What media companies can learn from Walmart

As reported in a number of places, Walmart (s wmt) has acquired OneRiot: a startup that originally tried to do social search before pivoting to focus on social advertising. OneRiot joins a unit called Walmart Labs, which the giant retailer created earlier this year with the acquisition of a company called Kosmix. Why should media companies (or anyone else, for that matter) find this interesting? Because what drove Walmart to make these acquisitions and create Walmart Labs is the same thing that plenty of other companies, and particularly media entities, should be interested in: making sense of all the data coming in from users on social networks and their sharing activity.

Anand Rajaraman — the co-founder of Kosmix and now the guy in charge of Walmart Labs — knows a thing or two about large amounts of data and how to analyze it. He has taught data-mining at Stanford University, and Kosmix was designed to take his knowledge of data analysis techniques and apply them to the massive amounts of data on the web. (Rajaraman was also a co-founder of Junglee, which was sold to Amazon in 1998.) Then Twitter came along, and Kosmix took all the semantic analysis and other research it had been doing and applied it to the firehose of data coming from the real-time information network to create something called Tweetbeat.

Making sense of the social-network firehose

As Rajaraman told me when I interviewed him at the Disrupt conference last year, where Tweetbeat was launched (a video clip from our interview is embedded below): “It was like we were waiting for this real-time data flow to come along so we could apply our semantic filter to it.” An understanding of how to filter those billions of tweets using semantic tools and a “taxonomy” or structured view of online data allowed Tweetbeat to generate customized views of the content being posted to Twitter in real time. In one of its first offerings, Tweetbeat let users follow not just information about the World Cup, but tweets and links about individual players, teams and countries.

Obviously, that kind of real-time filtering and analysis of activity can be applied to far more than just showing which soccer team is the most popular, and Walmart’s purchase of Kosmix showed Walmart is clearly interested in the potential of using these techniques to understand its customers and its market. The addition of OneRiot adds an advertising-related aspect to Walmart’s approach, which could help the retailer understand more about what drives users to click or interact with ads and ad-related content on social networks. As Rajaraman said in his blog post about the purchase:

The technology at the core of what we do is the Social Genome, which enables us to connect millions of consumers with the best products based on their interests at any given moment. The OneRiot technology will enrich the Social Genome, and the OneRiot team adds to the already deep expertise we have around social data analysis.

It may seem odd to think of a company like Walmart as being interested in data, or having anything in common with a media company, but the giant retailer has been passionate about making sense of the data being generated by its business since long before the web and social networks came along. Over a decade ago, the company was already legendary for having a satellite-information network that rivalled that of the U.S. military, which it used to track the movements of every single truck and package throughout its massive empire. In many ways, understanding the movement and intentions of users online is just an extension of that.

Understanding the intentions of users

Media companies and content creators may not see themselves as having anything in common with a giant retailing entity, but the reality is that they need to understand the behavior and interests of their users or customers (which they call readers or listeners or viewers) just like Walmart does. Why do people click on certain stories and not others? How long do they spend on a page and where do they go after they leave? That’s the kind of information that tools like Omniture and comScore can provide — but real-time tools like Chartbeat and the new analytical offering from Twitter can add another element that provides even more data about activity and intent.

As social activity on networks like Twitter and Facebook have become a larger and larger part of what people do online, understanding those “social signals” becomes even more important for anyone whose business depends on attracting online users (which is just about everyone by now). That’s why Google launched Google+ and is adding social features to its search engine, so that it can understand social intent and behavior and how it influences search relevance. And that’s presumably why Walmart has a research lab that is focused on making sense of social-behavior data.

More companies, both media and otherwise, need to start thinking about doing the same thing with the data that flows into and out of their organizations as well. Somewhere in that data is an understanding of why your customers do what they do online, and how to give them more of what they want and when.


Disclosure: Cambrian Ventures, a venture firm in which Anand Rajaraman is a partner, was an early investor in Giga Omni Media, the parent company of GigaOM.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Luc Legay and Ryan Lackey