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Cesar A. Brea bio at Force Five Partners

     

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36 posts categorized "Online Communities"

May 19, 2013

@nathanheller #MOOCs in The New Yorker: You Don't Need A Weatherman

The May 20th 2013 edition of The New Yorker has an article by Vogue writer Nathan Heller on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) titled "Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?"  The author explores, or at least raises, a number of related questions.  How (well) does the traditional offline learning experience transfer online?  Is the online learning experience more or less effective than the traditional one? (By what standard? For what material?  What is gained and lost?)  What will MOOCs mean for different colleges and universities, and their faculties?  How will the MOOC revolution be funded?  (In particular, what revenue model will emerge?)

Having worked a lot in the sector, for both public and private university clients, developing everything from technology, to online-enabled programs themselves, to analytic approaches, and even on marketing and promotion, the article was a good prompt for me to try to boil out some ways to think about answering these questions.

The article focuses almost exclusively on Harvard and EdX, the 12-school joint venture through which it's pursuing MOOCs.  Obviously this skews the evaluation.  Heller writes:

Education is a curiously alchemical process. Its vicissitudes are hard to isolate.  Why do some students retain what they learned in a course for years, while others lose it through the other ear over their summer breaks?  Is the fact that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to revolutionize the tech industry a sign that their Harvard educations worked, or that they failed?  The answer matters, because the mechanism by which conveyed knowledge blooms into an education is the standard by which MOOCs will either enrich teaching in this country or deplete it.

For me, the first step to boiling things out is to define what we mean by -- and want from -- an "education".  So, let's try to unpack why people go to college.  In most cases, Reason One is that you need a degree to get any sort of decent job.  Reason Two is to plug into a network of people -- fellow students, alumni, faculty -- that provide you a life-long community.  Of course you need a professional community for that Job thing, but also because in an otherwise anomic society you need an archipelago to seed friendships, companionships, and self-definition (or at least, as scaffolding for your personal brand: as one junior I heard on a recent college visit put it memorably, "Being here is part of the personal narrative I'm building.")  Reason Three -- firmly third -- is to get an "education" in the sense that Heller describes.  (Apropos: check this recording of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.) 

Next, this hierarchy of needs then gives us a way to evaluate the prospects for MOOCs.

If organization X can produce graduates demonstrably better qualified (through objective testing, portfolios of work, and experience) to do job Y, at a lower cost, then it will thrive.  If organization X can do this better and cheaper by offering and/or curating/ aggregating MOOCs, then MOOCs will thrive.  If a MOOC can demonstrate an adequately superior result / contribution to the end outcome, and do it inexpensively enough to hold its place in the curriculum, and do it often enough that its edge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- a brand, in other words -- then it will crowd out its competitors, as surely as one plant shuts out the sunlight to another.  Anyone care to bet against Georgia Tech's new $7K Master's in Computer Science?

If a MOOC-mediated social experience can connect you to a Club You Want To Be A Member Of, you will pay for that.  And if a Club That Would Have You As A Member can attract you to its clubhouse with MOOCs, then MOOCs will line the shelves of its bar.  The winning MOOC cocktails will be the ones that best produce the desired social outcomes, with the greatest number of satisfying connections.

Finally, learning is as much about the frame of mind of the student as it is about the quality of the teacher.  If through the MOOC the student is able to choose a better time to engage, and can manage better the pace of the delivery of the subject matter, then the MOOC wins.

Beyond general prospects, as you consider these principles, it becomes clear that it's less about whether MOOCs win, but which ones, for what and for whom, and how.  

The more objective and standardized -- and thus measurable and comparable -- the learning outcome and the standard of achievement, the greater the potential for a MOOC to dominate. My program either works, or it doesn't.  

If a MOOC facilitates the kinds of content exchanges that seed and stimulate offline social gatherings -- pitches to VCs, or mock interviewing, or poetry, or dance routines, or photography, or music, or historical tours, or bird-watching trips, or snowblower-maintenance workshops -- then it has a better chance of fulfilling the longings of its students for connection and belonging.  

And, the more well-developed the surrounding Internet ecosystem (Wikipedia, discussion groups, Quora forums, and beyond) is around a topic, the less I need a Harvard professor, or even a Harvard grad student, to help me, however nuanced and alchemical the experience I miss might otherwise have been.  The prospect of schlepping to class or office hours on a cold, rainy November night has a way of diluting the urge to be there live in case something serendipitous happens.

Understanding how MOOCs win then also becomes a clue to understanding potential revenue models.  

If you can get accredited to offer a degree based in part or whole on MOOCs, you can charge for that degree, and gets students or the government to pay for it (Exhibit A: University of Phoenix).  That's hard, but as a variant of this, you can get hired by an organization, or a syndicate of organizations you organize, to produce tailored degree programs -- think corporate training programs on steroids -- that use MOOCs to filter and train students.  (Think "You, Student, pay for the 101-level stuff; if you pass you get a certificate and an invitation to attend the 201-level stuff that we fund; if you pass that we give you a job.")  

