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Social Media

AIMGroup LogoFor over five years, I covered the classified advertising business for AIMGroup.com. I was the beat reporter for real estate and automotive, and I chronicled hundreds of companies – from startups such as Zillow and HotPads – to established classified pure plays including Realtor.com, AutoTrader.com and Cars.com.

We covered social media extensively, but the main story was how newspapers had let these online competitors, not the least of which was Craigslist, decimate their classified advertising business, (hence leading to the dire straights print papers are in today) and what they could do to recover.

An often told if somewhat apocryphal story is how the Boston Globe once had the opportunity to buy recruiting powerhouse Monster.com but declined, saying in essence “hey, we’re the big bad Boston Globe, we don’t need that little pitzkele site.”

If watching the classified advertising shake down is of interest, I recommend you visit AIMGroup.com. In the meantime, I present you here with links to some of my more evergreen blog posts for the site over the last couple of years.

There are a lot of links, so I’ll publish these in two posts – here’s part one.

Thanks for permission to post these from my erstwhile editor Jim Townsend and publisher Peter Zollman.

If the NYTimes dropped print and distribution and gave all its subscribers e-Readers, it would actually save money!

Short attention span theater: new data – 10 percent of viewers leave an online video within 10 seconds.

85% of Gen Y-ers participate in social networking. Do you?

“Digital immigrants” vs. “digital natives” – with Facebook, you’ll never have to “get back in touch” again.

Google to newspapers: “grow up” (it’s not that hard to block Google indexing).

Profile of 2 Israeli startups shaking up writing and news: Iamnews and WeBook.

10 tips on how to make hyperlocal work.

If you want to trash your ex online, do it in Texas, not Colorado.

Teens don’t tweet. How come? Here’s what a teenage analyst has to say.

Consumers will pay 62% of what they pay for a print newspaper to access online news sites.

Why international users are draining Facebook’s coffers.

Creepy hookups – Google Maps and Craigslist personal mashup.

Social networks trump email for content sharing.

It’s not the newspapers, it’s their owners for print’s problems.

The first all-tweet newspaper – social media vanity press? Meanwhile, blog-to-print newspaper fails.

More next week…

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Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger

Katherine Milkman

Katherine Milkman

If you’re like me, you probably receive a lot of forwarded emails from friends with shots of awe-inspiring photography or some insight about why humans behave in the strange, amusing or crazy ways they so often do. Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania can tell us why.

These researchers – Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman – were pretty serious about their study. They intensively analyzed The New York Times list of most-emailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, reviewing the content of more than 7,500 articles, and controlling for factors such as where the articles appeared on the site (i.e., home page, tech page, etc.) wrote John Tierney in The Times last week.

The results are consistent with what tends to fill up my own inbox: positive rather than negative themed articles, and long pieces on intellectually challenging topics. Take that, silly dancing cat videos.

Berger and Milkman said that the most shared emails were those that “inspired awe,” and that science articles were particularly popular. And not just reviews of the latest gadget. “You’d see articles shooting up the list…about the optics of deer vision,” Berger told Tierney.

Of the thousands of articles flagged during the research period, a random sample were rated by independent readers for qualities like “providing practical value” or “being surprising,” Tierney wrote. The researchers also used computer algorithms to track the ratio of “emotional” words in an article and to assess their relative positivity or negativity.

Explaining why “awe” sells…or at least results in more frequent forwarding, Berger explained that the most emailed articles tended to be those that triggered an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” That might include standing in front of a beautiful piece of art or listening to a grand symphony.

Of course, there were also the show-off’s. If you send an article off about quantum mechanics, you might preface it by writing “of course this is just a superficial treatment.” And there were the fear mongers, too, who shared pieces on impending terror attacks or tax increases (in equal measures, I’m sure).

But it’s the awe that’s the stickiest. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe,” Berger concluded.

