May 22, 2013

We’re eating lunch at our desks…sometimes

sandwichA recent survey conducted by PR Daily shows that 69 percent of PR professioals eat lunch at their desks.  That statistic holds true across experience level and salary.

The survey doesn’t ask respondents why they chose to eat at their desks, but if it did, the answers would include too much to do and deadlines as reasons.  And that’s really a shame, given the fact that there is a plethora of data showing that a mid-day break makes employees healthier and happier.

We work hard at VOXUS, but team members also frequently take lunch breaks to enjoy a walk, go to the gym, watch a video or hang out with coworkers.  It helps keep us balanced and more focused.  And that’s a good thing.

February 22, 2013

New Year’s resolution slipping? It’s Beeminder to the rescue!

imagesIt’s probably no surprise that 45 of every 100 Americans make a New Year’s resolution…but the depressing statistic is that only eight will see that resolution through to the end of 365 days.  That’s why the concept behind Portland startup Beeminder is so intriguing.  It offers goal setting with teeth: either meet the milestones for the goals you set, or you (literally) pay the price.  Beeminder combines the best elements of self-tracking and commitment contracts.  You keep all your data points on a Yellow Brick Road to your goal or you pay a financial penalty.  The combination is powerful, and Beeminder calls it flexible self-control.

In our continuing series of interviews with startup entrepreneurs, we asked co-founder Daniel Reeves to share a few thoughts on his startup, what inspired it and how Beeminder is reaching its audiences.

Question: What was the inspiration behind Beeminder?  Was there a personal goal you were trying to achieve, but not reaching, or were you wanting to become an  entrepreneur, and this seemed like a viable company idea?  How long did it take for the germ of an idea to gel into being an actual company? Who’s been most instrumental in your success to date?

Answer: There are two origin stories for Beeminder — both true! In 2005, the year after Bethany Soule and I met, I was trying to finish my PhD thesis, arguably the most procrastination-prone activity in history. Bethany came to my rescue with all manner of crazy incentive and productivity schemes. She dubbed it the Voluntary Harassment Program. So years ago, we were already heading in the direction of Beeminder but it wasn’t until 2008 that we first built a website embodying the ideas. That’s when I started helping a friend lose weight by implementing the principles from The Hacker’s Diet via email and Mathematica. Bethany was doing similar things in Excel for herself and we joined forces and hacked together Kibotzer, the kibitzing robot. That continued as a side project for a couple years till late 2010 when we quit our day jobs to work on it full-time, which is also when we changed the name to Beeminder. It then took us another year until we publicly launched, in late 2011.

As for who’s been most instrumental in our success, top billing goes to the folks at Beeminder.  But maybe that’s like saying we’ve been most instrumental in our own success, depending on how we’re defining “we!” So aside from the Beeminder team and advisors, we’d like to give a special shout out to Jim Huston and Angela Jackson of the Portland Seed Fund. We’re also grateful for all the folks doing amazing things with the Beeminder API. We’re pretty blown away by how much awesomer Beeminder is becoming thanks to the hacker community around it.

Question: Most folks use Beeminder to help manage weight loss, but there are other useful applications.  What’s the most interesting goal that Beeminder has been used to track?  What’s a goal that Beeminder has NOT been used to help achieve, but that you think would be viable for it?  What’s the one Beeminder feature you wish more people would take note of?

Answer: There are two uncommon but, I think, quite powerful goals that are among my favorites, both of which we’ve blogged about. First is Jake Jenkins beeminding his guitar playing and fulfilling a lifelong dream that he wasn’t finding time to bring to fruition without Beeminder.  The second is Gandalf Saxe beeminding his studying — every student who procrastinates and ends up cramming for exams should be using Beeminder!

If we’re allowed to answer this in a preposterously meta way, our favorite Beeminder goal is our own User-Visible Improvements to Beeminder. We have a $1000 commitment contract on averaging one user-visible improvement to Beeminder every day. We’re going on 700 improvements now — and we tweet about them. We can honestly say that Beeminder would not have made it as a startup if it weren’t for that Beeminder goal forcing us to keep making inexorable forward progress.

