Interview with Rick Klau, FeedBurner’s Vice President of Business Development

Last week, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Rick Klau, FeedBurner’s Vice President of Business Development. It was a great evening of catching up, as well as talking about social media, technology and politics.

Rick shared some of these views during an interview conducted on March 14.

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AW: I read on your blog that Newsweek in now using FeedBurner. Can you tell us what this means for the company and for the media in general?

Klau: At a high level, Newsweek is one of several large publishers that have chosen to use FeedBurner for feed management. One of the things in particular that was interesting to Newsweek was the ability to augment content in their feed with dynamic links back to their site and to other web services such as Technorati and del.icio.us, which provide easier and more effective ways for their readers to interact with Newsweek content. So, for example, when Newsweek publishes an article, as blogs and other websites link to that content, that creates a bit of a conversation.

By using FeedFlare to interact with services like Technorati, Newsweek is able to expose to readers where that conversation is going and how they are participating in it. Newsweek has been pretty forward-thinking in how to engage the larger Internet community as they produce more content, and I think that using FeedBurner is just an extension of that for them.

It’s exciting. They’re participating in the ad networks, so there’s opportunities for us and Newsweek to work together to make feeds a bigger and more strategic part of their content strategy in general.

AW: You were saying that Newsweek is very forward-thinking. Obviously there are some mainstream media outlets that haven’t gotten to the same point yet. Do you think that entities like Newsweek help get the ball rolling?

Klau: I sure hope so. I was talking to somebody last summer and made the distinction that the first half of 2005 was a lot of publications thinking about whether they would embrace feeds, and the second half of 2005 was them trying to figure out how to do it.

Now we really see most publications and most publishers thinking more broadly about how to make feeds a part of their content strategy, and understanding that there’s an audience that’s going to be consuming their content by way of feed – and then trying to figure out how many of those people are going to come back to the website, how many of those simply consume the content in the feed by itself.

It’s important for publishers to understand the dynamics of the feed audience versus the web audience, and try and connect the dots between the two. We certainly would like to think that we’re in the middle of that discussion in working with a number of exciting publishers, folks like USAToday and Reuters and others where the thinking is pretty big about where this goes. We’re very excited to be a part of that.

AW: Given your position at FeedBurner, you have a unique opportunity to observe how stories, controversies and conflicts play out online. Can you provide an example of one and what the life cycle of a controversy would be?

Klau: We certainly have an opportunity [to observe], given the somewhat unique nature of how FeedBurner’s positioned; we have almost 150,000 publishers using us, in many cases publishers means a blogger, a podcaster. When you are a service that those people rely on, they tend to take it pretty seriously and they also tend to talk about experiences – good, bad or otherwise.

Late last summer we had an interesting mini-issue come up as a result of some confusion on the part of one of our then-users, Leo Laporte, who runs a very popular podcast called This Week in Tech. It was interesting to watch as Leo posted on his site some concern about information that he believed FeedBurner had made public, when in fact, as it later became obvious, it was Leo himself who had made it public. Nevertheless, Leo runs a highly-trafficked website and had hundreds of people commenting on his site who were of the impression that FeedBurner had somehow done something wrong.

So we found ourselves for the majority of that Saturday night – I happened to be on vacation with my family – and most of Sunday, online monitoring the ripple effect of people talking about this issue. We were trying to be very proactive and not point fingers (no one wins when you’re trying to blame something on somebody else), but wanted to simply make sure that people were commenting with all of the information. We were quite confident that if people were aware of all the information, they’d see that we hadn’t done anything wrong and that we were helping to resolve the issue with Leo.

The interesting byproduct was that, because tools like Technorati make it very easy to monitor conversations at they happen in real time, we were able to spend the next 36 hours really doing nothing but leaving comments on weblogs as people would make posts about what they were perceiving to be going on at This Week in Tech.

When Monday morning rolled around, instead of having this controversy percolate for 36 hours in a vacuum, we’d really poured a lot of water on what were about to be flames. So those who did comment on Monday morning – some of the people who were fortunate not to be near their computers over the weekend – instead of commenting on what appeared to be a big problem, were all commending FeedBurner for the fact that we were proactively engaging the community and responding to questions that had been raised.

Ironically, what started with somebody pointing the finger at FeedBurner and saying, you guys made a mistake, [changed to him] later essentially recant[ing] and Monday morning [having] a lot of people pointing at FeedBurner saying, look at what a great job that company did, they were very eager to engage and answer questions and acknowledge when lessons were learned and what could be done differently.

It was very interesting to watch that happen, in contrast to companies that ignore these conversations at their peril and then find that it bubbles up from a couple of weblogs to a lot of weblogs to a journalist who gets hold of it, and suddenly you’ve got a major media outlet covering a story that you didn’t douse when the flames were tiny.

