Thursday, August 21, 2008

Are Widgets So Yesterday?

This article about widgets—and the wonderful quote from Charlene Li—in CNET news caught my attention. I use widgets on my various blogs and I think they’re great. As a user, I see a lot of potential applications for them, so when CNET suggested they are losing favor, I read with interest.

The gist of the argument is that widgets haven’t been the silver bullet for reaching target audiences on social networks. Some makers are adopting the term “social applications” in an effort to suggest a broader, more profitable scope for development activity.

I’m always interested in what Google finds on these subjects, so I searched both terms. Both on the web search and the news search, there’s lots of current activity under both terms. Interestingly enough, Google’s Open Social is a major feature on the social applications searches. I did find a post on O’Reilly’s Radar blog that talks about domain-specific social applications that is thought provoking, especially to those interested in branded content. The results on widgets are much more diverse in terms of companies mentioned and types of subject matter. Here are the definitions offered by CNET:

Technically, industry executives differentiate between widgets as a piece of self-contained code that can be embedded to a page and contain content, for example, photo slideshows. Applications are also embeddable software but they're inherently social and interactive, e.g., embedded videos forwarded from friends, executives say.

Does that help tell them apart? It doesn’t do much for me.

Without the search, I wouldn’t have quickly seen today’s announcement on Yahoo’s TV “widget channel.” They are partnering with Intel to distribute widgets through Intel’s set-top boxes. According to the Yahoo page they are going to “bring your favorite Yahoo! Services to TV.” This includes sports, news, weather and finance channels as well as the ability to display your Flickr® photos, as shown on the graphic. I’ve superimposed a section from their Connected TV page that defines the concept.
That’s an interesting development, but I’ve strayed from my original question: is it widgets or is it social applications?

Let me give a cynical take on this semantic issue. If there’s a clear way to monetize it—and there’s an obvious opportunity for Yahoo to sell advertising on these new channels—then it’s fine to call it a widget. If it’s a cool app in search of a revenue stream, maybe it needs a more impressive appellation.

It’s not the name that makes a difference. It’s what the application can accomplish; take Facebook’s Super Wall (developed by RockYou but being taken over by Facebook) or Circle of Friends (Bantr) apps, for example. They are great apps with millions of users. But monetization is an issue for the developers (as spam was apparently a major issue with RockYou’s version of Super Wall) and marketers don’t have an obvious way to take advantage of all these users.

Don’t let the semantics issues obscure the strategic ones!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Behavioral Redux

If anyone doesn’t believe that the Internet is still evolving with astonishing speed, try this. Just as I finished yesterday’s post on behavioral targeting, I noticed that a start-up in that space had received another round of venture funding. Lotame™ is another attempt at helping social networks monetize their business and marketers reach denizens of the networks. This ad was posted on the founder’s blog. It’s dated May 7, so there may be more than 28 million people 3 months later! According to Marketing Charts, MySpace had 75.2 million unique users in July and Facebook had 39 million. That’s a big pool of potential acquaintances for Lotame and customers for marketers! The question continues to be how to reach them in a manner they find acceptable.

Lotame founder Andy Monfried says that the tools developed for Web 1.0 don’t work in the UGC environment of Web 2.0. One reason is that websites no longer define content. That’s a simple but profound idea.

The proprietary technology the firm has developed is called Crowd Control™. Exactly how they do it is unclear—no surprise. The best hint is that the technology “allows us to aggregate behaviors unique to each page within user content.”
Here’s a link to their video page. There are a number of interesting snippets, but they describe the basic process as collecting, analyzing and leveraging data for marketing decisions. That’s what we’re all trying to do. The take-away from studying this site is the importance of behavioral analysis. In the social media space, it’s not about the site the user is on. It may not even be about the particular page. It could be the functionality on a particular page that provides the common thread that identifies a target market.

That describes analytics at a very micro level. Is that what’s necessary to connect with a Web 2.0 audience? And when we connect on issues that are relevant to them, will they pay attention?

Those are key marketer questions in the Web 2.0 world!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Next Step in Behavioral Targeting?

Marketers know that segmentation is key to targeting which, in turn, leads to increased marketing ROI. From the beginning of the Internet savvy marketers have seen the potential for improved targeting that comes from tracking customer activities on the web, as indicated in the chart from eMarketer (newsletter, June 19, 2008). Behavioral targeting is well established, although not without issues from the consumer perspective. Remember the controversy over Facebook’s Beacon advertising program?

