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Help Me Interview Tim Armstrong at CM Summit

By - May 11, 2010

AOL-Tim-Armstrong_medium.jpgThird on our hit list of CM Summit interviews is Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL.  

Tim has now held that title for just about a year. Lately he’s taken to rallying the AOL troops with this decidedly controversial slogan: “Beat the Internet!”

If you want to find out what that’s all about, how Tim’s first year on the job has gone, and more, please come to the conference. And if you want me to ask your question on stage, please leave it in comments here!

(And please, help me with questions for Arianna Huffington and Tony Hsieh! Thanks!).

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Three Recent Signals

By - May 10, 2010

Readers have asked for links to the FM Signal here, and I’ve missed a few. So that you might stay in touch (in particular, all you 175K or so RSS readers), herewith are them links:

Tuesday Signal: A Walk in the Park You have to see the last item. Facebook is on its heels. Maybe it needs a HeelTastic(TM). See Friday….

Monday Signal: Sue Me! As Kara said, let’s try to keep it civil as we sue the sh*t out of each other, and if not that, then kill each other in the markets.

Friday Signal: HeelTastic! What happens when you drink a bottle of good red and write? Read on!

The iAd: Steve Jobs Regifts The Mobile Marketing Experience

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We’re used to buzz around Apple, and in particular, we’re quite used to buzz about how Apple goes to market. CEO Steve Jobs is widely considered the greatest marketer alive, and nearly every marketer I’ve worked with has expressed sincere admiration for the magic the man is capable of weaving. His products are brilliant, and the cult around Jobs and his work are extraordinary.

But with iAds, Apple has moved from the business of making ads to the business of selling them. And in the past month or so, Apple’s new team – folks formerly known as Quattro Wireless but now sporting brand new Apple business cards – have started making sales calls at a handful of major brands and their agencies.

These freshly minted Apple folk must feel like the won the lottery – just a few months ago, they were duking it out with ten other mobile networks, competing on price, ROI, network quality and scale, ad format, and Lord knows how many other factors. Now marketers are literally lining up to buy into the launch of Steve Jobs’ next great thing.

And that next great thing is called iAds – which Jobs, in typical fashion, introduced last month as the answer to all those mobile ads that “suck.”

I guess he means what those folks from Quattro sold (and still do, by the way, under their original brand name). Because from what I can tell, there’s almost nothing new in iAd, save the wrapping paper.

Then again, wrapping paper is what takes an ordinary object and turns it into a gift, and therein lies the genius of Jobs.

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You won’t find anything about iAds on Apple’s site (there are a few for “iAd,” but if you’re trying to understand what they are, you’ll be disappointed). Instead, details about the program are leaking out through blogosphere speculation and reports of recent sales meetings. I’ve spoken to several folks who’ve been in those meetings, and this post, the first of a series, will be my best attempt at making sense of the iAd narrative.

And it’s quite a classic tale – one most of the press is eating up. Early reports echo Jobs’ points about how iAds are different, but fail to check whether, in fact, iAds do anything particularly new.

Apple’s press release reads: “iAd, Apple’s new mobile advertising platform, combines the emotion of TV ads with the interactivity of web ads. Today, when users click on mobile ads they are almost always taken out of their app to a web browser, which loads the advertiser’s webpage. Users must then navigate back to their app, and it is often difficult or impossible to return to exactly where they left. iAd solves this problem by displaying full-screen video and interactive ad content without ever leaving the app, and letting users return to their app anytime they choose.”

Jobs elaborated at launch, claiming that iAds would bring more “emotion” and “engagement” to what was before a noisy and crap filled environment.

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that iAds are *only* rich media experiences (once you click on a standard banner, of course). And yes, in that Apple is controlling all the creative for iAds (clients will have approvals and submit materials, but Apple alone is doing the actual development – to ensure quality control – and most likely, to maintain the mystery of iAds in general. Classic Jobs).

