Apr 25, 2011

Dotting the I's and Crossing the T's

So last week I took the kids to the American Museum of Natural History and was happy to find a link on their website to their new iPhone app.

I downloaded it and was impressed by how well-designed it was and the functionality it offered: it would locate exactly where you were in the museum and take you on a guided tour or give you step-by-step instructions on how to get to a particular exhibit. (For those who haven't been, the Museum of Natural History is extremely labyrinthine.)

One problem though: While we were at the museum, I opened the app about 8 different times from 8 different locations within the museum. It did not once register where we were or even attempt a guess - it just told me it could not locate me.

As frequent readers know, apps that count on the fairly unreliable GPS systems of American smartphones are one of my shibboleths.

So why didn't the Museum of Natural History think to test this out?

Did they consider installing WiFi of some sort in the museum so people could actually use the app? If it had worked once, I'd have given them a pass and figured there was just a lot of traffic in the museum that day. And it did prove very useful when I asked for directions from the main entrance to the Easter Island statue-- I've been to the museum enough times that I had a good idea of where I was in relation to the main entrance-- and it provided excellent step-by-step directions. So I couldn't help but think how great the app would be once the GPS tracking actually worked.

Everything is great until it isn't. Products need to work in reality, not just in theory. And OPT (other people's technology) is one of the things you always need to factor in the equation.

(NB: FWIW, I have a Verizon iPhone 4 - in the inner depths of the thick-walled museum, I was getting one or two bars at most.)

UPDATE: One of my co-workers told me that he had a similar experience with the app, only to discover the museum's free WiFi network by happenstance and that the app worked perfectly once he'd logged in. BUT: There are no signs at the museum informing you that there is a free WiFi network and the app, the most logical place to let users know about it, is similarly mum.

Apr 21, 2011

How To Present Just About Anything, Part 1/2

This is part one of two of a presentation I gave internally called "How To Present Just About Anything" - it's the first time I've tried recording myself during a presentation. (Tech Note: While recording on Keynote works very well, the resulting file is huge.)

The presentation is basically a compilation of everything I've learned from having to do dozens of live presentations every year. The flow is pretty straightforward: The Basics -> Tips & Tricks -> What To Do When Disaster Strikes.

First video is 25 minutes, the second is 15, so be forewarned.

Apr 11, 2011

Everything Is Great Until It Isn't

The $41 million Color fiasco only served to point out how unreliable location still is on smart phones. Not to mention a hassle.

That in turn has turned the spotlight on companies who are seeking to remedy this through something called “persistent location” which broadcasts your whereabouts whether or not you have the apps on your phone open. The advantage is that it can track you as you move about your day, so you don’t have the lag time of the smart phone figuring out that you’re 10 miles from where you last checked in every time you open the app.

That’s also the disadvantage: the companies building this technology are also billing it as a way to push coupons at consumers when they are in range of your business. So if you are, say, around the corner from Starbucks, you’ll get a message inviting you to have a latte for 25 cents off.

It’s all opt-in and above board and, as of now, pretty novel. Until of course, it’s not. I have visions of walking down the street and getting assaulted by offers from dozens of companies. I mean I get that everything would be opt-in, but so is email, and think of how often you find yourself searching for that “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email. And how many times unsubscribing involves entering some long-forgotten user name and password to “modify your account’s notification settings.”

What’s more, getting a 25 cent coupon every time I walk past Starbucks may seem like a great idea if I’ve got a several-times-a-day Starbucks habit. But checking to see what’s making that buzzing noise on my phone, especially if I pass by Starbucks several times a day is going to get old fast.

Push coupons also seem to fall into the same category as internet banners: they’re asking you to stop doing something time sensitive (looking up your flight reservation, walking to a lunch meeting) to pay attention to their product. Location is particularly sensitive in this area: outside of vacation trips, how often do we find ourselves wandering the streets without a specific destination in mind.

Persistent location may someday prove useful, perhaps in conjunction with other data. (Imagine an app that tracked your location and cross-referenced it with periods of high or low productivity. That’s data you might be able to make use of.)

But pushing coupons at you as you walk down the street? That sounds like nothing more than the electronic version of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

Apr 8, 2011

Paying For The Internet

This started out as a comment on the newly revitalized DigidayDaily, but evolved into its own blog post.

I'm not sure what I'm about to propose is technologically possible, if it's been thought up before and dismissed, but it seems to make a lot of sense, so here goes:

Right now publishers can't find anyone who is willing to pay for their content. When they try and put up a paywall (e.g. The New York Times) they create a whole lot of ill will. What's more, there are still plenty of people happily giving it away for free (Huffington Post.)

At the same time, many of us are paying somewhere in the range of $100/month for cable television service. We're even happily shelling out an extra $15-25 a month for "premium" channels, be they HBO, NFL Red Zone or Showtime. And I'm thinking that we don't seem to mind it because (a) since we're not paying directly for the shows, but rather for some level of cable service, it somehow seems like a utility, in the same class as our water and electric bills, and (b) because FIOS or Comcast has bundled up everything into nicely productized packages, we feel comfortable knowing that we're getting the Basic model or the Deluxe or the SuperPremium: these are terms we know from countless other industries and they carry a meaning and cachet that goes beyond the actual product.

