Advertising / Marketing

Preemptive Foreclosure: Problems with GoDaddy Domain Name Registration Service

I am frustrated with preemptive actions taken by GoDaddy this week, effectively impounding my web site without adequate notification for at least two days. The web site has since been released, but I wanted to share my experience in case it helps others make better informed choices about domain name registration services ... and to release some of my frustration. I would be very interested in any recommendations for other reasonably priced services that offer better customer service.

My domain name,, is currently registered with, and was set to auto-renew on October 25. Unfortunately, my Visa credit card - which was the card on file at GoDaddy for auto-renewals - was hacked last week, and the old card number was cancelled on October 23. On October 26, I received the following email from GoDaddy, with the subject "Product Failed Billing Notification":

Dear Joe McCarthy,
Customer Number: ******

According to the terms of our agreement(s), we tried to bill your Visa card ending in the last two digits 89 in the amount of $41.96 for the item(s) below, but our billing attempt failed. This could be for a variety of reasons, including an invalid or expired credit card on file.


Product Name Next Billing Date  Qty
.COM Bulk Domain Name Renewal (1-5) (recurring) 10/30/2010 1   $11.62
.NET Bulk Domain Name Renewal (1-5) (recurring) 10/30/2010 1   $15.17
.ORG Bulk Domain Name Renewal (1-5) (recurring) 10/30/2010 1   $15.17


If an item has already expired, it is noted above as "CANCELLED" and can no longer be renewed. PLEASE NOTE: Once an item has been cancelled, all related data – Web site files, emails, databases, etc. – is removed from our server and cannot be recovered.

If there is a date in the "Next Billing Date" column, we will hold your item(s) and attempt to bill again on the date shown, OR you can renew now and qualify for bonus savings.

[instructions / link for online renewal omitted]
Thanks as always for being a Go Daddy customer.

Sincerely,, Inc.

In reading this email, I didn't interpret "hold your item(s)" as "impound your item(s)". I interpreted it as "we will hold your item(s) - rather than try to resell your items". I figured that GoDaddy would simply try to bill the card again on October 30, by which time I hoped to have a new Visa card number that I could substitute for the old number in my account information.

I was surprised when I was contacted by someone today who told me that my web site appeared to be for sale:


Since I have not yet received my new Visa card, I immediately logged into my account to enter a different card number. I then called GoDaddy customer service to (a) determine what notification I missed or misinterpreted that should have informed me of the impending impoundment, and (b) find out how long it would take for the content on my web site to be released / reinstated.

Foreclosure_sign3 During my phone call with the GoDaddy customer service representative, we reviewed two preceding email messages I had received (on September 25 and October 20), notifying me of the upcoming auto-renewal for the domain, and we reviewed the message I included above. The only signal of impending impoundment the representative could point me to was the use of "hold" I alluded to above, i.e., "hold" = "impound" rather than "hold" = " will not resell" ... and I don't know how accurate the "will not resell" interpretation was, either. The representative never offered an apology, repeatedly referring me to their "terms of service", but did try to offer some sympathy using the analogy of a wireless carrier suspending service for a mobile phone. I responded that the public nature of my web site having been "parked" (as shown in the screenshot above) seemed more like a bank posting a foreclosure sign out in front of my house. I'm glad the most recent email message from GoDaddy only thanked me for being "a customer", vs. the thanks I often receive from other companies for being "a valued customer", as I don't feel that my business is valued by GoDaddy.

image from Ironically, I do feel like a valued customer at Optify, a Seattle-based real-time marketing service. It was Jennifer, a customer service representative at Optify, who called me to let me know about the inaccessibility of my web site content (and/or availability of my domain name) - and more generally to see if I had any questions about Optify. I say this is ironic because I signed up for the free trial of Optify on Monday, shortly after reading an article about them in TechCrunch, but I was using my Interrelativity web site primarily to experiment with and learn more about the service, more out of curiosity than with any serious marketing intent. That said, the prompt and helpful followup by Jennifer has proven unexpectedly valuable, and exemplifies a strong customer orientation and valuation.

Interrelativity-LogoNameMantra-320x90 Fortunately, after getting off the phone with Jennifer and updating my credit card information at GoDaddy, the content of my web site was reinstated and available again within an hour or so. While I no longer use for any direct commercial purposes - as I liked to say when I joined Nokia back in 2006, the business of Interrelativity failed, but the dream lives on - my Interrelativity homepage continues to serve as the central online hub for my professional activities, including links to my projects and papers  as well as my accounts on a variety of social media services (such as Twitter, SlideShare and this blog). Given that I am currently in another career transition, exploring new professional opportunities [self-promotional link to my resume / CV (PDF)], the preemption of my web content for 2 days while I am sending links to my homepage to prospective employers may have cost me valuable "impressions".

And, as I noted above, I am also exploring a transition to a new domain name registration and hosting service, so I would welcome any recommendations from others who have enjoyed better customer service from other companies.

Empowered: More Platform Thinking, De-Bureaucratization and Redistribution of Agency

Empowered-book The new book, Empowered, by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research, proclaims an inspiring message: social media is increasingly empowering customers to draw attention to their problems, and the best way for businesses to provide effective solutions is to empower their employees with the same tools. The book makes a strong case for universal employee empowerment by including numerous case studies of companies that have benefited from successfully empowering their employees, as well as a few cases where companies suffered as a result of bureaucratic encumbrances. The main quibble I have with the book is the use of what I consider to be questionable quantitative data, but I don't see that data as essential to the empowering message or case studies presented.

The book describes four technology trends - the proliferation of smart mobile devices, pervasive video, cloud computing services and social technology - and presents a number of case studies about how people are taking advantage of these trends to achieve their goals, sometimes to the detriment of institutions that are not yet taking advantage of them. The authors argue that employee empowerment is more of a management challenge than a technical challenge at this stage, and they effectively highlight the ways that proactive employees - called HEROes (Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives) - can use the same tools that empower customers to respond more effectively to their needs. I see many similarities between HEROes and the e-Patients ("engaged, empowered, equipped and expert") I first discovered via Regina Holliday, "e-Patient Dave" deBronkart, Susannah Fox and other Health 2.0 heroes who are advocating platform thinking, de-bureaucratization and the redistribution of agency. [Update: just saw a tweet by @ReginaHolliday to another new book, The Empowered Patient, by Julia Hallisy, suggesting even more convergence - and momentum - in this area.] At the risk of adding the ubiquitous version number to yet another class of agency, I found myself thinking that perhaps we're also entering the era of Employee 2.0.

ItSuckedAndThenICried The book starts off with a case study involving Heather Armstrong, a mommyblogger and author with over a million followers on her Twitter account (@dooce), who experiences a series of mechanical and customer service problems with her new Maytag washing machine during the first few months after her second child was born. In a blog post containing a capital letter or two, capturing the series of problems and failed solutions, she writes about an exchange with an unempowered customer service representative:

And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me? And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, "Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter."

I read this and immediately experienced a visceral "Uh, oh..." moment, sort of like watching a horror movie where the naive victim-to-be is about to open a door you just know they shouldn't. As anticipated, she then proceeds to share her frustrations with Maytag with her Twitter followers in a series of status updates. It is difficult to directly measure the long-term influence of this negative publicity, but I would imagine that many of Heather Armstrong's followers were / are young mothers with significant laundering needs who might also be in the market for a washing machine, and would be considerably less likely to purchase a Maytag after reading about her experiences.