Consumers are wary that their privacy is being invaded by ad targeting efforts. eMarketer’s July 29 newsletter quotes a study from Harris Interactive that shows 55% of respondents “very” or “somewhat comfortable” with the privacy and security policies of sites that allow targeted advertising. That leaves 45% who are “not very” or “not at all comfortable” with those same policies. That’s an interesting split! In the same newsletter they quote a TNS study in which a large majority of respondents describe themselves as knowledgeable about both privacy threats and tools to deal with them. With due respect to our customers, I absolutely don’t believe they are knowledgeable. I know how much trouble behavioral marketers have in trying to explain behavioral analysis and targeting to potential customers. I also know how unaware my own graduate marketing students are of the basics of behavioral targeting on the web. Consumers think they are aware, but it’s highly unlikely that they understand the intricacies. If they knew, would they be more or less concerned? My guess is more, not less.

That’s not going to stop the unrelenting advance of technology though. In this iMediaConnection video Jim Calhoun of PopularMedia describes what his firm is doing to add data from the social graph to targeting models. Direct marketers have long known that people gravitate to others like themselves and have used that kind of affinity in segmentation and targeting. The next step may well be mapping out the social graph and using those connections to better understand consumers. The first 2 minutes of the video talk about the behavioral marketing developments; the second half is a bit of background on the social graph. Watch either or both segments—it will either fascinate you or creep you out—depending on your personal perspective!
View the video here.

Then think about your customers, and how they’re likely to feel. Then consider the following quote from Fran Maier, executive director of TRUSTe, the privacy organization.

“Education once again appears to be the key to finding a constructive balance between behavioral targeting and consumer privacy, because no matter how much we assure anonymity, there is still significant discomfort with the idea of tracking . . .We have a solid indication that consumers want us to find a way to get them the advertising that is relevant to them. In order to do this, behavioral targeting is one of the most promising methods, but at the very least, it has to be made more transparent, provide choices, and deliver real value.”

While I agree with that statement, I still have a question. Is “education” best done by a single enterprise or would it be better received from an objective third party? Third parties like TRUSTe have a major role to play, but so far it’s not clear to me that they are reaching the great mass of Internet users with any impact. I think businesses should worry about that. They should also make a herculean effort to let their customers know what they are doing and to explain the value that targeted advertising does bring. They have to do that in a way that’s comprehensible and not too self serving. That’s a tall order, but it’s necessary to build and maintain consumer trust!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cloud Computing - A New Model?

Cloud computing is one of those concepts that’s either very simple or very complex. Until you know which, it’s hard to understand the concept. I’ve been wrestling with that for several months and I’ve come up with a few nuggets of understanding that I’d like to share. Last week the AlwaysOn network posted a video from one of their conferences that’s helpful. The “chief geeks” of both NASDAQ and HP give their perspectives. Russ Daniels of HP points out that cloud computing can reduce operational costs, which his IT-manager customers obviously care deeply about. As a marketer I cared more about his follow-on statement that IT could then put more effort into creating value for customers. Think about that as you watch the video!

So cloud computing is a potentially valuable concept. What IS it? Irving Wladawsky-Berger is a retired IBMer who writes a tech blog that’s comprehensible to laypeople on the Always On Network. He’s a proponent of the cloud computing concept, seeming to see it as a logical extension of his work at IBM eservices. In a July 14 post he says:

I prefer to think of what is happening as the long-needed evolution of application software to something that is far more usable by humans. When virtualizing applications to be used by people who care nothing about computers or technology - as is mostly the case with Clouds - the key thing we want to virtualize or hide from the user is complexity.

In a more recent post he links to a page with 20 different—and all useful—definitions of the concept. That’s a strong indicator that the field is still evolving.

According to Gartner, the evolution is in its early stages. Actually, the interpretation of being near the top is their “hype cycle” is that sanity will soon return and the field will mature. Cloud computing is nearing the peak; note that Green IT is even closer. Translated, does that mean it’s a maturing, but not yet mature field? A field for IT managers to watch closely, but not necessarily ready for major investment.
Wladawsky-Berger likens cloud computing to other major management initiatives like Six Sigma and Lean Production. He says:

If cloud computing implies delivering high quality consumer and business services to your customers around the world over a variety of channels, as well as operating well engineered, efficient data centers - how can you stay in business and ignore this major marketplace strategy? It would be like an industrial company saying that all the advances in manufacturing and production over the last 25 years are not for them. It would be nearly impossible for a business to stay competitive with such an attitude. In fact, a number of enterprises have already been embracing cloud-like methodologies for delivering services to their customer, even if they don’t call it that.

