In “Marketization” of Consumer Apps, Springpad Aims for Mainstream

The line between content and advertising grows blurrier by the day. That might be good for some tech startups—but to gain mainstream adoption, and users’ trust, they have to ride the trend in just the right way.

The newest data point comes from Springpad, a Charlestown, MA-based company known for its personal-organizer app and notebook platform. Today the startup is introducing a digital “notebook store” that blends its basic format—think a place to work with your daily notes and to-do lists—with content from publishers, brands, and experts.

Springpad’s notebook store is rolling out with five pre-loaded categories: home and living, tasks and productivity, family and parenting, food and cooking, and travel. The idea is you can click on a category, open a notebook template, and start adding notes and information while Springpad feeds you context and updates in the form of links, reviews, recommendations, and videos.

The startup is working with life-organizer and “de-clutter” experts like Peter Walsh, Donna Kuper, and Julie Morgenstern to provide content and recommendations. And Springpad’s corporate partners include well-known sites and media brands such as TripAdvisor, Wayfair, Glamour, and Men’s Health. Today’s launch signifies a shift in the startup’s business model toward a mix of content marketing, brand advertising, and, eventually, paid notebooks.

This is Springpad’s first big move since it hired Jacqueline Hampton (pictured) as its new CEO back in August. She was previously a vice president of corporate development for media giant Time, and before that, worked in investment banking. At Time, Hampton led the acquisition of several companies, including Boston-based Stylefeeder. (File that one away in case Springpad gets bought.)

Hampton brought with her to Springpad a deep knowledge of mainstream consumers, she says. That includes an understanding of where the masses will need help with “curation and reminders” within the app—the better to handle all the competing tasks in their daily lives. “There’s an emotional need to be more organized” and “make sense of it all,” she says.

“I drive the tech team batty,” she adds, “because I’ll be the person to use this.”

Springpad got started in 2008, co-founded by Third Screen Media alums Jeff Janer and Jeff Chow; both have served as CEO. The company has evolved its product over the years from a digital filing cabinet to a personal organizer to, now, more of an expert-guided personal assistant.

The big aim is “providing useful and relevant content in the context of helping people get things done,” says Janer (pictured), who now runs business development for the company.

Springpad is most often compared to Evernote and, to a lesser extent, Pinterest. But it operates in a crowded sector that also includes About.com (owned by IAC), Apple’s Siri, Google Keep and Google Now, and smaller personal-organizer apps like Tempo and Cozi.

The company has raised a little less than $10 million from investors including Fairhaven Capital. It has 17 employees and about 5 million registered users. (By comparison, Evernote has raised $250 million and has about 300 employees and 80 million users.)

Meanwhile, today’s news touches on at least three bigger themes:

1. Content marketing is merging with consumer apps. You might call it the “marketization” of consumer apps, as a counterpoint to the “consumerization” of IT and enterprise apps. Most content marketing—such as blogs by brands and corporations—is ineffective at making money. Meanwhile, most consumer apps can’t find an audience. Maybe by joining forces, the two can find a happy medium. Or maybe not.

“Most content marketing that exists is to push people to a specific destination,” Hampton says. “We’re making that information useful, so it becomes a more long-lived experience.”

A number of startups are exploring business models at the intersection of mobile advertising, rewards, and apps: Kiip and SessionM, just to name a couple. Pinterest and Flipboard, where brands are welcome to curate their own boards and magazines, are arguably in the content marketing game. And keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter, and the ad ecosystem around social media too (e.g., Brand Networks and Nanigans).

2. The personal productivity category is heating up, especially on mobile. Not a big surprise, given that the information overload problem gets worse every day, while computing power and device capabilities continue to improve (at least in theory).

But it’s a bit of a surprise, since productivity and task management are inherently dry subjects. “It’s never been sexy,” Janer says. “It’s like going to the dentist.”

In addition to big players like Evernote and Dropbox, startups like Pocket, Prismatic, Cloze, Mustbin, and Moju Labs are trying to help people manage their information streams more efficiently, from Web articles to photos to paperwork to communications. And there are dozens of companies trying to provide more personal recommendations on all sorts of topics.

3. This could foretell a new kind of interactive bookstore or library. Imagine going into Springpad (or your app of choice) and finding all the content you want, via personal recommendations, branded experts, and social sharing with your network. It’s at least a new way for people to consume digital content—and then take action by making plans, updating checklists, and completing tasks. If that’s the way things are heading, there will be many efforts to figure out the right interface.

Interestingly, Evernote tried something like branded notebooks back in 2010, and it didn’t go anywhere. But Evernote’s user base of early adopters is very different from what Springpad is aiming for—namely, mainstream and gender-balanced. That also speaks to finding an audience of people who actually want to blend content and tasks more seamlessly, rather than keeping them separate.

In the end, Springpad is just one of many consumer-app companies trying to “cross the chasm” (in Geoffrey Moore-speak) and gain widespread adoption. All the digital-assistant and personal-organizer apps out there will have to find ways to distinguish themselves in a sea of noise.

Springpad still likes its chances of winning over mainstream users. “The partner strategy is critical to making this happen,” Janer says. “We’re riding on their audience, content, and expertise,” while providing a platform they don’t have yet, he adds.

“We are here and ready for the next generation,” Hampton says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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