Twelpforce This experience is contrasted with that of Josh Korin (@joshkorin), a recruiter with a more modest Twitter following (596) at the time of a suboptimal experience with an Apple iPhone purchased at BestBuy. Like Heather, Josh tweeted about his frustrations with customer service - they initially offered to replace his new iPhone with a Blackberry, even though he'd purchased the insurance plan. However, BestBuy had an empowered TwelpForce in place that monitors and responds pomptly to customer service problems expressed in social media streams (e.g., tweets addressed to @bestbuy or with the #bestbuy or #twelpforce hashtag). Even though Josh posted these messages on a Saturday, he promptly received responses from BestBuy CMO Barry Judge (@bestbuycmo) and empowered "community connector" Coral Biegler (@coral_bestbuy), and an iPhone replacement was arranged that Sunday, transforming a disgruntled customer into an advocate.

The second part of the book explores another acronymized set of concepts, IDEA: Identify mass influencers, Deliver groundswell customer service, Empower customers with mobile information, and Amplify the voice of your fans. I like the ideas [pun partially intended] in this section, and found the additional case studies presented interesting and compelling. However, this is where I encountered questionable data on peer influence metrics, which is based on Forrester's North American Technographics Empowerment Online Survey, Q4 2009 (US). The normal biases that arise in self-reporting (people generally tend to present themselves and their actions in a favorable light) are compounded when one is asking people - in an online survey - about how much online influence they have. I would expect natural "inflationary pressures" would lead respondents to overestimate the number of friends and followers they have, the frequency with which they post social media messages (e.g., Facebook or Twitter status updates) and the percentage of those messages that are about products and services.

To their credit, Forrester provides disclaimers on its web page for the survey, which very carefully highlight the sources of sample bias:

Please note that this was an online survey. Respondents who participate in online surveys have in general more experience with the Internet and feel more comfortable transacting online. The data is weighted to be representative for the total online population on the weighting targets mentioned, but this sample bias may produce results that differ from Forrester’s offline benchmark survey. The sample was drawn from members of MarketTools’ online panel, and respondents were motivated by receiving points that could be redeemed for a reward. The sample provided by MarketTools is not a random sample.

TheTippingPoint-cover Taking a cue from Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book, The Tipping Point, the potentially biased survey data is used primarily to establish categories of Mass Connectors - the 6.2% of online users who generate 80% of the online impressions (status updates) across social media streams, each clocking in with an average of 537 followers and making an estimated 18,600 impressions per year - and Mass Mavens - the 13.4% of online users who generate 80% of the online posts (blog posts, blog comments, discussion forum posts, and product reviews), clocking in with 54 product or service-related posts per year (vs. the overall average of 6 per year).

Now, just to be clear, as someone who ardently believes that all studies and models are wrong [including my own], but some are useful, I believe that these are useful categories, and while I might question the actual numbers, I do believe that some people are more influential - as mavens and/or connectors - than others. However, I think it's important to note that there are significant questions about the extent of influence mavens and connectors have. For example, Clive Thompson's Fast Company article, Is the Tipping Point Toast?, contrasts Gladwell's focus on an elite few with Duncan Watts' more expansive idea of the connected many with respect to the sources of real influence in society. And given more recent views expressed by Gladwell this week in a New Yorker article on Twitter, Facebook and social activism: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, I suspect he may have reservations about his categories of influentials being mapped onto social media at all.

Slack-getting-past-burnout-busywork-and-the-myth-of-total-efficiency The reason I delve so deeply into this issue is that I actually believe that the influence of the connected many is better aligned with the overall message of Empowered than the elite few, and that the authors do themselves - and their message - a disservice via this detour in an otherwise engaging and enlightening book. They talk of efficiency in many places where I think they - and their readers (and clients) - would be best served by focusing on effectiveness (as Tom DeMarco effectively focuses on in his book, Slack). Should HEROes only focus on addressing their efforts toward the Mass Mavens and/or Mass Connectors? That would be efficient, I suppose, but would probably not be very effective.

As an example, another compelling case study described in Empowered is the experience of Dave Carroll, a "not-very-well-known local musician" from Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose guitar was allegedly broken by United Airlines baggage handlers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on March 31, 2008. Dave responded by recording and posting a trilogy of songs, United Breaks Guitars, on YouTube (the first one, which now has over 9 million views, is embedded below).

As far as I can tell, Dave Carroll - while certainly talented - was probably not very influential at the time he recorded that music video, and if United customer service HEROes (if they exist[ed]) were to focus their efforts primarily on Mass Mavens or Mass Connectors, the empowered response by Dave Carroll may have still slipped under their radar. And yet his video turned out to be very influential: according to the authors, Sysomos estimates that positive sentiment for United Airlines in the blogosphere decreased from 34% to 28% and negative sentiment increased from 22% to 25%, while the proportion of positive stories about United in traditional media went from 39% to 27% with negative stories rising from 18% to 23%. [I recommend Dan Greenfield's analysis of the the social media impact of the United Breaks Guitars video at SocialMediaToday for anyone interested in more details.]

I've written before about how everyone's a customer. I think the central message of Empowered is - or should be - every customer matters.

In another inspiring case study - and this is the last one I'll share here - Kira Wampler, former online engagement leader for the small business division of Intuit (maker of QuickBooks) and now a principal at Ants Eye View, said that her primary customer service goal at Intuit was not to deflect as many calls as possible, but "how do I get you unstuck as quickly as possible?" This reflects a wisdom so clearly articulated in Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users blog, e.g., her post on keeping users engaged, in which she so pithily promotes an empowerment strategy: Give users a way to kick ass.

As Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler convincingly show, customers have never been so empowered to "kick ass" as they are now. I hope that more businesses will follow their prescriptions to "unleash your employees, energize your customers and transform your business" ... or, as Kathy Sierra might put it, Give employees a way to kick ass!

The Starbucks Digital Network, Engagement, Enlightenment and Third Places

In a recent interview at TheGrill media and entertainment conference, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz extolled the virtues of video streaming and other proprietary media that will soon be made available via free Wi-Fi on the Starbuck Digital Network. At the end of the interview, he briefly mentions the unique opportunity that Starbucks offers as a third place in America. Offering customers more engaging content through their wireless devices while they are in the stores may well represent some unique opportunities for the content providers and consumers. However, it is likely to diminish the real-world conversation, sense of community and potential for serendipitous enlightenment that are central elements to the ideal of a third place.

Ironically, in a blog post by Josh Dickey about Schultz' interview at The Wrap, Schultz is quoted as saying

We’ve got to completely allow ourselves to engage in conversations that we’d normally be afraid of.

As might inferred from my earlier post about the coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I completely agree with this sentiment, and while this new network - and Starbucks' extensive social media presence - may promote online conversations, it is likely to do so at the expense of the kinds of interactions traditionally cultivated in coffeehouses. I won't rehash that entire earlier post, but I would like to review a bit of context about "third places":

Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

In his interview, Schultz speaks glowingly about values, guiding principles, emotional connection and customer loyalty. He talks about research showing how Starbucks customers had traditionally used Wi-Fi primarily for synching email, but increasingly use Wi-Fi in more "engaging" ways. He shows a slide highlighting the ways that Starbucks has become "a powerful force" in social media, and is clearly excited about how they will now take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by "captive" customers in their stores. He talks about the 9 million people who have registered a Starbucks Rewards card and the potential for integrating a "national physical footprint" with a new digital network. But as far as I can tell, all these new developments will simply promote more public privatism, portable cocooning and the more effective use of devices as interaction shields through which people can be alone together and enjoy joint solitude.


