Bringing Brands to the Facebook Platform: Context Optional Builds and Manages Apps

Continuing our “Bringing Brands to the Facebook Platform” series this week, in which we’re exploring different ways brands can engage users on the Facebook Platform, Inside Facebook next takes a look at San Francisco-based Context Optional. Context Optional has already run campaigns for some of the biggest brands on Facebook and other social networks using what the company calls its “social application server.”

Kevin Barenblat, CEO of Context Optional, previously held product management and business development positions at Verizon Wireless, WideRay, and Adventureseek, after starting out at BCG. We spoke with him to learn more about the platform the company has built and the services they’re able to provide to brands.

Kevin, what’s Context Optional’s approach to bringing brands to the Facebook Platform?

We work with advertisers to build a presence on Facebook and other social networks. Brands can advertise through Facebook or with Platform ad networks like RockYou, sponsor existing applications, or build branded viral apps.  Most of our business is with our social application platform that makes it easy for advertisers to build apps, includes stats and reporting, and viral channel optimization.

When we sell applications, our customers get a license to the platform and we provide professional services to help them customize it.  If they have their own team they can do it, but many don’t want to do it themselves.

There are 5 main components to what we call our “Social Application Server”:

  1. A dashboard for demographics and campaign effectiveness
  2. Analytics tools to track growth, conversions, and how effective users from different ad networks are (for example, you might get more installs but less engagement from one or the other)
  3. Optimization around viral marketing
  4. Tools for creating other user channels
  5. Features like photos, leaderboards, polls

OK, can you give us some examples of what customers have done with it?

We have an application for Microsoft called Office Poke. It’s been out for a couple months and has gained 250k users so far, with users sending between 60-100k branded pokes a day. For example, stealing chairs, or holding the elevator. It’s a branded viral app, and over half the users have come through viral channels (rather than ad campaigns). The pokes generate half a million page views a day. It’s all built on top of the platform, which allows Microsoft to tell which users are the most valuable, and optimize viral channels.

In some cases, we’re providing social marketing strategy, and in almost every case we’re doing the social app development and management/optimization. We’re also sometimes doing the ad buying because we have the ability to measure and monitor how effective it is/those users are. We’re experts in building viral applications and managing social marketing campaigns.

How much are you working directly vs. through agencies?

Most agencies can’t build their own apps, so they look to us. We sell half to brands and half to agencies. It’s still early, but it’s possible that more agencies will want to bring this in house over time. Usually, campaigns are bought and managed by the agency. And as of today, Ford, EA, Samsung, Microsoft have a license to our platform.

What’s most surprising to you about what brands are able to achieve on Facebook?

The most interesting thing to me is how non-linear advertising can be on Facebook. Most ad buyers view advertisers in a very linear fashion – “I have $100k to spend; I know how many people I can reach at a $5 CPM.”

When an app is designed well, things operate differently. For example, take the app we built for EA (Smarty Pants). It’s a simple trivia game, and they already had all these questions they built for the Wii version of Smarty Pants. It’s been played over 5 million times now in the last six months, but they spent no money on advertising. Some advertisers think that if they don’t pay for it, it’s hard to know what it’s worth. That’s a ton of impressions. Why pay for clicks when there’s so much you can do by building more viral social apps?