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Facebook: Questions anyone?

Facebook Questions

I am going to take a quick little dab at Facebook’s Question product. I am sure many of you would have noticed the sideways-charts-like icon sitting pretty beside the status icon on your news feed. I was excited to see a new product from Facebook that dramatically changes the way we interact with our small (or big) network of Facebook friends as well as the larger 600MM Facebook network. However, I was quite disappointed with some of the really obvious gotchas in – content discovery, noise-reduction and users/answers ranking. Why? This tool/product promises so much and yet manages to fail on some key areas that matter from Facebook’s perspective – User Acquisition, User Interaction and Retention.

Comeon. Let’s get our hands dirty.

Total time spent online in US

Your Facebook is one of the most visited websites in the whole “internets”. Yes. You. Your News Feed page.  You don’t believe me? Please see time spent on the web here and social networking here. Let’s just say most users spending time online spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook than any other website. If I had to quantify that statement with the limited information I have, it is atleast 3X the time spent on Google which is by far the leader of the top-10 websites in the world pack- please see here. Analyzing each one of the “key areas” I mentioned above and some more:

1. User acquisition. Does not seem to be a problem for Facebook. It’s at 600MM users and growing. But, new product launches that alter user behavior will definitely need a “warming up” period to see if the product gains traction. New product adoption hinges on how easily the product is delivered to the user, the learning curve involved and how relevant (read interesting) it is for the user. In that respect, what percentage of the 600MM users would use Question and what percentage would really use it to ask a Question of their friends. That is the Question Facebook (pun intended) will try to answer with product improvements and more customer feedback.

My Verdict: Fantastic Job! I would temper that with the set of questions.. is Facebook rolling out Question to facilitate a rich source of quality answers/information, does FB have a set of rules to weed out noise or if not, is Question just a simple and handy polling tool? There does not seem to be a convincing answer for each of these questions.

2. Question Product. While Question hits the ball out of the park for the ease with which it is delivered to the user and learning curve involved. It is still a far cry from being relevant – purely, from a content discovery perspective. Ofcourse, that’s only my opinion and maybe, others think differently. I say that because I see a lot of noise rather than questions/polls I deem relevant. However, if  you see it as a product line extension to Status updates with questions seeking information about the best pizzeria in North Beach, San Francisco etc., it is an amazing tool.

My Verdict:  Question is a great product or substitute  for a subset of status messages. What it is not (yet) is that it is not a Quora or a typical forum to raise discussions.

3. User Interaction. Facebook has done a fantastic job of integrating Question at two levels that I believe are a core user-experience on Facebook. (a) Share status messages, links, questions etc., at the top of your Facebook page and as an (b) Application listed along with other applications such as photos, notes, groups, games, Marketplace etc. at the left-bottom. What is interesting is that Question doesn’t feature along with Messages or Events at the Left-Top which seems like a natural place for a new product to be rolled out. I’m sure the good folks @FB would have discussed this very question and figured Left-Bottom is the place to go. It is important to remember, all of this holds good only for the homepage and not your profile page where Questions features along with your Info, Photos, Notes and Friends at the Left-Top. This locations seems like a natural-fit and is probably a very good choice for a new product and a product such as Question.

My Verdict: Sharing Questions and using Questions is a breeze. It is just not relevant or robust enough at this stage for a wholesome experience. Not to mention the lack of features such as discovering and following interesting topics etc.

