songs, Napster was allowing everyone to become their own radio programmer (or CD mixer). Why listen to radio (or buy packaged music CDs) when you can just download your favorite songs and get instant gratification. We all knew at the time that television and movie distribution would be impacted in the coming years. Tivo became a phenomenon in itself and created the personal video recorder product category. No need to sit down at a fixed date and time to watch a television show. Can you guess when Tivo launched? Yup, 1999.

On the shopping side, the birth of Epinions (again in 1999) was the first signal of the important role consumers would play regarding merchant and product recommendations via user reviews. Up until then, directory publishers were pretty much the sole gatekeepers in a very advertiser-focused world.

With the introduction of these new sites and tools, the only thing missing was a solid broadcast ecosystem. Facebook (and later Twitter) created those much needed amplifiers starting mid-decade. By building your social graph, you’re creating your own media network. I quickly clued in to this when I wrote my “Robert Scoble is Media” blog post. We were all becoming media (production and broadcast) including myself.

I’m actually a good case study of the power of social media tools. Up until I started blogging in 2006, I had an excellent professional reputation but in a very small circle of industry colleagues and peers. By blogging extensively since then and by using broadcast mechanisms provided by sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, my worldwide reputation has grown tremendously. I now have thousands of monthly industry readers on my blog and I’m often invited to speak at conferences. I’ve become an important influencer in the directory publishing industry and I’m amazed at the speed at which it happened.

So, what did we gain as a society? We now have more transparency, democracy and meritocracy. What did we lose? We lost common “experiences” (traditionally focused by media) and we’re not always sure who we can trust out there. There’s a lot more noise. But clearly, we’ve all become media by participating, with everything good and bad that comes with it and this will continue in the next decade.