AW: The point to take away from this is that you’ve got to proactively monitor what’s being said about you online and then jump in right away to correct any inaccuracies.

Klau: That’s right. That second issue is one I think a lot of companies, especially those that don’t live and breathe the online world, are particularly worried about. They’re happy to monitor the conversations so that they think they’re aware of what’s going on, but they’re reluctant to actually participate in the conversation. And that’s a decision that I think ends up leaving the company exposed. If you’re monitoring the conversation but don’t tell people you’re monitoring, and don’t answer questions when they’re raised, then the natural conclusion that people would make is that you’re not listening at all.

A perfect example of that was last year with Jeff Jarvis talking about his hellish experience with Dell. Dell later was asked about this escalating series of complaints that Jeff was leaving and that others were leaving through comments on his blog. Folks at Dell said, yes, we were aware of what was being said, but we have a general policy that we don’t leave comments on blogs. So no one was hearing Dell’s side of the story. And as a result, the conclusion people were making at the time is that Dell just must not be paying attention. I think they’ve taken steps in the last several months to try and correct that, but that’s a very good example of [what happens] if you don’t jump in, if you don’t speak up, if you don’t acknowledge hey, we’re here, we’re listening, let us know how we can answer your questions, people just aren’t going to know that you’re there.

AW: Do you see a reluctance to join in the conversation as being based on some legitimate concern that it will raise legal issues or legal liability somewhere down the line, or do you believe this reluctance is just based on undefined fear?

Klau: It’s probably all of the above. I was a speaker at a panel at a Forrester bootcamp last year where a group of us was convening to talk about social marketing and how you engage the community in conversations. It was interesting to note from people in the audience that very often the reason for lack of dialogue was a feeling that that particular person was not empowered to speak on behalf of the organizations, that you had a very structured, centralized PR focus within the company that said, any questions about the company are answered by the company spokesperson. As a result, everything needed to get funneled through that one person or that one group. So you might have a line manager who manages a particular product line and sees a discussion happen on blogs, and he’s suddenly not able to jump in and say, hey, this is who I am, this is what I do and how can I help? Instead, he’s then just sending an e-mail to somebody in marketing asking them to do something about this. That approach will just get committeed to death.

AW: A lot of public relations professionals are encouraging their clients to step into the mix and engage in those conversations, instead of having some written statement that they read to the media.

Klau: Like with anything, there’s going to be a period of transition where there are companies that feel very comfortable doing this because it’s a part of their culture and a part of their expectation. I think you’ll see other companies that just don’t feel comfortable having tens or dozens or even hundreds of people able to speak on the company’s behalf. That’s just a decentralization of the spokesperson role that is going to take a while for them to feel comfortable with.

AW: In the online world there’s been the creation of what I call the Cult of Personality, which has made mini-celebrities out of some people such as Microsoft’s Robert Scoble, Edelman’s Steve Rubel and Shel Israel, co-author with Scoble of Naked Conversations. What are your thoughts on this relatively new phenomenon, and how do you compare your role at FeedBurner as company evangelist with the other people I mentioned?

Klau: In answer to your first question, I think it’s a fantastic development that mirrors something I watched happen in the political realm, being involved in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Generally speaking, historically people see companies as entities and not really a collection of people working on their behalf. Or, you see Microsoft as Bill Gates and you see these companies that really only have one face to them. It becomes very easy to distance yourself from companies or campaigns, in the case of politics, where you don’t feel like you have a personal connection to that organization.

What I think Scoble has done a wonderful job of giving Microsoft a face and a personality, and that’s led to hundreds of other employees at Microsoft taking up a similar mantle with respect to their individual products and groups. What that’s done is not only humanize the organization to a certain extent, but it’s made it much easier for people who want to engage with Microsoft to feel like they have a way to do that. And it’s taken Microsoft from being a multi-billion dollar company to one guy’s weblog.

You may not agree with everything Robert says, or anybody else at Microsoft for that matter, but Robert’s phenomenal – I’ve never had a situation where I’ve sent Robert an e-mail and not gotten a reply within a day.

There have been several cases where he’s not been shy in disagreeing with Microsoft. One example I recall was quite dramatic, namely when Microsoft had long lobbied for legal protection of same-sex couples, such as wanting to make sure benefits like health insurance were available to all couples. Due to some lobbying from a far right group that had threatened to boycott Microsoft, Microsoft decided to essentially abstain from lobbying on that particular issue in the Washington state legislature. Robert hit the company with both barrels and said, this is not the company that I work for, we are a company that believes in equal rights for everyone and this is wrong. He didn’t pull any punches, he didn’t mince words. Some people were very surprised by his tone. But then, with permission of Steve Ballmer, he had an e-mail dialogue with Steve that resulted in Steve changing the company policy. I’m probably not the only one who watched that progression over the course of a week or so and thought, here’s a company that’s willing to admit it has made a mistake, it’s listening to its employees. From a recruiting perspective alone, that’s worth its weight in gold. And these are the kinds of conversations that people were simply not seeing before folks like Robert and others at other companies showed up.

