Social media start-up Mixx sets self apart via "ultra-personalization"

Q&A: LinkedIn, Facebook, Digg and other sites provided inspiration, Mixx CEO says

Mixx.com CEO Chris McGill recaps the action from his social media site's first few months in business as a competitor to Digg and other such sites.

Mixx.com is among the buzziest new social media sites through a blend of word-of-mouth (or e-mail), the high profile background of its founders and a good dose of anti-Digg discussion surrounding the launch. Hey, even I'm an early adopter of it. I recently shot some questions to CEO Chris McGill – formerly with USA Today and Yahoo --via e-mail and here's what he had to say about the action at Mixx since its launch in the fall.

Can you give me synopses of how and when Mixx started and what's happened since then?

The idea for Mixx bounced around in my head for more than a year. I had been watching three "pillars" of digital consumption and socialization developing on the Web: 1) Intense personalization (think netvibes, Pageflakes, myYahoo); 2) Democratization (Digg, Reddit); and 3) One-to-one contact that's controlled by the user (Linkedin and Facebook, among others). While I loved these trends, I was frustrated that I couldn't use them to find and share content relevant to my specific interests. After a conversation with my brother-in-law (an engineer for a healthcare company), who complained that he couldn't really find content that he cared about either, specifically local news and tech news in the healthcare field, there was more or less a "Shazam!" moment where the idea fully formed: the three pillars should be fused into one to create a practical media sharing site: a flexible platform where people could share content within relevant circles based on specific interests.

Since then, Mixx has taken on a life of its own. In May 2007, we received our initial funding from Intersouth Partners out of Durham, N.C., and started pulling together a team of engineering veterans, plus experts in product design and marketing, as well as an outstanding board of directors and advisers.

In late September 2007 we launched in private beta and just a few weeks later rolled out the public beta. Big media sites like USA Today, Reuters, Slate, The L.A. Times and The Weather Channel as well as hundreds of blogs have added our service and made it easy for members to easily share stories, photos and videos with other Mixxers. We've also made significant feature upgrades to the site — many based on user feedback, and rolled out new features such as publicly searchable groups.

What's the general technical infrastructure behind the site?

The site is built on Ruby on Rails and uses Apache as the Web servers and MySQL as the database. We use Rackspace Managed Hosting to host our servers, which are all Intel boxes running Linux (compare server products).

Right now we're running with two front-end application boxes, one primary database host, and a backup database host.

Our server farm also includes a development box that can be thrown into production use if load demands.

Can you share any numbers on users, traffic, growth?

Here's what we've seen in just 80 days since Mixx opened for business:

• Hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month.USA Today, Reuters, The L.A. Times, Slate, The Weather Channel, Kaboose, and uClick Comics, as well as many blogs.

• Tens of thousands of registered users – 78% of whom have personalized their Mixx pages with an average of more than 10 category tags each.

• More than 500 user-created groups.

• More than 3 million votes cast.

• In excess of 40,000 tags have been submitted by users.

• A weekly Alexa rating of 5K, with a total of 9.6K in our first three months.

• A growing and eclectic group of big media partner linkages including

How are you trying to get the word out about Mixx?

We really think that the best thing we can do is to create — and maintain — a dialog with our users. And I can't stress that enough — our success has been all about creating a conversation with the people who actually use Mixx.

We do this through our blog and through opt-in e-mail updates that keep everyone in the loop on site improvements and new features, as well as tips on how to use the site to get the most out of it.

And the word-of-mouth response and the passion that our users have for the site after such a short period of time is truly incredible. For instance, just a few weeks after our launch, a group of Mixxers created a Web site called The Mixxing Bowl, where Mixx fans get together to promote Mixx and Mixx users, as well as (in their words) to "help foster the cordial environment at Mixx."

What are a few unique aspects of Mixx vs. other such sites?

What sets Mixx apart is ultra-personalization. When you register with Mixx, you're able to set up YourMixx, a start page that you populate with specific topics of interest. Then you and other Mixxers who share those interests submit and vote on stories, photos and videos in that category or topic, offering a shortcut to the best the Web has to offer. Whenever you sign on, the stuff you want is right there, without having to turn the Web upside down and shake it before you find what you want. You can even personalize down to a local level, to see content that is taking place in your local or metro area — or just check in to see what your neighbors are reading and recommending.

Mixx also offers Groups, both public and private, so you can share on a more personal level. For example, you can hook up with people who support Barack Obama, instead of just getting all election '08 news. Or share with people who hate the Dallas Cowboys rather than getting all football-related content. Or why not share only with techies who love all things Ubuntu and don't want every garden-variety bit of tech news?

Finally, Mixx offers a completely flexible taxonomy. During the submission process, you're able to assign tags to the content, which of course makes it easier for other users to find that content. If the taxonomy we offer isn't applicable, just go to YourMixx and create your own list of tags.

I'm finding Mixx sort of like taking on a second job in terms of the e-mails I'm getting from followers and friends (though have started to better manage my profile to limit the influx). What's your sense of how much time someone needs to invest in Mixx to find it useful?

The nice thing about Mixx is that it is not a one-size-fits-all site.

If you're a busy IT guy trying to juggle a job and family and only have a few spare minutes each day, you can easily personalize Mixx to deliver only the stuff you want — which can mean setting up YourMixx with very narrow band of content or getting only a daily digest. Or both. You can also choose to set up a private group just for the people in your department at work to help keep on top of relevant news from Network World, or one to talk about the pennant race with a group of Red Sox fans composed of co-workers or personal friends — it's up to you.

If, on the other hand, you're a serious social networker, you can scale up or down with Mixx by using the tools on the site to manage the flow of incoming media. It lets you limit or expand your group of Mixx friends to match your time commitment and personal interests. Just find what interests you by searching topics, groups or people and wade in to the depth that makes you feel comfortable.

How might the site be of use to enterprise IT pros?

There are many ways Mixx can be useful, especially in large companies where the team is geographically dispersed or stretched thin because they spend all day putting out fires (not that we'd have any experience with that). One way is to use it as a time saver by personalizing Mixx to help you wade through the glut of IT news, and get right to the information that is most important to your job.

Sharing specialized knowledge is critical to the success of IT pros. One of the things about technology is that is makes it all too easy to get isolated from your peers — especially when you don't have time to look beyond the walls of your cubicle, much less outside of your company. Mixx gives you the ability to find and create your own knowledge network — and that means access to real hands-on expertise on your own terms. It means that even an IT pro can unlock the potential of their infrastructure by socializing knowledge.

A lot of comparisons are being made between Digg and Mixx, and I've seen the chatter about Diggers fleeing to Mixx and your comments complimenting sites such as Digg. But in a nutshell, how do you see Mixx and Digg being different?

Digg is a great content recommendation tool, and they brought something unique to the Internet when they launched a few years ago. In part, Mixx is inspired by the concept of user-recommended content. But that's just a part of what we think makes Mixx a unique value-proposition.

As I mentioned before, with Mixx you can set up your own personal start page, and sites like netvibes and myYahoo were part of the inspiration for this. The nice thing about start pages is that they let you cut through a lot of information and lay out a starting point. The downside is that you usually wind up getting lots of duplicate information. This is where user-recommendations come in.

By combining a personal start page with user recommendations, you create a start page around topics (rather than sources) to get the best of the Web in whatever your areas of interest are, without the duplication of the same story from 15 different sources.

Finally, add a sprinkling of inspiration from Yahoo Groups or Meetup — the ability to personally connect with people who share the same interests and viewpoints as you do — and voila: You have Mixx.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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