Needium: The First 6 Months and Answers to Your Most Burning Questions

This blog has been extremely quiet in the last 6 months and there’s an excellent reason for that. Turns out it’s much more work operating a company that’s successful than one that’s not! Six months ago, Needium, our social media lead generation service officially came out of beta and it became the sole focus of our company. With a full-team in place (currently at 16), we’ve started conquering the local/social space. But before we talk about where we are now, after 6 months, let’s go back a bit in time to explain the insights that lead to the creation of the service.

When I joined Yellow Pages Group (YPG) in 1999 (actually, its ancestor Bell ActiMedia), one of the first things I learned, talking to an experienced sales manager was that, the biggest competitor to Yellow Pages was actually word-of-mouth, that small merchants get most of their referrals through personal recommendations. At the time, it served as a great answer to show there was indeed “competition” in the business directory space but it wasn’t a real threat (yet!).

That thought stuck with me as we saw the arrival of new social media sites like LinkedIn. I was one of the early adopters in late 2003 (user #46,750 in fact) and I started using the site as a rolodex, adding all my contacts in there. When I quickly reached 200 direct contacts (I’m now close to 2000), I discovered that LinkedIn had become extremely useful in my role as head of online business development at YPG. I could reach out to almost anyone working in the Internet industry and it proved very convenient many times.

I realized that there was something bigger in this nascent social media space. If you could assemble a network of contacts readily available at your fingertips, you were really building this huge word-of-mouth network that you could use to ask any questions, find answers, connect with people, get recommendations and interact with brands and businesses.

In the summer of 2006, when I first met with my co-founders Sylvain Carle and Harry Wakefield (who left the company in 2009), we knew something big would be happening at the intersection of local and social. We set out to build technology to capture, aggregate, structure and make sense of local content being generated in social media, hereby creating value for local media companies and/or local advertisers. Over the years, we developed core technology expertise in local questions & answers, real-time local search and real-time local content which would become the backbone of Needium.

Early 2010, I was fascinated by reputation management software but felt these technologies were too reactive for most small businesses. I’ll oversimplify but with reputation management, you wait until someone express an opinion about your brand/business, the technology detects it and you reactively jump in to thank the person or try to solve a problem. This is not how small merchants see the world. Small merchants are proactive; they’re always promoting their business. They’re not sitting on the sidelines waiting for people to comment on them. They want to engage consumers; they distribute leaflets on the streets, they offer samples in grocery stores, they give away their business cards in networking events. Why would small merchants behave differently in social media?

Another key insights that lead to Needium was all those questions publicly being asked in social media (take a look at one of my 2008 post for an early look at that insight). You’ve all seen them: “Can anyone recommend a North East photographer for a wedding on Sat 27th August?” or “Can anyone recommend a cool/modern or cosy/lovey hotel in Berkeley, CA?”.

Thinking about local search and Yellow Pages usage, we started thinking about those explicit needs but also about life events and situations that trigger an implicit need. You’ve seen those as well. “I need to eat .. I’m hungry”, “Well Since My Laptop Got Stolen Guess I’ll Get A Macbook Or iPad .”. Taken all together, this means that, every day, millions of needs are expressed by consumers in social media. These represent a huge amount of potential leads for local businesses. Yet, very few of these needs get acknowledged or answered. What if businesses could quickly identify local leads that are relevant to them? Could they convert those into real customers? And this is where Needium steps in. We’ve created this short video to clearly explain what we do. Watch it before you continue reading this blog post.

Whats is Needium?.

Needium is a customer discovery service that monitors, identifies new local business opportunities in real-time based on expressed explicit and implicit needs found in Twitter. These opportunities are surfaced in a dashboard where Needium community managers select which consumers to engage with and we do that using the merchant’s own social media presence. Needium is invisible in the whole process.

Basically, with Needium,

  1. We create the social media presence of a merchant if they don’t have one (Twitter and occasionally Facebook and Foursquare)
  2. We identify business opportunities in social media for them
  3. We engage in conversations with potential consumers
  4. We transform those conversations into sales.
  5. We listen and reply to existing consumers.