All of this is all the more ironic given another video I recently watched (not in a Starbucks) - Steven Johnson's TED talk about Where Good Ideas Come From - highlighting the importance of the "liquid networks" and serendipitous interactions in traditional coffeehouses to the evolution of innovative ideas:

The English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment ... it was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share [ideas] ... An astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.

I have shared positive perspectives in the past about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership and my own Starbucks experience. And I have written about the research and development through which I have partnered with others to design and deploy technology to promote conversation and community in coffeehouses (although this work was focused primarily on independent coffeehouses). The new Starbucks Digital Network may provide many benefits to many stakeholders - especially those in the media and entertainment industry - and I have no doubt it will promote digital engagement and perhaps even enlightenment, but it is largely incompatible with the idea of Starbucks serving as a true third place.

But who knows? Maybe someone will watch Steven Johnson's video while sitting at a Starbucks, and decide to disengage from the Wi-Fi long enough to expose themselves to the potentially enlightening people and ideas surrounding them right there in the store.

Minority Report and Recent Advances in Pervasive Personalized Advertising

Several recent articles I've read about new developments in tracking and advertising in different countries - most of which reference the science fiction movie, Minority Report - reminded me of a quote often attributed to science fiction author, William Gibson:

The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed

The articles describe the ways that various technologies - from special-purpose global positioning system (GPS) devices and face recognition software to general-purpose radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and web browsers - can be used to record information about us, and make it available to prospective advertisers in order to provide more contextually relevant advertising in a broader array of contexts.

The success of these increasingly pervasive personalized advertising systems depends, in part, on how they address three fundamental questions:

  • How much control do viewers of such advertising have over the information that is recorded?
  • What benefits do the viewers receive?
  • What risks do they perceive?

The Minority Report analogies refer to scenes in which iris scanning technology is used to identify shoppers in order to present customized messages. In the scene above, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is offered audio and visual invitations to try products and services from Lexus ("the road you're on, John Anderton, is the road less traveled"), Guinness ("John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now.") and American Express Travel ("Get away, John Anderton; forget your troubles") as he makes his way through a mall on his way to board a train. People in this advertising scenario have little control over being identified (short of, say, eyeball transplants), do not appear to derive any direct benefit, and the risks of ubiquitous identification and tracking go well beyond potentially irritating personalized advertising: an elite Pre-Crime unit of the police may want to apprehend you before you commit a crime you don't even know you're going to commit. These factors may explain why reviews and reactions to this scenario, including the references in these recent articles, are almost universally negative.

OysterCard On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Richard Gray on Minority Report-style advertising billboards to target consumers, describing a system being developed by the IBM Smarter Planet program in which RFID chips - using near field communication (NFC) with a range of about 4 inches (10 cm) - are used to identify people. Few additional details are provided about the system, but the technology suggests that some kind of explicit "check-in" will be required in order for people to be identified. The article alludes to the Oyster Cards used in the London Underground and other transportation systems as being a compatible technology, and the recent announcement that all of Nokia's new Symbian phones will come equipped with NFC in 2011 suggests that the availability of NFC-enabled devices will continue to grow. I can imagine a context in which "check-ins" used for one purpose (gaining access to a train platform) could be used for another purpose (targeted advertising on nearby displays and/or speakers). If customers are given the control to explicitly opt in to such a system, and were rewarded - perhaps by subsidized fares associated with their cards (or phones) - then I believe the benefits would be perceived as outweighing the privacy risks for at least some of the potential users.

NEC_NextGenerationDigitalSignageSolution Sunday's article references another Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Hough earlier this year with a similar theme - and a similar title ('Minority Report' digital billboard 'watches consumers shop') - but with a different technology. NEC is developing a Next Generation Digital Signage Solution that combines large displays, video cameras and face recognition software designed to determine the gender and approximate ages of the person or people in front of the display. An AFP report two weeks ago, Tokyo trials digital billboards that scan passers-by, refers to a Digital Signage Promotion Project in which 27 high-tech advertising displays were deployed in commuter stations in Tokyo. I suspect this is a pilot of the NEC system, although NEC is not mentioned anywhere in the report.

While potentially less invasive than the RFID-based approach - inferring age and gender rather than requiring individual identification - the use of cameras may instead be perceived as more invasive, depending on how people believe captured images are being handled, e.g., deleted, saved for internal use only or potentially sold to third parties. There is certainly less control afforded to potential users, aside from cloaking their faces as they pass by. The proposed benefits described in the earlier Daily Telegraph article appear to be targeted primarily toward the advertisers, who potentially will be able to target advertising toward specific demographic groups in proximity to the displays. However, the more recent Telegraph article suggests that personalized advertising might offer indirect benefits to viewers, in that they "may help reduce costs that are passed onto the consumer by reducing the amount of poorly targeted advertising" ... perhaps reflecting progress toward addressing a problem observed by John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.

TrySomethingNewWithOmo Another advertising campaign - costing $1M - seeks to move pervasive personal advertising from public and semi-public places into the home. In an article asking Is Your Detergent Stalking You?, Laurel Wentz at Advertising Age reports that Omo Detergent has inserted GPS devices in 50 boxes of new, improved detergent scattered in stores throughout Brazil. Owners of the special boxes will be tracked down in their homes - or, I suppose, wherever the detergent box comes to rest for a period of time - whereupon they will be presented with a free video camera and invited to participate in a special company-sponsored event. I don't know enough about Brazilian culture to predict how consumers in that country will respond, but given that they are not informed whether or not any particular box of detergent can be tracked - it's a surprise - I can imagine reactions that may range from the kind of ecstatic joy expressed by those contacted by the Prize Patrol unit in Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials to the abject terror felt by those who are tracked down by John Anderton's Pre-Crime unit in Minority Report.

FacebookAdsMuffinTop The Wall Street Journal just launched a series of articles on Internet spyware that may be tracking information through your web browser. In the first installment, The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, Julia Angwin reports that the top 50 web sites installed 3,180 cookies, flash cookies or beacons on computers that visit their web sites, which are then used to either personalize ads shown to the user directly or sold to third parties who aggregate the data. Many users may already be aware of the use of web browser tracking technology, but the extent of the tracking may be disturbing to some, and considerable convenience must be forfeited in order to control the tracking. Perhaps even more disturbing is the potential for the algorithmically personalized advertising to intrude into intimate dimensions of our lives, resulting in psychological harm. The article describes a case of a 17 year old girl whose browsing behavior led to her being [correctly] categorized as someone interested in weight loss programs. Although accurate, the advertising was not always welcome: "I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it." Two years ago, Rachel Beckman wrote a related article for the Washington Post on Facebook ads target you where it hurts, subtitled "My Facebook page called me fat", describing the recurring emotional pain experienced by a user repeatedly exposed to targeted advertising like the Muffin Top ad shown on the right.

The audio and visual advertisements soliciting John Anderton's attention were for products and services that he probably did not mind being associated with - luxury cars, beer and travel to exotic locales. Thinking back to issues I raised about the prospects of personalized, publicly displayed promotions of personal care products in a drug store (represented by OlayForYou screens at WalMart), I wonder what kind of reaction Anderton - and the movie audience - might have to personalized, publicly displayed advertisements for more intimate or personal products and services in a mall - say, Viagra, Hair Club for Men, or WeightWatchers (and as I type these, I can already envision some of the spam comments I'll get on this post).