As for the feature more people should take note of, it’s the Road Dial. We talk about it in excruciating detail on our blog and we think it embodies what makes Beeminder better than our biggest competitor, StickK.  The Road Dial is the ability to change the steepness of your path to your goal, your Yellow Brick Road, and makes Beeminder very flexible, but not so flexible that it defeats the point of a commitment contract.  It lets you change your mind about what you’ve committed to, but always with a one-week delay, so you can never change your mind out of laziness (unless you’re particularly forward-thinking about your laziness).

Question:  How do people find Beeminder? It would seem that social media would be a good marketing outlet, but it takes time to build receptive audiences. How are you spreading the word about Beeminder? Any successful ideas you could share for others out there on a limited marketing budget who might be developing a B2C product?

Answer:  People have been finding Beeminder via various blogs like Lifehacker, Quantified Self and LessWrong. We’re involved in these communities and have also been gradually building credibility by putting a ton of thought into our own blog. Our biggest recent marketing coup was getting featured in Southwest Airlines’ inflight magazine, Spirit. That one was almost pure luck though. The one thing we did right was to have our phone number at the bottom of our site. The journalist who wrote the feature originally wanted to write about our competitor, GymPact, but couldn’t find a phone number for them. So he called us!

February 8, 2013

Jumping on the Capitalization Train

can-stock-photo_csp6460496Surprisingly, there are a number of options when it comes to making a decision about whether or not to capitalize an executive’s title within a press release.  Do you listen to your executive when she says she wants to be referred to as president with a Capital P…or not?

Like most public relations agencies, VOXUS and its team members follow the Associated Press Stylebook to answer questions on grammar and punctuation.  According to AP Style, titles that follow a name are written in lower case.  But while this explains why we choose to draft a press release and refer to an executive’s title in lower case, it probably is not helpful when your president demands to see his name in a more impressive format.  Additionally, some cultures are traditionally formal; for example, many companies based in Asia always capitalize executive titles.

So what to do?  The answer is simple: be consistent.  If your company policy is going to be that all executive titles are capitalized, stick to the plan, and let your agency partners know your preferences.  A couple real world examples:

Problem: You want to quote a partner or a customer in a press release, and the secondary company’s press relations team insists that the executive’s title be capitalized.

Answer: You graciously agree, then capitalize all titles in the release (including your company executive’s title) — making it consistent.

Problem: Your chief executive officer demands to be Chief Executive Officer.

Answer: You graciously and quickly agree, then shorten the title to CEO.

For other grammar questions, we’ve found Grammar Girl to be a particularly useful blog.

January 28, 2013

Tip: People like seeing people on Facebook (shocking!)

The VOXUS crew bites the Apple.

Looking for a way to boost engagement on your company Facebook page? Finding new content may be a challenge, depending on how many products, customers and partners you have. You could try posting a video of a mama cat hugging her kitten (it went viral in 2012), but perhaps a more relevant and fun idea is to introduce your employees. By acknowledging the people behind your success, you actually make your company — and your product — more relevant.

VOXUS recently had a company field trip to our local Apple store and the resulting photo popped up on numerous employee Facebook pages.  It generated more comments than this post will — primarily because it’s fun and it’s relatable.

So here are a couple ideas for involving your employees on your Facebook page:

1) Celebrate accomplishments.  If you designate an employee of the month, post his or her photo.  Did you win an award?  Ditto.

2) Take a photo at the holiday party or summer barbecue.  Don’t use something in questionable taste, and when in doubt, ask the employee’s permission to post the image.

3) Randomly conduct shout-outs to employees.  You don’t really need an excuse to highlight any employee.  Maybe pose a fun question such as “What’s your favorite lunch spot?,” add a photo and you’ve got a nifty new piece of Facebook content.

