Author Archive

Contact segmentation in social networking

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

"the pendulum is going to swing from public data to private." writesTim O’Reilly.

A segmentation is already occurring within the social networking world around contacts and information.


The first level is where ClearContext plays, within people’s Outlook email.  From within Outlook, there’s full access to both email content and its relationship with contacts.  This allows for lots of very powerful information to be gathered, but it is all private and controlled by the user, a totally closed system from a visibility standpoint.

The next level is a site like LinkedIn, where people get a certain degree of visibility into your contacts.  The system is semi-private, so people are willing to share detailed business information on there as well as share valued contact information to a degree.  However, the flip side of that is that many people also restrict access to that information to a trusted network.

Facebook is the next level of openness.  Here "friends" takes on a much less important meaning for many, often meaning "someone I met once or saw somewhere on the Internet."  Profiles have much less "proprietary" information that people want to protect, thus they often are open to a much wider group of contacts to share with.  But people still put a lot of personal information on there, so a certain degree of access restriction also occurs.

Even "lighter" forms of communication take place on Twitter.  The same can be said for fun interest-oriented social networking sites like Flixster or even Yelp.  At these sites, there’s nothing proprietary or private about what’s being written, so people can be completely free with their contact and information sharing across these sites.

Somewhere in there is the sweet spot of valuable, proprietary information and a broad network of contacts to aggregate and share across.  Developing ways to bring those things together is where a goldmine of value exists.


How PR firms use blogs

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Scoble writes on PR via blogs today.  Most PR folks I talk to are very savvy about getting blog coverage for their companies, and most have a pretty straighforward approach just as Robert describes.

However, I don’t think his "anti-coverage" strategy is really a different PR approach or trend, I think it’s just PR for a different purpose.

Companies want blog coverage for many reasons:

  • Reach mainstream media journalists who are looking to the blogs for news/feature stories.
  • Build awareness in the venture/analyst community. 
  • Build general awareness of the company among tech early adopters.
  • Lay foundation of cites in preparation for future launch/news
  • And many others

What the company is trying to do dictates the PR approach to bloggers.  When a company is trying to get mainstream media coverage, it wants to be perceived as hot and new and news that everyone is talking about.  The coordinated, tiered approach to getting the news out there makes a ton of sense in that scenario.  On the other hand, if a company is trying to slowly build up a userbase during a beta period and looking for early adopter feedback, it makes sense to slowly and organically build up a base of coverage that people searching out information on the space will be likely to find.

Now that just about everyone utilizes the blogging community as a PR channel, it’s going to become more and more important for companies and PR firms to create longer-term "full blog coverage lifecycle" PR strategies for companies they want to promote successfully.

Building a profitable company is not obsolete

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

One part of the current Web 2.0 boom (and perhaps the part that most justifies a lot of the bubble talk going around) that is reminiscent of the dot-com days is the focus many companies have on pageviews and users over revenue models and profits.  A lot of industry folks claim this is completely different due to the monetization magic of AdWords and the resurgence of online advertising in general.  In some cases that holds true, but oftentimes it’s just an excuse for a lack of substance and product people are willing to actually pay for.

What I enjoy most about the startup world is solving problems for people and companies.  Which is why building products and solutions that people actually want to buy is always a major focus for me in my businesses.  This once standard approach sometimes feels almost unconventional in the startup world these days.

So I always like it when I read things like "Then, for us, we knew in our hearts, and we didn’t want to be a web 2.0
company that’s just all hype and glam. We knew that we had planned all
of this carefully with our board. We had always wanted to start making
money." from startups that become really successful.  In this case, it’s from an article about Zimbra, an open-source email startup that sold to Yahoo for $350M.  That’s a significantly bigger exit than a lot of pretty "hot" web 2.0 acquisitions.

Here’s the full podcast and transcript.   

Figuring out the Web 2.0 Must Haves

Monday, October 15th, 2007

I fall somewhere between the "average American" and the TechCrunch/Scoble/etc Web 2.0 enthusiast crowd when it comes to how I use new "Web 2.0" technology.  I’m familiar with most of what’s out there, but a lot of it sounds sorta fun to play around with and see what people are doing/saying as opposed to really being useful.  I have plenty of stuff to waste time on, so I’m focused on finding the things that actually help me do things or find information in better and easier ways.  Here’s a bit of history about my experience with this technology so far and things I’m checking out to maybe add to my list.

My good friend Konstantin Guericke (the test of whether you are good friends w/ Konstantin is if you can spell his name right without having to look it up – I’m not checking, so hopefully I got it right) was a co-founder of LinkedIn, so I’ve been a user since that service launched.  I’ve used it to make a number of business connections/introductions and have facilitated many connections through that.  Activity on LinkedIn seemed to slow down for a while, but in the last few months it has really started to pick up for me again (based on amount of notifications/requests I get).