Our retail price for the service is $150 per month, no set-up fees.

Using hundreds of keywords and expressions, our semantic formulas surface relevant tweets based on merchant categories (restaurants, hotels, bars, auto dealers, plumbers, etc.). We currently cover 88 business categories in 73 cities in North America. Altogether, we cover 197,548 Km2 of North American metropolitan areas.

We currently have 300+ advertisers using Needium and are growing at 30% per month in the last few months. We’ll reach a thousand advertisers by the end of the year. Our sales strategy uses a two-pronged approach. First, a small local sales force in Montreal has enabled us to quickly build up revenues but most of all, it has allowed us to refine the sales process iteratively.

That’s key because our core sales and distribution strategy is executed via large-scale local media sales channels. We have a white-label platform and processes and a wholesale price based on volume. Reseller either bundle the service within an existing offer allowing them to increase share of wallet by having a solid proactive social media solution or as a standalone service. Eight sales channels are presently reselling the white-label version of our service. That includes four large North American local media publishers who have started reselling the service in the last 8 weeks and we’re starting to see some explosive sales from a few of them.

We’ve pitched the service to hundreds of potential advertisers, sales channels and venture capitalists. Here are the most frequently recurring questions about our business:

Q: Right now, you’re mostly focused on Twitter. Is there enough activity in Twitter to create a robust and scalable lead generation business?

A: Yes. Twitter recently disclosed that they generate 200 million tweets a day. Out of those, in all the cities we cover, we’re indexing 10 million tweets a day (and growing as we expand into new cities).

Q: How do you know if a tweet is “local”? And are there enough “local” tweets?

A: we use implicit and explicit geo-location. Explicit is obvious enough. It’s the location shared by the Twitter user. Implicit is derived by words used in tweets like city names, neighborhoods, points of interest, merchant names and local events. And if you’re wondering about volume of local tweets, these examples are telling:

  • Los Angeles: 1 million+ tweets
  • London, UK: 1 million+ tweets a day
  • Atlanta:  800,000+ tweets per day
  • Chicago:  700,000 tweets per day
  • Washington, DC: 600,000+ tweets a day
  • Toronto: 500,000+ tweets a day
  • Boston: 400,000+ tweets per day

Q: Are there enough local needs being expressed?

A: Yes in every B2C business categories. For example, we’ve been able to extrapolate that about 10% to 15% of all local tweets are related to food, entertainment and travel needs. Right there, you find a substantial volume to sustain thousands of advertisers in every large metropolitan area in North America and the UK. Other more specialized categories like dentists for example will see a few hundred leads per day. We are also working on integrating other social networks where “needs” are expressed: Facebook, Yelp, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Localmind, etc. to increase that number even more.

Q: Do small merchants understand what Needium does? Do they require a lot of education?

A: They understand quickly because they already know what Facebook is and they’ve heard of Twitter. They’re often Facebook users through a personal account and understand that Twitter is similar. Most of them don’t have a corporate Twitter presence. We show them in real-time the local opportunities they’re missing out and they understand the need to have a proactive presence. Our direct sales team can close the sale in one meeting if the right decision-maker is in the room.

Q: Is Needium generating return on investment for the advertisers?

A: Yes. Needium helps increase consumer awareness, strengthen loyalty, increase social media follower count and drive store visits and sales. As soon as you can show a few great conversations where consumers say they’re going to come visit you or tweet that they visited following a merchant suggestion, advertisers are extremely happy. Most telling, our churn rate is in the single digit percentage, much lower than other popular online products.

Q: Can you prove that you’ve generated an actual sale?

A: Yes and no. We can anecdotally but we don’t purely sell the product on “leads”. We sell the service on a variety of metrics, number of tweets sent, conversations, number of followers being three key ones for most merchants. Advertisers see the value of the conversations we’re generating but they also see the value of having an active Twitter account and new followers joining month after month. We’ll soon be indexing Foursquare and Facebook check-ins to track actual visits following a Needium conversation but we want to get closer to a pay-for-performance model. We want to explore the pay-per-call model and the pay-per-action model. Is there a pay-per-check-in model in the future? A revenue share on transactions? Maybe.

