Jul 312010

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today), part III

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today), part III

My first thought when my colleague Jen Goldman forwarded me a SlideShare presentation that was 224 pages long was, “really?”  But a short 10 minutes and 224 clicks later, I am glad I spent the time on it.

Paul Adams, a Senior User Experience Researcher at Google, put the presentation up called The Real Life Social Network.  Paul describes the problem I discuss in Part I and Part II of this series much more eloquently than I have, with great real world examples and thoughts for web designers at the end.

If you’re involved in social media and want to start breaking away from the “one size of friend fits all” mentality – this is a great use of time.

Feb 052008

OnlyOnce Now MultiLingual

OnlyOnce Now MultiLingual

If you look in the left sidebar of OnlyOnce, you will now see a box that says “Translate This Page” with a dropdown that lets you pick the language.  Google Translate takes over from there and does the heavy lifting. 

Global world…awesome service.  Thanks, Google!

Thanks Brad and Ross for the tip.

Filed under: Email, Technology

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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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Jul 042007

The Acquisition (a parody of a parody)

The Acquisition (a parody of a parody)

I just spent a great 4th of July with my brother Michael, one of the finer and funnier people I know.  Among other things, we treated ourselves to about the 18th viewing of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I on DVD.

One of our favorite moments in the movie is the Broadway musical version of “The Inquisition” (lyrics, download MP3).  Since both of us work in the online marketing industry (Michael is a marketing manager at search agency Did-It), Michael came up with the brilliant idea of a parody of a parody…so here goes, all in good fun.

The acquisition, what a show
The acquisition, here we go
We’re on a mission, have you heard the news?

The acquisition, serve those ads
The acquisition, we’re so glad
We’ll make an offer, that they can’t refuse

Google, don’t be boring
WPP, don’t feel set
Yahoo seems to be ignoring:
It’s better to lose your market cap than your market!

Hey, Steven Ballmer, what do you say?
“I just got back from Avenue A”
“Avenue A?  What’s Avenue A?”
“It’s what I ought not have bought, but I bought anyway!”

The acquisition, what a show
The acquisition, here we go
We know you’re wishin’ that we’d go away.
But the acquisition’s here and it’s here to stay!

Happy 4th, everyone!

Jun 042007

Google en Fuego

Google en Fuego

Google announced on Friday the acquisition of RSS publishing powerhouse FeedBurner (media coverage  here and here).  I was fortunate enough to be a member of FeedBurner’s Board of Directors for the past year and had a good window into the successes of the business as well as the deal with Google.  It was all very interesting and good learnings for me as an entrepreneur as well as a first time outside director.  My original post (the “fortunate enough” link above) contained all the things I love about FeedBurner in it, so I won’t rehash those here, but I will try to distill my top 3 learnings from my experience with the company:

  1. Creating value through focus is key in the early stages of a company. The FeedBurner team had a relentless focus on publishers.  That’s what produced the value in the company that Google acquired in the end — massive publisher distribution and great brand and technology behind it all.  Had the company gone on to do a couple more years independently, the team would have had to split focus between publishers and advertisers.  I have no doubt that they would have been able to do the job, but a dual focus is more complex to execute well and harder to balance in terms of priorities.
  2. Running a company is all about improv. As many people know, FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo is a former, I’d argue current, stand-up comedian/improv actor (see his entertaining and informative interview on Wallstrip here).  Dick proved that those skills, while perhaps not as expensive to acquire as an MBA, are probably even more essential to running a company.  You have to be able to elegantly manage chaos with a smile…and you have to constantly be quick to think on your feet.
  3. Being an outside Board member was fun but had new challenges. It’s hard to know how much to be involved with a company when you’re neither management nor investor.  I was constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the company, but I was also trying to be very conscious of the fact that it wasn’t my company to run, only to advise.  I think Dick and I got the formula pretty close to right, but it wasn’t obvious.

Congratulations to Dick, Steve, Eric, Matt, and the rest of the team at FeedBurner for a job well done!

May 032007

Feeling Less Like a Luddite: Welcome, Lijit!

Feeling Less Like a Luddite:  Welcome, Lijit!

As I’ve written about a few times (here, here, and here), it’s easy to feel like a Luddite with the rapid pace of change of the web these days. Anyway, I’m feeling slightly less like one today with the addition of Lijit to my blog.

You’ll notice that I changed the search box from Google to Lijit on the right hand side of the page on OnlyOnce.  Lijit seems like it’s a better way to search a blog, and maybe other things as well.  Using Lijit, you can search not just the text of the blog itself (which is what Google allowed), but Lijit also goes out and searches a few other buckets of related content all in the same fell swoop.  So while it searches the blog, it also searches other sites that I run, other sites that are related to my site (e.g., blogs I subscribe to), other services where I might post content, like Flickr and Delicious and LinkedIn, and the open web.  Search results with four tabs — now that’s making good use of the web!

Feb 202007

Whiplash at Google, Part II

Whiplash at Google, Part II

My former colleague Brian Westnedge points me to this article that gives more detail on my earlier notes about Google’s very large NYC-based engineering team.  The article also provides a good general assessment of NYC as a location for tech companies.  Thanks, Brian!