The take-away? Cloud computing is a new model—an IT model, not a marketing one. Is it a new business model, allowing companies to outsource technical infrastructure (where have we heard that before?) and concentrate on their core business competencies? Maybe. It bears close tracking.

Applications like Amazon Web Services and Google Maps are examples of “computing in the clouds.” The Amazon cloud and the Google cloud, to be precise. They maintain the infrastructure, users take advantage of the functionality--as explained in yesterday’s post. Another example would be Facebook APIs. There are plenty of places to experiment without much risk or investment. Shouldn’t marketers be pushing those experiments—and doing so with the understanding there’s a greater implication than just a single application, important though it may be to their current marketing tactics?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Add Amazon to the List of "Going Green"

I’m an Amazon affiliate (“associate” in their terminology) and every so often I get an email from the program. My use of the associates program is limited to a direct sales channel for my textbook, so the emails usually are read and discarded. This one interested me—both because of the subject matter and because Amazon generally does these things so well. That seems to be true of Amazon Green.

The email is encouraging me to download a banner that promotes the program. If I download it using my associates ID number, I can add it to the items that generate referral fees. They seem to have two basic banner messages Go Green and Green Lighting as well as the various formats illustrated in the email. That probably reflects product issues, and I’d expect the number of product-specific banners to increase over time to better reflect the affiliate’s website and increase the probability of click-throughs.

When you investigate the Green 3™ program, you see it’s customer oriented. The customer can select products for the program. A purchase is required to “vote” on products—fair enough. They have over 1,500 products on the list and over 6,000 “votes” (unique customers or total of votes cast; they don’t say), so people are participating. Most of the items on the page are typical Amazon promotion, “Green Three™ Frontrunners” for example. But there are also links to resources like the federal government’s Energy Star page.
There is also a blog—of course. The description of the program on the blog is interesting. Wonder how they chose the “team of Amazonians” to participate in the Green Scene program? The blog is active and informative and you can put it on your Amazon daily page if you wish. Each blog entry has a feedback opportunity: “Interesting? Yes or No” Nice touch. On another page I found a link to a FAQs page detailing what Amazon itself is doing to be more green—they don’t miss a beat.

This doesn’t seem to be “greenwashing.” I wrote a post for eBrandMarketing not long ago in which I trashed Target for one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing that I’ve seen. Amazon’s program is promotional, it’s intended to sell more products, but the information seems legitimate. And it is set up to engage employees, customers and affiliates.

I’d suggest that a project like this—if it’s really “walking the walk” not just “talking the talk” can be highly engaging to three key groups--your employees, your customers and your affiliates. How do you describe “triple win?” That’s what it looks like!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Product Reviews = Online WOM

There’s not much doubt that word of mouth in general and product ratings in particular affect online buyers/researchers. I’ve noticed two developments in this space in recent days—a product called Bazaarvoice Stories™ from the services firm Bazaarvoice and a notice that another ratings services provider, PowerReviews is testing review services for small retailers. Both seemed worth investigating.

Customer reviews are a powerful engine of ecommerce, and I’ve written about their impact several times (1,2). I checked out Marketing Charts for what's new on the subject, and this is what I found:

• The importance of online reviews to offline purchases
• The impact of online WOM
• Both UK and US consumers find product reviews helpful in their purchasing process.

At a micro level it’s worth asking what some firms are doing to encourage reviews and product stories and what impact are they having. This headline from the WSJ’s MarketWatch site caught my attention—for obvious reasons!

Leading Retailer Encourages Customers to Tell Other People About the L.L.Bean Products They Own; More Than 13,000 Reviews Submitted to Within One Week


You’ll find interesting case studies at both Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews. A study at PowerReviews led me to an in-depth academic study with food for thought. IT professors Alanah Davis and Deepak Khazanchi from the University of Nebraska Omaha analyzed purchase data in a study published in Electronic Markets and available online. They started out with a fairly complex concept of how online WOM affects purchasing behavior. They performed a causal analysis using number of reasonable variables like the volume of reviews and the degree to which they are positive on actual purchases in a number of product categories. A number of independent variables were not significant in influencing purchases, leaving them with a simpler and provocative concept.

