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What If You Fired Your 8 Million Most Influential Users?

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 19, 2013

trumpfiresyouWhat if you were running a big web business and you fired your 8 million most influential users?

Would that be a smart thing to do?  Would your shareholders be happy?  Would your board be happy?  What possible reason could you have to do such a thing?  What perceived advantage would offset the cost of annoying your 8 million most influential users?

Lest you think this is some imaginary scenario, firing 8 million influential users is exactly what Google is doing as it shelves Google Reader in less than a month.  Google is firing the likes of Om Malik, for example, and Seth Godin who says RSS is still the most efficient way of reading blogs.  Google says they’re doing it for lack of traffic, but as I’ve written before, that’s a bogus argument.

Let’s start with how I get to 8 million.  That number is from an email I just got from Feed.ly, who are introducing a Cloud version and say that since the Google announcement they’ve gone from 4 million to 12 million users.  Even better is that these are not just looky-loos–Feed.ly says that 68% are accessing the service on a weekly basis so they’re real users.  That’s 8 million right there, but the truth is the numbers are probably much higher for a number of reasons:

-  There are bound to be quite a few that will wait to the bitter end to migrate off Google Reader.

-  There are a lot of other services besides Feed.ly that have gotten their share of defectors.  Feed.ly happens to be my current favorite alternative, but I have no doubt the others are successful growing from the Google debacle too.

-  There are potentially even larger players in the offing, with Digg about to offer up its alternative and there is even a rumor Facebook may make it possible to bring your feeds into Facebook for reading (smart move on their part if so).

With Google Reader shutting down July 1 (just 10 days) and some of these big new players getting here only slightly before the shutdown, it should be no surprise that there’ll be a lot of last minute jockeying before the post-Google Reader market has stabilized.  One thing seems certain–with this many people moving around and this many companies putting forward products, RSS is far from the dead duck Google and some others have claimed it to be.   That’s great news for bloggers, many of whom depend on RSS driven traffic to keep growing their readership through compound interest.

Okay, we’ve established there are millions of people Google is firing, but are they “their most influential users?”  That all depends on how you define “influential”, but I look at it this way:

-  They’re people that consume a lot of content and are savvy users of the web else they wouldn’t bother with the complexity of an RSS Reader.  In other words, these are the web’s power users.

-  They are Bloggers, Journalists, and Influencers.  These people need a power tool like RSS to be able to consume the Firehose of Information they need to be on top of their games.

I don’t know why you wouldn’t call such people the most influential users Google has available to it.  If you have any doubt, go to virtually any post about the Google Reader debacle and read the comments (I should add that the Google Reader audience are hugely more likely to participate via comments and other means).  I just picked a few examples to show:

-  Wired’s Christina Bonnington writes that Google Reader was axed because people no longer consume the news that way.  It’s too old-fashioned.  Instead they want the “push” delivery that services like Google+ can offer.   The comments are virtual explosion decrying that notion and you don’t have to get far before someone says they don’t want to read the news Google thinks they should read, they want to read the news they want to read.  It’s also funny to read in this article an others the guess that Reader had “several million users” when we now now it was much greater than that.  Google simply let people believe the service wasn’t popular because it served their purposes.

-  Andrew Chen says he is dropping RSS and his readers need to sign up to his email list.  His article purports to show the death of RSS in a single graph, which is of the number of people searching for RSS.  It’s telling that the very first comment is from Seth Godin who tells him in no uncertain terms he has a bad idea there (“The patient is dying, and you’re busy telling his loved ones to put their feet on the respirator hose.”).  Godin goes on to explain in detail why Chen is wrong and commented on Chen’s other post about RSS too.  Nearly all the many commenters disagree with his analysis and tell him they’ll miss him and won’t sign onto the emails.  I left him a comment myself on the fallacy of using Google searches for RSS to decide the issue.  As far as I know, he is sticking to his guns though.  If you’re a blogger, you’d be silly cutting off your nose to spite your face like this.  I also think it’s interesting that as I write this, Andrew hasn’t gotten a single comment on any of his subsequent posts.  I don’t know if that means his audience doesn’t find them interesting or if they moved on with his RSS feed antics.

- Moz.com’s Reader-A-Week post in search of alternatives has great commentary on the alternatives and a great comment thread that shows the reactions of ordinary users.  If nothing else, it shows how many alternatives are available and how many readers are interested.

Most of these kinds of articles get more comments and engagement than the average for the blogs hosting them, which is just another indication that these are influential, or at least highly engaged users.

So why would Google fire 8 million of its most influential users?

Many have expressed opinions and many are wrong.

Forget the articles that say it happened because RSS was dying.  RSS is a power user niche offering that is alive and well as the millions of users and dozen odd companies scrambling to take over for Google show.  Google wanted people to believe that usage had dwindled to a few million but in fact it’s much larger than that and likely larger than usage for Google+.

Forget the articles like Bonnington’s Wired piece or How-to-Geek’s piece that claimed the model is old and dying and that there are better alternatives.  The truth is that there aren’t any better alternatives for efficiently consuming large amounts of news, at least not yet.  There are, however, alternatives for people who want to do something other than efficiently consume a firehose of information.  That’s okay, we like choices.  It’s when companies and marketers insist things have to be black and white in order to further their agendas that we should be annoyed.

Here’s the real reason, and it is a simple, typical-big-company sort of thing:

Google Reader is being shuttered because Google thinks that will help a more strategic product (Google+) to be more successful.  They want to force us to chose and rely on inertia and their brand to shift people to Google+.  They’ve convinced themselves that Google+ is so much better strategically, that they don’t care if they lose a lot of people along the way.  They don’t value those people and generating any kind of growth for G+ through reduction in expense elsewhere is a good thing according to the way Big Co’s keep score and run their internal politics.

Writer’s like Victoria McNally call it out like it is, but the majority seem to have bought Google’s story that RSS simply died out too fast.  Keep that in mind the next time some pundit is predicting the demise of a thing.  It may only have entered what Gartner calls the “Trough of Disillusionment”, which is only a trough compared to the ridiculous peak of any hype cycle.

What will this mean going forward?

Watching my own usage patterns, it will mean I spend less time in the Google Empire.  That’ll be a bit of a disappointment for them, because they’re looking to grab more mindshare through this move, but I think they’re going to be rudely surprised.  I used to alternate between shutting down all news and interruption driven sources to get real work done and going through my sources of news and interruption:

- GMail for email

- Google Reader for RSS and specifically for news and information most relevant to my work and interests

- Facebook for casual news and information about friends

- Google News for general news about what’s going on in the world

You can see that Google had me pretty solid except for their arch-nemesis Facebook.  This is where introducing an RSS Reader that integrates in a sensible way with Facebook would be awesome.  I am only too happy to flip between tabs on a single app to access these sources.  If we think about what’s stick or not, Google doesn’t own much that is sticky because they don’t own the sources of the content.  Facebook actually owns the sources of their postings.  So, if they were to add email, RSS, and general news, it would be a pretty compelling news portal.  They could lock up a lot of eyeballs for long periods of time.  The cost to add such capabilities should be fairly low.

Yahoo is another organization that ought to be on top of this stuff, though it isn’t at all clear they can think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to get there.  Newcomers and smaller players like Feed.ly and Digg have an opportunity to land and expand in their ability to give people access to more and more news sources.

If any of these players can actually get together a coherent strategy and deliver, shutting down Google Reader could turn out to be Google’s biggest strategic error to date.  Especially because all those millions of influencers they fired will be telling others who believe in them exactly what the best alternatives to Google are.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy | 8 Comments »

Converting Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 18, 2012

tractor-pullJason Lempkin has a new post out about gaining traction after your product ships.  He says it’s hard, much harder than building the 1.0 product which was already hard, and he makes some concrete suggestions on how to go about gaining traction:

-  Finish hiring your core team.  Presumably you’ve left the sales and marketing until post-1.0?

-  Get attention for your app:  “Whatever you can possible do.  Go to every conference.  Speak at any possible event you can, no matter how small.  Win every award. Try to get every blog to write about you.  Reach out to anyone and everyone in your space.  Be respectful, but totally, utterly, shameless here.  Do whatever you can possibly think of here.”

