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Recently I tried to do a Google search for a wine to pair with swordfish, and it was pretty much a disaster (first world problems, I know, but still.) The problem is, web search results for certain topics are just overloaded with dummy websites with little to no valuable content, many of which have utilized “search engine optimization” (SEO) tactics. Of course, search engines work overtime to stay one step ahead of the SEO spammers, but sometimes the bad guys just win out.

There’s also the issue of discovering new content. Say you’re looking for a new recipe for a dish you’ve made lots of times before. The top 20 search results are going to be from very popular food sites, of recipes you’ve probably already seen What if you want something fresh?

That’s what a neat hack called MillionShort aims to help with. The website is a search engine that lets you remove the top million (or 100,000, or 10,000, or whatever) hits from the results list. It’s a lot like pruning a plant, or skimming the film off the top of a stew: MillionShort lets you remove the old or non-useful stuff from traditional web search to find new or interesting content.

Results for "ratatouille recipe" search (click to enlarge)

The website, which is apparently built on top of Google search (we’ve reached out for an interview and more details and will update this post when we hear back), describes itself like this:

“We thought might be somewhat interesting to see what we’d find if we just removed an entire slice of the web.

The thinking was the same popular sites (we’re not saying popular equals irrelevant) show up again and again, Million Short makes it easy to discover sites that just don’t make it to the top of the search engine results for whatever reason (poor SEO, new site, small marketing budget, competitive keyword(s) etc.). Most people don’t look beyond page 1 when doing a search and now they don’t have to.”

Technically it seems pretty basic, but the idea is pretty powerful. The community at developer-centric news aggregator and discussion site HackerNews has had a pretty big response to MillionShort: The post about the site has garnered nearly 200 comments in less than 24 hours. As one commenter, jaems33, noted: “It reminds me of why I first moved to Google from Yahoo/Webcrawler/Altavista/etc in the first place.”

Social search and dedicated apps may be great and all, but it seems there is still an appetite for discovering fresh new things from the world wide web at large. If the search powers-that-be stop focusing on that, it’s good to see that there are still enterprising developers keen to hack out their own solutions to the problem.

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readyforce logo

Dozens of startups have launched in the past few years claiming to fix the broken recruiting and hiring process. One of them, Readyforce, has already signed up some well-known startups with a relatively straightforward and compelling idea, and it’s opening up its beta test today.

When it comes to finding the right job applicant, CEO Alex Mooradian says that “it’s all about data.” And when Mooradian says “data,” he also means videos, which are a big part of a Readyforce profile. Unlike other sites that just ask people to record videos on their own (often resulting in stilted, awkward videos), Readyforce has actually hired interviewers to do 20-minute webcam conversations with the applicants, which can be edited down into a 3-minute highlight reel. (If you’re not happy with the interview you can do it again.) Users can also fill out something called the “infinite quiz” (in reality, Mooradian says there are more than 100 questions) which tests their interests and skills.

Employers probably won’t make hiring decisions based on Readyforce profiles alone, but they should be a provide a much better filtering mechanism than a generic resume (though yes, you can upload a resume too). As an example, VP of Client Services Anna Binder recalls one user who was not hugely impressive on paper — he was a CS major at not-particularly-prestigious school — but comes across as intelligent and articulate in the video: “Within 30 seconds, you say, ‘I want that guy.’” (You can see a real, sample profile here.)

To start out, Readyforce is targeting a specific group of applicants (college students who are looking for internships or jobs) and a specific group of employers (tech startups) who want to reach them. After all, executives at pretty much any startup will complain about how hard it is to find talent, particularly technical talent. Colleges could offer one of the main solutions to that challenge, but building a traditional college recruiting program is tough. A Silicon Valley company might never have the time or budget to travel to schools outside the Bay Area, but with Readyforce, they can find promising students at those schools and reach out to them directly.

With the beta, students nationwide can create Readyforce profiles (though for now, the video capabilities are largely limited students at UCLA, Boston College, and Stanford), and companies can request to join the program. More than 300 companies are already using Readyforce, and some of them, including Bloomspot, Reputation.com, and SinglePlatform, have actually made hires.

Readyforce has raised $14 million from Menlo Ventures, US Venture Partners, Founder Collective, and First Round Capital.

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Editor’s note: This post is authored by guest contributor Jon Bischke. Jon is a founder of Entelo and is an advisor to several startups. You can follow Jon on Twitter here.

Corner any up-and-coming Kevin Systrom wanna-be and have a heart-to-heart about the challenges of building a successful company and at some point you’ll likely wander into the territory of bemoaning how tough it is to hire people with technical skills. At a party recently a startup founder told me “If you could find me five great engineers in the next 90 days I’d pay you $400,000.” Which is crazy talk. Unless you stop to consider that Instagram’s team (mostly engineers) was valued at almost $80 million per employee or that corporate development heads often value engineers at startups they are acquiring at a half-million to million dollars per person. $400,000 actually might not be so crazy for a basketball lineup’s worth of guys who can sling Ruby or Scala code.

