(Below is the second installment of an interview featured in our last blog post, between “Disrupted Revolution”‘s author, David Passiak, and SocialFlow Co-Founder, Frank Speiser).
DP: You founded SocialFlow in 2009 when a lot of stuff was going on in the economy. Why start a business at that moment, and why did you choose Twitter?
FS: Mike Perrone and I started SocialFlow to solve our own problem. Mike and I had just left companies because they had been sold. I just had a kid and was taking some time off. When you sit around talking to an eight-month old kid, and it is impossible to overstate how amazing that is in its own right, there is not a lot of stimulating adult conversation. So we decided to do something interesting and started a podcast.
The problem was that we couldn’t get anybody to listen to it. We sent out an email with a link in it where we could track the 300 people who got that email, and nobody clicked the link. After six hours, we said, “We can’t take this.” I think a normal person would have just quit and moved on, but Mike and I are both pretty stubborn and we were like, “Let’s make this work.” So we started sharing the link to people who had used the topics we had tagged to our podcasts our podcast in their Tweets or status updates for Facebook.
The “a-ha” moment came pretty quickly when we realized that you have a greater than one-to-one conversion rate: For every message you share, more than one person would click the link or interact with the message. Mike had a direct marketing background and he was going through the stats the day after we started doing this and he realized, if you can connect with people when they want you to connect with you, then you get this great distribution and there’s huge upside.
We started comparing it with traditional, existing forms of media and we realized it’s way cheaper to distribute things this way because the platforms carry the cost of the messaging for you. You don’t have to pay to tweet or pay to post to Facebook at least to some part of your audience. The problem of, “What’s worth paying to go over and above that?” came later, but we still figured that out pretty early on as well.
As far as starting during the recession, I think we never really thought it was a recession. I mean, recession for whom? Tech people never really went out of work and there was no slowdown in technical advancement; Twitter was ramping pretty quickly, Facebook was growing like crazy. This was an opportune time to start a company like ours, so we went full speed ahead. It is also important to understand what a recession is: a slow-down in spending. During these times, entities move to save instead of spend, which means if you have a good idea, the deeper you get into a recession, the more cash is out there to deploy against those good ideas. If you have a good idea, it’s a good idea: do something with it.
DP: Do you think the economic crash may have actually accelerated the adoption of social within larger companies because of better ROI and better ways to track engagement more cost-effectively?
FS: Yes, because the companies had to do something. Their profit margins were shrinking, because if you have an economy that’s based on access to capital and credit, and it starts to become harder to access capital, you have three choices: (1) You find new capital, which is not that easy in a situation like that; (2) You can die off, which is not a viable option when you have a vested interest in your high-paying job still being there a year from now; or (3) You can trim costs.
Things get kind of real once money gets tight. It forces people to start looking at ways to get the same, for less. Technology shortens a certain amount of time and labor to accomplish something—it’s this same mechanism over and over throughout human history that has gotten us to where we are now.
DP: Social media has been very disruptive to traditional publishing. Thousands of leading news and magazines went out of business in the last few years. Many of your clients are larger enterprise, traditional publishers that managed to survive disruption and continue to remain market leaders. How does a company like SocialFlow help enterprise publishers to engage and build their audiences?
FS: You start by thinking what business you are in. Are you in the business of reporting the news or are you in the business of selling the media when the news comes up? I don’t think that anyone would sit down and argue that physical media newspapers are the wave of the future. I don’t even go to the end of my driveway to pick up my newspaper—I get kind of mad when people throw a trial newspaper in my driveway because I have to walk all the way out there and pick it up, and it’s yesterday’s news. Meanwhile, I have today’s news right in my pocket on my phone.
A lot of our customers realized that business on the Internet is the next frontier. Some look at it on its own P&L. Some have a subscription and/or ad-supported business and they can figure out how much they put into it vs. how much they’re getting out. They also realize they’re not in the business of deploying messages or deploying physical media to get the news out. They are in the news or the content business and the way they get return on investment is by driving people to their site.
We help them do that without having to put a lot of labor into it. They don’t have to prepare or format the content—our platform takes care of all that for them—which allows them to do what they do best, which is create great content. So they focus on content, and we help them get the content where it needs to be, when it is most likely to pull people into their content experience.
DP: SocialFlow is one of the select few Certified Partners for Twitter and you have also developed a great relationship with Facebook, including winning a Facebook Innovation Award. How does a company go from being a startup to negotiating a partnership with a market leading company like Facebook or Twitter?
