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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Thoughts on Curated vs. Edited

Flickr picture by Laffy4k

Jeet Heer writes about “curation” in last Saturday’s Globe & Mail. Here’s an excerpt from his article:

“Curated” used to be quite a reserved and genteel adjective, largely found only in the hushed confines of museums and art galleries, with an occasional flirty foray into the film-festival world.

But in recent years, curated has become a word gone wild. Cut loose from the high-culture crowd, it now keeps some strange company.

Techno guru Cory Doctorow has written a column in The Guardian on the limits of “curated computing,” which he describes as “computing experiences where software and wallpaper and attendant foofaraw for your device are hand-picked for your pleasure.”

Meanwhile, a newly hired newspaper editor tells me over drinks that his dream is to create “a carefully curated book-review section” in which each essay would move the literary conversation forward. Why did he say curated rather than edited? Because in the current cultural vernacular, curated is the term of praise everyone aspires to.

What it means: I wrote about curation in 2008. At the time, I said “Atomized content means we now live in a content aggregation and curation world. Use your trusted brand to filter good content from bad content for users.”

I actually see a difference between curated and edited (some people might say I’m nitpicking…). I believe curation (as opposed to “edition”)  is critical to the future of newspapers. For me, curation means finding the best content out there on the topic and that includes articles from your journalists (or from your freelancers) and pro-am (i.e. probably bloggers) and competitor’s content. It’s just a different way to see the world, more open, with exponentially more sources of content.

Do you agree with my definition of curation? Or am I nitpicking?

Update: TomWilliams wrote on Twitter:  “curation is a collaborative inclusive process whereas “edition” is an exclusive act by self-selected few”

The Age of Cheap Content and Content Arbitrage

Ken Doctor from the Newsonomics blog covers the acquisition of Associated Content by Yahoo! for a rumored $90 million. He writes an in-depth analysis and offers a sobering conclusion:

Overall, today’s deal is further evidence we’re into the age of cheap content and of content arbitrage. The stream’s being reversed all around the news business, with advertising driving content creation in ways that those of us who fought print advertorials couldn’t once imagine. Content arbitrage is a feature of the landscape as I recently wrote (“The Newsonomics of Content Arbitrage“) and one that modern media companies must learn. How they use its principles will make all the difference in what they and their brands stand for, but the need to understand the principles is reinforced by today’s deal.

What it means: I think these are two key trends to understand if you’re in the business of content production. Companies like DemandMedia or initiatives like Patch (at AOL) are creating scalable platforms to create low-cost content. Content arbitrage, creating specific content that can be easily monetized, is logical from a business point of view (i.e. go where the money is) but it begs the question from a democracy point of view. Who or what will fund important news reporting that doesn’t monetize well?

Another consequence is that it puts pressure on the price paid for articles.  I had the opportunity to hear Luke Beatty, Associated Content’s founder, at the last BIA/Kelsey conference. One of the things that struck me was the “what’s in it for me” for network writers. Beatty told attendees that you couldn’t really make a living with what they pay but writers were getting exposure, were becoming experts through their use of their platform. This has tremendous impact on journalism. At the same conference, Rick Blair, Examiner’s CEO, described the various contributor levels we find on the Web today: pro, pro-am, amateur, user-generated content (Blair mentioned that Examiner is at the pro-am level).

It’s also forcing news organization to think about content production segmentation. Am I in the business of producing all the content I offer to readers? Am I outsourcing a portion of the content production? Do I want to control the technology platform behind that content production?

In a related article about the Huffington Post’s 5-year anniversary, Henry Blodget talks about disruptive technologies. He says “Disruptive technologies, meanwhile, are emphatically NOT better than incumbent technologies–at least not at the beginning. Disruptive technologies are often worse than incumbent technologies.  Their advantage–the reason people begin to adopt them–is that they’re also simpler, cheaper, and more convenient.”

More questions than answers at this point for news organizations but these trends need to be taken into account when building the next strategic plan.