So with all this widespread talk about the value of hiring great engineers and the apparent dearth of technical talent in the market, college students must be signing up to computer science classes in droves. This is the next California Gold Rush is it not? The era in which a self-taught programmer can emerge from relative obscurity and land a mid-nine figure payday. Engineering enrollments surely must be at an all-time high?

Au contraire, mon frère. Consider this (from the Marginal Revolution blog):

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago!

Coding is as hot as it’s ever been and yet we graduated more students with CSci degrees in The Year of Our Orwell as we do today? What’s going on here exactly? A little more from the same blog post:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

We are raising a generation of American Idols and So You Think You Can Dancers when what we really need is a generation of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF download) computer and mathematical occupations are expected to add 785,700 new jobs from 2008 to 2018. It doesn’t take a math major to see that we’re graduating students at a far lower rate than required to meet demand.

But what’s important is not just what is happening but also why it’s happening. If there’s both security on the downside (computer science majors experience rock-bottom unemployment rates) and untold riches on the upside, it seems the rational economic choice for people to flock to majoring in computer science and engineering. And yet, that’s not what’s taking place.

Let’s look at a few of many theories as to why people might be choosing to study drama and music instead of C++ and algorithms.

People don’t get excited by technology. The glamour and glitz of Hollywood that attracts thousands of Midwestern prom queens every year is undeniable. And the stereotype of the lone coder sitting alone in a cube somewhere can’t quite match up to the thrill, however unlikely, of one day performing in front of Steven, Randy and Jennifer.

But that doesn’t seem entirely logical. After all, Sorkin did his best to put nerds front and center with The Social Network and show the rags-to-riches possibilities associated with tech entrepreneurship, at least to the extent that you’re allowed to ever consider a Harvard undergrad as a “rags-worthy” starting point. Furthermore, you need look no further than the Forbes 400 to see alpha geeks racing yachts and buying sports teams. And of course there has never been a time in history when technology was more ubiquitous, with all of us carrying an incredibly powerful computing device in our pockets.

Technology is hard. OK, now perhaps we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that learning how to program has gotten noticeably more difficult over the years. If anything, frameworks like Rails for Ruby make it easier. But there is a basic level of understanding that, if you don’t have it, drastically reduces the likelihood that you’ll become an engineer.

Indeed, at each level of our education there’s a chance to miss out on fundamental knowledge that, if not acquired at that point, becomes progressively more difficult to pick up later in life. Salman Khan said it best in his TED talk that should be mandatory viewing:

“…you fast forward and good students start failing algebra all of a sudden and start failing calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers, and it’s usually because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation.”

There’s likely, in part at least, an education challenge here. But it’s doesn’t appear to be just that. There’s something else important here.

There’s little incentive, early in one’s career, to choose to go into computer science or engineering. At the time you’re choosing your career path, say around 20 years of age, you often haven’t fully digested that the rational economic choice for your studies is something in the STEM disciplines. And when all things are the same “price” (i.e., a degree in the humanities costs the same as a degree in engineering) if you don’t internalize that the net present value of that diploma with a computer science major is significantly greater than the net present value of that diploma with a drama major then maybe drama isn’t such an irrational choice.

Therein lies the problem. If a drama major costs society substantially more than a computer science major (e.g., drama majors pay less taxes, draw more unemployment benefits, etc.) then perhaps a drama major should be more expensive than a computer science major? While this sounds, no pun intended, dramatic, it’s worthwhile to consider that China is canceling majors they don’t deem to have good employment prospects.

Or maybe there isn’t a big problem here after all. Before we completely overhaul the incentive process around how students choose their major perhaps there’s another thing worth considering and that’s the rise of self-directed learning services and websites such as Codecademy, CodeLesson, General Assembly, Dev Bootcamp, Treehouse and Udemy (Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Udemy) make the lower numbers of college graduates with computer science degrees less disconcerting. After all, the important thing is that people are acquiring these skills, not necessarily that they are majoring in the discipline.

There is a lot to think about here and no easy answers but a dialogue on the topic seems important. After all, some of the most innovative companies on the planet are starved for talent while at the same time job prospects for new college graduates are pretty bleak. What will it take to resolve that paradox?

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Editor’s note: This post is authored by guest contributor Thor Muller, a New York Times best selling author. His latest book, “Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business” is available now.

This is the story of how a young Irish fine artist accidentally became a materials scientist, founding a high-growth company that created a whole new product category. It’s also a parable for how great entrepreneurs systematically create their own luck.

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is the founder and CEO of Sugru, a London-based startup that makes an amazing moldable adhesive for repairing any physical object. It’s a cross between silly putty and duct tape, a space age rubber that can be molded into any desired shape by hand, and that sticks to a vast array of surfaces. With customers in over 100 countries, and all seven continents, Sugru has taken the world by storm.

