ReverbNation’s Spread and Track philosophy

I wrote recently about a couple of Street Team websites that help bands identify, coordinate, manage, and reward hardcore fans for getting the word out about them. ReverbNation plans to launch Street Team capabilities this summer and their CMO, Jed Carlson, gave me a sneak preview. In the process he also let me see a lot of the ‘under the hood’ mechanics of what they offer bands, and gave me a short course in the ReverbNation philosophy. I’ve been covering ReverbNation since their beta and had the general sense that they were good guys. Now I’m sure they are.

To understand their motivation for Street Teams it helps to understand their general philosophy. Today I’ll talk about that. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how they see fans, their model of street teams, and their business model.

I had thought of the site as fan focused, but I was wrong. They like fans, they’re all for fans, but they are all about the bands. They’re only going to develop things for the fans if they clearly help the bands. As Carlson put it, they are “artist-centric.”

What I find particularly savvy about their approach is that their mission is not to have a “moat” like MySpace, but to be a one-stop-spot where musicians can build resources that they can then export all over the internet. ReverbNation is mean to be the “home base” from which bands can “spread their seed” all over the internet [better virtual seed than a trail of pregnant fans, I guess?].

Rather than competing with MySpace, Virb, and other sites, then, ReverbNation is aiming to provide resources and that artists can use when they create a presence on those sites. They only expect a small percentage of ReverbNation activity to happen at their own domain.

The twist is that when this seed is spread, through embedded media players, images, messages, whatever, it contacts home and ReverbNation can provide bands with statistics about what went where, what got hit by how many individuals, and more. They also collect some stats about fans with accounts on the site, so that a band can see statistics such as the age and sex distribution of their fans. I asked whether their site might be a skewed sample, and was assured that it may not be random, but that if a band has an older audience on the site, they were going to have older crowds at their shows. Conversely, if a band can see that they’re drawing young people, they can work to have their shows all-ages.

I asked how they are doing. When I first checked in, they didn’t seem to have very many bands and even fewer with known names. Carlson says they are coming up on 9,000 artists, their growth is doubling monthly, and that they now have 17 of the top 40 indie artists on the site. Pretty impressive.

Tomorrow… their view of fans, street teams, and business models.

Superslick Widgets

Please join me in swooning over the radio widget launched today. If you scroll down the sidebar on the right you’ll find that sexy little black box. Click to hear all the bands I listen to that I’ve tagged “Swedish” on

I know (most) of you don’t drop by to get turned on to new music, but give it a try, really, you might like it. And if you do, but you’ve had enough of Online Fandom for now, just click on the lower righthand corner and it’ll launch in its own little window. How sweet is that?

In contrast to the previous embedded radio they offered, this one shows a short hyperlinked list of similar bands, and lets the user click on a button to ‘hear more music like this’ when they hit a song they like.

They also have a new widget that lists the last 10 songs you’ve listened to and people can click next to them to hear (usually 30 seconds, but sometimes all of) them.

I know I’m supposed to be critical about things, but sometimes I just have to shake my head in awe at the wonders of the last few years. To think I can now not only carry my entire music collection in my pocket wherever I go (and seamless integrate it into my car stereo), I can now create my own radio stations and put them all over the internet. It’s really something.

More social networking for wine fans

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Vinorati, a bi-lingual social networking site based in France for wine enthusiasts. Since then, people searching for “wine social network” have been landing on my site consistently, including, it seems Sagi Solomon, who runs another social networking site built around wine called Open Bottles, launched way back in late 2005. As I wrote before, wine seems ideal for social networking — there are zillions of choices no one can taste all of — which makes social knowledge pooling essential — and there are already a lot of social occasions built around wine (wine tasting parties, for instance, or the country of France). Like music, there’s also a professional criticism industry which your average wine drinker may or may not identify with. As Solomon says about his inspiration for starting the site:

When I first got into wine I realized two things – that my primary source of recommendations came from friends, and that the wines my friends recommended were better than the wines recommended by other sources (e.g., Parker or Enthusiast). My friends felt the same way. I created OpenBottles so that my friends and I could share wine recommendations.

From a fandom perspective, wine is also interesting in that it is clearly “high culture” in contrast to all that “low culture” stuff fans do, yet when you look at what wine lovers are doing together on these sites, it doesn’t look all that different from what people into things like low-class rock music do when they get together on the net.

I posted an interview with Vinorati’s co-founder here and here, so when Sagi wrote, I grabbed the chance to ask him about OpenBottles. I started by asking him about user activity on the site:

The community is growing rapidly. Traffic to the site is growing exponentially as thousands of visitors and members visit each month. I have about 50 winery members participating. The database contains information about more than 19,000 wines and 2,100 wineries, which is one of the largest wine databases from what I can tell.

