The Soft Touch

A buying decision is usually a long one. Think about entering a shoe store. Do you grab the first pair off the shelf in the front of the store and proceed to checkout? Probably not. So why do we continually see websites present us with their product or service and expect us to buy right away?

Fortunately, this is a trend that is in decline. More and more, companies are realizing that they need time to inform their potential customers of the value of their good or service. And in the world of the web, that means getting email addresses.

email

At my current job, we implemented a dramatic change to our website. We added an email submission field, just above the fold. None of our other content changed. We still had information about our product, testimonials from previous customers, and a section about price. But now, we have an option for a visitor to give us his or her email address to learn more and join our mailing list. And given that the price of our product starts at five thousand dollars, we decided that asking for an email address would yield better results than asking for five grand.

In the past, before our simple email form, we would see about two to three new signups a week. With the email form, we are still seeing that rate, but now we are also adding about ten to fifteen additional email addresses every day. Within a week, that’s about 100 more people with whom we now have the opportunity to communicate. That’s equivalent to all the folks that walked into that shoe store and didn’t buy anything. Except now we can contact them later and tell them more about our product. Or better yet, give them a discount if they try us out.

So if you’re company is selling something online, please, focus first on capturing your visitor’s email. Go for the soft touch, as they say. But remember, you have to give your visitor something in return. Maybe it’s a discount, or more information about what you do, or industry insider secrets. People value good information, and giving up an email address is often worth just that.

Filter the Noise

How does one create memorable content in today’s world? How can you say something that hasn’t been said already? With millions of users online–tweeting, posting, blogging–the noise is so broad, so vast in scope that it’s near impossible to break through. Unless, of course, your content goes ‘viral’.

Noise

Now the question becomes, can you control ‘virality’? A word so new, it’s not even in the dictionary. With the speed of technology fittingly keeping speed with Moore’s Law, it seems the noisy world of information we live in today will only get noisier. This means more content clamoring for more attention out of our every waking hour–perhaps, soon, even our sleeping hours. To make content spread in this kind of web means the importance lies more on delivery and less on originality. In fact, this is already happening.

Look at today’s meme’s. The highest shared content is not original at all. In fact, it’s a derivative of some other piece of content, sometimes reconfigured many times over before it’s spread across the web.

Keyboard Cat MemeSo next time you’re about to publish content to the masses, remember that in the last minute over 100 hours of video footage has been uploaded to youtube, 100,000 birds have tweeted, and about 2,000 blog posts have been written. With noise levels like this, the only person you should care to reach with your content is yourself. Even if it’s not original in the traditional sense, it’s original to you. Make it genuine, make it real, make it yourself. Then release a second version with keyboard cat.

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A/B testing is Not about conversions

Any online marketer can tell you about A/B testing. How one analyzes traffic to a website , splitting visitors into two groups (version A and version B), and then noting which page lead more of their visitors to do ‘X’. The conversion point (X in this case) could be anything–signing up for a newsletter, adding items to a shopping cart, clicking the ‘Buy Now’, you name it.

But having tested websites now for a while, I’m beginning to see that this is not the whole picture. The true focus is not about what you want visitors to do when they arrive at your site, it’s about what they want.

Stop for a minute and think about the visitor. Why are they on your site? What brought them here? A google search? They clicked on your ad? In general, they are looking for something that they think (or in most cases, what Google thinks) you can provide them. Information, services, a product to purchase, etc. They either somehow know about your company or more likely, they’ve searched for ways of fulfilling their needs and have clicked on a link that took them to your site. Perhaps this company’s website has what I am looking for? [click]

Now you have seconds to grab their attention, get them interested in your offer, influence their decision and ultimately persuade them to act (unto whatever metric you care most about). The A/B test is supposed to reveal which version appealed to more visitors to make more of them convert.

And that’s it exactly. Which version appeals. Which version do your visitors like more than the other? Which one gets out of the way, so that they can find what they are looking for? Which version doesn’t scream at them? Doesn’t scare them away? Which version has them wanting more?

