Facebook Convert Apologizes

March 3, 2009

Last June, brimming with the confidence that invariably attends the launch of an upstart social media business, I posted on a discussion I had with SocialSphere’s John Della Volpe about the momentum building behind Facebook.  John, at the time an advisor to SchoolPulse, warned that Facebook’s reach posed a real threat to nascent SchoolPulse and every other social networking platform on the planet.  My response:

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Well, it turns out he was right.

Over the past three months, I find myself spending an increasing amount of time on Facebook, and that investment of attention is steadily increasing.  I post photos and updates from my iPhone, I visit the site 10 or 20 times a day, I have connected with long-lost high school and college friends, and I created a group to manage my 25th high school reunion (46 FB members so far!).  I love it.  Tonight, my wife – a mid-late technology adopter and FB newbie – spent about an hour connecting with old friends, dishing with others… She had a blast.

In my June post, I asserted that generic platforms couldn’t meet the requirements of the 30+ crowd, and that’s just not true.  The network effects of a platform like Facebook (meaning that the service becomes more valuable as more people join) are real, tangible, and render moot any objections about generic look and feel.

If the most vociferous opponents are the most difficult to convert, then Facebook must be pretty good.  In fact, I’m more than a convert.  I’m an evangelist.

Go ahead, give it a try.

LinkedIn for Moms

November 13, 2008

LinkedIn stands apart from all the other big social networking names.  While it is built around networking in the purest sense, its value is the tangible benefit it provides its users in their day-to-day business lives.  Social networks that go beyond “social” offer compelling value.

SchoolPulse is doing the same thing, but for a different audience.  We offer parents – especially mothers – the ability to streamline hectic schedules and simplify communication in their day-to-day family lives.  Moms in America shoulder the responsibility for shepherding their children through a maze of educational activities (academic, social, athletic, musical…) and more often than not, they get lost in that maze.  Think about all the information flows that mothers manage:  flyers coming home in back packs, emails and phone calls from troop leaders, coaches, faith-based organizations, conversations at school drop-off and pick-up… The list goes on and on.  Technologists call this “unstructured data” and it’s a bear to manage.  We think SchoolPulse is the best way to manage it.

We just fielded a survey of some of our members, and here’s what we learned:

  • 39% spend 30 minutes or more every day organizing their kids’ activities
  • 73% have never used a social networking site
  • 47% rely on email to manage group calendars and events
  • 86% would recommend SchoolPulse to others

These numbers add up to a huge opportunity to simplify life for parents, with the indirect but immensely important benefit of reducing stress on American kids.

It took LinkedIn five years to become a household name in the business community.  Over the next five years, I want SchoolPulse to become a household name among American families.

TBS Fails the Judgment Test

October 7, 2008

It’s 11:50 pm and the Red Sox just beat the Angels to win the American League Division Series.  With Tampa Bay on deck later this week, I should feel great, but I don’t.  The culprit?  The advertising executives at TBS.

This series is being broadcast on TBS which seems to have no sensitivity to the fact that kids like to watch baseball, and their loving parents sometimes let them stay up to watch playoff games.  Not the whole game – it’s a school night after all – but we let our 11 and 9 year old kids watch the first hour.  An hour which included a number of ads with content that is totally inappropriate for young kids.  Three examples:

  • Viagra.  Have you seen the one where the husband finds his wedding tuxedo in the attic, puts it on and surprises his wife before sweeping her into his arms and carrying her upstairs?  Gee, I wonder what they have in store.  And what kid won’t pick up on the disclaimer, delivered in Dolby digital surround sound, to “ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex.”  Great.
  • Sex Drive. This is a teen comedy about a horny teenager who decides to drive across the country with his two best friends to, you guessed it, hook up with a girl he met online.  “What’s that movie about, Dad?”  “Gee, I’m not sure, but from the title I’d guess it’s about a race car driver.”

And here’s the capper:

  • Zak and Miri Make a Porno.  This wholesome slice of Americana 2008 tells the riveting story of two friends who are short on cash and need to make some money.  Get a job?  Start a business?  Nah, too traditional.  How about we make a pornographic film together!  I’m no prude, but the suggestive trailer for this one should be rated R or worse.

These ads were all shown between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight – that’s prime time – and left my wife and me scrambling to respond to our kids’ puzzled, curious expressions.

What are these media executives thinking?  Do they take no responsibility for the content they broadcast into millions of homes?  Is the ad market so distressed that they have no choice but to show these ads during prime time?  You’ll probably say I’m naive or nostalgic, but what I crave more than anything is room to explain to my kids all the important, complex issues related to sex when my wife and I feel they are ready.  TBS is stealing that privilege and forcing my kids to confront topics they are not yet prepared to understand.  And Major League Baseball is complicit.  I love the Red Sox too much to boycott TBS right now, but you can be sure I will take steps to prevent my kids from watching those ads.  Thank goodness for my Comcast DVR.

LinkedIn — I Called It!

June 17, 2008

Well, I didn’t call it exactly, but I did post on my love for LinkedIn and I suspect others might have caught the bug as a result (-;

Happy ManNobody is going to be surprised that top shelf investors seized the opportunity to put some money to work inside LinkedIn, nor will they be surprised that LinkedIn, though profitable, is taking capital to further propel its growth.

What will certainly surprise the skeptics is the $1 billion valuation — at a time when the bloom seemed to be off the valuation rose for social networking sites. I saw someone quoted recently (on Techcrunch? Can’t remember) that Facebook is not worth the$240 million investment Microsoft made in Facebook. The 1.6% stake Microsoft bought valued Facebook at a cool $15 billion.

