Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Bent Spoke: Is Spoke's Aggressive Data Mining the Right Approach?

The press release announcing the availability of Spoke Software, Inc.'s business contact service for free caught my eye, as did a Red Herring article that pulled extensively from the press release. "Spoke Gives Free Access to Database of 30 Million Business People," the press release headline promises. Well, not quite. For free you get a teaser of titles available from specific companies on a company search or a listing of titles only that might match on a person search. OK, so take a bite of the bait and sign up for the service, which requires a download of software that integrates with your email client.

Not too onerous, right? Until you try using the service, at which time the agent that you've installed starts to sync information from your email into your "SpokeBook" online database, from which Spoke draws information to validate. That's not necessarily bad in concept, but in the Spoke scenario going in a few minutes from "Gee, I think that I'd like to try this" to having software try to mine your entire email database without any filtering is very jarring. That's a pretty big commitment just to toy around.

Spoke's claim is that this automated mining is preferable to services which require more commitment from its users: "With no need to track points, make trades or give away colleagues' direct contact information, users can take advantage of Spoke's unprecedented free service by simply validating where their business contacts work, a process that Spoke automates." Spoke exposes by default the name, title, and company information from your synced records and allows any other Spoke user to make inquiries of you for referrals to your contacts. That's a fairly immediate networking opportunity but without a stronger opt-in aspect to the service it's not necessarily one that provides the strongest introduction opportunities.

Take, for example, a Spoke search on Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft. I get some basic information back from Spoke - company main phone number, Web site, and an interesting list of titles that people had in their email clients for this person (Chairman of the Board, Chief Software Architect, CEO and Chairman, President, Big Kahuna (sic), Chairman/Ch. Soft. Arch, Chief Technologist). Well, which one applies these days? Several might, but if it weren't for Mr. Gates being a prominent figure it would be "go fish" time to figure out an appropriate title. On the networking side, if I want to get more information or an intro I can look at "referrals" and pick from people in my network who can be potential points of contact and send them an email - if I feel that they have a good network. The 5-level network rating says I have pretty good "ins", but I have no idea what it's based on.

Trying Spoke from a company perspective, the service does not seem to discriminate very effectively between actual and potential employees. A search on our own company yielded several people who are or were affiliated with Shore but never "card carrying" team members. A similar search on Zoominfo yielded much more accurate and up to date information. My overall impression is that data quality for mapping contacts to companies is very low in comparison to other services that have maintained a higher level of commitment from users and human involvement in editing.

The features and architecture of Spoke make it the kind of tool that would be very useful in corporations and other closed environments where this level of automated information sharing could find acceptance amongst an already cooperating group of people - kind of a Knowledge Management tool for sales force automation, if you will. In a public environment, it's not clear that it adds reliable value - especially since the level of commitment to maintaining accuracy from people in the network is far from clear. Services such as Plaxo do a much nicer job of enabling people to keep their contact lists in sync with colleagues and contacts; services like LinkedIn provide a higher level of assurance in the quality of potential introductions; services like Jigsaw provide a highly motivated set of companies and individuals dedicated to content quality; and services like Zoominfo are far more advanced in providing well-organized and edited profiles of people and companies with good features for users to edit information.

In summary, Spoke is a nice piece of software with rough edges on both the content concept and the business model that make it a bit of a question mark for business information seekers. It's one thing to understand sales force automation and data mining; it's quite another thing to understand what will result in a quality business information product using both automated techniques and the efforts of people using an online service. Spoke's trashing of established providers of contact information is rather out of date: most major services are making use of automated techniques to improve their content sets, albeit with their own issues in blending that information with manually updated records. There's hope yet for this service in a field of alternatives that have not yet proven out one dominant and bulletproof approach but it will take a more sophisticated attitude towards user contributions and a deeper appreciation of comfort levels in how mined data is used in Spoke to make this a natural choice for most business information users and partners.
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