FT: Social Networking: Lessons from a village community

October 2, 2007

Why would a business spend a fortune to achieve something that a village on the Scilly Isles achieves effortlessly – the passing of information efficiently and reliably to people who need to know it but not everyone else?

“Villages and islands are so improbably efficient at getting information to the right people,” explains Charles Armstrong, ethnographer and chief executive of Trampoline Systems. “Some social network has licked this problem that floors really large companies.”

Inspired by the “amazing dysfunction of corporate information systems” that he has seen in large companies, and guided by a hunch that those systems were interfering with instinctive human behaviour, he spent a year on St Agnes, one of the Scilly Isles, off Cornwall in south-west England, observing communication in action.

He describes what he saw as the interaction of five simple mechanisms. “There is an implicit difference between public and private information: if it’s said in the pub or the village shop it’s public information, if it’s said to your workmates, it’s privileged information.

“Next, if you share information with a group, anyone in the group can suggest who to pass it on to and anyone who’s going to see them will say so.

“A group can also be a target for information. People are good at relaying information effectively, even if they don’t know what it’s about. And there are buffering tools: two people who are close share almost everything but two people who are far apart need a close fit to pass something on.”

Mr Amstrong’s company, Trampoline, has products called Sonar and Metascope that mimic these behaviours instead of crippling them the way many enterprise IT systems do. “Humans spent 200,000 years evolving all kinds of social behaviour for accumulating, filtering and passing on information.

“We’re really good at it; so good, we don’t even think about it most of the time. But the way we use e-mail, instant messaging, file sharing and so on disrupts these instincts and stops them doing their job.

“This is why we waste so much time scanning through e-mails we’re not interested in and searching for documents we need. E-mail is a conceptually simple and democratic tool, but in a lot of other ways it’s a disaster, because it was designed for one-to-one communication but it’s mostly used for group collaboration.”

In a large organisation, informal networks fail because it’s hard to know who has the expertise and connections to need or pass on information. “We’re just at the end of the time when the organisational chart reflects reality,” says Mr Amstrong

What Sonar does is to analyse e-mail, customer relationship management (CRM) and document repositories as well as instant messenger communications to map the social networks, collaboration and information flow within the business. “In a sense, there isn’t such a thing as unstructured data, because you have the structure of the human relationships,” he suggests.

“Social networking systems often flounder in the enterprise because people don’t update information they way they would in personal networks,” he adds.

Raytheon, the defence contractor, is a customer. “It already had a CRM system and enterprise portals but they weren’t being updated.”

Sonar automatically calculates relationships in an organisation and displays them as Web 2.0-style tag clouds and diagrams. It identifies experts – and groups that are not sharing information. It means users will soon be able to put information into specific “buckets” to be automatically passed on to the people who need it.

New trends make social networks particularly useful in the enterprise, Mr Armstrong believes. “There’s a cultural shift from an underlying ‘need to know model’ to saying that whatever information is in the enterprise, unless it’s sensitive, should be available to everybody.”

FT: Social Networking: podcasts reach a nouveau niche

October 2, 2007

Do not be fooled by the name: podcasting is a big opportunity for companies. It is often defined as a version of broadcasting, which suggests a certain grandeur of scale. But what is the scale?

Rajar, the official body responsible for measuring radio audiences in the UK, recently issued its latest statistics for the second quarter of 2007. It reported that 28.8 per cent of people said they owned an MP3 player and of those, 18.3 per cent had at some stage used it for listening to podcasts. That means more than 2.6m people use their MP3 players to listen to podcasts. This is steady growth from previous quarterly figures.

The Rajar figures are interesting but only cover podcast use on MP3 players. They can also be played directly from web pages, which constitutes a large proportion of podcast listening. The mobile phone is also likely to become a big conveyor of podcasts as faster connectivity and flat-rate data plans remove current barriers.

Traditional broadcasters, such as the BBC, are producing podcasts, and its efforts may well qualify as broadcasting – general productions aimed at wide audiences. But there is also much niche content being made aimed at specific audiences – for example, the FT’s own stable of podcasts covering topics such as the arts, personal finance, and Digital Business.

There are podcasts on all sorts of specific subjects, aimed at lawyers, affiliate marketers, Arsenal football fans, anglers – even CIOs and CFOs. Podcasting is ideally suited to this “narrowcasting”, and it offers a great opportunity to target narrow interest groups and to reach specific audiences with specific interests.

These niches are interesting because they consitute core target audiences – the best audience, not necessarily the biggest – who are often difficult to reach by conventional means.

Edison Media Research, the market research body, has found that podcast users are 36 per cent more likely than others to have made online purchases, and four times more likely to have purchased songs online; that podcast users spend 50 per cent more time online; and more than 37 per cent of podcast users click on relevant advertising.