Funding can come directly, or be subsidized by sponsors and advertisers, or both.  

You can try to charge for content: if you produce a MOOC that someone else wants to include in a degree-based program, you can try to license it, in part or in whole.  

You can make money via the service angle, the way self-publishing firms support authors, with a variety of best-practice based production services.  Delivery might be offered via a freemium model -- the content might be free, but access to premium groups, with teaching assistant support, might come at a price.  You can also promote MOOCs -- build awareness, drive distribution, even simply brand  -- for a cut of the action, the way publishers and event promoters do.  

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we'll get the Academic Upfront, in which Universities front a semester's worth of classes in a MOOC, then pitch the class to sponsors, the way TV networks do today. Or, maybe the retail industry also offers a window into how MOOCs will be monetized.  Today's retail environment is dominated by global brands (think professors as fashion designers) and big-box (plus Amazon) firms that dominate supply chains and distrubution networks.  Together, Brands and Retailers effectively act as filters: we make assumptions that the products on their shelves are safe, effective, reasonably priced, acceptably stylish, well-supported.  In exchange, we'll pay their markup.  This logic sounds a cautionary note for many schools: boutiques can survive as part of or at the edges of the mega-retailers' ecosystems, but small-to-mid-size firms reselling commodities get crushed.

Of course, these are all generic, unoriginal (see Ecclesiastes 1:9) speculations.  Successful revenue models will blend careful attention to segmenting target markets and working back from their needs, resources, and processes (certain models might be friendlier to budgets and purchasing mechanisms than others) with thoughtful in-the-wild testing of the ideas.  Monolithic executions with Neolithic measurement plans ("Gee, the focus group loved it, I can't understand why no one's signing up for the paid version!") are unlikely to get very far.  Instead, be sure to design with testability in mind (make content modular enough to package or offer a la carte, for example).  Maybe even use Kickstarter as a lab for different models!

PS Heller's brilliant sendup of automated essay grading

Postscript:

The MOOC professor perspective, via the Chronicle, March 2013


April 10, 2013

Fooling Around With Google App Engine @googlecloud

A simple experiment: the "Influence Reach Factor" Calculator. (Um, it just multiplies two numbers together.  But that's beside the point, which was to sort out what it's like to build and deploy an app to Google's App Engine, their cloud computing service.)

Answer: pretty easy.  Download the App Engine SDK.  Write your program (mine's in Python, code here, be kind, props and thanks to Bukhantsov.org for a good model to work from).  Deploy to GAE with a single click.

By contrast, let's go back to 1999.  As part of getting up to speed at ArsDigita, I wanted to install the ArsDigita Community System (ACS), an open-source application toolkit and collection of modules for online communities.  So I dredged up an old PC from my basement, installed Linux, then Postgres, then AOLServer, then configured all of them so they'd welcome ACS when I spooled it up (oh so many hours RTFM-ing to get various drivers to work).  Then once I had it at "Hello World!" on localhost, I had to get it networked to the Web so I could show it to friends elsewhere (this being back in the days before the cable company shut down home-served websites).  

At which point, cue the Dawn Of Man.

Later, I rented servers from co-los. But I still had to worry about whether they were up, whether I had configured the stack properly, whether I was virus-free or enrolled as a bot in some army of darkness, or whether demand from the adoring masses was going to blow the capacity I'd signed up for. (Real Soon Now, surely!)

Now, Real Engineers will say that all of this served to educate me about how it all works, and they'd be right.  But unfortunately it also crowded out the time I had to learn about how to program at the top of the stack, to make things that people would actually use.  Now Google's given me that time back.

Why should you care?  Well, isn't it the case that you read everywhere about how you, or at least certainly your kids, need to learn to program to be literate and effective in the Digital Age?  And yet, like Kubrick's monolith, it all seems so opaque and impenetrable.  Where do you start?  One of the great gifts I received in the last 15 years was to work with engineers who taught me to peel it back one layer at a time.  My weak effort to pay it forward is this small, unoriginal advice: start by learning to program using a high-level interpreted language like Python, and by letting Google take care of the underlying "stack" of technology needed to show your work to your friends via the Web.  Then, as your functional or performance needs demand (which for most of us will be rarely), you can push to lower-level "more powerful" (flexible but harder to learn) languages, and deeper into the stack.

August 18, 2012

Gaming Facebook Sponsored Stories #fb #sponsoredstories

Facebook's Sponsored Stories feature is one of the ad targeting horses the firm's counting on to pull it out of its current valuation morass (read this, via @bussgang).  

Sponsored Stories is a virality-enhancing mechanism (no jokes please, that was an "a" not an "i") that allows Facebook advertisers to increase the reach of Facebook users' interactions with the advertisers' brands on Facebook (Likes, Check-ins, etc.). It does this by increasing the number of a user's Facebook friends who see such engagements with the advertisers' brands beyond the limited number who would, under normal application of the Facebook news feed algorithm, see those endorsements.

Many users are outraged that this unholy Son-Of-Beacon feature violates their privacy, to the point that they sue-and-settle (or try to, oops).