-  Hit the pavement and get early customers and partners

-  Lavish attention on every single customer and lead

-  Plan your next release carefully–it may be your last

Wow, put that way, the job seems really tough!

After reading the account, I do have memories of startups that had to solve the traction problem through brute force and shoe leather.  They were painful and very scary.

The thing is, success is about being prepared (with a healthy dose of luck, though chance does favor the prepared mind).  As I tell my kids, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the other guy already did the homework and knows the answer while you’re still trying to figure it out, he looks smarter.”

So it is with achieving product traction.  This is why I wrote my earlier post about achieving what I call “Content-Audience Fit” to tell Founders it has to be their first priority, even ahead of building a product.  Possibly even ahead of knowing what product you will build.  I say this for two reasons.  First, if you don’t know your audience, you can’t build a great product anyway.  While you might think you know your audience, how can you be sure until you have Content-Audience Fit?

If you have Content-Audience Fit, the following things are true:

1.  There is a reasonably large audience that is steadily growing and is consuming your content.  They care about what you have to say in the market you’re interested in.  They are subscribing to your mailing list, following you on Twitter, liking you on Facebook, or whatever other Social Medium works for your market.  Consequently you know what Social means to your market.

2.  You are part of the Conversation taking place on the web for your chosen market.  You are posting in their online communities.  You’re on the blogs of the key influencers (you do know who they all are, don’t you?) commenting.

3.  You are so familiar with the commercial players in the market that you’ve helped the Market Audience understand some of them better.  You’re commenting on their blogs too.  That establishes you as an agnostic authority in the market.

4.  Because of your participation in all the right conversations, and because of the quality of the content you’re producing, Key Influencers will recognize your name.  You are beginning to get folks asking you unsolicited questions as a recognized Expert.

There is a not-so-subtle difference between this Content-Audience fit and “Get attention for your app”.  It’s because you’re getting attention for your content.  You’re establishing yourself as an expert, not a guy shilling your products and company.  Because your content is very high quality and it’s being given away freely, you’re invoking the principle of reciprocity, which is a powerful force when marketing and selling.  You’re laying the groundwork to present your selling proposition from a position of strength, after your prospects have already decided you’re the expert.

Imagine being able to validate your product vision, and eventually early versions of the product with that kind of Audience insight.  It’s invaluable.  It should be a requirement.  Yet so many companies build the product first and consult the Audience afterward.

Second, you need a strategy to make this business of gaining Product Traction easier.  I love the definition that strategy is what you do to make winning easier.  If you ever needed a strategy, it is when you launch your 1.0 product!

So how do we convert Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction?

Back up.  Let’s get the timing right first.  You don’t want to start trying to achieve Content-Audience fit after you’ve built Product 1.0.  That’s way too late.  Here’s a mini-case study:

I took Helpstream, a Social CRM startup, from being invisible to having a successful blog that had achieved Content-Audience fit in about six months.  At the end of the six months, the key influencers knew who we were and were starting to write about us.  For example, Paul Greenberg, the “Godfather of CRM”, wrote a short passage that perfectly signals good Content-Audience fit:

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield, who is the EVP of Products for a company called Helpstream. I have to admit, when I saw Bob’s rather cogent commentaries on the Enterprise Irregulars site, I became curious as to what he did and what the Helpstream company dealio was. I asked him and we set up a demo and a conversation between me, Bob, and Anthony Nemelka, the President and CEO of Helpstream and a long time industry veteran.

That second sentence telegraphs where we’re going and why Content-Audience fit is so critical to a product launch.  Because of my “cogent commentaries”, Paul asked us for a demo.  Imagine Content that is so good, the key influencers are coming to you, rather than you going to them hat in hand trying to get a meeting.  I would budget a minimum of 6 months and perhaps as long as 12 months to achieve your Content-Audience fit.  Sounds like you need to get started at the same time you start the Product, right?

This is an insight that is missing from many startups.  In fact, many want to do a stealth launch and keep everything secretive.  Feel free to keep your product aspirations a secret, but you’re nuts if you’re not belting out super high quality content for your audience from Day 1.  That means as you sit around the table with your fellow Founders, and you ask the question, “Who is spearheading our drive for Content-Audience Fit and who is writing all that content?”, there had better be a good answer.  That marketing guy you partnered with who has never actually done a blog, he has just simply hired people who did blogs?  We might be past the evolution in how marketing is done for that to be a good idea.  First question I ask any marketing candidate at any level is, “Show me your blog?”  If the response is, “Huh?”, the interview is not going to go well.  It’s no different than asking any question about marketing deliverables.  Would you hire someone who had never had any contact with advertising of any kind?  Content marketing is so critical to small companies, how can it be an afterthought?

As an aside, I recently came across a bootstrap business called, The Wirecutter.  The Founder achieved Content-Audience fit before they ever started this little company by writing for Gizmodo, Wired, GadgetLab, and MaximumPC.  How about grabbing one of the big name bloggers in your space as a co-Founder?  How about at least as an advisor to help you get to Content-Audience Fit?  Have them brutally critique your content until you get it right.

BTW, people like Paul Greenberg have extremely high standards.  There is a reason they get nicknames like the “Godfather of CRM”.  They are trusted and they didn’t get there by being dummies or shills.  If your content doesn’t have something really meaningful to say, you’ll get nowhere with this strategy.  But if you get the meeting because your PR firm pounded hard enough on doors, and then in the meeting you still have nothing to say, you’re going nowhere anyway.  So:

It is critically important to do the work of achieving Content Audience Fit!

That’s it.  Full Stop.  End of Sermon.  Don’t.Mess.It.Up!!!

Okay, now imagine you’ve got that fit, as defined by the 1,2,3,4 list above.  Let’s use it to produce traction.  This is done in the following ways:

The Audience that’s ready to Jump Now is ready.  Invite them in.

There are always those influencers who get an edge by working harder to learn than the others.  Always those prospects who are ready to buy now and want the new new thing.  If you have achieved Content-Audience Fit, all you need do is announce the availability of a product and any of these people in your audience will be likely to check in.  Start with  your Beta Test.  You can keep it as controlled as you like, but put the announcement out through your content channel and be sure to communicate at least your value proposition well enough so people will want to jump in.  If you don’t have a big enough audience yet that having 5% of them answer your invitation, you don’t have Content-Audience Fit.

Give the Early Adopters an Amazing Deal and Make Them Heroes

You don’t need revenue yet, you need credibility.  You put out the call to action, and the right people have self-selected by coming forward.  They like you or else they wouldn’t have come forward.  They’re active in the online world or else they’d have no idea you existed.  They’re raising their hands to tell you they care.  Make it easy for them to feel like that was the best decision they ever made.  Focus your spotlight of attention entirely on them.  Save your bandwidth so you can give them completely unreasonable amounts of it.  Make them heroes and they will make you a star.

You need to charge them a little bit or it isn’t a real transaction.  Give them the best deal you will ever offer in your corporate history and make sure they know that in the nicest possible way.  Give them attention and services that will never be available to others in even a year’s time.  Plug every member of your team into the success of these early customers.

When that fire has caught, you can ask them for a favor.  You can ask them to help you get the word out.  At the very least, you need them to be a willing and able reference.  Next step up, you need them to be a case study.  Grand Prize:  you need them to be a source of referrals.  Try to discreetly make sure when you sign them up that they’ll be able to do some of this, at least serve as references.  You can’t ask for that favor up front, but you can find out if they’ve ever been involved with early software, done references, yada, yada.

Earn the Right to Raise Your Price and Sell Bigger Deals

The company I mentioned earlier, Helpstream, had nearly every marketing automation company as customers for our Customer Service Social CRM product.  I remember calling each of these CEO’s, who were all entrepreneurs like myself, and asking them what Helpstream could and should do going forward.  Phil Fernandez, CEO of Marketo, shocked me by telling me, “Bob, I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you should raise your prices.”  Even more shocking was that Phil wasn’t the only one to tell me that.  So we did, after carefully making sure to grandfather existing customers with appropriate agreements so that they were taken care of.  There was virtually no pushback whatsoever, and it helped the business tremendously.

