Trunity – Structured Community Platform

By Subraya Mallya - August 2009 | Topics - SaaS

Social communities are all the rage these days. Armed with blogs, social communities, twitter accounts people across the world have flooded the internet with digital content that is shared, aggregated, commented all over the internet.

Recognizing the benefits of crowd-sourcing, companies in the commercial, not-for-profit, research & academia, religious and government space alike are increasingly sharing and soliciting information heretofore done inside their walled gardens.

While on the one hand there is a lot of useful, interesting information available (for free in most cases), the fact that there is no structure to the way things are organized on the internet, it has become a haystack. All the advances in the search technologies notwithstanding.

Platforms like Ning, Facebook, MySpace, Drupal have been the provocateur for fostering, adoption of communities by providing users/companies with  platforms and necessary tools to share information. But the  inherent limitations in these platforms have only resulted in creating repositories of valuable content that cannot be easily focused and accessed. Taxonomies in these solutions are, at best, primitive and limited to tags and categories. The nature of communities is such that they are nested and inter-related. So it is critical that the inter-relationship of communities include the content they own.

In looking for solutions that might become the platforms of the future and help organizations better manage their communities, organize the content they create, PrudentCloud met with executives of  Trunity Networks, Terry Anderton(CEO) and Cliff Lyon (VP of Business Development) who discussed about the new social publishing platform and its unique offerings that differentiate it from other tools already in the market.

Here is the excerpt of the discussion.

SM: Trunity. Tell us a little bit about how this company came about? It is a private company. Is it VC funded? How long have you been in existence?

TA: TrUnity is a private company — it started as a project by a group of successful technology entrepreneurs and experts from academia and organizations with the common goal of creating an interest centric social publishing platform. It was actually funded by what I call “venture philanthropists.” We raised around 24 million dollars from organizations such as the Humane Society, The Hemingway Foundation – and others who really saw a need for a platform that they could leverage for their own organizations. Humane Society, for instance, would like to maintain closer relationship with their donor base and leverage their “brand” to develop communities and provide expert information on every breed of dog, cat or any domesticated animal they are involved with and become a trusted resource and anchor point for lovers of domesticated animals world-wide. We launched our product back in December of 2008 when the Digital Universe, Cosmos Portal, The Earth Portal needed a platform to publish their content.  Since then there has been a growing demand by organizations, individuals, NGOs, non-profits, educational institutions and others for a similar platform where trusted content could be posted and shared across different directories.  Moreover organizations consider carefully the motivations and “trust” factor when selecting a platform to publish their most valuable content. This demand led us to formally launch in July of 2009, which not only provides a highly scalable and comprehensive social publishing platform, but our company was founded on principles embedded into our corporate resolutions that prevent the company from ever doing data-mining of user information or violating the trust our customers place in TrUnity. This is very relevant now and important as Facebook and others are finding out, TrUnity is not driven by a profit motive.

The name “TrUnity” itself was coined to emphasize our core values of Truth and Trust while providing a community platform.

SM: You have an interesting platform. Tell us a little more about the platform. What was the key problem you looked to solve with this platform?

TA: TrUnity has been built from the ground-up as an enterprise class platform for organizations to manage their entire network comprising of social communities, digital archives, portals, Blogs and other websites. We designed our platform on Dublin Core (international) standards for digital archives and based it on a directory system. Each portal — or website — is a merely a node in the directory system and the directory structure can be as deep as desired. Content i.e., photos, videos, documents, blogs reside under each node. If you see our site, you will see a persistent directory structure-based taxonomy that you can easily navigate to get to the node.

While our platform provides all the social community features, the real problem we targeted to solve was to allow users to organize content in easily understandable directory system. The ability to re-purpose content created across different silos of the organization into meaningful enterprise taxonomies is a large problem enterprises are faced with today. Because we have a strong taxonomy, directory structure, besides allowing companies/individuals to organize data, we also allow them to archive data – which makes TrUnity an issue centric social publishing platform. That is one of the key differentiators for us when compared with other solutions as Ning. Moreover we will never misappropriate the data which organizations and customers publish on TrUnity – this again is an extremely important differentiators as organizations make strategic decisions as to where they choose to archive and publish data.

