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As a data journalist, Marshall Kirkpatrick used a systematic, data-driven approach to identify sources who would be likely to break news in the future.

He liked that method so much it inspired a completely new venture.

In 2011, Kirkpatrick cofounded Little Bird, which today announced $1.7 million in seed financing. The Portland-based startup offers a web application with a handful of different tools that help people discover social influencers in a particular field.

“We help people who work on the web discover the best and most important voices and figure out how to engage with them effectively,” Kirkpatrick told VentureBeat in an interview.

Say you’re interested in Bitcoin. You plug that into Little Bird, and it’ll serve up people and organizations that might be a good fit for that industry. After a bit of tweaking — no, you might say, I don’t care about Mt.Gox, I want to see people talking about companies like Coinbase — it’ll map out a community of influencers who specialize in that topic.

In addition to ranked lists of leaders in various fields, Little Bird customers use a variety of tools to engage with those influencers. Little Bird aggregates trending conversations amongst key leaders in that field across platforms, giving customers myriad potential entry points. It’ll also tell them who might be most likely to engage based on influencers’ connection.

Little Bird’s social graph starts with Twitter and blogs, then stems out into Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, and others. That’s because Twitter data is readily accessible, said Kirkpatrick — for the most part, you can see someone’s Twitter connections whether or not you’re following each other. LinkedIn, in contrast, is not as forthcoming with access to its API.

“But people really want to know who they should know in their field on LinkedIn, so we help answer that question,” said Kirkpatrick.

Little Bird targets sales, marketing, and research professionals in small to medium-sized businesses and enterprises. The company bills itself as a “social sales and marketing enablement” startup, though it sort of fell into that role.

“For some reason, journalists are less enthusiastic about these kind of tools than people in brand marketing departments and sales organizations,” said Kirkpatrick. “I really hope that in the future it’s going to be a widespread practice to use data to discover opportunities on the social web, but right now, the tip of the spear are people who are innovating in social marketing.”

Little Bird operates based on a subscription model, with different tiers based on the use case and the size of the company. Kirkpatrick declined to disclose the size of Little Bird’s customer base, but said four of the Fortune 50 are customers, and that enterprises comprise “the lion’s share” of the company’s revenue.

The startup’s most formidable competitor is Traackr, said Kirkpatrick, who admits that company does “a pretty good job” with influencer discovery. It also competes with Klout.

“But I think that our data quality is higher and our engagement tools are better,” he said. “They really come from a practitioner’s perspective and a journalist’s perspective.”

Oregon Angel Fund led Little Bird’s $1.7 million seed round, which brings the company’s total financing to $2.7 million (it raised a $1 million round in late 2012). Mark Cuban was an early investor alongside Howard Lindzon’s Social Leverage, Dharmesh Shah, Jay Baer, Blaine Cook, and others.

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