What had happened is we had earned the right to raise our prices by delivering on our promises and raising our credibility.

The ability to price higher comes most from credibility.  Sure, you might have the world’s greatest product, but nobody knows that if you don’t have the credibility.  Can you see where having good Content-Audience Fit is the first step on the credibility journey?  Beyond that first step, it is your conduit for telling your customer’s stories and continuing to build that credibility.

The next step is being able to tell your Early Adopter’s stories.  In terms of closing business, there is nothing like being able to have a prospect talk to a customer that gushes about your product.  At Callidus Software we used to invite prospects to our User Conferences precisely to maximize the exposure to that kind of sentiment.

Startups are enaged in earning the right to raise prices and to sell bigger deals throughout their history.  Successfully getting your first 5-10 reference accounts is just the first rung on that ladder.  Each company you sell to would like to know that they’re not the largest deal you’ve ever sold.  Raising the size of your largest deal earns you the right to sell even larger deals.  Accumulating this asset of referencibility is your primary deal closing accelerant until you’re large enough to point to being the market leader or perhaps to being a public company.  Gordon Moore’s Chasm Crossing can largely be seen as the process of establishing the credibility needed before those who are not Early Adopters will buy.

All along your journey, your Content continues to establish your company’s expertise in its chosen field.  You never walk away from that–you just keep building on it.  If your references are your Sales Accelerant, your successful Content is your lead generation accelerant.  Establish your web properties as the go-to spots to learn about what your customers care about.  All the best marketing startups like Hubspot, SEOMoz, Marketo, and Eloqua are working this way.  Maybe that’s a clue for the non-marketing startups that this is how marketing is done these days?

Lead With Content for Competitive Skirmishes and Insights

Competitors are great for startups.  If you’re the only one in a market, you have to undertake to grow that market all by yourself.  With competition, the cost is shared and the market can grow much more quickly.  In addition, picking a fight is a sure way to add passion to your content and help drive more traffic.  You can’t agree with everybody, but you need to agree with the position your key audience want you to stake out.

Take advantage of that with your Content strategy.  See which conversations your competition are dominating and wade into those conversations with your own viewpoint.  That viewpoint has to carry substance, but when it does, if you win the audience’s hearts and minds who are watching the conversation, they will come your way.  You can’t win them all, but this is where you start stacking up the different value propositions.  This is where you carve up the market into micro-niches that are looking at things each a little differently.  Here’s where you find out which micro-niches matter, and which ones are dead ends best left to the competition.

Passive sonar gained by just passively consuming the content from your space is great, but so much more can be learned through active pinging of the landscape.  See how they respond to your messaging, analysis, and insights.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of work required to achieve traction.  But, if you subscribe to my Content-Audience Fit idea, you’ll begin that work Day 1 at your company.  When you’re ready to enter Beta Test, you’ll have a lot more going for you than your sales guy’s contact lists and willingness to burn through shoe leather.  You’ll have an audience that wants to come to you, embrace your product, and help you spread the word.  FWIW, Helpstream wasn’t my first or last experience with Content-Marketing Fit.  My bootstrap company, CNCCookbook, thrives on the notion today.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, saas, strategy, venture | 3 Comments »

The Very First Thing a Founding Team Needs to Do: Achieve Content-Audience Fit

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 10, 2012

Audience3DA lot of entrepreneurs,  when faced with the question, “What’s the most important thing to do first?”, would answer, “Build a product.”

Big mistake.

The most important thing to do first is to find an audience.  It may be that building a product is an integral part of growing your audience, but you’re not ready to build a product or grow your audience until you’ve found the right audience to start with.

How will you know you’ve found your audience?

There are some important signs.  For example, you can participate in their communities and be well received.  An even better test is you can get their communities to consume your content.  Before you’re going to have much hope of achieving Product-Market Fit, you’d better achieve Content-Audience Fit.  When you have that fit, when traffic to your web site is growing steadily and you’re starting to get some big spikes in traffic from particularly compelling content, you’re close.  When you can measure growth in the audience’s commitment to your content, for example, when your mailing list for your blog is growing and people are clicking through the weekly digest to get to the actual articles, you have achieved some degree of Content-Audience Fit.

Content-Audience Fit is a surprisingly high hurdle.  It is higher than getting a bunch of random people to sign up to try a free software product, for example.  The reason is that there is less value being offered by the content.  People actually have to be willing to spend some of their attention on your content simply because it is that good.  They do it because you’ve demonstrated you understand what they want and that you have something worthwhile to offer.  There are tons of people that will play with some free piece of software for a short time, and you’re probably not even set up to measure how hard they played with it yet.

With Content, all you need is a blog to deliver the Content from and Google Analytics to measure its impact.  Maybe augment that with a MailChimp account so you can actually start to aggregate some followers to your Tribe and use the Analytics there to tell how committed they are.  Anyone who is willing to undertake the hard work needed to consume your Content and decide they like it well enough to want to keep consuming it is a valuable member of your Tribe.  The more you can grow the Tribe, the more voices there will be to help you get your message out, to tell you what problems they need to have solved, and to guide you in the next phase of your journey:  achieving Product-Market Fit.

To be a successful Bootstrapper, you’re almost certainly going to have to be a Content Marketer anyway.  Advertising is typically going to be too expensive before you get some capital and a following.  So do yourself a favor.  Forget the product for a little while.  Focus on achieving Content-Audience Fit.  When your past striking flint and blowing on the tinder, you’ll have a little fire glowing.  It’s a big accomplishment.  So far it’s just kindling, but soon you’ll be ready to throw a real log or two onto that fire.  That’s when you build your product, as soon as the Content Kindling has caught and you can see some actual flames.  The timing will be perfect, because your costs will go up and your available attention for producing product and content will go down as soon as you ship your product.

You can’t afford to be just starting to look for Content-Audience Fit after the product is ready to ship.  That’s too late.  And it’s a terrible time to discover your market has no passion for what you’re trying to do.  That bit of news was tragically knowable with a lot less effort if you had only started out finding an Audience.

Extra Credit Note to Investors:

If you find a team that knows how to create a product, we both know that’s not enough.  You’ve raised the bar on that some time ago.  But if you find a team that has achieved Content-Audience Fit, they’ve demonstrated a critical marketing skill.  At the very least, you know that this team can present compelling content that draws a significant audience.  Combine that Audience Insight and ability to compell the Audience with a decent Product and that’s the essence of a startup that will grow.  I am surprised every time I walk into a startup and ask who in Marketing is a hard core blogger and hear back that basically nobody is and they’ve outsourced that task to technical writers of one kind or another.  Those startups are proceeding on a wing and a prayer that they actually understand their Audience.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy, venture | 9 Comments »

Steve Ballmer and Marissa Mayer Face the Same Problems at Microsoft and Yahoo

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 17, 2012

marissa-mayerI know this will come as a shock to many Microsofties who will hate seeing their company compared to Yahoo, but I firmly believe that Steve Ballmer and Marissa Mayer face exactly the same problems at their respective companies.  The only differences are matters of scale and position on the lifecycle to extinction.  Both are CEO’s of once great and now fading empires.  Both organizations have gone a long time without showing much sign of recovery.  In Microsoft’s case, the stock has been flat since Bill Gates handed over the reigns.  The world has started referring to Steve Ballmer’s tenure as Microsoft’s Lost Decade.

I came to this conclusion just as I was about to write about the new Office Microsoft is showing around and what I think the most important work for Ballmer to accomplish in the next 12 months would be.  As the thoughts for the article were percolating, a fresh round of articles about Marissa Mayer taking the Yahoo CEO post began circulating and I thought, “Well, I’d better write about what she needs to do too.”  That’s when I realized they’re both facing the same problems and need essentially to do the same things to fix their respective companies.  Because we’re talking about two large entities that are each worthy of a post of their own, and trying to bring the threads together, this will be something of a magnum opus post.  Appologies in advance for being verbose.