The podcast’s appeal to listeners and the businesses making them is that they are portable, easily accessible, can cover almost any topic, and they give business a personal touch and voice which helps the listener feel connected to the business.

For businesses, the number of plays or downloads can be measured; they can be used to engage existing customers and recruit new ones; they can help with brand building by associating a brand with exciting content; and can be used for internal communications and training.

An interesting byproduct of podcasts are theme tunes and music that sum up a brand’s values and are powerful communicators across language, territory and other boundaries.

So companies have a great opportunity to look at ways podcasting can target specific audiences. With the right creative thinking, it can be a powerful way to reach a nouveau niche.

Martin Talks is chief executive of Blue Barracuda, a London-based digital agency and host of http://www.thetomcast.com

FT: Social Networking: skills that confer a business advantage

October 2, 2007

To get the most value out of social networking within a company, there must be ways of measuring how employees are using the tools and rewards for beneficial interactions.

That is the view of Marc Smith, senior research sociologist at Microsoft Research. Finding experts within the organisation and making sure contributors feel valued is crucial, according to Dr Smith’s research.

Leveraging a business’s social networks creates “architectures of co-operation” avoiding problems of traditional knowledge management (KM), he says. “The biggest asset of any enterprise is what your people know and they keep going home with it.

“Institutional memories are fragile. KM attempts to create the infrastructure for knowledge in the enterprise but its limits are the limits of understanding of institutions. KM assumed everybody would be delighted to give up everything.”

Socially oriented systems such as wikis (collaborative documents that anyone can edit) can overcome that reluctance by identifying who is contributing information and help; measure what that means to the company or to partners and customers; and reward it like any other contribution – which can be a big shift from current attitudes.

“Often, enterprises spend a lot of effort incentivising the wrong behaviour. They don’t see themselves as a group – and a group that doesn’t know itself is not even a group. Software can make businesses visible to themselves; social networks are often the real structure of a company.

“Making all this visible will mean that what should have been rewarded all along gets rewarded – and once you reward the right thing, you probably get more of it.

“In the world of Sarbanes-Oxley, we’re talking about helping people who want to help each other by making their help of one another visible and accountable to their management.”

There is more than one kind of valuable behaviour in a social network. Dr Smith has identified several types of contributor.

The most obvious is “the answer person, the guru, the go-to person, the knowledge fountain, the person who is all about giving to others the short factual piece of information they need to re-vector their task”.

Another type is the “reply magnet”. “They are the person who comes in and says ‘I was reading this article that’s relevant to us’; the person who brings in what’s interesting, what’s topical. They dictate what people talk about but not what they say about it. They are agenda-setters not conversation controllers and they almost never talk about the topic themselves.”

And if there are “vandal hunters” in the organisation, it might not even need to appoint editors or moderators to oversee wikis or other informal knowledge tools. “A vandal hunter does not generate content,” explains Dr Smith. “A vandal hunter undoes damage to content, so you have a content creator and a content massager.”

The tools to analyse social networks are still being developed but Dr Smith’s team works on three.

Netscan was developed for newsgroups but can analyse contributions in other discussion and authoring systems. C#ung (pronounced Chung, and short for “C# universal network/graph system”) displays information from Excel spreadsheets as tree maps, which show hierarchies, such as the most frequent and active participants.

And a future version of Snarf, a Microsoft Outlook add-on that prioritises mail from regular correspondents – for which Dr Smith was responsible – could use C#ung to show where in an organisation’s hierarchy an e-mail comes from, to provide understanding of who is asking for information.

While many organisations are concerned about systems such as Facebook interfering with productivity, Dr Smith claims benefits even from non-work-related social networking. “There are efficiency gains. Knowing how to know people is the number one skill in business; networking is a commercially valuable skill.”

FT: Social Networking: It’s amazing what people will say . . .

October 2, 2007

On Facebook, the social networking site, an employee of a large retailer hits back at comments from appreciative customers: “well im glad u all think its so great, u should try working there, does my head in”.

The employee provides his name, a photo, and more details about his personal life than most people would want to know.

This may be harmless enough, but it is an example of the lack of caution that is causing companies to worry about Facebook and its like. Sometimes the incaution hits the headlines. UK retailer Argos fired an employee who was reported as telling the world on Facebook what he thought of his employer. Similarly, the company that runs the directory service 118 118 spent months trying to get Facebook to remove a page dedicated to insulting its customers.

At a different level, Google was embarrassed when Lauren Turner, who writes a Health Advertising blog for her employer, attacked Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, and suggested that Google’s advertisers take space to counter the damage.

And Dell’s legal counsel demanded that Consumerist.com, a blog-based website, remove a piece written by a former Dell employee. Consumerist.com said no, and Dell backed down, with its blog Dell2Dell (see main article) saying “we goofed”.