Are Newspapers Outsourcing Core Features to Foursquare?

Megan Garber from the Nieman Journalism Lab explains in details how the Wall Street Journal uses Foursquare to offer geo-localized news:

[The Wall Street Journal] has also been making regular use of the Tips function of Foursquare, which allows users to send short, location based updates — including links — to their followers. The posts range from the food-recommendation stuff that’s a common component of Tips (“@Tournesol: The distinctively French brunches here feature croques madames and monsieurs and steak frites. After dining, check out the Manhattan skyline in Gantry State Park”) to more serious, newsy fare

via Location, location, etc: What does the WSJ’s Foursquare check-in say about the future of location in news? » Nieman Journalism Lab.

What it means: That’s a very nice implementation of geolocalized content within Foursquare. You can see more examples in the article. After reading it, something was bothering me (the same way the Facebook “Like” button bugged me) and I finally figured it out. I left the following comment in the Nieman blog: “what Foursquare is doing, newspapers could do themselves. It’s all about structured data. Most newspaper organizations have structured their content on topics/keywords/subjects but they forgot to structure it on geographical information (places, businesses, points-of-interest, neighborhoods, etc.). As soon as you have this 3D view of your content (vertical + local), you can syndicate it in a multitude of ways.”

We live in a fragmented/atomized Web now. We have atomized content, business models, functionalities, APIs. The smart internet companies are atomizing both content AND features/functionalities.  They become both media companies and technology providers. Their end goal is becoming a media. They use their technology to reach their end goal. That’s a very smart strategy. As a potential partner of these smart internet startups, you need to ask yourself if these functionalities are core business to you or not. If they are, DO NOT OUTSOURCE THEM to another media company! Do partner for content distribution though.

The Web is becoming more and more local. Newspapers should own the expertise of geo-localizing their content, displaying it that way within their mobile apps (or Web site) and then syndicating it to partners like Foursquare. It’s core business.

SignOnSanDiego: Visits from Social Media Increased by 1000%

At the end of day one of Marketplaces 2010, we also heard from Mike Hodges, Vice President, Interactive at The San Diego Union-Tribune.  Hodges shared with us some interesting data points following a very simple web site redesign to incorporate more social media features.

Highlights:

  • He admitted that they had very limited social elements last year. On November 1st, they rolled out a new site
  • They made two key social media decisions:
    • They hired a full-time specialist
    • They integrated more social media features in the new redesign
  • What did they add (see example)
    • Social media sharing buttons above and below stories
    • “Follow us on social media” modules on every page
    • Login with Facebook/Twitter (using Disqus)
  • As a result, visits from social media sites (led by Facebook) increased by 1000%, They now generate between 1.2 and 1.5M monthly referrals and in February, visits from Facebook exceeded visits from Google. They now have 20,000 twitter followers
  • In the future, they want Facebook andTwitter to be intertwined in everything they do. They want journalists to use Facebook/Twitter as well. Finally, they’re thinking of introducing a Facebook/Twitter newsfeed on their home page.

What it means: even though SignOnSanDiego only made minor changes to their site, they got major impact on their business. I like their vision of leveraging journalists as brands within a brand, to allow them to share and have conversations with readers. I especially loved one of his quote: “the newsfeed is your friend”. If they continue in this direction, this could bring very positive results.

Traditional Local Media and Community Building

One of the challenges in social media is building a robust community with many human activities and interactions. Something that’s alive and thriving. If you build it, they will NOT come. A lot of efforts are needed to get to the social tipping point. I’m always inspired by the story of Yelp.com. They had to regroup around their home base of San Francisco after a so-so first year of operations. They built momentum from there and were able to re-start successfully. From a recent Inc. article:

Without the cash for a national rollout, Stoppelman decided to focus on making Yelp famous locally. With the help of a buzz-marketing guru he hired on a whim, Stoppelman decided to select a few dozen people — the most active reviewers on the site — and throw them an open-bar party. As a joke, he called the group the Yelp Elite Squad.