What we see in Jane’s journey, so far from California’s tech startup scene, is the same thing we see in virtually all startups that work: the ability to harness serendipity, the unplanned discoveries, large or small, that end up being the turning points in careers and businesses. Hard work, training and process may be the foundation of success, but serendipity is where the magic happens. And even though serendipity is by definition unpredictable, its appearance is anything but random.

Jane’s stunning rise is the result of her mastering what we call the skills of planned serendipity, a set of behaviors that have allowed her, over and over again, to generate the chance discoveries, recognize the good ones, and take action on those that matter most.

Here’s how it happened, and what we can learn from her breakout success.

Start With A “Geek Brain” 

Jane originally studied to be a sculptor, an interest that had possessed her for years. She returned to school in 2003 to study commercial product design at the Royal College of Art. It seemed a prudent career move given the high demand for designers (and the lack of jobs for sculptors), but it was a switch that proved difficult. Her impulse was to follow her own interests over solving the narrowly defined product problems discussed in class. Before long, her background in sculpture combined with her insatiable curiosity led her to begin experimenting with new materials.

Jane was equipped with one of the great advantages in cultivating serendipity, a geek brain–what we define as an obsessive curiosity in an area of interest and the ability to notice anomalies, overcoming the conventional wisdom that constrains others. The geek brain gave Jane distance from the rote conventions of design school, allowing her to connect ideas from across domains in unusual ways.

Find Space to Play 

Having a mindset geared for recognizing unexpected ideas is rarely enough on its own—Jane needed an environment that allowed her to explore and put this geek brain to good use. The workshop at her college served this purpose well:

I was destroying things and putting them back together: chipping blocks of wood apart and putting them back together with other materials…One experiment I did was combining silicone caulk with very fine wood dust from the workshop. From that combination I made these fancy wooden balls. I found it fascinating that you could make something that looked like wood but had other properties—if you threw them on the floor they’d bounce.

Jane’s early explorations with her strange rubbery material was driven by a fascination with the possibilities of what she could make, rather than any specific purpose to which it could be put. This is the hallmark of a true exploratory mode, as premature focus can kill good ideas before they ever emerge. Still, as her discovery started to take shape, she began to spend more and more time wondering what it might actually be good for.

Be Opinionated 

Jane’s boyfriend noticed that she had been using her funny rubber to repair or customize things around the house—enlarging a sink plug that was too small, or making a more ergonomic knife handle. It had been so natural for her to use the rubber in this way because she personally believed in the value of repairing her things rather than running out and buying a replacement. The instinct was so natural, in fact, that she hadn’t even consciously registered what she was doing. It was only when her boyfriend drew her attention to it that she saw the opportunity in a flash.

Jane had stumbled on a product idea that mapped perfectly to a deeply held conviction: she hated waste. She was fed up with it and knew she wasn’t alone. “In the past, some people would have thought that repairing something is a compromise because you couldn’t afford to buy it new again,” Jane says. “But now there are increasing numbers of people who would rather repair or reuse than throw something out and needlessly buy something new because of the waste involved.”

Her insight was that this space-age rubber she’d invented could be an essential innovation in this cause. She saw the potential in her chance discovery only because she had an overriding purpose that gave her a unique perspective. “Every granny who finds it hard to open a jam jar can manipulate this material,” she said. “Anyone who has a stiff part on their bike can adapt it to be whatever the bike needs.”

Project the Possibility

The only problem was that the material didn’t actually exist yet. The makeshift rubber Jane had been playing with had all kinds of problems: it didn’t adhere to enough surfaces, it had a terribly short shelf-life, and it was too high maintenance to make a successful commercial product.

This was the do-or-die moment. As an artist, there was every reason in the world to give up—she had no business thinking she could solve this incredibly technical problem. Instead, Jane pulled a Jujitsu serendipity move: employing only her faulty prototype and her storytelling skills, she projected her vision as broadly as she could, telling anyone who would listen about it. Early stage entrepreneurs like Jane don’t always know what exact outcomes to expect, but they are willing to publicly put their ideas into the world, allowing them to connect with the as yet unknown people and opportunities that make their products possible.

It worked. Attention followed from the strength of her vision, attracting local press mentions, a set of science advisors, and a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and Arts.

Follow Unplanned Paths

The grant wasn’t huge, a mere £35,000, but it was enough to start testing materials—as long as Jane did the testing herself. To do that, she realized, she would have to do something that was not only unexpected, but would have seemed absurd a few months before: she’d have to diverge from her career path and be trained as a lab technician and set up her own laboratory. She wasn’t waiting around to find a CTO who knew better. This former art student must learn to be a materials scientist.

It took her two years of painstaking trial-and-error, but eventually she created a brand new, patented class of silicone that worked for her aims. Only Jane’s immovable sense of purpose kept her going through month after month of laborious formulation and failure, long before her work would bear fruit. This is a recurring paradox of serendipity: stick-to-itness—the ability to stay committed to a purpose—is often the very thing that allows new paths to be recognized and taken.