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Feb 152007

Stuck in the Middle

Stuck in the Middle

I was trying to explain the current state of Return Path’ Postmaster Network online advertising business (email lists, lead gen, RSS) to someone from outside the industry the other day, when it occurred to me that many online marketing vehicles are still split between running on the offline paradigm and running on the online paradigm.  I don’t have a lot of detailed stats on all of this at my fingertips, but bear with my observations.

To me, the offline paradigm has always been characterized by big agency buys, driven by thematic/brand oriented creative campaigns that cost a fortune to develop.  This is even true to a large extent for direct marketing, although the mechanics are different.  It’s relied on lots of third party intermediaries to connect the audience (or more specifically, estimates of the audience) to the marketer.  It has paid all of these people on a percentage of the media spend, which is so massive that a 10% override on it can keep you in business and be dissociated from effort expended or value created.  Many of the original forms of online media — banners, lists — still operate partially in this world.  This part of the online ad market is growing, but more slowly than others.

Contrast this with the online paradigm that has been characterized by automated buying, rapid testing cycles, small up-front dollar outlays, and an “always on” marketing that’s not necessarily tied to a big campaign.  It’s been much more marketplace, aggregator, and bid-driven and frequently has marketers connecting straight to their audience, or at least to the media vehicle that their audience is on.  Fees are success-based or labor-based.  This is the part of the market that’s exploding in popularity.

So why are some parts of online marketing stuck in the middle today?  It seems to me that the things that are related to the offline paradigm in some way are still living in that paradigm, while things that are truly new in the last 5+ years are freed from those shackles.  So some things, like email list rental and banner buys, go through an agency or a broker (or sometimes both), because, well, that’s how clients have always rented mailing lists or bought column inches in magazines.  But anyone with a credit card can start bidding for keywords on Google or Yahoo, or post offers to an affiliate network, trying out their own creative and optimizing it within minutes or hours.

The thing I find so interesting about this is that all of these different online marketing tactics, whether old school or new school, are trying to do the same things — generate more sales/leads/customers, and build brand.  But the legacy machinery of old world marketing and advertising still lingers in the background while the new machinery of search and automated marketing/bidding engines are gaining steam.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out over time, but I’d be surprised if there’s a lot of the purchasing of high value online real estate that continues to be in the control of old-style agencies and brokers for too much longer.  It’s just getting too easy for marketers to control their own destiny.  What I think is even more fascinating is the possibility that these new technologies and techniques might move upstream to influence how “old media” is bought as well over time, as seen in both Yahoo’s and Google’s recent deals with offline media brokers (and even, one could argue, the YouTube acquisition).  There’s no logical reason why marketers shouldn’t be able to bid on 30-second TV commercials across the major networks and cable stations and not be held to big up-front commitments and markups.  Oh, right, and come back to the network afterwards and ask for a make good if the ad doesn’t drive enough sales on the back-end.

Maybe agencies and brokers will change…maybe some courageous traditional media vehicles will change…or maybe a little of both, but old school online customer acquisition marketing won’t be stuck in the middle forever.  The scale and ROI will guarantee it.

Feb 052007

Whiplash at Google

Whiplash at Google

A friend of mine who works at Google invited me over to have lunch last week. It was fun to see their NY office — it had a similar fun vibe to their main campus in Mountain View. But it was a study in contrast in terms of how they treat guests.

First, I had to sign a one-sided NDA in order to enter the premises. Totally offputting as the first point of contact and a requirement to even have lunch. I know other companies do that was well but was surprised given the whole “do no evil” thing to see it at GOOG.

But then of course, there was the free super gourmet cafeteria:  hazelnut-encrusted wild halibut, braised fennel and leeks, lavash, and seared scallop and seaweed with a ponzu vinaigrette.  I’m not even sure what ponzu vinaigrette is, but I can attest that it is yummy.

Mostly, it was just interesting to see what the Google machine has built in Manhattan — 1,200 people (including 300+ engineers, which is truly astounding) and growing!

Filed under: Email

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Nov 062006

A Tale of Two Strategies

A Tale of Two Strategies

Two headlines right next to each other in today’s Wall Street Journal tell an interesting story.  First, they tell of Google’s strategy to allow advertisers to use Google’s web site to bid on and buy print advertising in over 50 leading newspapers. Then comes CBS’s strategy to bring in a new executive digital media M&A guru, Quincy Smith from Allen & Company, to “find the next YouTube.”

(These links should work for a week, but I think that’s all the Journal allows – sorry!).

So there you have it.  CBS’ grand interactive plans are about trying to do value-based Internet acquisitions.  Best of luck.  Les Moonves’ quote is somewhat sad — “This shows how serious we are about new media.”

All that against a backdrop of Google probably dropping three engineers and a case of Jolt Cola into a room for a week and coming up with an automated way of buying print ads in newspapers whose circulations are declining precipitously.  Eric Schmidt’s quote is equally interesting for its contrast to Moonves:  “Anything that we can do to improve the economic efficiency of the old model [of advertising] transfers money from the old model to the new model.”

Now to be fair, Google did say that eventually they would have 1,000 people working on offline media placements, 10% of its workforce, but they will probably grow their way there profitably, instead of turning into a private equity firm.

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