4. User Retention. This is going to take time and multiple iterations. Going by past record, Facebook really has its ears glued to what its users are asking and I believe, will continue to improve and iterate over Questions for the better and faster than most others would have you believe. If, say, Facebook hoped to tap into even just 1% of its regular users (assuming 200MM – 1/3rd of its current 600MM users) in the first month, I’m quite certain they succeeded, infact, I would bet more than 1MM users use Question. Of that 1MM, how many would continue to use it actively? What is the product position? Is it (as mentioned-above) a substitute for some status messages or is it just another application that you do not mute in the hopes of seeing some relevant news 1 in 10 posts? The answer seems to be yes and yes for both. Now, that’s a problem. You can’t be everything to everyone. Assuming, savvy users will figure out what to do with a product leaves a lot open to risk and consumer behavior. I doubt that is what some of the smart folks @FB intended. I would ask how do they plan to engage users if they plan to go beyond a status message substitute? How do they plan to allow users to look for topics of interest and discover questions aligned with their interest? Sure, I can “follow” questions but how do I get there in the first place? I am convinced it has to be easier if the method’s already available, it has escaped me completely.

My Verdict: One problem that Facebook has answered and is continuing to improve upon is slicing and dicing all its data to present in a very simple format for all the users. It is an exponential problem for a product such as Questions though. How do you ensure the right topics, Questions are provided to the user? How do you eliminate all the myriad “noise” sources to enable users to get to data they find interesting and relevant. In other words, how do you retain users or how do you enable users to actively use your product as compared to infrequently?

What can be done?

a) Clarify Customers: Yes. Question can be rolled out to all Facebook users. But, depending on who is targeted, the use-case and flow would obviously change. Hence, clarifying who the target customers are should be the first task. In other words, if Question is just a “sharing” method to ask questions of your core network of friends, Question is good as it is. Ofcourse, it needs to improve in how it is delivered in the news feed etc. but it is a great start. However, if Question was intended to be a Quora like service (as Facebook seems to tout the product), focus more on setting it up as an application/page along with notes and allowing sharing your questions/answers with your friends based on topics/questions you frequent. In fact, following high-quality users “experts” could be turned on as well. Although, I’m not sure, if that feature’s something Facebook would consider enabling. I don’t see why not though. It just gets a little messy unless rules are setup automatically to exclude personal information, wall-posts etc from being visible to users who follow you through Questions. This reinforces my belief that Question is better served as a separate application/page rather than just a “sharing-tool”.

b) Clarify Positioning: Depending on the choice of target customers, Question needs to be refocused for that target segment. Or at the very least, features allowing such users to engage with other similar users and use Question need to be delivered. I believe this would be an important step in articulating what the product can do and how it can be used. Why? Well, if I wanted to follow topics, if I wanted to follow some “experts”, if I wanted to have Questions/Answers delivered in a more intuitive way and not just as a list of Questions my friends answered, I don’t have a choice now. I am going to have to sift through all the information on my news feed or the Questions page to get to interesting Questions or topics.

c) Question Product (My Strategy): The answers to the above 2 questions would help create more relevant use-cases and product features including its position on your Facebook Page’s real estate. If I were to redo Question, here’s what I would do:

Facebook Ask and Questions ?

1) Separate Question into 2 products: One a dumbed-down, simpler “poll” version that can be used in the News Feed to share with my friends that I would call Facebook Ask and another full-fledged product, Facebook Questions, directly competing with Quora (atleast, a part of Quora’s market) and/or the market Quora doesn’t necessarily address – soccer-moms (eg., best recipe for home-cooked 10-min pasta), uber-geeks (eg., how best to setup a wordpress account), soccer-dads (eg., how to file state taxes without getting swindled by a local tax agent) etc. I think these questions/topics often lend themselves well to a majority of the Facebook users without estranging some sections. For example, a discussion on QE3 may not be an ideal discussion over a cup of joe on Facebook.

2) Design Use-cases and Flows for each product allowing Discovery: In the early stages, obviously, there isn’t a lot of data (questions/answers) to be discovered. But, with millions of users, it would be easy to build a huge database in a matter of weeks or months. Considering the 2nd Question product geared towards segments I described above, use-cases intentionally designed to encourage relevant content discovery would ensure Question gains traction quickly and as desired.

