It all started with Lady Gaga.
Backplane has spent the past two years quietly building a place for the world’s biggest brands to engage with their fans. The company originated as part of Lady Gaga’s tech team. Gaga has a massive social media following. She has 58.7 million Facebook likes and 39.8 million Twitter followers. In July 2012 she launched her own social network just for Lady Gaga fans, who are known as Little Monsters, and Backplane was the force behind that site. Now the company is opening up its platform to other brands and celebrities, starting with one of the world’s most iconic brands — Coca-Cola.
“We’ve used the Little Monster community to hone our skills and perfect our product, to learn about user behavior, the psychology and sociology of community, and how to manage super fans,” CEO Matt Michelsen said in an interview with VentureBeat. “Every brand, celebrity, politician, and organization I’ve talked to faces the challenge of creating an online community that they own. No one has built this platform yet.”
Michelsen said that while Facebook and Twitter are powerful platforms, they don’t engender the level of engagement that brands want. He described Backplane as a “walled garden” where fans can come together over common interests to communicate, share, and organize. In the case of Lady Gaga, Littlemonsters.com is a place where strangers can express their passion for the star without fear of ridicule, or share experiences of bullying — one of Gaga’s flagship causes. The brand itself can use the network to deliver information about events or news and to solicit feedback.
Backplane’s front-end is a straightforward social network. Michelsen said the goal was to make it like a “Ford Taurus,” or an intuitive product that people easily understand how to use. The real distinguishing factor, he said, rests in Backplane’s ability to help brands connect in a meaningful way with their fans and measure that participation.
Backplane is being very selective about the brands it works with. The company is looking for top brands with very high engagement. In addition to Coca-Cola, Backplane also revealed a partnership with Cirque du Soleil. Both Coca-Cola and Cirque du Soleil made strategic investments in Backplane, which is in the process of closing a $12 million round of funding. The strategic investors join a high-profile group of venture capital firms, including SV Angel, Google Ventures, Founders Fund, Tomorrow Ventures, Lerer Ventures, and Menlo Ventures.
“A lot of startups take the shotgun approach and want to get the product out there as fast as possible. ” Michelsen said. “We’ve taken the thoughtful, methodical approach. We looked at the current social ecosystem and at group behavior and have a big infrastructure in place that can support hundreds of thousands of participants on site at a time. Coca-Cola is a 125-year-old brand and we have to protect that.”
Breaking down the barriers between celebrities, musicians, designers, politicians, etc. and their audiences is a hot topic of discussion in both the tech and brand worlds. Whether it’s through social media marketing and analytics, Google hangouts, or media campaigns, influencers and fans alike want more open channels of communication. Backplane will soon begin extending its platform to dozens more clients by the end of the year and then plans to scale quickly.
Michelsen previously started two hedge funds and then went on to found trading technology firm UNX. He left UNX in 2010 to work for Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, and use his expertise to organize the Little Monsters into a cohesive online community. Cofounder Alex Moore was the first employee at Palantir. Now, along with a team of 34, they are building out a new model for social networks and brand engagement. Backplane is based in Palo Alto, Calif.