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CEO Interview: Aaron Williams of SocialSamba

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Time for another entry in my CEO Interview series, this time it’s with Aaron Williams of SocialSamba. This is a great example of why I love doing this series and why I hope the people I speak with find value in doing these: At first blush I wasn’t really buying what SocialSamba was selling. I even experienced one of their offerings and while I thought it was executed well, it just didn’t hit a home run with me. But I wanted to find out more and I must say, after listening to Aaron’s answers, I think he’s got something pretty interesting here, and an interesting use-case of Intermedia. Based on the metrics he’s talking about (see below), I’d certainly be interested in finding out more. I hope you’ll take a look at what SocialSamba has to offer if you’ve got a brand or property and are looking for stronger consumer engagement.

Rick Liebling: For those not familiar with Social Samba, tell us a little about your product(s) and who you are currently working with?

Aaron Williams: SocialSamba is a platform for scripted social networking – which means we enable fans to “friend” the characters they love from TV, movies, books, and brands, and experience what it’s like to be part of a social network with those characters.  It’s the same way you experience the lives of friends and family using Facebook, only the content from the characters is created by professionals, so it tells a great story.  We license our platform to the professional storytellers to create these stories – we have current productions live from the TV shows Covert Affairs and Psych from USA Networks, and the movie Dolphin Tale from Warner Bros.  Psych’s “Hashtag Killer” experience just went live this week – it’s 7 weekly episodes, and you can try it for yourself here.

Of course, your Mad Men experience and others have proven that great stories can be told using Facebook, Twitter and other social networks “out-of-the-box”.  The additional value we’re adding is that we enable these storytellers to script the posts, comments, images and videos once, and then we play them back for each fan.  This ensures fans are participants in the story (think choose-your-own-adventure where the characters call you by name and ask for your input), the stories are not lost in today’s massive social fire hoses, and the stories are an asset that fans can experience whenever they want.  It’s not a campaign and you’re not a voyeur with our technology.

Rick Liebling: What sort of results/ROI have those brands seen with your offering?

Aaron Williams: As of today, there are 3337 fan pages on Facebook with more than 1M fans (HT socialbakers.com).  Even taking out the silly pages, that’s a TON of fans who are looking for a deeper connection to their favorite characters and stories, and brands of beers, and cereals, and sports teams.  Our offering gives these brands the opportunity to go beyond the 1-2% engagement they can get from traditional social marketing campaigns (corporate image sharing, “hey look at us” wall posts, fan polls, etc.).  When these brands can tell their fans a story, and engage them not with the marketing of the brand but instead with the values and stories of the brand through characters, we see much higher engagement rates.  25% of fans of Covert Affairs engaged in their story, for instance, with 12% returning to the story 9+ times, and spending 6+ minutes in the story each time they came back.  That’s exactly what our customers want: deeper and more meaningful engagement.

SocialSamba lets viewers engage with the Psych characters.

Of course, they also want a solution that doesn’t hemorrhage budget.  We cover that two ways: lower costs and real revenue streams.  First the lower costs: being able to script the experience once means you get a story that can be available for a year and scale to millions of fans without having to pay for a writing team for a year, where most of the posts will just get missed.  And second for the revenue: we enable sponsorships, product placements and virtual goods, models that have been very successful across social.

 

Rick Liebling: Here’s where I’m challenged by what SocialSamba does: As someone who was a character in the Mad Men on Twitter experience, the real juice came from the improv element, we had to create on the fly. How does SocialSamba get around the canned nature of the offering you currently have?

Aaron Williams: One person’s canned experience is another person’s Avatar.  The fact is that a majority of the entertainment we enjoy is “canned” (in the sense that it is produced once and played back a zillion times), and fans are happy with that because they get a great story.  I firmly believe it’s the story that matters.  Improv is great also, and completely open ARGs that are created on the fly are a freaking blast, but they definitely aren’t the only way to experience a great story.  So, I just don’t agree that we need to get around our canned nature, we just need to tell kick-ass stories.  All that said, we’re also not 100% canned – we offer our customers an “actor” console where writers can provide direct responses to specific fans as the characters (our customers will use this feature if they want to target the top 5% of their fans and give them customized content, but it is not required).

 

Rick Liebling: Facebook and Twitter make perfect sense for this sort of thing, are there other platforms people should be thinking about?

Aaron Williams: Sure – mobile!  (Hope that’s not too obvious?)  Let me be more specific: SMS, voice mail and apps are kind of overlooked for these kinds of experiences, but they are absolutely ubiquitous and wonderfully “social”.  We’re very excited about having characters leave voice mail, send SMS, and leverage location and augmented reality as part of the story.  Check-ins to sponsors can change the story as well.  When Jack Bauer sends me a voice mail and tells me to get to my local Starbucks and diffuse the bomb through an augmented reality app … I’m in.

 

Rick Liebling: What’s going to be the tipping point for SocialSamba? Is it a matter of a certain show jumping on board with you, or is it just a matter of greater Social TV adoption by consumers?

Aaron Williams: Of course there are the “whales” out there that would validate our vision all on their own, but I’m not as concerned about being recognized as first-to-market with a specific brand.  First-to-scale is all that matters for us.  (There were farming games on Facebook before Farmville.  Zynga kills it with scaling.)  We’re executing like hell, continuing to meet our goals, and delighting our customers.

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