January 7, 2013

Revisiting @BronxZoosCobra: still hamming it up

In 2011, a cobra at the Bronx Zoo escaped. Before the media could whip New Yorkers into a frenzy of fear, a still-unnamed writer grabbed the profile @BronxZoosCobra and took to Twitter to chronicle the supposed adventures of the snake on the lam. Within just a few days, the profile had gone viral and, more importantly, area citizens were caring more about the mythical travels of @BronxZoosCobra than what might have actually happened to the real snake…and pretty much forgot their fears that jungle animals were cruising their neighborhoods.

Humor played a major role in @BronxZoosCobra’s success.  A few of its early posts:

March 28: “Rockefeller Plaza is amaz…wait…OMG! Tina Fey totally just walked by me!  HUUUUUGE FAN! #snakeonthetown”

March 30: “Getting on the ferry to Ellis Island. Let’s hope this goes better than that time on the plane. #snakeonthetown”

March 31: “There’s a Facebook page Bronx Zoo’s Cobra to Host SNL. Apparently it worked for Betty White.”

It was a completely successful use of social media.  Yet we’re still not sure if the marketing or ad folks for the Bronx Zoo were behind the idea. Seems like someone would have wanted to write a white paper about his or her highly-visible campaign (heck, WE even wrote a white paper on it, you can access it here), or nominate it for an award, or at least take credit for being brilliant.   Because even though the snake was captured — a loosely used term given the fact that the snake never left the reptile enclosure — @BronxZoosCobra continues to tweet today about anything relevant…and is followed by 200,000 people:

On the demise of Twinkies: “You shouldn’t be eating Twinkies anyway. They have only 2% of your recommended daily amount of rodent. #nutritiontips”

On Hurricane Sandy preparations: “All stocked up on canned mice and batteries for my heated rock. #sandy.”

On political gaffes: “Hey @MittRomney, forget Big Bird. Cut funding to the Bronx Zoo, so they’ll have to release all the animals. #freedom”

Humor isn’t easy to pull off, particularly in 140 characters or less.  But if you’ve got the writing chops to do it, @BronxZoosCobra proves you can quickly build an audience and sustain it, even if the original purpose, or in this case, event, is resolved.

 

December 10, 2012

Outside Validation: Three Ways to Show You Get It

Every startup believes it is building the next best mousetrap…or it wouldn’t exist. But how do you communicate your vision or product with enough authority that others will sit up, take notice and agree with you? You use outside validation.

Every communications professional understands the value of a third-party endorsement. All of us recommend that clients obtain it. But it’s often not easy for an early stage, bootstrapped startup to figure out how to do it. So here are three ways you might be able to go about getting that all-important press release quote or product comment that will help make your value proposition even stronger:

1) Talk to an industry analyst, then ask for a quote. If your product is truly groundbreaking, an analyst will conduct a phone briefing even if you’re not a client…yet. You must be in the frame of mind for a give-and-take: you talk about your company and product, then listen to the analyst tell you how he or she can help accelerate your business through research and support. After the briefing, ask if the analyst would be willing to give you a quote for an upcoming press release or your website that, at the very least, endorses the need for your product or validates the industry problem you’re trying to solve. Please note that some industry analyst firms preclude its experts from giving quotes to anyone other than clients; however, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

2) Ask a beta user to tell you his or her experiences. Even if you can’t name the user or the company, you may be able work around it with qualifiers. For example, you might refer to Boeing as a North American-based aircraft manufacturer or to a game player as someone who has played first-person shooter games for more than ten years.

3) Talk to a partner, an advisory board member or an industry association official. While this may be more self-serving, having an advisor endorse your business concept or product (particularly if it is someone well-known in the industry) can elevate a press release or business pitch, particularly for search engine purposes.

November 20, 2012

#GivingTuesday launches November 27

We have a day for giving thanks. We have two days for getting deals (Black Friday and Cyber Monday)….wouldn’t it be great to have a day for giving back?  For the first time this year, there’s Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday on Twitter).  #GivingTuesday™ is a campaign to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support nonprofit organizations.