And yes, in that at launch, only a selected few marketers will be “allowed” to run iAds. And as has been widely reported, those brands have to pay quite a price to get into the launch portion of the program. Given the steep price tag (reportedly up to $20 million, and I’ll be getting to that in a follow up piece), it’s almost a certainty that the ads will be of high quality – only the most established brand marketers are going to play at this level.

So yes, the actual ads inside an iAd will be better, in general, than an “average” mobile ad experience. But then again, a Superbowl ad is generally better than an “average” television ad, ain’t it?

So…. no, there’s nothing new here. Anything you can do with an iAd, I’ve confirmed with numerous very knowledgeable sources, you can do with AdMob or any number of other networks.

While it’s true that a lot of mobile ads link to web sites, rather than to rich media experiences that keep the user inside an app, it’s also true that AdMob, among others, has been using what’s known as a webview (using the video friendly HTML5 standard) to deliver exactly what Jobs packaged as “new” since at least last Fall. And let’s not forget, Jobs failed to buy AdMob, which was his first choice – Google won that bidding war.

And given that AdMob has 70% reach into the iPhone/Touch/Pad world (according to the company), Apple isn’t really selling anything new with iAds. In the words of one agency source who recently sat in an Apple pitch meeting: “iAds are the same thing you could get before, wrapped in a nice box with a bow on it.”

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Ahh…there it is: The gift. Steve Jobs’ brilliance lies in his ability to make everything seem magical. The true gift Apple is selling right now? A Golden Ticket into Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. A chance to be associated with the greatest marketer in the history of the industry.

Think I’m kidding? Then consider this: Apple is telling marketers willing to pony up for the launch that Steve Jobs will mention their brand on stage as he launches iAds this summer. “That is worth a hell of a lot,” one agency chief told me.

That, my friends, is the bow on the box. The box itself? That’s Apple products – the environment in which the advertisers’ message will be seen. And marketers like nothing more than to be associated with quality environments.

In fact, during presentations to prospective clients, Apple’s sales force takes out an iPhone to demonstrate what iAds look like. And here’s the kicker: They unveil the phone with a flourish and utter these magic words: “This is actually Steve Jobs’ personal iPhone.”

They may as well be showing Willy Wonka’s cane to a room full of children.

What Apple is selling with iAds is – Apple itself. As well they should. But they are also selling into a marketplace that, for the most part, doesn’t really understand mobile marketing. The market is still relatively small – well under a billion dollars globally this year – and major marketers have yet to embrace the format. They don’t realize that most of what Apple is pitching them can be done already.

And in the end, it doesn’t really matter. By isolating the rich media execution and claiming it as his own, Jobs has once again identified a marketing opportunity and redefined it as unique. In the process, he’s driving innovation and awareness in the mobile market. Nothing wrong with that.

But if I were a marketer considering laying out $1mm, $10mm, or more on iAds, I’d make sure I understood what my goals are.

In my next iAd-related post I’ll be focusing on just that topic: deconstructing the ROI on an iAd. Because once the launch is over, it’s all about value for money spent. And there are a lot of unanswered questions here – including publisher inventory and terms, blind vs. directed networks, targeting and terms of service for use of iTunes data, issues of third party networks, FTC regulation, and other policies, and much more. Stay tuned.

Update – I should have mentioned that there are at least two unique properties to an iAd that you can’t get elsewhere – the targeting, which reportedly is based on what apps a particular user has downloaded from iTunes, and the “ViP” program, which is, in short, the ability to link directly to your app in the iTunes store. Of course, anyone can link to the iTunes store from an ad, the difference here is this is a “proprietary Apple approved link.” Not sure what that means, but it should become clearer when the program is live in the wild.

Help Me Interview Tony Hsieh

By - May 07, 2010

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Next up on the hit list of amazing conversations at CM Summit is Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, now a division of Amazon. Tony is also an author, and everyone who comes to the conference will get a copy of his new book “Delivering Happiness,” which will be published the first day of the event (June 7th). Who wants to take odds that the book will do well at Amazon?  

Zappos is an extraordinary story, but so is Tony, who sold his first business to Microsoft for more than a quarter billion dollars (Tony was in his mid twenties at the time).