Q: Don’t consumers think what you’re doing is spam?

A: We’ve sent over 40,000 tweets so far and only a few hundreds have generated a negative reaction. This is much lower than I expected originally. This is key for us as we don’t want to create a product that’s seen as spammy or in a negative light. We want to add value to the ecosystem and even if that number is extremely low, we’ve learned from them and know which situations trigger negative reactions.

Q: How different are you from the hundreds of social media monitoring tools out there?

A: We don’t see ourselves competitive to social media monitoring solutions. We’re focused on “consumer need” discovery, which leads to commercial conversations for our advertisers, something that’s highly monetizable. It certainly has more upside in the long term than pure social media monitoring usually priced at $10 to $50 a month. We’ve shown that the service can sell for $150 per month and a performance-based component will probably bring us higher revenues. My experience with local merchants has shown me that only a small percentage (5%?) will be sophisticated enough (or have the time) to operate social media tools themselves. By partnering with large local media publishers, we’re going after that other 95% who will not buy self-serve and will not operate tools themselves.  Finally, through the API we’re developing, we will be able to integrate Needium in any social media monitoring solutions providing instantly the local lead gen portion as a paid service.

Q: Any additional learnings?

A: Yes.

  • SMB advertisers are hungry for social media solutions tailored for them but they need managed service. For the bulk of SMBs, self-serve still doesn’t work.
  • Small merchants can outsource their social media efforts without losing credibility or their voice.
  • At the intersection of local and context (need expressed), consumers welcome conversations with businesses.
  • B2C works much better than B2B because companies and company owners are not yet expressing corporate needs in social media (although nothing prevents them!).
  • Large local media companies sales forces can easily sell Needium

When we set out to pivot Praized Media to Needium last year, we knew we were unto something big. I had created DirectoryPlus at Yellow Pages Group, an online ad product that’s very successful, and I know what a great local ad product feels like. Needium is my next DirectoryPlus. This will be a huge space. Our early success has generated a lot of good buzz. We’ve shown the product works, that advertisers will buy it, that it’s generating ROI, that sales channels can sell it and that it can generate explosive revenue growth. We’re now heading for breakeven and, with the support of our current VC firm, we might not need funding from a new VC. Still, we’ve had meetings in Canada, in Silicon Valley and on the East Coast to see if there’s an opportunity to raise a new round of funding to accelerate our growth. The best compliment we often get is “We’ve never seen this” and “you guys are onto something” (if you’re a VC, you can see our AngelList page here).

In addition, we’re always looking for new sales channels to resell our white-label service. If you’re interested, send us an e-mail at sales@needium.com. This has been an interesting ride and I’ll try  to keep you updated regularly over the next six months.

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Needium Pay-Per-Call Trial: Looking for a Few Good Advertisers

I’ve been very silent on this blog in the last few weeks but it’s not because of a lack of topics to discuss. With the success we’re having with Needium since our launch in January, I am simply too swamped and busy helping the team scale the company! I have a blog post coming up soon that will talk about our first six months of operations.

As a recap, Needium (www.needium.com) is a social media customer discovery service. Our service monitors Twitter and retrieves local business opportunities based on user needs and life events. Basically, we’re  identifying and indexing public local tweets that have an implicit or explicit need expressed such as “I’m hungry”, “My car just broke down” and “Does anyone have a good Phoenix restaurant to recommend?”. We then surface that information in a Web-based dashboard where Needium community managers (yes, humans!) log-in to join conversations on behalf of the merchant (using the merchant’s own Twitter account). We converse with Twitter consumers to convince them to come visit us (us being the small merchant). You can see a 1-minute video explaining what we do here: http://needium.com/video

Needium can definitely amplify consumer awareness, strengthen consumer loyalty, increase social media follower count and drive store visits and sales, but we think Needium can also drive phone calls in some business  categories. We would like to test that hypotheses and we’re looking to trial Needium on a pay-per-call basis with a few advertisers.  If you or your advertisers already use the pay-per-call model and you’re interested in trialing Needium, I want to hear from you. E-mail me at seb AT needium.com.

