Tuesday, August 30, 2011

TechCrunch Redesign Has Reduced My Site Visits

Back in July, I wrote about my disappointment with the Techcrunch site redesign. Since that time, I've noticed that I don't go to the site as often. In fact, I seldom go there. Given the choice of a free minute or two to browse the news, I find myself going through an entire list of sites before I start browsing Techcrunch.

The funny thing is, I remember a couple of posts -- one about the complete redesign fail of another tech blog, and another from the Techcrunch staff talking about how much the previous design was disliked when it was rolled out. I get the feeling that the Techcrunch staff has dug in their heels and won't change this design come hell or high water. Not that they have to. But, I can only imagine that there are other readers like me, readers who have gone from avid visitors to occasional visitors after the redesign.

Perhaps A Different Motive
The other thought keeps buzzing through my head was a description of the new design and how it would enable each post (and the site) to survive on it's merits -- to really highlight the content. In contrast, what my experience is that in the previous design, I actually read some of the writers as columnists. I looked for their posts and sometimes gave them extra credibility based on who the author was.

For me, the new design makes it harder to identify the author, reducing the weight that the writer carries. I wonder if one of the underlying goals was reduce the brand value that the different Techcrunch writers have. If you were AOL and you wanted to lower salary costs, one path might be making individual writers less significant.

It might be interesting to look at Techcrunch analytics by author and compare pre-redesign with post-redesign. I think that you would still have to account for the change in behavior based on the traffic drop; with the site redesign, I'm less inclined to click through a post, but I'm more inclined to specifically look for a couple of writers.

But once again, at this point, all I can really say is thanks to Techcrunch for all of the previous years of content. As with many things that come and go on the Interent, c'est la vie.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Political Malware Might Look Like - Obama and the Democratic Party Brand

As someone who keeps up with politics and also spends a lot of time thinking about marketing, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on Barack Obama and his apparent disconnect from his Democratic party base. Here is a candidate and a brand who, after being elected with strong popularity and a broad base of support, has managed to transform that brand enthusiasm into a complete disconnect from his most passionate base. As the polls run these days, Obama's most electable advantage is that he is not a Republican.

Personally, I think that one fundamental problem is that you can't build enthusiastic brand loyalty and evangelism through mediocre me-to products and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Instead, you connect with passionate, energized audiences and they help drive broader loyalty. And that's probably why I was so struck by this story about Obama campaign staff criticizing activists and outspoken figures on the left -- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/17/new-mexico-ofa-firebagger-lefty-blogosphere_n_929231.html.  

So here's a bigger question -- what if there an underlying identity implied by the Democratic party, a set of values and principles that represent the brand archetype? Perhaps they might even represent areas where compromise and concession are not acceptable, like Arthur Andersen's approach to accounting.
During the early years, it is reputed that Andersen was approached by an executive from a local rail utility to sign off on accounts containing flawed accounting, or else face the loss of a major client. Andersen refused in no uncertain terms, replying that there was "not enough money in the city of Chicago" to make him do it.
So what happens if you represent this brand, but the output and the message you communicate doesn't match those core values? When it comes to our computer, it's not uncommon to find software or applications that look like legitimate system components but that then produce unexpected or undesired results.
Malware, short for malicious software, consists of programming (code, scripts, active content, and other software) designed to disrupt or deny operation, gather information that leads to loss of privacy or exploitation, gain unauthorized access to system resources, and other abusive behavior. The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code.
But it's not just Democrats. Moderate Republicans might think of the Tea Party and the radical right as malware -- the Christine O'Donnell 2010 candidacy might be a good example of that. Of course, some might say that it isn't malware, that it isn't malicious; instead, it's merely the evolution of thought, philosophy, or values -- sort of an ideological regression to the mean.

It's too bad that we can't ask Arthur Andersen what he thinks. Having founded a brand based on the strong business principles, imagine what he might say about the evolution of his accounting firm's brand, falling so far as to be remembered more for criminally unprincipled accounting practices than those associated with his own name. He might think that his business had been consumed by malware.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Search Of: the Underlying Strategy in Mobile Advertising

Perhaps your experience is similar to mine. Recently, I've notice what seems like an increasing number ads in the apps that I use on my phone. We all understand the basic idea -- mobile use is increasing, there is strong engagement with mobile devices, so more engaged eyeballs equals conversions and results... or at the very least, a more enticing opportunity for market program dollars.