There are lots of ways you can participate, but we have a great suggestion.  VOXUS supports Change Making Change, a 501(c)3 organization based in Seattle that is making a huge difference by converting spare change into sizable support for several causes.  Just go to any Coinstar kiosk, drop in your pocket change, view the Coins that Count® partners and select Change Making Change as the recipient.  It’s easy, it’s fun for kids — and what a great way to help extend the meaning of the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Change Making Change supports a number of worthwhile organizations such as First Book, which just celebrated its 100 million milestone for books distributed to lower income children; the International Justice Mission, helping to end child slavery; and the Women and Orphans Project in Zambia.

Please join us in supporting Change Making Change, or the charity of your choice, on #GivingTuesday.

 

July 23, 2012

Crowdsourced Chirpsy bolsters Twitter feeds

While it might be easy, sharing your thoughts on Twitter can be time-consuming.  Thankfully, Seattle startup Chirpsy offers an economical way for you to have a steady stream of tweets without spending your entire day on the site.  Chirpsy is a service that leverages crowdsourcing for both the evaluation and drafting of content for microblogs.  Chirpsy can create relevant tweets to supplement personal Twitter posts, giving your feed much more depth and creating opportunities to participate in additional conversations.

As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Chirpsy founder Isaac Nichols to share some insight into his company, where it’s heading, and how to best utilize Chirpsy within an existing Twitter campaign.

Question: Tell us a little about Chirpsy. What was the inspiration behind the company’s product? Do you have partners that were particularly key to launching the company? At this stage, are you utilizing personal funding?

Answer: The inspiration for Chirpsy grew out of our frustration with trying to keep our Twitter account fresh with relevant content. At my previous startup, TurkForce, we frequently gained sales leads when we posted tweets about the latest crowdsourcing news and trends. Posting a few status updates every day seemed like it should be easy, but we quickly found that it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication to keep it going. Given the short shelf life of the content, we wanted to keep it updated with new content every day, but with so many competing priorities running a business, posting a tweet was rarely at the top of the list. We would sadly let our Twitter account would languish for days and sometimes weeks, and I’m sure we missed out on many business opportunities as a result.

This is where the genesis of Chirpsy came from – our need to keep our social media presence updated with relevant content on an ongoing basis to attract new sales and the realization that this was a perfect scenario for a crowdsourcing solution. The around-the-clock nature and very human element of social media pairs perfectly with a 24×7 on demand crowdsourced workforce.

At that time, we didn’t have the resources to go after this business idea. Fast forward a few years – TurkForce was acquired and I had the opportunity to focus on something new – the time was right to revisit this idea. I partnered with the team at PugetWorks who loved the concept and had the resources to make it happen. After a few rough prototypes to prove the utility of the service, Chirpsy was born.

We were fortunate enough to be one of six companies chosen to present at the MIT Demo Forum event in December 2011, where we unveiled Chirpsy for the first time and launched our Beta. Later in January 2012 we officially launched our service to the world at the Emerging Media Conference in San Francisco.

Currently we are a self-funded bootstrapped business.

Question: Social media outlets such as Twitter were created to foster conversations. It seems that Chirpsy’s goal is to create tweets that link to relevant media posts and blogs – if this is correct, do you envision that customers will use your posts as supplementary or supportive tweets to their own? And if Chirpsy’s tweets are stand-alone (without additional input from a company), how do you plan to understand a company’s business well enough to act as its voice?

Answer: We are not trying to replace the person managing your social media strategy. We never post on your behalf, but we do provide an easy to use interface that allows you to edit and queue up content for future posting.

