Nov 302007

Facebook and Privacy

I hate just doing linkblogs, but Fred’s thoughts this morning on Facebook and privacy around the beacon issue are spot on. 

Two highlights I couldn’t agree with more:

When the internet knows who you are, what you do, who your friends are, and what they do, it goes from the random bar you wander into to your favorite pub where your friends congregate and the bartender knows your drink and pours it for you when you walk in the door

and

These privacy backlashes do some good though. They keep big companies like Google and Facebook sensitized to the issue. And so we hope that they ‘do no evil’ with this data they are collecting

Read the full post here.

Filed under: Email, Technology

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Nov 252007

The Facebook Fad

The Facebook Fad

I’m sure someone will shoot me for saying this, but I don’t get Facebook.  I mean, I get it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  I made similar comments before about Gmail (here, here), and people told me I was an idiot at the time.  Three years later, Gmail is certainly a popular webmail service, but it’s hardly changed the world. In fact, it’s a distant fourth behind Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL.  So I don’t feel so bad about not oohing and ahhing and slobbering all over the place about Facebook.

Facebook reminds me of AOL back in the day.  AOL was the most simple, elegant, general purpose entree for people who wanted to get online and weren’t sure how in the early days of online services, before the Internet came of age.  It was good at packaging up its content and putting everything “in a box.”  It was clean.  It was fun.  People bragged about being an AOL member and talked about their screen name like it was on their birth certificate or something.  And the company capitalized on all the goodwill by becoming a PR machine to perpetuate its membership growth.

Now Facebook — it’s the most simple, elegant, general purpose social networking site here in the early days of social networking.  It’s pretty good about packaging up its applications, and certainly opening up its APIs is a huge benefit that AOL didn’t figure out until it embraced the open web in 1999-2000.  It is pretty good about putting everything in a box for me as a member.  And like AOL, the company is turning into a PR juggernaut and hoping to use it to perpetuate its registration numbers.

But let’s look at the things that caused (IMO) AOL’s downfall (AOL as we knew it) and look at the parallels with Facebook.  AOL quickly became too cluttered.  It’s simple elegance was destroyed by too much stuff jammed into its clean interface.  It couldn’t keep up with best of breed content or even messaging systems inside its walled garden.  Spam crushed its email functionality.  It couldn’t maintain its “all things to all people” infrastructure on the back end.  Ultimately, the open web washed over it.  People who defected were simply having better experiences elsewhere.

The parallels aren’t exact, but there are certainly some strong ones.  Facebook is already too cluttered for me.  Why are people writing on my wall instead of emailing me — all that does is trigger an email from Facebook to me telling me to come generate another page view for them.  Why am I getting invitations to things on Facebook instead of through the much better eVite platform?  The various forms of messaging are disorganized and hard to find. 

Most important, for a social network, it turns out that I don’t actually want my entire universe of friends and contacts to be able to connect with each other through me.  Like George Costanza in Seinfeld, I apparently have a problem with my “worlds colliding.”  I already know of one couple who either hooked up or is heavily flirting by connecting through my Facebook profile, and it’s not one I’m proud to have spawned.  I think I let one of them “be my friend” by mistake in the first place.  And I am a compulsive social networker.  It’s hard to imagine that these principles scale unfettered to the whole universe.

The main thing Facebook has going for it in this comparison is that its open APIs will lead to best of breed development for the platform.  But who cares about Facebook as a platform?  Isn’t the open web (or Open Social) ultimately going to wash over it?  I get that there are cool apps being written for Facebook – but 100% of those applications will be on the open web as well.  It’s certainly possible that Facebook’s marrying of my “social network” with best of breed applications will make it stickier for longer than AOL…but let’s remember that AOL has clung to life as a proprietary service for quite a while on the stickiness of people’s email addresses.  And yet, it is a non-event now as a platform. 

It will be interesting to see how Facebook bobs and weaves over the coming years to avoid what I think of as its inevitable fate.  And yes, I know I’m not 18 and if I were, I’d like Facebook more and spend all day in it.  But that to me reinforces my point even more — this is the same crew who flocked to, and then quickly from, MySpace.  When will they get tired of Facebook, and what’s to prevent them moving onto the next fad?

Filed under: Email

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Nov 212007

VCs Are Full of It

VCs Are Full of It

…at least that’s what Brad says.  Well, he says a lot more than that, but certainly makes for a good pre-holiday headline, doesn’t it?

Brad’s brilliant advice is not to confuse data – or even worse – anecdotes – with fact.  I’d add to the axiom my own observation that “just because someone says something with extreme conviction doesn’t mean it’s true.”

