Image is everything: Madison tech start up adds visual spice to social media

The mobile technology era has spawned countless business ideas, but Madison’s Bill Towell believes his new technology might be powerful enough to change the nature of social media conversations.

Through bad donkey social, his start-up venture, Towell and a Gen Z staff of five have developed software technology that embeds logos and images into lines of social media conversations, creating an alternative to bland alphanumeric text and giving texters and tweeters a chance to create another language all their own.

It’s certainly not the first time images have been used in social media communications, but Towell maintains that his Enriched Text Content™, or ETC™ technology, is the first to bring images in-line with text and become part of social media terminology.

“I think it’s a highly disruptive platform because it changes the rules,” he stated.


With the company’s flagship software technology, which is still being refined as bad donkey prepares for launch, consumers would send or receive what Towell calls “buzz” messages (buzzMSG™). The idea is to go beyond stale text and enliven social media conversations with “the power to say more with less,” he explained.

With 83% of adults owning cellular phones, and 73% sending text messages on a daily basis (source: Pew Research, 9/11), Towell figures the market already is flooded with willing consumers.

His target market could skew pretty young, as people in the 13 to 17 demographic send an average of 3,705 texts per month, those in the 18 to 24 demographic send an average of 1,707 texts per month, and the relative “graybeards” who are ages 25 to 34 send 758 texts per month. (Source: Nielsen, 2011)

“I think it’s a highly disruptive platform because it changes the rules.” – bad donkey social’s Bill Towell

ETC technology has proven popular with a 25-member beta test group, whose members began inventing their own ways to personalize their text language with images such as the Green Bay Packers “G” logo, the UW athletics’ motion “W,” plus personal photos and other images that appear right in-line with the text.

“Our beta test group does not look at this as just a gimmick,” Towell stated. “We’re excited about their awareness of its potential in peer-to-peer conversations.”

With bad donkey, Towell’s preferred commercialization route is to partner with a large technology company to accelerate the launch timetable, but he’s also prepared to advance the technology without one. “I’m calling for dates right now,” he said. “We would like to end up with a group that has the same passion we have for mobile social interaction. We’ve got to sync up with an organization that has the same culture.”

Bad donkey, which so far has been self-funded, also is staffed by interning associate (and Bill’s son) Ian Towell, who is enrolled in the sales and marketing program at Madison College and will be in charge of the user experience with bad donkey, and UW-Madison student Taylor Kuypers, who serves as the marketing intern.

“If we go it alone, we’d probably spread via the college network,” Kuypers said. “We would intend to start at UW-Madison, then go to the UW System schools, and then to other Big Ten schools.”

College students would essentially become the company’s brand ambassadors. The college market would be the key demographic, Towell said, because young people tend to emulate their older peers. “High school students will aspire to what college kids are doing,” he noted, “and middle school students will aspire to what the high schoolers are doing.”

As part of the monetization piece, businesses would get one free, high-resolution brand image download and pay a still-to-be-determined charge for each additional one.

A business, for example, could use its own logo for the “freebie,” and then invest in several more as it crafts its approach to social media marketing and brand integration.

The ETC software technology can be adapted to Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, and other social media platforms, but the user base would have complete control over the images selected. “We’re not interested in invading anyone’s privacy,” Towell stated. “Users will be able to opt in or opt out.”

More than 20 Greater Madison businesses already have signed on, including Metcalfe’s Market, Ian’s Pizza, and State Street Brats. “A lot of companies get it,” Kuypers said. “They understand the impact.”

As bad donkey works to perfect the base technology, Towell said it has obtained a provisional patent and will continue to pursue a patent no matter how its product launch unfolds.


Promo Pro

Towell, 54, is familiar with product promotion. He founded Roundhouse Marketing in Madison and spent 28 years in the advertising industry before selling the firm three years ago. He has filled the past few years with extreme sports and his volunteer work for Porchlight, a local nonprofit that serves the homeless. He views nonprofits as a potential beneficiary of the ETC technology.

The inspiration for enriching social media conversations came to him after he attended a UW-Madison lecture series in March of 2011. Towell was stuck at a traffic signal on Johnson Street, pondering the power of images, when the “a-ha” moment occurred, and he now likens his emerging technology to a microbrew that is initially served at a restaurant (buzzMSG).

“We had to create the buzzMSG in order to serve the brew,” he explained. “It takes a boring text message and makes it rich and satisfying.”

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