CoCollage-Trabant Despite my concerns about potential abuses and/or unintended consequences that may arise in an era of increasingly pervasive personalized advertising, I believe that well-designed active environments that can sense and respond to people in contextually appropriate ways can offer benefits that outweigh the risks. My own work on proactive displays has involved the linkage of different sensing technologies - infrared badges, RFID, Bluetooth mobile phones and magetically-striped loyalty cards - to social media sites in order to bring some of the richness of what we share in our online social networks into the physical spaces we share with others. Revealing the interestingness of the people nearby, e.g., through showing their photos on a large display, creates new opportunities for enhanced awareness, appreciation, interactions and relationships. Although some of the users of these prototypes have found them intrusive or otherwise undesireable, many users found them sufficiently advantageous to explicitly opt in, and even those who have not opted in have enjoyed seeing the social media (mostly photos) shared by others on the nearby displays.

One of the challenges we have faced in these systems - which I sometimes describe as bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline - is how to bridge the gap between cool research prototypes to sustainable and pervasive product or service. The only way I can envision this happening is with advertising revenue streams, which is the path we were pursuing with CoCollage. A few of the other current generation digital signage solutions include user-generated social media along with advertiser-generated media in their mix (e.g., LocaModa and Aerva), but I think there is still considerable room for next generation digital signage solutions to provide increased control and benefits for their users, to help compensate for real or perceived risks ... and avoid the currently inevitable comparisons to Minority Report.

Mobile Internet Intent, Action and Inaction

I've recently encountered a number of interesting studies, discussions and disagreements regarding the use of mobile phones to access the Internet. As an iPhone user, I love having the Internet in my pocket, but I often find myself deferring actions that require significant involvement until I have the Internet on my lap, using the larger screen and keyboard of my MacBook Pro. A face-to-face discussion with a friend who, like me, tends to defer reading or acting on long emails - and then often forgetting them entirely - when he sees them on his iPhone, followed by an online discussion with an iPhone user who sees no difference in his Internet-related activities conducted through his iPhone vs. laptop, prompted me to dig a little deeper for broader trends.

image from The online disagreement occurred in a comment exchange on an post seeking input on an upcoming Pew Internet survey on health topics by Susannah Fox. The thread started with a comment on accessing health information via mobile phones, and I joined in with an observation about the shallow skimming I tend to do when accessing information on my iPhone, and projecting that onto the population at large:

What I wonder, though, is how the constrained size and interface of a mobile device affects the willingness of information seekers to delve more deeply – or broadly – into online sources to verify the information they find. I suspect that people who read email on mobile phones vs. laptops / desktops tend to read less of the messages and read / skim them more quickly, and suspect that mobile phone access to other information sources would promote shallower and/or quicker processing.

A short while later, Dennis expressed a different experience and projection:

I think your suppositions about mobile use of resources are unfounded. I hardly ever read email on the laptop anymore. I write all of my longer letters there, but I read most of my email on my iPhone. Why would phone reading and research be any quicker or more cursory than on a large screen? I’ve read whole novels on my phone. Whether I read or look up information on the phone or laptop is more a function of where I am and which tools are available than of the thoroughness with which I intend to study.

In searching for larger-scale studies (at least N > 2) comparing mobile Internet use with use on laptops or desktops, I came across a few reports that may help inform the discussion ... of course, with the caveat that all studies are wrong, but some are useful.

One is the recent Pew Internet report, Mobile Access 2010:

image from

The Pew study breaks down wireless online access into separate activities, and notes that 34% of cell phone users send or receive email via their phones, up from 25% in 2009. The most recent Pew study I know of that investigated email use - Generations Online in 2009 - showed that 91% of online American adults use email, and 81% do research online (though these numbers vary widely based on age group).

Given that 82% of American adults own cell phones (in 2010), and 34% of them use email on cell phones, approximately 28% of all adult Americans send or receive email on cell phones. The 2009 Generations Online study reported that 74% of all Americans go online, and 91% of them use email, so as of a year ago, 67% of all Adult Americans were sending or receiving email through some device. The 2009 report did not break out the use of different devices, but I would estimate that more than 91% of wireless laptop users use email. The 2009 report also noted that 89% of online adult Americans went online to search for information, but I don't see any breakdown of mobile search in the 2010 report.

image from Maryam Kamvar and her colleagues at Google and Stanford published a peer-reviewed paper at the WWW 2009 conference on Computers and iPhones and Mobile Phones, oh my!: A logs-based comparison of search users on different devices [PDF]. The study was based on over 100,000 English language Google search queries issued by over 10,000 users during a 35-day period during the summer of 2008.

The results suggest that search usage is much more focused for the average mobile user than for the average computer-based user. However, search behavior on high-end phones resembles computer-based search behavior more so than mobile search behavior.

Among their findings were that average query lengths and diversity of query topics were nearly identical between desktop and iPhone users, and both were very different from users of other mobile phones. However, the differences in average number of searches per session was more evenly distributed across the three types of platform (i.e., iPhone users were less like computer users in the number of searches per session than in other measures), leading the researchers to speculate that

Perhaps users on mobile devices are more likely to query topics which have a “quick answer” available ... Taking this hypothesis a step further, we suggest that perhaps users are simply unwilling to explore topics in depth as the barriers to exploration (text entry, network latency) increases.

image from Another interesting and relevant study, corroborating the Google study though limited to a U.S. sample population, is the Mobile Intent Index by Ruder Finn. Among the findings:

Mobile phones are not a learning tool. Mobile users (76%) are much less likely than all users (92%) to go online to learn. Learning requires time and patience, something mobile phone users are in short supply of.

  • They (64%) are 1.5 times less likely than the traditional user (96%) to go online to educate themselves
  • They (64%) are 1.4 times less likely than the traditional user (94%) to go online to research.
  • They (95%) are more likely than the traditional user (86%) to go online to keep informed.

I'd mentioned this study in a comment on the aforementioned e-Patients post, but could not find information about the data and methods it was based on. Christina Fallon, a Senior VP at Ruder Finn, was kind enough to send me a copy of the executive summary and fill in some of these details:

Ruder Finn’s Mobile Intent Index is the first study of its kind to examine the underlying motivations or reasons – intents – people have for using their mobile phones. The representative and Census-balanced online study of 500 American adults 18 years of age and older who “use their mobile device to go online or to access the Internet” was conducted in November 2009 by RF Insights among respondents who belong to Western Wats’ large consumer panel, Opinion Outpost. The margin of error is +/- 4.4% (95th confidence interval).

image from The Google and Ruder Finn studies help shed some light on how the use and affordances of different devices affects search behavior with respect to research and learning, but does not address the affect of devices on email use. Another international study, the Epsilon Global Consumer Email Study 2009, offers some additional insights into this dimension of mobile Internet access. The Epsilon study was conducted in conjunction with ROI Research in April 2009 with over 4000 consumer respondents in select countries in North America, Asia Pacific and Europe. One of the interesting regional differences it found was that the proportion of people who use PDAs for Smartphones for email was more than 3 times higher in the Asia Pacific region (32%) than North America (9%) or Europe (7%):


[I suspect that part of the reason for the discrepancy between the numbers in the Pew study (as of 2009, 25% of 74% = 19%) and the Epsilon study (9%) was the focus on smartphones in the Epsilon study; email is accessible on phones that are not smartphones.]

image from Another study was referenced in a June 30, 2010 press release reporting on People More Likely To Spend More Time Reading Email On Mobile Devices. The study was based on an analysis of 14 million email messages tracked by the email marketing analysis firm, Litmus. Among the more interesting findings:

  • Users of iPhones or Android-equipped devices are likely to spend 15% more time reading emails than people using Microsoft Outlook
  • Over 50% of email recipients delete messages within two seconds after opening

I spoke with Paul Farnell, the CEO, earlier today, and he told me the data was based on approximately one month's worth of email sent by the firm's clients; and so it should be noted that the sample is primarily made up of marketing-oriented email rather than a more general set of messages and message sources.