We have initially designed Chirpsy to focus on finding and creating great content that your followers will love. It shouldn’t be a revelation that when you join the conversation on social media networks, it’s a good idea to avoid talking about yourself or your business all the time. Just like in real life, it is more socially acceptable to talk more about your industry and what others are doing. This helps you earn the trust and establish credibility with your followers. This is the type of content that we are initially focused on – tweets that link to the latest news and blog articles that your followers will enjoy and learn from. We expect this content will be used as supplementary content to other tweets you might include about internal news and announcements. This content is crafted to help organically spur new conversations with your followers.

When a company signs up for Chirpsy, they provide us their writing guidelines and existing Twitter account to use as a model for us to follow. If we send you something that isn’t up to your standards – either the content that we link to isn’t right or the message of the tweet, you can easily reject it and provide us the reason why it isn’t to you liking. This process turns into additional feedback to our crowdsourced team that helps refine the articles that are chosen along with their writing style. This process may take a few iterations to get just right, but once it is setup the writing can become remarkably in-tune with your needs. Another side benefit of our service is that you effectively receive a curated news stream for your business. Many customers have reported they love reading the content because it helps them stay on top of their industry news and trends.

Question: What’s the upcoming roadmap for Chirpsy? How do you plan to reach out to potential users? You’ve already rolled out your entry level subscription service; what’s the timeline for more comprehensive offerings?

Answer: In January we launched with our $199/month plan that provides 20 tweets a week. Based on customer feedback we recently launched two new plans: a $99/month plan that gives you a tweet a day (7 tweets a week) and a higher volume $379/month plan that gives you 40 tweets a week. Custom plans can be requested, but we expect these three plans to satisfy social media appetites of all sizes. Along with the new plans, we added the ability to integrate approved tweets into HootSuite and other Twitter clients that offer tweet-scheduling capability. We have many more improvements underway and are continually listening to our customers for ideas on how we improve our service.

As for marketing Chirpsy, we have obviously been leveraging social media. The great thing about social media is that people who manage social media accounts are a vocal community that willingly share the tools and tips that work for them. Networking and word of mouth have been our most effective customer acquisition channels so far. We have several other marketing plans we are working on for identifying and reaching out to additional customers in a cost-effective manner. We are also interested in making deals with social media firms who manage a large number of clients and want to leverage our services to help them scale.

July 19, 2012

BodSix lets social gamers hit the road

If you’re into social networks and games — and also love maps and travel — BodSix has got just the product for you. This Seattle-based startup is launching an addictive new leisure activity that combines the magic of GPS location-based services with mobile device gaming. Best of all, the app is free! As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked BodSix CEO and co-founder Jeff Dixon to tell us a little about his company, his experience with Kickstarter as a funding source and the meaning behind the company name.

Question: Developing a location-based service is hard enough…but combining it with gaming is a new twist.  Tell us a little about BodSix, and why you think consumers are ready for a product such as Map Monsters.  Since you’re envisioning this as a free app, how will you monetize it so that BodSix can remain a viable company?  Or is your eventual strategy to license/sell it to a third party? How do you plan to promote it, through regional rollouts (since location is a factor)?

Answer: Any time a new technology, like GPS, is introduced to games, it allows for new and interesting dynamics. BodSix was founded to create fun mobile games that exploited this technology. We believe that games are inherently more interesting if they change based on where you play them.  Location-based services and games have been around for awhile, but using location is tricky. Most game developers over-rely on location, forcing players to physically move around to interact with the game. Our philosophy is to leverage location as a secondary mechanic to develop games that are fun to play from a single location, but allow the player to advance more quickly when played from multiple locations.

Free-to-play with in-app purchase is the ONLY viable business model for mobile application development, especially for a title that doesn’t yet have brand awareness. Free-to-play apps generate significantly more downloads and awareness, drivers that are so crucial in establishing a foothold in the market. Free-to-play also is more profitable because it doesn’t cap what players will spend in a game. As evidence, reference the top paid download on the iOS charts and see its position on the top grossing charts. As I’m writing this, the top paid download, Amazing Alex, is only number 13 on the top grossing chart.

iTunes only allows us to control application distribution at the country level. After we complete play testing, we plan to release the game in the U.S. as well as other markets on a country-by-country basis.

