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Mastering curation: Sam Decker, King of Curation, lays it out

SamDeckerCEOofMassRelevance[1]Sam Decker is a brilliant marketer who is now the CEO of a company called Mass Relevance. The company is less than a year old, but was recently the curation engine behind the Presidential Twitter town hall and tweets on NBC’s The Voice.

Before founding Mass Relevance, Sam was the founding CMO for Bazaarvoice, the leading social commerce & reviews platform company which recently filed for an IPO.

I have always liked and respected Sam. I think of him now as the King of Curation. I interviewed him recently to see what he could teach us all about curation.

First, the Presidential Twitter town hall. Why was Mass Relevance chosen?

We’re ideally suited to have pulled this off. The White House reached out to Twitter, who reached out to us. We were behind the website, all the displays on TV, and the curation strategy. We powered all the content that flowed through. We were able to add our logo to the set, which was seen by the entire nation. It was cool.

We usually provide curation services on a subscription basis, but we’ve also been behind real-time social integration for individual events such as the Golden Globes, the Oscars, Fashion Week for Pepsi, and the Royal Wedding for CNN and ABC.

How do you define curation?

When people think of curation, they typically think about museums. The curator is thinking about the theme for the museum, where the museum is, and what kind of people are coming into that museum. Then the curator finds the art to fill that context.

To me, curation on the web is the process of working backwards from a certain context. You’re trying to create an experience in that context. You need to work backwards and find the content that will support that context, in the most relevant and engaging way, as opposed to creating it yourself.

At the moment, we are in what Steve Rubel calls the Validation Era. We’re validating ourselves and each other in our sharing and postings. It’s all growing like crazy; Twitter is now at 200 million tweets a day. Facebook has over 700 million users. Who knows where we’ll be a year from now.

Content marketing is all the rage, but I think there’s a content overload problem at the recipient end, one that should concern all marketers.

Yes, there’s a linear growth of content. As a result, as the content and connections increase, you pay less and less attention. It all becomes more diluted. And amidst all the noise, there is still some great content in there. It’s all about finding the needles in the haystack.

My hypothesis, which I have been focusing on my whole career, is how do you use the voice of your audience of customers to say what you want to say – to tell your story?

I talk about customer oxygen; the concept that you’re living and breathing the voice of the customer. Everyone is starting to pull in this content and use it for advertising or events or other things. In the process of doing this work, they’re actually listening to customers.

Brands have such an opportunity. Think of Coca Cola being able to pull all the (public) pictures posted to Twitter in the last hour of people drinking a can of Coke next to a pool. Pictures taken by real customers. That’s the context: “Here are pictures of people who just had a Coke next to a pool in the last hour.” Imagine these pictures on display at a large grocery store, served up in real time. People would look at it and think, “Oh, that looks good.”

This kind of content is more engaging. People will want to post their own. It leads to a lot of auxiliary benefits for brands, not the least of which is making them more interactive and socially mature. It’s a full circle; you put stuff out, but you also bring in people who want to share their voice. The whole company becomes more conversational.

What’s the biggest challenge in curation?

The same challenges all new channels face: getting executives to see that this is the way things are headed. And helping marketers figure out where all this fits in.

They have to think about how to do it right, based on their culture, their product type, and their customers.

Yes. We’re trying to make that as easy for them as possible, exploring all the different ways that companies can use curation. We can do data visualizations, we can do Q&A, we can do something where you could tweet and follow and then you get something in return, so you can add interaction. You can do voting and polling and caption contests.

It’s all about publishing and making it interactive and appropriate for what you’re trying to accomplish.

Starting with the end in mind reminds me of how I teach people to market and sell: What if we assume that the customer wants to buy? How do we make it easy for them? What I hear you saying about curation is similar – that you start with the desired end result in mind – the right end result for your company, the audience and the channels.

Yes, that’s right. Curation is more than just filtering and moderating. How do we take it from curation to integration? For example, when someone has a mobile phone why are they going to that mobile site? What are they looking for? When they’re coming to your home page, when they’re going to your product page, when they’re going to your reach-out site and they see your product, what could curation do, to bring in real-time content?

The great thing about Twitter is that anyone publishing content is likely to also tweet their content. Any interesting piece of content is available to us to go out and discover. We can put in a list of all Fortune 1000 brands and combine it with “progressive,” “innovative,” “social,” “case study,” etc., and start to look at all the published case studies and white papers and the things that they’re doing that are progressive. We could take all of the magazines, Ad Age, Adweek . . . just pull all their tweets and then filter them by brand names. We can see when they mention a brand name in one of their articles.

What is your ultimate goal –  your personal mission – regarding curation?

In each client company, there are a couple of people who really get it – what curation can do and the ways to do it. We want to create more kings and queens of curation, so they can create great experiences and achieve great things.

Real-time content is more interesting and engaging. The goal is to curate the real-time social content across any ‘surface’ (mobile, web, TV, etc.). It’s exciting for a fan to know that they can tweet something and all 50,000 people in a stadium are going to see it. We recently went live with NY Giants for their opening game. Tweets from fans can be seen throughout the stadium.

Of course, you have to moderate, filter, source, and secure that content. Your automation has to have rules, and you have to combine automatic moderation with hand moderation. You have to know how to display it (streaming, visualizing, etc.). You have to understand how to spur people on to participate. But it all starts with what you’re trying to accomplish on those surfaces, and then working backwards from there.

What does the future of curation look like?

Right now we are tending to focus on media and entertainment, because there is a huge demand and we can expand to serve many surfaces. Also, we’re a preferred partner of the Twitter media team.

But primarily, we are a B2B company. One of the great lessons I learned from you was thinking about how people buy. I see all the innovative ways that these curation tools can be applied. However, quite often our buyer really wants to just “plug it in.” So we are constantly working toward their desired goal.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far, regarding curation?

It’s the realization that one piece of content can make all the difference in the world, in the right place in the right way. I think the best example I have of that is the story about Subway and Jared, where one franchise found him. At first, corporate said “No,” so the franchise started using him as a marketing tool, for the franchise. Then the rest of the corporation woke up and said, “Here’s a customer that has one very great story.” And more than ten years later, he’s still a spokesperson.

It’s all about finding that nugget, and the person associated with it, and making that connection.



The Mass Relevance platform provides thousands of combinations of automated rules to increase quality and relevance of output.



Using the platform, you can also take an additional step of hand moderation before content goes live.



The Mass Relevance team, platform, and visualizations were behind the recent White House Twitter town hall, held both on the web and at the White House.


  1. As I mentioned on Twitter, I hadn’t heard of ‘curation’ in this way before. And you’re right, after some quick digging, it’s been used a lot in the last year. I’ll continue to read up on it and Sam – after all, with so much information available, the true art is in bringing forward what’s relevant.

  2. I’ve not used the Mass Relevance offering.

    I’m currently using Percolate and Eqentia (my favorite so far).

    Both iCurrent and Trove were two platforms that actually pioneered the aggregation and curation space. Also, tools like Storify and Pealtrees are better known for their publishing features.

  3. Thanks, David. Helpful.



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