When you’re put on hold at Backplane, the Palo Alto-based social media start-up, you don’t get muzak. You get Lady Gaga. That’s not unusual since hip music is part of the start-up scene’s DNA, but hits like Poker Face and Paparazzi aren’t just a random choice. Gaga herself is part of the DNA of Backplane, a new social networking platform that promises to transform the way pop stars and brands of all sorts interact with their biggest fans.
Backplane is trying to develop a social media platform that will prove as enduring, ubiquitous and sticky as Facebook. And its first and most powerful tool is Gaga herself. Gaga, who has a clearly-defined – and measurable – fan base of what she calls her “little monsters, is both a social media and musical tour de force. With more than 47 million Facebook likes and 24 million followers on Twitter the fit with a company building a social media and community platform for brands makes perfect sense.
The company was born this way: the iconoclastic singer and her manager, Troy Carter, were asked by Steve Jobs, Apple’s late founder, for feedback on its nascent music social network, Ping – which turned out to be an uncharacteristic misstep for the Cupertino giant. Gaga and Carter reportedly came away from that meeting convinced there was a better way, and so turned to Matt Michelsen — a scheduled speaker at DLD Moscow — who took on the job of creating and running Backplane. Michelsen, 40, cut his financial and technical teeth on Wall Street during the 1990s, where he developed trading technology for hedge funds. Having sold his business to Goldman Sachs in 2008, he was ready for a challenge when, as he puts it, “Troy Carter enlisted me to go change the world with him.”
Backplane, which was created by Gaga, Carter and Michelsen in January 2011, quickly raised more than $4 million in seed investment from A-list investors including Google Ventures and i/o Ventures. A second round at the end of last year raised a further $1.8 million.
Gabbi Cahane, managing partner at the London-based consultancy andmeanwhile, thinks Backplane is on to something. The idea of a social browser has been knocking around for a while, and none of the usual suspects seems to have quite pulled it off, she says. “Backplane looks like a way of blending the browsing, discovery, creation and co-creation, curation, sharing and chatting aspects around a single entity,” says Cahane. “I can see this working beautifully for branded properties such as pop stars, sports stars, porn stars, consumer brands and social causes.”
Littlemonsters.com, the first social community built on the Backplane platform, gives a glimpse of what is to come. The site enables sharing and voting on content, capitalizing on the paradigms developed by social pioneers Reddit and Digg while borrowing heavily visually from Pinterest. “We set out to build something very useful that could be adapted across multiple communities,” Michelsen, Backplane’s CEO, said in an interview with Informilo.
Still in closed beta and with 1,000 invites a day, litttlemonsters.com not surprisingly places heavy emphasis on interaction between fans and Gaga herself. On Facebook, it is Mark Zuckerberg who benefits from all the information about its users. On littlemonsters.com it is Gaga and her entourage who directly connect to hard-core fans, the biggest consumers of concert tickets and billable merchandise, allowing for the tracking and leveraging of information such as sex, age, location and merchandise preferences.
“We’ve been trying to figure out how to solve the problem of passive social communities — because with Gaga having the large social-media footprint that she has, we were still having problems connecting to the audience directly,” Carter, Gaga’s manager, said in an interview posted on Details.com. “With Backplane, what we wanted to do was get into small communities. So instead of having 45 million brief engagements, what about that concentrated group of 5 million who want every bit of information out there?”
While Facebook was created for intrapersonal relationships, Backplane is designed from the start to suit almost any brand, as it provides a place for devotees to converse, keep up with news from the brand, keep an eye on brand-related events and hang out. It focuses on “hyper consumers” – those that are most likely to spend money on things related to the community.
A space to “hang out” is key: Facebook’s success comes from its stickiness, the amount of time people spend on the site, and how many ads it can serve to the user while they’re there. According to web-monitoring group Nielsen, Americans spent a combined total of 53.5 billion minutes on Facebook during May 2011, comfortably outstripping Yahoo!, which came limping in to second place with a combined total of 17.2 billion minutes during the same month.
Of course anything new and social faces the challenge of luring people away from the behemoth: Facebook. There have been any number of attempts to create alternative social spaces – and thus to harness the advertising revenues that a successful social space can generate. Perhaps the most obvious blunders in this space are those clumsily executed by Google: Buzz, Wave and now Google+.
But there have been some recent successes. Take Pinterest, which has very quickly become an important part of the social media landscape, with Experian recently noting in its 2012 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report that the site had become the third most popular social network, behind Facebook and Twitter, up from seventh place in November 2011.
Backplane is zeroing in on building communities across geographical boundaries. Michelsen notes the role social media has played in recent events such as the Arab spring of 2011 and the global Occupy movement. “It’s who I’m following, what I’m following and what the message is that brings together groups of people,” he says.
One of the smart additions to the Backplane platform is its PIM (personal information management) tools: when you sign up to littlemonsters.com you get a calendar and an inbox – a very old-school set of tools, but ones that enable community. Some of the tools on the site reflect the links with Google (its calendar and mail tools will integrate with Gmail and Google calendar), while the chat tool automatically translates chat from speakers of other languages into English.
So what could possibly go wrong for Backplane? Any social media property faces concerns about security and privacy, and it’s here that Facebook and Google have faltered. Google came under fire when its now-defunct Buzz, which pulled together messaging, microblogging and social networking, made big assumptions about what users were and weren’t prepared to share with their contacts.
Facebook , too, regularly attracts criticism for its approach to privacy.
Security is also a potential issue. Backplane isn’t a website: it’s a new platform and therefore at risk from malicious intent on the part of third-party developers. “We have seen malware spreading on Facebook,” says Graham Cluley of Internet security group Sophos. “The bad guys target Adobe Flash, PDF and Java because they know so many people have them installed … and what else is everyone running? Facebook.”
There are other ways Backplane – or rather, the brands that use the Backplane platform to build their communities – could get it wrong. “Brands can mess it all up by using old-media approaches – interrupt, hard sell, TV or print content reformatted rather than reimagined – to a new media platform that will kill off or deny any emergent behaviour that the community develops itself,” says London-based consultancy andmeanwhile’s Cahane. “And/or they can try to do too much. Complexity will turn people off. It needs to look like a place to spend time with great content and people, not a technology platform.”
Littlemonsters.com neatly escapes that trap. Via Backplane Gaga and her entourage are providing a “canvas for self expression” that makes fans feel like super stars rather than captive customers. As littlemonsters. com is starting to demonstrate, a large and unwieldy group of people who have the Internet at their disposal can be leveraged effectively. And that has the potential to benefit not only “mother Monster,” as Gaga is affectionately known, but brands across the board.