Putting the “m” in Commerce

31 01 2011

Fifteen years ago, web developers were busy trying to put the “e” in commerce by creating e-commerce sites. The novelty factor was huge, of course, as were the pockets of consumer resistance. It was all pretty new, and trying to figure out how to take a three-dimensional activity and reduce it to 2D was challenging. Never mind that all social aspects of shopping in those early efforts were painfully absent. But worries about security and privacy trumped those, resulting in an emerging retail platform that was as wobbly as a toddler taking his first steps.

Of course, we all got over those hurdles. Now we’re busy contemplating how to take that same online shopping experience and put it in our hand…as in a mobile device.

But as John Arrow, CEO of Mutual Mobile, explained at the Austin Rocks conference last Saturday, mobile is not just a portable version of a website. It is not a billboard (or brochureware). It is not direct mail. And it is much more than the interactivity levels found online.

It must be tailored to fit the device. Or, as Arrow joked when sharing that his firm developed the iPad app for Google’s Boutiques.com, it’s “m-commerce with style.”

Boutiques.com is a very different type of project for Google. It is what remains of the former Like.com, which Google bought (ha! what else is new?). Boutiques is a personalized shopping experience that allows users to curate content, or use the curated content of others. It brings together many designers and vendors in one place, where users can cobble together their own mall of fashion. Although it is currently only available for US women’s fashion customers, it will soon expand.

What made the Boutique app challenging is that the iPad is vastly different from scrolling and clicking through a traditional website. Tapping, swiping and pinching (or spreading) are the means of navigating, collapsing or expanding content. But the app still had to have the same basic functionality of a standard e-commerce site: consumers had to be able to buy just like before. Safely. Securely. But with style befitting the fashion-forward coolness of the device.

This is very different from the point-and-click we have all grown accustomed to when shopping online. Apple has already mastered this with their iBooks Store, utilizing the same finger movements to facilitate opening and closing a book, as well as flipping its pages. As Arrow and Company figured out, the palette for m-commerce is not limited necessarily to the rectangle of the screen. Panels can slide in our out to the side, top or bottom. Layered screens appear atop a tapped object so shoppers can take a closer look. One more tap brings forth a purchasing page from the vendor’s own site. A couple of quick taps and these pop-overs vanish.

Can all of this fit on a much smaller smartphone? Sure, but it won’t be quite the same experience. The consensus is that tablet devices like the iPad are now here for good (even though Apple took a huge beating with its Newton tablet back in the 90s—they were just way too far ahead of their time). Having yet another platform for which commerce must be designed simply means that savvy developers will be in demand for a long time.

Going unanswered in this discussion, though, is why in the world Google would want to be involved in the fashion business. There is no room for a “g” in commerce, right? But there is room for a company to continue to learn more about users, and then tailor ever more advertising that can be targeted with cunning precision.

Yes, there is an app for that. And you just stumbled into the cross hairs.

Dr “Curate This” Gerlich


Here’s The Beef

30 01 2011

One sobering reality of communications is that good news travels on the back of a snail. And bad news is in the passenger seat of a Ferrari. No matter how early Mr. Good leaves, Mr. Bad will win the race. Because there’s no speed limit on the information highway.

It’s bad enough we have always-on news channels to help Mr. Bad speed down the road. Toss in social media, and you have reckless endangerment of whoever the news is about.

Like last week’s lawsuit against Taco Bell alleging the fast food chain inaccurately portrays some of its products as containing beef. The media tore through this like vultures at a roadkill. But then it went social, and suddenly everyone was sharing the blurb among their Facebook and Twitter friends.

So what’s an unlucky recipient of bad news to do? Find another Ferrari, that’s what. Fight fire with fire. Or use the same social graph to try to right what they think is wrong.

And that is exactly what Taco Bell has done.

Greg Creed, President of Taco Bell, now appears in a quick-response video posted on Taco Bell’s new YouTube channel (click the image above to launch). They have also used their Facebook fan page to try to set the record straight with their 5 million plus followers.

Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

It kind of goes without saying that fast food joints are going to come under scrutiny from time to time. Cheap food means cheap ingredients. You can’t expect chunks of fillet mignon in your burrito when it only costs 99 cents. But, as Taco Bell argues, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your burrito is chock full of fillers, extruders, and other such non-beef products.

What Taco Bell has done (and in stunningly quick order, I praise) is little different from how BP leveraged YouTube and Google last summer. BP purchased keywords at Google so that people searching on “Gulf oil spill” would find a link to BP’s YouTube channel in the first position. That channel, of course, contained videos explaining BP’s stance on the disaster. Regarless of what you think of BP, their use of social and search media was genius.

And so is Taco Bell’s

I’ll let Taco Bell’s lawyers figure out how to defend themselves in court if this lawsuit progresses. I am not a big fast food fan anyway, so I haven’t yet shed any years. But I will say that TB’s utilization of social media was spot-on. Burritoful. Tacorrific. Nacho ordinary sleepy response.

Make that order to-go.

Dr “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” Gerlich

Where R U?

29 01 2011

When I was a teenager busy trying to spread my wings, my parents would require me to find a phone (any phone…) to check in with them periodically. I really don’t think I was any different from my friends, but I sure recall it as being embarrassing every time I had to phone home.

Maybe it was the constant repetition of checking in that produced my current behaviors. Maybe it was the social scarring that occurred, but those wounds really never did heal. I don’t know. But I sure do find myself checking in a lot these days.

At Gowalla, that is.

Gowalla is one of several location-based social networking sites that members access via their smartphones to check in every time they go somewhere. The result is the mother lode of crowdsourced data, according to Scott Raymond, co-founder and CTO of Gowalla.

I had the opportunity to hear Scott address a large break-out audience at the Austin Rocks 2011 advertising conference yesterday. His session was without doubt the best-attended of the day. Just mention “social network” and “location” in one sentence, and…well, he had me at “social.”

Thus far Gowallians (my word) have created 2.5 million places around the world, and posted 1 million photos. Users hail from 170 different countries; 60% of all posts are from the US. Scott stressed that Gowalla is all about “macroscopes,” which is what “many small actions look like when added together.” These macroscopes are pushed to our Facebook and Twitter accounts a piece at a time.

Users are issued a “passport,” which is but a metaphor. In that passport are all the little icons, stamps and pins we have earned along the way, a virtual record of our comings and goings. But this passport is more than just a log book. It is also the vehicle through which we share experiences, photos, comments and recommendations. In fact, I learn a lot about cool places thanks to my other Gowalla friends and their check-ins.

Scott said the impetus for their service came from the Samoan tongue. To hear him tell it, when Samoans meet, they don’t ask “What up?” or “How’s it going?” Instead, they ask variants of “Where are you going?” and “Where have you been?”

Which got Scott to thinking, because he had seen a stat that said about 55% of all text message conversations start with “Where R U?”

While Gowalla is still in its infancy as both company and provider of location-based networking (read: they haven’t monetized it very much yet), they do have a fairly clear picture of what it can ultimately do: (1) Drive traffic, (2) Gather data and instill loyalty, and (3) Build awareness and branding.

And he is right. Imagine the data Gowalla is sitting on regarding the places we frequent. And imagine what could be gleaned about a person by not only analyzing where they are now, but also where they were before, and where they went next.