But the core of Tony’s success lies in his philosophy around customer service, and I think all good marketers have something to learn from his story. As with Arianna, I’ve got tons to ask Tony, including:

- How is the new boss? Is Zappos changing Amazon, vice versa, or a bit of both? I know Zappos is retaining its brand, but do you spend much time with Amazon execs? How do the employees co-mingle, or do they at all?

- How is the supply chain integration working?
- “Are you still a little weird ?” (One of Zappos’s values is, “Create fun and a little weirdness.”)
- How big is Zappos marketing department, and how does it differ from a traditional approach?
- The Zappos Real Time Purchasing Map is pretty cool. What other real-time marketing initiatives is your team thinking of? How do you use data to drive your business?
- Tell us about the book, which you’ve said you wrote because “it was on your check list”… what else is on your checklist?

What do you want to hear about from Tony? Tweet it out with the #cmsummit hashtag, or leave a comment here!

Help Me Interview Arianna Huffington

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Longtime readers know that as each conference I host draws near, I invite you all to help me interview the luminaries who grace our stages. We’re one month out from this year’s CM Summit, and the lineup is incredible.  

I’m working backwards through the keynote conversations, and the conference will end with Arianna Huffington, the founder and EIC of The Huffington Post.

Arianna’s creation is now a top ten news site, has serious backing from a major private equity fund, has innovated in social media integration, and just generally become the shorthand for successful publishing in the age of the real time web.

I’ve got a lot to talk about with Arianna, including:

- The future of journalism: Can the Huffington Post ever compete with the newsgathering prowess of, say, the NYT? Does it need to? What models of journalism does Arianna see coming that might be different from today’s?

- Revenue models: Can the Huffington Post cross into strong, consistent profitability? And how do its legions of unpaid contributors earn value from their contributions online?

- Point of View: What has made the Huffington Post so successful – is it the clear POV that the site endorses?

- Today’s poliitical scene: What does Arianna make of the Tea Party movement? Of the current political climate in the US?

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop and ask you to either Tweet it out with the #cmsummit hashtag or leave me a comment below, if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

Google Steps Gingerly Toward Search As Application

By - May 05, 2010

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When Bing launched, I framed the new service from Microsoft as an important step in the evolution of search:

I actually don’t think Microsoft is trying to out-Google Google with Bing. I think it’s trying to build a different kind of search application, one that sits on top of commodity search and helps people make decisions in a new way. Done right, this totally breaks the AdWords model that has driven search so far. To me, that is a very big step in a new direction, and one that Google cannot afford to make.

Today Google has decided it can’t afford NOT to make this step, at least somewhat. The company has decided to create a left hand nav bar that pushes the service toward search as an app.

Now, when I mentioned that idea in a briefing yesterday, the Google rep I spoke to wasn’t eager to confirm the concept, but to my mind, this is exactly what’s going on. Bing (and Ask before it) has built a service on top of commodity search results, one that does not require you to go back and forth, back and forth, but rather instrument your search session using intelligent, persistent navigation. This is exactly what Google’s new UI lets you do.

The real question, of course, comes down to money. Does this mean fewer clicks on paid ads for Google? I asked that question, and the response was telling: I’m paraphrasing, but in essence Google told me “we’ve found that this new approach increases the chance that users will find the information they are looking for.” And in Google’s parlance, ads are information.

Of course Google would never roll out such a significant UI update without rigorously testing the impact on AdWords clicks, and indeed Google confirmed to me that this is the most tested UI change Google’s ever made. Indeed, the left nav bar has been seen in the wild for several years.Goog Update nav.png

What’s on the bar is worth grokking as well. First, “Web” has been replaced with “Everything.” That’s pretty meta – maybe we should change the name of the Web 2.0 Summit to the Everything 2.0 Summit – but I digress. Second, what is on the bar changes based on your search in real time. And one of the options includes “Updates” – their way of incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other real time data. A “Something Different” link gives you related searches, among many other new or consolidated features on the left nav. A full overview can be found at SEL.

