April 22, 2008

Social networking gets a Ringside seat

Author: Lisa Hoover

Bob Bickel, co-founder of Ringside Networks, says companies need to harness the power of social networking and entice customers to visit corporate Web sites with the same eagerness they show for sites like Facebook. He believes the Ringside Social Application Server -- an open source platform that puts social networking tools on any existing Web site -- is the answer CEOs are looking for.

Ringside lets Web developers add a variety of social networking applications to a business's existing Web site, while its LGPL licensing allows them to build additional apps specific to the company's needs. Developers can also tie in to popular sites like MySpace, Orkut, and Bebo using OpenSocial compatibility. This is particularly important for businesses whose customers make extensive use of Facebook, since Ringside makes it possible to deploy social applications on both Facebook and a company Web site simultaneously.

Why is cross-deployment crucial? Bickel points to FulcrumGallery, an online art gallery that plans to use Ringside tools to add new functionality to its Web site. "They intend to deploy a social application that allows users to create comments and rate abstract art, and provide a set of incentives to make it fun. The application will be deployed on both Facebook and on their Web site running the Ringside Social Application Server. The fact that Ringside is compatible with Facebook means they only write one application and run it in both places. The fact we give that application to share information about the social graph across both their Web site and Facebook allows them to reach across and attract Facebook users to their site via friend recommendations."

Bickel says the social networking technology emerging today is only the beginning of what's to come. "Social networking has proven to be a great way of engaging users and provides a natural mechanism for word of mouth," he says. "Every business wants to enable these two things with their users, customers, and partners." Bickel says that social tools can and should be built into every Web site to entice visitors as well as leave a footprint on some of the larger social networks to gain traction via referrals by satisfied customers.

So why not just create an online presence at social networking sites by creating groups or fan pages and let those sites do the heavy lifting? "We think social networking is too important to be locked into just the big social networking sites. These are obviously incredibly important, but real businesses ... have invested in their own Web sites. Right now the marketplace thinks of social applications as those used on Facebook, like walls and picture sharing. These are useful, but we think the next generation is merging that with the data and applications on a company's existing Web site -- like their product catalog."

Bickel acknowledges that some may view Ringside as just a new avenue of advertising, but says there's really much more to it than that. "We think it is actually an alternative to advertising. Companies spend a lot of money on banner ads and search rather than improving their own Web sites and creating viral, free ways to get new users to their Web sites. We think adding social aspects to their existing applications as well as adding new applications can do that."

David Katz, director of product development for open source technology consulting firm Optaros, attended a Ringside training event recently to see what benefit this new application might have for his company's existing customers. He reports being "very impressed" with what he saw and is "intrigued to learn more, because this space is in its infancy and this type of technology is only the tip of the iceberg." Katz says Ringside's tools would be of particular interest to his customers using ecommerce, giving them an opportunity tap into social networking while deepening the customer relationship.

The business side of things

Bickel says he chose an open source business model and built Ringside with a LAMP stack and all open source tools as a way to "give back" to a community he has grown to love while involved in business strategy and implementation at JBoss and Bluestone Software.

Initial funding for the project was provided by David Skok, a partner at venture capital firm Matrix Partners. He says backing Bickel's idea for a social networking application server was a no-brainer. "We like to invest in proven entrepreneurs. Bob Bickel is about as good as you can get. He is extremely smart, has a phenomenal track record, and is well loved by all who work with him. In addition we believe that taking advantage of social networking as a new way to interact with customers is one of the top priorites for chief marketing officers. Ringside are the first to package social networking in the right way for enterprise usage."

Skok is less concerned with the Ringside's underlying technology than Bickel. "I think that Ringside's attractiveness to investors has little to do with open source and more to do with the interest in enterprise usage of social networking."


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