Let’s set the stage with a little review of what’s being written.  I’ll start with Mayer and then go on to Ballmer.  In both cases, the usual suspects did the usual Echo Chamber number on the news.  We got an initial round of, “Golly, we’re surprised at how cool this news is after we’d written off <insert either Microsoft or Yahoo here>”  This was followed almost immediately by the round of grumblers and link baiters who write about how Mayer is the wrong thing for Yahoo being a product person instead of a media person and Office is too little too late.  Both are bullshit-tunnel-vision-link-baited and shallow article types (other than that guys, you did great analyzing these events).  Hey, let’s face it, journalists and what passes for journalists these days write about the news, they don’t make it, and they often don’t even understand it.  They don’t care.  They’re running the modern equivalent of Pavlov’s dogs where if you stick the right stuff in a headline with the right edgy attitude you get traffic, rinse and repeat until it becomes mechanical.  Yada, yada.

So, for Marissa Mayer we got:

Analysts react to Marissa Mayer in the WSJ:

“What we are a bit worried about is that by selecting Ms. Mayer, Yahoo is
explicitly pursuing an aggressive and bold growth strategy, whereas we believe a
value strategy might be more appropriate,”

Uh huh.  Analysts used to mean something to the stock market but they never really got tech with a very few exceptions–Rick Sherlund, Mary Meeker, and Chuck Philipps.  Absent an Oracle-style rollup Godfather for failed Internet media companies, Yahoo has little choice but to bet on a bold growth strategy.  There’s a reason most analysts aren’t running companies.

Ever popular Mathew Ingram on GigaOm tells us Marissa may not be a good fit:

In his post is a lot of gobbledigook from various folks that boils down to Mayer not being a media maven while Yahoo is a media company.  Shouldn’t it really have a media CEO?  I’m gonna call bullshit on that one too.  Where are these media companies?  The idea that media companies would rule died quite a while ago.  We have seen News Corp fail, AOL fail, the Music Industry fail, and Yahoo fail.  We are watching Books fail at the hands of technologists as we speak.  How much more fail do we need from the media world thinking they know how to run this stuff.  OTOH, despite some recent stumbles, we have seen Reed Hastings take what looks to me like a media company called Netflix and totally kick ass.  Reed’s prior post was founding and running Pure Atria software, which produced extremely nerdy technical tools for software developers.  Steve Jobs is another example who captained a launch of Apple into the music business.  Here is an important newsflash to those who think hardcore software product people can’t hack media or marketing:

In an online digital world, media and marketing are products.  The whole freaking User Experience is a product that spans all of these things.

If you don’t understand that, you are going to wake up like a lot of other once great companies and wonder how the software wunderkind ate your lunch.  This is why Marc Andreesen keeps proclaiming that software is eating the world.  Companies that don’t have people like Marissa Mayer can’t play that game.  Media Guys, Sales Guys, and Marketing Guys are never going to play that game.

‘Nuf said on that theme for the moment other than to add for Steve Ballmer, your biggest problem may be precisely that you don’t have what Marissa Mayer brings to the table as a product person.  You’re a snack cake salesman when you needed to be a fighter pilot.

Kara Swisher has 10 Totally Fluff Questions for Marissa Mayer

Oh boy.  Talk about linkbait.  Lists are always link bait and this one is no different.  It covers such critical advice as making sure not to be too geeky and not to think it’s cool to wear a lot purple.  Yes Kara, I imagine you were saying of Marissa, “What. A. Geek.”  And guess what, she runs things.  Jealous?

The less snarky questions focused on:

-  How do you cut enough people to carve out space to work in?

-  Which products do you cut?

-  How will you manage the board and partners?

Kara, you need to go have a conversation with Mark Hurd.  That’s his kind of discussion.  It did not do wonders for HP.  It propped him up nicely, but it has left the world’s largest computer company wondering WTF to do next.  The reason is simple.  These are short term answers.  You can’t cut technology companies to greatness.  You have to actually build something.  Product people are long term people.  They build things.  They understand that you don’t slash and burn out one side of your mouth and then succeed in hiring tons of awesome new talent.  Rather, you come up with a strategy that the talent can actually respect and you build a culture that the talent can thrive in.  Geez, what’s next?  Shall we ask Marissa if she plans to implement Microsoft-style stack ranking during her first 30 days?

The funniest was ReadWriteWeb telling us Yahoo needs a visionary not another product person and then letting Forrester Analyst Shar VanBoskirk define what a visionary is thusly:

“What I think Yahoo needs is a visionary – an aggressive executive who can make some pretty solid decisions about the business Yahoo needs to be in,” VanBoskirk said. “I’m not sure Yahoo needs another product person.”

Sounds like a visionary is a damn bean counter to me.  Let me get very very crystal clear:  a real product person will make solid decisions about the business Yahoo needs to be in.  Seems like Forrester and Gartner Analysts are the only ones whose crystal balls are more cloudy than Wall Street Analysts.

I won’t bore too much with the happy posts about Mayer because they typically boiled down to, “Yahoo is so screwed up we had no idea they could attract someone as talented as Marissa Mayer.”  Cool beans.

I think Fred Wilson had the best happy post I read:

Fred Wilson proclaimed that Yahoo is no longer dead to him.

Funny quote, but a little heavy on the Mario Puzo, no?  While your avatar-caricature looks a bit like a dark haired Marlon Brando, I’m not sure I fancy you the Godfather.  But, I know you have the sense of humor to take this in the sense it was meant.  And yes, I agree with you Fred, Yahoo is making some decent decisions here.

For Ballmer and the new Office release, it was much the same, although the kudos were a little more forthcoming with substance.  Let’s be real, Windows 8 and Office 2013 are the best work Microsoft has done in a long long time.  They deserve some kudos.  And, like the Mayer articles, we got first some good stuff followed by the snarky stuff.

Here are some of the articles that caught my eye:

Ballmer talks about why the Lost Decade is a myth:

Okay Steve, dream on.  It’s no myth.  What had been an awesome shareholder value machine has stalled on your watch almost to the day Gates stepped out.  Yet, Ballmer at least talks like he understands what needs to be done in this passage:

It’s not been a lost decade for me! I mean, look, ultimately progress is measured sort of through the eyes of our users.  More than our investors or our P&L or anything else, it’s through the eyes of our users.  We have 1.3 billion people using PCs today.  There was a time in the ’90s when we were sure there would never be 100 million PCs sold a year. Now there will be 375 million sold this year alone.  So, is it a lost decade?

The stock market has always had its own meter.  Sometimes it’s ahead of itself, sometimes it’s behind itself. A broken watch is right twice a day.  Ultimately all Microsoft can do is focus in on doing exciting products…

Okay, Steve, we agree.  Microsoft needs to deliver exciting products.  Now here is the part you REALLY need to understand:  it has failed to do so under your tenure.  There have been few exciting products from Microsoft for a LONG time.  The Lost Decade is not only a failure to deliver shareholder value, it is a failure to deliver exciting products.  When you have delivered them, they’ve been accidents and not in your core businesses.  Time to change that or get someone who can.  Incidentally, this is absolutely true for Yahoo as well.  They quit being exciting when they quit delivering exciting news.  On the Internet, everything is a product.  If your “product” is not exciting, you lose.

The high level summary of why Ballmer and Mayer face the same problems at Microsoft and Yahoo boils down to both failing to deliver exciting product often enough to matter in recent years.  Microsoft has had slightly better network effects to slow their decline (helps when you control an OS!), but the eventual outcome will be the same as it has been for Yahoo.

GigaOm wonders if Microsoft can recover its superpowers

Great continuation on the failure to deliver exciting products theme.  Consider these quotes:

To put it in the simplest terms, Apple makes products that people are crazy about and will stand in line all night to buy. When was the last time you saw a Microsoft product that inspired that kind of devotion?

Microsoft’s tried-and-true model of chipping away at a product category over the years until it got it right (usually around release 3)  isn’t applicable in the web era of continuous updates.

Of course, there is always someone around who will opine that the lack of quality product is simply a lack of focus.  For this article, Harvey Lubin says:

They have started to compete on too many fronts, against too many competitors.They want to beat Apple at computer hardware, and mobile services. They want to beat Google at Web search.They want to beat IBM at servers. They want to beat Sony & Nintendo at gaming. By trying to do everything, they end up doing none of them very well.

