Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Clorox will use a new service from Mixx.com to obtain feedback on packaging for a new product. Clorox will use the service to get feedback on advertising for the product.

Mixx Looks to Go Beyond the News

Mixx founder Chris McGill says he believes Sifter will catch on with Mixx users who like to stay ahead of what's new and cool. "Our users, and our power users in particular, are by nature 'vetters,' " he says. "It is simply what they do and how the Mixx system works."
Mixx founder Chris McGill says he believes Sifter will catch on with Mixx users who like to stay ahead of what's new and cool. "Our users, and our power users in particular, are by nature 'vetters,' " he says. "It is simply what they do and how the Mixx system works." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The McLean-based news site Mixx.com is hoping to persuade consumer product developers to draw on the wisdom of the Web as it launches a service today that pairs its online community of news junkies with companies wanting to bounce ideas off a test audience.

The site's new service, called "Sifter," aims to help consumer-oriented businesses and marketers fine-tune their upcoming products and pitches by putting them in front of a group that already spends much of its time voting things up or down. Basically, it's an online version of focus-group testing.

Currently, Mixx readers submit stories and vote on the ones they find most interesting. Now a few thousand of Mixx's most active users, those who have spent hundreds of hours on the site, also will have access to the new Sifter section. Chris McGill, Mixx's founder, thinks the feature will catch on with such a crowd because these are people who passionately enjoy figuring out what's cool and what's not.

"Our users, and our power users in particular, are by nature 'vetters,' " he said. "It is simply what they do and how the Mixx system works."

In a world where NASA conducts online contest polls over what to name a space module, turning to the wisdom or enthusiasm of the crowd is becoming a familiar concept. Last week, for example, Google opened up the online doors to its research and development department, called Google Labs. The plan is that users will get a chance to check out new Google projects while they're still in the works.

For Mixx, such a move could allow the company to set it apart from better-known "news aggregation" sites such as Digg and Reddit.

Digg, the closest thing to a household name in this category, gets 35 million visitors in the average month. Mixx, by comparison, saw 8.1 million visitors in March, but that's up from 338,000 visitors during the same month a year ago. But even the biggest players in this market aren't profitable yet, including Digg.

Launched in 2007, Mixx strives to make its users' pages highly customizable. If you're passionate about the topics of single malt scotch, science fiction TV shows and ballroom dancing, for example, you could conceivably set up your page so that you only see news about those topics.

Mixx was created with the idea that advertisers would be able to market themselves effectively on a site where people have already identified their interests. But the recession has hit online advertising as hard as just about every other industry; Yahoo, for example, announced last week that its first-quarter earnings were down 13 percent from the same period in 2008. Mixx is hoping to make between $4,000 and $8,000 per week from clients who using the Sifter service.

Mixx's first customer is the Washington-based software developer LivingSocial, the firm behind some of the most popular applications on Facebook. If you've ever sent somebody a virtual beer via Facebook, you've likely used LivingSocial's software. The company's latest hit application, launched last month and already taking Facebook by storm, is "Pick Your Five" in which users choose their favorite five albums, books, celebrity crushes or whatever to share with their friends.

Co-founder Tim O'Shaughnessy said his company will use Sifter to help figure out what his company should do next.

"We have some ideas for what the next step for 'Pick Your Five' is, and that's what we want to test with these people," he said. "We should be able to get a very, very fast thumbs up or thumbs down this way. The thing that's nice is, it's cheaper, faster and easier than focus groups."

Clorox is an upcoming client of the new Mixx service. The company will be trying out new packaging for one of its cleaning products; the company's hope is to come up with something attractive enough that consumers will want to keep it on top of the kitchen counter, rather than hidden under the sink.

But not everybody sees Sifter as a no-brainer hit for companies wanting to reach mainstream consumers. Sites such as Reddit and Digg typically have a distinct character, voice and outlook, said Sam Huxley, director of social marketing and digital public relations at Arlington-based New Media Strategies. The fascinations that characterize Digg users -- such as last year's dark horse presidential candidate Ron Paul or Web sites containing silly pictures of cats -- might not resonate with mainstream consumers, he said.

"You're testing against a narrow demographic," he said. "The type of content that plays well on a user-driven site isn't necessarily the type of content that's going to sell."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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