In terms of my role at FeedBurner, we’re talking far different orders of magnitude. First of all, we’re a much smaller company. Second of all, I don’t have the sole claim to being a company spokesperson – our CEO does quite a bit of that, as do several others at the company – so I become one voice among many. If anything, what you see is people talking about the fact that FeedBurner proactively engages others when they ask questions on their blogs or post questions in forums. They don’t see any one of us as individually representative of the company, but instead they see a group that is very committed to the medium in which we work. So any one of us ends up serving as that spokesperson, depending on the day of the week or the particular subject. It’s something that we all have internalized and as a result, we all end up serving in that function.

AW: You mentioned the 2004 presidential campaign. Based on your involvement in various political campaigns, how do you view the relationship between MSM and other types of media with regard to political commentary? Do you view them as being independent, competitive, or inter-dependent?

Klau: In a lot of ways they’re probably inter-dependent. What I believe a lot of weblogs in the political world have done is make it easier for the grassroots and the individual supporters of a campaign or a particular candidate or subject to have information distributed to them. What you end up having is groups of people who feel stronger about [a particular] subject because they have more information. So it becomes a self-reinforcing thing within the groups. What that does then, to a certain extent, is polarize those groups because you become a little bit more steadfast in your beliefs or your claims of being right versus some other person. But it also serves as a very good sounding board that ends up reflecting coverage in the media.

You’ll see ideas take hold in blogs that will then, a day or a week later, show up in commentary about a particular race. You’ll also see bloggers who will, like a dog with a bone, get onto a story that many typical publications would not chase down because they have other things occupying their time. Sure enough, some of those turn into very, very big stories.

Josh Marshall was the first example of that. Josh has been a friend of mine for well over a decade, and back before blogs and politics were really seen as bread-and-butter, he was largely responsible for the whole debacle with Strom Thurmond and the takedown of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott had made a comment about how good things were in the old days, which was a veiled reference to segregation policies. Suddenly you had an issue that many people went wink-wink, nudge-nudge about, saying that’s just Trent Lott being Trent Lott. But Josh held on to it and kept at it and said, this is actually a fairly significant declaration from a senior official in the Republican party. Sure enough, a week later it started showing up on the New York Times and the Washington Post, and you had President Bush saying that Lott probably needed to step down.

I think there is certainly a cooperative relationship and also some competition. Some publications see bloggers as being less professional, which of course they are since they’re not paid nearly as much, if anything. But then I saw an interesting little snarky response by David Weinberger pointing out that the New York Times, on the day after Dana Reeve died, had in the same article misspelled her last name. If the mainstream media’s critique of bloggers is that they’re not edited and they don’t have a filter and they’re not upholding standards, the reality is that we see some of those same things happen in the mainstream media. What you find is that both groups end up serving a very valuable role in the ultimate goal of distributing information, giving people a voice so that good information makes it out.

AW: During the next presidential election and the party nominations before that, what do you think we can expect to see in terms of campaigning? Will we see more attempts to find sympathetic bloggers to get candidates’ messages out?

Klau: There’s no question that that will happen. We already saw it with the Republicans paying a couple of bloggers in the South Dakota race against Tom Daschle where those two bloggers in particular didn’t disclose that they were on salary to the campaign running against Daschle, yet were frequently breaking news about the race. And then the campaign was pitching to the media, look at what these bloggers are talking about, there’s this grassroots groundswell support against Daschle. It was a nice little, self-fulfilling operation. There’s no question Democrats will do the same.

I think from candidates’ perspective, we’re probably still another cycle away from seeing a dramatic change in seeing how they use technology. For all the successes that the Howard Dean campaign had, which I was fortunate to have been involved in, a lot of people still look at that campaign and say, well, he lost. He lost for some fairly pedestrian and conventional reasons, which were that the campaign ended up being not managed very well, which Dean has taken responsibility for. He had different factions within the campaign, and as the candidate he didn’t chose to address those at a time when it could have helped, and so the campaign ended up running aground. I don’t think the technology strategy can really be blamed for that, any more than it could have taken exclusive credit for what might have been his success. I think there were some very interesting dynamics in play that we’ll see take hold in other races, but probably not until the 2012 race. We’re still in a fairly traditional cycle where you’ll see traditional candidates like Hillary Clinton and Mark Warner.