Jeff Dixon

Question: We’re curious about your experience with Kickstarter (which we love, by the way).  Although you did not reach your goal and were not funded, you did, in fact, get more than 200 people to pledge over $200,000.  Do you think you set your goal too high?  What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking at Kickstarter as a way to launch their dreams?  Will you try Kickstarter again in the future?

Answer: With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that we set our goal too high. Of course, the money would have been nice. That said, there are a lot of non-insignificant hidden costs associated with Kickstarter, ranging from video production, to PR, to team distraction, as well as administrative overhead during the campaign and reward management post-campaign. Raising less than our target would have made the cost of administration (plus the direct cost of rewards) close to a break-even proposition.

I think a lot of game companies under-estimate these hidden costs and raise too little cash. In the end, they find themselves losing 4-6 weeks of traction with few residual funds with which to actually develop the project. Of course, you don’t hear much about this, since people typically focus on the projects that raise multiples of their goal.

Despite not reaching our goal, I remain bullish on Kickstarter and other crowd funding options. If nothing else, it forces you to focus your narrative, to create a compelling video, to establish an early fan base, and to flex your PR and marketing muscles. We don’t have immediate plans to relaunch our campaign for our current project, but I would definitely consider it with future projects.

Question: Naming a company is often critical to its success.  How did you come up with the name for BodSix?  Did an available URL play any role in your decision process?  Did you have a brainstorming session to create the name, or was it a brain flash?  What could you tell other entrepreneurs to consider when naming their companies?

Answer: We are more focused on branding individual game titles than the name of our company. We’re on a tight budget, so we narrowed down (and expanded) a list of potential game titles by asking friends and family. Next, we sent a very brief questionnaire to folks in our game’s target demographic. The targeting tools offered by Facebook ads helped us reach casual game players to the exclusion of non-gamers.

Developing the BodSix name was a less rigorous process. It’s an anagram of the first three letters of my co-founder and my last names. :)

July 9, 2012

eNotes takes the work out of homework

“Who was Dr. Francis E. Townsend?” If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone…questions like this one are posed to Seattle-based eNotes experts from students across the country as part of their homework routine.  Thousands of students and teachers use this comprehensive online educational resource daily to read a book synopsis, develop a study guide, ask a question or just to read and chat about an interesting topic.  And if you’re one of today’s parents challenged by the complex subjects your children are tackling in school, it’s time to rejoice — you now have a resource at your fingertips for science, math, literature and more.

(Side note: Dr. Townsend was a vocal critic of the New Deal and was instrumental in the formation of Social Security as we know it today.)

As part of our continuing series of interviews with technology company entrepreneurs, we asked Brad Satoris, president of eNotes, to tell us a little more about his company, how it came to challenge Cliffs Notes as a homework resource for students everywhere, what problems he encountered early on and where he’s taking eNotes in the future.

Question: Tell us a little about eNotes.  What was your “aha!” moment that spurred you on to form the company?  Did you hit any stumbling blocks early on?  What advice could you give that would help other entrepreneurs avoid the same problems?

Answer: eNotes actually began as a website called AllShakespeare.com back in 1999. At the time, the other co-founder and I had just graduated from college and the web was starting to gain a lot of momentum. We started looking at lists published by some search engines of most commonly searched terms, and the ones at the top were things that didn’t really interest us, such as Britney Spears and Pokemon. But “Shakespeare” was always in the Top 50. Both of us were big fans of Shakespeare, and given the vast amount of information available about him, we thought a study site for Shakespeare could be something useful for students, teachers, and fans of the author. We hired a PhD candidate at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), who wrote commentary to 10 of Shakespeare’s most popular works, and we put these alongside the texts of the plays. We decided early on that we would give away a certain amount of content for free but require a subscription for access to the complete commentaries.  The first day we went online we received a few orders, and a few more the next day — it was clear this was a viable business.

