HootSuite Media Inc. navigates a transforming landscape
By: Chris LePan | October 2, 2012
The social media revolution happened fast and it just keeps happening.
For CEO Ryan Holmes, 37, constant innovation is a way of life and the way of HootSuite.
Inspired by the latest user feedback and a desire to improve communication across social media sites, HootSuite Media Inc. has, in just four years, grown to host almost five million users.
The Vancouver-based company boasts 79 of the world’s Fortune 100 on that roster.
Its product is designed to measure the effectiveness of social media campaigns for company brands; or, alternatively it can be used to view updates streaming from each of your social media accounts – a site where Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the rest, get along just fine.
Your message can also be simultaneously posted to any and all of your social media accounts.
HootSuite software is offered in both a premium version for large enterprises and small businesses and a free version for the average user.
For some users, now seemingly pedestrian tasks such as receiving and accepting a friend request from an acquaintance or reaching out to your social network in 140-characters were a foreign concept a few short years ago. And that was just getting started.
Users can contact a HootSuite ambassador, who provides support in their native language and helps navigate the transforming social media landscape.
What has surprised you most about your experience running HootSuite?
In the beginning, I had no idea how quickly HootSuite would take off. The original incarnation of HootSuite was rolled out in November 2008 by a company I started called Invoke Media. Within two months, we had 2,500 external users. We had seven employees, out of a total of 20, on the internal project, which was a big investment considering it wasn’t generating any revenue. Now that number is nearly five million users.
Another pleasant surprise is to see how far we’ve come in connecting social media and return on investment. A few years ago, I wasn’t even thinking about the ROI aspect of social media. But companies are increasingly demanding ways to measure tangible returns on their social media investments, and rightfully so. A lot of our functionality and analytics is geared toward showing that social media is worth the investment.
What does a successful approach to innovation look like?
Innovation for the sake of leading the market or taking down a competitor can only take your company so far. Innovating because you want to change something for the better is much more powerful motivation.
Our approach is to keep a close eye on market needs and user feedback, release often and constantly develop new and existing product.
Our Secure Profiles tool is a good example. We saw a series of high profile “mis-tweets” from employees of large brands mistakenly post to their corporate profiles instead of their personal ones. So we pulled together and released a security option so clients with our Enterprise plan (the top-tier pay offering) could prevent the same thing from happening within their own organization.
Where do you find the inspiration for innovation?
Early entrepreneurial role models included folks like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. I voraciously read their stories growing up. When I have time these days, I get inspiration from books like Gary Vaynerchuck’s The Thank You Economy, Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness and 37 Signals’ Getting Real.
I think the way I grew up is a big factor, too. I was raised on a small farm, totally off the grid, in Vernon, BC, about five hours north of Vancouver. I was really into computers and one year I won this high-end Apple IIe in a programming contest at elementary school. But we had no electricity at home, so my dad jury-rigged the computer to run with mom’s car battery and a couple of bright red jump-starter clamps. Innovation was kind of a way of life.
There’s also something inspiring simply about working in social media. I think it’s the most disruptive form of communication our world has seen, whether you’re talking about something as profound as the Arab Spring or as mundane as “checking in” with friends. So to come to work every day and be involved with the leading edge of this revolution is exciting all by itself.
Why is it important for a CEO to be hands-on?
Founders who manage product are generally more successful. Just look at Facebook and Apple. In my case, I think being hands-on is one of the main ways I’ve been able to keep HootSuite ahead of the competition. I’m there to make sure every change to our product aligns with what our users want.
The entire HootSuite team and I monitor our Feedback Channel, which has thousands of suggestions from users on how to make HootSuite better. That feedback is a huge factor in deciding when to release new features for the dashboard.
How did you create your branding?
From the beginning, we had the ow.ly URL shortener, which we chose to play off of Twitter’s bird logo, since Twitter was the first network we supported. The Owly logo, a wide-eyed owl, was a natural fit. Within months of launching, we decided to crowd-source a new name for our social media tool, which in its beta version was called BrightKit. The winning submission from our 100,000 users was HootSuite, and the rest is history.
The Owly mascot has gone on to have a life of its own. To date there are over 90 Owlys, including Gladiator Owly, Ninja Owly, Superhero Owly, and Detective Owly. We’ve even registered the website LifeOfOwly.com to collect and gather all Owly sightings around the world, and whenever possible, we bring our Owly mascot to events as a way to gather crowds, engage our fans, and reach out to new ones.
How do you learn from your competition?
The tech landscape is littered with the virtual remains of companies that started off hot and fizzled. Friendster is a perfect example of a company poised for success that flopped. That’s always on my mind. We’ve grown a ton in the last year. We’re not the lean underdog anymore, and we’re keenly aware that new companies have emerged and are now chasing us.
First of all, we stay ahead by thinking big. We don’t just focus on social media management for niche segments. We cover the whole enchilada from home users to enterprises with thousands of employees. Second, we’re constantly updating and releasing new editions. And of course, we pay close attention to what the applications that compete with HootSuite are doing. In fact, we use HootSuite’s own search and monitoring features to scrutinize what competitors are doing well and not so well.
How do relationships begin with large clients like PepsiCo?