Design Openness into the Product and Company

Initially there was tremendous pressure to fit the new product into a well-worn category that the traditional business world would understand. Then it struck Jane that she could create a brand designed to activate the creative spark in people. She could leave the product’s purpose intentionally open—the tagline would become “Hack Things Better”—so that customers could use their own imagination. One of the first things she did after launching the product was create an online community for customers to share their ideas. Creating permeability at the edge of her company allowed new directions and opportunities to serendipitously emerge.

As a result the company and its customers have developed a truly symbiotic relationship. That “perfect fit” Jane had been seeking for her unusual rubber years ago? Her customers are telling her what it is—or rather, all of the perfect fits they’ve found. Repairing computers, cables for laptop chargers, phones, and outdoor equipment have emerged as the leading uses for her one-of-a-kind product. Jane is finding the company being pulled by customers in directions she could never have imagined during those years of painstaking materials research, but in each case the path is perfectly aligned with the company’s purpose.

The Kind of Luck That Matters

Entrepreneurs often cite “luck” as a key ingredient of success, yet this means far more than just being in the right time, right place. The luck that builds careers and companies is the kind that unfolds gradually, choice by choice, as people recognize and seize surprise opportunities, attracting others to them long before it’s obvious that their business is the next big thing. These skills of planned serendipity are not vague, metaphysical concepts; they can be mastered by any of us, and can shape how we run our startups as they grow.

We can learn how to make our businesses luckier.

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fun-games-36

Every time I see a photo sharing app come across the transom, the same question crosses my mind: what about trolls and porn? A game we saw yesterday, Pictorious, asks you to take pictures of items in order to get likes from friends and strangers. Additionally, sites like Pinterest have to act like Soviet censors in order to prevent dirty hot porn from taking over. The threat of someone ruining a good thing is everywhere, and in a world of socially connected apps, trolling is the norm.

If you’ve played online video games recently, you’ll notice that trolling is arguably more virulent and nasty than even a Goatse pic popping up on Instagram. The folks at Penny Arcade along with some major players in the gaming industry have released a video detailing various ways to stop trolling and if you’re a community manager or programmer, it deserves a look.

In short, nastiness in games happens because there are no consequences. The folks at PA say “we’ve given the school bully access to the intercom system” and the bully gets to say whatever he wants. Although many apps are barely popular enough to warrant an audience let alone trolls, this concept is still important to keep in mind.

The solution is fairly simple: persistent muting and earned rights within the game. If a player is consistently mean, the other players can shut him during the entire game and, more important, the troll needs to know he’s being muted. Second, voice chat or commenting should be a privilege earned through play, not a default option. Freedom of speech be damned: this is a game, not parliament.

The same can be said for trolls in social networks. Pinterest, for example, did the right thing by offering accounts only through invitation. It increases the value of the account, for one, and it ensures only friends of friends end up in the mix. Arguably, I’m kind of a jerk on Pinterest but I’ve never pinned anything nasty. I’m more likely to respect a community when I see others respecting it.

Earning the right to “play” is also important. Whether you’re using Facebook or Draw Something, there should be some way to earn real control over the environment through dedication. This doesn’t mean you gamify your SoLoMo application using best-of-breed badging and Tweetstream techniques. That’s bullshit. Give people something valuable for being nice, like the ability to take part in a world-wide conversation.

Our own comments, if you’ve noticed, went from massive lists of invective and slurs against mothers all over the world to a quiet conversation. Why? Because Facebook comments ensured that people had to earn the right to talk and they also were held accountable for their words. You’re less likely to say “YOU SUCK DIE IN HELL APPLEDICK” when your picture and name are above the post. Anonymous commenting has its place but not in a place that is trying to curate a positive experience.

Give the video a look and take some of its advice to heart. It’s not just applicable to gaming. It’s applicable anywhere two or more people congregate and don’t want to be bothered by nihilists.

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IDONETHIS

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and sometimes you’ll bust your tail without so much as a “well done!” to show for it. Deep down though, who doesn’t want a little bit of ego-stroking every once in a while?

That’s exactly what prompted the folks at iDoneThis to team up with AwesomenessReminders — with the new partnership in place, they’re spicing up their task-tracking service by giving their users a heaping dose of self-esteem.

For the uninitiated, iDoneThis (whom TechCrunch spotted at AngelPad’s third demo day last year) runs with a simple concept — at the end of every workday, users are sent a reminder email asking them to list what they’ve actually done that day. Once that response has been sent, the results are collected and displayed in digest form to all members of the team for their perusal the following day.

That by itself seems pretty useful — it provides a level of transparency to a situation where the results of a user’s hard work may not always be immediately visible, and with a minimum of micromanagement. Other users also have the ability to like and leave comments on each others’ lists of accomplishments, which normally just means a good day’s work will net you a “Nice job!” or two.

