DejaVu All Over Again?

November 28, 2007

Come with me back to the mid to late 90s. Remember those years?

Remember trying to find office space in and around the Bay area? First Tuesday meetings with three thousand green badged ‘entrepreneurs’ chasing three red-badged ‘VCs’ around the room? Remember, WebVan, and the million other startups hoping to make it into this brave new online world? The mass of money pouring into crazy no-hope projects for the slim chance of picking the right one? The multitude of companies who added an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ to the front of their names? Or a ‘.com’ at the end?

Remember all those companies whose sole method of ever making money was via advertising …?

Fast forward back to today and you may wonder whether anything has changed. Are we going through the same cycle again, you might ask?

I’d suggest the answer is probably ‘yes’ … and ‘no’.

Let’s look at the similarities to last time: there are certainly far too many ‘me too’ products, most of which will fail or be picked up in a fire sale. How many social networks or video sharing sites do we really need? Especially when there’s little to no differentiation between them. There are plenty of social news sites, but no’ones quite struck the right formula just yet (Digg may be close, but has its own issues to deal with). And we’ve got widget, wiki, blogging and portal offerings coming out of our ears. There’s a lot of investment money still to be had, even with the current squeeze on the US market, and a lot of online businesses offer free services in the hope of ad revenue.

There are some major differences though. Firstly the penetration of broadband, which lack of helped to kill companies like Boo (along with totally incompetent founders – more on that later) is now such that the user experience can be far richer. Video, immersive technologies such as Second Life, real-time communications, fancier Flash and Javascript effects, integrated voice and the like help with that greater level of interactivity.

Secondly, whilst there are still plenty of ‘green-horns’ running web businesses, a lot of the companies this time around are run by those people who went through the first-round: for better or for worse. It doesn’t yet mean they necessarily know how to run a successful company, but you have to believe it helps.

I also think that in terms of advertising as a business model, whilst not perfect and whilst still very risky for most ventures, it is more viable than before. Platforms such as Google adsense and ad-words, Facebooks flyers and Beacon, the work that News Limited are doing on the MySpace and syndicated advertising platform mean there’s a lot more serious and targeted effort being put in now than the simple sale of banner-ads or annoying pop-ups. Acquisitions by the big players of companies like eQuantive and the like ensure major investment in this field. That coupled with the drop-off in traditional advertising means that there’s a potential gap to fill (although, for now, the drop off in offlline advertising isn’t being reflected 1:1 online – by a long way).

There will still be large challenges to this model, not least of which a number of privacy issues yet to be fully resolved, but you have to believe that whilst the gold rush dreams should well and truly be put-aside, there’s still some pretty decent money to be made in them thar hills!

If there’s a common thread, it’s that whilst plenty of silly businesses have and will perish in both rounds, the basic tenets of business online have survived and there are plenty doing it well (see the acquisition of Homestead recently as a prime example of survival!)

Predictors of another bubble burst and predictors of nothing but flowers and glory will, in my humble opinion, both be wrong!

(oh, the story about Boo. Nothing too exciting, but I saw Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander presenting at a First Tuesday event in London in the late 90s, and I have to say that if you can predict a companies future by the terrible performance of its leaders – especially Ernst – you would have been pulling your money out as fast as you could!)

PS: looks like is now a travel company of sorts

Santa .. Sponsored By ..

November 26, 2007

This weekend we went along to watch the first Sydney Christmas parade. Loosely modeled on the Macey’s Thanksgiving parade in New York (minus the giant balloon figures), the event attracted over 50,000 people according to media reports.

The thing that struck me though was how horribly corporate it all was. Perhaps I was just young and naive, but as a kid I remember watching parades where the floats were clearly knocked up in someone’s garage by a couple of blokes at the weekend. Dodgy plywood strapped on top of an old van and costumes made from old curtains and papier mache sufficed.

I’m no longer naive enough to believe these things are free, or that advertising doesn’t invade every aspect of our day to day lives, but I was somewhat bemused by some of the participants: The Sydney JetBoat? Austar Cable TV? Ronald McDonald? Santa sponsored by the Daily Telegraph?

Maybe I’m just a grumpy git – all the kids around me in the crowd still loved seeing Santa and couldn’t have cared less if he were sponsored by Haliburton. As for some of the others though .. I think I managed to annoy my wife by stating loudly ‘look, here comes an advert for ..’ every time a new group came past 🙂

Have I lost the plot, or just a sign of the times?

Gaming the System?

November 26, 2007

The pre-cursor to getting people to stick around on your site is obviously to get them there in the first place. As we all know, most of us are a mere blip in a giant universe of electronic noise. I note with interest, therefore, a bit of a ding-dong happening at Techcrunch over a post by Dan Ackerman Greenberg following his outlining of the methods his marketing company takes to ‘help’ a video become viral.