Gowalla has the ability to do the following:

  1. Proximity marketing. Imagine checking in at a park, concert, sporting event. A Gowalla corporate client could pay to have hit with a screen (and coupon) that says, “Hey, have fun at the concert, but afterward, why not stroll on over to…”
  2. Rewards. I am a self-confessed Red Robin addict. It sure would be nice to be rewarded for that. Instead of having to carry yet another plastic reward card in my billfold, why not let me show my check-in “receipt” on my screen to redeem for rewards?
  3. Piggybacking. Scott told the story of how they worked with an iPhone case manufacturer who paid to have a screen appear each time someone checked in at an Apple Store. Oh yeah. Very clever! It’s not necessarily competing, just complementing. And since Apple would never let a vendor advertise in its stores, it is probably the only way a company could get its voice heard above that of Steve Jobs.
  4. Hijacking. This is where it gets ruthless. Cold. Cunning. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could. Imagine Amazon, for example, paying Gowalla to intercept (and redirect) people who check in at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, etc. “Hey, don’t buy that book just yet! Download our new price check app to see just how cheap we’ll sell it!”

Thus far, I have volunteered 292 (and counting) check-ins that reveal my consumer behavior, my likes, my dislikes, my photos, my recommendations. Of course, I have the luxury of saying I am exploring new territory so that I might better teach my students as well as help clients. I realize that the ever-present naysayers say services like Gowalla only facilitate stalking. Maybe so. But I am convinced we have seen only the tip of the iceberg of location-based social networking. Services like Gowalla, Foursquare, Facebook Places, Whrrl and Loopt are going to play an ever larger role in our digital lives.

Sure beats having to tell Mom and Dad every time you do something.

Wait…if only the parental unit would get with it, buy a smartphone and follow us on Gowalla, they would know each and every time we arrive somewhere.

On second thought, there may be some things that just aren’t worth sharing.

Dr “Frequent Traveler” Gerlich

Read All About It

28 01 2011

I have been a newspaper junkie ever since my grandfather instilled in me that value. That was…oh…about 47 years ago. He encouraged me to read The Chicago Tribune, scanning the headlines for news, weather and sports.

Newspapers played a pivotal role in my ancestors’ transition in the US. My great-grandparents had immigrated from near Danzig Germany (what is now Gdansk Poland) in the 1890s, and, knowing no English at the time, used the newspaper and a dictionary to acculturate and assimilate. So it is little wonder my grandfather held them in such high esteem.

In college, I edited our student newspaper. I took great pride in knowing how to not only write a news story, but also every step of the production process. Each issue of our weekly was a labor of love, always including at least one all-nighter to meet deadlines.

But newspapers are not held in such high esteem today. The odds are very good that, if you are under 30, you do not pick up a paper. Ever. My generation may very well be a dying breed.

But this may all change starting this week with the launch of The Daily, a new iPad-only paper produced by News Corp (think: Fox News). It comes hot on the heels of Ongo, a similar e-newspaper compiling bits and pieces of The New York Times, USA Today, Washiongton Post and others.

The Daily will sell for a mere 99 cents per week, while Ongo will carry a heftier $7/month price tag. Ongo also suffers in that all of its content is already available online at the respective newspaper sites. The only thing Ongo offers is a compilation service.

E-newspapers are not exactly new, because Amazon’s Kindle has had digital versions since its inception. But the Kindle version looks and feel just like the e-books with which it shares space and format: black print on gray-scale LCD. The iPad version will have a decidedly more colorful (and columnar, just like a tangible newspaper) look and feel.

And in the case of The Daily, for a buck a week, you can hardly go wrong.

I still subscribe to a daily newspaper. My daily ritual includes waiting for the deliver person to stuff it in the orange mailbox at the end of our lone driveway. To be honest, having to wait till 7am is starting to wear on me, because by then I have been up two hours. I would much rather be able to start my day with paper and coffee, and then get working. I have found myself wishing the Amarillo Globe-News had a true digital mobile version, not just a website with today’s stories (which I have often perused right after checking my Facebook).

While I can wax nostalgic about the feel of the newsprint, the smudged ink on my fingertips, and the ability to do boldly do my crosswords and Sudoku in ink, I would happily trade those for an iPad version. A version I could take with me, access while on travel (like today), as well as archive if I so desired.

Which is why I will take The Daily for a test ride starting this Wednesday. Old-school print newspapers had better wake up and smell my coffee, because the winds of change are not only blowing, they are howling and shaking the building.

