Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 30, 2015, noon
Audience & Social
Mobile & Apps

Nuzzel, with a new batch of news-savvy investors, wants to bring social curation to publishers

Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams wants his link-discovery app to reach a broader audience — including “people who don’t necessarily know how to use Twitter.”

If you live in certain media and technology circles, there’s a very good chance you’re already using Nuzzel. It’s an app that combs through your Twitter or Facebook feeds, identifying the links being shared the most by your friends. (It’s a lot like our own Fuego, which does the same for future-of-news news with a slightly different methodology.) It’s a very efficient way to use the curation you’ve already done of your Twitter followers to curate news.

Twitter (and Nuzzel) investor Chris Sacca argued this summer that Twitter should buy Nuzzel and rebrand it as Twitter News: “The day’s most important news as determined by who we each follow? Obvious and easy to use.” But today Nuzzel is further building out its life as an independent, announcing that it’s added a new group of investors to help expand its reach into the news world.

Nuzzel’s new investors include the Knight Foundation-backed media startup accelerator Matter; former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz; John Paton, the former CEO of Digital First Media; former Guardian Media Group CEO Andrew Miller; Arturo Duran, managing partner of IVA Ventures and Digital First’s former chief innovation officer; and Jim Friedlich, CEO of Empirical Media and a former Dow Jones vice president.

Jonathan Abrams, Nuzzel’s CEO, wouldn’t disclose the size of the investment, saying only that “the amount of dollars isn’t huge.” Nuzzel previously raised $3.4 million.

“The purpose of these seven investors, honestly, wasn’t really money,” Abrams told me. “We have plenty of money in the bank. This was really about bringing on board the expertise, relationships, and advice of people in the traditional news world.”

Abrams, who previously cofounded the defunct social network Friendster, launched Nuzzel in 2012. While it certainly seems that Nuzzel links are popping up more frequently on Media Twitter these days, he wouldn’t share any specific user numbers for the app. We spoke about Nuzzel’s future plans; a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Joseph Lichterman: In the release announcing the new investors, you noted that there are “opportunities for Nuzzel to help publishers.” What are those opportunities and how are you thinking about working directly with publishers?

Jonathan Abrams: We haven’t figured it out yet. But that’s a very good example of the kind of thing that having these folks as part of the Nuzzel team will help us with.

We are pretty much Silicon Valley and Internet veterans. I began my career in Silicon Valley working at Netscape. I started Friendster, the original social network. So, we’re pretty savvy folks about social, and we’ve got a great list of Silicon Valley investors. But they’re all tech nerds, too. You know, Andreessen Horowitz and so on. We are not traditional news and media folks, and there are fans of Nuzzel all over the place, including at some very well known news and media companies. We thought getting these folks as some of our investors would be good because they can then help advise us on stuff related to, for example, working with publishers.

A few months ago, we announced a platform on Nuzzel where people could build custom feeds. These were feeds that were based on a Twitter list, and they could be used for any number of purposes. If we build a feed that’s about fertility, or bitcoin, or something, what we’re not doing is semantic analysis, and scanning keywords in articles. Nor are we using human editors to review stuff by hand. What we do is still related to Nuzzel’s approach, which is based on social curation. We take a list of people who are influencers who tweet about a topic. We pump that through Nuzzel’s technology, and out comes a Nuzzel feed.

It’s not limited to topics. It could be all the people who work at BuzzFeed or The New York Times, but topical ones work too. And when we built feeds like this, sometimes it surfaced content from niche vertical blogs that are not necessarily mainstream, but often, mainstream content was also surfaced. We quickly realized that every day The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, CNN, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. are publishing hundreds and hundreds of pieces of content. And if you have a specific interest in, you know, fertility, or libraries, or bitcoin, or whatever it is and there’s a really interesting or funny article relevant to that audience in The New York Times, or CNN, or The Guardian in the last 24 hours, you probably didn’t find it. Because most people don’t use RSS readers or any tools to go through the news. Less than 1 percent of people who read news online really use tools like that. They’ve all been too complicated.

If you look on Facebook, your’e going to find lowest-common denominator stuff. And if The New York Times published a funny story last week and you go to their homepage, you’re not going to find that story either.

So this could be beneficial to publishers in terms of helping them get audience to the right content in a way that I don’t think is happening on Facebook or any of these other platforms. That’s something that we noticed, and now we’ve got these new investors to help advise us. Exactly what we’re going to do is something that we’re still going to figure out over the next year.

Another thing is that a lot of publishers and news companies have asked to meet with us. This happens all the time. We’re trying to figure out a way that we can work with them. Do we publish some sort of syndicated Nuzzel feed or widgets that they can use with us? Those are things we’re interested in and we haven’t figured this out. These are things that it seems like there’s interest in, and these are things that we’re going to be working on in the next year.