His whole post is very worthwhile – one of the best ones I’ve read in a long time.  Read it here.

Nov 202007

Academic Inspiration

Academic Inspiration

I just read in my alumni magazine that at Opening Exercises for incoming freshmen this year, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman closed her remarks with the following:

For the next four years, you will be encouraged – and indeed sometimes even exhorted – to develop the qualities of mind that allowed Katherine Newman, Simon Morrison, and Alan Krueger to change what we know about the world.  Those qualities are the willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly; to cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reactions to ideas and ideologies; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; to be prepared to be surprised; and to appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength.  We ask you to be open to new ideas, however surprising; to shun the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of careful analysis; and to recognize propaganda, ignorance, and baseless revisionism when you see it.  That is the essence of a Princeton education.

While some of these comments are more appropriate for an academic setting, how many of us who run businesses want to encourage the same behavior and thoughtfulness of our employees?  Here are a few examples taken from the above.

To change what we know about the world — a hallmark of a successful startup is to invent new products and services, to change the way the world works in some small way.  In our case, to fix some of the most critical problems with email marketing.

The willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly — reinventing some part of the world only comes by challenging the status quo.  Return Path was started by asking an unorthodox question:  why isn’t there an easy way for people to change their email address online?

To cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white
; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument – the longer I run a company, the less black and white I see.  When I do seev it, I think of it as a gift.  The rest of the day is spent trying to figure out the zone in between.  Making 51/49 decisions all day long is difficult, but it’s easier when the rest of the organization is capable of doing the same thing.

To appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength; to be open to new ideas, however surprising — perseverance in business is critical; stubbornness is deadly.  How does the old saying go?  The definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  If the only thing we were still doing at Return Path is ECOA, we’d be long gone by now, or at least MUCH smaller than we are today.

I don’t know too many entrepreneurs that don’t espouse most of the above principles.  The trick is to build an entire company of people that do.

Nov 182007

In Search of Automated Relevance

In Search of Automated Relevance

A bunch of us had a free form meeting last week that started out as an Email Summit focused on protocols and ended up, as Brad put it, with us rolling around in the mud of a much broader and amorphous Messaging Summit.  The participants (and some of their posts on the subject) in addition to me were Fred Wilson (pre, post), Brad FeldPhil Hollows, Tom Evslin (pre, post), and Jeff Pulver (pre, post).  And the discussion to some extent was inspired by and commented on Saul Hansell’s article in the New York Times about “Inbox 2.0″ and how Yahoo, Google, and others are trying to make email a more relevant application in today’s world; and Chad Lorenz’s article in Slate called “The Death of Email” (this must be the 923rd article with that headline in the last 36 months) which talks about how email is transitioning to a key part of the online communications mix instead of the epicenter of online communications.

Ok, phew, that’s all the background. 

With everyone else’s commentary on this subject already logged, most of which I agree with, I’ll add a different $0.02.  The buzzword of the day in email marketing is “relevance.”  So why can’t anyone figure out how to make an email client, or any messaging platform for that matter, that starts with that as the premise, even for 1:1 communications?  I think about messaging relevance from two perspectives:  the content, and the channel.

Content.
  In terms of the content of a message, I think of relevance as the combination of Relationship and Context.  The relationship is all about my connection to you.  Are you a friend, a friend of a friend, or someone I don’t know that’s trying to burrow your way onto my agenda for the day?  Are you a business that I know and trust, are you a carefully screened and targeted offer coming from an affiliate of a business I trust, or are you a spammer? 

But as important as the relationship is to the relevance of your message to me, the context is equally important.  Let’s take Brad as an example.  I know him in two distinct contexts:  as one of my venture investors, and as an occasional running partner.  A message from Brad (a trusted relationship) means very different things to me depending on its context.  One might be much more relevant than the other at any moment in my life.

Channel.  The channel through which I send or receive a message has an increasing amount to do with relevance as well.  As with content, I think of channel relevance as the combination of two things -  device, and technology.  For me, the device is limited to three things, two with heavy overlap.  The first is a fixed phone line – work or home (I still think cell service in this country leaves a lot to be desired).  The second is a mobile device, which could mean voice but could also mean data.  The third is a computer, whether desktop or laptop.  In terms of technology, the list is growing by the day.  Voice call, email, IM, Skype, text message, social network messaging, and on and on.