FS: You have got to hustle, that’s the first thing. It starts there and you have really got to try hard. The second thing is, you’ve got to do something different. So you can’t start off by saying, “We want to be like them.”
We came at it from the perspective of, “How can we make this better for the users of these products?” SocialFlow is valuable to Facebook and Twitter because people get better results from using both platforms by using our product. Anytime you’re developing a product, you should think, “How do I make this work for the person who’s paying for it?” “How do I make their life better by doing this?”
Being an entrepreneur is actually a great line of work because you get paid to, A) discover the truth, and B) make someone’s life better. Then you go to the platforms and say, “This is how we want to work with you. This is the opportunity. Look at the problems that we solve and how we’re making things better.”
So, there’s a mechanical piece where you put the work in and get in front of them whenever you can, but the real reason why they want to do business with you is because they can see that you are out there making the lives of the users on their platforms better, and the experience of using their platform better.
DP: That brings up a larger theme related to this book. A lot of people use the term “disruption” all the time in tech. People tend to say, “we’re disrupting this market” as if they want to ruin or attack legacy businesses. The way you’ve described what you’re doing could be considered disruptive, but it is disruptive in the sense that you are offering a better and more unique solution.
FS: Yes, that’s the only kind of disruption that works. Disruption advocates on behalf of the people who are usually penalized. That’s the best part of the technical revolution. If there wasn’t disruption—say, in the information industry—instead of having Google, what you’d have is a really awesome-looking card catalog at the library, and some really powerful telephone-operators union that connects people. But that doesn’t exist and is way more expensive than just searching on Google and distributing things that way. People’s lives are better for that and they don’t miss the old days.
Everyone is worried about shipping jobs overseas and all these other problems, but it only impacts the people whose jobs got shipped and whose jobs were dependent on that. The people who buy the things they’re producing are not complaining—they’re getting things at a better price, faster. So it’s not just a loss. There’s an upside to it because people can go out and get what they want cheaper, which is what disruption does.
It’s a good thing; it’s progress. It’s something to look forward to, not to fear. It is easy for us to say that on the edge of the technical revolution, and learning new skills amidst the uncertainty is scary—but it is heroic in the sense that each person who chooses to take up this challenge is moving humanity forward. When you can use technology to harness this momentum, things change pretty quickly. It’s an amazing trait of humanity, especially this generation.
DP: Looking back on the last few years, what assumptions did you have when you started that turned out to be right or wrong? For example, did you think Facebook or Twitter would become as big as they are now?
FS: By 2009, I was sure they were going to get pretty big because all signs pointed to people preferring to communicate in that manner. I was a little surprised that text messaging didn’t improve as a response against Twitter. I thought that there would have been some other industry that made text messaging awesome, so I’m surprised that didn’t happen. On the flip side, it’s a little surprising to see how big Facebook and Twitter got in such a short time.
Facebook also brought in a lot of the edge cases much faster than I thought. For example, now I can see my father, aunts and uncles on Facebook. It seems completely normal that people co-exist—it’s kind of like our generation’s TV or radio. Every generation in the past 120 years has had a massive leap forward in terms of how well and how quickly they communicate, and this was ours. I think Facebook cemented that and Twitter changed the way you distribute information.
DP: Related specifically to Twitter, there’s a great example on the SocialFlow blog of when Keith Urban broke the Osama bin Laden tweet. You tracked how it spread exponentially over time across all of these different nodes and networks. Can you walk me through how a message starts propagating and growing, the point where it breaks on Twitter, and how a platform like SocialFlow helps to track and manage its spread?
FS: Those kinds of things aren’t necessarily managing as much as you’re strapped to the bullet and ride when it starts to take off. Everything to a lesser degree is an example of that. What matters is when you enter the conversation. In the case of Keith Urban, that was a breaking news example and it showed you the power of pre-existing trust. Urban didn’t have much of a network to speak of when he sent that tweet, only about 900+ followers. What made his tweet important was that people knew and trusted him. So, in order to succeed, you need to have context, predictability and utility. Urban had all three.
Urban’s tweet was picked up by Brian Stelter, who has a pretty big network—not a huge one, but at the time it was big enough—and he broadcast it out there. Then all of a sudden, it was the tweet that got out there. The people who connected on that one were trusted enough to be verified and their opinions were valued, and the resistance to sharing it decreased, the further out it got. This is the opposite of what a normal message looks like that doesn’t have a lot of utility. When you get a message that has a lot of usefulness behind it and people can see information being used the right way, then they tend to share it. This is also kind of why believable hoaxes get so much traction so quickly.