Noise, meet Signal: How an Asian ad network has nailed content discovery

By Michael Carney , written on November 12, 2012

From The News Desk

With a name like NuffnangX, it’s hard to know whether to expect a medicinal supplement or a British ska band. NuffnangX is actually the newest content discovery and “Social Blog Stalking” mobile app released by Asian blog advertising network Nuffnang. As for the name, it means “very cool” in the inner-London slang dialect Jafaikan, popularized by “Da Ali G Show.”

Naming decisions aside – and lets be honest, it’s not much worse than the dozens of other nonsensical vowelless startup names out there – the new content discovery product is intriguing. The platform allows users to follow blogs or individual authors and explore their content with the instant gratification and bite-sized consumption of Instagram or Twitter.

NuffnangX promises to algorithmically deliver the “single most interesting and relevant line from each piece of content.” The idea is that readers decide based on this morsel whether to click through and read the rest of the article. Based on my personal experience, it does an impressive job.

From the most recent article on PandoDaily, for example, it pulled the third sentence of the third paragraph: “The Web’s big shift to mobile coupled with the explosion of social sharing, the increasing importance of human-powered curation, and tougher competition may be making the now old-school aggregator less potent.” It’s a fairly rich line and does a good job conveying the tone of the piece and teasing the broader message. If I encountered that while looking for a good read, I’d absolutely be inclined to click through. That said, it seems non-obvious for a machine to have selected.

NuffnangX co-founder Timothy Tiah tells me his team is really excited about their algorithmic content discovery secret sauce, but that intellectual property concerns and the advice of legal counsel mean they can’t discuss how it actually works. If the results weren’t so good, it would be easy to brush this off as startup BS, but the above example demonstrates the value of what they’ve built. We’ll have to take them at their word for the moment and enjoy the results.

“We were really shocked that someone like Twitter or Google hadn’t built this already,” says Tiah. “But we did an exhaustive patent search and came up empty.” Nuffnang has since filed for patents on its technology.

Other reader platforms exist to summarize or preview blog content. Flipboard, Pulse, and others typically offer either a headline and image only, or the first few sentences of an article. Summly, on the other hand, takes its own algorithmic approach to summarization, serving up a less economical selection of 300 characters (several sentences) from each post. NuffnangX takes the utilitarian middle road: offer only one sentence, but make it the very best the article can offer. The app doesn’t even offer pictures. Just a continuous feed of headlines and shareable one-line teasers.

What rounds out the NuffnangX experience, is the ability to follow and interact with publishers and authors. Users can build categorized lists of blogs by topic and can receive notifications when select authors publish new content. Much like on Instagram, users can click on a heart to “like” a piece of content, can leave comments that other users can view and engage with, and can share content out to other social networks. This interactivity makes the app much more than a consumption experience, but instead shifts it into social content discovery and engagement.

Users seem to be responding well. NuffnangX launched into private beta several weeks ago, with 25,000 users mostly in Asia. The company found that these users spent an average of 24 minutes per session in the app, seemingly implying that they were finding and engaging with interesting content.

Sunnyvale-based NuffnangX was developed by Tiah and his longtime business partner Cheo Ming Shen. The two Business Week Top 25 Young Entrepreneurs in Asia previously founded the Nuffnang blog network as well as Churp Churp, Jipaban, and RippleWerkzStudios together in Asia. The pair bootstrapped NuffnangX to date with $600,000 in seed capital from its parent, Nuffnang, but the founders say they’re currently in advanced discussion to raise a $1 million outside round in the coming weeks.

NuffnangX fits nicely into the “extracting signal from noise” theme of the moment and takes a sufficiently different approach than the existing solutions to make it interesting. That said, breaking into the smartphone homescreens and the daily content consumption routines of users is no easy task. The Nuffnang parent blog network gives the company a sizeable footprint on the other side of the world, but the founders tell me they’re focused on building awareness and adoption in North America. If users here can get over the culturally odd name and visually barren experience, they’re likely to find genuinely interesting content. Isn’t that what this is all about to begin with?