When linked to the (perceived) problem of employees wasting hours on social networking sites, it is not surprising that some companies have come to see them as the enemy. Lawyers often recommend their use be banned, while security software companies suggest – unsurprisingly – that they should be filtered with security software.

This, surely, is missing the point – the real issue is education. Companies need to educate themselves about social network sites, and they need to educate their employees about them.

Telling staff you do not trust them is, of course, an option. But better surely to point out that personal rants could damage them more than you, and that posting personal details puts them at serious risk from hackers. Then tell them how to increase the security settings on Facebook, and use traditional management techniques to keep them productive in the office.

Google’s blogger and Dell’s legal counsel need educating, too. They have to understand that the social network world means they must assume anything they write – online or offline – will be circulated, discussed and possibly ridiculed.

Employees need general guidelines – be careful, don’t be heavyhanded, don’t pretend you are someone else – and specific rules for the major platforms. Then let them use them. In fact, encourage them, because that is how they will most quickly learn the quirks and etiquettes of the different sites and channels.

In the mid-1990s the same arguments raged about whether employees should be allowed to look at the web in the office.

Blog: Skype as a social network

October 2, 2007

Skype has some 220 million users, vs. Facebook’s 40 million. About 20% of these Skypers use the service all the time. They can already message and call each other through the network. They are already able to exchange files (in fact, that capability is more developed on Skype than on many existing social networks). If only Skype made it easier for people to post and exchange photos and videos, and allowed for postings of longer profiles, it could rival MySpace and its ilk, sustained through advertising and sponsorships.


25 startups to watch (advertising)

October 2, 2007


What: Turn.com is offering precise, automated ad targeting combined with a system that requires them to pay only for specific desired results (call it pay-per-play).To get started, advertisers first enter the prices they’re willing to pay for various results – $5 for a sales lead, say, or $50 to $60 for a completed transaction. Next, they upload their text-or graphics-based display ads. Turn’s software then analyzes the ads using more than 60 variables – including content, brand strength, and keywords – and determines the right publishers to serve up the ads. Turn splits the revenue (70-30, on average) with the publisher.

Since launching in beta in November, the company has signed up more than 1,000 advertisers and cranked more than 5 million ads through its analysis engine.

Twenty-five publishers are giving the system a tryout, according to Barnett, including a few large news sites and a big social network.

(Google has been rumored to be working on its own version of the pay-per-play model. But the $16 billion-a-year online ad industry is growing so fast that he doesn’t worry about Turn’s ability to carve out a lucrative niche: “These days marketers need to use all the targeting approaches they can find.”)

Question: Will Turn’s pay-per-play model succeed?

Funding: $17.5 million (Norwest Venture Partners, Shasta Ventures, Trident Capital)

Employees: 26Founded: 2005

Business model: Advertising

Bragging rights: 25 million unique viewers to date; 1,000 advertisers; 20 publishers

Next up: Signing more publishers


What: Adify is an online marketplace for highly targeted ads. Businesses can sell ad space directly to advertisers; advertisers can target specific market niches while Adify handles the back-office work.

Funding: $8 million (Venrock Associates)

Employees: 40Founded: 2005

Business model: Advertising

Bragging rights: 4,000 publishers have signed up, including The Washington Post; revenues doubling quarter-over-quarter

Next up: Signing more publishers


What: AdMob offers a place to buy ads for delivery to cell phones. That market is set to explode, and AdMob – which says it has sent out nearly a billion ads in less than a year – is poised to become its middleman of choice.

Funding: $4 million (Sequoia Capital)

Employees: 22Founded: 2006

Business model: Advertising

Bragging rights: 800 publishers, 250 advertisers

Next up: Technology to deliver interactive ads to mobile phones


What: SpotRunner is a one-stop online shop for low-cost 30-second TV ads. Local businesses can browse a library of premade spots and personalize them for airing in their local markets.

Funding: $60 million (CBS, Interpublic Group, WPP)

Employees: 150Founded: 2004

Business model: Advertising

Bragging rights: Clients include Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Mozilla, and Warner Independent Pictures; partners include The Interpublic Group of Companies, WPP, CBS

Next up: Extending the model to other media besides TV, possibly radio and the Internet


What:ViTrue’s platform lets corporate customers solicit, edit, and upload user-generated videos that promote their products. With companies like General Motors tapping the YouTube generation to virally market their wares, ViTrue is in a sweet spot.

Funding: $5 million (Comcast, Ron Conway, General Catalyst Partners, Turner Broadcasting)

Employees: 38Founded: 2006

Business model: Advertising

Bragging rights: 100,000 site users; site on VH1.com

Next up: Developing new sites for youth-oriented media clients