Google told me that the actual underlying results – both organic SERPs as well as the ads that accompany them – have not changed. This is a new skin over Google’s results, not a shift in how those results are determined. That’s important, but not entirely the story.

The story is that this shift will change how we interact with Google, what our search query stream looks like, and therefore, what kind of SERPs and ads will be produced. I am certain Google has modeled this shift, and equally certain the company believes this change will impact their bottom line in a positive way. Of course, the company could be mistaken. Only future quarterly results will prove whether or not Google got it right.

What do you all make of the changes?

Do You Get the Signal?

By - May 02, 2010

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Devoted readers may notice I don’t post here every day, and you may wonder – well what’s John up to then? Well, I’ve created a newsletter of sorts, a daily reading list with short commentary, called Signal. It’s an FM product and it lives here, at the Signal home page. Every day, I sort through hundreds of stories, most related to the Internet, media, and marketing world, and find ten or so that I find particularly noteworthy. I then annotate the links with a comment or two, and wrap the whole dealio up with a bow. You can subscribe to it as an email newsletter if you want, just put your mail up in the box on the right hand side of the page.  

I decided to do this because I wish I had such a product myself, and so far, everything I’ve ever made has followed that simple directive. Let me know if it works for you.

FWIW, my Monday Signal is up, and it gives you a sense of what the service is all about. Hope you like it.

OneRiot Indexes Facebook Data

By - May 01, 2010

oneriot.pngFrom the real time search service’s blog post:

Until today, we’ve been indexing the links shared on Twitter, MySpace, Digg, Delicious and by our own OneRiot panel to help determine our search results. Now, with the addition of Facebook data, OneRiot delivers search results that reflect the pulse of a much, much wider social web.

Also, the service seems a bit wary of what might come of all this:
Now, of course, we’re only showing (indeed, only have access to) data that has been shared publicly by Facebook users. A user can restrict the visibility of these Likes on their Facebook profile. However, we’d be sidestepping the issue if we didn’t recognize that some users might be concerned that stuff they have shared on Facebook can now pop up on services like ours. Given that, we are rolling out this feature as a very limited bucket test today to assess users’ reactions and gather feedback. We love the new feature. And if users do too then we’ll roll it out to everyone at an appropriate speed.

As well they should. The service can be found here.

The Gap Scenario

By - April 30, 2010

mindthegap.png* It’s been a longstanding thesis of mine that Google’s ability to reorder information in microseconds, based on our declared intent through a search query, has habituated us to expect an immediate and relevant response from nearly every website – and in particular, commercial sites. In time, I think this expectation will leak into realspace as well. In this post, I explore what that might look like.  

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been using what I call “The Gap Scenario” to illustrate how marketing is going to change in the next few years, in particular as it relates to the intersection of physical and digital spaces. Yes, I’m talking about Gap, the retail clothing brand, but I’m also talking about the “gap” between where we are as an industry, and where we are headed.

Yesterday I got a chance to talk on camera about the concept (it’s in the first ten or so minutes), but if you’re like me, it’s sometimes easier to read than watch video. And to be honest, until I write something down, I’m never entirely sure I’ve thought it through. So here goes.

Imagine it is a few years from now. Not much has changed in your life (as much as, say, it has in the past three years. We often get a bit ahead of ourselves when it comes to thinking in the future). You happen by a Gap store, and eager for a bit of retail therapy, you walk through the door.

By walking through Gap’s door, you have declared an intent – just as certainly as if you had entered “Gap clothes” into a search engine.

So what happens next? What response does your “search” elicit?*

In a few years, this is what I think will be pretty standard. First, you’ll have a smart phone on you, one that is running several background processes (think of them as “ambient apps”) at all times. One of those processes listens for signals coming from the environment around you, and when it finds a signal that it finds may be useful, it responds to that signal with a ping saying “I am here.”

This is why, when you cross the portal into Gap, your phone buzzes (assuming you’ve instrumented it to buzz. It might ring, or it might stay silent, because you know as soon as you go into Gap, there’ll be a response waiting for you. My point is that the response is immediate).