To build a community, you need humans, you need personality. This is not only about hardware and software. In my many conversations with traditional local media companies (and those include directory publishers, newspapers, radio and television companies), I’ve discovered that not all local media are born equal when discussing social media. Some already have community in their DNA. Newspaper publishers for example have always been local opinion leaders, stirring conversations, trying to change things, and engaging their readers to contribute and provide feedback. Their journalists and editors are in effect community managers. Radio stations are used to doing contests (“the 12th caller will win a pair of tickets to so and so’s show”), urging listeners to call in to discuss various topics in talk radio, obtaining traffic information from drivers or getting friends to send messages to each other via the DJ. In smaller cities, radio hosts are superstars with their own nicknames and are invited to openings and movie premieres. Radio hosts are also powerful community managers.

I think that local TV stations used to be very strong local opinion leaders but as local programming disappears and is replaced by national content, it becomes more difficult to engage viewers locally. Still, local news anchors continue to have a great aura in a community. Through major television events (think Superbowl, Oscars, Olympics, etc.), national TV networks are creating social events of a bigger nature than any other media. TV industry pundits are saying social media is actually helping with ratings but all the activity is happening in the back channel, on Facebook and Twitter. It should happen on the network’s website or on the television set itself to create real value for those media companies. Directory publishers are in my mind the furthest from having social media in their DNA. A traditional directory look-up is very mechanical, utility-driven, even when it’s attached to an emotional life event. Users of directories do not engage with other users (yet) or with the publishers. We could probably make a case that there’s some sort of social/community relationship with advertisers but it would tenuous at best.

But with all these assets, social media still feels awkward or forced in traditional local media companies and it means the game isn’t won (or lost depending how you see the world). In the newspaper industry for example, journalists often badmouth bloggers and publishers struggle with user comments fearing trolls and lawsuits. The relationship is very unidirectional, I’m caricaturing but it often sounds like”we write, you read”. Success will come when newspaper groups understand the bidirectional nature of the relationship. In the radio industry, the atomization of their core content model (i.e. you can listen to any songs anytime you want online) threw them a curve ball but they can hook up their offline broadcasts with the Web to create a very loyal listener environment. In the TV industry, local content creation (online and possibly offline) should be embraced again and social engagement tools should be made available at the point of viewer contact (think online but also with TV set manufacturers, set top box, etc.). In the directory industry, the almost 100% focus on advertisers up until a few years ago has made the shift very difficult, but giving complete power to consumers will enable them to regain their reputation as the most trusted source for merchant recommendations.

Media companies, because of their “social assets” and strong offline components, should have a leg up versus their online media competitors but they often don’t realize social media and community building are part of who they are. I’m not sure newspapers and radios are fully realizing they already have strong assets to win in local/social. This is also the opportunity for local television to regain what it might have lost and for directory publishers to learn to swim the social media waters. They all need to take the plunge, sooner than later.

One Hundred Year-Old Location Status Updates

Le Devoir, an independent French language newspaper from Montreal, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Jean Dion, one of their star columnists, wrote an article detailing what you could find in the first and second editions published in January 1910. Of note, the second issue saw the birth of the “Mondanités” column (society gossip). The column mentions the latest weddings and funerals happening in Montreal but I was specifically intrigued by a section called “déplacements” (movements).

Dion writes (loosely translated from French):

… the “movements” section is quite comical when you look at it with the eyes of a modern reader. “Mr. Ovila Perrault from Imperial Tobacco is back from a trip to New York.” “Mr. Omer Marchand, architect, is in Quebec City.” “Mr. Montarville B. de LaBruère jr. is back from a 10-day trip to Sorel”. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wow. And here we thought location-based status updates had been invented by Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or Gowalla. People used to broadcast their trip information in the newspaper! This was certainly done for two reasons: information (i.e. don’t try to reach me, I’m in New York.) and status. The more things change…