When we discussed the possible explanations for longer reading times, he agreed that it was more likely due to the small screen and extra scrolling required on mobile devices than a reflection of extra care and attention being devoted to email when read on an iPhone or Android. He did not know the breakdown of what I might call the 2-second rule of email across different devices, but I think it would be very interesting to know more about differences in relative propensity toward action (or inaction) when reading email on mobile vs. laptop or desktop devices. For example, are people more or less likely to click on links, reply to and/or forward email when they read it on a mobile device? Paul said he'd look into this, and I'll post an update if / when I find out more ... but I think I've taken sufficient action on my intent to find out - and share - more about mobile Internet use for one day.

Update, 2010-08-09: Paul followed up with a breakdown of email access and action on a mobile vs. desktop computer, based on a larger data set: 54 million email messages sent via the Litmus application. In his data set, 69.87% of email messages were read on a mobile device (e.g., iPhone) vs. only 58.37% of emails read on a desktop device. Other actions were also somewhat more likely on a mobile: 0.42% of emails accessed on mobile device were replied to or forwarded, whereas 0.33% of those accessed via a desktop computer were replied to or forwarded.

Update, 2010-08-02: Nielsen released a report on What Americans Do Online: Social Media and Games Dominate Activity, which shows that email is still the most popular mobile Internet activity. Users spend 41.6% of their mobile Internet time using email, up from 37.4% a year ago, and compared with spending only 8.3% of their total Internet time - across devices - on email.

Update, 2010-08-05: Jeff Pierce, manager of the Mobile Computing Research group at IBM Research Almaden, gave a presentation on Triage and Capture: Rethinking Mobile Email at the Web 2.0 Expo SF 2010 in May. I'd earlier written a post on serendipity platforms, unintended consequences and explosive positivity at Web 2.0 Expo based on some of Day 1 keynotes I'd watched remotely. Jeff's presentation on Day 3 - a video from which is embedded below - appears to be based on two recent tech reports from IBM Research:

Jeff and his colleagues found that there are substantial differences in the patterns of use of mobile email vs. desktop email, in particular, they observed that "mobile email users primarily triage messages (identifying which to delete, which to handle immediately, and which to defer) and defer handling most messages until they reach a larger computer". They also propose guidelines for - and have prototyped - a new approach to integrating mobile email, desktop email and web services to better capture the intended actions and support the "triage" mode in which mobile email is typically processed.

Platforms for Knowledge Re-Presentation: SlideShare and Scribd

webexsf2010 As a remote "participant" at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco this week, I was eager to utilize various online channels for enriching my experience of the knowledge, observations and insights shared by the presenters at the event. During the conference, I watched some of the keynotes on the web20tv LiveStream; now that the conference is over, there is a page with videos and/or slides from many of the talks. Two of the keynotes were by co-founders of web services designed as platforms to share slides and other re-presentations of knowledge - SlideShare and Scribd - and I thought I would re-present some of that knowledge here.

Slideshare_550x150 On Wednesday, Rashmi Sinha, Co-founder and CEO of SlideShare, presented Work Wants to be Social: 5 Things we have Learnt from SlideShare, in which she described SlideShare as a massively multiplayer game, emphasized the importance of the visual dimension of the social web, and echoed the "pivot" theme articulated by Eric Ries during the first day of Web 2.0 Expo keynotes in her exhortation to recognize when it's time to change and be willing to evolve. She then modeled this entrepreneurial adaptability by announcing that SlideShare now allows direct video uploads, adding audio ("slidecasts" - though this may be old news), embedding of presentations and videos on LinkedIn, and has broadened its aim to become "The World's Largest Professional Sharing Community".

Work wants to be social
View more presentations from Rashmi Sinha.

I understand Rashmi's motivation (growth and evolution), and believe that this represents a a strategically important step toward potential exit strategies (e.g., being acquired by LinkedIn). However, I still find the earlier, more focused, mantra of SlideShare - "YouTube for Powerpoint" - more compelling. I have not made many professionally-oriented (or professionally-made) videos, but I would still prefer to upload them to YouTube, as it is a considerably more popular platform, and embed or link to them from SlideShare, to get the best of both worlds. She noted that Eric Ries has posted a few videos to his Startup Lessons Learned SlideShare channel, and it will be interesting to see whether this is a feature that will be widely used by others.

Scribd-logo On Thursday, Jared Friedman, Co-founder and CTO of Scribd, presented HTML5 and the Future of Publishing, in which he described the rationale for the strategic decision made by Scribd to rebuild what he described as the largest document sharing service (10 million documents) to shift from Flash to HTML5. Noting that Flash on the web represents, in effect, a browser within a browser, the Scribd team returned to first principles, asking why do we need a document reader within a browser, and why aren't documents web pages? Give the challenges of rich formatting (positioning, orientation, fonts), they considered converting documents to images, but realized that this would create other problems, e.g., effectively hiding documents by substituting images for text that search engines might index. Offering an alternative - or perhaps orthogonal - perspective to Rashmi Sinha's observation the social web is visual, Jared noted that text is the glue that holds the web together.

Oddly, I could not find the slides Jared used in his presentation - even though there are many other presentations in the web2expo Scribd channel - but I'll embed what appears to be a related slide presentation from Scribd below, to provide context for both the content of his talk and the platform he was talking about.

Scribd in HTML5

I just uploaded my first Powerpoint presentation to the Gumption Scribd channel, a presentation on RFID I gave four years ago (which, given a recent Mashable article on Near Field Communication: 6 Ways It Could Change Our Daily Lives, reminds me that the future is still unevenly distributed). It seems to have many of the same features I enjoy in SlideShare: embeddability, downloadability, easy sharing on many social networking services and statistics about views (or "reads"). Scribd supports a variety of document types beyond presentations, but does not appear to support videos. Like SlideShare, it offers pre-defined categories, but it does not appear to support tags (which I personally find more useful). And, of course, Scribd's migration to HTML5 - the main focus of Jared's talk - could be an increasingly significant differentiator between the two services.

As a disclaimer, I should note that I've been a TiVo-like fanatic about SlideShare since discovering the service over three years ago, and have shared 27 presentations in my Gumption SlideShare channel. The tipping point for me came early on, when a presentation I gave at a PopTech 2007 session on The Future of Mobility - Empowering People through Mobile Technologies in Developing Regions - made it to the SlideShare leaderboard of most popular presentations for a few days shortly thereafter. I have since promoted SlideShare at every conference I've attended - physically or virtually - and recently helped a friend discover the thrill of having a presentation reach #1 on SlideShare.

I have been especially evangelistic at my "home" conferences, UbiComp and CSCW, but have been only modestly successful: the number of presentations posted has increased at UbiComp - UbiComp 2007 (7), UbiComp 2008 (10) and UbiComp 2009 (12) - but decreased at CSCW (which, ironically, is trying to attract more research and researchers in social media) - CSCW 2008 (8) and CSCW 2010 (4). Perhaps this limited success is related to many academics' natural disinclination for shameless self-promotion. I'm glad to see so many presentations from Web 2.0 Expo on SlideShare - and Scribd - and suspect this is partly due to the relatively low proportion of academics who gave talks at the conference: businessfolk are not ashamed of self-promotion.

I believe that knowledge is power, and so am excited about platforms for spreading knowledge like SlideShare and Scribd as empowering technologies ... and will continue to evangelize their use, despite the varying degrees of success I have experienced thus far.

