Ted Murphy looks at a soda can and sees an opportunity for people to make money. And not by returning the empties to collect a nickel. Instead, the CEO of IZEA sees people snapping photos of their beverages with their iPhones and collecting points through his new program WeRewards.
"You take a picture of yourself with the product, and you earn points," Murphy tells FastCompany.com. "It's almost like an instant coupon." But the points can add up to equal cold, hard cash.
He sees partners flocking to the service as a way to get physical products in the hands of real live people. "They are paying for the customer coming in and buying." If WeRewards users share the pic on social media, well that's just gravy. Putting the focus on the physical experience even allows WeRewards to dodge Twitter's latest attempt squelch third-party advertisers. "We reward doesn't have any compensation tied to a share so it is not like you are getting paid to tweet," Murphy says (unlike his other business, Sponsored Tweets, which changed its model following Twitter's new tweak).
Launching today, WeRewards tapped location-based technologies and social media platforms to spawn a hybrid ad model that aims to transform the way we use the Internet. Harnessing some of the same principles, Loopt, Scvngr, and Foursquare all have similar rewards programs or are about to launch them. Never mind the discovery and sharing online. The future of the Web — at least a big slice of it — is physical. And these companies are ready to start the transformation.
Loopt, which now serves more than 3 million users, has already partnered with local businesses to offer real-life rewards—mainly discounts—in exchange for check-ins. But "We have some exciting plans for expanding beyond this, too," CEO Sam Altman tells FastCompany. "The future of location-based services is definitely to offer real value and rewards to people in terms of what's around them—friends, products, offers, and more."
Although he's mum on specifics, it sounds like Altman could be referencing a virtual "sandwich card," of sorts, which would give major-ish restaurants and retailers an opportunity to reward users for frequent check-ins, and then broadcast those rewards to their friends in hopes they do the same. If true, it's an intriguing—and encouraging—strategy, though its success will hinge on the types of partners it can secure.
Foursquare recently announced a tool for businesses to check customer stats and employee interaction with customers on social media. Starbucks happily jumped on that bandwagon to gather customer feedback and offers rewards and a "barista" badge to frequent buyers.
For his part, Murphy’s already snagged Domino’s as a sponsor and has 15 million businesses ready to take check-ins at launch. But WeRewards is a bit different. "The way we look at the space is more as one of sponsored action. The location-based function is part of it but we see a huge opportunity in the area of tasks." In other words, WeRewards will offer points for check-ins, but really wants to get folks snapping up consumer packaged goods – with photos to prove it.
Like Scvngr, a Google ventures-backed, location based gaming company that gives users a variety of "challenges" they must complete to collect points, WeRewards is offering a way to do something more fun than just check-in.
"Location is interesting, that’s what gets a customer there every day," Murphy admits, but says he sees real revenue potential within tasks. "That’s not tied to a location. That can be anything from take a photo with your product in your home and tweeting it, to getting 100 points for downloading an app or taking a poll."
WeRewards works via an iTunes app and links to a user’s social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. It also requires a PayPal account to cash in rewards. There’s no complex metric for points, it’s one penny per no matter what the task or where the check-in. The business gets to decide how many points it will offer per task.
Though Twitter's just put a ban on third-party apps, Murphy says with WeRewards, the user is not compelled to share (on Twitter or Facebook) and they don't get any monetary compensation for it even if they do. "They are paid for verifying the purchase only. Sharing [their experience] is up to them."
At this point Murphy demonstrates by bringing up on a virtual meeting screen, a photo of a woman brandishing chopsticks, sitting at a restaurant with a plate piled high with sushi rolls and a comment she tweeted about her predeliction for coating them in soy sauce. On another side of the page are other stats such as how many points she’s collected.
The secret sauce, if you will, in Murphy’s strategy is the verification. In a sense, he’s playing to both the consumer and the advertiser by offering concrete rewards to each. The business buying into the program sets the budget. If a promotion underperforms, the business only pays for the clicks they got. However, go over and you still get exactly what you paid for and not a penny more. "It all comes down to what you will do to get an actual paying customer into your business," insists Murphy, and with a photo of a product, or a receipt for a meal, they business can see exactly what the customer is spending, and calculate its ROI immediately.
"All other platforms are based on discounting," Murphy asserts, "so as a business I’ve got to figure out the value and track that back." This, he says, is a frustrating enterprise for many still trying to figure out how much to invest on a social media budget.
And right now, that number is small. A Razorfish study of media spending trends among its clients indicated only 4 percent of total ad dollars were spent on social media last year. The report’s editor Jeremy Lockhorn admits that is slightly misleading because it may not include the dollars spent creating content and the people it takes to power a blog or a Facebook page. Also, he noted no one was testing ad verification models as recently as 2008. "We've seen an uptick now. It's an evolving market."
Murphy’s philosophical on this point, "Education is the hard part, I have no doubt it will happen. The key is people are spending more on handheld devices," but in the meantime he’s got a leg up with with launch partner Domino’s.
The pizza chain is betting on WeRewards' “explosive growth." VP of multi-media marketing Dennis Maloney says, "Our business is pretty straightforward – we make great pizzas which our consumers can enjoy either by getting them delivered or by picking them up at the store. It is pretty easy to see where a check-in or verification step might fit into that model. When combined with the reward-based structure, we think it has great potential."
Additional reporting by Dan Macsai