With that partnership with AwesomenessReminders in place, those iDoneThis users whose accomplishments have been liked are in for a treat — someone from AwesomenessReminders will actually call that person at some point to vocally proclaim how awesome they are.

If that sounds familiar, you may recall the AwesomenessReminders name from when founder Zachary Burt launched the service in 2010. In a nutshell, it allowed people to pay a monthly fee in exchange for commanding a legion of chipper callers to tell others how awesome they are. At some point the service stopped taking on new customers (though existing users could still access their accounts), and it seems that their new deal with iDoneThis is the first in a line of new initiatives with “high level strategic partners.”

Alright, so the whole thing sounds more than a little wacky (not to mention a potential headache for overachievers) but iDoneThis CEO Walter Chen feels like the partnership could make for some brighter days at the office.

“iDoneThis exists to motivate and clear up the mess that is reporting, and AwesomenessReminders exists to remind people they’re awesome,” he told me. “We all need that in the workplace.”



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Editor’s Note: This article is co-authored by Nir Eyal and Jason Hreha. Nir is the founder of two acquired startups and blogs at NirAndFar.com. Jason is the founder of Dopamine, a user-experience and behavior design firm. He blogs at persuasive.ly.

Yin asked not to be identified by her real name. A young addict in her mid-twenties, she lives in Palo Alto and, despite her addiction, attends Stanford University. She has all the composure and polish you’d expect of a student at a prestigious school, yet she succombs to her habit throughout the day. She can’t help it; she’s compulsively hooked.

Yin is an Instagram addict. The photo sharing social network, recently purchased by Facebook for $1 billion, captured the minds of Yin and 40 million others like her. The acquisition demonstrates the increasing importance — and immense value created by — habit-forming technologies. Of course, the Instagram purchase price was driven by a host of factors, including a rumored bidding war for the company. But at its core, Instagram is the latest example of an enterprising team, conversant in psychology as much as technology, that unleashed an addictive product on users who made it part of their daily routines.

Like all addicts, Yin doesn’t realize she’s hooked. “It’s just fun,” she says as she captures her latest in a collection of moody snapshots reminiscent of the late 1970s. “I don’t have a problem or anything. I just use it whenever I see something cool. I feel I need to grab it before it’s gone.”

THE TRIGGER IN YOUR HEAD

Instagram manufactured a predictable response inside Yin’s brain. Her behavior was reshaped by a reinforcement loop which, through repeated conditioning, created a connection between the things she sees in world around her and the app inside her pocket.

When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an “internal trigger.” Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!,” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.

We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions. But how does an app like Instagram create internal triggers in Yin and millions of other users? Turns out there is a stepwise approach to create internal triggers:

1 — EDUCATE AND ACQUIRE WITH EXTERNAL TRIGGERS

Instagram filled Twitter streams and Facebook feeds with whimsical sepia-toned images, each with multiple links back to the service. These external triggers not only helped attract new users, but also showed them how to use the product. Instagram effectively used external triggers to communicate what their service is for.

“Fast beautiful photo sharing,” as their slogan says, conveyed the purpose of the service. And by clearly communicating the use-case, Instagram was successful in acquiring millions of new users. But high growth is not enough. In a world full of digital distractions, Instagram needed users to employ the product daily.

2 — CREATE DESIRE

To get users using, Instagram followed a product design pattern familiar among habit-forming technologies, the desire engine. After clicking through from the external trigger, users are prompted to install the app and they begin using it for the first time. The minimalist interface all but removes the need to think. With a click, a photo is taken and all kinds of sensory and social rewards ensue. Each photo taken and shared further commits the user to the app. Subsequently, users change not only their behavior, but also their minds.

3 — AFFIX THE INTERNAL TRIGGER

Finally, a habit is formed. Users no longer require an external stimulus to use Instagram because the internal trigger happens on its own. As Yin said, “I just use it whenever I see something cool.” Having viewed the “popular” tab of the app thousands of times, she’s honed her understanding of what “cool” is. She’s also received feedback from friends who reward her with comments and likes. Now she finds herself constantly on the hunt for images that fit the Instagram style. Like a never-ending scavenger hunt, she feels compelled to capture these moments.

For millions of users like Yin, Instagram is a harbor for emotions and inspirations, a virtual memoir in pretty pixels. By thoughtfully moving users from external to internal triggers, Instagram designed a persistent routine in peoples’ lives. Once the users’ internal triggers began to fire, competing services didn’t stand a chance. Each snapshot further committed users to Instagram, making it indispensable to them, and apparently to Facebook as well.

Photo credit: Dierk Schaefer

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facebook credits

Editor’s note: Dean Alms is the VP of Marketing & Business Development at social entertainment company Milyoni. Follow him on Twitter @deanalms.

Roughly 16 billion Facebook Credits were distributed and consumed in 2011. In 2012, I predict that the use of Facebook Credits will soar by three times to over 40 billion Credits spent on virtual goods, digital goods and more. The growth will be fueled by new digital content available on Facebook, use of Facebook Credits to reward brand loyalty and better marketing of a social currency that is still in its infancy.