3) Sharing: Facebook has scale both in terms of users and customers such as NY Times, CNN etc using FB-Sharing icons. An easy extension to the Question product would be to “ask” a relevant group/friends-list their opinion on an article or explain concepts mentioned in articles. There’s just an insane amount of possibilities. Which is why I believe, it is important to disambiguate, Question as a sharing tool on your News Feed etc and the product that enables content discovery, answering questions and following experts.

4) Monetization: 2 Revenue Channels would be partners such as NYTimes, Forbes etc and clients advertising on the Facebook ad platform. Imagine, a tax service such as H&R Block advertising on a Question about the best tax agent in Palo alto luring potential customers with discounts and engaging customers with good-quality answers and not spam. This is just the tip of the ice-berg of possibilities.

Internet Advertising 2010

Lastly, I will leave you with some more recent news that describes online advertising to be a bigger market than print media. Facebook can not only take a piece of the print media advertising, internet advertising but also, TV advertising. In fact, most companies are using a social media campaign in tandem with their usual advertising channels and as Question gains traction, you will see more engagement from companies going above and beyond a Facebook Page.

As always, that’s my 2C and it has been done with limited time and research. So, take it all with a liberal dose of salt.

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LinkedIn – Tip of the Iceberg

 

LinkedIn
LinkedIn

On January 27th, 2011, Steve Sordello, LinkedIn’s CFO, wrote on his blog that LinkedIn has filed a registration with the SEC for a proposed initial public offering for its Class A common stock. The blogosphere, alongwith several reputed magazines immediately touted this move as the firing of the first salvo for all the hugely promising social networking companies such as Facebook and Zynga. For example, see positive news here, here and here, but, if you would like some caution, see what Jim Breyer from Accel Partners has to say.

How does this move matter?

1. In an economic climate that has been anything but rosy for the majority of the population in the US with 9.4% unemployment in Dec, 2010 (See: http://www.bls.gov/), this is indeed a great shot in the arm for all the pre-IPO hopefuls. Why? Innovation is not only driven by the GEs, Googles/ and Microsofts of the world, but also and infact, more so, by the entrepreneurs who disrupt the status quo in the industry.

2. Social Networking has gained so much traction in the last couple of years and most of us are aware of the Facebook juggernaut and Google’s woes (Please take a bow Google Buzz and Wave) in putting out a social product that matters. Lots of valuation numbers have been bandied about for Facebook including the more recent Goldman Sachs’ $50B valuation. Now, LinkedIn’s IPO will put things in perspective and test the waters in terms of how the public reacts to its shares. Not that the public sentiment towards a stock is a great metric, but, it does act as a data-point towards measuring the general consensus in social networking stocks. It might be prudent to be wary of a social networking bubble.

3. LinkedIn itself needs to up the ante and move on to the next level. Now why would I say that about a company that has released multiple products every month over the last 4 years and doubled its workforce in a year to about 1000 in 2010? Please read on as I try to dissect LinkedIn’s value-proposition, user-base and possible revenue models.

I. VALUE PROPOSITION:

LinkedIn – A Professional Social Network; A social networking website connecting professionals. The LinkedIn website acquires users, engages and retains them through a wide variety of products. It has morphed into a job search tool, recruiters’ go-to product for head hunting and a collaboration website for current and ex-employees.

User Acquisition:

1. Job seekers use LinkedIn to actively search for jobs and apply. (in some cases, companies post specific jobs only on LinkedIn). Competitors include HotJobs (which Y! sadly sold to Monster early last year), Monster, craigslist, indeed, careerbuilder etc.,

2. Recruiters use LinkedIn to make a more informed decision on candidates based on their profiles, recommendations, connections and activities. Competitors include the above-mentioned, as well as, Viadeo and Xing etc.

3. Corporate/Companies use LinkedIn to create a “presence” on LinkedIn and try to lure potential candidates.

User Engagement/Retention:

1. Users (Job-Seekers, Recruiters and the rest) use LinkedIn to communicate with their network to provide updates about their career  moves, key industry events, blogs and status messages about their activities.

