Here’s a conversation starter: Who’s the better boxer: Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali?
When Ali Ghafour first heard that debate pop up on talk radio, he and his business partner were trapped in a car, arguing in vain with the dashboard (“It obviously has to be Muhammad Ali!”). After being put on hold for 40 minutes by the radio station’s phone operator, they reached their destination, only to be told, “Sorry, the show’s over.”
They’d missed their chance to weigh in, but Ghafour, a former member of the Canadian National Taekwondo team, doesn’t fold that easily.
“We tried to go online to find that same kind of interaction,” he says, “but we couldn’t really find it. You find some anonymous faces, some text commenting, and then we thought, ‘You know, there’s got to be a better way.’”
Five years later, Ghafour and Jesse Moeinifar are champions of that better way, helping to improve online conversations and communities as the CTO and CEO of Viafoura, a Toronto-based tech outfit that helps some of the world’s biggest brands and media companies engage with their users and monetize that engagement.
“Pragmatically what that means is, when you go to one of our clients’ sites, you’d read an article or a piece of content and we power the comments that you find underneath,” says Ghafour. “The second part – and that’s where the engagement starts – is we have the community tools that show who the community is, the top users and the content that the users are sharing the most. Then the third part is the back end where [our clients] can see who these users are, understand them, ban them or promote them and get all the analytics that [help them] better understand their community.”
So not only does Viafoura keep the passionate conversations and community spirit of talk radio alive online (one of its unique features is a split-screen video component that allows commenters to debate in real time), it provides clients with invaluable audience data that can be used to make better content and marketing decisions.
Here’s how the analytics component works: When users log in to comment on a Viafoura client’s site, they typically do so through a social media site of their choosing (like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn), and offer up a bit of personal information.
“We ask for enough that we feel is a fair balance for them to use the system,” says Ghafour. “And it’s things like their email, which you need to send notifications to the users, and stuff that they like, which would usually be public information anyway. At the end of the day, I think, our end clients want this because they want to better understand their user.”
Publishers were the first to get in the ring with Viafoura in 2012 including heavyweights such as the CBC, the L.A. Times, Bell Media, Hearst, and Transcontinental.
“We deliberately did that,” says Ghafour. “As a startup you have to be focused. You have to have a go-to-market strategy and serve one need and do that well. So we decided to start with the publishers.”
Now, as more traditional brands (think Red Bull) get into the content game, the market for Viafoura is opening up.
“Something like 92 percent of brands intend to have a content strategy in the next year or coming years,” says Ghafour, “so they’re essentially becoming publishers. We’ve completely broadened our market to go after those people as well. Basically, if you have any piece of content and you need engagement around it, we can help you with that.”
They’ll even do it if you want to debate the best boxers of all time.
Just don’t expect Tyson to trump Ali, no matter how much you want to fight about it.