Like water finds its level

There’s no doubt Horsesmouth is going to be a success. First, it’s a great idea. Second, founder MT Rainey has run a few businesses, and won enough awards, in her time.

After studying psychology at Glasgow University, MT (short for Mary Teresa) took an MSc, then worked in advertising in the late 70s, moving to LA to work for the seminal agency Chiat/Day.

She made her mark planning the launch of the world’s first Apple Mac in 1984. And moved up the ranks before being asked to set up Chiat/Day London in 1989. She was voted UK Advertising’s Woman of The Year the following year.

In 1993, she founded her own agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which soon secured top name clients such as Virgin Group, Land Rover and M&S. In 1999, the company was acquired by WPP and merged with Young & Rubicam. MT stayed as joint CEO of RKCR/ Y&R for four years, and then became chair.

In 2005, she left to set up her first social enterprise – Horsesmouth.

And this is where we are now. Sitting in a large, comfortably-furnished room in the Horsesmouth offices, tucked under the eaves of an eighteenth century building in Soho’s Golden Square, on a darkening, chilly November afternoon.

“I became very excited about the power of social media while everyone else was preoccupied with the dotcom boom of Web 2.0,” says MT. “I knew it had great potential…if I’ve learnt anything in life, it’s that everything communicates. There’s a frustration when communication is blocked – social media finds a way.”

The comment makes me think of water. And its ubiquitous, essential, life-bearing properties.

If there’s one thing Horsesmouth enables, it’s hearts-on-sleeves, in-your-face communication. Horsesmouth is a mentoring site – a giant, interactive agony column, helping people share knowledge about life, love, work, whatever else concerns them.

Anyone can register, everyone is anonymous, and the idea is that while you may sign up to get advice, your own life experience can enable you, in turn, to help others.

It’s a virtuous circle, and one which, in true Web 2.0 fashion, makes use of network effects – becoming more useful, more relevant, as the number of users grows.

“On Horsesmouth people bare their souls but it’s not attached to their identity,” says MT. “I can be more authentic if my identity is private. We see people coming across as very liberated on the site – because they can’t be judged.”

Launched in January 2008, the site now has 13,000 registered users and gets 100,000 unique page views a month. Each person lists three topics they can help with, so in theory 40,000 topics are possible.

Horsesmouth is growing slowly, organically by word of mouth (none of your Facebook-esque ‘invite friends’ tactics here). MT wants people to sign up because they’re motivated, not simply because an invite from someone they know has landed in their inbox.

“10,000 was a critical mass for coming up with a result on any search term – now we can do that,” she says, with pride.

The site provides an interesting mirror on society. Since September, they’ve noticed a change in the big themes: ‘Enterprise’, ‘debt’ and ‘relationship stress’ now represent the most popular key words, according to MT.

Working with visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Jay Chiat, and as an excellent strategic planner herself, MT is clearly happiest a few steps ahead of the curve. So, what’s her advice to businesses considering social media as a tool?

“Businesses think it’s happening ‘out there’, that it’s social, that it’s not meaningful. They see it as outside mainstream commerce, but it isn’t.”

“One of the challenges with so much chatter is that you have to sift through it. There’s too much information. Take Tesco Club Cards, for example. You get a negative spiral of irrelevance. Just because I bought nappies doesn’t mean I’m going to buy soup. Companies shouldn’t worry about all that. The web is universal ubiquity combined with pinpoint relevance.”

Above all, she stresses it’s important to accommodate – not ignore – the conversations taking place:

“If people make a negative comment online, then at least it’s out there and everyone can deal with it…Social media can demonise and victimise but that can be dealt with. It isn’t primarily bad or unsafe. Good leaders will be competent. They’ll deal with it.”