It’s not surprising that the number of product ratings and the number of product views influenced product awareness. It’s also not surprising that visual cues (including ones that are user-submitted) influenced product expectations while the product category itself affected both awareness and expectations. What’s most challenging to marketers you cannot see in this graphic (see page 135 in the pdf). Marketer promotion dropped out of the model as it had no statistically significant impact on purchases. Ouch!
The paper is worth reading for a good literature review as well as the authors’ reasoning process and statistical analysis, which are accessible to the lay reader. Actually, it’s worth reading alone for Sebastian’s review (he looks like a wonderful Basset Hound) of his big doggie bed! Your customers have creativity—and a sense of humor—that ought to be tapped!

It’s always a bit dangerous to take a short quote from a complex academic study, but this one is worth it:

One of the most important implications for practice is the idea that e-commerce companies need to have a strategy of combining efforts to increase product views and the volume of comments on specific product pages. This research also points out the value in allowing reviewers to upload product images, probably boosting the cognitive consequence of expectations about a product. (page 140)

That’s pretty straightforward. We need to be bringing more visitors to our product pages and, once they are there, encourage them to write reviews and upload their own product images. Think Sebastian.

And think how much cheaper this strategy is than all the marketer promotion that had no significant impact on purchases in this study. Note, however, that I said that carefully (I hope). Something has to be done to bring visitors to your pages. Once they get there, however, don’t just talk to them; engage them in the process. At this stage of the purchase process, user content is more powerful than marketer content.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Video Calling Anyone?

When I noticed that a startup called TokBox (pronounce it “talk box”) had received a new round of venture funding, I decided to investigate this space. It’s not one of my favorites. The concept of video calling always conjures up the 60s ad (which shows up on PBS and other reports from time to time). The whole point of the really insulting ad was that a woman would have to do her hair and makeup before answering the phone. I can’t find the ad on the Net, although I’ll bet it’s archived somewhere. I did find a piece of interesting history on the Picturephone though, suggesting reasons for its expensive failure.

Fast forward to the present. Skype now offers video calling; I also found a firm called SightSpeed that seems to emphasize the business uses of its service. TokBox offers a video calling service that doesn’t require either party to download special software, and that seems to be its primary benefit. I was also interested to note that they have a feedback tab (expanded here) on every page of the site—good idea. Not surprisingly, they have a Facebook app. That seems to open up a huge network.

Back to the 60s. Do home users really want to be seen when one of their friends initiates a chat session? Answer that for yourself! I have my own strongly-felt answer to that one!! Seriously, I really do think it’s an issue.

CNBC has a video interview with one of the venture capitalists supporting TokBox. It focuses on the business uses of the technology, which once again seem the most compelling to me.
View the video here.

This space will likely continue to generate new entrants and new applications for the large social networks. Given the stress on collaborative work, and as CNBC points out the growing cost of business travel, there seems to be a lot of room for business applications. In the meantime, for sure some dedicated personal users like the fans on TokBox’s Facebook page, will continue to have a lot of fun with it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Social Landing Pages?

I noticed this term a few days ago in Ion Interactive’s newsletter and thought it was interesting. Landing pages are an important—and too often ignored—part of the conversion process. Improving them is a subject that should always be of interest. So, as usual, I set out to explore.

The first thing I found out is that the term doesn’t seem to be in use on sites like, which specializes in conversion issues, or Omniture, which touts optimization of various aspects of emarketing. What I did find was a number of services that help marketers test their landing pages. Testing is always good, whether the pages are social or not.

So I went back to Ion to find their definition. Content from their newsletter (July 08) answered that:

Subscriber question: What is a social landing page?
Answer: Social landing pages are landing pages that include social networking features. They bring together marketer-managed marketing and social interactivity.

In the news release for their LiveBall product, Ion’s president Scott Brinker adds, “A landing page can serve as a ‘connector’, bringing together people with a specialized, shared interest.” The press release goes on to describe 7 benefits of adding social features to a landing page that include recipient interaction, brand development and lower bounce rate.