Your visitors have no patience for your preferences or esthetic taste, so don’t use your best judgment, because it’s probably wrong. A/B testing is not about creating the best page to convert the most visitors–it’s about stopping, getting out of their way and listening. Let your visitors tell you what they want.

See my other post about A/B testing.

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Copy World

(posted first on Medium)

A few years ago I was introduced to the works of Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher who wrote fervently about postmodernism before his death in 2007. He believed our society had become so reliant on maps and models—copies of the world it aims to represent—that reality itself was merely imitating the model.

To understand this concept, let’s think about soup.

Mass production gives us the ability to create a seemingly limitless amount of replicas from the true source. For Campbell’s Soup Company, this meant feeding thousands and turning a profit by replicating one can of soup. The authentic and diverse styles of homemade soup were being manufactured and synthesized into an all encompassing food for the masses. Over time, one forgets what mother’s chicken noodle soup tastes like…it tastes like Campbell’s.

In 1962 Andy Warhol used the classic Campbell’s soup can in his art. Once a staple item in almost every kitchen in America, the red and white can was now pop art. Today you can get Warhol’s iconic Soup Cans printed on a paper wallet. And you can follow that link to move further from the real source. Let’s look at a few more examples.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that combines Jane Austin’s classic novel with modern zombie fiction (and it’s in development to be a movie). The Nike Fuel band is a wristband that tracks your daily movement and displays a numerical representation of those movements, even syncing them to a cloud service so you can track yourself on your smartphone. Facebook is an online social sharing network that does nothing but represent a ‘version’ of who you are based on your online activity (i.e. input into its system through posts and photo uploads). It’s likely that within a hundred years, our own bodies will be coupled with technology—such that they, too, are further removed from their original essence.

As we move forward in life—augmenting our bodies with bionic limbs, replicating ourselves with online personas, quantifying our actions with digital products—do we lose sense of our truth? As we re-tell our stories, mixing in other ideas, do they lose their meaning? Have we copied and re-copied so much that we’ve lost sight of what’s real?

One day, in the seemingly distant future, we may trade-in mother’s chicken noodle soup for a government issued food pill and forget Andy Warhol all together. We may download our memories into machines and leave our bodies to join the robot society we helped create. Or we may go outside to breath the fresh air, see the beauty in our natural surroundings and feel whole again with the world we live in, only to touch the plastic bark of a synthetic tree and wonder why anyone made such a silly thing.

Google creates the next A.I.

As we all know, Google is the leader in search and they keep getting better. Their ‘spiders’ regularly scan every web page, analyze every word, every link, each plus one, social share, email interaction, Google wallet transaction, et cetera. Google maps continually updates its satellite data with images of every continent, country, state, building, road–even their ‘street’ views can now display underwater. Essentially, Google can get you any piece of information on the web using almost any word, image or sound.

Artificial Intelligence - The Terminator

Now imagine, for a moment, that you are not the person submitting a web search. Instead, a robot (let’s call him Hal), wirelessly connects to the Internet, perpetually surveys its surroundings at lightning fast speed while indexing information into its own storage unit and analyzing any additional data entered into its system. You hold up your coffee cup and say, “Hal, what am I holding?” Hal recognizes his name, captures the image of the coffee mug with his camera lens eyes, scans every comparable image on the Internet, finds the most relevant word for those images and in less than a quarter second echoes back, “You are holding a cup”. Now imagine Hal’s driving your car (or is the car).

Sound impossible? Over the summer, Google scientists went even further, putting 16,000 processors together and creating the ‘Google Brain‘–a machine learning neural network that taught itself to identify cats. Meaning, it didn’t just search the web for cat images and related words to help identify a cat, it “basically invented the concept of a cat,” says Google fellow Jeff Dean, who led the study.

