Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Commercial Data Ecosystem's Publisher Phases

For the purposes of this post "Social Networks" translates to "Publishers." My company, Gnip, brings the public, real-time, activities created by users on Social Networks to our customers. From a vocabulary standpoint, we simplify things and refer to these Social Networks as Publishers.

Over the past four years Gnip has seen a lot of Publishers come and go. Not surprisingly, a pattern has emerged around how they evolve, and the degree to which our customers need their data. There are generally three distinct phases a Publisher goes through, and how they do in each phase impacts how they ultimately participate in the broader social data ecosystem.

Participation in the social data ecosystem can yield a full commercial cycle for the Publisher. This cycle being one combining consumer use (expressing buying intent, or ranting about a product) with commercial engagement (ad buying or addressing a problem with your product).

Phase 1: Consumer Engagement
A Publisher must engage consumers. Whether via a homegrown social graph, or leveraging someone elses (e.g. Facebook Connect), in order for a Social Network to become useful, it needs users. From there, those users need to participate in self-expression (from posting a comment, to re-tweeting a tweet) and generate activity (aka "Publish") on the service. There are a variety of ways to compel users to engage in a social service, but the Publisher itself is responsible for the first experience. The vision of the services' founders yields a web-app or mobile interface that allows us to take action, leveraging the expressions laid out by the app itself (e.g. sharing a photo). If users like the expressions, discovery methods, and sense of "connectedness," you've got a relevant Publisher on your hands.

Phase 2: APIs; Outsourcing Engagement
At some point a successful Publisher realizes the potential for outsourcing the expression metaphors that make the service successful & useful, and they construct an API that allows others to RESTfully engage with the service. In some instances the API is read-only. In some instances the API is write-only; sometimes it's both. What is key is that nine times out of ten, the API is meant to drive core service engagement via other user-facing applications. A classic example of this would the zillions of non-Twitter Inc clients that "tweet" on our behalves everyday. One look at the endless number of tweet "sources" that flow through the Firehose and you'll realize this engagement potential; there are tens of thousands of client apps.

The exceptional API is one that has broader social data engagement ecosystem consumption in its DNA. Typical Publishers consider themselves the center of the universe, and that not only will they capture all consumer engagement, they will be the root of all broader ecosystem engagement as well. However, success with consumer engagement does not guarantee commercial engagement; not by a long-shot. This center-of-the-Universe perspective is highly limiting for everyone involved. A great example of this is simply how you see Facebook and Twitter logos in cafes. The retail outlet couldn't care less about which Publisher du jour is hip. All they care about is reach, and they'll promote any social service they think yields reach; they have zero affinity to your social service.

Some services execute phase 1 and 2 simultaneously these days.

Phase 3: Activity Transparency; Commercial Engagement
Allowing other applications & developers to inject activities into the core service is obviously valuable, however it is only part of the picture. Publishers with broad social and commercial impact have achieved this success by addressing commercial needs for complete, raw, activity availability. For example, in order for someone to effectively deploy resources in a disaster relief scenario, they need to make their own determination as to what victims need, where they are located, and general conditions surrounding the event. The Publisher limiting access to the public activities taking place on the service, by definition, yields an incomplete picture to downstream commercial consumers of the content. The result is a fragmented & hobbled experience for commerce engagement.

The most impactful, useful, and valuable Publishers that Gnip customers leverage for their needs (ad buying, campaign running, stock trading, dissaster releif), are those that acknowledge that they are not an island in the ecosystem. They complete the cycle by providing unfettered access to one of their most significant assets; the public real-time firehose of all the activity taking place on their service. In trade, the relevance of the Publisher itself is maximized because commerce can engage with it. Whether the ecosystem has to pay for that access is a separate topic. The availability of it at all is the finer point.

A good example of how impactful this transparency can be is Twitter. Consider how Twitter is used across new, as well as traditional, media. They've completed the commercial data ecosystem cycle with a strong offering in Phase 3.

All three phases are not required for success, but all three are indeed required for success in the broader social data ecosystem.