So, am I doing my job here on this blog? I’m not sure. I try to write about interesting topics, perhaps even those that will surprise you (“Kids Consuming 11 Hours of Media a Day”) or that will provide some scientific insight (“Addicted to Email”). But do you feel a sense of awe when I share my thoughts on the latest Apple products or the latest trend of TV viewers tweeting live while they’re watching Heroes?

I’m not a big believer in writing exclusively for SEO, making sure my keywords are all punk’d out to their stickiest max. That would go for posting only awe-full articles too. If there’s something that I believe would be of value to you, my dear reader, I’ll blog it. And vice versa. If you enjoy what I’ve shared, feel free to forward it…regardless of what the researchers say.

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Kaiser Kids and Internet Report

Cover from KFF Report

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms what most parents already know: that our kids are literally tethered to the Internet or other means of consuming media the better part of the day.

The report, which has been the talk of the blogosphere since it was released yesterday, found that children and young adults aged 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on their computers, in front of a television, or accessing media on a smart phone or mobile device.

That number doesn’t include talking or texting on a cell phone (another two hours a day). And if you calculate in multitasking – i.e., surfing the web while listening to music – the amount of media content taken in comes to nearly 11 hours total per day.

The shocking part is that when the same study was conducted five years ago, its authors concluded that media use could not possibly grow further from the six and a half hours clocked in 2004.

Donald Roberts, one of the researchers and a professor at Stanford University told The New York Times that “I remember writing a paragraph saying we’ve hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to increase the time.”

Roberts and crew were apparently wrong.

The study’s results come as no surprise to my wife and I. All three of our children have their own computers, which are constantly on even while “studying.” The older two also have an iPhone and iPod Touch and know where all the open WiFi hotspots are in town. If they have a long bus ride, they load up the latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Dexter before leaving in the morning.

While the amount of time teenagers spend online or watching TV or movies is surprisingly high, it’s not like we didn’t do the same when we were younger – at least as much as we could with the technology of the times. I distinctly remember my parents complaining that I couldn’t possibly study properly with music or the TV on. But my grades came out fine.

That’s not necessarily the case today, though. The grades of 47 percent of the heaviest media users in the report were C or lower. Those heavy media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, that they got into trouble, didn’t get along well with their parents, or were not happy at school.

A number of years ago – before the advent of all the latest hi-tech toys – our kids had become hopelessly addicted to the tube. We took the radical step of going “cold turkey” and forbidding television entirely. The kids were mortified at first, but tell us today that it was one of the best things we did as parents.

But their TV watching is now just as high – if not higher – than when we first detoxed; it’s simply not in the living room anymore. We have thought about taking their laptops away, but the kids have moaned that they need them for schoolwork – which is true.

And then there is the role model of their parents. Both my wife and I are in front of our respective computers constantly. And we multitask too. I am constantly flitting between Firefox, to Word for an article I’m writing, to splicing in a few stolen minutes of The Office or Flash Forward – all the while listening to Internet radio or some of the 100 GB of music on our shared home server.

So how can we criticize our children when their parents are equally guilty? The one thing that ruffles a teenager’s feathers more than anything else is perceived hypocrisy.

And there have been certain benefits to the always-on society we’ve created. When my son was visiting Poland with his high school class, he found a WiFi connection at the Auschwitz concentration camp and Skyped me from there, bringing me into his experience without paying a penny.

Ultimately, there’s no turning back. Our kids aren’t going to unplug and this is probably just an interim stage on the way to even more insidious connectivity. Someday, we’ll probably be able to pipe the Internet directly into our brains.

Indeed, that future may not be so far off. An Australian company is already working on an interface to bring sight to the blind by implanting a chip that bypasses the optical nerve. It’s just a hop skip and a jump to an entirely wireless mind (can you say Cylon?)

What are we going to do then? Threaten to remove their batteries? If Apple has anything to do with it, the power supply will be hard wired in – like all of Apple’s iPod products. Need a new chip? Just replace your head.