If it were truly a lack of focus, there would be some exciting products and a bunch of also rans.  That’s not really the case.  What we have is a lack of culture or talent that is capable of producing the exciting products.

Ars Technica gave us the Mac Fanboy perspective which is “Why did you bother, you can never be as great as Apple.

Well of course they did pretty much eat the Mac’s lunch for many years, so it actually is worth bothering and for the first time in years Microsoft shows signs they actually might still be able to bother.  Chill dude.

On a more positive note, Larry Dignan notes that Microsoft has a Killer Product Cycle Underway

He’s right, this is a killer product cycle for Microsoft.  Their problem has been that killer cycles happen too seldom.

What’s Next for Microsoft and Yahoo?

As I’ve argued, Microsoft and Yahoo are in the same place.  We may argue about the matter of degree, but both are once-great empires that have disappointed customers and shareholders for a long time.  They are each reaching inflection points where it will be increasingly hard to recover if they don’t take prompt action.  But what should that action be?

First, let’s take a moment to recognize each company gets one more get out of jail free card.  Microsoft gets it because the Windows/Office release cycle is the best they’ve had in years.  Yahoo gets it because nobody expected the likes of Marissa Mayer would take their CEO job.  In other words, we have a temporary willing suspension of disbelief.  The key will be to act in a way that extends that into lasting momentum.  To do that both companies need to produce exciting products at a rate that establishes and builds momentum.  That’s what vibrant tech growth companies do, and it is what has been lacking from these two for way too long.

Marissa Mayer and Steve Ballmer face the same problem:

How do they reignite a steady stream of exciting product launches to rebuild their company’s momentum?

If they each accomplish nothing else in the next 12 to 18 months, there are two key things that they both must do to set the stage for that kind of momentum:

Microsoft and Yahoo Must Both Achieve Agility

Ballmer and Mayer must make their organizations demonstrably agile.  The days of 3 year product cycles for Microsoft are long since over.  Ballmer needs to put a stake in the ground that we will see updates for all the key products with betas out in 12 months and shipping in 18 months from now.  Mayer should do the same for Yahoo. Then they must deliver those results against that schedule, and they must sharpen the pencils still further until they can do 12 month product cycles.  Once having gotten that religion, they must never let more time than that pass without impactful releases of all their key offerings.  The world simply changes too quickly these days, and cycles any longer than that leave companies struggling to stay relevant as they miss one key trend after the next.  As any student of OODA Fighter Pilot tactics will tell you, once you get inside the other guy’s decision loop and make him respond to you, your victory is only a matter of time.

That doesn’t mean shipping mediocre products just to say you shipped something.  Microsoft, that doesn’t mean you’ll get your standard high dollar upgrade fees every 12 months either.  It means you will make it happen, “it” being shipment of a release that really moves the ball forward.  Every 12 months.  Without fail.

If you can establish that kind of momentum, that kind of agility, many benefits will accrue.  You will start to control the agenda as others respond to your initiatives instead of vice versa.  You will attract and retain good talent as they see the opportunity to do something that matters in the near term.  Momentum is key for tech companies.  If a shark stops swimming, it dies.

Microsoft and Yahoo Must Both Articulate and Demonstrate a Product Vision Worth Getting Excited About

Establishing agility is almost a mechanical process.  Yes, it will require enormous cultural upheavals and force of will.  But it is not like trying to schedule that Einsteinean flash of insight that is sometimes called for.  Unfortunately, the second of the two key things you must do is closer to requiring Einstein.  Establishing an agile cycle will help, and you probably have enough stuff on the drawing boards to get through the first cycle with flying colors.  But to go further, to have it all make sense and not just be a rambling features-gone-amuck kind of release cycle, you must have Vision.

This has historically been tragically missing from both companies.  At best, Microsoft has had a Vision to commoditize other people’s ideas, and lately it has fallen far short on that.  Yahoo’s Vision seems to have been to grab up one shiny plaything after the next and claim to be a great media company amassing playthings in a meaningful way.  Not much of a Vision (I use the capital “V” advisedly).

Marissa Mayer may be a Visionary capable of producing that capital “V” Vision, but Steve Ballmer most assuredly is not.  Steve, you’re going to have to get someone in there who is.  Possibly more than one someone’s.  You’re going to have to empower them and you’re going to have to stay the Hell out of their way.  Like Clint Eastwood told us, “A man has to know his limitations.”  This will be extremely hard for Microsoft, which has confused a Product Management Culture with having Vision.  Product Managers mostly only have lower case “v” vision because they listen to customers too much.  They let customers define how the problems will be solved instead of sticking to describing what problems they have.  Despite what MBA school teaches, checking off every request some customer made never results in Vision.  It’s better than nothing, but not much better.  Steve Jobs was never even interested in what problems customers have and went out of his way to make sure they had little input into how the problems he deigned to solve would be solved.  Marissa, if you are not a Visionary, and very very few CEO’s and other successful people (let alone Product Managers) are ever self aware enough to know when they are not Visionaries, you have the same problem as Steve.  You’re simply better equipped as a product person to understand how to help realize the Visions of others.  But if you aren’t the Visionary, you will need to get some in there quickly.

Visionaries are rare indeed, for they are the ones with crystal balls that actually work.  They see clearly how insanely great things could be, and what it will take to get there.  They are unfettered by considerations of how things are today and often whether things will even seem possible.  They ignore Wall Street, pundits, analysts, and customers alike.  Losing their Visionary or even more commonly failing to ever have a Vision that can withstand the test of time is the most common reason Tech companies die.  Visions can be accidental.  Accidental Visions turn out to be proxies for the real Vision.  Minicomputers are a great example.  They were closer to being commodities than Mainframes, but they fell well short of commoditizing computing power the way PC’s did.  By and large their luminaries never figured that out, or if they did, they were unable to do much about it.  Proxies are dangerous, because they work for a time.  Companies worship these false prophets for way too long when the proxies cease to track the real prize closely enough.

Large companies can only find real Visionaries by looking for people who have been right more than once, and never right because they rode somebody else’s wave.  Having found one of these rare unicorns, Visionaries are often completely at odds with the skillset needed to survive in large organizations.  They are not politically savvy (or don’t care).  They do not do well in meetings.  They do not crave gigantic staffs to manage.  They will not suck up at the expense of doing something they know is wrong, or even a little bit less right.  They are prickly and uncompromising.  Yet, you must not only find them, you must prop them up and make them successful despite all the antibodies the entrenched burocracies at Microsoft and Yahoo will generate to try to expel them.  It’s not going to be fun, but the alternative is a continuing slide into irrelevance at the hands of the Visionaries in other companies.  That’s even less fun and you’ve had a taste of what that’s all about.

Are you still hungry enough to do what it takes?  Do you want to win?

Good.  Because now you know what you need to do.  Let’s get on with it–time is short.

Posted in apple, business, Marketing, strategy | 4 Comments »

Twitter’s Biggest Problem: Brevity

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 2, 2012

Twitter CEO Dick CostoloThere are many rumblings these days about Twitter’s recent changes blocking LinkedIn from putting Tweet’s into their streams.  Lots of different reactions from various folks:

-  From Twitter’s perspective, they’re trying to deliver “a more consistent user experience.”  We can paraphrase that one as, “We can’t run ads if you don’t come to our site, so we have to block you.”  This is one of many direct examples where advertising creates a nasty conflict of interest between a large audience and the folks who really pay the bills.  It’s one reason why ad-driven business models are more likely to treat their audiences like cattle to be harvested and milked.

-  Owen Thomas points out over on Business Insider that Twitter’s own Facebook app does cross posting.  Well, that is a bit inconsistent, isn’t it?  Apparently Twitter believes it can live without LinkedIn, but not so much Facebook.  Looking at these three services, I think that’s an astute assessment, but time will tell whether they cut out Facebook too.

-  Mathew Ingram warns Twitter to be careful of what happened to MySpace and Digg, who both alienated developers with these sorts of changes.  Mathew agrees with me on the reason for Twitter’s move, “Twitter wants to control the network as tightly as possible so that it can monetize it more easily,” but he goes on to point out that there are downsides to the simple greedy strategy (as there always are).  He points out that the developer community is not happy with these quotes:

Twitter was trying to shut down third-party services so that they could “inflict a homogenized, boring, monoculture on their user base [that] they can monetize, which will make the experience progressively worse.”

