He’s standing on the second floor of the Hyatt hotel in Toronto during NXNEi, the interactive arm of the film and music festival. A small crowd of web workers surrounds him, eager to glean advice from the community director of one of Canada’s most successful social media companies, Hootsuite.
Olson is handing out small brown envelopes. They are stamped in DIY style with an inky picture of an owl and the text, ‘you’re a hoot!’ Inside is a Hootsuite pin and an assortment of branded stickers and temporary tattoos.
It’s telling that Hootsuite’s logo is a cutesy owl character.
Based in Vancouver, Hootsuite has a laid-back, blissful vibe. While Google led the web 1.0 cohort with its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ sensibility, a more appropriate mantra for a social company like Hootsuite might be ‘Stay Awesome.’
The company hosts ‘Hootup’ meet ups where its users can hang out in real life. It also sends Cub Scout style badges and Hootsuite t-shirts to users in the mail. When big events like the Arab Spring occur, it creates infographics to depict how those stories were told on social media.
Hootsuit has hosted Hootup meetups all over the world. Photo: Hootsuite
In its four years of business Hootsuite has landed some mammoth clients. Stephen Harper’s office uses the app, as does Barack Obama’s. Via Rail, the Red Cross, the Smithsonian and The U.S. Navy are also users.
Like many apps, Hootsuite operates on a freemium model. Anyone can use Hootsuite to manage multiple social media accounts free of charge. The company’s revenue comes from Hootsuite Enterprise, a souped-up version of the app that offers a trove of analytics to show clients how effectively they’ve engaged their audience.
Hootsuite Enterprise offers a trove of analytics. Photo: Hootsuite
This model splits Hootsuite’s customer base in two. First is the mass of consumers managing personal Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Then there are businesses and government agencies that use the service to manage their public image.
Sitting in the Hyatt lobby Olson explains the two factions.
“In order for the freemium business model to work well, you need to have two unequal parts,” he says. “You need a massive free user base that’s building awareness. Then you have to have the other, smaller slice which is Enterprise and the pro users who are bringing the money to the table.”
Olson says free users make up about 96 per cent of the Hootsuite user base. “That other four per cent, a lot of them love that culture about us,” Olson says. “But when they go to their vice president or CEO and say, ‘I need budget to spend x dollars on Hootsuite Enterprise and we need to take social seriously,’ we want to make sure they have appropriate materials.”
When Hootsuite corresponds with Obama’s office or the UN, its documents still features owl cartoons. But the owls are sophisticated, their beaks poking out of business suits.
Hootsuite’s business owl. Photo: Hootsuite
As a social media platform, Hootsuite has a front row-seat to the news of the world. When a natural disaster or social revolution takes place, users flood the service.
Last spring the Egyptian government cut off access to Facebook and Twitter during political unrest. They did not, however, think to block Hootsuite. Overnight Hootsuite saw a 7,000 per cent growth in Egyptian users.
“For the next 36 hours, Hootsuite was unwittingly the voice of the revolution in Egypt,” Olson says. “Hootsuite was the only way to get a social media message out of Egypt.”
Hootsuite staffers responded directly to tweets coming out of Egypt and the company later compiled data on Eygpt’s hashtags and tweets. It posted the data as an infographic and allowed both National Geographic and the U.S. State Department to re-distribute it.
After careful consideration, Olson says, the company became involved.
“There was sort of a vague line—do we want to get politically involved in this?” Olson asks. “We knew our tool was playing a role but we were slightly unwitting participants.”
Other times, political unrest has presented Hootsuite with a sort of business Sophie’s Choice. When Occupy protesters took to the streets, they also took to social media. Front line protesters used Hootsuite to share live updates on multiple channels from multiple accounts.
But it’s not just protesters and NGOs on the service. It’s also the banks.
If Hootsuite supported the banks, it might have angered its huge user base. If it helped protesters, it risked alienating paying customers.
In the case of Occupy (and many others) Hootsuite reverted to its initial mandate: to keep the tool up and running and to make sure people are receiving help as needed.
It kept politics at arm’s length.
“We need to be able to play both sides,” Olson says. “We have Occupy Wall Street using us on one side and major banks and organizations using us on the other. We don’t want to muddy those waters with a political statement but at the same time we know when people are doing something right.”
It’s not just two sides Hootsuite has to play. It has to play them all. That’s why the company has designed over 100 owls, each with unique traits.
Hootsuite has an owl for almost every occasion. Photo: Hootsuite
Sometimes Hootsuite sees what’s happening on its service and wants to get involved. When an earthquake hit Japan last year, it was a no brainer. Hootsuite tweeted at its users to donate and made a special Japanese owl to show its support.
Other times it steps back and lets users speak for themselves.
What Hootsuite provides, aside from Hootsuite Enterprise and analytics, is the same thing all social companies do: the opportunity to share and communicate.
And Olson says that’s good.
“We think all communication—well, mostly all—is good communication,” he says. “People from the Department of Justice and Occupy can start a conversation online. I want that conversation to happen on Hootsuite if possible.”