Showdown at the New Tech Corral

In its third "reach" event, SF/BIG put the past behind it and peered into the future of interactive marketing. Held on Thursday night at San Francisco's historic Ferry Building, the event featured eight up-and-coming companies whose applications and services have the potential to transform the industry.

"Our December event was about what was," said SF/BIG president John Durham. "Tonight is about what's coming up."

Moderated by Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital and sponsored by Fathom Online, the evening was framed as a competition for the title of most promising new technology. The contestants were chosen by CBS MarketWatch EVP Scot McLernon and a panel of fellow SF/BIG members as local leaders in interactive tools. All have established themselves beyond the "two guys in a garage" start-up stage, McLernon pointed out, but are still small enough to have years of growth ahead of them.

The contenders each had three minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation introducing themselves and touting their product's promise. BlackFoot, Inc. led off with a pitch for its multichannel campaign analysis and systems integration services. The firm's integrated technology suite allows advertisers or agencies to concentrate all their data, from log files to search results, in an easy-to-search custom database. They can then track how an individual customer found their website, what the customer purchased there, and any follow-up phone calls the customer made, all in a single report.

Next came ezboard, the leader in easy-to-use web hosted discussion boards -- or rather, "multiperson blogs," as the company now calls them to leverage blog fever. Ezboard already boasts category-leading ad performance and profitability because it gives advertisers exactly what they want most: clearly defined audiences who return to their favorite message board month after month.

Third up was Feedster, a search engine for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. Feedster indexes 5 million RSS feeds, allowing marketers to find out in a flash what people are saying about a company or product, then subscribe to an ongoing search or an individual feed to keep tabs on the buzz over time. For publishers, it's an easy source of traffic and content; for advertisers, it's highly targeted and 100 percent opt-in -- a winning combination.

Ingenio followed with PayPerCall™, a bid-per-placement search strategy for the small business person who doesn't understand clicks and conversions. Search results generate not an URL, but a toll-free number that redirects to the local business. The billing event is the call. Publishers and agencies can use this to tap the vast market of local businesses that want to benefit from the internet but don't necessarily want to become web-savvy.  

Jigsaw then presented its online business contact marketplace -- a database of individuals with their direct phone numbers and email addresses, which has grown from 20,000 to 358,000 listings in just five months. Users earn points by adding contacts and lose them if the contacts are incorrect or out of date. Sales reps and others who spend hours trying to find and reach appropriate decision-makers can imagine the time and effort this system could save.

Although Kefta claimed its clients experience, on average, 20 percent growth in online sales and a sevenfold increase in ROI within the first year, three minutes simply wasn't enough time to explain the company's solutions for converting clicks to sales. The company offers a suite of CRM applications that automate the process of testing, refining and tailoring customer messaging across multiple channels. However, Kvanne commented that the technology seems too complicated to explain in an elevator pitch.

Pheedo presented the first ad server specifically designed for RSS feeds, allowing advertisers to lower acquisition costs, generate more leads and improve their search rankings. The company also offers ad space on RSS feeds and blogs, blog traffic exchange to increase readership and sophisticated ad tracking, giving advertisers total control over their audience.

Finally, Z3Com demonstrated technology that creates photorealistic 3D objects that can be embedded in a web page, email, banner ad or other online medium. Users can zoom in on the object, turn it around, and examine it from many angles, either in its original context or as a file saved to their own desktop. The object tracks every action by the user, giving advertisers more insight into how consumers might interact with their product or campaign.

When the presentations were complete, Kvamme reminded the crowd that Sequoia has a history of investing in promising unknowns before declaring Feedster, Ingenio and ezboard ready for the next level of the "tech shootout." Any one of them, he hinted, might become the next success story of Google-like proportions.

SF/BIG's next event will be an informal "frequency" networking get-together on March 24, sponsored by AJ Interactive. Launched in October 2004 with approximately 500 members, the organization now has more than 800 members, Durham said.

Fawn Fitter is a freelance writer. Read her full bio.