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James Hong

Monday, July 02, 2007

Reinventing HOTorNOT, Part II

1 + 2 = 3. Our new product strategy

ok, enough blabber about why we needed to change, let's talk about what we are doing.
These 2 points are the genesis of the long term strategy for our company, which I explain in part 3 of this post.

1. We are about connecting people
2. Our name sets wonderful context for sharing opinion on anything

Add these together and you get

3. HOTorNOT enables people to share their opinion on anything, and helps connect people around those opinions.

(You’ll note that our prior business fits into that category, if you replace “anything” with “pictures of people”.)

We are confident that if we stay true to this mission, we will make products that will impact a large number of people’s lives in an utterly positive fashion.

Plus, the timing is right. Based on the way we plan to monetize these communities, the main thing really missing to support this empire was the emergence of online brand advertising. Last year we realized this last remaining piece was starting to happen.

Overview of HOTorNOT Hotlists

3 years ago, we started testing our current rating interface and had friends rate pictures of shoes on a scale of 1 to 10. Not surprisingly it was pretty boring, so we quickly realized our future might involve building a different interface. To that end, we came up with our new Hotlist product.

The concept: wouldn’t it be cool if users could, as a means of self expression, display pictures of the things they think are HOT on their HOTorNOT profile? Kind of like how people like to put posters of things they like on their walls, or how people like to wear t-shirts with logos of things they like.. it can be anything.. bands, tv shows, movies, clothing brands, colleges, products, even non-tangible ideas!

Each picture (what we are calling “Stylepix ™”) can be anything that a person associates with as an element of his or her own style.

In essence, Hotlists are a form of having visual keywords. Visual keywords are different from text keywords (“aka tags”) in that with text, the more information a user adds, the less anyone else wants to read them. With pictures, people are more likely to look, they are able to comprehend the data faster, and they will remember the list better than they would a text list.

For example, here is a screenshot of my HOTorNOT profile with my top 8 “Stylepix” at the bottom. If you clicked on the “Show All” link, it would take you to a page with my entire Hotlist

One cool part about the system is that when you are looking at someone else’s Hotlist, if you see something that you like, you can add it to your own Hotlist simply by clicking on a plus sign that appears over the stylepix. You can try it out yourself by taking a look at my Hotlist.

We recognize of course that this sort of functionality should not be limited to HOTorNOT users alone so we created exportable widgets too. Here is an example of one:

By enabling people to add Stylepix to their profiles, people are able to define themselves through a collage of entities that already have well known attributes. In other words, I am expressing my “james hong brand” as a mashup of many other well known brands that I identify with. It doesn’t have to be just brands, by the way… we encourage people to list anything they identify with. If you hate corporations, then be sure not to stick any company brands on your Hotlist. That’s cool with us.

So HOTorNOT is now enabling everyone on the web to define themselves with pictures. As a Hotlist user, all you have to do is browse other people’s Hotlists or search our directory and hit plus signs. Yes, you could do this yourself manually if you wanted to, but doing so is prohibitively tedious whereas building your Hotlist is actually a lot of fun. The beauty is that only one person has to bother submitting a picture to create a stylepix, but everyone benefits. Because of this, the directory is already fairly comprehensive.

How does the User benefit?

1. Hotlists are a means of self expression. In a world where everyone’s social networking page starts off looking exactly the same as everyone else’s, this concept becomes very important. The response in usage we have had so far indicates that many users like this product a lot.

2. By understanding what a user likes and doesn’t like, we are hoping to do some serious data analysis to start letting them know what other things they would probably think are HOT and NOT. In a world where users are willing to tell us more about them, we should be able to give them more tailored information back. General lists are cool, but tailored lists are cooler.

For example, remember how America’s Funniest Home Videos used to always be a highly rated show on Nielsen’s lists? I pretty much hated that show. On the flipside, I loved Veronica Mars, a show that just got canned. People are individuals who have individual taste. Lists should honor and respect that individuality.

In doing so, we are going to connect people not only to other people, but to other things that they would like too.

3. We are building communities around each Stylepix, enabling people to find and communicate with each other.

This is actually the coolest part about what we are doing. It is still super rough around the edges, but I think the concept is demonstrated a bit by what we’ve built already.

Each Stylepix submitted to the system (they are ALL user generated) has a Stylepix page that will become the basis of a community. Want to find a NY Yankees fan who might have tickets to sell? No problem. Want to find a Hot Girl that likes Linux? Believe it or not, also not a problem.

Not only will the Stylepix page connect people to other like-minded (like-styled?) individuals, it will also provide a place for people to talk about the Stylepix and share their opinions. Over time, we plan to do some really cool stuff on these pages to make interaction more fun and more interesting.

