Getting the real dirt

Jeff Nolan has an interesting post about how a US General views blogs as an excellent source for unfiltered information. Jeff goes on to postulate that CEOs could also get unbiased information from their field as well.

In the private sector it’s only a matter of time before CEO’s, at least the better ones, start figuring out that the best way to get the straight scoop on a topic is to drill down to the field by reading the blogs that exist within the company. Of course, this isn’t an entirely efficient process for an executive who probably already has too much on his/her plate, so the opportunity that exists from a tech standpoint is to aggregate blogs and apply BI techniques to sort, categorize, and apply qualitative filters to. I suppose you could make the case that this is what Technorati or Feedster are doing, but I’m not sure that’s what I am envisioning…. I’m going to need to put some more thought into this and report back at a later time.

This is yet another example of how the web is helping make inefficient processes more efficient, especially when we are moving away from a command and control world to one where empowered individuals or nodes on the edge make decisions. In this world, getting unfiltered information from the edge becomes more important. Rather than squelch his troops, it is quite nice to see that General Myers gets it and is embracing blogs as another data point for him. .

Influencing the influencers

If I were a startup, one great and cheap way to build buzz and excitement is through the blog community. I call this “influencing the influencers.” Think about it – many of the more well known bloggers are also well known tech journalists, industry pundits, VCs, and technology executives. Forget about using the traditional PR route – if you can get these influencers to write about you on their highly targeted blogs, others will hear about it, write about it, and generate links to it. There has been much discussion about measuring the value of blogs but at the end of the day it is all about being influenced by a trusted source. Each blogger has his own unique audience that trusts his/her opinion. Many of us try and buy products and services based on trust and recommendations. This is no different in the blog community. A number of web 2.0 companies have already leveraged the blogosphere to generate buzz. Not that I am a big influencer by any stretch of the imagination but some of the new companies I have written about recently include Pluck, Bloglines, and Onfolio. And yes, there are many more influential people than I who wrote about these companies as well. I am quite sure all of these posts delivered significant name recognition, brand value, and traffic for the companies mentioned above. Once again, it is not about how many posts, but who posted that really counts because the word and links can spread quickly.

Along those lines, Om Malik is certainly a guy you want on your side. Here is a great post by Om where he writes about getting quantifiable evidence for the first time on his influence regarding a post on a new startup, Blinkx:

The blog was posted on a Friday, and by the Monday there were 5,000 links to it and people were discussing it all over the world. Since then, there have been 130,000 direct downloads, and many more through users swapping files. This week, the site – which is only launched today – has been recording 6m links or hits a day solely from word-of-mouth publicity.

That is pretty damn cool! Let me repeat – 5,000 links, lots of discussion, 130,000 downloads, and 6m links/hits all generated for $0 – yes, no money!

Another day, another high profile blogger

Another day, another politician or high profile executive launches a blog. This time it is FCC Chairman Michael Powell and Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz. According to Michael Powell, he decided to blog because he wants to interact direcly with his constituency, creating a dialogue and urging Silicon Valley to get involved. He goes on to say:

One reason I am participating in AlwaysOn Network’s blog is to hear from the tech community directly and to try to get beyond the traditional inside the Beltway Washington world where lobbyists filter the techies. I am looking forward to an open, transparent and meritocracy-based communication—attributes that bloggers are famous for! Regulated interests have about an 80 year head start on the entrepreneurial tech community when it comes to informing regulators what they want and need, but if anyone can make up for that, Silicon Valley can. This is important not just for Silicon Valley—it’s essential to insure that America has the best, most innovate communications infrastructure.

Both Jonathan and Michael are launching blogs to stay close to their community. What I find interesting about these blogs is that one chose to leave comments open and the other chose to not allow comments. As I have said before in an earlier post about Why I Blog as a VC, it is the 2-way interaction and instant user feedback that makes blogging so valuable for me. I am curious to see how Michael Powell handles the comments on his blog and to understand whether or not he is truly trying to create an “open dialogue” or if he is just blogging for PR value. As for Jonathan, I really believe he is missing out by not opening his blog for comments and allowing his readers to turn his post into living, breathing ones.

