OPW INTERVIEW -- June 2, 2007 -- Michael Jones is CEO of Userplane and VP at AOL. AOL acquired Userplane last August. Userplane offers instant messaging and chat tool with text, voice and video capability, for online communities. A web recorder for users to record voice and video, a site search tool, and a Desktop user presence tool. Userplane has come a long way, and it’s tools are now best in class, reliable and scalable. - Mark Brooks
What are Userplane’s biggest clients to date?
Well looking at network usage overall, we have a few top tenors, PlentyofFish being one. MySpace uses a tremendous volume of our products, Spark Networks uses a tremendous amount, and Date.com. Currently our client base ranges from major brand names down to small, completely unknown websites. There’s around 1,500 clients in our integrated portfolio.
Did you have to customize the Userplane service for many of your clients?
No, they typically use the API driven application as it stands. When clients have specific needs we slate their requests for development for a future release and then we work with them on those timelines. For instance, we’re doing some large media partnerships with companies like NBC that have some specific needs. But in general, everybody works off the same API driven version, which makes it very scalable and very safe for everybody. We have a centralized hosting center that hosts all of our applications in basically the same cluster. So if NBC is using it or MySpace is using it they’re all pulling from the same network.
What improvements have you made to improve scalability?
We upgraded our network substantially and added a substantial amount of redundancy in the standard application service. We’re now working on opening up a point of presence internationally to diversify some of our bandwidth. We architected quite a bit of our system to be able to deal with large volumes of overflow or unexpected traffic bursts, as MySpace is growing. We implemented a better system to balance out the volume. So if a client starts with us on a 10 connection package and then they suddenly bump up and they’re hitting 5,000 or 10,000 connections we can actually handle that unexpected jump. At this point, we can handle MySpace size traffic and AOL size traffic.
Why are you offering an ad-supported version?
We’re using what we love to term as the “freemium model.” We have premium services, which are not ad-supported, but then we also have free services that are ad-supported. We had so many clients move over to ad-based websites, they were expecting large volumes of traffic growth and they didn’t want to have cost associated with our services. Even a large Userplane client on a premium model may only be paying us $10,000 or $20,000 a month, if they are extremely large. Our hope is to be able to open up a revenue sharing system back to all of our clients and become a key portion of their revenue. That’s what we’ve really been working towards.
What sort of CPM’s rates are you charging for advertising on Userplane products?
Anywhere between a dollar, up to tens of dollars for video ad units. It depends. We have in-house ad sales here that handle a lot of requests and we also work with AOL media groups that take care of monetizing some of our traffic as well.
Can a site customize the kind of ads that will appear on their Userplane services?
Yes. It’s customized automatically through preferences you select in the set up process for the instant install services. If you don’t like particular ads showing, you can email us the ad ID’s you want pulled, or if you want a specific type of category shown you can notify us and we can make sure we’re only showing that category.
What new products and developments do you have in the works Mike?
We just rolled out our integrated user list, which is a new type of buddy list for our integrated clients. That’s pretty exciting. It’s a fun list that shows when your friends are online, or the people you’re interested in are online. The sites that have started playing with it now are seeing substantially longer engagement times for their users, and a better frequency of communication between their users.
We are also pushing out a new version of our desktop application called Userplane Desktop. Originally we saw the desktop application as being a component of IM to allow people to generate IM’s down to the user’s desktop. That’s definitely one feature of it, but we found that the clients that were deploying it most successfully and were getting the most usage out of it were actually using it primarily for alerts to say you have a new email to view, somebody has marked you as a friend, somebody is interested in meeting you, and driving traffic back to their website. This is actually the first product that we’ve ever had that has really driven external traffic back to the website. Most of our products are about increasing user engagement once you’re at the website. So we think this is actually going to be a pretty fundamental shift for us and also really improve our client’s traffic patterns.
Clients so far that have used it have had impressive adoption rates. Its definitely at a point that a lot of the fears that our clients had about users downloading an application are being shown as unfounded. If users love your community they probably will download a desktop application, install it, and be pleased if you tell them, “Hey there’s this activity and you should jump in right now and find your friend” or “You should jump in right now to respond to this message.” I think that’s being welcomed.