So what if the internet was packaged up the same way?

We're already heading down the path towards convergence, when all our TV channels will be available over the internet, on demand, whenever we want. So what if our Deluxe package also gave us access to "premium" websites, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal?

We could choose the "Celebrity Package" and get access to Us, People, TMZ, PerezHilton and the like, bundled together with HBO and Showtime. An ESPN package would give access to the network's video content, including live broadcasts, along with everything currently on the website.

You get the picture.

What I'm proposing is basically a reverse image of today's internet where everything is free until someone makes you pay extra for it. In this new world, sites would be closed unless you paid to have them open to you. Most sites would fall under a "basic cable" type umbrella and be included for free in whatever package you bought. It's the premium content sites that would charge extra, and the cable providers would split the revenue with them, much as they currently do with the premium cable networks. Sites like the New York Times would advertise to get people to subscribe via their cable provider, much like HBO does now. Because I'm thinking we'd have a lot easier time psychologically paying an extra $10/month to TimeWarner than we would paying it directly to nytimes.com


PS: Of course there'd be a whole lot of pirating, but we have that now with TV shows and live sporting events and the number of people getting their content the Bit Torrent way seems to be holding steady. Just another number to factor in when setting the price.

Apr 3, 2011

Ending the Ghettoization of Community Sites

The other day I was on a panel when one of my fellow panelists opined that “Google is the homepage for a brand's community site.”  And while he was pretty much on target, it irked me that few people seemed to get why that was a really bad thing.

Community sites were traditionally built as bolt-ons to existing sites back in the very early 2.0 days. No one was sure what people were going to do or say on these forums (and they were always message board style forums) so the fact that they were hard to find and hidden in the navigation was actually quite reassuring.

And so, hidden from view, many of these community sites blossomed and grew. People who really cared about the brand (e.g. the evangelists) flocked to the forums, forming friendships and helping out the occasional newbie or “how do I do X?” poster that stumbled onto the boards.

As the social web grew, many brands added blogs to the mix. The quality of the blogs varied wildly, from well-thought out magazine style sites that were featured on the homepage to “the marketing department made us do this” sites that were updated once every few months with some orphaned press release. After an initial burst of “visit our blog” messaging, those blog sites were also shunted off to the “community” section and/or abandoned.

The last year or so has witnessed the flowering of brand Twitter and Facebook sites. Here again, quality (or more accurately, commitment) varies wildly, but the Facebook and Twitter feeds are usually featured on the homepage as a sort of “we get it kids, see, we get it” type attempt at establishing the brand’s “currency.” (“Currency” being the term-du-jour for “hipness” or “coolness.")

So that’s your typical brand website, circa April 2011: a homepage featuring some sort of e-commerce function or current promotion along with prominently displayed links to the brand’s Twitter and Facebook pages. The community boards, dismissed as hopelessly 1998, are buried somewhere in one of the sub-nav bars.

That’s just plain wrong.

The external social web, the Facebooks, Twitters, FourSquares and the like are great ways to establish a low-barrier exchange with the brand. They’re the equivalent of a window display that gets customers to stop and take note of the store and what it’s selling. The most interested users, those closest to conversion and/or evangelism, need to be funneled over to the brand’s own website where they can bond with like-minded souls.

Unfortunately, today’s average website doesn’t allow them to do so.

Consider instead, a site that bubbles up user content – comments, photos, videos, blog posts—to the home page where it sits alongside similar editorial content. We currently have the technology to do that: to take a piece from the brand about how green the new Kitchen Sponge line is and combine that with user input around environmental issues in housecleaning, going “green” and kitchen sponges.

Basically you are turning the entire domain site into a community site, giving easy access to everything from message boards to product ratings to Twitter comments and giving users a prominent voice on the site. (A prominent voice, not the main one: user content should be visible but should not overwhelm the site nor should it interfere with the site's user exprience by making it more difficult for users to accomplish the things they've come to the site to do.)

The benefits are pretty wide-ranging: for interested users, your future brand evangelists, it allows them to easily connect with both the brand and with other people who feel the same love for it as they do. It lets them know they are welcome and that their input is valued. It encourages them to set up their own profile and become active users of the site, the message boards in particular.

For casual users, an integrated site tells them that the brand actually does care about its customers and values what they have to say. (And if there’s anything consumers want, it’s for brands to listen to them.) So even if I have no interest in joining the brand community because it’s a low interest category for me, I’m bound to be impressed by the enthusiasm of the people who do care about the brand. In most cases, I’m going to be impressed by the fact that they even exist.

That's a great strategy for creating a useful and appealing domain site in today's social-heavy landscape. It’s also a lot more effective than crossing your fingers and counting on Google.