spring / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Fowl Play
It's no surprise a shark lurks behind influencer marketing tool Little Bird.
Apr 14, 2015

Marshall Kirkpatrick was sitting in a Dublin bar in 2012 when the e-mail came through. From a client for whom he had been doing social web consulting, it read, “We’re canceling your invoice for this work.”

Kirkpatrick was crestfallen—but only briefly, as he scrolled down to read the rest of the e-mail: “We want you to send us an invoice for twice as much.”

Influencer marketing tools have been gaining favor with brands and agencies in the last few years as content sharing, not mere consumption, becomes a more desired metric.

His reaction—“Holy cow!”—seemed appropriate. “That has never happened in the history of consulting,” says Kirkpatrick, “at least, not for me.”

In Dublin with his wife for a tech conference, he knew then that he had a product, a business and a likely future as a tech CEO. But first, he ordered another round of drinks.

The business, Little Bird, is based in Portland; the product is software that identifies and ranks influential social media personalities and bloggers, a reconnaissance tool to help mid-sized and Fortune 50 companies launch and gain insights on their products, enter new markets and track trends.

“We think of it as intelligence that analyzes the social web…”

Influencer marketing tools—others include Traackr, Group High, Appinions and BuzzSumo—have been gaining favor with brands and agencies in the last two years as content sharing, not mere consumption, becomes a more desired metric.

“We think of it as intelligence, a way for our customers or their clients to analyze the social web,” says Kirkpatrick, “to see what a particular person knows about your chosen topic, where they come from and who they’re paying attention to. It’s a people first strategy that finds the community of people, and uses other peoples’ judgement in the field in order to determine who the center of that community is.”

It’s the peer evaluation that ensures, for example, Kim Kardashian from ranking as an influencer in the pizza market after tweeting once about whether she should have sushi or pizza for lunch. “I saw a platform recently that said Justin Bieber is the most influential person about iPhones,” says Kirkpatrick. “I guess it depends on your perspective.”

“...to see what a particular person knows about your chosen topic, where they come from and who they’re paying attention to.”

The same peer evaluation metric ranks Ann Handley atop the digital marketer community—or Pizza Today Magazine as the most influential organization in its field. Brands also use it as a way to determine where to throw paid media and to perform research to inform their own media creation.

It’s a technology rooted in Kirkpatrick’s background in tech journalism—he was one of the first hires at TechCrunch—where he discovered a way to leverage RSS feeds and SMS.

“I was writing about tech industry news for AOL and it was always a race to see who could write the best article about the news fastest, and I discovered that I could subscribe to company RSS feeds from blogs by SMS,” says Kirkpatrick. “So I made a list of 20 or 30 different vendors in the tech space and as soon as they put something on their blog I would get a text message about it and if it was newsworthy I’d write about it. All of the other bloggers would open up their feed readers later and they’d see that the announcement had been made and that I had already written about it.”

“People like getting in on a deal [Mark Cuban] is on.”

This crafty hack was Little Bird in embryonic form, an idea that Kirkpatrick thought he could scale. When looking for funding, Kirkpatrick e-mailed Mark Cuban—the two had worked briefly on a one-off project several years earlier—with social web graphs about members of Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Kirkpatrick explained that he knew nothing about basketball, but that he had found this information with a system he had built that discovers all kinds of valuable information about any topic.

Cuban wrote back in 10 minutes. “I think this is going to be a really big market,” he said. “What are you doing for fundraising?—and don’t give me any crazy Silicon Valley valuations because I’m from Texas and I’m not going to put up with anything like that.” After Kirkpatrick replied with a number, Cuban agreed and said he’d dispatch his due diligence team, “and if everything works out then we’ll make it happen.”

A couple of days later Cuban’s team wrote back. The Shark Tank star had changed his mind.

Again, a brief moment of crestfallenness, until Kirkpatrick read further that Cuban wanted to invest even more than he originally planned.

When I ask him about the value of Cuban’s involvement, Kirkpatrick says it’s clearly been helpful. “People like getting in on a deal he’s on, and he’s good at making introductions and being associated with him is pretty great,” he says. “But between my connections I was able to make as a regular news-breaking top journalist and our association with Mark Cuban, there are a lot of doors either one of those will open up.”

Spoken like an influencer.