In 1999, my friend Jeff Richard and I started a company called BrainPaste. The product was a neat little software toolbar that sat at the bottom of your Internet Explorer window, learned about your interests and likes over time, and helped you create your own personal portal. e.g. if you got a lot of Wal-Mart stock quotes, it would remember that and keep that information closer at hand (you’d have your own personal BrainPaste.com page that had up to the minute information based on your expressed interests.) All of this was done with a high regard for privacy and basically it was a neat consumer tool that filled a usability need not yet filled.
Now, where it got very cool was in some of the back-end e-commerce stuff we could do. We were the first to use a method called “dynamic customer acquisition” which Kevin Maney wrote about in a USA Today article a few months after we kicked off. We were able to ascertain what products a consumer was considering purchasing, and present them with a competing offer in real-time, and even link them over to that item. So, if they were at Amazon.com looking at the new Nebula 2005 collection, we could say to Barnes & Noble in the background, “hey, I’ve got this guy here, I won’t tell you who he is, but he spent $2500 online in the last 9 months, he’s 35, blah blah blah – how much to link him over to you for this purchase?” We could use a portion of that referral to incent the buyer to click. “hey dude, i’ll give you $10 off that book if you get it HERE”. (No, not pop-ups, we would just change the content of the toolbar to make the offer.)
We eventually sold the company (and its four pending patents) off to a company called R3Media. R3Media had raised about $25M or so from folks like CMGi and Exodus. I became their VP communications for about 9 months – approximately the amount of time it took them to spend the $25M on cocaine and hookers, and my four-month tab at the Westin Century Plaza (I still have thousands of Starwood points from this.) They certainly didn’t spend it on legal fees because they allowed the pending patents to lapse, despite authoring four regular patent applications in support of them. Oh well.
Over the years, companies like WhenU and Claria have been doing similar stuff but not in an identical way.
The reason this is especially relevant now is because, as Jeff pointed out to me on IM overnight, Google is, with the “autolinks” feature of their new Google Toolbar 3, doing exactly what we were doing. They are mining the URLs and then linking the URLs to their partners. Their business method seems clumsy – they are almost “sneaking” the feature in – but their technical approach is the same as ours. Now, Google has the reach to make this work. I hope they clean up their business practices a bit, though, because it’s not going to be well-received in its current form. Links should not be automatically inserted. A customer should be given competing alternatives and should, when they click, get what they expected and wanted.
I am also going to dig out our patent applications and source code and release it into the public domain so anyone who wishes to do so can go to town with the stuff. Ever used IBM Sash? I didn’t think so. 😉