SM: One of the challenges I face when go to a Ning is there is no easy way for me to find out the communities that I can participate in. Say I wanted to know more about “Credit Default Swaps”. But from what I see in TrUnity, I should be able to easily find one traversing the taxonomy.

CL: Exactly. Another example, I can share is say I am publishing an article on raising corn in Morocco, by the virtue of its place in taxonomy you will know more about its sustainability or about the pesticides being where it is. This is made possible with our rich, dynamic directory system which allows users to cross-pollinate their content across TrUnity’s communities.

SM: So would it be fair to say, content can be organized and accessed from multiple dimensions? A topical dimension, a geographical dimension that way it is more targeted to the audience.

CL: Yes. It is just a function of setting up an ontology! You can have the same content show in multiple nodes of our taxonomy. Say you are setting up a global sustainable agriculture then part of your taxonomy is geography.

TA: One thing I would like add is, the other way to look at this is not by geographic or topic, it is by users being able to triangulate information they are interested in – say they are interested in eco-tourism along with agriculture and interest in Peru all they have to do is link multiple communities. That is something users can not do on other communities like Ning.

SM: Let us talk a little more about the offering? How can customers license it? Can say a GE buy this solution and host in inside their firewall? Or subscribe to your hosted white label offering?

CL: TrUnity is a completely hosted offering that customers can license for their use. We can white label it for companies so they can use our platform for their inter or intra-company communities and in the process build a digital archive/library.  We don’t offer the platform in any other model. We are continually adding more front-end user interface components to make it accessible through various mediums.

TA: The strong taxonomy model provides a benefit to us in terms of structure from a revenue side. Organizations can license the platform through a traditional SaaS license model. Individuals can choose between two models – an advertising supported model and a subscription based model. The strong taxonomy structure allows people to list themselves in appropriate classification in the taxonomy and target advertisements to the right audience and consequently enjoy high PPM rates.

SM: About Digital Universe. How is it related to Trunity Networks? Is it a white label customer or holding entity?

TA: Digital Universe Foundation is a collaboration universe of 1300 scientists and academicians. They partnered with TrUnity to license our technology to publish their data. Digital Universe has an aggressive agenda which is to eliminate “search” with more precise directory taxonomy where users find what they are looking for and the information is fully vetted from subject matter experts. Rather than anonymous individuals sharing their information such as in the Wikipedia model, it will be academics and experts  sharing their content which has gone through a peer-review process.  They chose TrUnity because of the perfect fit for the collaboration among academicians and subject matter experts as well as our directory structure which helps organize massive amounts of scientific research data. Additionally,  as far as providing trusted content, TrUnity has well surpassed anything found on  Facebook or Google when it comes to content sharing.

In the non-profit and research areas, the primary goal and requirement behind every grant is that research results are shared with the greater public sector. This required public education aspect of academic grants was a key for the need for a platform which allowed scientific research to be shared beyond the scientific communities. In the past, academic research information has always been shared in arcane research publications. Now with the TrUnity platform this information is available to basically anyone who has a computer.

CL:Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales had this debate about if contributors to Wikipedia have to remain anonymous or not. Larry was very strongly pro-credential and they split due to this difference of point-of-views. Larry Sanger has been instrumental in conception of Digital Universe which in some ways is a credentialed version of Wikipedia (or some refer to it as Wikipedia-with-adult-supervision). That is where the directory system came from. As opposed to a non-contextual page in Wikipedia, the George Washington page in Digital Universe would be in the right hierarchy and provides you trail to navigate the subject matter.

TA: The goal of Digital Universe is to share this expert content for free. So all the communities built on our platform can incorporate all the expert content like Climate Change, Sustainability from Digital Universe into their communities along with causes and issues they care about. We have a co-dependency with Digital Universe. We offer their content to the rest of our community to share and use – by permission of course — and Digital Universe needs our platform.