We acquired the eNotes.com domain in 2003, and now cover more than 30,000 works of literature.  The money we paid to our Shakespeare writer represented the only out-of-pocket investment we ever made in the company; we’ve bootstrapped ever since.

When I think of stumbling blocks we experienced early on, they mostly focus on early hires.  Hiring people is the most difficult thing you will do. We were lucky to have some great employees in the early days of the company who did amazing work for us, but we’ve also seen complacency develop with some positions.  You will need specialized talent in almost any business you start, but don’t ever think you can’t replace an employee — no matter how specialized the skill set.  One of the worst situations that can develop at a start-up is an employee who thinks he or she isn’t replaceable.

My advice to other entrepreneurs is to obsess over the quality of your product or service. If you have a great product or service, the other things that a successful business requires will fall into place more easily.  For example, we did very little marketing early on, but our site rose in the search engines because we had great content and a user-friendly site.  We focused squarely on the website, and didn’t worry or think too much about marketing or other things we felt were peripheral to our business.  All businesses are unique, of course, and what is peripheral to your particular business is something you have to decide.

The other advice I would give, and something I regret not following too well, is to step away from your business every chance you get. Life is too short to spend in front of a computer all day. Get outside, take a walk, take a vacation. No matter how important you think your business is, it’s not that important.

Question: We understand the site’s functions that offer book synopses, etc., but how does eNotes differ from Ask.com when it comes to individual questions?  And if your audience is primarily students, does your web traffic suffer during the summer months?  How do you compensate for this?  What’s been your most successful way to reach students as potential users?

Answer: When we decided to do a Question and Answer service we wanted to differentiate it from all the others by making sure we were creating high-quality content. To that end we were prepared to pay for answers from individuals that we vetted and approved.  A lot of the software behind our Q&A is designed to handle compensating experts for their answers and to constantly evaluate their work.  In order to become an “eNotes editor” and get paid for your answers, you need to fill out an application on our website, and provide three answers before we review and approve your application. As a result of this process, we have hundreds of teachers and other highly educated individuals answering questions from students and other teachers.  This makes us a little different in that you would be hard-pressed to find any substandard answers. Our goal with the Q&A is to build a unique, high-quality reference work.

Another goal of the Q&A is to provide a space for student and teachers to communicate. We allow students to become “fans” of an editor, and to direct their questions to particular editors if they wish.  They can also message editors through our messaging system.  The education space on the internet is still very much in its infancy; we think the winners will be those services that facilitate real-time or near real-time interaction between educators and learners. We see the Q&A as a small step in that direction.

Summer is definitely slower than the rest of the year for us; that’s just the nature of a seasonal business like ours. Having said that, plenty of students go to summer school, and summer is also a time for us to step back and roadmap our projects and goals for the coming school year.  Also, our site is somewhat unique in that roughly 20% of our audience is teachers.  Teachers are our best customers — they stay with us longer and many of them teach summer school.

In terms of reaching students, we’ve been online for more than eight years now, and a lot of students have heard of eNotes. We do some amount of marketing and outreach through social media, and we’ve also been fortunate so far to do well in the natural results of the major search engines.

Question: How do you recruit your experts?  What screening processes are in place to ensure that the answers provided on eNotes are accurate?

Answer: We run ads in various places, and we also solicit from our own user base. We have a fairly large library of lesson plans, and our study guides contain higher level content, such as published criticism, that attracts teachers to our site. We want these teachers to work for eNotes. For us, the ideal customer is a teacher who subscribes to our site, and then later becomes an editor.  This creates a kind of virtuous circle where teachers use eNotes and then contribute their talent and skills for the benefit of the next group of users.

The suite of software that runs our Q&A also has a concept of a “super editor” or “managing editor.”  These are the very best of our editors that we move into a more full-time position, where they review other editors answers for accuracy and quality.  They also identify the best answers and give bonuses to the authors, and also promote these answers so they become more visible to our user base.