Sometimes a successful web product takes a while to find its niche. Occasionally it morphs into a different product altogether, along the way. Both things have happened to GetGlue, the service where users "check in" to watching TV shows, reading books, listening to music - indeed, to just about anything.

I caught up with GetGlue founder and CEO Alex Iskold to discuss the evolution of the product since its inception. It's changed from an under-used geeky Firefox browser add-on, to a mainstream service where hundreds of thousands of people check-in to Mad Men and other popular entertainment shows. How has GetGlue made this transition? One word, by getting emotional.

What's more, the changes have been good for GetGlue. It has experienced strong growth this year. Iskold told me that "in the month of August alone we saw over 8 million ratings and check-ins." That's about 300,000 ratings and check-ins every day. GetGlue currently has over 600,000 users and is, according to Iskold, riding "an upward trend in the social entertainment market."

People Get Emotional About Entertainment

"The big insight was that [the product] needs to be emotional."

GetGlue changed its branding and launched a new website, GetGlue.com, last November. It changed almost overnight from a geeky browser add-on called Blue Organizer to a destination website called GetGlue. Mobile applications followed soon after.

"Once we launched the website," Iskold told me, "it made a world of a difference and ever since [we've had] exponential growth that continues to increase."

It wasn't until the re-launch that Iskold and company realized that their core users are emotional about the things that they're watching on TV and the things they're consuming.

"It was because we kind of stood back and said, what we need to do is create something that will be a fit for entertainment. The big insight was that it needs to be emotional. Our users are really emotional about GetGlue and about their entertainment - so that strikes the chord with them. That was a big turn around for us."

"When you you read a book," Iskold said (knowing that I am a book lover), "it's an emotional experience, right? Likewise, other people are very passionate about different forms of entertainment. Somebody may like True Blood, somebody may like Mad Men, somebody may be into classical music. Humans are attached to entertainment and entertainment drives our emotions. Everybody wants to talk about entertainment and essentially it's a form of self-expression. Which books you like, which movies you like, which shows you watch - it's self-expression and something that we'd like to discuss and tell each other about."

From Browser Add-On to Destination Website

It was fairly obvious to industry observers last year that the Blue Organizer browser add-on wasn't quite working - a few of us at ReadWriteWeb found it hard to keep using the product after the initial trial period. Despite the issues, the November re-branding and move to a different delivery platform was a drastic change. I asked Alex Iskold what drove the company to that? He replied that "a process for every start-up that ultimately succeeds is a process of iteration."

"We're connecting people around entertainment. But the delivery [browser add-on] just wasn't right."

"I think it starts with the idea. The idea has always been the same, which is the vision of connecting people around entertainment that they love, around things they love. I mean you know that since day one, we were fascinated with the idea of why should we be separated by different websites? If you are a NetFlix customer and I am a Blockbuster customer, why can't we share each other's tastes and why can't we see each other's comments?

So this original idea is at the heart of the service, which is that we're connecting people around entertainment. But the delivery, as you said, just wasn't right. The browser add-on model was interesting and innovative. But the problem was it wasn't generating emotions and it wasn't resonating with people. I mean we had over two million downloads of the add-on, but it just wasn't the delivery [mechanism] that people ultimately wanted."

Iskold told me that the company had a bunch of internal conversations about how to move beyond the browser add-on. Eventually one of their investors told the team that they "cannot be this closed network." He encouraged GetGlue to be "part of the open web" and launch a destination website.

Usage Patterns

Seeing as the product changed so much, how do people use GetGlue nowadays?

"Well, we have a bunch of mobile apps," replied Iskold. "We have an iPhone app and we recently launched an iPad app. We have an Android app. We also have a mobile website. Most of the usage for checking in happens through the [mobile] apps. So it's a natural thing. You're sitting on the couch, you're watching Mad Men, you want to check-in and tell your friends what you're doing. Or you're at work listening to music and you can check-in."

In terms of browsing information on GetGlue, Iskold said that "most of the ratings are happening through getglue.com [i.e. the website], about 80% of the ratings." He suggested that use cases for browsing GetGlue are when the user is bored or nostalgic.

"I want to go in check out what my friends are doing but also read a bunch of lists - action films that I've seen, books that I've read. So you're just basically being nostalgic [about] entertainment and browsing through peoples' profiles. We see most of the ratings coming through this way."

I wondered whether a lot of the new mainstream audience has been coming in via Twitter and Facebook? Surprisingly, Iskold said that the opposite is more generally the case.

"People are sharing from GetGlue to Facebook and Twitter a lot," he noted. "They're sharing at a rate of three shares per minute to each network. On weekends and evenings, we're actually seeing over ten shares per minute to each of these networks."

I asked if the current audience contributes content (ratings, check-ins) at the same rate as the early adopter users that the browser add-on had? Iskold pointed to checking in and rating as two very common actions.

"Everybody rates. Ratings are huge for us. Checking in is a really light weight thing. Hey, so you checked in to Mad Men. But do you actually like the show? If so, then what other shows do you like? That's how you build your taste profile and then you get suggestions. Based on the suggestions, you check-in again. So the whole flow is basically when users get in they start checking in. It's really light weight. Then, over the next couple of weeks, they will build up their taste profile, with thousands of data points. And we will then be able to give them intelligent recommendations for what else to consume. And then because of the check-ins, they stay engaged. They can also get rewards from big brands and that's pretty exciting for people."

Partnering With Entertainment Brands

Another reason for GetGlue's recent momentum is the partnerships it has inked with blockbuster entertainment companies like HBO, Showtime, Fox, PBS, Universal Pictures and "dozens of other brands." At the end of last week, GetGlue announced its first major news network partnership - with MSNBC. It also obtained "a very exciting set of rewards" from ABC (the makers of Mad Men, a show that is obviously popular on GetGlue), Discovery HDTV and a couple of other networks.

"For the TV networks, it's a simple and viral mechanism to get people to spread the message."

I was curious to know how a partnership with an entertainment company usually works?

"There are various ways that partners promote GetGlue," commented Iskold. "The most basic one is like you said: they're promoting us through their Twitter accounts, through their Facebook accounts and sending their fans to us. Secondly, and you can see this on HBO for example, they have [GetGlue] units on their homepage. [For example] Sony Pictures has some units on their homepage which basically say: 'check-in with GetGlue to unlock exclusive rewards from us.'"

Iskold said that GetGlue will soon announce "partner check-ins" - which will be "essentially another way for partners to promote us."

"It's actually a really interesting use case. Most of the TV networks have full episodes online and they want people to come to their site to watch them - because they can run ads on those episodes. So it's economical for them. Imagine a widget on Showtime's Dexter web page, where you can be watching the show and at the same time check in and say "I'm watching Dexter on Showtime." The kicker is that the link will be shared to Facebook and Twitter, which will point [back] to Showtime's page. So for the networks, it's really interesting because it's a simple and viral mechanism to get people to spread the message, via fans you have watching on your web site."

In Part 2 of this interview, we explore Alex Iskold's product development philosophy and some of the trends that he's tracking.

Let us know in the comments if you use GetGlue or a similar product. Do you "check in" to entertainment things?

Disclosure: Alex Iskold used to be a feature writer for ReadWriteWeb, back in the old browser add-on days!