The main thing that members are doing is sharing wine and winery recommendations and managing their wine collections using our cellar feature. Visitors to the site primarily research wine information and reviews.

Here’s the rest of our interview:

One of the things I thought was interesting about OpenBottles is that you are encouraging wineries to create profiles for themselves and their products. What motivated you to invite the wineries into the site? What contribution do you think sites like OpenBottles can offer the relationships between winebuffs and wineries?

My initial motivator was to get wineries to help me build the database. That focus has changed as the site grew. Early on I developed good relationships with small, emerging wineries. These wineries were producing great wines, but most people never heard of them. I realized that OpenBottles was the perfect place to make the introduction. Wineries get their brands in front of the community, and the community gets to find out about the up-and-coming wineries. Everyone wins! My current focus is on helping wineries convert online traffic into foot traffic to their tasting rooms.

In addition, OpenBottles opens another channel of communication between the wineries and the community. Through this channel, the wineries can communicate information about their new releases, offer discounts, special offers and other benefits that are specifically tailored for the community.

Finally, wineries and wine consumers benefit from the free exchange of information. Wineries learn about the tastes and preferences of their customers through the reviews they leave on OpenBottles. Based on those reviews, wineries can adapt and deliver a better product (and experience) to their customers.

Are there tensions that have arisen around having the wineries and their customer-critics discussing the wines in the same site?

Good question. I have not had any problems in this area. Our community values honest communication and we do not tolerate jerks. Honest, but negative reviews, are welcome and encouraged. Personal opinions rule in our community, and for the most part everyone gets it. I had one incident of a winemaker requesting that I remove a negative comment about his tasting room. I refused, and explained how this feedback is actually useful to him. He got it.

I see a number of parallels between online social groups for wine, and those for music, film, tv shows, and so on. Bringing the wineries and buffs together on OpenBottles, seems to parallel MySpace, but with vintners instead of bands. What are your thoughts about this?

That’s a great observation. I’m a believer in applying lessons learned by other people to save time and money. I try to mimic MySpace where I think it is appropriate. MySpace did a lot of things right, and it also did a lot of things wrong. For one thing, MySpace made the community personal. I think that’s key. One thing MySpace isn’t doing right is that it is losing focus. It started with a music focus, but it is straying from that. I think that’s a mistake. OpenBottles is a wine community, and that is where our focus will remain. I want to make sure that we are always providing our members with relevant, useful and actionable information. I will continue to incorporate features that worked well in other communities to the extent that they add value to our community. I’m always looking for ways to build a stronger, more active community.

Are there any ways in which users have surprised you with the uses they’ve made of the site?

I strongly believe in asking the community for feedback and building features that address the community’s needs. In that regard, the uses the community makes of the site are the uses they requested. For example, the community uses the winery reviews to plan wine tasting trips. That is not something I contemplated originally, but it is such a good use of the data that I plan on introducing some features to make it easier to do this kind of planning. Another example is the community using the information from the site in other settings, such as professional networking events. There has also been talk about using the wine community to build a professional network. I’m looking into how this can be accommodated as well.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of building a social networking site?

The biggest challenge of building the wine community is getting people to contribute. I’ve found that most wine drinkers expect wine reviews to read a certain way (like Parker’s reviews). They are therefore afraid of sounding inexperienced or of being wrong. This is a huge challenge, and one that will take time to resolve. One of the ways I try to help people get over this fear is to focus the rating and reviewing process on the personal experience rather than the “technical” aspects of wine. No one can argue with my opinion about whether or not I liked the wine or not. Simplifying the rating system has been useful at all. The 100-point scales are difficult to apply practically (what’s the difference between an 88 and a 91?), and they are easy to skew. If you allow people to respond in a non-committed answer (“neutral” or “3 out of 5”), they will, and the data is useless. Our rating system is easy to understand, is based on personal experiences and is easy to standardize. All of these elements encourage members to share.

What advice would you offer others who are interested in creating online social spaces for people to discuss their favorite hobbies?

First and foremost, I would recommend that they have a focus. Lack of focus is death in this space. Second, I would encourage them to always communicate with the community to find out what it’s doing, what it wants, what’s working and what’s not. I interact with my members regularly and I give them many ways to reach me. Finally, I would focus on introducing tools to help people share information quickly and easily. The key is to get useful information disseminated as quickly as possible, and to standardize it for quick consumption. With wine, I created the “Liked By” rating as shorthand for what the community thought about the wine. More detail is easily accessible, if that is what the visitor wants. Finally, I would recommend that anyone starting a community should have passion for the subject. That passion should infect every aspect of the community from features to its members. Passion is what holds the community together.