While I can understand these app platforms looking for ways to monetize the software, realistically, the only times that I've clicked on them were accidents. I know I'm not the only one who acts this way, so it makes me wonder about certain aspects of the mobile advertising market.

Online Advertising Has Always Sucked -- Well, Almost Always
Before we go further, I should note that I'm rather skeptical about many aspects of Internet advertising. In the days before Google and PPC advertising on search, Internet advertising sucked for a bunch of reasons. Of course, that didn't prevent some of our colleagues from burning marketing dollars on these crappy programs. But for many of us in those days, Internet advertising was simply a B2B scam grifting marketing budgets.

Adwords really changed everything. Adwords was different because in many ways it provided consumers a value-added experience -- when they clicked through an Adword listing, they were interested in your product and often ready to buy. Adwords also set a new benchmark for ROI on advertising dollars with pay-per-click, an ecosystem that was designed to prevent spammy advertising noise, and a focus on blocking irrelevant content.

For a time, there was no better benchmark for advertising ROI than Google Adwords. But as the market matured, we also saw the era of click-fraud and of ecosystems devoted to farming revenue from Adsense. There was money there and everyone wanted a piece. But more than anything, what Google Adwords did was prove the viability of online advertising as a sustainable revenue engine.

Online display advertising had it's own drivers. While content publishers have looked for ways to make ads more like traditional print and television ads, it's been all about narrow-casting and individual user profiles on the back end. Similar to the spyware/malware elements that pioneered some of the display ad networks, today's Internet advertising networks collect user data and use that information to shape the content that gets pushed to the user across the entire ad network. Visit a travel site and you see travel ads on all of the web pages that you go to from there.

For marketers, leveraging demographic intelligence in online advertising can improve conversions. Of course, if you follow back through to the Scamville posts about Facebook/social network game advertising, this same level of intelligence can also be applied to manipulate users or potentially take advantage of marketers.

So What About Mobile Advertising
In looking at the ecosystem, the goal is think about whether this is a viable marketing outlet or yet another way to scam dollars from a marketing budget. And, if its a viable platform, for which types of products or markets. Beyond ROI or a specific advertising network company's sales pitch, it's important to build a theoretical framework of expectations.  

Let's start with a couple of assumptions. First, let's assume that some of the people directing these advertising programs have a strategy, a plan, use metrics, and see real ROI on their mobile platform advertising. Within the system, somewhere, there are probably people getting some benefit from these mobile ad programs. So, working from the other end of the spectrum and attempting to define some personas, under what circumstances would you click through an ad on your phone (other than accidentally)?

Most mobile apps are designed around very focused, narrow use cases. Get in, use the app, get out. If the ad is supposed to provide you with a gateway to additional information, why isn't that information integrated into the core functionality of the app?

One common approach for mobile apps is to place the ad close to the area that you have to click in order to enter text. Getting ready to type in a search term? Be precise with your aim or you'll click through an ad. I suspect that this design approach is a two-fold strategy that underlies a large percentage of in-app mobile advertising.
  1. Artificially inflate click-through-rates to deceptively sell advertisers on mobile ad ROI. 
  2. Create a nuisance tax for consumers in order to drive the up-sell purchase of ad-free platforms. 
The second approach tends to work like television commercials, popping a splash screen or video segment before the user is taken to the content or application functionality that they are seeking. If seen this approach used prominently in games like EA's Scrabble and applications like the Epicurious recipe tool. If most people are like me, they they are probably clicking through simply to get past the ad as quickly as possible or ignoring the video clip while it runs.

Again, I suspect that the key drivers for this type of advertising are the same as above with one caveat being that many of these types of ads contain poorly written code that causes the application to lock-up. EA's Scrabble, for example, relentlessly consumes battery life and I've even heard audio from ads running in the background even as the application had moved forward.

Mobile Advertising Strategy In Sum
At this point, I have a hard time conceptualizing a market or a product that would be a good candidate for mobile advertising. If I were directing an ad spend, I would keep my dollars out of mobile. Consider, even for the poorly implemented ads that caused problems with application hangs, I don't even know remember enough about the specific advertisers or products to be angry at them -- for a variety of reasons, the ads didn't even work on that level.