What they are missing perhaps is the opportunity to "surf" an advertiser's Sponsored Stories investment to amplify their own self-promotion or mere narcissism.

Consider the following simple example.  Starbucks is / has been using this ad program.  Let's say I go to Starbucks and "check in" on Facebook.  Juiced by Sponsored Stories (within the additional impressions Starbucks has paid for), all of my Facebook friends browsing their news feeds will see I've checked in at Starbucks (and presumably feel all verklempt about a brand that could attract such a valued friend). 

Now, what if I, savvy small business person, comment in my check in that I'm "at Starbucks, discussing my <link>NEW BOOK</link> with friends!"  I've pulled off the social media equivalent of pasting my bumper sticker on Starbucks' billboard.

I need to look more closely into this, but as I understand it, the Sponsored Stories feature can't today prevent users from including negative feedback in their brand engagements, where such flexibility is provided for.  So if they can't handle the negative yet, it may still be that they can't prevent more general forms of off-brand messaging.

I'm sure others have considered this and other possibilities. Comments very welcome!  Meanwhile, I'm off to Starbucks to discuss my upcoming NEW BOOK.

 

 

January 06, 2011

#Google Search and The Limits of #Location

I broke my own rule earlier today and twitched (that's tweeted+*itched -- you read it here first) an impulsive complaint about how Google does not allow you to opt out of having it consider your location as a relevance factor in the search results it offers you:

Epic fail

I don't take it back.  But, I do think I owe a constructive suggestion for how this could be done, in a way that doesn't compromise the business logic I infer behind this regrettable choice.  Plus, I'll lay out what I infer this logic to be, and the drivers for it, in the hope that someone can improve my understanding.  Finally, I'll lay out some possible options for SEO in an ever-more-local digital business context.

OK, first, here's the problem.  In one client situation I'm involved with, we're designing an online strategy with SEO as a central objective.  There are a number of themes we're trying to optimize for.  One way you improve SEO is to identify the folks who rank / index highly on terms you care about, and cultivate a mutually valuable relationship in which they eventually may link to relevant content you have on a target theme.  To get a clean look at who indexes well on a particular theme and related terms, you can de-personalize your search.  You do this with a little url surgery:

Start with the search query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]

Then graft on a little string to depersonalize the query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]&pws=0

Now, when I did this, I noticed that Google was still showing me local results.  These usually seem less intrusive.  But now, like some invasive weed, they'd choked off my results, ranging all the way to the third position and clogging up most of the rest of the first page, for a relatively innocuous term ("law"; lots of local law firms, I guess).  

Then I realized that "&pws=0" tells Google to stop rummaging around in the cookies it's set on my browser, plus other information in my http requests, and won't help me prevent Google guessing / using my location, since that's based on the location of the ISP's router between my computer and the Google cloud.

 Annoyed, I poked around to see what else I could do about it.  Midway down the left-hand margin of the search results page, I noticed this:

Google Search Location Control

 

So naturally, my first thought was to specify "none", or "null", to see if I could turn this off.  No joy. 

Next, some homework to see if there's some way to configure my way out of this.  That led me to Rishi's post (see the third answer, dated 12/2/2010, to the question).  

Unbelieving that an organization with as fantastic a UI aesthetic -- that is to say, functional / usable in the extreme -- as Google would do this, I probed further. 

First stop: Web Search Help.  The critical part:

Q. Can I turn off location-based customization?

A. The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven't provided a way to turn off location customization, although we've made it easy for you to set your own location or to customize using a general location as broad as the country that matches your local domain...

Ah, so, "It's a feature, not a bug." :-)

...If you find that your results for a particular search are more local than what you're looking for, you can set your location to a broader geographical area (such as a country instead of a city, zip code, or street address). Please note that this will greatly reduce the amount of locally relevant results that you’ll see. [emphasis mine]

 Exactly!  So I tried to game the system:

Google Search Location Control world

Drat!  Foiled again.  Ironic, this "Location not recognized" -- from the people who bring us Google Earth!

Surely, I thought, some careful consideration must have gone into turning the Greatest Tool The World Has Ever Known into the local Yellow Pages.  So, I checked the Google blog.  A quick search there for "location", and presto, this. Note that at this point, February 26, 2010, it was still something you could add.  

Later, on October 18, 2010 -- where I have I been? -- this, which effectively makes "search nearby" non-optional:

We’ve always focused on offering people the most relevant results. Location is one important factor we’ve used for many years to customize the information that you find. For example, if you’re searching for great restaurants, you probably want to find ones near you, so we use location information to show you places nearby.

Today we’re moving your location setting to the left-hand panel of the results page to make it easier for you to see and control your preferences. With this new display you’re still getting the same locally relevant results as before, but now it’s much easier for you to see your location setting and make changes to it.

(BTW, is it just me, or is every Google product manager a farmer's-market-shopping, restaurant-hopping foodie?  Just sayin'... but I seriously wonder how much designers' own demographic biases end up influencing assumptions about users' needs and product execution.)