Says turntable.fm developer Jonathan Kupferman in a tweet, “Twitter seems to be mercilessly killing all developer apps of any interest businessinsider.com/twitter-linked… Light the match, hello 

John Abell of Reuters points out, “Twitter’s value is its integration with other networks. Cutting them off is like being on the wrong side of history.”

Ingram concludes by pointing out that MySpace and Digg, “started to hemorrhage users because it focused more on monetization through ads and other elements than it did on maintaining a good experience for users.”

-  Dalton Caldwell laments Twitter having chosen the advertising route instead of becoming the Internet’s real-time API.  In the beginning, Twitter was great to many developers precisely because it had an early API that made a lot of sense for things these developers thought were very cool.  Not so much anymore.

-  Nick Bilton of the NY Times calls this latest Twitter move a, “Cacaphony of Confusion” for Twitter owned apps and sites.  He points (among other things) out that if what Twitter wants is a more consistent user experience, starting with Twitter’s own apps is not a good idea.

There were not many positive responses, save for the occassional, “We can make lemonade from this lemon” post, or the other stock-in-trade for Internet Hysteria which was Anil Dash’s missive about how the Web was over reacting by a lot.  He chides the developers for feeling hurt because Twitter is finally readily to appeal to the great unwashed instead of being their personal playground.  He claims this will all ultimately be healthy for the ecosystem because it cuts down on ‘bots Tweeting spam.  Except it doesn’t because I can still push articles from LinkedIn to Twitter, just not vice versa.  Hmmm.  So much for that kind of logic.

Twitter’s real problem here is ironic:  it’s own Brevity limits the options for what it can do.

Look, you only get 140 characters.  There’s nothing left if you try to divide that into something smaller.  If you have something like a blog post, you can link to the frickin’ blog post and there’s ample reason to go there.  With Twitter, why bother linking?  Just put the whole Tweet in the article and save people the trouble.  They can read 140 characters faster than they could click through, possibly have to sign in, get oriented, and read it in situ.

I’ve written along similar lines before when I said that Twitter’s biggest problem is the Tweets themselves are ads.  I’m not the only one.  I’ve heard many a person quip that Twitter is write only and never read, or that it’s just bots Tweeting headlines back and forth about one another.  So many have gamed the service to get more followers for their own ads, I mean Tweets, that it’s a joke.  Robert Scoble has gone round and round and seems to choose his latest Social Dingbat of the day based on which one is the easiest to game into another huge crush of followers in the shortest time.

Is the ecosystem really going to be improved by what Twitter is doing?  Can it fix this problem that Tweets are ads?  And what can you do with high quality non-ad/non-bot Tweets?

I don’t think they will fix the ecosystem.  As I said, they want to make it easy to add Tweets via API’s, they just don’t want you reading them in that way.  And to actually separate the wheat from the chaff is not something they’re directly incented to do.  They want to live on the advertising model.  And, to keep a consistent user experience, that’s only going to work if the ads look just like Tweets.

It’s a vicious cycle.  Don’t expect it to end any time soon–instead, expect it to get much worse.  They’re making a final monetization dive bombing run to get to a liquidity event.

Lastly, entrepreneurs and geeks, don’t bet the farm on Twitter.  They are not in business to help you.  Quite the opposite these days.  They’re in business to collect ad revenue.

Posted in business, Marketing, Web 2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Facebook’s Next Business Model

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 16, 2012

Chillin with my PeepsVC Chris Dixon muses in a recent post that Facebook has yet to uncover a business model that will support its IPO valuation and drive future growth in that valuation.  As he puts it:

Facebook relies on an old internet business model: display ads. Display ads generally hurt the user experience, and are also not very efficient at producing revenues. Facebook makes about 1/10th of Google’s revenues even though they have 2x the pageviews. Some estimates put Google’s search revenues per pageviews at 100-200x Facebook’s.

The good news for Facebook is there is a lot of room to target ads more effectively and put ads in more places. The bad news is that, if there is one consistent theme in both online and offline advertising, it’s that ads work dramatically better when consumers have purchasing intent.

I think he’s right about the ad model.  Google has uniquely cornered the market in delivering an ad at precisely the moment the user is searching for something to buy, hence the remarks about purchasing intent.  A banner ad, on the other hand, lurks in hopes that someone with purchasing intent will happen to see it at exactly the right time and place to make a difference.  Given the odds, it’s no wonder the ads make 1/10 the revenue despite 2x the pageviews.  Unless Facebook can engage the timing and content properly to capture purchasing intent, that isn’t likely to change.

So what’s a poor Facebook to do?

Let’s get back to basics: what exactly is Facebook?  If Google, from a monetization standpoint, is the place you go to find something when you want to buy, what is the analogous elevator pitch for Facebook?  It’s pretty simple, really:

Facebook is a platform for chilling with your friends.

Doesn’t that really capture in a nutshell what people do with Facebook?  Put aside what marketers wish they were doing (yeah, we all go there to worship the sugary soft drinks that use those adorable polar bear cartoons as mascots), this is what’s really going on with Facebook.  And guess what, isn’t owning the world’s leading platform for chilling with your friends apt to be extremely valuable?  It’s got to be.  If for no other reason, look at how big a part of the economy entertainment is.  In 2010, Arts, Entertainment, Recreation, Accomodation, and Food Services amounted to 3.6% of the nation’s GDP.  That’s the platform Facebook has available to tap into.  It’s not as good as say the 5.9% that is the retail trade Amazon and Google tap into, but heck, it’s still not bad at all.  It is a sufficient market on which to base a huge business.  Look at what Apple has been able to do with music alone, for example.

The key for Facebook is to get focused with laser-like precision on how to monetize their Chillin’ Platform before the opportunity seeps away.  Eyeballs and leisure time are fickle as those old enough to remember things like pet rocks and CB radios will tell you.  Right now, Facebook is focused on advertising revenue, but they could get a lot more creative and, given all the capital they’re raising and the opportunity available to them, they should be getting very creative and testing everything under the sun.

What are some potential ways to monetize a platform for chillin’?

-  Social games are an obvious first choice.  Facebook has to relentlessly build this platform and creates as many barriers around it as possible.

-  Making Dates:  Dinner anyone?  They should own Open Table.  Movie Times?  Why am I going to Google to figure that out.  Hook me up.  Make it easy for me to plan and coordinate a date.

-  Music:  Gotta be part of any chillin’ for me.  While we’re at it, plug in media of all kinds.  If Google is gonna do hangouts, Facebook needs to up the ante in some chillin’ fool kinda way.

-  Vacation and Travel:  The ultimate chillin’ game and big bucks involved too.

-  Party Time:  Coordination, invitation, planning, decorations, photos (oops!), eats and drinks.

-  Devices:  What devices do we have around when chillin’?  What facilitates communicating the vicarious virtual thrill of chillin’?  Video, phones, cameras, yada, yada.  But what else, and how does Facebook uniquely home in on all that?

Being successful with all of this will require Facebook to think BIG.  I mean Steve Jobs kinda BIG.  They have to seriously simplify and amplify the act of chillin’ in ways that only a platform can accomplish.  If they do that.  If they can reinvent chillin’ the way Apple reinvented music and the phone, they’ll be here for a long time and folks buying in at today’s market caps will stand to make a lot of money going forward.

This is a big time innovation and UX problem: reinventing the art of chillin’ with your peeps.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy, user interface | 2 Comments »

Why I’m Dropping InstantSlideup Like a Hot Potato

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 15, 2012

This is one of those minor personal rants that come up from time to time.  What good is having a blog if you have to be all serious and to the point all the time?

I recently had tried a little piece of software called “InstantSlideup” (not gonna link to them as I don’t want to help their link authority).  It’s purpose is to offer a slide up message (can be advertising or anything you like) at the bottom of a web page.  It’s unobtrusive in the sense it doesn’t block much of anything, yet it catches the eye a little bit.  That’s my preferred method for these sorts of things.  Popups that totally stop you in your tracks really bother me, although I do understand their efficacy.

