Shazam's Second Act: Unleashing TV Content Online

Shazam was once just a great app for identifying that cool tune on the radio. Now it's plunging into TV and advertising.

Shazam Old Navy ad

You know Shazam as the cool smartphone app you use to identify tunes on the radio.

But the eight-year-old company, which launches a new music feature today, has bigger plans: It wants to become a large-scale consumer platform for the discovery of all kinds of entertainment and content.

The core app for which it's known lets users identify a song simply by holding their phone up to the music. The app then turns that sound into a kind of fingerprint that it sends to a database in the cloud, which then identifies the song based on the fingerprint and sends the name back to your phone.

The feature released today now includes lyrics with the song title, and, through a bit of magic produced by Tunezee, whose synchronized lyric technology Shazam recently acquired, the app can perfectly sync the tunes coming from Shazam with the song coming out of your radio.

The bigger opportunities for the company, however, are coming from its expansion into new areas, like TV and advertising. Shows on MTV and Bravo and programs like The Glee Project and Spike TV’s Guys Choice awards have started using the Shazam system to let viewers unlock additional content online, by similarly holding their phones up to their TVs at specific moments in the programs when the Shazam logo appears.

This year, Old Navy placed a big bet on the Shazam approach. They ditched the traditional ads they’d run for the past two years, the ones featuring those talking mannequins, and instead are whipping out music videos featuring a made-for-the-campaign pop group.

Branding on the ads only appears at the very beginning and very end of the 60-second spots. But viewers are invited to “Shazam” the tune, which then gives them access to a mobile site where they can learn more about the (still faux) pop group, as well as the (Old Navy) clothes the band members wore in the video.

Shazam is serious about expanding its capabilities, and it has hired the engineer who lead Yahoo’s communication products, including Yahoo Mail and Messenger, Jason Titus, as its CTO to help the company scale quickly.

Titus tells Fast Company that Shazam also sees opportunities in using the “woodshavings,” as he calls them, that fall off the core services, to create even more services. Already the company provides charts to the music industry of which songs are getting Shazam’d the most. “We’re a leading indicator of what’s popular,” he says, “of what will end up on the Billboard charts.”

Imagine, then, how useful it would be if individual music acts could get data on where their songs were being Shazam’d the most—they could use that information to make decisions on where to tour, hitting the cities where they’d been Shazam’d a lot and avoiding the ones without much play.

Similarly, there could be a way of using Shazam data to help people find places they might want to hang out, Titus says. For example, since the service knows what songs you’ve Shazam’d, it could use geotagging to recommend venues frequented by people who Shazam’d songs similar to yours.

Whatever they do, however, Titus says, they’re committed to delivering “magical experiences,” even if that means passing on certain opportunities. For example, a frequently requested feature is to be able to Shazam objects—to take a picture of something, like a monument or a plant, and send it back to Shazam—either for identification or for additional information.

It sounds great, but Titus says the company has back-burnered that idea because the image-recognition technology isn’t good enough yet to deliver near perfect results. An app that only got an image right half the time wouldn’t deliver the magical results that the company is looking for.

“As a company, we want to create great experiences,” Titus says.

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s SiliconValley reporter. Twitter. Email.

 

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