Some more findings from the Kaiser study:

  • 76% of 8 to 18-year-olds have MP3 players (up from 18% in 2004).
  • 64% say the TV is usually on during meals and 45% say the TV is left on “most of the time” even if no one is watching.
  • 71% have a TV in their bedroom; 50% have a console video game player
  • The amount of time spent watching regularly scheduled TV declined by 25 minutes a day from 2004. But factoring in TV on the web and cell phones, total TV consumption increased from 3:51 hours to 4:29 hours a day.
  • 74% say they have a profile on a social networking site.
  • About half of young people say they use media either “most” (31%) or “some” (25%) of the time while they’re doing their homework
  • Respondents to the survey spend an average of 1:35 hours a day sending or receiving texts.

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Television_remote_controlInteractive video has been one of my passions since I worked as a “multimedia producer” in the early 1990s creating CD-ROM titles in edutainment and healthcare. In 1994, I led a team that produced “How Multimedia Computers Work,” an immersive interactive environment that plunged viewers into a virtual 3D computer. We followed that up with “How Your Body Works.” Both were co-published in a book-CD package by Ziff-Davis Press.

In recent years, interactive video has been used very effectively for advertising and marketing. Carnival Cruise Lines employed it to help bring a cruise ship alive for would-be (and high-paying) passengers. Mars created an entire mini-commercial called “Get the Girl…An Interactive Love Story (Sort Of)” for its Twix brand where the viewer gets to choose what happens next. Even The New York Times got into the act with an interactive David Pogue sharing insights on consumer electronics.

But the Holy Grail for we interactive pioneers was always marrying it with broadcast television. It was the late 1980s, though, and technology never kept up with our creativity. Now, though, with the advent of social media, that day may have arrived. But with what consequences?

I wrote in my earlier post about Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference” which paraded a veritable cavalcade of social media luminaries on stage to talk about all things Twitter and Facebook. One of the panels at the event was on “social TV.”

Veteran Israeli media consultant Dror Gill described how TV and Twitter are already mashing up. A growing community of users are tweeting while they watch the tube, he explained, sending their comments, theories and criticisms into the social ether for others who are following the same program at the same time to reply to or re-tweet.

Gill called this phenomena 2-screen interactive TV (there are cable operators that have already integrated similar social media tricks into a single screen).

The experience, Gill explained, in some ways recreates a bit of what was for me an integral part of my childhood: sitting together as a family, laughing at dead parrots and silly walks, or cringing at another one of Mary Tyler Moore’s insecure faux-pas’s.

These days, it’s rare for members of a family to even find time to eat dinner as a cohesive unit. Twittering together, apparently, is the next best thing…even if your fellow schmoozers are on opposite coasts (or even different continents).

Conference host Pulver related his own social TV experience. A big fan of the NBC show Heroes, one evening, Pulver found himself away from the TV trolling the aisles for canned corn or some other delicacy in his local supermarket.

Distraught over missing his favorite guilty pleasure, he pulled out his cell phone and was able to follow the show by scrolling through the real-time tweets that neatly summarized the main plot turns.

How Pulver got his shopping done I don’t know…I also have to wonder why the one time founder of VoIP giant Vonage didn’t just TiVo the show, or at least watch it later on Hulu. But that wouldn’t have made for such an illustrative story.

Despite the fact that a number of the participants at the conference praised social media for making the post-modern world a little less lonely, the entire experience seems to me to be exactly the opposite. Where once we gathered in a shared space, we now sit alone opposite our 42-inch plasma screens tapping away to strangers thousands of miles away.

But for advertisers, this real time web can perhaps be seen as a hopeful trend. Broadcast television has been inching inexorably towards time shifting. The number of viewers watching a show at the hour it’s actually aired has been steadily declining in an online world where you can instantly stream that same program on any number of sites or – heaven forbid – download it for free.

The social media interactive experience, by contrast, requires participants to watch live. Tape delay ruins the whole thing. Moreover, not only can’t live viewers fast forward through the commercials, TV Twitterers may be less likely to jump up at a commercial at all. With all the real time excitement, a social media conversation may actually evolve about the ad itself. That puts the onus on the advertiser to make sure that what they’ve created can withstand the withering comments of a live Twitterverse.

