Kiwis behind social networking for footy fans

By Imogen Neale

Who is your target audience? It's one of the first questions start-up businesses have to find a convincing answer to.

For Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg it would have been 'American college kids who want to stay in touch and virtually 'poke' their friends.'

For Bebo's founders, Michael and Xochi Birch perhaps it was 'tweenagers that txt-talk and just want to find someone who understands.'

For OleOle.com founders Doug Knittle and David Mok it was 'the world's soccer fans'.

How big an audience is that exactly? Well the 2006 FIFA World Cup attracted an estimated 26.29 billion non-unique television viewers. What's more, over 715 million people tuned in to watch just one game.

By comparison, the biggest television audience the Super Bowl has ever achieved is 40.02 million and globally, 4.7 billion just watched the Beijing Olympics on the box.

The idea behind OleOle came to Knittle in 2006 after he'd been party to all the FIFA Word Cup hype via his ticketing company RazorGator.

He says, having worked six World Cups and watched a seventh, it suddenly dawned on him that it was the perfect time to start a social media site dedicated to soccer.

Remember, this was 2006 when people were starting to get excited about Facebook and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation had just purchased MySpace for US$850 million.

Knittle decided to bring David Mok, a former RazorGator employee in on OleOle. They established two offices; headquarters in Los Angeles and a technical development office in Auckland.

Mok says being in LA gives them the advantage of doing business in the US dollar and the Euro. But, being in New Zealand means they can also capitalise on exchange rates and time zones.

Unlike other social media sites, OleOle launched fully formed. Mok and Knittle didn't want to sit around waiting for the site to gain cult status, attract advertisers, be acquired and then grow.

They wanted to have a fully formed social media soccer site from day one.

To do this they acquired other soccer sites that did have that cult status and passionate fan base such as Arseblog and the Chelsea Football Club blog, Chelsea. They've also just acquired the Italian blog, Inter Milan.

"It makes a lot of sense not to re-invent the wheel," Mok says. "Better to start by bringing others into the fold and growing the community. Tap into the rest of the organisation."

These acquisitions also meant OleOle carried an enormous amount and diversity of content right from the start from the global (Premier League) to the local (Auckland City FC). From the visual (videos and pictures) to the verbal (blogs and forums).

It also hosts content on "170 competitions, 300 leagues, 5,580 teams and more than 57,000 players."

What's more it does it all in 10 languages; English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

Mok says "even before a single line of code was written" they knew the site would have to be able to support any number of languages.

"Football is a global sport with global interests" he says, so "it was on the technical drawing board from day one."

From a resource standpoint, Mok says they employ translators and use people within the company who are multilingual.

And, while monitoring all the content across all the languages is a little challenging, he says the blogs and forums are fairly self-regulating.

"It gets voted down or reported. But we do also have people appointed to moderate language."

While OleOle was initially created by the company, it's now created, maintained and grown by the fans, for the fans.

Which could make it a citizen journalism site too, but that's a loaded statement perhaps best avoided.

At first glance the site is a tad intimidating. There is such an abundance of 'soccer stuff' it's hard to know where to start.

By reading the wildly popular Arseblog? By watching one of the 928 videos? Or by perusing one of the 1,100 English soccer themed threads?

The way to avoid getting lost in content is to register and create your own home page much like Facebook or an RSS feed so the relevant videos, news, threads and blogs come to you.

First time user, long time (suffering) soccer fan, Paul Harper found the sign-up process "long" and "tedious." But, once he made it through to the other end he "immediately" liked what he saw.

"What impressed me was that news on your favourite players and teams (as selected in sign up) are fed to your profile. This should make it easy for me to follow the All Whites on their journey to the next World Cup!"

I say "suffering" because being a fan in New Zealand is immensely frustrating given the dearth of coverage.

Could OleOle remedy that?

"No international football site is going to cover New Zealand particularly well," says Harper. "But this one does a very good job. Other sites I have checked out may have results for the Phoenix or the All Whites, but because OleOle's content is driven by users, New Zealand football fans have ensured the site covers NZ well. It even has results for our local leagues."

In the immediate future, Mok says flash games and a freestyle football section will be added to the site.

Freestyle football is all about the tricks. "The object," says Mok "is to do tricks with the ball, very intricate with a high level of skill involved." OleOle'ers will be able to post home videos of them performing their best tricks.

No doubt people will be able to rank each others freestyle finesse.

However, Mok says the focus for this year is really "around growing the user base."

He says while they're "pretty happy" with their growth they have a target of 5 million monthly unique visitors by 2009. That's double where they're at now.

Mobile devices might play a key part in such growth. Indeed Mok says they've currently contracted someone to create an OleOle iPhone application.

"But we don't have a roll out schedule on it at the moment."

He believes mobile devices will continue to take off; "I'm in no doubt that it's not just a passing fad."

Particularly, he says, in soccer-mad Japan and Korea where social media sites are predominantly accessed via mobile devices.

"It's an important part of our future."

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