The following chart shows the growth of Facebook Credits revenue reported by Facebook from 2009 to 2011.

This chart demonstrates that with a growth rate of 300 percent in 2012 (lower growth rate than in prior years) the number of Facebook Credits in circulation will soon reach 47 billion. If 7 billion remain unused in consumer accounts by the end of the year, then 40 billion will have been spent on social gaming, social entertainment and new innovative applications. At 10 cents per credit, total revenue generated from the Facebook Credits market in 2012 will reach approximately $4 billion.

Can Facebook Credits really grow to over 40 billion in circulation in 2012? The answer is yes. Here are some of the key assumptions and business drivers of this new international currency for virtual and digital goods.

  • Facebook, seeing the opportunity and its contribution to the bottom line, will put forth a stronger marketing effort in order to communicate the value this currency brings to both merchants and consumers. Facebook Credits are still new and their value can still be hard to understand. Many don’t know much about this currency, where to get them, what they can and cannot use them for, and why they matter. This marketing effort will likely leverage mainstream marketing channels: TV, Radio, and Print to simply get the message out—Facebook Credits are hugely valuable and everyone should use them.
  • Retail efforts will pick up steam. iTunes gift cards will face stiff competition from Facebook as young consumers begin asking for these cards for birthdays and holidays instead of a single-brand card like iTunes. The variety of apps with built-in social interaction will create a strong demand for the next-generation of entertainment.
  • Hundreds of big brands and thousands of smaller brands will use Facebook Credits in 2012 as an incentive tool. Facebook Credits will be the airline miles of the next decade as consumers are rewarded with Facebook Credits for brand loyalty. Companies will encourage customers to visit online stores and reward customers with Facebook Credits in varying amounts because the online world-of-mouth and viral effects are endless.
  • Social Gaming will continue to grow with new games and new audiences playing them. Social Gaming, currently led by Zynga, will make billions of dollars in this market with Facebook taking a fee from every transaction conducted on its social network.
  • Social Entertainment will grow in size and significance. In 2012, thousands of movies and hundreds of live events (concerts, sporting events and more) will be available on Facebook for 30 to 100 Facebook Credits each. Today, 89 of the top 100 Facebook Fan pages are entertainment-oriented – music, movies, and sports properties or personalities—and fans always want more content from these pages. In 2012, they’ll be more and more likely to use Credits to access it.
  • Facebook Credits are a global currency. My company, Milyoni, has created a number of live and video on demand offerings on Facebook. Many of them have reached fans from over 30 countries using Facebook Credits as the only currency. This frictionless currency conversion experience is a key factor in the global adoption – no need to worry about exchange rates or fluctuating monetary values. Facebook provides seamless currency conversion for 47 currencies, and climbing.
  • The Facebook Open Graph. Less appreciated, but very important, is the open graph API’s and Facebook’s support of the platform where people, apps and interactions continuously grow. If Facebook’s team does not meet a specific need, there are other innovative start-ups that will leverage the Open Graph to produce the apps and services that both consumers and merchants need to make this ecosystem thrive.

Given this context, spending 40 billion Facebook Credits or $4 billion in virtual and digital goods is achievable. As music, movies and other entertainment content supplements an already growing base of social gamers, this number may end up being on the low side. The bottom line for all businesses with social media ambitions is: create a strategic initiative to leverage Facebook Credits; ignoring it means missing out on the massive market opportunity they represent.

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audience

Editor’s note: Vikram Goyal is founder of CraftGossip.com. Follow CraftGossip on Twitter @CraftGossip.

In Sept. 2007, I was on a well-deserved holiday, having spent an excruciating 11 months with a startup where 80-hour weeks were normal. I was the Chief Technology Officer and in my short tenure, I had gained new clients, setup the company infrastructure and trained a few interns. On the morning I came back from holiday, my office was packed up, and the bosses were in it to hand my stuff to me. They kicked me out of the door without so much as a thank you.

I went through the various stages of depression, and then realized that I had to come up with an action plan quickly to pay for the massive mortgage and the new baby.

With nothing more than an idea in mind, my wife and I started CraftGossip.com, a niche blog network covering everything that your grandma would be proud of, sewing, knitting, crochet. We also covered some new age favorites like indie crafts, edible crafts and home and garden. We decided to cover news related to the craft world (I explain later why we decided to start this site and not something else).

Since then, CraftGossip.com has become the number one craft site to go to, if you like your news crocheted, knitted or sewn. In 2011, our traffic roughly doubled. We have been courted three times in the last year alone for acquisition.

In this post, I will offer my thoughts on how a niche publishing site like ours can become successful.

