SAN FRANCISCO--When you're a startup trying to upend a business dominated by a powerhouse like YouTube, and adding users far faster than Twitter did during its first serious growth spurts, it's essential that you take care of the famous people who want to come along for the ride.
For Gardner Loulan, the director of community and content at Tout, a company that's pioneering the way people use mobile devices to create short, sharable, and interactive video, catering to the needs of celebrities is something that can happen at any time.
That's why, in the middle of a jam-packed day, the tall, wiry 29-year-old Loulan has dropped everything, jumped in a cab, and rushed over to a downtown sushi bar to help NFL cornerback Terrell Thomas learn how to use Tout.
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In August, Thomas, on the verge of a breakout year with the now Super Bowl-bound New York Giants, tore up his knee, ending his season. The star player is fairly tech savvy, and now, he's decided that Tout would be a great way to bring his fans in on his rehab efforts.
And why not? Though Tout, which launched in April, is still unknown in many circles, it took it just two months to get as many users as Twitter got in its first two years, and its traffic is currently growing at least 25 percent a month. The service has become a favorite way for celebrities of all kinds to share small moments of their lives with their public--and even to interact with them.
Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement on Tout. "Survivor" host Jeff Probst live-touts his thoughts on key moments in each episode, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson uses the service to show movie fans what's happening on the set of his new film. And a slew of national and local news broadcasts are using the service to offer viewers a chance to submit video questions, as well as to give correspondents a way to do very quick, succinct posts. If Twitter made 140 characters of text a profound tool, Tout wants to make 15 seconds of video even more so. And it's Loulan's job to get the service's users--from average Joes to world famous movie stars--fired up, day after day, a quarter minute at a time.
Taking a leap
Loulan is a former MTV VJ who left behind a blossoming career in television to help get Tout, then called Kicktag, off the ground. At the time, few knew about the service, but Loulan believed in the idea--15-second videos shot using smartphones and instantly posted to a Web site with an easy mechanism for people to see them and respond with their own touts--so he signed on with few reservations and even fewer financial guarantees.
Right now, that leap of faith is looking good. Though many people still have never heard of Tout, the company--and by extension, Loulan, as its chief evangelist--is having to do less and less educating every day. That's because a steady flow of high-profile sign-ups including Access Hollywood, the San Francisco 49ers, Shaq, Katie Couric, Ryan Seacrest, Mitt Romney, and many others, has given the service a higher profile than it could probably ever buy with marketing dollars.
And with me shadowing Loulan as part of my Day on the Job series, that's probably why he is sitting here in this upscale sushi bar with Thomas and his agent, discussing how the football player can best use the service.
"I think I set it all up," Thomas said. "I just haven't used it yet."
"We can debut right here," Loulan said.
Thomas explained that the Giants have been encouraging the team's players to be active in social media, and Loulan showed him how with three button taps, Thomas could shoot a video and then push it out to all of his networks. "There's nothing better than that simplicity," Loulan said.
One of Tout's big pitches is that those who use the service can see their Twitter follower numbers grow at a faster rate than they would otherwise. For example, Loulan told Thomas, when former CBS News anchor Katie Couric signed up for Tout, she got 10,000 new Twitter followers in just 10 days. "We don't want to take credit," Loulan said, essentially taking credit, but "the only answer is that it's more immersive. People want to connect."
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It does make sense. For at least a couple of years, "Survivor" host Probst had been live-tweeting the airing of each new episode of the hit CBS show, and doing his best to respond to people's questions. But when Tout came along, Probst was able to boost the level of access he gave his fans, and was able to respond by video to certain questions. All in real time. "You now have the connection to your entire audience in the palm of your hand," Loulan says. "You've created your own network, and you have access to it anytime, anywhere."
Keeping up with the touters
One common type of Tout user behavior is for people to reply to others' videos with their own. That has long been common on YouTube, of course, but Tout is far more immediate given the 15-second video limit and the way its site is designed around interactivity. For Loulan, it's gratifying to watch this behavior--but it's also part of his job to get directly involved.
Yesterday, he tells me, "a girl posted a video of her singing [her favorite song] and it turned into a conversation where a bunch of other users were replying to her song with their [own] favorite...What we try to do is foster these conversations that occur on the site naturally. We go in and respond with our own moments, and the community builds because they see that we're paying attention."
The upshot of this is that one of Loulan's responsibilities today is to tout himself lip-synching a song. But at Tout HQ, things are never as simple as that. So he's waiting for some interns to arrive and serve as backup dancers "because I want to make it a show. We always try to put a little extra into our content."
First, though, he has to downshift to more practical duties: going through users' feedback about the site. Loulan and others at Tout are religious about monitoring feedback--and responding quickly--because they see doing so as a way to develop more committed touters. For example, one person had just written in saying, "Hey, Gardner, I really love Tout. I've never cared enough about a site before to leave a comment."
Some companies might be pleased and respond with thanks, but Loulan wants to do more. So today, he's arranged a phone call with the user to talk about what works and what doesn't.
Similarly, Loulan monitors Twitter for people talking about Tout. Today, My Name is Rico, rapper Bow Wow's manager, had complained via Twitter that he couldn't tout from Japan. So Loulan responds with what are called Tout Tips--15 second tutorials. In this case, Loulan is sending a tip that explains how to send a tout from a computer, which is possible in Japan.
Responding to Katie Couric
Throughout the day, Loulan finds himself interacting with everyone from average Tout users to celebrities. In the morning, for example, he took a phone call with "White Collar" star Tim DeKay about how the actor can best use Tout. Then, late in the day, he had to spend some time editing a video by Magic Johnson in which the NBA great was announcing his new foundation. But at 22 seconds, the video was too long for a tout, so it was Loulan's job to edit it down to 15 seconds.
But now it's time for Loulan and his interns to shoot his contribution to the conversation thread in which users have been posting their video responses to others' favorite songs.
For this project, he and the interns all throw on some Tout headbands and T-shirts, and get set up in front of a big white board. Loulan has decided to respond (see video below) to a video posted by Couric in which the famous broadcaster grooved alongside some dancing skeletons. Loulan is responding with Flo Rida's "Club Can't Handle Me," and for ambiance, he and his group draw a "club scene" on the white board.
"You guys have to pop up at different points in the song," he tells them. "So think of your dance routine."
Someone asked him if everyone in the office should dance, and Loulan's eyes get wide as he says, "Oh, yeah, that would be good."
They get the song playing on someone's computer, and start trying to figure out how to shoot the tout. One guy says he can't figure out what Flo Rida is saying in the song, but Loulan isn't concerned. "Eh, you'll be in the background," he says. "It doesn't matter."
And then they're ready. With the song blasting from the computer and his team bobbing and weaving behind him, Loulan holds his iPhone up and with one take nails it. "Perfect," he shouts. "And we only disrupted the entire office for 15 seconds."
If your company is interested in being featured in Day on the Job, please send a note to daniel-dot-terdiman-at-cbs-dot-com. Unless given specific permission, I will not reveal any proprietary information or forward-looking business plans I encounter during my time at the companies I visit.