In Washington They Ask, "What Can We Actually Use?"

As many of you know, I’ve spent the better part of the last three months looking for sustainable employment. Historically (in the past two years), I have focused on technology startups outside of my geographical region, but, as time has gone on I have seen increasing value in planting roots with a local firm.

In this process, I have interviewed with agencies, political action comittees, social cause organization, activist groups, development shops and even the occasional PR firm. However, by and large, most of these organizations are connected to the Washington government machine in some way.

A question that comes up frequently in interviews, specifically because I have a unique position as “power player” in the web space, is “What is out there that is new that we can use?”

This question has been answered in a variety of ways, being refined for each organization and group. Different folks, different strokes, different spokes.

As an early adopter of most new web technologies, I recognize this question. It is a question that generally stems from the desire to “be relevant” but often doesn’t consider the mission and constituency. So, in an admittedly generic and assumptive way, I’ll answer this question, and leave you scratching your head as to why I get hired for my social media strategery… There is nothing new out there that you can use.

Nothing. Absolutely Zero.

The principles of communication are really simple and have remained consistent over 10,000 years of recorded history… Talk to people the way you would want to be talked to. Give people information the way they want to consume information. If that’s a YouTube video, make a YouTube video (Bonus points if you can articulate a surefire way to make a viral YouTube video! ;-) ). If you have a thousand attorneys on a email newsletter, then communicate with compelling email newsletters (and talk to my buddy, Greg Cangialosi, over at Blue Sky Factory about their solutions). If your constituency wants a “pull” aggregator of interesting related content, give them a Delicious feed. If you are dealing with foreign wars, try to communicate with photography. If you’re dealing with climate change, work with a Google Maps mashup (build one!) showing the effect of rising sea levels and deforestation.

In other words, communications principles always remain the same: communicate with people on their level with respect. The execution of such principles varies according to organization.

Putting aside the “best tool” question, the real question becomes: How will you use the tools available to execute on mission, not simply be sexy?

Answers?

Lessons Learned — Scaling Social Systems

delicious-server.png

My charter with Venture Files is to contribute to and promote entrepreneurship and the startup scene around DC in general. Now, as I’ve warned, my posts may reveal my bias towards the Web 2.0 world. (It’s what my startup is about.) But heck — I’m at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC, so . . .

A session today of great interest was Joshua Schachter’s ‘Lessons Learned in Scaing and Building Social Systems.’ For many of us, Schachter lived the great American Web 2.0 dream:

Step 1. Build an app (del.icio.us) in your spare time, and operate it from your apartment (server ‘farm’ below);

Step 2. Sell it to Yahoo! (rumored to be in the neighborhood of $20M . . . nice neighborhood);

Step 3. Retire (he now devotes his time to playing XBox).

Delicious server.png

I can certainly relate to that!

Schachter’s talk on scaling wasn’t technical — he was referring to scaling the features, the very functionality of his social bookmarking site del.icio.us (now delicious.com).

Interestingly, Schachter built the application to solve a problem he had — he had a Word file with thousands of lines of links for all the web pages he bookmarked. Thus, the application’s initial value was utility. And that’s what Schachter would provide the world — a useful site for keeping track of favorite sites . . . and making your friends aware of them.

And for a couple of years, that’s what it did. But when the number of users got substantial, features surrounding the network effect eclipsed the site’s original value. Achieving a critical mass of users (file this under ‘high-class problem’) suddenly transformed the site’s functionality from a utility to a social application, giving Schachter a whole new set of issues to deal with — customer service, spam, kiddie porn. (“You see it all, when you get to scale.”)

Ultimately (for all of us), the focus of scaling shifts to revenue. Being ad-driven, for del.icio.us, that meant getting to more and more users and pageviews. Subtleties start to really matter, such as encouraging sharing among del.icio.us users (he saw, for example, that a disproportionate number were checking the ‘keep private’ box; it dropped dramatically when the label was changed to ‘do not share’ — as in, ‘what, you don’t want to share your toys, Johnny?’). Bingo.

“The problem, however, is that these features impact one another. Optimizing revenue often comes at the expense of user satisfaction — think of ad-splattered sites, or Evites that force you to visit the site, rather than providing details of the invitation in the email.”

Here are a few other nuggets:

Make your product self-marketing Provide as much functionality as you possibly can before asking people to register.

Want harmony on your site? Avoid conversations Schachter really disliked the flame wars that comments generate, so unlike digg, delicious.com to this day has none.

Listen to your users We’ve heard it a hundred times, but the best founders (Flickr, 37 Signals, WineLibraryTV) all really do it — Schachter read and answered every customer email up until a year ago, when the volume got so great, five people at a Yahoo! customer-support center had to be dedicated to it.

Learn your ‘drivers of infection’ The two most dramatic traffic-builders for del.icio.us were the Firefox plug-in and the RSS feed.

Great lessons for all of us.

Yahoo Could Have Owned Social Networking

Get this. Yahoo owns tons of social networking sites. They own MyBlogLog, Flickr and Del.icio.us. They own Upcoming.org. They own Konfabulator, now known as Yahoo! Widgets which is not social networking but adds features for potential social networking applications. They own Jumpcut, the upstart video platform.

Yahoo partners with Zillow to provide estimates on real estate to Yahoo! Real Estate users. Single handedly, Yahoo dominates the fantasy sports market, a demographic that is fiercely loyal and extensive use type users.

To cap it off, Yahoo could have owned Facebook if it wasn’t for management dropping the ball. Given Facebook’s recent emergence, a $1B investment in Facebook would probably return to Yahoo 3-5 times over in the next 2 years in terms of Facebook valuation.

The problem with Yahoo, of course, is not Yahoo. Yahoo has certainly not helped itself. But as Elise Ackerman at the Merc points out, “…that Yahoo shouldn’t try to out-Google Google“.

Google is the king of search. It is the king of remnant advertising in terms of pure marketshare. It is the king of web-based productivity tools (Gmail, Documents & Spreadsheets, Calendar). Yahoo can’t compete on Google’s turf.

However, they can beef up their social networking and become the king of that niche. Web 2.0 is all about the mashup so Yahoo’s challenge is figuring out how to actually integrate all these social networks they own into a compelling product or group of products.

Incidentally, the buzz today is that Fox Interactive may be in talks with Yahoo to trade off MySpace for a 30% stake in Yahoo. There be dragons in those talks. Watch closely!