What I find interesting about this is that, apart from the fact you never normally hear such honesty, the techniques he describes for garnering interest are nothing new. Sure, we’d all like to think that the ‘net was somehow much more pure back in the day, but the reality is is that offline marketing techniques have simply switched online and have done so for a long time. Ever seen a print advertorial? How about news items that are clearly just press releases? Ever received a free-sample of something or trial products to use at your club or society? Remember the ‘Gabbo’ advertising from the Simpsons (which a number of books and films had used in real-life). Or let’s go back further still: ever think that the first audience member at a sale or market isn’t just the brother of the seller? Ever been to a nightclub and wondered why there were three or four people always first out on the floor (paid by the club to seed the dancefloor).

Personally I’d love more of a ‘fair-go’ for those of us with limited resources and budget. A happy chance of random encounters with whatever media we choose to produce. Fact is there probably isn’t a lot of interaction you can have with any product on or offline without your actions having been ‘influenced’ to a degree. The classic and best examples would be supermarkets and big-box retailers.

The noise over at TC will fade away, and the cynic in me thinks that Mr Greenberg may have pulled off one of the best promotional coups of his career. For the rest of us, we have to deal with living in the self-promotion society we find ourselves and deal with it accordingly.

So, enjoy your Soulja Boys and your Teen-15s over at YouTube, but remember .. there’s a pretty good chance you will have been helped along the way to find them!

Sticky, sticky. 10 Website Categories and the Glue That Binds..

November 24, 2007

I’ve been thinking about stickiness quite a lot recently. I’m not referring to that strange discolored patch on my carpet – rather, the challenge for any website: once you’ve grabbed a visitor, how do you hang on to them and keep them coming back?

Let’s have a look at some different categories of site (heads-up – I have a feeling this is going to turn into a long post as I am basically brain-dumping!). Oh, before we begin – I’m not talking about getting the traffic in the first place, just helping to keep hold of it once
you get critical momentum. The first part (just as hard) is a whole different discussion 🙂

1. Originators: In this group I’d put news sites such as the BBC, CNN, ABC and so on, along with a few of what are normally first or second sources of new stories. That would include sites like Techcrunch, Engadget and Wired. Fairly obvious why people return to these sites: there is always fresh content, normally localised or available to a specific interest group. On most of these, you can add comments or your own stories too.

2. Aggregators: Not an original source of information, but a consolidated view from the web, normally ranked or voted on in terms of popularity. For example, Digg, Slashdot, Reddit and the late Netscape. Given the massive amounts of new data available on a daily basis on the web, these sites offer an easier way to stay current with minimal effort. I’d suggest that at times a larger amount of effort goes into the comments and discussions than it does reading the linked stories!

3. Constant Virals: Sites that are able to continually drive viral and word-of-mouth ‘check this out’ buzz. Youtube is probably the pre-eminent example along with a few of the ‘me-too’ video sharing sites. B3ta used to be there, as are a couple of the flash gaming sites. A constant source of new material, who can resist watching some idiot stick his face in a fire-ants nest! The discussion boards and comments also play a big part here

4. Friend Collectors: No longer the ‘new new thing’, but still growing like mad, online social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, Thursday Club and the million other variations satisfy our need for self-promotion and gossip. Spend time investing in growing friends, filling out your profile, stalking ex-girlfriends, installing applications and updating your status and you’re hooked. Who doesn’t want to know that ‘Paul is feeling farty’?

Message boards, super-poking, wall-post and super-walls all add to the stickiness and most of these sites are very good at teasing you with update emails to prompt your return.

5. Contact Collectors: Largely similar to number 4, but I put in here some of the more ‘serious’ social networks aimed at business professionals. LinkedIn, Ecademy, Ryze, Plaxo .. again there are a multitude to choose from, although LinkedIn is probably the most popular, with its ‘Answers’ Q&A discussion forums proving particularly popular.

6. Reviews & Recommendations: Tripadvisor, CNET, Yelp, epinions and reams of other sites dedicated to helping you research product or service purchases, word-of-mouth reviews and related discussions.

Often tied directly to ..
7. Service providers: Booking a flight? Need a hotel? Hiring a car? Theatre tickets? Online food shopping? Books, CDs, Cameras .. anything eCommerce? Once you’ve done your research online (see 6) or perhaps even at the same time on the same site (e.g. Amazon) come here to make your purchase. Keen pricing, quick delivery, customer service, positive reviews, large stock, longtail serviceability, word-of-mouth marketing, affiliate programs and white-labelling all help these sites along. Let’s put the eBays, Craig’s Lists and so on in here too.

8. One-hit wonders, weirdos and one-offs: Remember ‘badgers .. badgers’? The filipino elvis looking for love? Star-wars Kid the original? The drink-o-meter? All those crappy but addictive Flash games that took up way too much of your time? With traffic that comes in waves as the next news site story and email chain runs, you may not get a lot of stickiness, but the knock-on effect or chance to grab that traffic for other purposes can be vital (esp for a startup)

9. Blogs: We all know that a tiny fraction of blogs actually generate much traffic, or have a particularly loyal readership. Take one of the most popular though – Scott Adams (Mr Dilbert). With such a large fanbase, he is guaranteed a large readership every day and can kick-off a huge discussion with nothing but a simple question. Powerful stuff!

