Personalisation and social discovery: Q&A with StumbleUpon’s CEO

We all know about the king of social networking: Facebook, with its billion plus users. Then there is Twitter, Linkedin, Google+ and the major Chinese social networks like Renren and Sina Weibo. Then there are the outsider social networks, the medium sized ones which have strong brand recognition — that’s where StumbleUpon plays.

Most people won’t be able to explain what a discovery engine is, but you might find that some of those people are part of StumbleUpon’s 25-million users. Though the platform works a little like a search engine, its algorithm is just a bit different.

StumbleUpon finds and recommends content that is personalised to its users based on their tastes and interests using peer-sourcing and social-networking principles. Started in 2001 as a way to create a virtual community for people online, things have changed quite a bit for the company. In August 2011, StumbleUpon announced that it had reached the 25-billion “stumble” mark, at which point it said that more than one-billion stumbles were being added per month.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing at the company though. It was bought by eBay in 2007, then bought back by its founders in 2009. Last year founding CEO Garrett Camp stepped down leaving the company CFO Mark Bartels to take his place as CEO. Earlier this year, the company laid off 30% of its staff, going from 110 to 75 employees.

But it seems things are starting to get mainstream for the discovery engine platform. According to the Hollywood Reporter, film studios are beginning to use the platform to promote their content.

“Studios using StumbleUpon to market and distribute their content is a relatively recent phenomenon,” StumbleUpon product VP Cody Simms said.

On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, we chatted to the new CEO to get a better idea of where the discovery engine is today and what plans are in place for its future. Bartels believes that personalised discovery is an interesting challenge as evidenced by the number of resources that are currently being put toward it.

Mobile is a crucial playing field for the company and, according to Bartels, smartphones have been great for the StumbleUpon. Mobile stumbles, he says “make up 35% of all stumbles” on the platform.

Memeburn: We’ve seen discovery play an increasingly important part in social networking and search. Do you feel that StumbleUpon was ahead of the curve?

Mark Bartels: Personalised discovery is a very interesting challenge and more and more companies are now dedicating a large amount of resources to it. At StumbleUpon we’ve always been committed to serving you the right content at the right time on the right device. Discovery is a precursor to search. Search recommendations are based on specific user requests, while discovery recommendations are based on the user’s tastes and interests without a specific request. In other words we recommend the most appropriate content to you before you asked for it. That’s an interesting challenge.

Memeburn: What have been some of the biggest changes to social discovery since the launch of StumbleUpon in 2001?

Mark Bartels: Users are consuming and contributing content on multiple platforms. Local, mobile and social are creating more signals every day. The challenge is to interpret evolving signals and improve the recommendations based on these user preferences while serving them content on a variety of devices.

Memeburn: What lessons did the company learn in the time it was owned by eBay?

Mark Bartels: eBay was a fantastic partner. We grew revenue and users within the larger company, but in order to keep up with the growth in activity, we needed to hire quickly. Being independent again allowed use to aggressively hire and offer equity incentive packages. That was not available within a larger organization.

We also took away a lot of best practice from being with eBay. One was paying for quality service providers, such as data centre third party service providers. Also, eBay really valued their employees. We continue to offer employees at StumbleUpon a variety of generous benefits including healthcare, retirement funding, commute and gym reimbursement and even monthly credit to Uber, a town car service.

Memeburn: How did the advent of the iPhone and it successors change social discovery?

Mark Bartels: At StumbleUpon mobile is very important and is the fasting growing part of our business. Mobile stumbles are now 35% of all stumbles, up from 25% a year ago. We expect this trend to continue.

Recommendations need to be optimized for the mobile experience. Every company needs to take advantage of the signals that users send them from location, device, photos and connectivity. Recommendations on a mobile need to adapt to the changing locations and should always be lightening quick. We spend quite a bit time make sure the recommendation content served is mobile friendly (i.e. it doesn’t make any sense to serve flash content into an iOS experience).

The App stores have been a game changer. People used to say that toolbars are dead and they take up too much real estate on the phone — but now people won’t think twice before purchasing and downloading an app onto an already crowded device.

Memeburn: You’re one of the companies that allows people to connect via Facebook. Do you think having somewhere central like that has been helpful for people?

Mark Bartels: Users are over-saturated with services and multiple user names. A single sign on is productive and should always be an option. It reduces the friction around registration and we cater to users who don’t have a problem with connecting via a 3rd party.

Memeburn: We’ve seen a lot of social media companies battle with advertising. Can you explain how your paid stumbles feature works?

Mark Bartels: StumbleUpon’s advertising platform is called paid discovery and how it works is that approximately every 20th stumble a brand or publisher will pay to show a sponsored pages to users. The sponsored page can be any type of URL such as a video, microsite, blog, review or photo. Brands and publishers can target their campaigns based on user interests and demographics. The user can rate, review and share paid content in the same way organic content consumed. If content is shared then we don’t charge for the viral boost the content receives.

Memeburn: Do you think it’s a more honest revenue model than pop-ups or overtly sponsored content for instance?

Mark Bartels: Users are becoming more and more savvy and educated when interacting with content. People don’t react well to content that blurs the line between paid and organic content.

StumbleUpon is transparent about the difference between the two types of content. Users rate and review sponsored stumbles as they would organic content. In fact, users thumb up paid content almost as much as organic which is a testament to us doing our job well on behalf of our advertisers.

Memeburn: How will the platform evolve?

Mark Bartels: We are focused on four areas.

  1. Innovation on personalization.
  2. Empowering out community to more easily submit, rate, review and consume content.
  3. Multiple platform adoption from desktop to television. StumbleUpon is a great lean back experience in the living room and a natural fit for content like video, photos on television.
  4. Paid Discovery — Native advertising is something we continue to focus on enabling publishers and brands to connect with our community through a content rich, immersive experience.

Memeburn: How important is design to StumbleUpon?

Mark Bartels: User experience design is front and centre for us. We approach it with a very data driven mentality. Every new design is A/B tested and vetted. When you have millions of users it’s a lot easier to experiment and accumulate feedback. When you reach a certain scale, gut alone doesn’t cut it.

Memeburn: What has been some of the more interesting use cases you have seen with StumbleUpon?

Mark Bartels: There are many different ways that people use StumbleUpon. From inspiration to education to entertainment. For example we see fashion designers use StumbleUpon for creative inspiration for their next line of clothing. Teachers use the product to create lesson plans or Stumble interesting content in class to spark discussion. We have even seen people meet through StumbleUpon, fall in love and get married.

Memeburn: Has Pinterest growing popularity eaten into to StumbleUpon’s userbase?

Mark Bartels: We think companies like Pinterest validate the discovery space. Pinterest competes for people’s time just like we do. The StumbleUpon one click discovery experience is a different use case and we cover multiple verticals from music, photos, video, and long form content.

Memeburn: Do you think there is still room for discovery platforms with smarter search and social integration with search?

Mark Bartels: Absolutely. It’s an interesting problem to solve. The challenge with personalisation is that good enough is never good enough and you are serving up content that a person hasn’t explicitly requested or doesn’t even know exists. Every person’s taste is unique and of course changes over time. We believe the secret sauce is leveraging a living and breathing community combined with a healthy dose of machine learning. I was chatting to very smart entrepreneur the other day who reminded me that it’s hard for a machine to beat 100-billion neurons.

An engaged and empowered community is one of the most powerful resources on the web and we are fortunate to have millions of users curating, reviewing, categorizing and sharing content — to inspire each other to go beyond what we already know.



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