Now, why would Google care so much about "local" all of a sudden?  Is it because Marissa Mayer now carries a torch for location (and Foursquare especially)?  Maybe.  But it's also a pretty good bet that it's at least partly about the Benjamins.  From the February Google post, a link to a helpful post on SocialBeat, with some interesting snippets: 

"Location may get a central place in Google’s web search redesign"

Google has factored location into search results for awhile without explicitly telling the user that the company knows their whereabouts. It recently launched ‘Nearby’ search in February, returning results from local venues overlaid on top of a map.

Other companies also use your IP address to send you location-specific content. Facebook has long served location-sensitive advertising on its website while Twitter recently launched a feature letting users geotag where they are directly from the site. [emphasis mine]

Facebook's stolen a march on Google in the social realm (everywhere but Orkut-crazed Brazil; go figure).  Twitter's done the same to Google on the real-time front.  Now, Groupon's pay-only-for-real-sales-and-then-only-if-the-volumes-justify-the-discount threatens the down-market end of Google's pay-per-click business with a better mousetrap, from the small biz perspective.  (BTW, that's why Groupon's worth $6 billion all of a sudden.)  All of these have increasingly (and in Groupon's case, dominantly) local angles  where the value to both advertiser and publisher (Facebook / Twitter / Groupon) are presumably highest.

Ergo, Google gets more local.  But that's just playing defense, and Eric, Sergey, Larry, and Marissa are too smart (and, with $33 billion in cash on hand, too rich) to do just that.

Enter Android.  Hmm.  Just passed Apple's iOS and now is running the table in the mobile operating system market share game.  Why wouldn't I tune my search engine to emphasize local search results, if more and more of the searches are coming from mobile devices, and especially ones running my OS?  Yes, it's an open system, but surely dominating it at multiple layers means I can squeeze out more "rent", as the economists say?

The transcript of Google's Q3 earnings call is worth a read.

Now, back to my little problem.  What could Google do that would still serve its objective of global domination through local search optimization, while satisfying my nerdy need for "de-localized" results?  The answer's already outlined above -- just let me type in "world", and recognize it for the pathetic niche plea that it is.  Most folks will never do this, and this blog's not a bully-enough pulpit to change that. Yet.

The bigger question, though, is how to do SEO in a world where it's all location, location, location, or as SEOmoz writes

"Is Every Query Local Now?" 

Location-based results raise political debates, such as "this candidate is great" showing up as the result in one location while "this candidate is evil" in another.  Location-based queries may increase this debate.  I need only type in a candidate's name and Instant will tell me what is the prevailing opinion in my area.  I may not know if that area is the size of a city block or the entire world, but if I am easily influenced then the effect of the popular opinion has taken one step closer (from search result to search query) to the root of thought.   The philosphers among you can debate whether or not the words change the very nature of ideas.

Heavy.

OK, never leave without a recommendation.  Here are two:

First, consider that for any given theme, some keywords might be more "local" than others.  Under the theme "Law", the keyword "law" will dredge up a bunch of local law firms.  But another keyword, say "legal theory", is less likely to have that effect (until discussing that topic in local indie coffee shops becomes popular, anyway).  So you might explore re-optimizing for these less-local alternatives.  (Here's an idea: some enterprising young SEO expert might build a web service that would, for any "richly local" keyword, suggest less-local alternatives from a crowd-sourced database compiled by angry folks like me.  Sort of a "de-localization thesaurus".  Then, eventually, sell it to a big ad agency holding company.)

Second, as location kudzu crawls its way up Google's search results, there's another phenomenon happening in parallel.  These days, for virtually any major topic, the Wikipedia entry for it sits at or near the top of Google's results.  So, if as with politics, now too search and SEO are local, and much harder therefore to play, why not shift your optimization efforts to the place that the odds-on top Google result will take you, if theme leadership is a strategic objective?

 

PS Google I still love you.  Especially because you know where I am. 

 

January 04, 2011

Facebook at Fifty (Billion)

Is Facebook worth $50 billion?  Some caveman thoughts on this valuation:

1. It's worth $50 billion because Goldman Sachs says so, and they make the rules.

2. It's worth $50 billion because for an evanescent moment, some people are willing to trade a few shares at that price. (Always a dangerous way to value a firm.)

3.  Google's valuation provides an interesting benchmark:

a. Google's market cap is close to $200 billion.  Google makes (annualizing Q32010) $30 billion a year in revenue and $8 billion a year in profit (wow), for a price to earnings ratio of approximately 25x.

b. Facebook claims $2 billion a year in revenue for 2010, a number that's likely higher if we annualize latest quarters (I'm guessing, I haven't seen the books).   Google's clearing close to 30% of its revenue to the bottom line.  Let's assume Facebook's getting similar results, and let's say that annualized, they're at $3 billion in revenues, yielding a $1 billion annual profit (which they're re-investing in the business, but ignore that for the moment).  That means a "P/E" of about 50x, roughly twice Google's.  Facebook has half Google's uniques, but has passed Google in visits.  So, maybe this growth, and potential for more, justifies double the multiple.  Judge for yourself; here's a little data on historical P/E ratios (and interest rates, which are very low today, BTW), to give you some context.  Granted, these are for the market as a whole, and Facebook is a unique high-growth tech firm, but not every tree grows to the sky.

