Nearly a year ago, ReadWriteWeb and former TechCrunch writer Marshall Kirkpatrick announced he would be stepping back from the media landscape to go all in on his own startup, Plexus Engine. “I’m building a company that’s developing a technology based on some of my favorite consulting projects I’ve done for clients over the years: An app and data platform that discovers emerging topical information,” he wrote at the time.
That love of data, paired with his time as a tech reporter, is what fueled Plexus Engine, now known as Little Bird (a small homage to Twitter and the information it pulls from the platform). The application is a b2b research tool that takes the social graph, turns it into a list of specialists and experts, and then offers clients help reaching out and engaging with these people and their content.
Kirkpatrick’s interest in this type of research goes way back. “I’ve been a really data-centric journalist for a long time,” he tells me. “I used data and hacks and tools and stuff to beat Mike Arrington to news stories so often that he called me up and made me the first hired writer at TechCrunch.” Those hacks were little more than diligently made lists of important blogs that Kirkpatrick set up RSS feeds and SMS and instant message alerts for.
“I would get the ping, see it, and know if ‘yeah this is something I should write about,’” he says. This is part of what helped Kirkpatrick take ReadWriteWeb from a staff of three to a multimillion dollar acquisition — and it’s also how he started making money consulting. Companies would come to him requesting lists of the best people to engage with or reach out to. Eventually, he and Little Bird co-founder Tyler Gillies had a job so big, it was time to find an automated way to do it. Gillies built a prototype that took minutes to accurately make a list it would have taken weeks to compose manually.
The results were so successful, and the clients so impressed, that Kirkpatrick knew it was time to go all in on the idea. Since announcing his departure from RWW in November of last year, Little Bird has had 4,000 people and businesses sign up for access and request information, and already has 24 paying customers using the application in private beta (which Kirkpatrick tells me are all agency and in-house marketing ad and PR types — those with jobs that have a budget for this sort of thing). Today, the team starts peeling that curtain back further, expanding the private beta offering users free previews.
After that free preview, however, LIttle Bird is a paid-for commodity. Business accounts will be tailored, but start at $250 a month for unlimited use.
In a demo, Kirkpatrick shows me how Little Bird presents itself as a search engine, although it’s indexing Twitter profiles and important blogs instead of, well… the entire Internet. “When you make a search or report, we go through out big index and reduce down to 500 accounts that we think are the most educated, mot trusted in their filed,” says Kirkpatrick. “Then we look to see how many people in our index are following each individual we’re looking at.”
If you’re thinking that sounds like Klout on steroids, you’re kind of right. There’s a lot of importance placed on who’s following you, and the more of a influential voice your followers are, the better that speaks of you. But Klout is about just that: Focusing on you. Little Bird, on the other hand, is about focusing on others.
The other big difference is that Little BIrd is anything but a Black Box. Numbers, lists, everything is explained and ordered. In a test search for Apple experts using Little Bird, a few of the obvious Twitter accounts pop up. Phil Schiller, the App Store, and… Scott Forstall. With his hundreds of thousands of followers, position at Apple, and zero tweets, I have to ask Kirkpatrick — why Forstall? “We don’t do any content analysis on these people — we do social graph analysis, which we think brings up more valuable data,” he says. “He hasn’t made any tweets, but he’s well connected and if you can get him to say something on Twitter, that’s worth a lot . I dare any of our competitors to find Scott Forstall as an Apple influencer.”
Right now, Little Bird relies on Twitter integration as well as top blog for its reports, though LinkedIn and Google+ are in the works. Facebook, on the other hand, isn’t on the roadmap — mostly because it’s still so purely social that introducing it to Little Bird’s signals won’t necessarily help marketers.
Little Bird also has supplementary tools, like a scorecard, so you can compare Twitter accounts and get more thorough analysis on each person; the ability to see what the top influencers of a topic are reading and sharing (“I think of this as a Techmeme for any topic,” Kirkpatrick says); the option to see emerging influencers in a space, as well as a way to limit your search reports based on location.
In addition to officially launching and expanding its private beta, Little Bird is announcing a $1 million round of fundraising led by Mark Cuban’s Radical Investments.
With the big data movement only gaining steam and the tools upon tools the Internet is giving us to turn the social Web into a research dream, Little Bird may have struck market gold — although Kirkpatrick aptly and simply sums it up. “A big part of what we’re trying to do is to take a strategic approach to data and make it not just a power user’s tool, but to make all of that much more accessible to everyday business users.”
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