Tony Conrad is the co-founder and CEO of about.me, a platform for representing personal identity online. The company was acquired in 2010 by AOL and bought back by its founders three years later for a fraction of the price the American media corporation paid for it.
Previously he co-founded Sphere, a company specialized in blog search, which was also acquired by AOL. He is partner at True Ventures and a personal investor in WordPress, Slack, and Lowercase Capital.
I asked him about personalization, social data, and products like Facebook Connect at the LeWeb conference in Paris.
Do you think data mining is important for brands?
Do I think it’s important? Yeah, I think it’s crazy. But I think the first stage of this has been creating the graph. And I think Facebook and LinkedIn created the most interesting graphs of professional connections and your private social connections.
But there are additional layers of information, too, that marketers and anybody who wants to formulate a deeper relationship with the users needs to get into. That’s kind of like who is that person, what motivates them, what makes them tick, what are they known for, what are they interested in. There’s a whole bunch of different questions that go into what is in a way the next phase of how marketers will interact with consumers.
In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges of this next phase?
I’m sure it will be challenging for the consumers. They will have to think about questions like what level of information am I happy to be giving out. And for the services like ours, it will also mean a bit of a challenge to get permissions to share that information.
One of the things that we’ve done very well in the beginning is that we made it very clear that the profile you’re setting up on about.me is not a private profile, and there’s no way to make it private. It’s meant to be a public profile. This is the information that you’re comfortable and excited to share with the others who are interested in learning about you.
Things like who you are professionally, what are you interested in, what are you known for, or where do you live. All those kinds of things that you’re comfortable with sharing on a public profile.
Do you think that in the future it will be obvious for users that brands might also access the data that they share through social networks?
But here’s the problem, right? When I set my Facebook page I didn’t set it up for that reason. It’s a private profile. It’s a profile that I share with people that I’ve met or I know well, or I want to get to know better in my life. It’s a small group of people. And so the information that I’m willing to share with people that are my friends is very different perhaps than the information that I would be willing to share to the general public.
Photographs and things like that are sensitive. The names of my children. The age of my children. What do they look like? All kinds of things that are on my Facebook profile that I consider to be private, not meant for public consumption, and certainly not for consumption by marketers. Right?
So this is the bit the challenge with that information.
How can we overcome it?
Users need to see the benefit of why they share information, and they need to understand exactly what they are sharing. And it makes it much more complicated than that.
It’s also problematic with a product like Facebook, which I actually like a lot.
Their tools are fairly simple, you can control who sees what. But it’s still work. And when I set up my initial Facebook page I wasn’t thinking about it from that angle. So now they are giving me a job. I don’t wanna do that job.
So I think the core difference with something like about.me, is that when people set up those pages they are fully aware that they are sharing this level of information to the general public. It’s meant to be a page where strangers can learn about me and find out where I’m active on the web. That’s my home page. It’s a starting point to get to know me.
So your mindset and what you’re sharing and what you’re giving away in terms of the first impressions is very different when you set up your page.
Do you think about.me could one day develop a service like Facebook Connect? Do you plan to take advantage of this different mindset this way?
I think it is a huge opportunity for there to be an alternative. Not a replacement but an alternative to a Facebook Connect. And I do think that our product is ideally suited to be that, the challenge is, we don’t have enough users.
We have millions and millions and millions of users on about.me, but to really become a Connect-type service, you’ll probably need to have close to a hundred million users. We’re not there, and we’re not going to be there next year either.
We’re growing incredibly fast, but we have to be realistic about where we are now. But I do think that if you have the courage to imagine a little bit out, three years maybe four years out… I can pretty much see about.me being an alternative, a viable candidate to be one of the alternatives. That’s definitely a vision that we have for the company and the service.