c. One factor to consider in favor of this valuation for Facebook is that its revenues are better diversified than Google's.  Google of course gets 99% of its revenue from search marketing. Facebook gets a piece of the action on all those Zynga et. al. games, in addition to its core display ad business.  You might argue that these game revenues are stable and recurring, and point the way to monetizing the Facebook API to very attractive utility-like economic levels (high fixed costs, but super-high marginal profits once revenues pass those, with equally high barriers to entry).

d. Further, since viral / referral marketing is every advertiser's holy grail, and Facebook effectively owns the Web's social graph at the moment, it should get some credit for the potential value of owning a better mousetrap.  (Though, despite Facebook's best attempts -- see Beacon -- to Hoover value out of your and my relationship networks, the jury's still out on whether and how they will do that.  For perspective, consider that a $50 billion valuation for Facebook means investors are counting on each of today's 500 million users to be good for $100, ignoring future user growth.)

e. On the other hand,  Facebook's dominant source of revenue (about 2/3 of it) is display ad revenue, and it doesn't dominate this market the way Google dominates the search ad market (market dominance means higher profit margins -- see Microsoft circa 1995 -- beyond their natural life).  Also, display ads are more focused on brand-building, and are more vulnerable in economic downturns.

4. In conclusion: if Facebook doubles revenues and profits off the numbers I suggested above, Facebook's valuation will more or less track Google's on a relative basis (~25x P/E).  If you think this scenario is a slam dunk, then the current price being paid for Facebook is "fair", using Google's as a benchmark.  If you think there's further upside beyond this doubling, with virtually no risk associated with this scenario, then Facebook begins to look cheap in comparison to Google.

Your move.

Who's got a better take?

Postscript:  my brother, the successful professional investor, does; see his comment below (click "Comments")

October 18, 2010

Analytics Commons Post in Google Analytics Blog Today @analyticscommns @linchen @perryhewitt #analytics

Our Analytics Commons project (which I previously wrote about here) got written up in a post on the Google Analytics blog today. ( Thanks to Nick Mihailovski at Google, and to Perry Hewitt at Harvard!  And of course to my partners Lin and Kehan at New Circle Consulting!)

July 16, 2010

Analytic Commons Project

With inspiration and encouragement from @perryhewitt, New Circle Consulting and Force Five Partners have launched the Analytics Commons Project (http://analyticscommons.com).  Here's the pitch:

Web analytics is a relatively new field that is evolving very quickly. Fortunately, it's been our experience that the community of web analysts is welcoming, vibrant, and very willing to share. The Web Analytics forum on Yahoo! is a wonderful example of this.

Analytics Commons is an effort to improve on this sharing by structuring it a bit. With structure, we can make relevant knowledge a little easier to find, and we can also make it easier to vet the expertise and reliability of the source of that knowledge. (The new Web Analytics Association Certification program is another good step in this direction.)

In designing Analytics Commons, we also decided to start by focusing on a specific form of analytics knowledge, rather than trying now to architect some general information architecture about the field that could capture all its (quickly changing) variety. In particular, we noticed:

  • Google Analytics is ubiquitous.
  • We're happy users of it.
  • It recently added the ability to share Advanced Segments and Custom Reports.
  • While GA has an Apps Gallery that features third-party creations, there is currently no public registry of such shared reports that we're aware of.
  • But, there does seem to be pent-up demand for sharing reports.
  • And, we had a specific itch we needed to scratch ("Target Towns", more on that below) that would help us Keep It Real.

We also figured we would start with something that would be within our ability to actually get done. Our ambition for this initiative doesn't stop here, however. So, the service also provides a way for visitors and users to suggest feedback to shape the vision and path for getting there.

So how does it work? If we've done our job well, it's hopefully self-evident. You register on the Analytics Commons site, and tell us a little about yourself, ideally through links to places where you keep your description up to date (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). If you've got a report to contribute, you get the url for it by clicking on the "Share button" in Google Analytics' Custom Reports or Advanced Segments sections from a GA profile in which you have access to them. Then, you add the url to our service and tag and describe what you've shared. If you need a report, you search for it on our service. If you find and try a report, all we ask is that you rate and comment on it to tell us how well it matched what you needed. Hopefully, discussions about each report will happen on our service, but if you want to connect privately with a report contributor, we've made room in our registered user profiles for folks to provide contact information if they wish. If you don't find what you were looking for, we let you store the search on our service, and if something matches in the future, we'll send you an email with the search results. If you want, you can subscribe to a weekly email listing new reports that have been added to our service, or get an RSS feed of the same.

The service is free to its users. Our privacy policy is simple: everything here is public, except your registration email if you choose not to share that. We won't share that with anyone, period. If you share a report, we assume you have the authority to do that. If you comment on a report, please be polite and constructive. We reserve the right to moderate comments, and to ban anyone who posts material we deem to be inappropriate or offensive

We saved some space on our pages for advertising / sponsorship, to help cover the server bills. If you're interested, please contact us.