2. Recruiters use LinkedIn to mine the available users data to scout for talent, actively reach out to professionals to gauge interest in positions they are trying to recruit for, and engage with other recruiters.

3. Companies actively engage their “followers” with polls, press releases and products announcements, post jobs and information about company culture etc..

4. The rest of the products such as integrated applications including TripIt, Amazon, dropbox.net, slideshare etc help users add more information to their profile and update their network about their activities.

5. Products such as Groups, Polls, LinkedIn Answers and Signals enable communication amongst unrelated professionals (unrelated through their network) but sharing a common group.

Clearly, LinkedIn’s value proposition is in the strength and quality of its social network. As CEO, Jeff Weiner once famously responded to a question about Facebook rolling out a similar product with 2 words: “Keg Stands”. Those two words rightly answer the question about the competitive advantage (credibility and authenticity) of a niche professional network site such as LinkedIn and how Facebook with its seemingly loose and personal network value-proposition may never be able to achieve the same credibility and authenticity in a professional setting.

II. LINKEDIN TIMELINES AND USER-BASE:

LinkedIn Timelines
LinkedIn Timelines

A quick look at the LinkedIn Timelines tells us that LinkedIn has basically doubled in users and number of employees since it was founded in 2003. It has also secured funding at key junctures from some of the most reputed venture capital funds in the industry including Sequoia, Greylock Partners and Bain Capital. After the first 2 years, with around 4MM users, LinkedIn started experimenting with paid services and products.

LinkedIn Worldwide Members

LinkedIn Worldwide Members, 2011

As of January, 2011, LinkedIn has 90+ Million members worldwide. The image on the right attempts to split the membership across different countries. It is obvious most of the growth has been in the US with over 50% subscribers in the US and some interesting numbers in Europe. Netherlands has the highest penetration rate. China is completely off the radar at this stage. There is a huge growth prospect. As of 2010, the world working age population is 4.5B (Data Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects). So, even if we assume LinkedIn can convert 10% of the working age population by 2015, we are looking at 450MM users by 2015!!!

 

LinkedIn Users Forecast
LinkedIn Users Forecast: 450-500MM by 2015

I have attempted to forecast potential user-base for LinkedIn for the next 5 years (including 2011). I have used two simple projections: an aggressive estimate that uses historic data and forecasts till 2015 by doubling each year and a conservative estimate with 40MM users added each year. (40MM users were added in 2010 and assuming LinkedIn has the same marketing expenditures, acquisition costs and target customers interest remain the same). The aggressive estimate yields 1.4B users by 2015 whereas, the conservative forecast results in a “meager” 220MM users by 2015. Finally, I chose the middle path and decided a 10% conversion of the 4.5B working age population across the world would yield closer to 500M users by 2015. And by no means, would this be a very aggressive target considering the fact that LinkedIn is still nascent in its market. Infact, I would hope and bet that they reach 500MM users sooner than 2015.

Now that we have addressed LinkedIn’s value proposition and user-base, we will move on to the most interesting (personally) aspect about LinkedInits revenue models!

III. LINKEDIN REVENUE MODELS:

(a) Current Revenue Models

1.  Upgraded Acccounts: Business, Business Plus and Pro Accounts provide extra features, including thorough lists of who’s searched for you and your company.

2. Hiring services.

3. Advertising – DirectAds.

Nothing fancy in these revenue models. These are quite straight-forward considering LinkedIn’s target customer segment (users and recruiters). Job-seekers will upgrade to one of the above accounts, recruiters and companies will use the hiring services or recruitment products and advertising on webpages with LinkedIn’s proprietary DirectAds technology (which, btw, is different from Google AdWords meaning there is no option to trigger ads based on keywords). The modus-operandi has been the tried and tested method of acquiring a lot of users and then generating money off of them. What’s unique about LinkedIn is that it didn’t have to search too far and long for a revenue model because its value prop is a revenue model in itself: People looking for jobs are willing to pay premium prices for advanced subscription services and similarly, recruiters are willing to pay a premium for access to a more targeted user profile and analytics or hiring products.