The further commoditization of Twitter followers

A few months ago, I wrote about the commoditization of Twitter followers, after discovering a number of automated, semi-automated and manual strategies that people - and non-human systems - were employing to artificially boost their Twitter follower counts. My earlier discovery was sparked by noticing some unusual numbers in the profiles of some recent followers of my Twitter stream. My latest discovery of yet another Twitter commoditization tool was similarly sparked by the profile of a new follower - who has since unfollowed me - that listed 1,983 followees, 787 followers and only 6 tweets. Clicking through to the Twitter homepage of this new follower revealed that 3 of these 6 tweets referenced TweetAdder, a tool that promises to "get more followers, instantly".

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TweetAdder appears to be slightly less cynical than, the fully automatic reciprocal following system I referenced in my earlier post, wherein new users who signup are automatically followed by all existing users, and automatically reciprocally follow all existing users. However, it does include the phrase "twitter follower bot" in the title field of the image used to promote the product.

[Update, 05-Apr-2012: Twitter has filed a lawsuit against TweetAdder and four other entities I would categorize as providing "spamware as a service".]

TweetAdder, the self-proclaimed "Ferrari of Twitter Friend Adder and Promotion Software", is a semi-automatic follower acquisition tool, relying on the reflexive reciprocal "follow back" response exhibited by a signifcant proportion of Twitter users (TweetAdder claims that this represents 30%-50% of Twitter users). After purchasing the software, users need to spend some time with targeting Twitter users that they want to lure into reciprocally following them, e.g., by specifying keywords, locations and/or other Twitter users whose followers they want to reach. The software purportedly provides for automating tweets and direct messages ... I wonder if future versions will provide for automatic retweets of targeted prospective followers, as I imagine that would be an even more effective lure.


At first, I thought "well, at least this is not yet another Ponzi scheme", but then I found that TweetAdder offers an "affiliates program" in which users are purportedly paid $10 to sign up, 50% commission on direct sales referrals and 10% on affiliates' sales referrals. The TweetAdder purchase page includes an icon for the SC Magazine Awards 2009, "organized to honor the professionals, companies and products that help fend off the myriad security threats confronted in today's corporate world". However, searching for "tweetadder" and "tweet adder" on the SC Magazine site returned 0 results. If SC Magazine does write an article about TweetAdder, I wonder how they would portray the product.

As in my earlier post, I want to explicitly state that this post is intended as a critique, not an endorsement, of such automated Twitter follower acquisition schemes. I was surprised to discover that TweetAdder was endorsed in an NBC News piece by Mike Wendland on Handy apps to help manage your Twitter account. Immediately following a reference to "lots of tips and tricks and scams out there", Wendland says "The best tool I've found is a program called TweetAdder." The end of the piece includes a link to his web site and his Twitter handle (@pcmike). I wonder if @pcmike, who has approximately 6000 followees and 8000 followers, is a member of the TweetAdder affiliates program.

The mainstream media has given considerable attention to a recent Pew Center for People and the Press survey that revealed that Americans have an increasingly negative view of government (25% positive, 65% negative). I think it's important to note, in this context, that the same survey revealed that Americans have an increasingly negative view of the national news media (31% positive, 57% negative) ... and, somewhat ironically, a rather positive view of small businesses (71% positive, 19% negative) and technology companies (68% positive, 18% negative). Perhaps future surveys might break out a new category of "Twitter-based companies" or "social media companies".

Public Negative Views of Institutions, Pew Research, April 2010

Co-promotion Reconsidered: The Recursive Attraction of Attention

Amybeth Hale, a Talent Attraction Manager with AT&T’s Interactive Staffing team, wrote a great primer on 4 Essential Traits for Social Media Success in your Career, which was recently posted on Mashable. The four traits are:

  1. Develop authentic relationships
  2. Be a digital trendsetter
  3. Take risks
  4. Give back (and/or pay it forward)

I think there is one important trait missing:

  1. Reference other people who attract social media attention

Although it might qualify as a corollary to #4 (Give Back), I think it's important enough to give it separate billing, as I've noticed many people who appear to be successful at attracting attention in the social media world, especially Twitter, exhibit this trait. When that attention is amplified through retweeting by those whose attention was initially attracted, it represents a recursive attraction of attention. And few practices are more effective at attracting attention than referencing someone in a blog post or tweet (not that this is necessarily the primary goal in referencing someone, but I suspect it is rarely an unwanted side effect).

Amybeth herself demonstrated the value of this essential trait in her post, referencing 16 people, each of whom has more than 1,000 followers on Twitter (and some of whom have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers), and 8 of whom tweeted or retweeted the post.

Name Twitter ID Following Followers Listed Tweets Retweeted?
Amybeth Hale @ResearchGoddess 1,163 4,808 198 34,873 yes
Elisa Camahort @ElisaC 780
4,430 145 20,945 no
Keith Burtis @KeithBurtis 8,752 10,520 365 75,767 yes
Chris Brogan @ChrisBrogan 106,679 121,009 8,379 181,423 no
Amanda Mooney @AmandaMooney 997 4,048 135 21,022 yes
Dan Honigman @DanielHonigman 3,949 6,048 860 22,106 no
Jennifer Leggio @mediaphyter 906 15,352 1,139 87,870 yes
Kaitlyn Wilkins @CatchUpLady 894 1,693 55 3,033 no
Dave Knox @DaveKnox 1,333 5,631 456 2,221 no
Kipp Bodnar @kbodnar32 2,684 3,904 282 26,995 yes
Venessa Miemis @VenessaMiemis 901 2,317 363 2,166 yes
Jessica Randazza @JessicaRandazza 1,976 3,258 187 13,932 yes
Laura Roeder @lkr 460 7,616 350 21,864 no
Kneale Mann @KnealeMann 11,254 12,973 304 34,218 yes
Ken Burbary @KenBurbary 6,950 7,211 805 32,143 no
Len Kendall @LenKendall 2,544 5,630 490 54,775 no
Sarah Evans @PRsarahevans 10,157 38,325 2,824 47,747 yes

The combined Twitter followership of the 16 people is nearly 250,000 (though I'm sure there is considerable overlap in their sets of followers); while only 8 of them tweeted or retweeted the post, that represents a potential amplification of attention beyond Amybeth's followers of up to 90,000 followers (modulo the aforementioned overlap). Now, with @Mashable's followership of 1,956,431, I'm not sure how many additional users lie in the set difference between Mashable followers and the combined followers of all those referenced in the article, but I still believe the social media value of the trait holds, as not everyone posts articles on Mashable.

Four years ago, I wrote about Co-Promotional Considerations: Customerizing and The Brand "Us", in which I described the practices of Jones Soda and Luna Bars, which respectively incorporate photos or quotes from their customers on their labels, representing what I called a customerization of their [co-]promotional campaigns:

I had earlier speculated on the evolving nature of promotional considerations as new social marketing channels arise, noting possible conflicts of interest that may diminish the potential impact of some of these channels (e.g., how much can we trust reviews by people who may derive direct financial benefit from the products or services they are reviewing).  What I particularly like about the Jones and Luna customerization techniques is that they are really co-promotional: customers whose visual or verbal content is co-opted for use on labels can promote themselves (and/or their loved ones) along with the product(s) they are telling people about.  Neither Jones nor Luna offers any financial incentive to people whose content is chosen for co-promotion on their labels; the wealth they are sharing is attentional rather than financial.




As I noted in that earlier post, I think the practice of co-promotion can be a positive thing, although that is not always the case. For example, in the academic world, researchers often employ defensive citation in conference and journal papers - citing work by peers who may be reviewing their submissions, partly or even primarily for the purpose of assuring that those peers do not feel slighted by the omission of what the reviewers may consider to be relevant work to the submission. A related practice, gratuitous citation, is sometimes employed to flatter or compliment other researchers, especially prominent or senior researchers, with an aim to curry favor with the powers that be.

