The Meaning of Badge Proliferation

It seems that the number of conversations I have had in the past two months and the number of articles/blog-posts I’ve read about online badges has skyrocketed. By “badges” I mean small snippets of HTML code which consumers cut and then paste onto their blog or social network profile. (I am not necessarily talking about “widgets,” which contain richer interactive functionality and often reside on the desktop, though I do realize that the definitions and manifestations of the two blur together quite a bit.)

For example, Fred Wilson posted last month about his “new blog bling.” The number of badges has exploded so much recently in that Pete Cashmore asked earlier this week, “Are there any startups that don’t plug in to MySpace these days?”. The importance of for the industry of badges and widgets for MySpace pages was highlighted with the recent scramble after the mandate that all Flash-based ones be upgraded to newest version from Adobe.

Tim Post coined a very apt term, calling these badges, the “flying seeds of the internet” and has an excellent blog entirely devoted to the subject (it’s a must read on the subject which I’ve poured through extensively). In a conversation he and I had the other day, we discussed how badges are a unique combination of marketing and technology, like interactive stickers for the web. They are becoming another method for self-expression in and of themselves. Bumper stickers for the internet generation to communicate to others in “traffic.”

Just like those sticky pieces of paper slapped on the back of a car, online badges can and will allow people to express affiliations with schools, groups, locations, brands, bands, and much more. But unlike static stickers, online badges (like those created by Badgr) possess the ability to be personalized. And they’re not just for people – Brian Phipps has an interesting post about “widgets as brand pipelines,” which can easily be applied to badges as well.

Beyond the above affiliations, badges have the capability to communicate about individuals’ relationships with products. As many long-time readers of my blog know, I have a keen interest in “social commerce” sites (see a post from last December), as I have a vision where they could provide consumers with rich social context and relevancy to the purchases which they are making. The current crop of social shopping sites are experimenting with badges as a way to promote their service. StyleFeeder, Wists, Nabbr, Kaboodle, Sprout Commerce (the creators of MyPickList and FavoriteThingz), and StyleHive – just to name a few – give consumers the ability to express themselves via products in various ways. It’s a very powerful notion, especially as it introduces the notion of monetizing these badges as forms of advertising. It remains to be seen, however, if any of these services can attract significant enough consumer adoption.

Resulting from my recent exploration, there are two questions which I am currently contemplating and learning about:

1. What are the best practices for marketers to harness the power of these badges to promote services, brand, or products?
2. What are the business models for the services that enable and create these badges? Or are they just another marketing tactic for services as opposed to something to develop a business around? Are they a means to an end or an end in and of themselves?

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by About.com where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.

Leave a Reply