I’m pleased to announce that today marks the public launch of Sociable Labs. You can read all about our new ROI-Guided Social Design solution and the $7 million round of funding we raised from Battery Ventures in the press releases issued today, but I’d like to share with you what inspired me to found the company.
The idea for Sociable Labs came about from my experience developing an application on Facebook called Party Buzz. Party Buzz helped people discover the best local events via their Facebook friends. It developed a small but active user base in San Francisco. One night I was at an art show that I had discovered via Party Buzz. As I was gazing at a painting, a couple next to me began talking about how fantastic this event was. Then to my surprise, they commented on how they had both found out about it via Party Buzz, from a mutual friend who recommended the event. At this point I had to interject and introduce myself. After all, the odds of this occurrence were so improbable, that I could only interpret the encounter as a sign from a higher power! We began talking about how useful it was to discover information via friends, and how Party Buzz had made the process so easy.
My adrenaline still rushing from my pleasantly freakish encounter at the art gallery got me thinking about the broader applicability for this type of technology. Friend influence is a key factor in the discovery and purchase process for so many types of products and services, yet most of this occurs offline. I knew there had to be a better way to access my friends’ opinions without having to email them or call them all individually. What if I could go to an e-commerce website and quickly see which products my friends had purchased or recommended? It would be a much more efficient replica of the process that people were using offline. That’s when the idea for Sociable Labs was first born. All of my experience working in the Facebook ecosystem led me to believe that the idea had great merit as a business opportunity.
I started creating Facebook apps in late 2007 when the Facebook Platform was released. It was a very exciting time, as Facebook had just opened its user base to third party applications. For the next two years, the most successful applications were clearly about entertainment, things that would get a rise from friends and give the user some instant gratification. In doing significant user research and testing during this phase, I found that the way people used Facebook was not conducive to context switching. Users on Facebook were clearly there to kill time and be entertained; apps that tried to context switch to other tasks failed to gain traction.
As this was going on, businesses were being told by “social media experts” that social media marketing was about gaining Facebook fans and Twitter followers. This became the de facto model for how businesses could “engage in the conversation” in social. I believe this model of Facebook fan pages was flawed to begin with for the purpose of e-commerce, as its roots were based on replicating the very successful model that MySpace had established with music bands. However, a music band trying to gain a following is a very different goal than say, Dell trying to sell more computers. Businesses trying to leverage social media marketing to drive sales were struggling. Even the best examples, such as Dell heralding the several million in sales they achieved via their followers/fans, was miniscule compared to their total sales volume, especially given the investments they had made to acquire a very large amount of fans/followers.
Both of these problems had been gnawing at me. On the one hand, businesses looking to leverage social to drive sales were failing. On the other hand, Facebook users were fatigued by the novelty of Facebook apps, and were ripe for innovative uses of the social graph to enrich their lives in new ways.
The key technology enabler to solve both these problems came in 2009, when Facebook Connect was released and began to show traction with both users and businesses. Facebook Connect was a groundbreaking technology, as it had made the social graph and access to Facebook communication channels accessible by third party domains for the first time. While Facebook Platform had been around for nearly 2 years at this point, this was the first time you could utilize a user’s Facebook data off of Facebook itself. This created the opportunity for a whole new set of social experiences because it would finally be possible to know that two unique visitors to a website were friends with each other.
The portability of the social graph now meant that users didn’t have to context switch on Facebook.com itself, instead we could apply the social graph into other contexts for them. Businesses could now shift their attention from fan page marketing to creating authentic word-of-mouth marketing from their own websites. Dell for example, could get a much bigger bang for their social media investment by focusing on social graph integration on Dell.com, which has more than 10X the monthly site traffic (~10M UVs) as compared to their 700,000 fans on Facebook. A true “win-win” for both consumers and marketers.
As I discovered at that fateful art show, it is a thrilling experience to help connect people with information that can make their lives better in a small, but meaningful way. Whether that’s helping them discover a great event, find the perfect dress, or pick the right camera. Sociable Labs is helping people discover and harness friend opinions’ easier and more efficiently online, right at the point of purchase. I believe that’s the future of social commerce, and the vision that compelled me to start Sociable Labs.