So what  do I mean about channel relevance?  Sometimes, I want to send a message by email from my smartphone.  Sometimes I want to send a text message.  Sometimes I want to make a phone call or just leave a voicemail.  Sometimes I even want to blog or Twitter.  I have yet to desire to send a message in Facebook, but I do sometimes via LinkedIn, so I’m sure I’ll get there.  Same goes for the receiving side.  Sometimes I want to read an email on my handheld.  Sometimes a text message does the job, etc.  Which channel and device I am interested in depends to some extent on the content of the message, per above, but sometimes it depends on what I’m doing and where I am.

So what?  Starting to feel complex?  It should be.  It is.  We all adjusted nicely when we added email to our lives 10 years ago.  It added some communication overhead, but it took the place of some long form paper letters and some phone calls as well.  Now that we seem to be adding new messaging channels every couple weeks, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get the relevance right.  Overlaying Content (Relationship and Context) with Channel (Device and Technology) creates a matrix that’s very difficult to navigate.

How do we get to a better place?  Technology has to step in and save the day here.  One of the big conclusions from our meeting was that no users care about or even know about the protocol – they just care about the client they interact with.  Where’s the ultra flexible client that allows me to combine all these different channels, on different devices?  Not a one-size-fits-all unified messaging service, but something that I can direct as I see fit?  There are glimmers of hope out there – Gmail integrating IM and email…Simulscribe letting me read my voicemail as an email…Twitter allowing me to input via email, SMS, or web…even good old eFax emailing me a fax – but these just deal with two or three cells in an n-dimensional matrix.

As our CTO Andy Sautins says, software can do anything if it’s designed thoughtfully and if you have enough talent and time to write and test it.  So I believe this “messaging client panacea” could exist if someone put his or her mind to it.  One of the big questions I have about this software is whether or not relevance can be automated, to borrow a phrase from Stephanie Miller, our head of consulting.  Sure, there is a ton of data to mine – but is there ever enough?  Can a piece of software figure out on its own that I want to get a message from Brad about “running” (whatever channel it comes in on) as a text message on my smartphone if we’re talking about running together the next day, but otherwise as an RSS feed in the same folder as the posts from his running blog, but a voicemail from Brad about “running the company” (again, regardless of how he sends it) as an email automatically sorted to the top of my inbox?  Or do I have to undertake an unmanageable amount of preference setting to get the software to behave the way I want it to behave?  And oh by the way, should Brad have any say over how I receive the message, or do I have all the control?  And does the latter question depend on whether Brad is a person or a company?

What does this mean for marketers?  That’s the $64,000 question.  I’m not sure if truly Automated Relevance is even an option today, but marketers can do their best to optimize all four components of my relevance equation:  content via relationship and context, and channel via device and technology.  A cocktail of permission, deep behavioral analysis, segmentation, smart targeting, and a simple but robust preference center probably gets you close enough.  Better software that works across channels with built-in analytics – and a properly sized and whip smart marketing team – should get you the rest of the way there.  But technology and practices are both a ways off from truly automated relevance today.

I hope this hasn’t been too much rolling around in the mud for you.  All thoughts and comments (into my fancy new commenting system, Intense Debate) are welcome!

Filed under: Email, Technology

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Nov 182007

Saying Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

Seth Godin’s post yesterday of the same title has this good advice for businesses who are shutting down:

It seems to me that you ought to say goodbye with the same care and attention to detail and honesty you use to say hello. You never know when you’ll be back.

The same should be said of companies and employees.  We always try in interviews to be as kind as possible to candidates who we are not going to hire.  I’m sure we don’t always get it right at all levels, but I always make a personal phone call and usually send a handwritten letter to finalists for senior jobs.  Once, when I had to “ding” a candidate for a VP level job who was expecting an offer based on something I said, I even sent him a bottle of his favorite wine.  You don’t have to go to those extremes all the time, but sending a candidate a letter or more formal email or giving him or her a phone call if they’ve taken the time to come in and interview goes a long way towards building your company’s brand as an employer.  And you never know when a candidate who isn’t a fit for one position is a perfect fit for another position.  Calling back is much easier if you say goodbye the right way the first time around.

I try to do the same thing with employees who leave the company, regardless of who terminates the employment relationship.  I do my best to see or at least call the departing employee on or near his last day to thank him for his service and – if appropriate – let him know that the door is always open if he wants to come back someday.

And we ask the same of employees who leave of us – that they say goodbye the right way.  We ask departing employees to give us as much of a heads up as possible that they’re considering looking for a new job (without retribution, of course).  If people have decided to leave, we ask for three weeks’ notice instead of the traditional two or less.  Again, we don’t get this from everyone, but we do get it from many.  And for people’s “lame duck” time, we ask them to stay focused and complete the documentation and transition of their responsibilities in as orderly a manner as possible. 