The game for advertisers, as a result, gets even more complicated than it already is in a globally connected world. Companies must make sure they have assigned a staff person to monitor Twitter and other social media channels whenever their ads play in primetime. Because, when the masses won’t put down their keyboards even during the once sacred passive TV experience, the necessity to remain vigilant, to jump to attention and enact damage control if the need arises, becomes an integral part of the job.

It’s been said before by techno-luminaries far more prolific than me, but social media can no longer be seen as a “nice to have.” This makes it at once both terrifying and a terrific opportunity. But it’s one that must not be ignored.

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Kindle 2I’ve written before about how I believe the physical nature of books will change…much sooner than most of us can imagine. Within 10 years, 20 years tops, there will be virtually no print books being published – we’ll be consuming content exclusively on portable reading devices. Newspapers will fall even sooner.

Today’s text readers include the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, The Plastic Logic Que and, of course, the iPhone and its various cell phone based derivatives. Future products – perhaps even the long rumored Apple “iPad” – will undoubtedly be much easier on the eyes and intuitive to use than what’s currently available.

But how about the creation of books? Bob Stein of the Institute of the Future of the Book suggests that the same phenomena of “crowdsourcing” that forms the backbone of content creation on social media – from blogs to Facebook – and that has made Wikipedia the world’s largest and most popular reference source, will be applied next to novels, biographies and all sorts of non-fiction.

The initial reaction of traditional authors – myself included – has been a quick harrumph. You can’t displace a well-trained and experienced writer with the power of isolated individuals across the Internet.

Or can you?

Stein gives the example of a well-known biographer who receives a $2 million advance, goes off for 10 years to research and write, and returns with his latest best-seller. Crowdsource me? says the writer. Not going to happen.

But at the same time, there is undoubtedly a newly minted PhD in Creative Writing who grew up on Facebook who has no problem writing in public and letting her thousands of friends and followers contribute. It may seem improbable today, but then so does the total demise of a hard cover book you can hold in your hand.

You can already see companies exploring this space. WeBook is probably the best known. Founded by Israeli serial entrepreneur Itai Kohavi and backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital, the site allows anyone to start a book topic and solicit submissions from other WeBook members who can also collaboratively edit the book in real time for all the world to see. WeBook runs periodic votes where members determine which books WeBook should actually publish (gasp) in print.

The startup Vook is more traditional in that most of what this company publishes is written by a single author, but it breaks the traditional mold by including video as an integral part of the storytelling process. “Vooks,” of course, are digital only.

Group written books are actually not that new. Take a look at the Talmud, the massive work of Jewish law, folklore and history. The original source material for the Talmud was oral, written by multiple authors and handed down from generation to generation until it was finally written down.

Legally, publishing crowdsourced books can be pretty tricky. The Internet culture of free sharing makes it tough to solicit help on a book and then charge for it. For example, I have a personal crowdsourcing project called SiddurWiki and I’m still trying to figure out the lawyerly language so that content on the site can be widely distributed electronically at no cost, while at the same time, be set up so that I can also sell it and make a profit.

So what does an established, traditional author (or an electronic publisher of any type, for that matter) do in such turbulent times? I think that individual authors have to begin thinking of themselves as hybrid writers and managers. It’s not enough to lock yourself in a room with just a typewriter (boy, that really dates me!) Rather you have to view your work as a “product” that needs leadership.

Writers of the future will be need to be cheerleaders, evangelists and social media experts, as well as dedicated craftsmen.

Ultimately, writers won’t go the way of the dinosaur. Indeed they’ll be as valuable as ever: a single person will still need to put it all together. But the process that leads up to that is about to change forever.

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Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver in Tel Aviv

Jeff Pulver is a galavanting kind of guy. The one time founder of voice-over-IP telephony company Vonage, Pulver has in recent years traveled the globe hosting hi-tech networking “breakfasts” that attract hundreds of attendees

On Sunday, Pulver was back in town with a combined breakfast and conference focused on “the state of now.”