Warner is actually doing some interesting things, having hired a guy named Jerome Armstrong who, along with Markos at Daily Kos, have been probably the two most active individuals in how to use the Internet in political campaigns. So it may be that we see some interesting stuff come out of the Warner campaign sooner than I expect.

AW: You mentioned Clinton and Warner. What about Barack Obama?

Klau: I’d love to see him run, as I’ve talked with you about in the past. I’m very fortunate to have met him and that I was able to help out in some small way with his 2004 campaign. He’s been pretty clear in interviews that 2008 is not a year he’ll be running for president, much to the chagrin of many people who would love to see him in the running sooner rather than later.

AW: You just talked about politics within the United States, but what are some of your thoughts on how social media impacts the image of the American government and American citizens abroad?

Klau: Going back to the comments I was making about Robert Scoble and Steve Rubel or others, I think the best thing that candidates – and certainly when you talk about the image of the American government abroad – and elected official can do is to humanize and give a face to the decisions that they make and the positions that they take, and communicate that. One of the things I think is terribly exciting to see, speaking of Barack Obama, is his podcast where every week he’s taking anywhere from 5-20 minutes to chat with people. It’s kind of a high-tech version of FDR’s fireside chats from so many years ago.

What that means is that anyone around the world who wants to hear from Obama will get information delivered to them in his voice about issues of the day. Last week he was talking about energy policy and the fact that, using the example of Brazil, five years ago 3% of their cars had alternative fuel capabilities and just 5 years later, 70% of their cars do. And that was just because the Brazilian government made a commitment to say, this is a priority, we need to be independent of foreign oil, we can’t sacrifice our security. Those were figures I wasn’t aware of, and yet here I am hearing this in a non-confrontational, very conversational way from Senator Obama.

When he traveled through the Middle East a couple of months ago, he called in from the airport in Jordan. What you heard was essentially a voice mail left by Senator Obama with very current, raw impressions saying, here’s what I saw in Kuwait, here’s what I saw in Iraq and here’s what I saw in Israel. Those are the kinds of things that, when the candidate’s or official’s message is filtered through the press, you only ever hear a sound bite of, you only see one quote in the paper, you only see a 5 or 10 seconds snippet on TV.

But when you’re hearing all of 5 or 10 or 20 minutes of that individual on a regular basis, you’re going to get a much better sense of how that person thinks about things and how they approach issues. They’re going to seem much more approachable to their constituents or people around the world – and that can only have a positive impact. And that’s not just true of Democrats. I’m certainly partisan in this matter, but the same is true on the other side of the aisle. There are Republicans who are absolutely committed to government succeeding and taking its responsibility seriously. I may disagree with how they come down on certain issues, but if I see that they come at the issues with integrity and having thought through them well, that’s a net positive for the process. That’s going to give me as an individual more confidence that the government is going to do its job than having people screaming at each other all day long.

Whether that’s a podcast or a weblog or whether that’s just sending e-mails, I don’t think the technology necessarily has to be that sophisticated. It’s a commitment to personalizing the message that we’ve moved away from, and it’s nice to see the technology allowing us to move back to that.

AW: You’ve become increasingly involved in politics over the last several years at the local, state and national levels. Let’s say you were running for office. What approach would you use, especially as it relates to online media, to get your message out to the public?

Klau: It’s a big if whether I’d run for office – you’d have to clear that through my wife first! Certainly people need to hear how you approach problems, how you think through solutions. Too often the political process ends up about who can scream louder than the other guy, or who can appeal to the most motivated of voters, who are typically the most polarized of the groups. It’s all about engaging with people who have honest day-to-day issues that they want to know someone else is watching their back about.

In the town I live in here in Illinois, we have a primary that’s a week away. We have a referendum on the ballot about funding a third high school in our school district, and I’ve never see the community this politically active. We’re seeing half a dozen letters to the editor a day, we’re seeing people walk door-to-door, and it’s honestly about people feeling like they have some stake that needs to be addressed.

How would I use technology? It’s not about using technology for technology’s sake, it’s about letting people know that there are important issues in play, that there are important decisions that are going to be made that are going to affect them, and letting them know how the candidate would approach them. We’ve become so disconnected from the process that it becomes really hard to see on a day-to-day basis what Congress does that affects us, and how we as voters have any real say in the process. Any way you can reconnect people to the process and the candidate is important.

AW: So we’re going to see you at FeedBurner for a long time?

Klau: That’s the plan! I’m having too much fun to think about anything else than making sure publishers can get a lot out of their feeds. This is as exciting a start-up as I’ve ever been at. We’re just growing too quick to think about anything other than how we can win [at what we do].

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