I was an early member (June 2002) of Friendster through knowing Jonathan Abrams, but never really used it after initially signing up (but Jonathan’s new company, Socializr, has replaced Evite for me as my go-to place for organizing group activities).  Friendster just never really caught on in any of my peer groups.  Long before that (1997!) I was signed up on, a site that no longer exists, but doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough in all the social networking hoopla.  Another early site I have had an account on is Ryze.  Like SixDegrees, Ryze doesn’t get nearly enough credit for blazing the trail of business-focused social networking.  I never found enough value in Ryze to compel me to sign up for a paid account, and without the paid account it didn’t let me access enough functionality to be useful, so I never really used that site either.  I signed up on a few other sites including Tribe, but none of them gained enough critical mass among my peers/friends to get me to stick around.  I also checked out MySpace briefly, but found it too irritating to even make a profile there.

I jumped on the Facebook bandwagon a while back largely out of curiosity.  I put a super-sparse profile on there and added a couple of friends just to see what it was all about, not really a legit user of the site.  But even without adding any friends myself, as people sign up and upload their address books, I get more and more friends added.  And unlike many of the previous sites, people update their information there a lot.  So, while I don’t use it on a day-to-day basis, I definitely check it regularly to see what some people are up to, plus it’s a very lightweight way to keep connected with people.  As more and more people sign up, I see myself checking it more often.  I can see why a lot of people spend so much time on Facebook.  However, I’m already starting to get irritated by the applications on people’s pages – a lot of the profiles are starting to get as annoying as MySpace pages.

I finally caved and today created a Twitter account.  I’m not sure what exactly I’ll get out of it besides being able to pop up a message on Scoble’s screen, but i guess I’ll find out. 

Over the next few weeks I’m going to play around with a number of other Web 2.0 apps/sites that people are talking about to see which ones I find useful. Google Reader I guess would be considered in this category as well.  One site that I access all the time, but don’t participate on is Yelp.  It’s my go-to place for bar/restaurant reviews, replacing CitySearch and other review guides.  Two I’m contemplating playing around with are Flixster and Criticker to see if they can perhaps provide me a better experience than my default movie site, Rotten Tomatoes.

So, here’s my current scorecard.  Open to any/all suggestions of things I need to be checking out.

Winners: LinkedIn, Facebook, Socializr, Yelp, Google Reader
Losers: Friendster, Tribe, Ryze, MySpace
TBD: Twitter, Flixster, Criticker, many others

Debating the future of email w/ Scoble

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Scoble is a big fan of new stuff.  Like "Web 2.0" technologies such as Twitter. 

And Robert has in the past written quite a bit about how out of control and behind he has been with email.  I don’t remember if Robert has officially declared "email bankruptcy" at any point, but he has definitely become exasperated with keeping up with email.

So it’s no surprise to see him writing at BusinessWeek about Twitter and other Web 2.0 technology unseating email.  But let’s take a look at some of his points:

"But when I left, my e-mail account was turned off. I don’t have access to that knowledge now. Neither does NEC." vs "Furthermore, anything said on Twitter stays on the Web. So your
knowledge doesn’t disappear; it stays there for your replacement at
your employer to study and learn from."

Not only can information in email be retained, transferred, and archived (and in many corporations this already happens), it has context in terms of threads, subjects, and correspondents at a level that does not exist in free-form, unstructured communication mediums like Twitter.  Having the info out there is not worth very much without good ways to actually find the specific information you need.

"With these applications, spam barely exists. If someone starts spamming
the system, he or she gets “unfollowed” and the problem is solved."

First off, these are relatively new technologies.  Spam didn’t exist when blogs first came out.  Or IM.  Or SMS.  But there’s a constant battle w/ spammers in every new technology.  Obviously, the newer and less widespread the technology, the less you’ll see spammers.  That’s just a function of time and reach.  And while the volume of spam in email is high, technology to get rid of it is pretty sophisticated.  Robert totally ignores the issue of noise, though.  The lower the cost of broadcasting a message out to a group, the more the noise.  Email has more noise "Hey guys, what’s going on for happy hour?" than phone calls do, which have more noise than face-to-face meetings.  But Twitter "waiting for bus!" and similar things put email to shame in terms of the level of noise that exists within the communication streams.

Robert has some more criticisms like "Finally, e-mail doesn’t work with groups very well. If I send a report to my boss, co-workers can’t listen in and add value." and "And you can see that people are online and answering stuff and what they are doing. " that all revolve around the idea of real-time, instant, interrupt-driven communications.

And that’s where I think the real flaw in his whole argument exists.

The benefits that Robert sees here all are largely premised on an idea that people are constantly connected and interacting with these streams.  Robert also has 5,000 Facebook friends.  And he follows 6,000+ people on Twitter.  If he’s gone for a few hours, is he going to review status updates from 5,000 Facebook friends and all those Twitter updates?  I doubt it.