In any event, I had it up and running on my CNC Machinist’s blog and all was well.  That site is one I use both for my hobby/passion around machine tools, as well as to run a small microISV business, and just generally to test out various online marketing concepts.  InstantSlideup is in the category of “nice to have”, but not “must have”.  A must have for me would be SEOMoz (see, I gave them a link).  My experience with InstantSlideup is that while it helped a lot more people to “discover” my product home page on the site, most of the new audience weren’t interested enough to convert.  Net net I was ahead on conversions, but by a lot less than the traffic would imply–gotta analyze yer analytics carefully!

Anyway, I liked it okay, a bit expensive for what I was getting, but I decided to hang in there with it.  Until now.

I’ve been pretty successful with this site, digital marketing works and works well given the right strategies.  I’ve put together a very analytics-driven approach (call it Big Data for Small Business, if you like) and have been tuning it up for about 3 years now.  I get circa 1 million uniques a year roughly doubling every year, which is very good compared to my peers in this rather odd niche space.  Unfortunately, this also led to the undoing of InstantSlideup.  The thing is, their SaaS version (and I always prefer the lower hassle of using SaaS to installing it myself), was a one size fits all that only allows 100,000 impressions per month.  Here is the kicker:

When the 100,000 impressions runs out, they don’t just stop running your slideup ad, they start running THEIR slideup ad on YOUR site!

I couldn’t believe it when I saw this was happening.  I guess I should not have been surprised.  We live in a world where most businesses take the liberty and ask forgiveness later.  Even a casual look at all the privacy controversies we’ve seen swirling so far this year should make that clear.  Yet somehow, this just seemed beyond the pale.

There is that certain kind of marketing that’s all spam all the time.  Shoot the prospect into a landing page that has no navigation so they can’t escape.  Don’t give them too much information because Heaven forbid, they might stop to think instead of filling out that contact information.  Get on the phone and machine them into the purchase any way possible.  The darned thing is that it works.  It even works pretty well.

Seth Godin is one of my marketing heroes, and he thinks there is a better way.  Aside from the digital marketing, Seth’s approach of building a Tribe, is more what I’m after.  I think it works as well or better than the all spam all the time crowd, although it is more work.  Yet even Seth acknowledges that the all spam all the time approach often beats us down.  Well I’m feeling feisty this morning, and InstantSlideup took one too many all spam all the time liberties.  So I gave them the boot off the site and off my credit card and I’m letting folks know exactly why that happened here.

Eventually, I will stop and write the little bit of code needed to do a slideup and the site will have slideups again.  Maybe I’ll just open source that little bit of code so others can do likewise.  OTOH, this feisty feeling can only last so long and I have a lot of other things to do first.

For the record, here are some things I would have considered doing instead were I running InstantSlideup:

-  Send a message well in advance, not at midnight when the impressions ran out, reminding the user that based on history they’re within a few days of running out and tell them how to deal with it in just a few clicks.  Perhaps they’d like to just temporarily no show the slideup.

-  Tell the user they’ve exceeded the impressions but that you’re going to comp them another 10,000 impressions on a one-time basis.  Present them with the immediate opportunity to upgrade to 200K impressions for a slight additional charge.  After all, a site exceeding impressions ought to be one of your star customers.  Why not treat them as such and make them feel special?  I’d have not only paid at least 1/2 of another license for the impressions but I would have written here about this kind of treatment instead of doing the blog post I am.

-  Send the message, but just make the slideup go dark until the impressions are reset for the next month.

See how much nicer not being all spam all the time can be?  Isn’t that how you’d rather be treated by a vendor?  Shouldn’t a vendor of marketing tools, of all possible businesses, be more sensitive in these areas?

Cheers!

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Why Adobe is Losing the Hearts and Minds of Developers

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 13, 2011

I’m annoyed today.  That’s my problem not yours, but hopefully you will at least find my story interesting, amusing, or perhaps a cautionary tale depending on the business you’re in.  If not, there’s a lot else happening on the Internet, most of it probably more interesting.  If you like a good rant, read on…

It’s irony day.  Not long after writing that one of the key attributes of a PaaS is helping companies secure sales leads, I’ve personally run afoul of Adobe’s App Marketplace.  It’s a silly thing really, but the way they’re running it is worse than not having a marketplace at all.  I see shades of the same in a lot of other would-be ecosystems whose leaders, the companies that set them up, are doing just enough to get buy, but are not really helping to do what they should be doing.  First, some great examples of ecosystems that work:  Apple’s AppStore and Salesforce’s AppExchange.  Haven’t heard Benioff lately, but he sure beat Apple to the punch on that one, let alone many others.  I will also say that while I don’t always agree with what Salesforce is doing, they’re smart people, they reach out and are reachable, and they help me to understand why they’re doing it.  Plus, a lot of what they’re doing is awesome.  I have less experience with Apple to go on, but have heard good things from friends.

Now on to my tale of customer service and developer relations with Adobe.

First, there are a gazillion people out there who work for Adobe and have words in their titles like “Product Manager”, “Evangelist”, or “Developer Relations”.  These are people one would think should be highly approachable and interested in anything new or unique that’s happening with their platform. After all, they make their contact info fairly available.  The platform I’m referring to for this article, BTW, is Flash/Flex/AIR.  Many would like to sweep it under the rug and place all bets on HTML5.  You’d think that in that sort of atmosphere, Adobe would want to work hard to stand out as a beacon for their developers.  But it’s been a pretty foggy night and the beacon isn’t visible.

I have so far contacted no less than 5 of these folks to tell them about some work I’ve been doing with Flash/Flex/AIR.  It’s not like I’ve invented Cold Fusion or anything (well of course I didn’t mean the software, they did invent that), but I happen to think it is cool stuff, and it is certainly unusual.  Rather than being a flashy (pardon my pun again) bit of marketing adware, or some game, I’ve actually been building software that is more traditionally done as desktop software written in C++ and the like.  It’s something that is <gasp> useful and in fact being used by professionals at some of America’s foremost manufacturers.  I’ve stretched the envelope pretty far from most of what I see being done with Flash/Flex/AIR.  These are rich UX apps that are for the CAD/CAM market.  Just getting these Adobe products to run against the large volumes of data and high performance graphics required by such a market was no easy feat.  So you’d think someone out there might think it was interesting.  Might at least respond to the queries, anyway.  Nope, no response whatsoever.  These were all people, BTW, who are highly visible in the blogging community, giving talks, yada, yada.  Probably way too busy to take time out to talk to everyone who is using their platform, and I say that in all sincerity, not trying to be snarky.  They don’t know me from Adam, but you’d think there’d be someone more junior it could be delegated to, or they could dash off a quick note in response or something.

On to the Adobe Marketplace.  They have a special marketplace for AIR apps and it looks like a pretty neat place.  “Cool beans!” sez I.  And so I promptly applied for a listing.  My status as publisher was granted almost immediately, last May.  And there things have languished ever since.  I can go into my little control panel and see my app still sitting there waiting for review:

Adobe AIR Marketplace

I marked with a red outline my submission date last May, that I am still queued for review, and the one place I could find anywhere about how to get help.   Trying to get help, as it turns out, was a terrible idea.  It basically just wound up annoying me enough to write this post.  You see, I wound up on chat with a representative named “Neela”.  She basically had nothing to offer.  First, rather than reading my detailed explanation of what had happened, she assumed I wanted information on some app I’d bought that was listed on Marketplace.  She was at pains to tell me that Adobe could in no way help with this and I would need to contact the developer.  I then proceeded to explain that I was the developer, I was an approved publisher for the marketplace, and I very much did expect to get some help from Adobe.  Each time we had a go round, the software for the chat would fill time while she dealt with how ever many other parallel chats she had going.  It automatically generates little messages to keep me warm.  So I’d get 3 or 4 after each of my responses that were like this:

Neelu : I'll be right with you.

Neelu : Thank you for waiting. One moment please.

Neelu : Thank you for the information.
Neelu : Sorry for the wait. Please do stay online.
That's verbatim, BTW.  And there were only 6 or so different messages, so I got to know them all quite well.  Classic Eliza-style simulation of a human.  Eventually, Neelu came back again:
Neelu : Please contact marketplace to get help on this. 