Questions? Suggestions? contact us if you wish at [email protected].

About "Target Towns"

In our work for a client, we observed the following:

  • They target wealthy customers.
  • Wealth is highly concentrated in the US.
  • Wealthy people are highly concentrated in a few towns.

Therefore, we thought it would be useful to track traffic and behavior from these "Target Towns".

We tried to construct an Advanced Segment for "Target Towns" through the GA UI. It didn't appear to support what we had in mind. So we asked for help. Avinash Kaushik, Nick Mihailovski, Judah Phillips, and Justin Cutroni all helped us with a piece of the puzzle (Thank You all!). In the end, the answer turned out that we needed to use the GA API. But the API also had limits on how much information you could hit it with in a single query. So we figured we needed a service that would pass the towns ("Dimensions") about which you wanted information ("Metrics") past the API sequentially, and then would aggregate and present the results in a usable form.

Then we thought: "This is a report many people are likely to need!" So, the "Target Towns" service seemed like it would be a good candidate to help seed our Analytic Commons initiative.

January 29, 2010

Ecommerce On The Edge In 2010 #MITX

Yesterday morning I attended MITX's "What's Next For E-Commerce" Panel at Microsoft in Cambridge.  Flybridge Capital's Jeff Bussgang moderated a panel that included Shoebuy.com CEO Scott Savitz, CSN CEO Niraj Shah, Mall Networks CEO Tom Beecher,and Avenue 100 Media Solutions CEO Brian Eberman.

The session was well-attended and the panelists didn't disappoint. Across the board they provided a consistent cross-section of the sophistication and energy that characterizes life 2 SDs the right on the ecommerce success curve.

My notes and observations follow. But first, courtesy of Jeff, a quiz (answers at the end of the post):

1. Name the person, company, and city that originated the web-based shopping cart and secure payment process?

2. Name the person, company, and city that originated affiliate marketing on the web?

3. Name the largest email marketing firm in the world, and the city where it's headquartered?

Jeff opened by asking each of the panelists to talk about how they drive traffic, and how they try to distinguish themselves in doing so.

Brian described (my version) what his firm does as "performance marketing in the long tail", historically for education-sector customers (for- and non-profit) but now beyond that category. What that means is that they manage bidding and creative for 2 million less-popular keywords across all the major search engines for their customers. Their business is entirely automated and uses sophisticated models to predict when a customer should be willing to pay price X and use creative Y for keyword Z to reel in a likely-profitable order. The idea is that the boom in SEM demand has driven prices way up for popular keywords, but that there are still efficient marketing deals to be mined in the "long tail" of keyword popularity (e.g.,structured collaboration").

Niraj noted that there's an increasing returns dynamic in the SEM channel that raises entry barriers for upstarts and helps firms like CSN preserve and expand their position.  Namely, as firms like his get more sophisticated about conversion through scale and experience, they can afford to pay higher prices for a given keyword than smaller competitors can, and can reinvest in extending their SEM capabilities.  CSN now has a 10-person search marketing team within its total staff of 500. Since SEM is, to some degree, a jump-starter for firms that don't yet have a web presence sufficient to drive traffic organically, this edge is a powerful competitive weapon.  CSN is up to $200 million in annual revenues, and now manages the online furniture stores for folks like Walmart.

Scott sounded a different note, with similar results.  Shoebuy has focused more on cultivating its relationship with its existing customers and on Lifetime Value -- including referrals.  This focus has had a salutary effect on SEO, allowing them to rely less on SEM as it gets pricier.  Last year Shoebuy experienced double-digit top line growth and hit 8M uniques for December's shopping season, while realizing its lowest marketing expense as a percentage of sales since 2002.  They've continued to plow the savings into a better overall customer experience.  One way Shoebuy guides this reinvestment is through extensive use of Net Promoter-based surveys.  They keep the surveys brutally simple:  1)"Were you satisfied?" 2)"Whould you shop with us again?" 3)"Would you recommend us?".  Then they calculate the resulting NP scores to different things they try in their marketing mix, to give them a more nuanced insight than the binary outcome of an order can provide.

Tom described how while Mall Networks' traffic is "free" -- it all comes from their loyalty program partners' sites (e.g. Delta Skymiles website awards redemption page) -- they still have to jockey for Mall Networks' placement on those pages. (Though Tom was too polite to say so, the processes for deciding who goes where on popular pages is often a blood sport and ripe in most organizations for a more structured, rational approach.)

Former Molecular founder and CEO Ralph Folz asked about display -- is that making a comeback?  Brian indicated the lack of performance and the lack of placement control through ad networks made that a highly negative experience.  He did note that they are now experimenting with participation in real-time-bidding through ad exchanges for inventory that ad networks make available, sometimes for time windows only a hundred milliseconds long.  Jeff reinforced the emergence of "RTB" and mentioned MIT Prof. Ed Crawley's Cambridge-based DataXu (which Flybridge has invested in) as a leader in the field.

