Sometimes you are born into the softer side of business and sometimes you get there by embracing that side’s concept and expanding it. Such is the case with the co-founders of Judy’s Book (and blog) Andy Sack and Chris DeVore. Their story is worth reading as a lesson to all who want to work with the softer side of social search, but don't know how.
Judy’s Book is an online consumer review site for services and soon, products. Think yellow pages with a lot of local color opinions and deals. I talked with Chris DeVore, the COO, of Judy’s book to learn more about how two guys managed to “get” and expand word-of-mouth marketing which is the core of Judy's book.
First some background.
Judy’s Book really started with Andy’s mother-in-law, Judy Albert back when she and her husband managed real estate in Seattle. As a house warming present for their new home owners and renters, Judy gave them a copy of her “little green book” which contained the names of professionals and business in the area that she trusted and used.
Andy and his wife were the recipients of her book when they first came to Seattle. They found it so useful that it got him and his friend Chris thinking about how people make choices while shopping for services offline and online. Both have extensive experience in web applications and they soon learned that there was very little in “institutional content” that supported the friend-to-friend process. You could read opinions from strangers, or check out a feature benefit comparison sites, but nothing there was nothing based on personal recommendations from trusted friends.
In June of 2004 they launched an application that could take this rather closed and private experience and put it online making it public and collaborative. In honor of its originator, they called it Judy’s Book and today it has over 1 million unique visitors a month. Sadly, Judy Albert passed away from cancer during its formation, but her namesake is a true reflection of her helpful nature.
Chris and Andy are examples of what it means to embrace the cultural shift to the softer side of business. Yes, they are young men who understand the business benefits of using the Internet. Yes, they have managed to get through two rounds of venture capital financing which means they can “talk” as well as they “tech.” But they also understand and respect the real give and take of a social exchange and have built in ways to keep the system self-policing and honest. Human nature, not policies, keep everyone in check and talking in Judy’s Book.
Just how did they take a little book with a face-to-face conversation and bring it online while maintaining its friendly nature and honesty?
“Andy and I are both men and so we thought about [the design] in as much as our needs were met as women, it wasn’t gender specific. What we found after it was launched, however, was that the folks that tended to gravitate towards it and become the most active and passionate users were women,” Chris told me.
Briefly, Judy’s Book is based on several social systems. First, Judy Albert’s personality and need to share what worked and didn’t work for her, second E-Bay’s rating system and third Craig’s list method of flagging idiots and getting them out of the mix.
“We tried to learn from the folks that are doing a good job of community work already,” Chris explained, “I’m sure you’re familiar with Craig’s List and E-Bay. Both of those sites, E-Bay in particular have seller rating mechanism that allows folks to develop a reputation in their community based on how well they fulfill their commitment – do they have good products, do they deliver on time, do they honor returns… and the Craig’s list model gave the community a way to self-police jargon by using flags which identifies bad actors and remove them from the site. There are just too many categories and pockets for us to do it ourselves. Our members have been very good about taking responsibility for the health of the community. Some examples of jargon that might be flagged would be spam, porn, really nasty remarks, or promoting something that isn’t what people searched for.”
The difference between Judy’s little green book and Judy’s Book online is that now thousands and thousands of “Judys” (and some Jim’s) are able to recommend to others a service in their own town. Each month millions of unique visitors visit the site. Of them, 10,000 or more leave one recommendation and over 2,000 have become passionate and active reviewers. “The one-time reviewer base is split about 50/50 men to women, but multiple-time reviewers who are really the heart and soul of Judy’s Book are predominately, women – about 80%,” Chris offered. “They are very passionate and active, posting over 10 reviews a day with lots of comments and lots of feedback to other members.”
Judy’s Book has become a consumer knowledge gathering machine, not only collecting critical buying triggers, but also learning what kind of social environment women thrive in.
Chris said that what they intended originally changed as more and more women came on board. “What we found is that we built something for the local experience to be used by those in their city or town,” he said, “And what we learned was that those who were using it the most actively and trying hard to help out each other locally, also wanted to connect at a national level. They really saw each other as a community.”
So who are these consumers and reviewers of Judy’s Book?
“Predominately, they are people who are making the purchasing decisions for their family,” says Chris. “They typically aren’t young [25-54], are college educated, aren’t using the Internet for fun, and are using the Internet to help run their family lives and save their family money. For them, saving money wasn’t something that was just nice to have, it was a core part of their value system. They were using Judy’s Book as a tool to connect, share their passions and how to make better choices.”
Now the big question… how do you keep everyone on the up and up?
“We have a ‘TrustScore’ which we modeled after Google who uses page rank to determine relevancy, “explains Chris. “In the case of Google, the more people link to you and rely on your site, the higher the ranking. The same logic applies to our TrustScore which measures the activities of people over a period of time… how often they come, what they’ve written, what have they bookmarked, how many thumbs up votes… and we turn that into a score which reflects not our opinion but the communities opinion of a trusted reviewer. It’s not a substitute for going in and making your own judgment, but it is a way to say at first glance, that this person’s been around for a while maybe they do know what they are talking about. Or, hey, this person’s new, maybe I should take what they say with a grain of salt.”
Judy’s Book is very simple in its execution. Members can join for free and start putting together their own network of new friends, using the TrustScore as a way to start identifying those who seem good for their word. It’s sort of a mini blog inside of the Judy’s Book environment. Soon, they are allowing outside bloggers to be part of this network as well.
This friend-to-friend thing is a big difference from other rating or opinion sites; it lets you get a feel for the person who is making the recommendation. You can go behind the scenes and see a photo of them and start to trust them as a person based on the history that they have on the site which is all transparent to visitors. And if you’re new best friends don’t have an answer, you can always make a public post and ask the other millions coming to the site for their opinion. What’s not to like?
What else has changed in a year?
What I liked best about Judy's team is that they really listen to their reviewers. With the help and coaching of their more passionate members,[women] they introduced a series of features to bring price into the concept. It’s in beta testing now, but it will give the buyer the most complete picture possible and help validate a buyer’s decision.
“The aha for us which just came to us after the first iteration of the site, was really about quality and reviews and ratings of local services. That helped us discover that value is a big deal for these folks... Part of determining value was the price and there was always a trade off in the decision in that they wanted to get the best product and service, but one at a price that fits into their budget. Our original idea didn’t really have make room for the discussion of price,” Chris remarked.
“People can check out the price beta site now at http://deals.judysbook.com,” said Chris, “We’re still making lots of changes, but we had to start somewhere so people had data to give us feedback on. We asked Amazon, GAP, Office Depot, Apple and Dell to send us their latest information. We essentially maintain a current database on all the deals. After that, then it’s up to the community to say ‘this is a good deal’ or ‘I bought this product and I’m wasn’t satisfied.’ They can put their own layer of ratings and reviews on top of it,” Chris stresses. “We’re moving deals to the top of the site based on community. Someone might say, ‘I’ve been shopping for this for a long time and it’s a really good deal.’ It’s very democratic in that the more votes something receives, the more visible it becomes on the site. We’re trying to let the community acknowledge and bring the best deals to the surface.”
This is great for consumers, but are merchant’s liking it? Stay tuned for Part II