You read it here first.

Dr “News To Me” Gerlich

We The Advertisers

27 01 2011

It’s funny how people often bad mouth advertising, yet we turn around and pay big bucks so we can become walking billboards for Other People’s Brands. Pick your product. Pick your brand. I bet you have quite a few things in your closet, your garage, your backpack, that are emblematic of a killer brand.

A brand that defines who you are.

Now imagine a world in which you suddenly become an accidental advertiser. Yes, we all know that Google and Facebook use incredible engines to place those pesky text ads (Google) and box ads down the right pane (Facebook). Those ads are closely tuned to whatever it is we are seeking (Google), or recurring topics previously established in our Status Updates (Facebook). The two biggest online advertising companies on the web are watching very closely.

But they are watching so closely now that Facebook is launching Sponsored Stories in which you are the star.

Do you remember using the Facebook Places app last night when you checked into Red Robin? The mall? Your favorite bar? Facebook is now turning those check-ins, which were intended to be ways to crowdsource and push promos and rewards in the moment, into a special kind of Status Update that will appear in the ad pane on the right.

More visible, and probably more impactful, than the previous blurbs telling us that so-and-so Likes a certain page, these Sponsored Stories will share our check-in writ large, including whoever we tagged in the process. Oh yeah…and let’s not forget the logo of the company paying for all of this.

It’s kind of like paying money to advertise for someone else, but different from purchasing a shirt with a desirable logo. I go to Red Robin and drop my standard $15-20 for victuals and libation, and then suddenly I am a spokesperson for the brand. Yes, to all of my FB friends. If only this had been around when Jared was busy losing weight. I bet they could have spammed us for a lot less money this way.

I am sure the naysayers will howl in discontent over this one. Insidious? Absolutely. Over the top? Maybe. Clever beyond words? (Insert speechless gasp.)

So from henceforth, whenever we check in so that our adoring fans will know where we are and our infinitely cool tastes, we now have the added cachet of possibly starring in our very own ad. Take that, Jared. Move over, Marie Osmond. I’m buying my way to stardom.Start clicking, everyone. I want their metrics to show what a marketing stud I really am.

Unless, of course, you can do better.

Dr “Tag, You’re It” Gerlich

Drive Time

26 01 2011

When XM Radio launched on 25th September 2001, I thought it spelled the beginning of the end for broadcast radio. After all, suddenly we had 100 new channels from which to choose, with extremely narrowcasting the norm rather than spinning tunes for the masses. Like new country? No problem. Soft jazz? Go ahead and mellow out. Grunge? Get your Cobain fix in no time.

But satellite radio has never really taken off (ha ha), perhaps because of the nagging little subscription fees. At first, it required the purchase of add-on equipment, but eventually, new cars came equipped with satellite-ready radios. This gave broadcast radio some breathing room to figure out how to stay alive.

But the Grim Reaper is once again knocking at radio’s door. The iPod (also introduced in 2001) quietly started a music revolution (even though it is but a digital version of the Sony Walkman). Today, most new cars have an auxiliary plug for iPod-like devices.

The story gets juicier. With close to 50% of Americans now owning smartphones, and those same people rapidly embracing mobile apps, there is less and less reason for people to listen to regular radio. With over 80 million people already listening to Pandora, there is almost a mandate to let us take our custom radio with us in our cars.

So Ford was among the first to offer smartphone app integration between Pandora and car stereos. In fact, several automakers are rushing to integrate numerous apps into the driving experience.

Which means we may be listening to our Pandora stations more and more in the days ahead, not just by plugging our headphones into our phone, but by connecting via bluetooth between the phone and the car stereo. As for broadcast radio, the time has come to reconsider how it is going to survive. Local weather and traffic may not be able to carry the day.