Given a set of circumstances where you’re working with a specific group of people all together within a certain time period, there are many collaborative technologies that are far superior to email.  But that’s simply stating the obvious – if you need to have a meeting or a brainstorming session or need real-time feedback, then have a meeting or call/IM people instead of emailing them!  If you need to collaboratively work on a document, use a technology designed for that, not email!

But that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to replace email for the multitude of scenarios in which asynchronous communications are more effective. There is a large body of research that shows interruptions and distractions are a huge drain on productivity in the workplace and a huge source of stress to boot.  Email is a contributor to that problem, and things like Twitter only make things worse.

The problems Robert talks about are not problems w/ email.  It just sounds like Free Email Day – a reaction to a problem, not a solution. They are problems with the techniques and technologies people use with email.  The email clients of today, even "advanced" ones like Gmail or Zimbra are really not all that different than the email clients of 10-15 years ago.  Yet, the volume of email people receive and the types of things people do within email have increased dramatically. 

Email is still a great communications medium.  The fact that many Web 2.0 "sites" (sites? systems? applications? hmmm) still use the inbox as their notification point to users says a lot about that.  But as more and more activities center around the inbox, it’s true that people need better ways to manage and work with all of that information without getting overwhelmed.  The issues here parallel those I talked about in my post on the semantic web.  Just as a structured web allows for a much more useful user experience to be developed, the same opportunities exist within email.  And that’s something I’ll be talking about a lot more in the near future. 

Measurement “experts” huh? “LOL”

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Om Malik wrote a post last night about a Facebook traffic drop but was skeptical of the validity of the information.  Today Om explained the drop in an update post where  Paul Sutter, co-founder & president of Quantcast told him the reason was that (Om writes) "ComScore has a panel that has a bias toward Internet users who log on
from home. The same is true of all measurement panels – Nielsen,
Hitwise or Quantcast. As kids go back to school, they vanish from the

OK, makes sense.  The measurement panels don’t accurately represent the level of traffic from college users.  Yet here’s what reps from a couple of the major measurement services had to say (from Om’s post) about traffic at one of the most prominent Internet properties in the world:

Andrew Lipsman of comScore:  "Last year, there was a similar dip in visitation at
Facebook, which suggests there are some seasonal factors at play.
Another important factor that has not been mentioned is that September
has 1 fewer day than August."

Hitwise: "There is a small dip for Facebook in terms of U.S. visits
it appears for the last few weeks, but looking back over time this
could be more seasonal than anything."

So, apparently, the real reason for the traffic pattern is because of the makeup of their measurement panels.  Yet, both of these companies chalked this up to "seasonal factors."

Why is this significant?  Well, traffic numbers from firms like these are often the "facts" upon which stories are built that help define entire markets in the emerging technology world.  Yet, when they don’t have a clue about what’s going on with traffic at a company as high profile as Facebook, one has to question how valid a basis for analysis this type of "data" really is.

Semantic Web is great, but I want to DO STUFF

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

In my "Web 1.0" days the first software company I founded, Moai Technologies, supported many of the major "online marketplaces" of the late 90’s.  One of my colleagues in the early days of Moai who helped develop our sales and marketing strategies was Stephen Bove.  Stephen ended up becoming part of the founding team at Chemdex, a leading chemicals marketplace.  I remember brainstorming w/ Stephen about the challenges at Chemdex and what he and the team there felt were some of the key issues for online marketplaces.  Perhaps the biggest common theme that applied to all of our marketplace customers was the creation of good ontologies – creating hierarchies to classify, categorize, and organize information.

I was reminded of this by Alex Iskold’s excellent post on the Structured Web.  It really feels like a decade later we are largely struggling with the same core problems.  Brad Feld posted about Alex and Adaptive Blue in this post with links to more semantic web reading.

This is good stuff, but I think a lot of technologists get caught up in the theory of all of this and forget about the fact that what people really want is to DO STUFF.  Alex clearly understands this based on what he’s doing with AdaptiveBlue – using this type of information to help people find specific pieces of information based on context of what they are looking at and doing.  While elegant theoretical constructs for all this stuff are great, I think a key to success is developing these technologies with a perspective of the types of things users and developers will actually want to do with all that information in real-world scenarios.

We’ve learned a lot of those lessons while developing ClearContext IMS over the past few years.  A lot of the "coolest" stuff we’ve developed is related to our contact and message analysis and prioritization algorithms that mine email history to rank which contacts and emails are most important to you.  However, that information only becomes really useful to users once we put it in the context of actually being able to DO SOMETHING with it – in the case of email that means creating tasks and appointments from important emails and being able to link and view all this related information together.