The Widgetized Self

I keep hearing that the future of the Web (“Web 3″ as some are calling it) is going to be like Second Life. We’ll all be hanging out in rich visual spaces decking ourselves out in fabulous fantasywear while making lots of money with remote colleagues. And who’s to say that’s not going to happen.

But that’s not what I think will happen. I think that we are going to move further and further away from going to websites toward using personal portals decked out with zillions of dazzling widgets that bring the web to us.

The extent to which we are increasingly spreading ourselves out over more and more online sites is just not sustainable in the long haul. It takes too much time. We have to remember too many logins (a problem that things like OpenID and ClaimID try to address). We have to recreate content in too many places (Virb goes some way toward handling this by allowing the import of flickr feeds, youtube videos and forthcoming rss importing). Social networking sites are proliferating at an absurd rate, as though there’s a limitless populace of people eager to build profiles for sport, or huge tribes of nomadic social groups perenially on the prowl for a new space to colonize (too bad for the sites in which they’ve lost interest). Fan groups are becoming increasingly distributed. There are still many fan communities at a URL on the internet with their own ways of doing things just like I wrote about in Tune In, Log On. But my sense is that more and more, clusters of fans are spreading themselves out through multiple sites. They meet again and again in fan sites, p2p trading sites, social networking sites, blogs, and many other online places. Your online community is the collective you bump into in multiple online locations (for instance: I am thrilled to find an old The Fine Arts Showcase video on YouTube, and then realize that it was uploaded by someone I know from Its A Trap, who is a friend on, and with whom I’ve emailed several times. That’s one example, you’ve probably got your own.)

What I need, and what I think everyone else needs too (even if they want to hang out in Second Life a lot) is my own portal that I can just set up with a collection of widgets that bring all the sites I care about to me. Start pages on steroids. In my dream portal I can read and write to all the sites I want without having to leave my page. I can leave comments on blog posts, post to an online discussion on a forum and do everything else I want to do — and make it available to others — from my own little spot. Widgets gone wild.

My vision of radical me-iffication through widgetization got a boost when I heard of this: Media Master is letting people upload their digital music libraries and display and stream it through widgets. People can publish streaming playlists or (I think) make their collection available for shuffling. It generates a spiffy and interactive widget displaying your record covers. If they then go to a social network approach to turning people on to new music based on what’s in their libraries and make that happen through widgets on your own site instead of profiles on a branded site, it would be a very interesting step. Whether this particular site will work out or not, I don’t know, but the concept is golden and I am betting it is one of many services to come that depends on users exporting their information from the branded space into their space of choice rather than spending time in yet another web site.

Update: Not widgets, but Tech Crunch draws attention to Loopster, a social network aggregator. TechCrunch writes:

Sites like Loopster are a sign of a mini revolution happening with the social web, where instead of managing and linking documents, we are managing and linking personal identities. Traditional search engines like Yahoo and Google are very poor at discovering and managing this information since social relationships aren’t always hyperlinked.

Make your own MySpace

Here’s a funny twist on responding to the limitations of MySpace (a topic which seems to be popping up a lot lately, including this piece in the Atlantic Monthly, my last blog post, and a piece in yesterday’s New York Times). No sooner do I argue that a band’s MySpace site should lead back to their own domain, than my friend Slivka points out that Swedish indie crooner Jens Lekman has taken this more than one step further by recreating his MySpace site on his own domain.

One subpage of his main website is a direct rip of his MySpace site. The two pages look nearly identical, except for that on the one it says:

MySpace was never the way I wanted to communicate with you. So I’ve kidnapped the HTML code to my own domain and all the links here will lead you out of the labyrinth. I hope you enjoy a breath of fresh air as much as I do.

Much Love

// Jens

Very clever, I gotta say, and I am right behind him for seeking a means of communicating with fans outside the corporate garden. Although what good this particular strategy does beyond a joke that makes a statement I’m not sure, especially since the MySpace site does not contain any message to the effect that MySpace isn’t how he wants to communicate with his fans. But a joke that makes a statement isn’t such a bad thing.

I saw Lekman on tour about a year ago, and toward the end of the night he stepped away from the microphone and sang a couple of songs in front of it. And then in the encore he just walked out into the bar and found a spot he liked and sang his heart out at the top of his lungs. I’m not moved by his music, but it was neat to see someone who just wanted to sing for the people who love him. So given that, I’m not surprised to see him eschewing Murdoch Mediation.

Update: A lot of people land here because they searched “make your own myspace.” I feel kind of bad about that cuz you’re not going to find much help here. Maybe this site is more like what you were looking for.