Now that high profile executives and politicians have bought into blogs, I am still waiting for product companies to use citizen’s media (blogs, RSS, etc.) as Jeff Jarvis calls it, to create true interaction with their customers. I am not just talking about using RSS to subscribe to a Top 10 list of products sold for the day or week or to update customers on an upcoming product release. What would be great is if product companies could figure out ways to use this new medium to build long-term relationships with its customers, to create ongoing focus groups for a product or service, and to collaborate with customers on product development. Another great way for product companies to leverage this medium would be by allowing me to create custom RSS feeds/stored searches on the fly for certain products or services. Sure, I can do that via email, but the interesting aspect is having it all aggregated in one place using an RSS reader. Rather than have my own custom newspaper like I do today via Bloglines, I create my personalized store, amalgamated from a number of different sites and covering different categories like automobiles, electronics, and even restaurants – basically anything I am in the market for today based on the parameters that I set whether it be price, type of product or service, available appointment, etc, That would be a pretty cool use of RSS.

UPDATE: Regarding product weblogs, check out the Skybox blog from Maytag (yes, Maytag) via Scobleizer. I applaud the folks on the Skybox team for doing this as they even say:

In fact, that’s a great segway into a question, or plea for help if you prefer. There are not a lot of companies who are leading the way with product weblogs. I’ve not found much in the way of examples for a company who is trying to evangelize and support a hardline product through a weblog. There are some great weblogs for software programs and online activities, but not a lot for products.

Portfolio company promotion-collaboration service

As you all know, part of a VC’s job is to promote their portfolio companies. And yes, even though Expertcity is no longer a portfolio company since it was bought by Citrix, I would like all of you to know about the new collaboration service that the company is launching, GoToMeeting, which will be FREE until July. At the end of the day, I love the service and product and that is why I thought you would like to try it out. Yes, it will be in a field competing with the likes of WebEx and Placeware. However, the company’s design philosophy since I invested in them 5 years ago is the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) method. This means simplicity in terms of usage and pricing. The service is designed to take advantage of the ad-hoc collaboration where an IM or email turns into a working session. Here is an article talking more about the service.

Personalized Search

Google just launched a new version of personal search based on user preferences. In early 2000, we seeded a Xerox PARC spin-out called Outride (formerly called Groupfire) which aimed to bring personal search to the web by learning from a surfer’s prior searches or his workgroup or community’s prior searches. For example, if you searched on the word “Java” how does the engine distinguish Java the computer language, Java the coffee, or Java the island. So based on user behavior if you were a tech geek and into computer programming, it would serve you up the Sun Java and so on and so forth. The business model was to be an “arms merchant” to all of the major search engines like AOL and Yahoo. The problem was that it was very difficult to monetize. How do you get a search engine to pay for a supposedly more personalized search result? So at the end of the day, we ended up selling the assets and patent to Google. Fast forward to now and Google is bringing this back into the market, although it is using its latest acquisition, Kaltix, as the basis for its search. This one is based on profiles rather than behavior. As Jim Pitkow, co-founder of Outride says in a San Jose Mercury News article:

“That’s good because the search engine doesn’t have to try hard to infer anything from the user’s behavior. But it can also be a disadvantage, because a person’s interests will change over time, but they may not update their Google profile to reflect that. It’s really unclear what it’s learning about me,” said Pitkow.

While the idea for Outride was interesting, we were way ahead of the market without a clear business model. It is a long story but the old adage “pioneers get arrows in their backs” certainly applies to this company. Anyway, it seems that Eurekster is doing a very similar job to Outride except that it has created a destination site. It will be interesting to see how personalization and the search wars play out over the next couple of years. I, for one, am a big fan of the original Outride model based on user behavior. Of course, that can open up a whole new issue related to privacy. If you are interested in personalization, I suggest you visit the Eurekster blog for a nice comparison of Google and Eurekster.

Great web-based news aggregator

Like many of you, I suffer from information overload. I have a hard enough time keeping up with email, let alone the increasing volume of news and blogs. During the last 6 months, I have been experimenting with a number of RSS readers to aggregate my news. Some of the products include client software like Amphetadesk, FeedDemon, and Newsgator. FeedDemon was a nice product and was quite easy to use. Newsgator integrates with Outlook which on the surface sounds great but it ends up creating more email for you to review on a daily basis. The problem with the software downloads is that if you have multiple machines or travel frequently, you may not be able to access your daily reading. Lately I have used Bloglines and love it. It is web-based so I can access my information from any browser, it is free, has a great UI, makes recommendations based on my current feeds, alerts you when feeds are updated, and even allows me to add email subscriptions. With the email subscription feature, Bloglines gives you a one-time email address to subscribe to sites that do not offer RSS feeds while at the same time reducing your daily volume of email. It is great to see how many sites are offering RSS, and that we are all getting closer to the vision of having our own personalized newspaper. Even Yahoo has recognized this as it has been working to integrate external RSS feeds with MyYahoo.