Dubbed the “140 Characters Conference” (that’s the number of characters you’re allowed to type into the Twitter “What’s happening?” box), some 250 social media “characters” gathered at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College of Engineering to listen attentively to a whopping four dozen presenters who spoke either in panel discussions or alone in 10 minute increments  (a large clock counted down the minutes and, other than a few misbehavers, the time was scrupulously observed).

Among the presenters were Alon Nir, the entrepreneur behind “TweetYourPrayers” which allows petitioners to tweet notes that Nir physically places in the cracks of the Western Wall. Nir started the project as a hobby. By the summer, he had thousands of notes and had to enlist an army of volunteers (recruited via Twitter of course) to roll the print outs and cart them to Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter at @thekotel.

A highlight for Israeli music fans was the appearance on stage of rockers Yoni Bloch and Ivri Lider who talked about how they use Twitter to get closer to their fans. Bloch, a self-confessed nerd, initially found fame by posting his songs to an Israeli MySpace-clone and was flabbergasted when, several years ago – long before the advent of Twitter – he sold out a live show just by announcing it online.

Comedians Charley Warady and Benji Lovitt talked about how they use social media to try out punch lines for their jokes (“can you be funny in 140 characters?” asked one audience member).

On a more serious note, David Saranga discussed how the Israeli consulate in New York took to Twitter to counter negative reports coming out of Gaza during January’s Operation Cast Lead. He also pointed out one of the more effective campaigns to reposition Israel in the mind of the world: the 2007 infamous “Girls of the IDF” bikini photo spread in Maxim magazine.

The strangest use of Twitter discussed? Simultaneous tweeting while watching TV. While I find it hard to understand how one can actually enjoy a program while tapping away on a Blackberry or iPhone keyboard, veteran media consultant Dror Gill suggested that interactive media can actually restore some of the social cohesion that’s been lost in the modern world where families rarely sit down together to watch the contemporary equivalent of All in the Family.

Twittering away, he said, is akin to kibbutzing together in the family room…even if your fellow schmoozers are thousands of miles away.

To back up that point of global interconnectedness, host Pulver announced at the day’s conclusion that 6,464 people from around the world had tuned in to watch the conference live via the Internet and that for much of the day, this intimate little get together, tucked away in an off the beaten track corner of Tel Aviv, had been ranked in Twitter’s Top 10 “trending topics.”

See for yourself. Search for #140conf on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

When the web first started becoming paramount in how people consumed news, there was a lot written about the dangers of information “narrowcasting” and how it would result in a populace that knew little about what happening outside their own limited sphere of interest. Traditional print newspapers and magazines were lauded because by their very nature they enable readers to serendipitously stumble across news they might not have searched for on Google.

An interesting interview on a recent episode of NPR’s On the Media with Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, suggested that – surprisingly – social media could be an answer.

Thompson cited the research presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” about how many people someone can actually have as friends or colleagues. The number, says Gladwell, is 150; human beings can’t really keep track of more than that. But on social media, that number jumps to the hundreds (and in some cases, particularly on Twitter, the thousands).

I have over 600 Facebook “friends.” Do I know all of them well? Certainly not. But something interesting happens when it comes to learning about news. The more “friends” we have, the more likely it is we’ll learn something about a topic we didn’t expect to and likely wouldn’t have searched for either.

And if enough of our friends share or re-tweet on a particular subject, we will come to think this is “important” (even if it’s really about some ludicrous boy in a balloon). More seriously, the tweets emanating from Iran during the recent mini-revolution definitely opened many new eyes.

Admittedly, most of our friends are “like us” in terms of educational backgrounds and socio-economic standards. But some of those friends may have a wider circle that includes one or two more exotic colleagues. And I have not been terribly discriminating about who I “friend” – when I have a question that I need answering, I then have a wider circle to whom I can publish.