As you cross into Gap, you take out your phone and take a look at what Gap has to say to you. And what might that be? Well, it depends on any number of factors, but my guess is the Gap App will welcome you into the store, and perhaps ask if you are enjoying the jeans you purchased at the downtown store last month. It also shows that four of your friends have recently been in the store lately, and another three have purchased something online. Would you like to see what they bought?

Another alert reminds you that it’s been a few years since you bought anything for your daughter, who must be growing up. Might you be interested in a Gap tee or scarf most favored by girls in her age group? Special 15% off applies for folks like you, who have “Liked” Gap on Facebook.

Interested, you stroll over to the Teen section and see a blouse your daughter might like. You hold your phone up to it, focusing the camera on the tag. The Gap app immediately scans the tag and provides another search result, including price, available inventory instore and online, customer reviews culled from various sources, and recommendations for related items, complete with a map icon which, if pressed, shows where those items are in the store.

But for whatever reason, you put your phone in your pocket and head for the mens department. You came in for your own retail therapy, after all. You know that if you want to buy that blouse, you’ve already shown an interest in it, and at any time you can complete the purchase through the app, or, importantly, by asking any Gap associate throughout the store.

And that leads us to the other side of this scenario. When you walked through the front door, you were immediately identified as a returning customer. All the data about your interaction with Gap, as well as any other related data that you have agreed can be publicly known about you, has already been sent to the store, and to the mobile devices of every Gap associate working in the store today. You know this, and further, you expect anyone you might ask a question of to know as much about you as you care to reveal. In a way, it’s both comforting and empowering.

As you head upstairs to the mens department, you pass a Gap associate who smiles, checks her phone (which thanks to something like Presence has lit up with your profile) and says hello. The social action of her checking her phone as you approach is something you consider normal, and you wait for what she might say next.

And what she says next – the next turn in your conversation with Gap – will be critical. Will she be human, empathetic, nuanced? Or will she be corporate, stunted, odd?

Well, that depends, in the end, on how Gap trains its employees, and whether Gap allows them to be themselves. Does Gap hire folks with a high social IQ? Or does it hire folks who secretly hate this data-driven corporate shit, so they grit their teeth as they ask you if they can help?

An important question indeed. But this day, you’ve come to your favorite store, where the employees are fluent in the dance between social data, commercial intent, and real time physical interaction. Your associate simply nods and says “let me know if I can help you,” smiles, and lets you pass. She reads from your face and body language that you don’t want too much more than that. She was right.

At the mens department you find your favorite jeans, but don’t want to dig through the piles to find your size. Instead you point your phone at the stack, and the Gap App tells you the store, alas, is out of size 34. Would you like to purchase them online, and have them sent to your home? They’ll be there later today, because a store across town has them in stock, and Gap provides same day delivery within a 50 mile radius. You press “Yes”, the purchase is confirmed, and, your retail desires fulfilled, you head toward the door.

As you leave, the associate you passed earlier thanks you for your purchase.

Well that was pleasant, you think, as you walk down the street. Out comes your phone again, and you bring up the Gap application again. Maybe you will get that blouse for your daughter, after all.

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Now, think about all the elements that have to work in concert for this scenario to play out. To my mind, the easiest part is the technology and the platforms for that tech – they exist already. The smart phones, the app world, the social instrumentation – all solved. What’s not solved are the business processes that sew it all together. This scenario incorporates many distinct practices of traditional marketing. Customer service, CRM, direct marketing, instore and online promotions, and even brand marketing – because above the line brand work is what ties it all together by making the promise this scenario will pay off.

Getting all those pieces to work in concert is the hard part. My experience with large brands and the agencies which support them is that they have necessarily specialized, creating silos that are very good at what they do (direct marketing, CRM, etc) but not very good at working across the organization. That’s going to have to change. It’ll happen first with retail brands like Gap, but it’ll come quickly to consumer packaged goods (who will want to answer the search even if it happens on a supermarket shelf) and small businesses as well.

Helping them make the transition is a huge opportunity. More on that in another post.

*replete with MOLRS, of course.