Seventy-nine of the world’s Fortune 100 companies now use HootSuite. In many cases, relationships with these large clients have evolved organically. This has a lot to do with the freemium business model behind HootSuite.
What often happens at larger companies is that employees are already using free Basic versions of HootSuite. At some point, it just makes sense for the company to upgrade to a premium Pro account. That way, management can keep tabs on all these users but still allow individual teams freedom to assign messages and publish content.
What should Canadian software companies know about competing for market share in the US?
First of all, go for it. Today, social media accounts in the US outnumber those in any other country in the world, although numbers change every day. For me, it was clear from the start that to dominate the social media software space we needed to include the US market; having said that, the Internet has also erased borders and fundamentally changed the nature of the market. It’s extremely important to look beyond the US to users around the globe. Not long ago, we noticed that HootSuite use in Japan and Brazil was growing at unprecedented rates. To capitalize on that, we went ahead and supported user communities, translating our dashboard and organizing user meetups in these countries, to leverage that organic support.
What is the nature of the social media revolution?
Social media is the most disruptive form of communication humankind has seen since the last disruptive form of communication, email. Looking back, there are three times more social media accounts than there are email accounts. Email has seen a 59 per cent decrease in usage amongst 12 to 17 year-olds and a 12 per cent decrease amongst 45 to 54 year-olds. With over 3.5 billion social media accounts broadcasting and sharing trillions of messages to audiences in every corner of the globe, it is now socially acceptable for customers to update their profile status’, tweet and retweet messages, ‘check-in’ to locations, upload photos and videos, request on-location support, use third-party apps, post links, and ‘like’ or ‘+1’ content at any moment. There seems to be no end in sight for all of this chatter.
As the most prolific communication medium of all time, social media is naturally disruptive, as it is a bridge for international organizations. We’ve seen social networks explode as people and businesses around the world find a voice that resonates throughout the globe. Expect the future of social media to disrupt traditional media methods, and help both commerce and culture flourish. This all from the tips of your fingers, or a tool that fits in the palm of your hand.
In which ways do you see social media becoming more disruptive?
New mobile technologies will continue to radically disrupt the market. We saw glimpses of this at SXSW, the huge tech festival held every spring in Austin, Texas, with the buzz around ambient social apps, which make use of geo-location features to help you physically locate nearby Facebook friends, friends of friends, and people with similar interests. As the technology of mobile pictures and video improves, we’ll also continue to see a rise in visual-based networks like Pinterest.
The Cloud is another game changer. People no longer have to worry about transferring their content from phone to tablet to desktop and so on. The Cloud does it for them. In the years ahead, we’ll see social media networks making more and better use of this technology.
Mobile is leading to a deeper alignment with the very aim of social media: to share all types of information in real-time. We’re seeing the erosion of the line between technology and experience. It’s now up to businesses to learn how to harness the incredible speed at which information now spreads.
What will social media look like in 2020?
I’d like to know what it looks like in 2013. Six years ago, Twitter didn’t exist. Four years ago, HootSuite didn’t exist, and now we hope to have six million users by the end of the year. What we can say for sure is that businesses that don’t harness social media will really be flying blind. Social media isn’t just a tool for marketing. It’s central to customer relations and support, sales, R&D, IT, and business development. It cuts across so many core business functions. Give it another year: companies that haven’t embraced social media will be about as relevant as companies that don’t have a telephone.
Also, we’ll all have HootSuite built into our flying cars.
How will HootSuite adapt to or initiate those changes?
In a large company there might be hundreds of employees using social media without any governance or guidelines in place. These companies are going to need to find ways to channel these employees’ efforts and maintain overall control over messaging. This is where HootSuite comes in.
Another example is that companies are increasingly demanding to see some kind of tangible ROI from their social media initiatives. But measuring social media ROIs is very different from measuring traditional forms of media and advertising. HootSuite gives clients access to analytics that can quantify exactly what return they’re getting on their social media investment.
Does HootSuite plan to expand its dashboard to include additional social media sites?
We are really excited to add new social networks to our Social Media Switzerland. Since launching our App Directory nine months ago, we’ve had over 23 social networks and services added. We have many more in the works. The goal with our App Directory is to allow additional extensions and applications that HootSuite users can add to their dashboard to create a customized experience. These apps are built and maintained by third party developers and companies expanding the social content ecosystem of the HootSuite dashboard. At the moment, our App Directory hosts integration support for Instagram, Evernote, YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr, Zendesk and more, as well as Social Flow, HubSpot, Adobe SiteCatalyst and more, for paid clients.
Do you plan to open offices in other countries?
We love the idea of expanding globally. Right now, we have nearly five million accounts across six continents with an expected six million by the end of 2012. We’re already localized with special efforts in several countries, including Brazil and Japan, and we continue to grow in other global markets as well.
This past July 2012, we opened our first international office in London, UK, and have plans to continue our expansion efforts to support our growing user base.
To help us serve these international communities, HootSuite has ambassadors around the world, who support international users engaging on the HootSuite dashboard. Our ambassadors also play a big role in aiding our HootSuite Translation Project, a crowdsourced initiative to have international users translate the HootSuite dashboard into their native languages.
This interview has been edited and condensed.