The issue of serendipity in social media has come up recently with one of my clients. The client has a particular organizational focus, and most of what we post relates to that topic. But sometimes we also publish links to articles off-topic which we feel will be interesting to our readers. It’s a way of keeping the site timely and relevant. But it also has the effect of populating our fans’ activity streams with news they might not have seen otherwise.

So, if part of the product management services you provide your clients includes preparing and executing on a social media “content plan,” keep in mind the serendipity effect. It can help establish you more as a destination site within the social media universe…and it’s good for the world too.

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Matt Richtel 2We all feel like we’re addicted to email sometimes. Now along comes someone to tell us why.

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, interviewed on the NPR program On The Media, explained that in psychological terms, there is something called “intermittent reinforcement” – “that’s this idea that if you put a rat in a device where a food pellet only comes out of a hole periodically, the rat’s going to be checking that hold all the time because it never knows when that food is available.”

The same thing happens with email, Richtel said. “Most of the stuff we get is plainly unimportant. But occasionally, something really important comes along. So what does that do? It randomly reinforces us to be checking all the time.”

In other words, we are not that much more evolved than the common rodent…at least when it comes to checking our iPhones ten times an hour. And it’s not just email – Facebook status updates, SMS, chats – they’re all part of an addiction that, apparently, gets physical as well.

Richtel again: “when you check your device, you basically get the equivalent of a dopamine squirt. Well, if you get that little candy when you check your email and you check your phone, in its absence you start to feel bored.”

And when you feel bored, you want a new squirt. So what do you do? You send out a text or an email or a Tweet, or you initiate a Facebook chat, all in the hope that you’ll get a response. It becomes an endless loop.

What does all this mean for Internet advertisers and publishers? Perhaps this: If you want to get your message out, steer clear of banner ads and choose more interruptive media. Build up your social media fans and followers. And keep them guessing as to when the next big announcement will arrive in their inboxes.

————

The interview, by the way, was part of a larger discussion on “distracted driving” amid new laws forbidding texting while behind the wheel – see Matt’s articles here. The implications for advertisers when it comes to potentially fatal social media behavior are far more ominous.

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Harrah'sI was listening to an old episode of one of my favorite NPR shows and podcasts, Radio Lab. The topic was how we choose and it featured a fascinating and highly disturbing story that has relevance to anyone involved in the Internet today.

It turns out that in the world of gambling, the casino chain Harrah’s is the undisputed leader. The reason? All visitors must first join a “loyalty” program. Since signing up grants the gambler a nice credit of a few bucks, no one says no. Once you get your card, you have to insert it in the slot machine whenever you want to play.

What happens next is that Harrah’s tracks everything you do at the slots – how long you stay, what machines you play, how much you spend. By crunching the numbers, Harrah’s knows your specific pain threshold and at what point you’ll have lost enough to quit.

Harrah’s staff in the back room tracks everything and when the computer flags someone coming close to their limit, a member of Harrah’s floor staff approaches the soon-to-give-up gambler and intervenes, offering a free steak dinner, or another $15 credit or even tickets to a show that evening. The result: the gambler keeps gambling.

When I first heard this, I was appalled. How could a casino be so manipulative? (Well, they’re already manipulative, but this seemed over the top.) And how could gamblers be so gullible as to give the casino access to their personal behaviors.

But then I realized that what Harrah’s is doing is really no different than what’s happening online today. Advertisers using behavioral targeting are tracking your every move on the web – which sites you linger on, how long you stay in one place, what links you click on. The advertiser then knows to serve up the right ad at the right time and place.

Let’s say you just left Cars.com and are now at The New York Times. If the two companies both use the same tracking service, it’s easy for The Times to serve up an auto ad even though you’ve long since left Cars.com.

And how about mobile GPS services? We give up our privacy so that we can receive customized ads and coupons for restaurants in the vicinity of where we’re walking or driving. We see that as valuable – hey, I just got 10% off – but aren’t you being manipulated in exactly the same way as at the casino? Minority Report isn’t so far away.