I don't mean to suggest that most - or even many - citations (or authors) are defensive or gratuitous, but it is a fact of life (or work) in many domains that one must be careful to please - or avoid angering - the people in positions to potentially promote you, and so I don't think anyone would dispute that these considerations factor into some submissions [and I never thought about the double entendre of that word in this context]. And since the most prominent and senior researchers tend to be the ones who sit on program committees and editorial review boards, there is an unavoidable Matthew effect, wherein the rich get richer ... or more precisely, those with many citations (and hence prominence) are cited more often. 

In my last post, I expressed some concerns about the commoditization of Twitter followers [about which I was tempted to post the tweet "How to Write a Blog Post that Won't Get Tweeted"]. One of the things I mentioned was the growing plethora of various tools and techniques attempt to measure Twitter influence. The quest for [evidence of] attention and impact is not restricted to social media (although, in a way, I supppose that academic publications could be considered a special case of social media). For example, Harzing's "Publish or Perish" tool is designed to measure academic influence:

Are you applying for tenure, promotion or a new job? Do you want to include evidence of the impact of your research? Is your work cited in journals which are not ISI listed? Then you might want to try Publish or Perish, designed to help individual academics to present their case for research impact to its best advantage.

Returning to the recursive attraction of attention in social media, I want to be clear that I do not mean to suggest that Amybeth's blog post is either defensive or promiscuous. In fact, I chose it primarily because I think it is a well-written article that provides an engaging overview with helpful examples of best practices ... and given that its aim is to highlight those practices, I thought it may be useful to use it as another helpful example of an important practice in the successful use of social media ... especially if one of the metrics of success is attention.

DarkTwitterBird-reversed One of my posts that has attracted the most attention is on the dark side of digital backchannels in shared physical spaces back in early December. As in Amybeth's post, I also referenced a number of people prominent in the social media world, e.g., danah boyd (@zephoria, with 22,669 followers), Brady Forest (@brady, with 6,169 followers), Scott Berkun (@berkun, with 3,267 followers) and Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang, with 59,141 followers). I know that danah and Scott retweeted my post, but don't know if Brady, Jeremiah or anyone else I referenced did. I would have used that post as the strawman here, but finding tweets that old would be challenging; using Amybeth's post was far more convenient, and - given its focus on social media best practices (vs. some of the worst practices I was highlighting) - more relevant.

I keep grappling with the issue of appropriate attraction of attention. I believe that some level of attention is necessary to survive - if we don't attract the attention (and affection) of our parents or other caretakers as infants, we will die. In my blog post on coffee, community and health, I wrote about some of the health benefits we derive later in life from the attention of consequential strangers and acquaintances, such as we might enjoy at coffeehouses and other third places. But as Don Miguel Ruiz warns in the Introduction to The Four Agreements:

With that fear of being punished and that fear of not getting the reward [of attention from our parents, teachers, siblings and friends], we start pretending to be what we are not, just to please others, just be good enough for someone else.

Again, I'm not suggesting that anyone I've mentioned here is pretending to be what they are not, but I do want to highlight the risk of becoming addicted to attention.

I'll conclude with another risk regarding attention and social media (as well as the fragmentation resulting from multi-tasking), which was articulated in an interview with Cliff Nass, part of which was broadcast on PBS Frontline's Digital Nation earlier this week:

One of the biggest points here I think is, when I grew up, the greatest gift you could give someone was attention, and the best way to insult someone was to ignore them. ... The greatest gift was attention. Well, if we're in a society where the notion of attention as important is breaking apart, what now is the relationship glue between us? Because it's always been attention.

I've already written elsewhere about my reflections on issues of ambivalence and attention raised in Digital Nation, in response to an insightful critique by Cathy Davidson on The Digital Nation Writes Back, so I'll do my best to approximate one of the social media best practices that I rarely use - keep it simple, keep it short - and end this here.

Strands Labs Seattle, A Retrospective

New sign for Strands Labs Seattle On October 1, Strands Labs Seattle effectively closed. With the tightening economy, our parent company, Strands, has decided to focus its resources on its three primary business units - Strands Business Solutions, Strands Personal Finance (moneyStrands) and Strands Social Discovery ( The CoCollage application that we developed in the Seattle lab continues to be supported by Tyler Phillipi, our Business Development Manager, who will continue to develop business prospects for the system: generating revenue by selling advertising on our network of 23 community displays around Seattle. However, further sociotechnical research, design and development activities have been suspended. Our former Tech Lead has left the firm to join another startup company down in the SF Bay area, our former Lead Designer has been reassigned to support one of Strands' three core business units, and our former Principal Instigator (me) is now, in effect, an instigator without portfolio. I've had some time to work through most of the first four stages of grief, and as part of the fifth and final stage - acceptance - I wanted to engage in some personal reflection on this latest chapter of my professional life.

Shortly after joining Strands (then called MyStrands), I defined the mission upon which we were preparing to embark:

To design, develop and deploy technologies that weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions to bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds and help people relate to the other people, places and things around them in ways that offer value to all participants.

As we converged on an application designed to manifest this mission, we iteratively pared it down to a more manageable mouthful:

Cultivating community in great, good places

CoCollage-Screenshot CoCollage-Trabant The application we created, CoCollage, was designed to promote conversation and connection in coffeehouses and other community-oriented places by showing a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded by customers and staff to a special website on a large display in that place ... or, as I sometimes like to put it, CoCollage is a place-based social networking system designed to bridge the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between their online and offline worlds.

The initial design and deployment of CoCollage at Trabant Coffee in Seattle's University District - two blocks from our now-former office - in August 2008 was reasonably successful, attracting hundreds of users who uploaded thousands of photos and quotes. Our interactions with the owners, staff and customers - through a combination of semi-structured interviews, online and offline surveys, and other sources of online and offline feedback - provided a number of insights, many of which are captured in a paper on "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", which we presented at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009), the slides from which are included below.

These insights were also incorporated into a second version of the system, released in November 2008, just in time for our expansion into four additional coffeehouses in Seattle: Tougo, Neptune, Kaladi and All City. We continued our expansion throughout the first quarter of 2009, partnering with a total of 20 venues by April, incrementally adding new features to support conversation and connection, as well as the integrated advertising - on the large displays and on the web sites associated with each venue - that we hoped would eventually support CoCollage as a profitable product for Strands. While most of our new venue partners are coffeehouses or cafes, we also started working with other types of third places, including a bookstore, a bar, two restaurants, a barbershop and a religious community center.

During the second quarter, however, we encountered some unexpected turbulence. Our initial goal was for the advertising to come only from local businesses: ideally, independent "mom & pop" stores within walking distance of our venue partners. Just as each CoCollage instance was designed to provide a window into the commonalities and diversities among individual members of its community - helping customers and staff better appreciate the interestingness of the people around them - the advertising component was intended to provide a window into the relevance of local businesses - helping people better appreciate the value small businesses right around the corner had to offer. Unfortunately, selling advertising to small businesses - many of which had little or no experience with traditional advertising, much less a new-fangled approach to advertising on a community display and web site - turned out to be far more challenging and time-consuming than we'd anticipated.