Affiliate marketing came up next.  Tom explained the basics (in response to a question): each of the 600 stores in Mall Networks stable pays Mall Networks, say for example, a 10% commission on orders that come through Mall Networks.  Mall Networks gives a chunk to the members of various loyalty programs that shop through it -- say 3-5% of the value of the order; some goes to the loyalty programs themselves, as partial inducements for sending traffic to Mall Networks, and the rest goes to Mall Networks to cover costs and yield profits.

All the other panelists include affiliates in their marketing mix, and all appeared satisfied to have them play a healthy role.  Niraj specifically mentioned the ShareASale and Google Affiliate networks.  Jeff asked about everyone's frenemy Amazon; the answers were uniformly respectful: "they're a tough competitor, but they build general confidence and familiarity with the ecommerce channel, and that's good for everyone."  Niraj noted the 800 lb. gorilla nature of their category dominance: "They're at $20m and NewEgg is the next biggest pure play at $2B.  They're a fact of life. We just have to be better at what we focus on."

Someone in the audience raised email.  All of the panelists use it, with lists ranging from millions to hundreds of millions of recipients in size.  They noted that this traditional pillar of online marketing has now gotten very sophisticated.  In their world, they look well beyond top line metrics like open- and clickthrough rates to root-cause analysis of segment-based performance.  Re-targeting came up, and Niraj noted that for them, email and re-targeting weren't substitutes (as some have seen them) but in fact played complementary roles in their mix.  (Jeff explained re-targeting for the audience: using an ad network to cookie visitors to your site, and then serving them "please come back!" ads on other sites in the network they go to after they've abandoned a shopping cart or otherwise left your site.  A twist: serving ads inviting them to *your* site after they've abandoned one of your competitors' sites.  Hey, all's fair in love, war, and ecommerce...).  A common theme:  unlike most of the rest of the world, email teams at these leading firms are tightly integrated with other channels' operators to better integrate the overall experience, even to the point of shared metrics.

What about social?  Scott: "Building community is key for us.  We run contests -- "What are you hoping will be under your tree this Christmas?" -- to stimulate input from our customers.  And, while we have social media coordinators, many people here participate in channels like Twitter in support of our efforts."  Niraj: "Our PR team came up with a 'Living Room Rescue' contest which we did in partnership with [a popular] HGTV host [whose name escaped me -- C.B.].  We got six thousand entries; we used a panel of professional decorators to narrow the list to a hundred, and then used social voting to choose a winner.  We publicized the contest, and it took on a life of its own, as local papers tried to drum up support for their local [slobs -- my word, not Niraj's].  While we couldn't / didn't measure conversion directly from this campaign, our indirect assessment was that it had a great ROI."  Jeff observed that social's potential seems greater when the object of the buzz is newsworthy.

It was a short leap from this to a question about attribution analysis, the simultaneous-dream-and-nightmare-du-jour for web analytics geeks out there.  Brian was surprisingly dismissive.  In his experience (if I understood correctly), he's seeing only up to 20%, and usually only 5-10% of order-placing customers touch two or more properties they source clicks from, across the broad landscape they cover, across a time frame ranging from a day to a month long.  "In the end, only a couple of dollars would shift from one channel to another if we did attribution analysis, so in general it's not worth it."  We chatted briefly after the panel about this; there are large ticket, high-margin exceptions to this rule (cars).  I need to learn about this one some more, it surprised me.

Mobile!  Is it finally here?  Scott reports that 6-9 months ago *customers* finally began asking for it (as opposed to having it pushed by vendors), so now they have a Shoebuy.com iPhone app.  Jeff noted that customers are rolling their own mobile strategies -- some folks are now going into (say) Best Buy, having a look at products in the flesh, then checking Amazon for the items and buying them through their iPhone if the price is right.  So, your store is now Amazon's showroom.  If you can't find something, or didn't even know you wanted it, but happen to stray near a store carrying it, location-based services will push offers at you -- and the offers may come from competitors.  (Gratuitous told-you-so here.)  Niraj:  "Say you're in Home Depot.  You want a mailbox.  Their selection is 'limited' [his description was more colorful]. We have 300 to choose from.  Wouldn't you want to know that?" Jeff:  Soon we'll also see the death of the checkout line: you'll take a picture of the barcode on the object of your desire, your smartphone will tell the store's POS system about it, and the POS system will send back a digital receipt you can show someone (or in the future, something) on your way out of the store. 

With all these channels in use, I asked how often they make decisions to reallocate investments across (as opposed to within) them -- say from search to email, as opposed to from keyword to keyword.  Brian: "Every day, each morning.  Some things -- like affiliate relationships -- may take 3-4 days to unwind.  But the optimization is basically non-stop."  Later we talked about the parallels with Wall Street trading floors.  For him, the analogy is apt.  Effectively he's a market-maker, only the securities are clicks, not stocks.  It's now reflected in their recruiting: many recent hires are former Wall Street quants.