Flickr Picture by plenty.r.

Needium selected for the C100 “48hrs in the Valley” event, Plug and Play Expo

Exciting times for Needium! In addition to extremely good traction since we launched the service in January (I’ll eventually blog about that), we were recently selected for the C100 “48hrs in the Valley” event happening next week in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

In addition to mentoring and a visit to the Facebook HQ, we will have the opportunity to present Needium to selected VCs at their offices and at the Plug and Play Expo.

From the C100 website, “the C100 is comprised of a select group of Canadians based primarily in Silicon Valley, including executives of leading technology companies, experienced startup entrepreneurs and venture capital investors.  C100 members are passionate about leveraging their collective experience, expertise and relationships to help mentor and grow a new generation of successful Canadian-led technology companies.”

Sylvain Carle and I are already in San Francisco and Peter Diedrich, our CEO, will join us next week. If you’d like to meet us, shoot me an e-mail at seb AT needium.com

in Europe Next Week

Flickr picture by Mollajo

I’m flying to Europe next week.

First stop is London to discuss with potential Needium resellers for the UK market. London is the biggest city in the world in terms of Twitter usage and this definitely shows in the Needium dashboard with more than 1 million geo-tweets per day. We’re looking to discuss with UK-based ad agencies, SEO/SEM firms, newspaper publishers, directory publishers, etc. interested in reselling the white-label version of our product.

Second stop is Majorca for the European Association of Directory Publishers (EADP) conference. I speak on the first day, topic is “Conversational commerce – Why You Should Care What @JoePublic Had For Lunch”. Should be fun!

If you’d like to meet me while I’m in London or at the EADP conference, send me an e-mail at seb AT needium.com

The Evolution of Merchant "Presence"

Flickr picture by Andrew Atzert

Fifteen years ago, if a merchant wanted to make sure he’d be found when people were doing shopping research, it was very easy. You simply needed to have a free basic listing in your main business category in the print Yellow Pages of your city.  Advertisers could extend that presence in different cities or business categories by buying additional basic business listings and if you wanted to stand out when consumers were doing comparison shopping, you could make your listing standout by making it bold or buying an informational listing (lines of text) or a display ad (graphics + text).  Some people were trying to game the system by changing their name to AAAAA Joe Plumber and appear higher in the listings but buying a display ad would insure a ranking improvement in your category.  Life was simple and/but choice was limited. Directory publishers were making tons of money with huge profit margins.

Things certainly have changed since then.

Fast forward to the search engine era (2000-2010), search is the main method people use to do comparison shopping now. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), having a presence in the search engine era means having a Web site but ranking in search engine results pages is very random. It’s probably the equivalent of a Yellow Pages basic listing.  The discipline of search engine optimization (SEO) was invented to try to improve Web site ranking in organic search results. This is probably the equivalent of print bold listings (white hat SEO) and AAA merchant names (black hat SEO). And if you want to make sure you appear above everyone else, you bid on specific business keywords in, for example, Google AdWords (search engine marketing or SEM). This is the equivalent of the Yellow Pages display in the Google era. The search engine from Mountain View is now making tons of money with huge profit margins.

The complexity of this search ecosystem means most small merchants need to rely on service providers for Web site building, SEO and SEM, three products of very high interest in the Yellow Pages space in the last 2-3 years.

But that’s not all. In the search engine era, local search sites have multiplied as well. Merchants need to make sure that their basic listing information is everywhere, that it’s correct and is the same everywhere. That’s quite a challenge given the dozens (hundreds?) of sites out there. Companies like Universal Business Listing, GetListed and Localeze have risen to the challenge to help SMBs. Search Engine Watch recently said “Your address is the new link”.

But lo and behold, Google’s search query volume seems to be plateauing. Compete says it has dropped 0.6% from December 2009 to December 2010.