These are interesting, but I wanted some examples. Their LiveBall product demo is interesting, although it stopped working about half way through the second step. It makes it clear, though, that the Ion product is marketer-controlled, and I’m always a fan of DYI.

But I’m still looking for examples, so I did something I don’t usually do. I clicked on some PPC ads. (I’m such a considerate customer that I always use the free search listing link if it’s available.) I’ve used the Vertical Response product and like the company, so I looked to see what they had and found a good landing page. After clicking on several banners on several portal sites I found an HSBC ad on the NYT site that had a good landing page.

The search alone is instructive. A lot of companies are paying for advertising and not using landing pages associated with their ads. Some of the ads took me to product pages, which were at least relevant. Others just took me to a home page. Shameful!

Take a look at what I did find. I’m showing the landing page and the home page. Both landing pages have URLs that prove my point, but I’m showing the home page anyway to make the point that the landing pages take visitors more directly into relevant product information than do home pages.

The Vertical Response page is long, so I cut in in half and put it back together so you could see it all. It’s not particularly creative, but it gets their Create > Send > Track message across, has some promotional content, presents a compelling offer (500 free emails), and lets the viewer sign up directly on the landing page. Maybe not “creative,” but it really does the job. You could get to sign up from the home page, but you’d have to click through to the email page, where you’d find much of the same information, but an offer for only your first 25 emails (small list!). Vertical Response clearly has a landing page that’s meant to maximize the conversions from its PPC advertising.

HSBC’s term life insurance landing page (if you could see the URL, you’d see they call it the “simplestart” page) is even more interactive. It allows you to select profile characteristics and request a quote, again, right from the landing page. HSBC is a more complex enterprise and it’s home page represents that. It’s insurance main page is remarkably unattractive, but it allows you to get quotes for a variety of insurance, including term, which was featured when I wrote this post, presumably to integrate with the current banner advertising campaign.

Neither of these had “social” components in the social networking sense, although other components are possible. Ion’s blogs, for example, cover issues like use of widgets in online advertising and news feeds on landing pages.

So, while I’d call these landing pages “interactive,” instead of “social,” and there’s a large frontier to be explored either way. As you explore, don’t forget to test every step of the way. There’s so much a marketer can do; the question should always be what should I do in order to be successful?” Test and find out!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Prediction Markets Speed Innovation

When I wrote the post on Web 2.0 tools last week I noted with some satisfaction that I was familiar--through use or writing or both--with all the tools listed in the McKinsey chart except predictive markets. I thought that concept had something to do with finance and stock markets, and that was the initial focus. This paper seems to do a good job of summarizing the economic foundations of the concept. However, the article made it clear that the applications now extend beyond financial markets. I thought I ought to find out what the management and marketing implications were.

Still looking for the roots of the concept, I found a paper on an experiment at Google in what the economists called “information aggregation and revelation.” That was getting closer. This paper gives a number of interesting applications of prediction markets. One I thought was particularly interesting was the Iowa Electronic Markets, a University of Iowa project that conducts markets on elections as well as business topics like interest rates and corporate earnings. There’s lots of information on the site and you can register to participate if you like. Quoting another study, the Google paper comments that, “In the political domain, Berg, Forsythe, Nelson and Reitz (2001)summarize the evidence from the Iowa Electronic Markets, documenting that the market has both yielded very accurate predictions and also outperformed largescale polling organizations.” See pages 6 through 10 for their discussion of the accuracy of prediction markets. It’s impressive and certainly argues for “the wisdom of crowds.”

The authoritative article in the general media is a New York Times piece from this April. It discusses a variety of uses by major corporations from GE to Best Buy. I was especially taken by the InterContinental Hotels example. I know why it attracted me. All my work in customer service and database marketing makes clear that most companies do not tap the knowledge of their lower-level personnel in ways that can improve their business. The IHG project tapped their 1,000 technology staff in order to develop and prioritize ideas. They used software called IdeaPagent from the consultancy NewsFutures. Two hundred employees participated anonymously, submitting ideas that ranged from spectacularly awful to the basis for new corporate projects. They seem pleased with their experience and interested in other applications.

There are other fascinating examples in the NYT article, worth reading in its entirety. Prediction markets is not a new idea. However, it is one that seems to have been facilitated by Web 2.0 software tools. It’s not news to any of us that the pace of change has speeded up and we need to tap all possible sources of innovation. Prediction markets represent one way to speed successful innovations to market.