A final note: The cultures in these shops are intensely customer-focused, flat, and data-driven.  Scott reads *every one* of the hundreds of thousands (yes you read right) of customer survey responses Shoebuy gets each year.  He also described the enthusiasm with which their customer service team embraced having all company communications to customers end with an invitation to email senior management with any concerns.  Niraj described CSN's floor plan:  500 people, no offices.  Everyone in the company takes a regular turn in customer service.  Everyone has access to the firm's data warehouse.  Brian told us about a digital display they have up in their offices showing hour-by-hour, source-by-source performance.  They also recently ran a "Query Day" in which everyone in the company -- including sales, finance, HR -- got training in how to use their databases to answer business questions.  Tom described that they “watch the cash register every minute, hour, day during the Christmas shopping season.”

This was a terrific session, and I've only captured half of it here.  Further comments / corrections / observations very welcome.

Quiz Answers:

1. MIT Prof. David K. Gifford, Open Market, Cambridge

2. Tom Gerace, BeFree, Cambridge

3. Constant Contact, Waltham

January 01, 2010

Grokking Google Wave: The Homeland Security Use Case (And Why You Should Care)

A few people asked me recently what I thought of Google WaveLike others, I've struggled to answer this.

In the past few days I've been following the news about the failed attempt to blow up Northwest 253 on Christmas Day, and the finger-pointing among various agencies that's followed it.  More particularly, I've been thinking less about whose fault it is and more about how social media / collaboration tools might be applied to reduce the chance of a Missed Connection like this.

A lot of the comments by folks in these agencies went something like, "Well, they didn't tell us that they knew X," or "We didn't think we needed to pass this information on."  What most of these comments have in common is that they're rooted in a model of person-to-person (or point-to-point) communication, which creates the possibility that one might "be left out of the loop" or "not get the memo".

For me, this created a helpful context for understanding how Google Wave is different from email and IM, and why the difference is important.  Google Wave's issue isn't that the fundamental concept's not a good idea.  It is.  Rather, its problem is that it's paradigmatically foreign to how most people (excepting the wikifringe) still think.

Put simply, Google Wave makes conversations ("Waves") primary, and who's participating secondary.  Email, in contrast, makes participants primary, and the subjects of conversations secondary.  In Google Wave, with the right permissions, folks can opt into reading and participating in conversations, and they can invite others.  The onus for awareness shifts from the initiator of a conversation to folks who have the permission and responsibility to be aware of the conversation.  (Here's a good video from the Wave team that explains the difference right up front.)  If the conversation about Mr. Abdulmutallab's activities had been primary, the focus today would be about who read the memo, rather than who got it.  That would be good.  I'd rather we had a filtering problem than an information access / integration problem.

You may well ask, "Isn't the emperor scantily clad -- how is this different from a threaded bboard?"  Great question.   One answer might be that "Bboards typically exist either independently, or as features of separate purpose-specific web sites.  Google Wave is to threaded bboard discussions as Google Reader is to RSS feeds -- a site-independent conversation aggregator, just as Google Reader is a site-independent content aggregator."   Nice!  Almost: one problem of course is that Google Wave today only supports conversations that start natively in Google Wave.  And, of course, that you can (sometimes) subscribe to RSS feeds of bboard posts, as in Google Groups, or by following conversations by subscribing to RSS feeds for Twitter hashtags.  Another question: "How is Google Wave different from chat rooms?"  In general, most chats are more evanescent, while Waves appear (to me) to support both synchronous chat and asynchronous exchanges equally well.

Now the Big Question: "Why should I care?  No one is using Google Wave anyway."  True (only 1 million invitation-only beta accounts as of mid-November, active number unknown) -- but at least 146 million people use Gmail.  Others already expect Google Wave eventually will be introduced as a feature for Gmail: instead of / in addition to sending a message, you'll be able to start a "Wave".  It's one of the top requests for the Wave team.  (Gmail already approximates Wave by organizing its list of messages into threads, and by supporting labeling and filtering.)  Facebook, with groups and fan pages, appears to have stolen a march on Google for now, but for the vast bulk of the world that still lives in email, it's clunky to switch back and forth.  The killer social media / collaboration app is one that tightly integrates conversations and collaboration with messaging, and the prospect of Google-Wave-in-Gmail is the closest solution with any realistic adoption prospects that I can imagine right now.

So while it's absurdly early, marketers, you read it here first: Sponsored Google Waves :-)  And for you developers, it's not too early to get started hacking the Google Wave API and planning how to monetize your apps.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Postscript: It was the software's fault...

Postscript #2: Beware the echo chamber

December 10, 2009

#Foursquare: So Very 2006

All this fuss generally about 2010 as (finally) The Year Of Mobile and specifically about Foursquare reminded me of a post my former Marketspace colleague Michael Fedor wrote in 2006 about the social possibilities of early location-based services technologies like Kmaps (for the Treo 650, which was an early coal-powered smartphone for those of you born after 2007).  Re-reading the post made me (again) proud of Michael, and proud to have worked with him and our compatriots.