10. Yackfests: Last, but by no means lowest in priority or stickiness comes forums, chat rooms, discussion boards and the like. My wife is currently addicted to some Indonesian fashion forum, and I would bet that the combined eyeball time for discussion boards net wide would be .. well, it would be quite large 🙂 If you have an interest, any form of interest, you will find a group of like-minded people somewhere to discuss it with. From Google groups, usenet (sshh!), Yahoo to dedicated, home-run hobbyist sites if you get some momentum you have some serious stickiness!

So, what’s the conclusion? Well if you had to pick the common element with each, it has to be discussions and comments. That won’t be a surprise to anyone, and forms one of the key tenets of what has been called ‘web 2.0’. Truth is, the discussion based aspect of the ‘net has been a constant since almost day dot and is one thing that has consistently worked in grabbing people to take part.

One downside though of traditional discussion forums has always been that if you have one, and it’s successful, it tends to suck the traffic from every other part of your site (check out for a good example – a site for professional pilots that gave up on trying to get anyone to do anything except use the forum – which is hugely popular).

There are a number of new players such as Tangler, trying to address this by trying to create not only an embedded discussion platform but one that enables you to bring together other aspects of your site too (profile, product info, interesting links, video and so on).

Imagine there’s a thread going on and you pull up an embedded interactive product, pricing information, select some experts and related media. Think Digg labs meets Amazon, meets Second Life, meets threaded discussion, meets Twitter subscribers, meets YouTube. How cool would that be?

Hmm, well, I did say I was just brain dumping 🙂

Moving on .. Blu

November 23, 2007

Ok, enough about Facebook. I’m blocking the tubes with it, and this isn’t meant to be some sort of bizarre stalking homage to the place, so it’s time to move on.

I received an invitation yesterday (actually five invitations in a row from the same person) to join yet another social network called ‘Blu‘ from a company called Blue Freeway. This one is a little different as it’s aimed specifically at marketing professionals (of which I am not one, but I signed up anyway). The intent is to create a broad vertical of like-minded interested parties – in this instance relating to marketing – and offer them the chance to not only network, but pick up information relating to the trade. For example, information about campaigns, industry specific newsfeeds, job openings, best practice and the like.

The logical extension of this is that Blue Freeway will be able to create similar verticals off the same platform for other professional groups (IT managers, HR people, sales etc).

I like the concept, and I think the fact that Blue Freeway will be able to leverage off their existing client base in new media marketing means they can drive usage to a certain extent: why not use the portal for sharing campaign details, correspondence, pitch ideas and usage statistics for example?

What I’m less sure about is the implementation. It’s early days so you can cut them some slack, and I understand the need to get at least something out, but right now the platform offers nothing more than a basic profile page with links to your connections. There’s a nice dashboard concept, but you can only move the standard widgets around, rather than adding or modifying your own.

Still also some issues with the information architecture – far too many clicks to get basic actions like confirming connections done.

I’ve lost count of the number of sites I’ve created a profile on, only to then do nothing with it (and see plenty of examples of that at Thursday Club too, which I’m conscious of trying to address). There is a danger, therefore, that launching without any sort of stickiness or viral nature will give that effect here too.

Hopefully once they launch the campaigns and the meat of the thing there’ll be some very specific added value over LinkedIn, FB and the like.
I can see it being more perhaps of a projects home, maybe with the bonus of being able to bid out on campaigns or work in a virtual teaming environment.

Will report more as I get it.

[btw – obligatory disclaimer .. I am also a Blue Freeway shareholder]

‘Fun’ With Statistics | Getting TechCrunched

November 23, 2007

Blimey .. it’s been something of a crazy 24 hours. I had a few spare moments yesterday and so decided to pull together some numbers from the Facebook advertising platform (which I’ve subsequently had to correct – that’s what happens when you spend about 5 minutes on an exercise!).

Knowing that they love all things Facebook I emailed Michael Arrington of TechCrunch with the data, and after a blur of emails the story made it to the TechCrunch homepage!

Here’s what that did to my blog stats (click the picture to see it full-size):

Blog Stats

As you can see, just a small jump from my normal traffic!

I don’t include those stats here to brag, but rather to illustrate the amazing effect of word-of-internet when a story gets to one of the popular sites like TechCrunch, Digg, Reddit and so on. As it turned out, my data was somewhat erroneous (although there are still more females than males on Facebook according to the updated figures .. just perhaps not in such a large ratio), but that hasn’t stopped the story spreading through all the various sites that syndicate, borrow or steal TechCrunch content. There’s an amazing ‘halo’ effect of other sites – particularly blogs of course – mirroring popular stories in a hope that traffic will gravitate via topical searching and linkbacks.

This isn’t new, and the network effect of word-of-mouth or guerilla marketing has been around forever, but it is interesting to see it play out around your own site. You can see why so much effort is put into gaming stories onto Digg for example.

Anyway, I’m sure this will calm down as quickly as it came up. Shame I can’t carry Google adsense on WordPress – I could have made at least 50c out of this 😉

[update: speaking of viral marketing, there’s an interesting article on – surprise – Techcrunch today about marketing on YouTube]