Things are changing yet again…

Enter the social media era (2010-2020?), the conversation age. Consumers are now spending more time using Facebook and Twitter than anything else on the Web, even beating e-mail. As I write this, Facebook claims they have more than 500 million active users per month.  25 billion tweets (messages on Twitter) were sent in 2010.The rise of these powerful social networking and communications tools means that merchants need to be present there as well.

So, what does SMB presence means in the social media world? It mostly means building a Facebook page and creating a Twitter account. It’s actually fairly easy to do and many of them have done it already. I can also tell you every local media company and SEO/SEM firm is thinking of offering (or already does) the creation of a social media presence for small merchants who are not there already. We’ll probably see the arrival of technology companies enabling mass-creation of those pages/accounts. This is the “basic listing” of social media.

Next, how can merchants be found in social media? They’re able to buy Facebook ads or Twitter promoted ads (tweets, trends, accounts) and we’re already seeing the arrival of technology providers to enable campaign management (like we saw search engine marketing). This will be the equivalent of Google AdWords for the social media era.

What about organic “search results”? How do smart SMBs get found “organically” in social media? They join the conversation. They broadcast information about their store, they reply to consumer comments and questions, they identify potential customers and invite them to their store. Small merchants are all about relationship-building and the human touch. They just need to port this to social media but they need help. They need to understand the tone that’s required but mostly they don’t necessarily have the time to engage in and monitor social media. They need support and they need to filter the noise.

I think this space is going to be huge. As SMBs easily create their basic presence en-masse on Twitter and Facebook (BIA/Kelsey says close to 50% of SMBs have created a Facebook page and close to 20% on Twitter), they’ll be wondering what to do next. This is the space we’re trying to crack with Needium, helping SMBs figure what happens next organically after the basic social media listing. By identifying business opportunities in social media, by monitoring merchant name mentions and by offering white-label community management services, we’ve shown small merchants that there’s value in social media and exciting business life after the account creation. We hope you’ll be with us along for the ride!

In San Francisco Next Week for the Conversational Commerce Conference

I will be in San Francisco most of the week next week for meetings and also attending Opus Research’s Conversational Commerce Conference. The conference is February 2 and 3 in the city.

Conference description: “Marketing and customer service are on a collision course. Social media now shine a bright light on customer service interactions, which increasingly have brand implications. Customer care can also offer valuable insights for marketing and product development. How many companies are adapting and turning this to their advantage? Still too few as old modes of thinking remain entrenched in organizations. Opus Research’s Conversational Commerce Conference (C3) brings together a diverse array of interested groups and stakeholders to discuss the new social media landscape and its joint impact on marketing and customer care. Beyond showing how these organizations must now collaborate, C3 will offer successful case studies and explore the new rules of engagement as companies deploy social media for marketing, sales and customer support.”

I’m speaking on the “A Parallel Universe: Social CRM for SMBs” panel on Thursday with Brendan King, CEO, Vendasta Technologies, Craig Donato, CEO & Founder, Oodle and Perry Evans, Founder and CEO, Closely, Inc. I’ll be sharing some of the insights we’ve generated since we’ve launched Needium, our social media lead generation service.

I do have a bit of free time on Monday and Tuesday for additional meetings.  I am also available to meet during the conference. If you’d like to connect, please send me an e-mail at seb AT needium.com

Needium is One of the 7 Canadian Start-Ups to watch in 2011

Flickr picture by Gerlos

Very exciting news this morning.  We’ve been selected as  one of the seven Canadian Start-Ups to watch in 2011 by TheNextWeb. The buzz around Needium has been increasing since our participation in the startup competition at LeWeb in December and we’re now engaged in several trials with reseller partners in North America and Europe. By the way, if you’re interested in reselling Needium, our social media local lead generation service, you can contact us at sales AT needium.com

Other startups mentioned (including two others from Montreal):

  1. KiK Interactive Inc
  2. Interaxon
  3. 2XM Interactive
  4. Wajam
  5. Visibli
  6. Tynt

Congrats to all on the list!