I definitely would not believe anything I was being sold when it came to mobile CPC. In my mind, if there is a case for mobile, it's probably a CPM placement, and even then, I have to think that there are better channels.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Amusing Look at Unusual Resumes

I've written about unusual resumes on several occasions. Here's a post with some amusingly unusual resume examples. It's probably worth noting that most of these are creative people seeking creative jobs... marketing is creative, right?


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Amazon, Sales Tax, and The Internet vs Brick and Mortar

On a recent Friday, I was in the car driving down from San Francisco and KQED radio's Forum program featured an hour-long segment on California sales tax and Amazon.com. Here's the synopsis from the KQED page:
Online retailer Amazon is fighting back against a recent California law that taxes Internet purchases from out-of-state companies. State officials say the law will generate up to $200 million a year in unpaid taxes. In response, Amazon officials are launching a petition drive to overturn the law. 
As with many of these Forum programs (like many national talk radio programs), the show wandered between frustratingly oversimplified background info and useless PR demagoguery. And while they pushed me to the point that I almost called in, I opted to focus on driving and save my energy for another blog post on this topic.

First, a couple of foundational points:
  • California needs money to fund it's government.
  • Sales tax is one of the methods used by the state to take in money
Various associated groups will frame this issue of sales tax nexus around two themes, the Internet versus Brick and Mortar, and the moral responsibility for businesses that sell things in the state to pay for stuff in the state. The Forum program rode both of these themes pretty hard through their hour long segment.

The Internet versus Brick and Mortar is an easy story to play for an emotional response. It's essentially a replay of You've Got Mail. In this episode, you get a small, local bookstore owner getting their head handed to them by the giant Internet Goliath. Of course, it has nothing to do with selection, convenience, reviews and value-adds, or base price (typically half that of retail) -- it's the 10% discount that customers get by avoiding sales tax. Don't worry, the arguement sounds better when it comes from Meg Ryan.

As for the moral responsibility for businesses, the reality is that businesses are driven by costs and profits. As much as we might wish for a moral component to business, many of the same "moral" forces that drive business also drive consumers -- namely cost. I can't tell you how many times I have been hanging out in my local bike shop when someone came by, looking for sales support, information, or a tangible product experience -- only to leave and purchase the same products over the Internet. Or, the other classically similar event -- purchasing a "low cost" bicycle over the Internet, being overwhelmed by the challenge of assembling the bike, then taking their Internet bike to the LBS for assembly. For these consumers, where is their moral commitment to their local community? And they live there.

That's not to say that people and businesses shouldn't act with a morally ethical perspective. Rather, simply expecting tax and revenue from the philanthropic morality of businesses or individuals is unrealistic.

The Real Issue with Sales Tax
Ultimately, the real issue here is whether sales tax is a viable way of collecting revenue in the age of the Internet. It's not just Amazon Affiliates and location. If you buy software for your computer and then download it, that's not subject to sales tax. On the other hand, if you buy the same software on a CD, it's taxable.

Using affiliate location to define nexus is a new arbitrary interpretation that California (and other states that have tried to use this technique) have rolled out in an effort to strong-arm companies like Amazon for some money. Suppose you publish a blog or a web site and your server is located in Texas -- is your sales tax nexus in California or Texas? In the old days of brick and mortar, it would be difficult to stretch your store across state lines -- now, you can find yourself in the middle of complex interstate commerce questions with a credit card and a few clicks of the mouse.

Anyone who has set up (or considered setting up) an e-commerce system (particularly in the early days) understands the challenge and complexities of location, nexus and sales tax. What makes it even more challenging is the constantly shifting landscape of local sales taxes. Even for a "morally responsible" small business, attempting to navigate the landscape or maintain an infrastructure that worked with it can be problematic. Meanwhile, what if you sell something to someone on eBay? Do you have to collect sales tax? How do you know? Are you certain that you are in compliance with all of the local laws that affect the affect your purchaser?

Of course, this doesn't really solve the problem of how to address revenues that have traditionally been collected through sales tax. Clearly, as a society, we need to find a way to reinterpret this system and make adjustments to make it fair. Unfortunately, simply having the state make an arbitrary revenue land grab is not the way.