Monday, February 13, 2012

David & Goliath; Internet Tech Sector & U.S. Government

By way of the Silicon Flatirons "The Digital Broadband Migration: The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance" conference last night, I somehow found myself at a reception with a few dozen brains much bigger than mine; thank you Dean Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal. 1/3 were politicians by trade (even if their primary source of income was commercial/private), and 2/3s were software or broadband infrastructure industry CEOs/leaders. For a more specific sample of who was in the room: Colorado Senator Mark Udall, Edward Felton (CTO, FTC)Daniel Weitzner (deputy CTO for Internet policy), Dave Wright (CEO, SolidFire), Founder CableLabs, an executive from Dish Network, an executive from Comcast, Robert Reich (CEO, OpenSpace)Jim Franklin (CEO, SendGrid), Jason Mendelson (Partner at Foundry Group), Brad Feld (Partner at Foundry Group).

In listening to the conversation during the reception, and prior at the conference, a consistent theme emerged; "voice." Senator Udall (paraphrasing): "make sure your internet tech sector's voice is heard. there are important policies in play. your voice was only heard late in the game on SOPA/PIPA." Phil Weiser (paraphrasing): "traditional industry is used to having frameworks such as trade associations to help them voice their perspective to Congress."

The room was filled with incredibly smart people, yet we were not being heard on incredibly important topics. I'm grateful for Senator Udall having invested several hours into the event; he was fully engaged. I'm speaking more generally about Congress at large. SOPA/PIPA were an eye opener for me. How could such potentially impactful, and broken, legislation have made it down the pike in the first place? That's the question I'm stuck pondering. Unfortunately, I don't like my answer.

At least one of the reasons our voice is indeed not being heard is because we're not speaking the same language that the system has grown up speaking. Phil Weiser was on-point eluding to trade associations' communicative impact on Government. The "internet tech sector" (for lack of a better name) does not lobby the same way more traditional industries do. The result is that our voice does not get heard. Sure some of our peers lobby for their specific interests, but a) they look less and less like the entrepreneurial startup ecosystem everyday (Google, Microsoft, Oracle) and don't represent our interests but 50% of the time anymore, and b) they still spend a pittance relative to the amounts other lobby categories are paid in order to craft/pass legislation. It's a horribly cynical outlook I know, but even Senator Udall implied the success of its Congressional impact during the reception.

SOPA/PIPA illustrated that our collective Internet tech sector approach thus far is going to get us in serious trouble. The Government is going to start passing legislation that has dramatic impact on how we conduct business. They've stayed out of our hair on the direct bill passage front thus far, but that's changing. If we don't get our "voice heard," we'll fall to the giant stalwarts that have dominated Congressional influence to-date.

Because we're a distributed bunch by nature (lots of entrepreneurs, lots of software startups), collective communication is hard. It's even harder when we shove our heads in the sand saying "I'm busy. I've got work to do, and it's hard, and it takes my creative energy. I don't have time to voice my concerns to those perpetuating an archaic system that doesn't apply to me." Well, while true at the moment, the system's applicability to all of us in this space is about to get very personal and direct. If something's not done now, we'll fall later.

What Can Be Done?
We can lobby. We've resisted this thus far, but perhaps it is time for small to mid-sized software "internet tech industry" firms to collectively pony up dues to a more centralized lobby effort and/or trade association that represents our interests. Money talks folks. Always has, always will, and thus far we haven't spent a relative dime trying to have our voice heard.

We can act. PIPA/SOPA was exemplary on this front. However, it was exhausting, inefficient, and it doesn't scale. We can't protest after-the-fact every time bad legislation makes its way through the system.

We can change. While I believe lobbying is the practical/tactical solution, it is broken and wrong in and of itself. The United States is a very different place today. The founding frameworks that have steered elections, law, and legislation to-date simply do not work for such a technologically advanced society. The disconnect between Congress and the people creating jobs and industries today is vast. We can, and need to, change that. Brad Feld made a resonating statement last night at the table, "the compromise approach is inherently flawed. stakeholders need to be problem solving, not compromising." That's a foundational statement that I'd like to see a new system built around. At the same time, it feels revolutionary and that feels hard. It's time for change; execution's always the catch.