There’s just no good reason to burn a bridge, even if for whatever reason you feel wronged by an employer or an employee.

Filed under: Human Resources, Leadership

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Nov 112007

It's The Little Things

It’s The Little Things

My credit card expires at the end of this month, so Citibank just sent me a new one.  I’d guess that about 50 web sites, maybe 75, have my credit card on file and know that it’s about to expire.  Only two of them — that’s right, only two — Typepad (my blogging software from company Six Apart) and Mobil Speedpass sent me reminders to come back and update my account.  And at that, Mobil sent its reminder via snail mail.  Typepad’s was an easy one-click right to my account’s profile page on the web site.

How is it that only one or two companies got it right?  This is one of those little opportunities to remind customers that you are thinking about them and their needs. 

As for the others, I guess they’re just going to reject some upcoming transaction or auto-bill.  I guarantee you that at least one of them will screw me as a result (my money is on someone in the telco world).  For all the other companies with whom I transact online or via Mastercard, I am now scouring my last few months worth of Citibank bills and then going web site by web site, updating my card’s expiration date.  Reminds me of the days before we launched ECOA where you had to go update your email address one web site at a time…

Filed under: Email

Nov 082007

The Social Aspects of Running a Board

The Social Aspects of Running a Board

I’ve posted about the the topic of Boards of Directors a couple of times before, here and here.  We had one of our quarterly in-person Board meetings yesterday, which I always enjoy, and one of my directors pointed out that I never posted about the social aspects of running a Board.  Since this is a critical component of the job, it is certainly worth mentioning.

A high functioning Board isn’t materially different from any other high functioning team.  The group needs to have a clear charter or set of responsibilities, clear lines of communication, and open dialog.  And as with any team, making sure that the people on a Board know how to connect with each other as individuals as critical to building good relationships and having good communication, both inside and outside of Board meetings.

We’ve always done a dinner either before or after every in-person Board meeting to drive this behavior.  They take different forms:  sometimes they are Board only, sometimes Board and senior management; sometimes just dinner, sometimes an event as well as dinner, like bowling (the lowest common denominator of sporting activities) or a cooking class, as we did last night.  But whatever form the “social time” takes, and it doesn’t have to be expensive at all, I’ve found it to be an incredibly valuable part of team-building for the Board over the years.

You’d never go a whole year without having a team lunch or dinner or outing…treat your Board the same way!

Nov 022007

In Defense of Email, Part 9,732

In Defense of Email, Part 9,732

I commented today on our partner Blue Sky Factory’s CEO, Greg Cangialosi’s excellent posting in defense of email as a marketing channel called Email’s Role and Future Thoughts.  Since the comment grew longer than I anticipated, I thought I’d re-run parts of it here.

A couple quick stats from Forrester’s recent 5-year US Interactive forecast back up Greg’s points con gusto:

- 94% of consumers use email; 16% use social networking sites (and I assume they mean USE them – not just get solicitations from their friends to join).  That doesn’t mean that social networking sites aren’t growing rapidly in popularity, at least in some segments of the population, and it doesn’t mean that email marketing may not be the best way to reach certain people at certain times.  But it does mean that email remains the most ubiquitous online channel, not to mention the most “pull-oriented” and “on demand.”

- Spend on email marketing is $2.7b this year, growing to $4.2b in 2012.  Sure, email by 2012 is the smallest “category” by dollars spent, but first of all, one of the categories is “emerging channels,” which looks like it includes “everything else” in the world other than search, video, email, and display.  So it includes mobile as well as social media, and who knows what else.  Plus, if you really understand how email marketing works, you understand that dollars don’t add up in the same way as other forms of media since so much of the work can be done in-house. 

What really amazes me is how all these “web 2.0″ people keep talking about how email is dying (when in fact it’s growing, albeit at a slower rate than other forms of online media) and don’t focus on how things like classifieds and yellow pages are truly DYING, and what that means for those industries.

I think a more interesting point is that in Forrester’s forecast, US Interactive Marketing spend by 2012 in aggregate reached $61b, more than triple where it is today — and that the percent of total US advertising going to interactive grows from 8 to 18 over the five years in the forecast. 

The bigger question that leaves me with is what that means for the overall efficiency of ad spend in the US.  It must be the case that online advertising in general is more efficient than offline — does that mean the total US advertising spend can shrink over time?  Or just that as it gets more efficient,
marketers will use their same budgets to try to reach more and more prospects?

Filed under: Email

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