I have somewhat mixed emotions about the phone-car connection. Personally, I would rather the car stereo have its own data plan (pulled from the same cell towers as the phone). There would be built-in GPS, which would be a great theft deterrent (much like OnStar), because a car could be located quickly before the thief disables the stereo.

And there is that other conundrum about how and why people were reluctant to pony up $12 a month for XM, but have no problem with $30 at ATT. But that puzzle solves itself when you consider that Pandora allows for mass customization, plus the phone data plan is far more cross-functional.

But in my perfect world, we would be able to have a Rhapsody app so I could hand-pick not just a genre or “sounds like” a certain artist, but rather a specific album, artist or song. And let’s toss in Netflix streaming for the backseat passengers (aka, our kiddos).

Still, I am happy to see the progress being made in car entertainment systems (because that’s what they really are). I hope an after-market of app-ready stereos blossoms so that we do not have to purchase a new car to enjoy this technology. And I really do hope they can just set up my van and RV as if they were their own mobile phone account. I want a legitimate data center in my vehicles, not one jerry rigging a connection.

That’s when you’ll see me tuning in and turning on. But not dropping out.

Dr “Crank It Up” Gerlich

Bank On This

25 01 2011

I remember when my father took me to the local bank to open a savings account. Back then everything was done with “passbooks,” which the teller inserted into a special machine to type every deposit and withdrawal, as well as interest (“Interest,” he says…as if that’s something they’re still doing these days).

But banking has changed significantly since the early 1970s. I cannot remember the last time I actually had a passbook for a savings account. And thanks to deregulation of the banking industry at both state and national levels, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have an account with at least a regional bank, if not a national bank.

Today, thanks to online banking and EFT, I hardly ever walk into a brick-and-mortar bank at all. My paycheck. My tax refund. My bills. Just about everything occurs without my having to touch anything, or reach out and touch someone.

Now what, you ask, would cause me to even consider this a pressing issue? Simple. I noticed the television ads a local bank has been running lately. They tout their 18 locations and 100 ATMs as reasons why we should avoid competitors (some national, some regional). It’s all about convenience.

OK. But how many people still prefer BAM banking vs. online? Might banks (any banks still focusing on physical presence be committing too many dollars to an asset that may no longer be wanted or needed?

According to the American Bankers Association, Americans now prefer online banking almost as much as they prefer ATMs and branch banking combined. In other words, that coffee you smell may very well be indicative of the scent of another dying business model.

That’s not to say that BAM banking will ever go away. We will always have need for bankers, like when we wish to purchase houses and cars, establish lines of credit, start a savings program, or tinker with the contents of our safe deposit box.

But much of the banking we do during the course of our normal lives can be done online. Electronic billpay is a snap, and saves time and postage. You never have to worry about payments arriving in time. And balancing your account is a piece of cake. If you need a bank at all, most of the time you can do everything at a drive-up window. If you even need that much service.

Which is too bad considering how much money has been spent on building banks the last 20 years. As new neighborhoods have sprung up around Amarillo, I have seen no fewer than six banks line up almost next door to each other, tripping over themselves to be able to provide a convenient, secure haven for people’s money. But now that we hardly ever actually see that money in the first place, either coming or going, raises questions of the viability of this business model.

It’s almost like building a new Blockbuster when the neighbors are streaming Netflix.

Wait. That was another blog.

I will never forget my father taking me to the bank. Those memories are forever etched on my brain. So profound are they that we took our kids to the bank about 5 years ago to start their own accounts. But as digital natives, they just don’t have the same attachment to BAM institutions as my generation did. They know they have some money stashed away, but they can see it online. And it looks the same as it would if you asked a teller to give you a printout.

Maybe it’s time for banks to quit talking about buildings, and instead be developing more and better mobile apps to allow us to do our banking from anywhere. Maybe it’s time to consider that ATMs were very cool in the 1980s, but they may have exceeded their relevance. And maybe it’s time to redefine banker’s hours as 24/7.

When that happens, they’ll have my interest.

Dr “In The Balance” Gerlich