DRC Simulator Image

A recent Forbes article explains how Carnegie Mellon researchers have outlined, “an artificial intelligence system that can watch and predict what a person will ‘likely’ do in the future…” DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which develops new technologies for use by the military, funded this project as well as the DRC or DARPA Robotics Challenge–a public crowd-sourcing initiative for robotics research. Regina Dugan, former DARPA director, who led next-generation manufacturing and crowdsourcing hacker outreach efforts like the DRC, has been working for Google since March.

100 years from now or maybe even a few decades, it may be likely that one looks back at Google as the proverbial Cyberdyne systems, the company that created Skynet–the artificial intelligence featured in The Terminator franchise. But really, one can argue that A.I. is already here.

The familiar Google search results page you see on a daily basis is a dumbed-down version of information that a computer could process several times a second. Once these search processes are automated for words, images or sound–and improved upon with machine learning–it’s not hard to imagine this functionality embodied in a robot. When that future comes, I just hope Google has truly lived up to its motto – ‘don’t be evil’.

App Deployed

Well, I’m close to finished with my Bloc course. I’ve learned a heck of a lot and I still want more! Just signed up for a free mongoDB course which, so far, is quite good. I also pushed my first rails app to Heroku. And despite the fact that I need a different image hosting solution to make things work I feel a great sense of satisfaction for where I am today.

It wasn’t too long ago that I had a little website idea and thought, “wow, if only I could build it.” At the time, I had very little knowledge of how to do much more than post to Wordpress  Now I understand how data is stored and handled across a wide variety of languages and frameworks. I understand how simple methods can build on each other to make a complex model. More importantly, I turned my idea into reality!

I drew diagrams, created a framework, learned a few programming languages, created a database, added some CSS styling, created a development environment and pushed a ‘working’ (damn resetting dynos) application out to the web. There’s a lot more I can do to polish my web application. And I’d love to sharpen my obj C skills and get working on an iOS app. But for now, I’ll work on some Python and dive into mongoDB.

Let the coding begin!

Actually, it already started long ago. I could say that it started early in my undergrad years at Santa Clara, where I began learning C++ and the fundamentals of computer science. But my love for programming didn’t really blossom again until sometime in late 2011 when I started dabbling in Ruby on Rails, thanks to a fun online course by Gregg and the gang at Codeschool.

I’m talking, of course, about Rails for Zombies. From there, I’ve discovered a myriad of great content to help propel me into learning more code. Here’s a few I recommend: Codecademy, Ruby Koans, Codeschool & Testfirst.org

Last week I started an in-depth programming course that should bring my skills to the next level. I’m talking about Bloc, an eight week intensive course that teaches Ruby on Rails, as well as CSS, HTML5, and other languages. At the end of the course, most students will have built a fully functional web app. I already have my idea, and I’m excited about working on it.

So why am I talking about coding and not marketing? Well, I won’t be hanging up my marketing hat anytime soon. But I am ready for a change. I’m ready to move into something new and explore software development. It’s certainly challenging, but as Lao-tzu once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

The Death of Innovation

Did innovation die along with Steve Jobs? I hate to put so much weight into one man’s life, but he was the driving force behind today’s best smartphone–perhaps the latest great invention of our time–and maybe the last. Jobs was truly an innovator. So was Bill Gates for that matter. But what are the remarkable new technologies in today’s companies? Would you consider photo filtering or chat-like conversations to be innovative? Probably not. Yet these are exactly the types of ‘technologies’ so highly regarded in society and Wall Street, proven by the recent exits of Instagram and Yammer. I fear that as we mature into the ‘new’ social web, we will continue to see companies like this that make a quick exit and a fast buck, leaving innovation to the wayside.

But perhaps there is a bigger underlying issue. Perhaps the true reason for a lack of innovation in the web today is that most of our needs are already met. Think about it. We can access any piece of information or media from anywhere, on practically any device, thanks to people like Jobs, Gates, Page & Brin, and the companies these guys created, and many more like them. Perhaps the web has already served most of our needs, and there isn’t much left upon which to improve. 

