Zebek Jumps Into the Personalization Race

Now that social is becoming the new norm, the next big battle for companies will be personalization. The company that can get inside my head and deliver tailored recommendations or know what I want without being too stalkerish can walk away with a lot of money. We’ve seen how powerful that has been for companies like Apple (s aapl), Pandora, Amazon (s amzn) and Netflix (s nflx), with their recommendations for content. Now, the race is on to see which company can be a go-to B2B provider for personalization and recommendation services.

Hunch has gotten a some press as it’s moved to license its personalization taste graph technology. Yesterday, Gravity debuted at the Web 2.0 Summit, offering to help websites leverage their users’ interest graph. And my6Sense launched earlier this year with apps that take a user’s news feeds and personalize their stream. All these services can be used individually by users, but they’re also being offered to websites and companies as a way to personalize their outreach to users.

Now add Zebek to the list of competitors. The Boston-area start-up is coming out of stealth mode and is trumpeting its approach to targeting and personalization for mobile users. Zebek offers a platform that harvests a bunch of data, both personal and online, allowing companies to reach out to users and provide them with offers and recommendations. The company believes it is unique because it uses geo-location, collaborative filtering, social relevance and sentiment analysis to help target users. Zebek focuses on mobile with a platform that works easily over SMS or a mobile browser.

The company has signed up Clear Channel Malls (s cco) as one of its first 25 customers. In three Clear Channel malls, customers interested in an item can send a text message to a short code with that item listed and see what discounts are offered. The mall can also include recommendations for other goods based on the user’s past inquiries as well as other data pulled online about what similar users might like. Short codes seem a little behind the times considering the growth of scanner apps, but Zebek said it’s helpful to reach non-smartphone users.

These are still early days, but expect personalization to be a live market. Chris Dixon, CEO at Hunch, said many companies are looking to build these services in-house right now, but he expects many of them will turn to third-party providers to plug in personalization services. Hunch has signed up a handful of online sites and is talking to an online commerce site as well as a large travel site.

It’s unclear if Zebek stands a better chance than others. What I do like about Zebek is its focus on mobile. Location is very much a key part of personalization, because context is key for mobile users. Take a look at what Google has done with HotPot, its enhancement to Places. The feature works with Google Maps on Android devices to help surface locations it thinks you might like. It may not be a Yelp killer, but it shows how personalization can take on new significance when you’re out and about.

Another point in Zebek’s favor is it’s being mindful of privacy concerns. The company said it makes user data anonymous and doesn’t share any of it with third parties. After the brouhaha over Internet information aggregator Rapleaf, which Om has diligently followed, it’s going to be important for all personalization companies to be upfront about how they’re gathering data on you and how they’re using it. Personalization is only going to be a bigger trend in the coming years. The only question is: Which company is going to provide the technology behind all of that targeting and recommendations?

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