Bob: Marketplace provided this chat. How else am I supposed to contact them?

Neelu : I am sorry, we don't have any information, you need to contact with the individual developer who develop the software.

LOL, as you can see, things go circular after a bit. So my last response was that I would do what she recommended after I got done writing a blog post about the terrible customer service Adobe was giving me. I got a one word response back, “Okay”, and then the chat window unilaterally closed itself leaving me sputtering in its wake without even a chance to escalate.  If you’d seen my beet-red expression, you would have been laughing your heart out at me.

My guess at this point is I never will get listed. Maybe if they’re monitoring social media enough to see this blog post. I know I’m not wasting any more time on them, and you shouldn’t either.

This is why developers ask themselves why they should spend money on tools rather than using free Open Source all the way.

Adobe, dudes, if you are listening, you just broke my guitar loading it into your airliner. You know where that leads. What were you thinking?

Posted in business, Marketing | 3 Comments »

Why Do the Cool Kids Keep Missing the Tragically Knowable?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2011

I just read an article on GigaOm about Facebook (Techmeme caught it too) app vendors being up in arms because Facebook’s new spam control was too strong and knocked out a bunch of legit apps.  It isn’t just Facebook, we read these stories constantly about various Valley companies.  Mostly they are companies that don’t have enough grey hairs so far as I can tell.  Twitter is another one that keeps thrashing around.

I don’t get it.  I’ve been spending a lot of time lately telling various Marketers that Marketing is a Product.  It has a UX, you want to delight your prospects with it, yada, yada.  I guess I need to be telling Product Guys that Products are Marketing after I read stories like this.  They can be A/B tested.  They can be trialed.  You don’t have to roll out changes wholesale and wait to see who screams, and then frantically roll back what doesn’t work.  In fact, it’s much better if you don’t.

Look people, in an online / social / connected / mobile / viral / cloud world, the distinction between marketing and product blurs to the point of being nonexistent.  It all carries a message and a User Experience that either strengthens or weakens your position.  And, it is all Tragically Knowable.

Talk to your customers.  Listen to your customers.  It isn’t hard to do.  You’re supposed to be Social Networks for Heaven’s Sake.  Once you get good at it, you’ll realize it’s actually a lot of fun.

Why screw around with your entire audience and momentum when you could do some tests and do what’s right?  I don’t care how brilliant the wunderkind at the top may be, they are wrong sometimes.  Save us poor customers and prospects the pain.  Life is short, we don’t need any more pain, and we’d like to get on with just loving your products if you’d let us.  Quit doing stuff that was Tragically Knowable.

Posted in Marketing, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Google: Stop the War on SEO and Get Some Better Algorithms

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 4, 2011

Interesting post on Quora (are they posts or questions?):

Is Google intentionally trying to kill rank checking (SERP lookup) by closing their Web API?

I found it as a result of doing some research on how to get Google search results programmatically–turns out you have to cheat as Google really is working overtime to obfuscate and deny programmatic search results.  They do this through Terms of Service that object to programmatic access and limiting their supported API to custom search for sites, which doesn’t return the search results you’d typically see.  Let’s leave aside the impact of personalization, which is also very hard to turn off, but which I think of as a relatively good thing according to my White Hat definition below.

This business of fighting against SEO is a bad thing born out of weak algorithms.

Okay, calling the algorithms bad and weak has got to be picking a fight with a company that prides itself on not doing evil and on algorithmic prowess.  What the heck am I on about now?

Let’s start with a very odd analogy.  Assume you’re trying to encrypt data.  At the same time, you want to create a tool that measures the strength of the encryption as simply as possible.  What would you do and what else would the tool be good for?

I would create a tool that measures the apparent randomness of the encrypted string.  The other thing the tool would be good for is as a metric for compression algorithms.  If a string is truly random, there is no apparent intelligence there–it is well encrypted.  If a string has any patterns to it whatsoever, those patterns could be exploited to learn something valuable about how to decrypt or further compress the string.  For example, “e”  is the letter that appears most frequently in English text.  If we don’t obscure that so letter frequencies appear random, we have a valuable clue for decryption.  If we don’t take advantage of the relative frequency of various characters, we have an inferior compression algorithm.  Either way, randomness is not a bad proxy to measure encryption or compression even though it doesn’t measure it directly.

What does this have to do with SEO, for Heaven’s sake?

Let’s differentiate White Hat (Good) from Black Hat (Evil) SEO strategies in a particular way to make the point:

Black Hat is gaming the system to provide an unfair advantage to search results that otherwise would be considered undesirable by searchers.

White Hat is understanding the system in order to gain insight into what searchers are doing to make it easier to find your valuable content.

Can you see where I’m going?

Content Farms are Black Hat.  They throw together a mish mash of relatively low value content in order to brute force their way to the top of search results.  We all know one when we click-through their links.  With Panda, Google is working hard to push them back down the results.

But, why, OTOH, is Google acting like it is Black Hat to want to understand how your pages are ranking against various queries so you can do better at designing pages users can find more easily?  The only way it could be Black Hat is if Google’s algorithms are not very good at understanding what good content really is.  So they have to keep changing things up to prevent gaming the content with slick strategies that can emphasize any old crap in the results.

Getting back to my encryption example, Google needs some sort of simple test to identify good content.  Perhaps all this personalization and +1’ing will do the trick.  But Google, while you’re wrestling with the problem, recognize one important thing:  Computers don’t understand Language!

Yes, I know you of all organizations must know that well, but you’re threatening to show a lack of understanding while throwing out the baby with the bath water in this war on SEO.  You’re denying legitimate content creators the tools they need to help you get their content into the right hands.  Meanwhile, the Bad Guys are not going to listen to your Terms and Conditions anyway.  They’ll figure out how to game you over and over again.  Why penalize the Good Guys in the process?

Lest you think you can win this arms race in any meaningful way, consider the difficulty of truly stopping the analysis of keyword rank.  All the players have to do is put their application in the Amazon Cloud or go to a P2P system to distribute the load across many machines and you’ll have no idea whether you’re facing one SEO Tool you could try to block or a zillion hand typed queries from legit searchers.

This talk of Clouds and P2P brings me to another thought–search engines of all kinds should take advantage of elasticity to add value.

The infrastructure of any search provider must have elasticity as search demand is not constant–it has ups and downs.  I first thought of this watching Amazon’s algorithms for making recommendations for what I should read next on my Kindle.  They’re better than nothing, but they’re actually not all that good.  I’m sure they’re missing out on the opportunity to sell me a lot more books based on how often I go root out books searching by hand, and how I usually go through a lot of their recommendations before I find something I really like.  I don’t know whether Netflix does a markedly better job, but I have been impressed that they run contests to see if anyone outside Netflix can come up with better results and then they try to add what they learn back into their engine.

Search engines should be asking what they could do with the extra cycles to improve search results.  There won’t be enough elasticity to improve all results.  Some of the problem with search engines is likely not that they don’t know better algorithms, but that they’re too expensive to implement at scale.  Perhaps the secret is knowing how and when to implement them to the extent they can in order to bring up the poor user experiences to better standards (or to optimize user experiences that are particularly valuable by some metric).  For an Amazon-style E-tailer, should they apply the extra cycles finding things for shoppers who are known to spend more?  Google could do the same, but that would be somewhat Evil in that organizing search results to increase ad click-through seems fraught with peril.  OTOH, what if Google invested the elastic spare time in more expensive algorithms focused on high volume searches that are known to produce lower quality results?

In terms of measuring result quality, they have a variety of proxies for that too.  They’re known to use live human reviewers sort of like Secret Shoppers (only I guess they’re Secret Searchers).  With all the toolbars and other gizmos out there measuring our every move, they can determine how long people spend on a search result’s page before popping back into to search to look at the next one.  Let’s not forget Personalization either.  Surely all of those signals can be put together to identify trouble spots where more powerful algorithms might be put to good use.

There’s got to be a better way than going to war against SEO in general.

Posted in Marketing | Leave a Comment »

 
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