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What is building43—and should you want one?

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If social media is about starting conversations, why not hire the best conversation starter you can find?

That explains, at least in part, what Web hosting and cloud computing vendor Rackspace did earlier this year when it hired Robert Scoble (along with his video producer) and gave the infamous, conversation-starting, FriendFeed-loving, digital video-producing, high-tech gadfly his own social media playground. That playground is dubbed building43 (after famous, secretive buildings at Microsoft and Google known for their creative output).

Here's how Scoble himself described the domain when it launched in June:

“Building43 is a Web site. It's a T-shirt. It's a Twitter account. It is a video channel on Blip.tv. It's a FriendFeed group. It's a sticker. It's a team. It's a Facebook page. It's a database (or really a few of them). And more.”

If that sounds a bit like a media or publishing site, it is. Scoble came to Rackspace after a time at Fast Company, where he tried to jump start publication's Web and online video presence. When that work hit a wall—caused in part by the downturn in the global economy and advertising—Rackspace came calling.

However you describe it, and whatever it entails, building43 is an intriguing experiment in tech marketing—or, rather, nonmarketing. Rackspace is footing the bill for the project by employing Scoble and his producer, as well as paying a few contract freelancers. And, not surprisingly, Rackspace hosts the site.

A visit to www.building43.com finds a bunch of Scoble videos, some blog posts, a FriendFeed feed and more content being added daily (including a new live video segment from “The Gillmor Gang”). But few if any of the videos or posts mention Rackspace by name, and Rackspace branding is limited to the occasional icon on the site.

“It's hard to talk about why building43 makes sense without talking about the larger picture of why hiring Robert Scoble makes sense,” said Rob La Gesse, director of customer development at Rackspace and the man charged with making building43 pay dividends for the company. “Building43 is a creative outlet, an experiment we're doing to highlight Robert's work. The real, immediate value [to Rackspace] is not building43 itself but the places and conversations that Scoble gets us into.”

For instance, via introductions, Scoble has helped Rackspace executives get a seat at the table at such important tech shows as TechStars, TechCrunch50 and Y Combinator—all exclusive gatherings focused on Web startups, a key market for Rackspaces software and hosting services.

“That's a conversation we could not have gotten into a year ago,” said La Gesse. “Meeting [venture capitalists] who back startups is important to us.”

But in tight economic times, where's the budget coming from to try such an experiment? And where's the ROI?

La Gesse said his bosses don't require him to measure building43's success in such terms. As far as budget, Rackspace used to be a big Google AdWords and online banner buyer, La Gesse said, but as such ads became less effective, its online ad spending dropped. Instead, the company hired a one-man conversation hub and began funding his adventures (the week we spoke with La Gesse, Scoble was attending and filming a motorcycle race). It's all part of a long process of getting customers to think differently about Rackspace and, in some cases, not to think about the company at all.

Known in some tech circles, Rackspaces' expanding hosting and cloud business puts it up against much better known players, including Google and Microsoft Corp.

In this competitive environment, name recognition—and a positive reputation in social or viral circles—is a must-have.

For us in the tech market, it's all about influencing the influencers, La Gesse said.

Could other tech companies replicate what Rackspace has done? That would be hard, La Gesse said, and therein lies part of the appeal of the company. “Who else could do this?” he said. “They'd look like a weak follower.”

What other marketers can emulate is Rackspace's approach to social marketing. “Being authentic is the No. 1 issue; No. 2 is you have to be helpful,” La Gesse said. “If you wanted to replicate anything that we're doing, find out where your future customers are talking, go there and talk to them about what they want to talk about, when they want to talk about it. And be helpful: Don't try to sell. If you just try to help, you're going to sell in the long run.”

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