(b) Future Revenue Models [This is where I am going to let my imagination run amuck]

1. Collaboration Tools: Oftentimes, users have all of their current work-groups on LinkedIn, but don’t necessarily leverage their expertise except to post status messages or share posts. It would be a great idea to use some of the integrated applications such as dropbox.net, MS outlook, tungle.me etc to create a seamless collaboration platform for a project workgroup that interacts using email and IM on LinkedIn (or integrated apps) and shares documents etc. After the project is complete the workgroup can be dynamically removed. This is an important potential revenue stream because sharepoint and salesforce are offering similar services right now. None of these services are perfect yet. It is a case of what makes the most sense and is the least painful to adopt. If LinkedIn can offer a compelling product rather than just plugins through 3rd party apps, it will have a winner and a better use of its platform by users who remain dormant when not searching for jobs.

2. Search: Indeed or Careerbuilder offer a simple easy-to-use interface for job search tool. If LinkedIn is like Yahoo, these sites are like Google. There ends the analogy though because it is still an apple and oranges comparison. Search is very important and the current growth in data and users on LinkedIn has created an overload of information. I have 500+ connections and let’s say I care only about 10% of those connections at any given instance. I would like to know what they say, what they share, if there are interesting developments from companies etc. In the current LinkedIn homepage or profile setup, chances are I would have missed most or all of the interesting information I deem relevant due to “noise” from the rest of the 90%. Yes, I can “hide” users, use “signals” etc but the solution to delivering relevant content should not be to impose such conditions on the users, but, should be a “fuzzy logic” system that learns as it tracks users behavior patterns. The end result should be an uncluttered homepage with minimal user intervention while delivering the most relevant content to the users and a spanking-new search that enables users to get to the information they want which may include: a) searching for information shared (posts) b) searching through status messages for interesting links c) searching for recent job postings users may have missed d) searching through product announcements or twitter updates and lastly, e) use Google’s Adwords to feed these keywords searches as another source of revenue.

3. Interactive Games: To engage users LinkedIn has come up with polls, groups, answers etc. The users who use these products already heavily use LinkedIn. What about the majority that don’t? To lure the dormant users back to LinkedIn, it must offer social networking games including location based services for the professional network. I am not talking about the “Angry Birds” or “Mafia Wars” variety, though, it would be interesting to see how many people actually play those games if made available on LinkedIn. I am talking about games that meaningfully engage companies, work groups and LinkedIn networks.

For example, companies can tie up with their healthcare providers and use a “checkin” system similar to Foursquare allowing users to form “informal” fitness groups at work and checkin whenever they go to the gym. Team-building exercises such as company off-shores etc can be brought online to mini-games that simulate team-building exercises. Ofcourse, “checkins” at company cafeterias is a no-brainer extension to the same theme. This is yet unchartered territory and there’s much scope for innovation here. Gamification is one of the most important emerging trends and there’s a lot that can be done in a work setup…ofcourse, not to the extent where all employees spend all the time playing “angry birds”.

I would like to add more such revenue models but I will save it for another post. I don’t want to write a very long article and make my unfortunate readers run away.

Problems and Potential Pitfalls:

1. With more cash comes more responsibility. With a $2.3B valuation and an imminent IPO, there is always the potential of bad execution on strategies or bad investments in highly ambitious or irrelevant projects  with the increase in cash flow. But, I really liked the conservative statements issued by LinkedIn “for 2011, the cash would be used to invest in CapEx, R&D, Sales etc for future growth and LinkedIn may not be profitable in 2011″. This augurs well for a company preparing for the long haul.

