As a social site, Facebook relies on user contributions – many in the form of links to content on other sites – to build its on-line community. That’s great for Facebook, but not for the content providers. They’ve helped Facebook reach a value as high as $100 billion, but there’s precious little benefit for them.
An Israeli start-up is aiming to correct the imbalance. Nadav Shoval, CEO and co-founder of Spot.IM, spells it out: “We offer websites an opportunity to build their own user communities, engaging with content on the site itself, instead of ‘exporting’ them to Facebook,” Shoval told The Times of Israel. “The users, clicks, links, metrics – and money – stay on the site, enriching its owners instead of Facebook.”
Facebook’s great wealth and huge user base has spawned wannabes that hope to cash in on part of the great social network’s fame and fortune – so far, to no avail. It appears that people want to go where the action is, and with over a billion users, that’s Facebook.
Spot.IM’s system is unlikely to attract a billion users to any one site – but for Spot.IM customers like Red Bull, London entertainment magazine Time Out, and music journal Kerrang, it’s enough that the platform helps them keep their own users engaged, both with their content and with each other. “Spot.IM has helped us to discover and build an on-line community for Red Bull Cliff Diving,” Red Bull web editor Chris Stanton says in a testimonial. “Via a live chat with the divers and the users we have built a live conversation and raised the profile of the project and the sport. Our goal is to develop this community further.”
Community is what it’s all about for Spot.IM, said Shoval. The platform lets website owners drag and drop a Facebook-like interactive dialog system, called a Spot, where people can post messages in real time, see who else is on-line, and post comments publicly or privately to specific users. Users can post links from any site, and a Spot can be set up for an entire site or a specific page. By engaging users directly, said Shoval, sites can keep users on-line longer, bring in more traffic and retain it, and expand their user community significantly – all metrics, as it happens, that Google and other firms use to measure site popularity and reach, which translate into the amount of money sites can get for banner ads, Google Text ads, and more.
“We respect Facebook for what they do, and one thing they do well is allow sites to engage with new users,” said Shoval. “When someone posts a link from a content site to a Facebook page, users who click on it are redirected to the content page. Usually, they would just close the page and go back to Facebook, since they are probably unfamiliar with the site – but when they discover that there is a community on that site itself, and not just on a Facebook page, they are more likely to stay and be converted into site users.”
In that sense, Spot.IM is a “subversive” product. Instead of confirming the usual pattern of supplying content to Facebook, which uses it to advance its own on-line presence, Spot.IM uses Facebook to funnel audience to the content site itself, where they would hopefully remain. And the concept works, said Shoval. Unwilling or unable to share specific numbers, he said that “we have seen dozens of case studies that show user engagement in all aspects increasing significantly with our platform.”
Facebook, of course, never misses a trick, and the company too provides an API that lets web sites use its platform to engage content readers. Many sites today use that API as a way to ferret out undesirables from a user community. In order to engage with a site, users have to log in with Facebook, the idea being that they will be less likely to post offensive content because they are traceable. Again, it’s a great idea – for Facebook, said Shoval. “Those users may be engaging with the content on a site, but they ‘belong’ to Facebook, and Facebook is the one getting ‘metrics credit’ for them.” The same could be said for other social sites, like Twitter, but as the big kid on the block, Facebook is the biggest winner in this game.
Facebook’s service isn’t free. Shoval said that some of his customers have complained of being billed tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, for the privilege of letting Facebook manage their social interaction. “Right now, we’re offering Spot.IM for free, and eventually we will develop a revenue-sharing model,” said Shoval. “Our financing will follow what I call ‘the Karmic model’ – a win for the users, a win for the content owners, and a win for us.” And because Spot.IM interactions happen in real time, site administrators can nip any negativity in the bud. The platform comes with a slew of security features, allowing the automatic blocking of platform engagement on offensive sites, like porn sites.
Shoval also wouldn’t give specifics on Spot.IM’s funding, but did say that the company has raised several million dollars “from CEOs and active players in the Internet business around the world who believe in our model.” The Spot.IM team members are veterans of the Israeli business scene. Shoval, at 24, is one of the youngest CEOs in Israel, and he’s already on his third company — he built his first big Internet project at age 11. His partner, Yishai Green, was head of Soluto, which developed a popular PC management tool, selling the company last year for $130 million. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett was a senior adviser to that company.
For Shoval, it’s not about “killing” Facebook – but about providing some Internet justice for content creators. “News sites and other content creators are losing money daily, doing all the work but not getting the benefits of user engagement. They’ve allowed others – most notably Facebook – to benefit from the community that rightly belongs to them. Spot.IM lets them do that.”