Sure, we will continue to see innovation in science and other technologies, but innovation for the web may be downright dead. Instead, it will seek to serve greater needs in other industries, where there is still room for improvement.

Google is Better than Facebook

And it always will be.

Why? Because social is a fad. It’s hype. It’s not tangible, it’s not measurable, it’s not really anything…because it’s not real. Communication between human beings is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. And porting it to the Internet and calling it ‘social’ doesn’t make it special. That’s just normal progression.

Facebook has users, nothing more. It is a media channel that is eating into the share of the advertising market, joining Google as they basically move advertising dollars from television to the net. But Google owns more than 40% of the online advertising market, while Facebook has 3%. (New data shows these numbers to be closer to 60% and 6%, respectively). But more importantly, Google performs better. And the reason is simple. It all comes down to search.

Google displays a relevant ad when a user searches for a key word. There is a high probability that the user will have some level of intent to purchase a good or service that is relevant to the key word entered. In other words, if I’m searching for information on repairing my old car, an ad trying to sell me a new car is likely to get my attention. Facebook works more like old television advertising. In the same way that television networks sell ad space based on the demographics of populations that watch their shows, Facebook sells targeted ads based on demographic data on their users.

Businesses can target their ads to populations based on age, sex, location, etc, but at the end of the day it’s still targeting based on a type of person, versus Google’s targeting based on the action of a person. This fundamental difference is why Google owns so much of the market. It’s why their ads perform better. And it’s why the New York times recently reported that GM stopped advertising on Facebook.

So why would the third largest advertiser in the U.S. cut their $10 million annual advertising from Facebook? Simple. They aren’t seeing a justifiable return on their investment. The same may come true for Facebook stockholders. Remember that when Google IPO’d in 2004, it closed its first day at $100 per share, which was 69 times the company’s earnings. Back then, Google’s earnings were growing faster than Facebook’s earnings today. If Facebook goes public with a $100 billion market value, it would trade at 103 times the profits it made in the last year.

Essentially, stockholders will be betting that Facebook will outperform Google. But look at the facts. Facebook has a slower rate of growth, much less market share, and lower performing ads. So how can we justify the high valuation? Well, it makes sense if you believe the hype.

Where’s the value?

Marketing and advertising have long been seen as seedy and sleazy industries. Ads and messaging created and displayed for the implicit goal of playing off a person’s fears and desires, all in the hopes of selling said person a service or product. It can feel intrusive or demeaning or just plain rude. And with today’s online marketing capabilities, some find the pervasive and ‘all-knowing’ aspects of advertising to be a breach of privacy or downright unethical.

But we better get used to it. Because like it or not, it won’t go away. In fact, it’s probably getting worse.

Why? Facebook and Instagram, to name a few. Two ‘high-tech’ companies overvalued at ridiculous dollar amounts with more users than anyone could ever dream. But so what? When did a user become tied to a dollar value? Without a good or service to provide, what is the value in these companies?

Sure, Facebook, Instagram, and the like provide services that are a value to the end user. People like sharing and editing photos. They like chatting and messaging with their friends. This is why these companies have so many users. But at the end of the day, if the service and products are free, then the revenue is zero! Unless, of course, you have advertising.

Maxel advertisement

And now we’re talking real money. All of those users. All of those eyeballs. So many opportunities to display ads, to data mine trends, uncover personal relationships, track user behaviors and more. Sound intrusive? That’s because it is. But the real question is, do we care?

The younger generation seems not to mind the all-too-relevant ads that display based on their behavior online. Personally, I prefer ads that are more relevant to me versus something that aims for my attention but misses the mark. Online advertising in my social networks doesn’t really bother me. Facebook, Instagram and companies like them that provide an online social experience is a good thing–and one that many people enjoy.

But let’s not kid ourselves. When one media giant pays $1 billion dollars for another, it’s not because the purchased company does a good job giving away a free app. It’s much simpler than that. It’s just one data-mining, user-behavior-tracking, advertising giant buying another. More eyeballs!

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