I’m not saying that we should turn off our cookies – often times those ads can be valuable – and in any case, it’s largely impractical given the way the Internet operates. But we should be aware of what’s happening around us and make sure that we know when we’ve given our permission to be manipulated.

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As the 16 “social entrepreneurs” took to the stage last Thursday to present their 15-second “elevator pitch,” I was filled with anticipation. What would the next generation of hi-tech founders come up with?

Here were some of Israel’s best and brightest, hand selected by the Presentense organization which aims to arm young people who want to do good with solid business skills and knowledge.

And at first glance, the strategy has paid off handsomely. The participants in the Presentense “launch night” were confident and personable. The first ever publicly presented elevator pitches on their would-be companies – from subjects as diverse as fostering peace in the Middle East to making prayer more accessible – were polished and presentable; none would have been out of place in a corporate board room.

After the on-stage performance, each Presentense “fellow” manned a table equipped with a laptop, business cards and printed collateral material for the 500 or so guests to peruse and pocket.

As I weaved between the entrepreneurs’ pitches, I found myself enthralled by the creativity…but confused by the business models behind many of these pre-seed startups. It’s not that Presentense didn’t prepare its participants properly; it’s more the nature of social change-focused non-profits which have lofty goals but that all too often rely on philanthropy not profits.

But I’m feeling up to the challenge. So let me here present some of the projects that most stood out for me, and let’s brainstorm together on how each could, if not actually generate enough revenue to make its founders rich, at least sustain itself as a social entrepreneurial success.

CreaTV

As a media guy, I found CreaTV fascinating – a marketplace of sorts matching up amateur movie makers with professionals to develop quality products for YouTube or broadcast television. CreaTV is targeting the Israeli market initially and will reach out to students at Israel cinema schools. Founder Elad Kimelman describes himself as an “enthusiastic Zionist” who believes that Jewish-produced media can help bind together the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

Kimelman hopes that the company will generate projects that receive funding from Israeli production companies; CreaTV would then take a cut. That’s not a bad idea, but unless there are a lot of financed productions, it’s hard to see how the site will sustain itself in the interim. YouTube is drowning under bandwidth costs and parent Google still hasn’t figured out how to sufficiently monetize the site.

A Vimeo model, where CreaTV charges for video storage above a certain monthly file size and bandwidth limit might work (although rumors are that Vimeo is in financial trouble). CreaTV could also adopt the approach of recruitment classifieds, charging a fee when a match is made. But that seems to go against the company’s do-good goal of fostering partnerships.

MediaMidrash

MediaMidrash is another media startup that I liked a lot. Founders Russel Neiss, a librarian, and Charlie Schwartz, a rabbinic student at JTS, dream of creating a site where all of the Jewish videos in the world could be uploaded for teachers to use in school classes. Moreover, teachers could include curriculum to enhance the videos (from both the videomakers themselves and independent instructors who find the videos useful).

My first job back 20 years ago was as the at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s media department. I was in charge of taking orders from teachers and sending out films, VHS tapes and even filmstrips (remember those?) I would have loved a computerized database like MediaMidrash.

Again the question: how will this make money? I spoke with Neiss who said it was a low cost operation and that he could run it while keeping his day job. I pointed out that, if MediaMidrash takes off, bandwidth and storage costs will quickly outstrip a volunteer job. The company’s documentation talks about offering premium services such as creating custom video and course material, staff training and websites.

In general, I think this “freemium” model – where you give away most of the content for free and upsell paid services – is the way to go. But creating new video and course content will require specialized staff – whether in-house or outsourced – and the mark-up in order to keep the company going (and pay its founders) may prove prohibitive to Jewish day schools already suffering in a post-Madoff era. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

JewTo

Jewto.com is a great name that founder Melissa Berg somehow snagged – finding a short and catchy URL like that is almost unheard of these days. Berg wants to create a mashup of Craigslist-like classifieds with a global guide to Jewish resources. Think every kosher restaurant in the world and mezuzas for sale.