Others have commented more extensively on the challenges of hyperlocal advertising, and I'm reminded of a remark made by Scott Svenson at NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005 about one of the greatest strengths he and his co-founder at Seattle Coffee Company (acquired by Starbucks in 2003) benefited from was what they didn't know (e.g., they didn't realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted [at that time] ... and even Starbucks is still learning about a sustainable number of stores). In any case, we relaxed our advertising constraints, shifting from community-based to community-oriented, hoping to tap into a broader base of potential advertisers while still maintaining relevance to the communities with whom we we were working.

We finally succeeded in signing a significant advertising contract in the third quarter, but by then there were other, external pressures mounting: the continuing recession was creating increasing constraints on Strands. The company had created two innovation labs in late 2007 / early 2008 - one in New York City, the other in Seattle - and had also funded a smaller innovation project in the fall of 2008. By the summer of 2009, the company decided to focus its resources on the three larger, more established, business units, which were producing the most revenue, or expected to produce the most revenue in the near term. Prospects for spinning off the other projects into new, separate companies were discussed, but in the case of Strands Labs Seattle, we were unable to converge on terms acceptable to all parties.

Although I've been reading more about the perils of positive thinking, I remain an irrepressible optimist. While I'm sad about the dissolution of Strands Labs Seattle, I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given to create and lead - or, as I like to put it, "instigate" - a research lab: defining a vision, hiring and working with some amazing people, finding and furbishing a fabulous office (and deck), and producing a prototype that progressed so far down the productization pathway. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to work closely with so many owners, staff and customers of independent coffeehouses and other third places around Seattle. It has been an honor, a privilege and a delight to engage in such a variety of conversations and connections that have been cultivated through our collaborations on CoCollage.

Recommender Systems in Retail Stores: Bridging the Gaps between eCommerce and Physical Shopping

Advertising Age posted an article yesterday on Olay Translates Killer Online App to Retail Aisles, describing some recent trial deployments of special kiosks in physical stores that give shoppers access to online recommender systems. These systems have access to online representations of offline inventories - or, at least, product lines typically carried - in the stores, and help bring some of the advantages of electronic commerce (e.g., more detailed information and personalized recommendations on products) to bricks and mortar stores.

Shoppers - online and offline - often suffer from the paradox of choice: a range of options so vast that it can feel overwhelming (e.g., the "250 varieties of cookies, 75 iced teas, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals and 40 toothpastes" that Barry Schwartz mentions in his TED presentation on the topic) and result in low customer satisfaction, regardless of which option is selected. Recommender systems help people navigate broad ranges of options in the digital world, but without the assistance of a salesperson, there has been little help for shoppers in physical stores ... until recently.

For the growing number of consumers who prefer the online experience to traditional shopping, the ease of finding products and getting recommendations clearly is a draw, said Carter Cast. Mr. Cast, a former CEO of and head of strategy for Wal-Mart Stores in the U.S., became CEO of fledgling specialty online retailer Netshops late last year.

Because of expectations created by web shopping, consumers increasingly expect offline stores to have the goods they want and make them easy to find, Mr. Cast said. "So the ante is raised in the physical world."

In an effort to meet these expectations, Procter & Gamble has developed and deployed a version of their popular Olay For You online recommender system (tag line: "a little about Olay, a lot about you") that bridges the gap between the wealth of online personalized information and the experience of customers in offline WalMart stores. In either case - visiting the web site or at a WalMart kiosk - users characterize their general wants and needs, selecting from among options such as

  • I want to see a visible improvement in my skin
  • I'm happy with my skin but want to help it be the best it can be
  • I want to look good for a special occasion
  • I want to keep up with the latest skin care products

and then progressively reveal more specifics about themselves (e.g., their age, their skin type and color, whether they are experiencing hormonal changes, and other lifestyle issues such as "not enough 'me' time"), until the system recommends a skin care product that is deemed likely to be right for them. Screenshots of my profile and recommended Olay products can be seen below.



The strictly online version offers the capability of optionally remembering the user's profile (associated with their email address); it's not clear from the article whether or how the kiosk version, designed by Talk Me Into It ("GPS for the overwhelmed buyer") allows this, nor whether it allows offline shoppers to access their previously created online profiles at the kiosks, nor even whether the system has real-time access to the store's inventory. And, of course, it remains to be seen how willing customers will be to reveal some of the personal details the online recommender system asks when they are interacting with the system in a public setting like a retail store aisle.

Another system mentioned in the article is the Search Engine in the StoreTM developed by Evincii. The description of the system on Evincii's web site articulates a rather comprehensive value roposition:

Evincii's in-store search engine recommends precise and relevant products to consumers in brick-and-mortar and online stores. Our network delivers an interactive, targeted, search-based platform at the point of decision with proven, category-wide and brand-specific sales lift. Shoppers receive personalized advice in seconds. Retailers get happy customers, improved sales efficiency, and increased margins. Product manufacturers get the opportunity to present their products to individual shoppers just before the point of purchase.

EvinciipharmassistadageAccording to the article, one Evincii kiosk system, which I believe is [cleverly] named "PharmAssist", has been deployed in Longs Drugs stores in California (Evincii is headquartered in Mountain View) since 2006, and includes targeted advertising as part of their search capability:

Johnson & Johnson is an initial advertiser on the system, which allows advertisers to place ads similar to online display ads, including video, around search results.

But like Google or other search engines, Evincii looks to return "organic" results only based on the criteria shoppers input, such as their symptoms, said Charles Koo, CEO of the private-equity-backed venture. Then, once they've selected a product, the kiosk helps them locate it on the shelf.

I don't know anything about the full range of advertising available for inclusion with "organic" search results, but I find myself musing about how Longs' customers might respond to video advertisements for  "sensitive" products such as Trojan condoms or Ex-lax ... especially if the advertisements include an audio component. The AdAge article also expresses some skepticism.

Mr. Koo, however, said Evincii's research at Longs indicates that 15% to 18% of visitors to OTC-drug departments use the kiosks, numbers similar to those that ComScore found last year of consumers who use online search to research package goods. Stores using the kiosks, he said, had category sales lifts of 3% to 6%.

My observations and judgments are markedly different from those shared by Evincii. Although I don't recall visiting a Longs Drugs store in California during the last two years, I'm reminded of how annoying I found a kiosk deployed at another drug store - I think it was a Walgreens - on El Camino Real in Palo Alto. Whenever anyone got near, the kiosk would loudly offer "Can I help you find something?". While I was there waiting for a prescription to be filled, about a year ago, I informally observed the kiosk for about 15 minutes - from a safe distance - and while I heard the audio offer of assistance at least a dozen times, no one stopped to take advantage of the offer and interact with the kiosk ... and I wondered how many other customers, like me, avoided that section of the aisle like the plague.

Despite having some reservations about some of the examples reported in the AdAge article, I do think that bridging the gaps between online [commerce] and offline [shopping] holds great promise in general. The art - and science - is to design the bridges in a way that offers compelling value to all stakeholders, and to situate them in the kinds of spaces where that value can best be realized.

[Update, 2008-06-05]

I received an email from a reader with more information about the OlayForYou system and the kiosks deployed in stores. The reader would prefer not to be identified, but is willing to permit me to share the information from the email:

  • The OlayForYou system does not track behavior over time, a key feature of many recommender systems.
  • The system was designed around the concept of "buy soon" - rather than "buy now" -  a shopping list you could cross off one item at a time as your budget allowed.
  • The kiosks used Rivet Digital Touch Screens and were deployed in WalMart stores. The reader was not sure where, how many or whether they are still in use. The kiosks do not have network connectivity, and so have no access to personal profiles or real-time inventory.
  • The kiosk questions are simpler than those on the web site, due to time and privacy constraints of in-store use.

Many thanks to the reader who offered the additional information!