If you think that's crazy - you're wrong. ShareThis is a great example of the kind of company that could become a key foundation for innovation in the next era of the web. If it doesn't sell out to advertisers too quickly or too completely. The company released a new version of its widget today and I took the opportunity to talk to CEO Tim Schigel about where the company is headed in the future.
The Sexy New Widget
ShareThis Widget 2.0 from Dave Donohue on Vimeo.
Little changes can mean tens of millions of click-throughs won or lost for a company like ShareThis. The new widget seems like a real improvement. I especially like the one-click buttons to share items with frequent contacts - I use a similar feature on the StumbleUpon toolbar to email things to my wife sometimes, because it's so much faster than email.
Ok, it's a sharing widget with a fat bankroll. What does it really mean though?
Here's how I see it. If the current iteration of the web is based on everyday people creating and distributing content, many people believe that the next iteration will be based on the use of machine learning to build new layers of value on top of that content. What's hot, with what audiences and what kinds of data parsing magic can we work with that information? Few companies are as well positioned to do interesting things with that kind of data as ShareThis. The company says its service is now live on more than 80,000 sites, from scores of small blogs to some very big brands on the web, like ESPN.com, FoxNews, AccessHollywood and Boston.com.
The company has a lot of opportunity for data-centric innovation and CEO Tim Schigel says that's the direction he's looking to take things. You have to hope that companies like this can pull it off and turn into the platforms they say the want to be - and not just advertising platforms, either.
Schigel says that he's watching OpenID closely and that he was pushing Facebook for something like Connect before the service existed. He also told us that there would "soon" be a way for users to easily export their history of shared items, especially now that ShareThis is putting a new emphasis on bookmarking for later retrieval and not just sharing items. I hope that's all true, but when there are tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars on the table I never hold our breath about such high minded statements being anything more than PR.
In the meantime, though, it's fascinating to think about what ShareThis is going to do with a big pile of user data and a big pile of money.
The Business Plan For Data
ShareThis gets to see a whole lot of interesting things about the ways we share content online. In August the company published a report about the most common tools people use for sharing. The big takeaway? Email still totally dominates online sharing, even through the ShareThis widget. The second most popular method of sharing was for people to publish content into their Facebook news streams. That data told content producers everywhere that if they want to help readers share their content with larger numbers of people, it's important to make email and Facebook as easy to access as possible.
Beyond different methods of sharing, though, ShareThis has obviously got a lot of data about what kind of content is being shared. I asked Schigel whether ShareThis would be sharing this kind of data it collects, in aggregate, with marketers. "That's ultimately where we go with the business model," he said. The company is talking with selected marketers about sharing access to market insights now, but Schigel emphasized that a few conditions needed to be respected. "We need to make sure that publishers can build trust with their readers," he said, "and we need something unique that marketers can't get elsewhere."
What does ShareThis have that Facebook, for example, doesn't have? Schigel says his company can offer platform independence and a much lower price point. By doing nothing but facilitating sharing, ShareThis simply doesn't have the kind of overhead that Facebook requires to run its entire social networking site.
Obviously ShareThis, even with the success its had in spreading its service so far, is going to need to be in a whole lot more places. Part of that increased reach, the company hopes, will come from its developer platform.
ShareThis for Developers
ShareThis already has a developer Application Programming Interface (API) but Schigel says there will be multiple APIs made available soon. The current offering already allows developers to rewrite attributes, like the title, of shared content objects. Hopefully future APIs will give maximum freedom to developers to do things with shared content data that can't even be imagined yet.
Both marketers and developers will soon be getting access to much more sophisticated data streams than mere bulk popularity. Schigel says that ShareThis is filling its Mountain View office with data wonks and PhDs who are aimed at taking ShareThis data beyond the most immediately obvious opportunities, like content recommendation. The company's Principal Scientist, Huitao Luo has worked as a data scientist at LinkedIn, Yahoo! and at the innovative HP Labs. At HP Lou published on research in algorithms developed for cascading classification systems. Recently hired research architect Gordon Rios came from Inktomi/Yahoo, innovative white label calendaring company ZVents and a list of other companies. Rios has a background in data classification, determination of content's international relevance and spam detection.
These are heavy hitters who should offer up some really innovative APIs for the developer community to process user "attention data" and for marketers to monitor trends in interesting and granular ways.
Hopefully it won't all be done in crass service to the interests of advertisers alone. In order to build that trust that Schigel says he wants with publishers and with developers, ShareThis is going to have to offer some of the network effects its capturing to its non-advertiser partners - not just a handy little widget for distribution. That's not unique enough.
Could ShareThis end up turning its little widget into a big company? I wouldn't bet against it. Will Schigel and his crew of scientists also take advantage of the opportunity to facilitate value creation by a larger web of data-centric content and development innovators, thus growing the total pie that the ad market wants a piece of? We can only hope.