SM: We talked about making content freely available to people. Can we go to the other end of the spectrum and talk about protecting content that should be protected – by, say a company, that hosts its community on your platform.

CL: Yes. That is possible out of the box. Each community comes with access control that the administrator of that community can decide on individuals with access to the content  – much like any other community that might be designed using Drupal. At the highest level, the community itself can be made private wherein only approved users can be part of and have access to the content. That said a user on one community can seamlessly access other communities via the common unique ID.

SM: Companies already have communities, blogs out there be it Drupal based, WordPress based. Do you have any on-boarding tools/technologies for companies to easily adopt your platform and move their content over?

CL: Currently the Digital Universe implementation is on a series of WordPress installations. If you look at WordPress installations the taxonomy is fixed, by category and year, and it gets challenging once you pass a couple of years. We are in the process of releasing a WordPress API and going after that entire market. The API will bring over the categories in WordPress as Topics in TrUnity and archive the content. We are really excited about that as that is tremendous market. You have all these WordPress sites out there with 2-3 years worth of data which is inaccessible due to lack of organization. TrUnity can be used as an alternative channel to organize and access the content that is already in those WordPress sites.

SM: I see a lot of non-profit, religious, political organizations already having created involved communities on your platform. Do you distinguish or classify between commercial and non-profit customers?

TA: Actually we don’t. To us anyone who has a lot of useful content that is inaccessible and needs organization can be a customer. Currently, we are still in stealth mode.  We already have a large number of organizations migrating to our platform. Every company out there is figuring out their social media strategy.  We are engaging with commercial companies and what we see is there is a tremendous need and interest for a structured, robust, dynamic social networking platform like TrUnity.

The other thing companies are looking at is the capability to monetize their content. For instance one example in our customer base is a small religious organization which has 150K active members– they are trying to build a closer and more active relationship with and between their members. They are trying to monetize their supporter base and their interactions. To this end we have developed a revenue share plan that enables organizations to benefit from developing a social network on our platform. All non-profits have seen a decline in donations due to the tough economic times. By leveraging the TrUnity platform not only can they develop a closer relationship with their eco-system but can leverage their Brand to provide expert content (think American Cancer Society, Amnesty International, International Religious organizations etc.) while also building a growing an “interest centric social network”. Rather than a once a year mailing with a donation request, these organizations can provide real value to their constituents and benefit from subscription fees and advertising revenue sharing as their communities grow on our platform. In this example this small religious organization could generate several million dollars of incremental revenue while building a loyal and lasting base of donors and contributors interested in this organization.

Advertisers value highly this concept as they can actually provide relevant information more closely aligned to the interests of their target demographic. This again differentiates TrUnity from Facebook, Ning and other Social media platforms as we don’t need to do any intrusive data mining techniques or scanning of content on individual sites or emails. We know who our users are because they self identify themselves by selecting where they want to be placed in the directory structure. Moreover by leveraging the ever growing expert content in their personal and organizational sites also sheds valuable insight as to what their interests are.

SM: Talking about monetizing content, the timing could not be any better, what with all the announcements by Rupert Murdoch on new business model to license all of his content which was heretofore free as paid content accessible by subscribers. Given that lot of your customers are non-profit and research organizations, do you see this as being applicable to them?

TA: I think you have identified the right issue. While on the one side we have all these expert content put out by research and non-profit organizations, it does not preclude commercial organizations to share their content and license it through subscriptions. We have shared revenue models with many of our constituent organizations where the content is available by subscriptions. Our revenues come through a combination of the software license and revenue sharing of subscriptions.

SM: Excellent. Thanks a lot Terry, Cliff for your time and sharing information about your company and products.Thanks for the product demo.


Company Profile

ProductOrganized Community Platform
Key CustomersDigital Universe, Earth Portal, Cosmos Portal and 1000+ communities
Critical Problem Solved
  • Ability to create a network of community sites, portal sites in context.
  • Ability to define robust taxonomies to organize, classify communities across multiple dimensions.
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