Plaxo Leverages Openness Vision As Industry Resistance Loses Steam

Having acquired social networking pioneer Plaxo in May, Comcast is leveraging the Web firm's strategic expansion into a new approach to social networking that will provide the data essential to far more accurate targeting of recommendations and far greater reach for recommended content through viral connectivity across multiple social networks.

Plaxo, well known as a service that connects some 50 million users to business colleagues and friends, is repositioning itself through a new brand, Pulse, to be at the center of social interactions by allowing people to seamlessly interact across social networking boundaries, says John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo. "Comcast, who was our largest customer is now our corporate parent because of the vision they had to work toward a common, unified cross-media experience," McCrea says. "They're unifying the living room, the laptop and mobile devices using consumers' social IDs and relationships as the glue to common experience."

Using Pulse, people can sign in with one name and password and gain access to each other in disparate social environments, allowing them to share data across boundaries, import friends lists from one location into another and, most important to content owners, promulgate their viewing experiences to the widest possible set of associates. This opens a path to much greater viral distribution of content and content recommendations.

Plaxo has long been a proponent of openness across social networks, McCrea notes. Now, with social portals of every description embracing the concept (see accompanying story), the real potential of the combined power of Web content distribution and social networking can be realized.

"We've been pushing really hard for concepts of openness and to declare an end to the walled garden era," he says. "We started a year and a half ago when we wrote a bill of rights for users of the social Web. We've been active with blogging and our own weekly [Web] TV show called Social Web.TV."

With the likes of Google and Yahoo! pushing the concept, the remaining walls are sure to fall, he adds. "All these initiatives share the same vision with different technical details, which is that social networks are better positioned as hubs for helping users interconnect with the rest of the Web."

Already, the new openness is having an impact on media companies, McCrea notes. "We're now seeing big mainstream companies coming out with APIs (applications program interfaces) to support viral distribution of their content," he says. "For example, The New York Times just opened up an API for their movie reviews. So 2000 movie reviews are available through an API.

"It's a virtuous cycle," he continues. "Social networks have big engaged audiences and great mechanisms for social discovery. It's very difficult to get Web surfers to give you rich demographic data if you're a media company. But social networks are great for that. They cough up the data which should be the basis for better advertising targeting. As more media sites get more registered users, there's a larger CPM base for targeted advertising."

Along with eliminating the need for users to provide new signup data every time they register with a new social network, Plaxo greatly simplifies its users' access to content. "A lot of user-generated Web 2.0 sites have RSS feeds, but not everyone is aware of how to use them," McCrea says. "They don't have to be aware of RSS to use the technology on Plaxo."

If a Plaxo user's list of friends includes someone who is part of a social network that the Plaxo user hasn't joined, Plaxo will let the user know when the friend has communicated something available through RSS from the other social network. "We want to be the engine of social discovery," McCrea says, "discovering not only content that users are sharing but also services that are sources of content, whether it's Yelp or Flicker or, down the road, mainstream media properties that are looking to build larger audiences through viral marketing."