Berg talked to me about hiring staff to write about all things Jewish in your city, but a more scalable model would be ape Yelp, the popular U.S. reviews and rankings site, where regular readers like you and me write the reviews of restaurants, dentists, bars, beauty salons and more. No need to pay when users contribute for the fame and glory.

Jewto can then upsell premium placement – such as your restaurant at the top of the listings (clearly marked as sponsored of course) – along with tools such as table booking, menu listings and take out. Yelp also sells display advertising – so should Jewto.

Berg should also look into partnering with fellow Israeli startup Bite 2Eat for the restaurant booking functionality as well a to look into whether Yelp or a similar site licenses its engine to third parties.

Jewto is a huge project but the business model – if done right (and it will need VC financing to pull off) – has real potential.

Peula

Did you ever receive crappy service from a store or government office? Wanted to complain but didn’t know how? Peula.com is here to help. The company is building a system to automate letter writing and to gather support from similarly minded aggrieved individuals online. Peula then sends your complaint on the right person.

Peula’s secret sauce is that when the target of your complaint responds, the reply is sent to all of the people listed on your e-complaint which means the responsible party’s response is tracked publicly.

Peula hopes this will differentiate it from its already formidable competition. In Israel, there’s atzuma.co.il, tluna.co.il, and shout.co.il. In the U.S. and U.K., companies like PlanetFeedback and HowtoComplain, and even the Better Business Bureau provide similar services – all for free.

Since the competition doesn’t charge, neither can Peula. Ads and sponsorships on the site are the company’s main business prospects. Allowing users to print letters for a fee, as founder Romi Shamai suggested to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense – users could too easily just copy and paste. There are probably additional added value tools Peula could add that I haven’t thought of yet.

The Open Siddur Project

Perhaps my favorite entrepreneur of the evening was Aharon Varady who is trying to create an online siddur (prayer book) with versions and commentaries from every source imaginable – from Rashi to Jewish Renewal plus user-contributed content. Spiritual seekers could then mix and match how they want to pray and print out their own personal siddur. “Imagine if the first siddur presented to a day school student was actually crafted by that student over the course of a year while being introduced to the liturgy in class,” Varady says.

As someone who struggles with prayer myself, I would love to have a site like Open Siddur. Varady is committed to “keeping this resource completely free.” So how to make money? Varady hopes to charge for printed copies through partnerships with print-on-demand printers.

But what would keep someone from simply generating their on their home printer? Those of us in the Internet publishing business have all learned the hard way that users won’t pay for content online. The print-on-demand model could work, but since each siddur would be customized for the individual, the volume would be low and as a result any partnership revenue from the POD guys would be similarly small.

Selling services around the siddur project – Jewish designers, calligraphers, scholars and even freelance editors – and taking a cut might be a better direction.

The Israel-Asia Center

The Israel-Asia Center seems to be the most mature project in the 2009 Presentense fellows program. The company already has a working website – a news magazine focused on “promoting partnerships between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia, with a strong focus on China.”

The management team includes an Israeli professor in China, and founder Rebecca Zeffert, a PR specialist and Chinese Studies graduate. They’re backed by a 20-member volunteer team in Israel, China, the U.S. and India. The company also has an impressive advisory board.

The Israel-Asia Center’s business model also makes sense: use the website as a platform for selling services – course syllabi on Israel-China relations, speaking engagements, briefings and exchange programs.

Given the growth of China as the world’s second largest economy and Israel’s already existing ties with the Asian giant, I give a hearty thumbs up to Zeffert and crew.

There were a bunch of other entrepreneurs at the event that I didn’t get a chance to talk with. Will they all succeed? Certainly not. Do they deserve to? Absolutely. Do I have all the answers? Not a chance. But this is just a start; some friendly advice, and I have no doubt these fledgling startups will receive plenty more.

What do you think? Which directions would you point these worthwhile endeavors. Drop me a line or leave a comment on the blog.

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