Understanding our audience

The online world of Crafts/DIY is fragmented. On one end, you have the big players like the DIYNetwork.com whose web presence is part of a whole media strategy. On the other, you have a host of semi-independent sites like Craftster.org, Craftzine.com, and host of other mommy blogs. In 2007, if you wanted your information about new and interesting things in the paper making or jewelry making industry, you either read an off the shelf trade magazine or relied on main stream media to pick the information up in their supplements.

Our audience were mostly women (97% or more) in their late thirties with at least one kid. They had spare time on their hands. And they wanted to indulge in some creative pursuits. And they wanted to know about everything new and interesting in their pursuit.

We decided that this audience would be best served by a review site which would cover not only independent artists and their creations, but targeted industry behemoths. So, we started CraftGossip.com as a blog network, with separate sections to cover everything in sewing, knitting, crochet, paper crafts (since retired) and a few more.

It helped that my wife had started an independent site (Craftbits.com) that provided free patterns and projects since 2000, so she understood her audience well. That site had always been sent free goodies from major suppliers in the hope that we would use them in our projects and therefore write about them. Coupled with the knowledge gained in running that site and the audience research we did plus the lack of competition at that time helped us to create a site where we could talk about everything new and creative.

Understanding that it is all about the money

The biggest question we had while creating the site was how we were going to find and curate all that information. With a net cast as wide as we could, we had decided to indulge several categories, but we couldn’t ourselves find and write about them. We needed external people — our editors. To have editors, we needed to pay them. And therefore, the site needed to make money to be able to pay these people.
We decided to have ads all over the place. At last count, each page on our site had at least seven ads.
But our content is the king.

We have been slammed several times for having an excessive amount of ads. We have been slammed for having ads in the first place. But if you go to our site, you will immediately see where the content is and where the ads are. There are clear demarcations. You cannot confuse an ad for content. And this helps us to maintain integrity. Our design was changed just once in the last four years, and when we found that that wasn’t working we quickly reverted back. So our design is the same it has been when we started because it was the best design to incorporate our seven ad types.

Having to deal with different advertisers is a pain, but it helps us to keep afloat. It is a small price to pay. We accepted at the start of the site that the site needs to make money immediately, enough to pay our editors and for our efforts. In the process we created the go-to site for everything you wanted to find out about Craft/DIY.

Finding and maintaining the balance with our editors

I mentioned about our editors earlier. Each section on our site has its own editor as we found it impossible to maintain the site as well as find fresh and daily content to post. Between our 20 editors, we post nearly 30-40 new posts each day. Yes, each day our editors find 30-40 new items in the craft world that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

We require our editors to post at least five new articles each week. This maintains the freshness of each blog. But most editors post more than that, as they love their job!

Of course, the balance comes from almost complete independence in how they handle their traffic and content. They have editorial independence from us and in the last 4 years we have had to only pull content twice. This independence allows us independence as well from checking on them daily. We know that they are responsible for their content and we leave it at that.

The editors have a visceral interest in maintaining this independence as well. When we started, we decided that the way we will pay them is via a revenue share arrangement based on their traffic, and that this revenue share would be balanced in their favour. No other site or blog network I know has this arrangement where the revenue is in favour of the editors.

Paying them via a revenue share worked well for us as well. It helped us to start the network with the minimum of capital. We could only pay out what the site had earned – no more. In the years since, our most heavily trafficked site’s editor regularly earns over $2500 a month. Not bad for finding 5 new ideas a week to post about (although that editor posts much more than that).

Keeping our social media channels open and active

We were very late on this one. It was perhaps our inability to recognize that social media channels could be a great source of legitimate traffic. The problem was compounded by not understanding each social media channel and how to leverage individual strengths. Even now, our Twitter account languishes with only 15000+ followers, and the traffic from Twitter is out of our top 10 sources.

However, once we realized our folly, we increased our efforts in each channel. Mainly Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, we used for maximum participation from our audience. We organized Facebook giveaways that required users to like us on Facebook (this has been outlawed by Facebook since then).

For example, we gave away a Kindle via Amazon in the race to get to 10000 fans. A prize like Kindle is a great incentive for our audience to participate (and a really easy prize for us to fulfill), so we asked them to not only like us on Facebook, but to leave a comment on the post to increase interaction.

We got over 1000 entries for that giveaway and gained over 1600 new fans.

One of the problems of organizing giveaways like this is that you gain audience that are not really into your product or service. Luckily, our attrition rate after organizing such giveaways has been minimal, as our target is women followers who genuinely like our site and the daily craft ideas that we provide.

Lately, Facebook traffic has been surpassed in leaps and bounds by Pinterest. However, with the legal challenges facing Pinterest, we are approaching this cautiously. Besides, Pinterest doesn’t encourage user participation in the way Facebook does. YMMV.

Appearing bigger than we were

This was always an ethical issue. We approached many suppliers, artists and publishing houses with offers of great reviews for their products, artwork and books in exchange for them sending us details of their wares before anyone else. We did this by pretending to be bigger than we were (at that time).