Lichterman: What types of things have the publishers been interested in? Are there specific features that they’d like to see from Nuzzel?

Abrams: We really do get every week some major media company emailing us and asking us to meet. It’s a few things: They’re all trying to figure out — especially the old-school ones, the newspapers versus the BuzzFeeds — what’s going on this world of social and the new world of mobile. Nuzzel is a tiny six-person company, but we’re pretty savvy with mobile and with social. Our app, obviously, is in both of those worlds. They’ll just have people at their company using Nuzzel, they hear good things, they hear we’re innovating in mobile and social, and they want to come and ask us what we’re doing and learn a bit about it.

Nuzzel is headquartered at Founders’ Den, which is a coworking space in San Francisco that I started, and we have the same thing where big huge companies or governments from other companies want to come by Founders’ Den to learn about Silicon Valley. So some of these big news companies and media companies want to hear a little bit about our insights into mobile and social. Then sometimes it’s a bit more specific — sometimes I think there is some potential interest in actually doing something with us: maybe using our platform to build feeds about topics or to use Nuzzel to showcase their writers’ or personalities’ curation in a way they could subscribe to. It’s a few things, but all this type of stuff is not something that we’ve really productized yet. We launched our iPhone app only about a year ago, Android more recently. Probably over the next year we may move forward with some actual product stuff that can enable some partnerships with publishers, but that’s something that we haven’t really fleshed out yet.

Lichterman: There’s been a lot of talk recently around Apple News, Facebook’s Instant Articles, and this new effort that Google and Twitter are leading. A lot of that focus is on making mobile news consumption smoother for readers. How are you thinking about this now that these really big players are getting involved in the space?

Abrams: Facebook drives a lot of traffic, but what they are not doing is I think connecting people with the stuff they really need to know about. If you go on Facebook, you’re seeing a lot of stuff — it’s stuff that’s going viral amongst a lot of people you know — but it’s not really the stuff you need to know in the way I think Nuzzel provides.

Apple’s new News app is cool. It seems very, very different than what Nuzzel does. They’re probably complementary, but it definitely doesn’t do any of the things that Nuzzel does. I think that it’s very interesting times in the world of online news. It’s fascinating. There’s so much going on, but what I think Nuzzel is doing is pretty unique. We’re trying to connect people with the stuff they really need to know about, instead of trying to provide personalized news without having to do a lot of work. I still don’t see anyone else going after this with the same philosophy.

Lichterman: You said previously that you’re looking to work with publishers. Is there anything you’re looking to add in terms of the reading experience for users?

Abrams: Right now, we’ve had a pretty Twitter-centric experience on Nuzzel, and one of the things that we think is that there’s an opportunity with those types of feeds I mentioned earlier. As Nuzzel becomes more and more of a platform to host those kinds of feeds, we think we can do a better job of letting people who don’t necessarily know how to use Twitter use Nuzzel by consuming feeds that other people have created. We’re moving in that direction.

It’s funny — we’ve been doing a lot of innovative stuff with push alerts using Android and iPhone, which is obviously a pretty new technology, but at the same time, we’re also very focused on email, which is very old technology. We recently changed our email template, and we’re planning to do even more stuff with email and more stuff with mobile push. Basically, we want to be cross-platform.

In some ways they’re similar and in some ways they’re very different. Mobile push notifications is a very mobile-focused and pretty new channel, and I think what we’ve done with push notifications is different than a lot of news apps that send everyone the same alerts. But we also think that email remains a very relevant channel for news. There’s something that’s pretty natural about getting a news digest in your email every morning. We’re continuing to do more stuff on both of those.

Lichterman: How about revenue generation — is that something you’re thinking about?

Abrams: We’re thinking about it, and we have plans for it, but we’re not actually working on it yet. We’re still focused on distribution and growth for now. We’re probably not going to be focused on generating revenue for awhile. We have plans for what we want to do there.

We think that if we become a platform where people are getting these feeds — and whether they’re getting them on mobile or email, they’re very targeted — you’re getting a librarian feed, or a fertility feed, or whatever, and there are a lot of opportunities for very targeted, relevant advertising. And for us, the advertising isn’t really the kind of stuff that ad blockers would strip out, that really annoying stuff. It’s more like an ad on Google, where it’s actually relevant to the other content you’re looking for and it’s in the stream, rather than getting in the way of the content you’re looking for.

Photo of Jonathan Abrams by Christopher Michel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2015, noon
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
Aggregate data from 47 countries shows all the growth in platform news use coming from video or video-led networks.
Many people don’t pay full price for their news subscription. Most don’t want to pay anything at all
Is increasing subscriber numbers by offering people rock-bottom trial prices sustainable?
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”