If Facebook is the top auto maker of social networking, Filemobile is a custom car shop.
Founded in 2005 as a research and development project, the Toronto startup is hoping to capitalize on a growing preference among corporations for active rather than passive marketing: asking users to participate in the creation of content, rather than simply advertising a new product or service.
Filemobile gives companies the technical tools necessary to create their own miniature social networks. It designs software that can be used as the back-end for such sites, allowing companies not only to build them, but also to manage everything from user comments to uploaded video. In addition to doing full turnkey work, Filemobile also offers consulting services.
"What a lot of these media companies saw in our platform was a tool to allow them to manage social media and user-generated content," said Filemobile founder Steve Hulford.
Companies are increasingly looking at social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as integral parts of their marketing and branding strategies. Brands ranging from Future Shop to Skittles have created a "fan page" on Facebook, in the case of the former, and temporarily replaced their home page with a stream of any Twitter post containing the word "Skittles," in the case of the latter.
But the mass corporate and consumer migration to social networking sites has created another problem: noise.
Simply put, it is becoming much more difficult for businesses to differentiate their messages at a time when roughly as many people use Facebook as they did the entire Internet a decade ago. In a rush to capitalize on the real-time social phenomenon, Google recently integrated Twitter posts as part of its search results page, showing Tweets almost as soon as users posted them. The company received some criticism for the move, mostly because many of the Tweets were irrelevant.
"[Ninety-nine per cent]of the time it's just not useful, nor is it clear that people actually want the ability to search Twitter from Google," said Adam Bunn, head of search engine optimization at Greenlight, an independent technology firm whose 2010 web search predictions include more corporate investment in social-based advertising and marketing. "Where it is useful is as a barometer of what is current. Expect to see more subtle integration of Twitter data into indexing processes and algorithms."
Google's latest attempt at utilizing social networks -- a Twitter-like feed called Google Buzz, built into the company's Gmail platform -- is aimed at trimming down the amount of noise in the social space.
"We all feel this bombardment, this fatigue of having to manually go through and try to make sense of the torrent of information that's washing over us now," Bradley Horowitz, a Google vice-president of product management, said when he announced Buzz last week. "This has become a large-scale problem, a relevance problem."
But as the social web grows, opportunities for startups are also growing, driven by a variety of factors. Even as Twitter experiences meteoric user growth, for example, the company has yet to figure out a way to turn a profit. That leaves the door open for start-ups such Toronto-based Assetize, which teams up with Twitter users to include ads in their posts, and split the revenue.
One of the biggest growth sectors is the custom-built social community. In a report released last September, research firm IDC predicted the U.S. online community software business will jump to $1.6 billion by 2013, compared with $278.4 million in 2008 and $135.3 million the year before. In addition to creating such on-line communities externally for customers, the report noted, companies are also designing communities internally for employees.
But the lure of 350 million or so Facebook users is too great to ignore, which is why Filemobile includes Facebook integration in virtually all its products, allowing users to cross-post whatever they've created for a custom-built site back to their wider social networks. Mr. Hulford points to a campaign dubbed "most valuable coach" run by TSN. The sports broadcaster created a social site that allowed users to nominate a local coach, and post testimonials. Virtually all the advertising for the campaign came during TSN football game broadcasts. But the campaign site also allowed users to broadcast their submissions back to Facebook. The site garnered some 150,000 views.
"The No. 1 source of traffic has come out of Facebook," Mr. Hulford said, "which costs nothing."
Since its founding, Filemobile has solicited no outside funding, and the company was built using its owners' own money. It began turning a profit in 2006, Mr. Hulford says. Since then, the operation of about 15 has expanded to New York and Copenhagen, and it is hoping to pick up new business in Europe and the U.S.