2. Older User base. More than 50% of the working-age population in the world is under 30 with most of them in developing economies. The average age of a LinkedIn user is 41 and obviously more affluent than your average Joe in the US or Ram in India or Chang in China. One good thing for LinkedIn in India is that the language of communication amongst the working populace is English. China might be a different beast altogether. All that said, how is LinkedIn going to target the <30 segment? Maybe, the games I mentioned might be of some help.. *hint*hint*

3. Data and Information overload. As connections grow, data and information that a user has to consume grows as well. LinkedIn has to innovate in the user-interaction space and make some bold moves. While the homepage is good as it is, it’s far from perfect or helpful. Case in point: How many of you find asking a question and receiving answers straight-forward before it turns into “noise” or how many of you use Groups in a really constructive way.

4. Users spike. From my research, I learnt that most users create a LinkedIn profile and forget it until they have to look for a job. Or login once a week or month. Clearly, there’s much to be done if more than 50% of your users don’t actively use your product.

5. Sounding intelligent conundrum. On Facebook, you can do keg stands and you can say stuff that you won’t at work, in short, you can be yourself. On LinkedIn, you better be on your best behavior. Not only is LinkedIn suffering from such restrictions by design, but, it also has the big problem of enforcing users to say something intelligent when they share status messages. This is a good and bad thing. You go figure.

Summary: LinkedIn deserves much more than the $2.26B valuation. But, this is a good start. It has the strongest value proposition and competitive advantage of all the social networking pre-IPO stocks including Facebook and Zynga! Its niche market will continue to grow and it has to figure out innovative ways to lure users (dormant and new), engage them with new applications and retain them. Lastly, this is just the tip of the iceberg for LinkedIn, in terms of possible innovations in business models. Miles to go before you can claim victory…

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Cloud Services – Market Size and Landscape

Following up on my post defining and disambiguating (hopefully) cloud services and cloud computing, I hope to quantify the cloud services market and lay out the landscape to better understand the various players in this industry.

Cloud Services Market Size – 2014

IDC and Gartner probably have the best possible data points for any given industry. In this case, let’s assume they are reasonably accurate. We see that the Cloud Services market is forecast to be approximately $150B by 2014 from $68B as of this year.

So what?

1. We will see more applications being deployed in the cloud. Ergo, more data and content will move from being hosted locally to ubiquity.

2. Most of these services will occur in the enterprise landscape as almost all companies are cutting back on datacenter expenditures and are looking for cheaper and efficient application hosts. Case in point – Salesforce, which is enjoying greater success in recent times. Please take a bow Marc Benioff for envisioning and to some extent, helping create this landscape 10 years back!

What exactly lurks in the murky and dark recesses of data centers? Who are the players? Please click on image below:

Cloud Services Landscape

If you can dash to my earlier post about cloud computing/services, you will find that the the 2 boxes at the bottom of the landscape image indicate how virtualization and hardware are the true cloud computing pieces. The rest can and should be called cloud services. In combination with “Infrastructure as a Service” (Iaas), they form the basic building blocks for cloud services.  Notable names in these areas are Sun (now Oracle), HP, Dell, IBM, EMC, VMware (vSphere), Rackable, Eucalyptus, Joyent and Amazon’s EC2 web services.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) has a few major players: Microsoft (with Windows Azure – thanks to Ray Ozzie), Joyent and Appistry.

Software as a Service (SaaS) has many players and is much more fragmented. It is really the Cloud Services sector that most of us refer to when we mention cloud services or computing. Notable players include: Google (docs, apps), Microsoft Live Services, Microsoft Sharepoint, Salesforce.com, workday, netsuite and appexchange.

As it must be obvious, only SaaS is open to disruption for smaller players or startups. The rest might need scale, higher capital outlays, more consumers who can be locked in and startups are usually short of all of these. Hence, an easy entry point for startups or potential disruptions could be offering a great solution in SaaS and slowly, branching out into a platform and then infrastructure and all the way to virtualiaztion/hardware.

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