I definitely agree with Alex and others about the powerful possibilities of a web built upon an underlying foundation of structured information.  But without keeping in mind what people will want to do and why this is so valuable, there’s a real risk of creating some beautiful standards that largely get ignored.

PS to Alex: I suggest you check out this 2004 Santa Rita ($14.99) and this  2004 Seventy Five ($18.99)

Sigh, BoardFirst stopped

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Well, I’ve been doing a lot of writing on tech and email lately, getting ready to re-launch this blog and keep it updated in a more dedicated manner.  I’ll be starting with the serious posts soon, hopefully this week.

But I just received an email that really irritated me, which inspired my return to the blogging world.

"Dear BoardFirst Customers:

It is with the deepest regret and sense of disappointment
that I must inform you that BoardFirst is being forced to discontinue the
service it has been providing to you for the past 2 years."

The email explains that this is due to an injunction from Southwest Airlines forcing them to stop this service.

My flying these days is mainly JetBlue to New York and various airlines for short trips like LA and Vegas.  I often didn’t consider Southwest because I didn’t want to deal with the lack of assigned seating and have to worry about remembering to check-in online or arrive early.  BoardFirst solved that problem for me, resulting in me choosing Southwest for more flights.  Being able to pay a small premium to not get stuck in a really crappy seat on Southwest was a service I was glad to have.  It sucks that Southwest isn’t allowing the marketplace to provide that added value service for them.

“Gmail mute” in Outlook – deja vu!

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Well, Brad’s going to write a post about this on our corporate blog, I’m sure, but I had to dash off a quick "credit where credit’s due" post as soon as I saw this announcement this morning: New Gmail Feature (LifeHacker).

It’s good to see features we’ve been talking about for a while make it into other email platforms, since if this stuff is needed by Gmail users, that means ClearContext’s Unsubscribe functionality is quite likely needed by Outlook users!  Our users were beta-testing this feature in August and seem to love it, so I definitely think the folks at Gmail have picked a good feature to add.

But, to give credit where credit’s really due, this feature (that Googler BLADAM refers to as "murder") was inspired for us by a conversation we had with our friend Omar Shahine who told us about how he’d like to see the ThreadKiller functionality (that he had built his own addin for) incorporated into our ClearContext IMS product.  We simply took Omar’s suggestion and integrated it with our automated filing capabilities to let the user have a little extra control over where the unsubscribed messages go.

The real question is, what’s the best name for this feature?  Mute, Unsubscribe, Murder, or ThreadKiller?

Blurring the lines w/ blogger payola

Friday, November 10th, 2006

It was not too long ago that the connotation of blogging was simply one of people expressing their individual viewpoints online.  As blogging evolved, it took on a second connotation as well where popular bloggers became an alternative media source – the most popular and well distributed ones effectively becoming perceived as valid journalism by many people.

That’s why companies like PayPerPost, LoudLaunch, ReviewMe, and CreamAid are so troubling to me.  Even more troubling to me is when highly influential and respected bloggers like Steve Rubel and Michael Arrington actually speak positively about the relative merits of certain approaches to this model.  Perhaps they are not explicitly endorsing companies doing this, but they are definitely giving a level of acceptance to some entrants into this field.

What I don’t think many people are paying enough attention to is the fact that this blurring of lines is happening SO EARLY in the evolution of blogging as a communication medium.  While for many in the "blogosphere" reading tons of categorized RSS feeds and engaging in many discussions is old hat, for the vast majority of people, the idea of getting information (much less participating in the dialogue) through these mediums is a  pretty foreign concept.  However, each story that breaks on a blog gives this medium more and more broad acceptance and validity.  So what happens when you NOW throw this monkey wrench of blogger payola into the mix?  Everyone knows the marketing adage of one unhappy customer vs one happy customer.  Or in "intelligent" software how significant the tiniest number of false positives are compared to a huge body of correct analysis.  I think that kind of metric applies to the blog world, too.  A few people burned by blogger payola placements thinking they are reading real journalism can have a wildly disproportionate negative impact on the blog world.

On TV, we all know what an infomercial is.  When you’re sitting on a plane and you turn on some fake business show w/ paid pitches, the audience for that sort of stuff knows what they are getting.  When you read a magazine that has a five-page sponsored "content" insert, you know that’s an ad.  And in the tech world, to those people who read them, we all know what sponsored analyst reports are all about.  So, yes, this "business practice" exists in various forms in all sorts of mediums.  However, all of these mediums have a long-standing established system of trust in place that is generally understood by the readership/viewership.

At this stage in the evolution of the blog world, that implicit understanding and trust does not exist for most people yet.  So blurring the lines at this stage of the game is just plain wrong.

(As a special bonus, because I have world class graphic design skills, I have designed a logo for bloggers who agree with me to use on their sites)