I have no trouble with the LinkedIn valuation because they are doing what comparatively few other sites are doing: Delivering real value to their audience. The value per member — approximately $44 assuming 23 million members — is not out of line with other deals we have seen in the social networking space. Forrester’s Charlene Li blogged on this in March, quoting the NewsCorp/MySpace deal in 2005 at $27.62/user and the AOL/Bebo sale earlier this year at $21.25/member. In my opinion, LinkedIn has two significant advantages that justify the premium valuation: A more attractive demographic and a value proposition that its members will pay for. Bain Capital must see that.

The audience is the source of value, and companies that can attract and engage the right audiences will find numerous ways to capitalize. It’s early days for social media monetization.

I said in my April post here that if LinkedIn “came to me tomorrow and said I have to pay to maintain the relationship, I’d do it in an instant.” The valuation set by Bain Capital and its supporting cast suggests there are a lot of others that share my enthusiasm!

Is Facebook a Black Hole?

June 14, 2008

I had a really interesting conversation today with a couple folks who know a lot about social media and technology. John Della Volpe is founder of SocialSphere, a consulting firm that helps big corporations figure out how to capitalize on what John calls the “collaboration economy,” and Paul Gaffney is COO of Desktone, a desktop virtualization company that is doing some very cool things.

We were talking about what SchoolPulse needs to be to get traction with the 45 million parents of school-aged kids in America. Ours is very much a GenX crowd — we are targeting parents aged 35-50 — and very few of those people are using Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, or the other big social networking platforms that attract the GenY crowd. While LinkedIn has pretty good penetration (20 million users averaging 41 years old and $110,000 income according to the Industry Standard), that is about professional lives, not family lives. These GenX parents are a tricky crowd to attract and retain. They are incredibly busy, they didn’t grow up using technology to network, and they aren’t going to engage with something that doesn’t deliver tangible value. If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about.

John’s view is that Facebook has the mass and momentum to evolve into the only social networking platform. All others beware: Without a tight connection to Facebook, you won’t survive. Paul used the analogy of a black hole, drawing all matter into its center. Can this really be true? Does social networking really have the same dynamics as the search business?

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Which brings us back to SchoolPulse. We’re not a social networking company, and we are not a web site. We are creating a resource to help parents organize and streamline their busy lives. To help them keep up with their kids, really. The design, the language, the tone, the user experience all have to be consonant with that mission. We threw up our alpha site in January, a beta site in April (we are big believers in rapid iteration informed by market feedback) and have learned a lot, but we have a very long way to go. But every day, we understand more clearly what we need to be to engage a million happy members. It amazes me how quickly we are learning.

I’ll share more details of our version 2.0 platform in a future post.

No Apple of Online Media?

June 10, 2008

With Apple’s WWDC in full swing this week, it’s hard not to have Apple on the brain. I posted previously about my love affair with LinkedIn. LinkedIn may provide great utility, but the Apple brand has a grip on me like no other.

I made my first visit to the Apple store in Boston yesterday, intending to upgrade to iLife ’08. I walked out with a rather expensive solution: I bought the latest iMac (pre-loaded with the latest version of iLife) and an Apple TV box to project photos onto my big screen TV. I suppose the streaming movie library might have had something to do with it, too.

The salesman booked my order on one of the demo machines in the store, indicating our precise location on the floor so my goodies could be delivered to us from inventory, and processed my credit card from a wireless device. I never went near a cash register. I never waited in line. In fact, my order was delivered so quickly that I barely had time to tell the story of my religious conversion from PC to Mac three Christmases earlier. And then the guy offered to help carry my parcels to my car!

When it comes to Apple, I am like a kid in a candy store. My heart races. My senses are in overdrive. I can smell the technology – and I love it. I want to talk about it – with a sales person, with fellow shoppers, with just about anybody who will listen. My kids share my enthusiasm as we experience the most incredible out-of-the-box experience going. Feel the rush of the expanding universe as we boot the machine for the first time. It’s not even a machine – it’s magic. I would love to share my passion with Steve Jobs. Am I out of my mind?

I don’t think I’m the only person with a passion for Apple and everything it stands for. So here’s the question: Why aren’t there any web sites that deliver a similar thrill? Are there any online media brands that inspire the same passion?

John Battelle talked about media brands recently. Two of my favorite quotes:

“Think of some of the best loved media brands – American Idol, Wired, Oprah, The New York Times. All places with a distinctly engaged audience. Consumer brands are drawn to these winners because they want to be associated with quality, sure, but also because they know that if they can just get their executions right, something magical can happen, and they can influence that space between our ears, and in the right context.”

“I believe we are at the beginning of an explosion in online media brands, akin to the explosion of consumer magazine brands in the 1940s and 50s, or the explosion of cable TV brands in the 1980s and 90s.”

Battelle cites a number of examples, including Boing Boing, ProTrade, Graffiti Wall, Dooce, Left Lane News, and TechCrunch. Why are they powerful? Because their users are deeply engaged – like I am with Apple.

That’s my vision for SchoolPulse: Deeply engaged members who can’t stop talking about us.

Is GenX Social?

May 28, 2008

Question of the night: Which social sites are most successfully catering to the needs and interests of GenX?

I just finished creating a slide showing the top 10 social sites and the demographic audiences they serve. There are no sites in the top 10, and few others of scale, that appear to serve an audience that is primarily in the 30-50 year old range.

A couple come to mind: Jeff Taylor’s Eons and Tom Gerace’s Gather. Both are Boston-based and having a hard time pushing through the half million user threshold. Maybe if more people followed my articles on Gather the site would have more traffic!

What’s up with GenX? I’d love to hear your opinion.