Plexus Engine is Reborn as Little Bird With $1M to Identify and Map Influencers

Today Portland, OR-based Plexus Engine, a platform started by former ReadWriteWeb reporter Marshall Kirkpatrick to unearth influencers, announced that it’s rebranding to Little Bird, and launching in private beta. The platform is aimed at marketing and PR agencies, media outlets and businesses who are looking to find and engage with influencers around a specific topic.

As part of today’s rebranding, the company is also announcing it has raised $1 million in angel funding led by Mark Cuban’s Radical Investments, with participation from several angel investors including Hubspot’s Dharmesh Shah. Part of the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), Little Bird is a direct result of Kirkpatrick’s time as a reporter, when he used tools like Needlebase and Backtype to try to unearth scoops and find information in real-time.

Kirkpatrick started building custom influencer solutions for some of his consulting clients, and decided to turn it into a full-fledged platform in November 2011. “What we do at Little Bird is we map online communities, and discover who the most trusted influencers are on any topic,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview.

To find influencers on Little Bird, users enter any term or topic in Little Bird’s search engine (beer, dogs, startups, etc), and can limit results by location. Before running a full report, users can tailor five example Twitter users, swapping out users they don’t feel are influential, or adding in their own choices. The platform then runs a custom report, which takes two to five minutes, and indexes the top 3,000 people on Twitter who are most relevant to that subject, culling that down to the 500 most connected people, or what Kirkpatrick calls “specialists.” Users can view a specialist’s social graph, for example seeing which industry insiders follow a user, and which ones don’t yet follow them.

The community of influencers can be sorted based on the top influencers, emerging accounts (aka the newest Twitter users who are followed by industry insiders), the top blogs posting about that topic, and the top links shared on a daily or weekly basis by that community (what Kirkpatrick calls a “Techmeme for any topic”). Users can then export the report as a Twitter list or a .csv file. Little Bird currently pulls in data from Twitter and blogs, though Kirkpatrick said they will be expanding that to include Google+, LinkedIn and other data sources.

The company has been beta testing with 24 initial clients, including marketing agency Jones-Dilworth and online publication The Daily Dot, and has 4,000 companies and individuals on the waiting list. Kirkpatrick said so far the most interest in Little Bird has come from marketing and PR agencies, media organizations, and companies looking to add insights to their marketing department. “I’m hoping that in the long run just about any kind of information worker will see the value of figuring out who to connect with online,” he said. The company offers subscriptions starting at $250 per month, with enterprise pricing available.

Influencer targeting has become a booming business, with influencer scoring platforms like Klout and Kred helping companies identify influencers on a given topic and run campaigns to offer discounts or free products. There are also social media monitoring platforms like Sysomos and Radian6 that offer influencer search and campaign management tools, not to mention CRM solutions like Sunnytrail and Influitive that try to help companies identify their most influential users and customers.

Kirkpatrick believes that the majority of existing solutions pay attention to a user’s content, not their social graph, for example branding someone as influential about pizza if they mention it in their Tweets a few times. Little Bird takes a different approach, only mapping a user’s social graph (the people they follow and the people who follow them) as opposed to what they write about, which Kirkpatrick believes is a much stronger indicator of influence.

“Most other influencer discovery systems find the most popular people who happen to use certain keywords in their content, and that can get really noisy, you end up with a lot of weird assertions of influence and expertise that don’t really fit just because a person mentioned a word once,” Kirkpatrick said. “We think that social graph analysis and looking at who people connect themselves to tells you a lot more about people and communities than just looking at the words people use.”

The question is whether brands, agencies and companies need another influencer platform. Based on the early feedback (the platform will be available to the public in early 2013), Kirkpatrick is betting yes. “Mapping out these communities and finding the most connected nodes before they mention your brand…we think that that’s going to be a key place to start in the next stage of proactive building of earned social media leadership for businesses online.”

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin has covered startups and technology for over three years in publications including Sprouter Weekly, The Globe and Mail, Business Insider, Mashable, and VentureBeat. She also writes a regular startup column for the Financial Post, and is a technology expert on CTV News Channel. Before BetaKit Erin worked as Director of Content & Communications at Sprouter from its launch in 2009 until its acquisition by Postmedia Network Inc. She was recently named one of Marketing Magazine's 30 Under 30 in 2012.

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