Here’s something else a bit different: our goal is not to build these communities for HOTorNOT’s users only. We are happy to overlay these communities on top of existing social networks and connect them all. In fact, we already have over 500,000 people on Facebook are already using the Hotlist product, and they can communicate on the Stylepix page with any other Hotlist user whether she comes from Facebook, HOTorNOT, or anywhere else we distribute the system to. There are a lot of cool things we are going to do with the data in addition to the cool communities we are building, and we are fine with the entry points to the system being distributed rather than centralized.

If you want to try building a hotlist for your Facebook profile, click here.

How is this a business?

Turning away from a subscription model is hard because it is a simpler business. We know we created value for our users because over 15% of free members ended up paying for it. How does our new strategy fit in with making money?

1. Improving Ads on HOTorNOT

First, making this move will enable us to raise the effective CPM rates on our site. If I know you are interested in computers, I can show you techie ads instead of random "punch the monkey" ones. Even better, if you happen to be on a stylepix page, that ad can become even more targeted. Are you on the Verizon Wireless page asking people if Verizon has good coverage in Memphis? Maybe Sprint would like to show you an ad. In essence, HOTorNOT pageviews used to have little context for targeting and few themes for channelization. With this data and with these communities, we will have plenty of both.

2. Use the data collected to build a superior Brand Ad Targeting Engine

The way brand ads are targeted today is based on inefficiencies of historical media platforms. Making advertising decisions based on the information that I am an Asian male, aged 34, living in San Francisco, with a 60% chance of being in the $75-100k income bracket is better than nothing, but still limited. The industry evolved to that standard because that was the best targeting publishers could provide.

We think the future is a lot richer than that, and we think knowing what someone’s style is (what bands they like, what clothing brands they like, what beers they like, what music they like, what whatever they like) can help us give them a better experience. If you are going to be shown ads, the ads might as well be interesting ones that start bleeding into being content. (Ever notice how fashion magazines are often half ads... and how people actually ENJOY looking at those ads?)

We know from experience that brands cluster. People also cluster (remember high school?) And finally, people-clusters cluster around brand-clusters. By utilizing a wealth of explicit user preference data, we think we can ultimately make your advertising-supported experience on HOTorNOT suck less. In fact, maybe we can make it useful and enjoyable. And if we’re really ambitious, we can do it outside the confines of our website too.

3. Helping Buyers. By connecting people who may be able to answer questions about the products they love to people who might be making purchase decisions, we can start helping people who are in the market to buy things. We believe the conversations that will happen in our Stylepix communities can be used to extract a lot of valuable information for people who are trying to decide, for instance, whether the iphone is
worth getting now or not.

4. Market Research. There is a large industry centered around giving marketers high level, aggregate data about their brands. Who likes their brand, what other things correlate with their brand, how is their brand trending over time, in specific locations or among a specific demographic. Most interestingly, we can also figure out who the trendsetters are.. which people tend to add the next big things first, and what are they adding now? We think we can bring Coolhunting to a new level.

In closing...

So there you have it! :) We believe the shift we are making is pretty large. It was emotionally more difficult than we thought it would be to pull the trigger on so drastically reinventing our company. But we’ve gotten some encouragement along the way.

We’ve gotten a lot of validation on our new plan from people that we respect immensely. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from big companies that want to get involved, both from the data side and from the community building side. But the best sign of validation comes from our users who are signing up like crazy and telling us they love what we are doing. Fundamentally that is what matters most.

If you are a programmer and are interested in joining us, please check out our jobs page! Not only will you get involved in our plans, you will have the opportunity to learn everything you need to know to create and run your own web company.

This post was part 2 in a series, to learn more about our company's changes, be sure to see part 1 too.


Blogger Unknown said...

What I /REALLY/ like about what you are doing is that you are doing it first, showing it off second.

The reverse is usually the case these days. So much so that the bloboshpere and pundits think they can talk smack about your plans when they don't even realize how far along the success route you already are.

HotOrNot has /ALWAYS/ been a role model of ours ( and continues to be so now for all the right reasons.

Keep up the good work.

1:41 PM  
Blogger john dodds said...

Do you find a good take up across the board for hotlists? I am an early adopter in many fields but hotlists just seemed like too much work for me when you first introduced them.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

great stuff james.

definitely cool philosophy & approach... i like the implementation tie-in to collection behavior, copycat / discovery behavior, adding button overlays to images to increase CTA.

keep it coming.

- dmc

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People identifying with brands? You US-Americans are wacky buggers.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Pretty extraordinary. I especially like the idea of using visuals to create mini networks... great stuff.

It's amazing to me how online social networking is so closely tied to the evolution of advertising.

Then again, if you think about it it's pretty obvious.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:44 PM  
Blogger Jason Rubenstein said...

Just creating my first hotlist.. this is insanely cool!

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James this is excellent. I get heaps out of reading your blog!

Mark Bowness

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like what you have set out for hot or not. I am also wanting to thank you and Jim for making it. I meet my soul-mate on hot or not and we want to get married in 2 years and were wanting to know if you two would like to attend?! THank you soo much
Jacqueline Nelson

9:05 PM  

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