This worked in probably 4 attempts out of 10. But each attempt, even failed ones, brought us closer to being in the good books of these people because the 4 genuine creative works and products that we featured made us look legitimate and big in front of the 6 who had refused to send us their products.

One classic example was the use of LinkedIn to approach an industry leader for product samples and giveaway of their flagship product. This was audacious because we were a “nobody”, and we were trying to use a dubious connection to request that resource. We had almost given up on that channel working out till eventually, we received a positive reply. The use of LinkedIn helped as it seemed a legitimate request via a trusted source.

Most readers will want to trust you, if they think you are big enough. We mostly find and write about great ideas and inspirations in our vertical and we proudly display the number of people who already trust us via our Facebook, Twitter and Newsletter count. “Hey, if CraftGossip is a great source of daily ideas for 25,000+ other Facebook fans, then it is good enough for me too.”

Whenever we approach new sources, we proudly declare what we have already done for other similar sources in the past.

Giveaways – how we have used them to gain audience

I mentioned hosting a giveaway earlier. Hosting giveaways was one of the biggest ways we gained new audiences and kept bringing them back for more. In the process, we retained audiences that were genuinely interested in our content and therefore, decided to stick around.

The strategy we used was to request a review product or sample from a manufacturer and then to propose to them that either the editor reviewing the product offer up her product sample for a giveaway at the end of her review, or the manufacturer send the winner the prize directly. 9 times out of 10, the manufacturer agrees to send the prize directly, which saves our editors time and (company) money.

Tying up the giveaway along with the social media channels helps. We recently hosted a KitchenAid Mixer giveaway on our edible crafts blog that drew nearly 4000 entries. In part, it was due to the popularity of this mixer, but more importantly, it was because KitchenAid agreed to post the giveaway on their own Facebook page, which had a much more substantial following than overs. During the days we hosted the giveaway, we saw a 100% increase in the daily Facebook likes, and around 75% increase in engagement. It ties in neatly with the other ideas I have presented earlier – social media engagement + appearing bigger than we were.

Always make sure that the giveaway prize that you pick is easy for you to fulfil. There is nothing worse than a disgruntled winner.

In conclusion

These are some of the main ideas that have helped us to get to where we are today. We are a niche vertical blog network, and we have found our happy place. We found passionate and dedicated editors who write about new and creative ideas in their fields, we give our readers what they want and we get advertisers to pay us so we can continue to be profitable. This is no magical formula and we believe anyone can create the same within their own vertical.

[image via flickr/Amit Chattopadhyay]

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Cheek'd, Cards-1

I’ve covered a few online dating services in my day, but this one has got to be the most creative.

It’s called Cheek’d, and I’d categorize it as a place where business cards meets picking up prospective boyfriends/girlfriends/one-night stands.

Here’s how it works: you go over to the Cheek’d website, at which point you take a couple minutes to fill out a profile. The fields of personal representation are actually a bit more novel than most dating sites, asking things like where you’re most likely to be found, the most played song on your iPod, and your favorite board game. Upload a pic, and the fun really begins.

You then must order a deck of cards, which say things like “act natural, we can get awkward later”, “don’t overthink this”, and “emotionally available.” There are literally hundreds of different sayings, and there’s even a Wall Street deck with lines like “add me to your portfolio” and “all my bank accounts are Swiss.”

The cards also have a short ID code on them, with a URL for the Cheek’d website. When a suitor receives the card, the idea is that they’re so filled with curiosity that they enter the code on Cheek’d and are taken to your profile page. Cheek’d calls it online dating in reverse.

See, Cheek’d wants to take out the online part of online dating. It forces real-life interaction, even if that interaction seems a bit awkward to me.

You get the first month free, and can also get a free deck of five cards (shipping and handling not included.) Past that, you pay $9.95 for a monthly subscription (which basically means you pay $10/month to keep your profile live). Cards you still have to pay for, and decks come in various sizes with corresponding pricing.

I grilled the founders yesterday at the NY Tech Day because, upon first impression, this sounds like one of the creepiest things ever. Why would I hand someone a card that says “hi,” (yes there are cards that simply say “hi”) instead of just saying hi myself? You know, with my voice?

But they threw out some instances where I could possibly, maybe, potentially see the idea materialize into something helpful.

For example, let’s say you’re out at a crowded bar, and a girl who seems relatively attractive catches your eye. But there’s one problem: she’s surrounded by five of her closest girlfriends, and no man (or woman) has come anywhere close to scoring with any of them all evening. It’s girls’ night.

But you, being the clever, “Cheeky” man (or woman) that you are, decide to send over a drink to the hottie along with one of your Cheek’d cards. Maybe the one that says, “I couldn’t find a napkin.” By the time she gets the card and the waiter tries to point you out to her, you’re walking out the door, all mysterious-like.

I’m not saying it will work, but I won’t say with certainty that it won’t work either.

(Note: Cheek’d is offering our readers a 50 percent discount on cards if they use the promo code “TECH”.)

Click to view slideshow.

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