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March 2008 Archives

March 6, 2008

Ask Jeanette?

The news from the butler's former home seems grim. Ask.com recently announced layoffs of 8% of its workforce and a new focus on its core audience: married women. The response from the blogosphere? Danny Sullivan wrote their obituary. Not good.

While I, like most people, am a regular non-user of Ask, it doesn't mean the company doesn't bring back some fond memories for me. I actually remember first hearing about Ask Jeeves from the razor ads in the 90's that featured the company. To be honest, I don't remember the name of the razor company that the ad's were promoting - presumably schick or gillette - but I do remember Ask Jeezes and their employees being featured in them.

Anyway, fast forward to 2004 and Ask.com was the first news feed deal I did at Topix. It was a tough sell as Moreover was supplying them their news feeds, but we managed to get them to use our local feeds. Cash wise it was pretty much a non-event for Topix, but from a PR perspective it was a big win. Likewise, it changed the perception of the company. While at the time we were still 6 guys working out of a trophy store in Palo Alto, but that was only for us to know. After the Ask deal, the market saw us a player. Big win.

Over the years we had many chance to meet and talk with the Ask.com folks. Jim Lanzone, Ryan Massie, Gary Price all good, smart guys. When Jim left, I knew something was up though. Despite maintaining (its albeit small) market share over the years, being the only search company out there who actually tries to differentiate and being part of a company that actually makes its money online, the blogosphere is now burying them. Kind of weird.

Before we shovel the last pile of dirt on their grave though, let's just take a look at their idea to focus the site on their core audience of married women. Danny shrugs it off, saying the market has never shown that there needs to be a women's search engine. For women, by women, about women - if you will. He is right, their is no indication women need a different product.

But, want and need and different things. Is it really such a crazy idea to segment a market by demographic. Car companies all have the same essential product - four tires, and engine and a steering wheel - yet they create market segments for themselves. That's what marketing is really all about - segmenting, differentiating branding.

So you can do that for things like cars, movies, music, etc. but not a search engine? I don't buy it. There's really only one "right" answer to a query like "home improvement"? My wife and I beg to differ. We really expect/ want different results.

I wrote an entry a while ago where I pondered the idea of search companies being designed for certain segments. Seems like Ask is going down this road. I'm not sure its such a bad strategy.

March 10, 2008

Bizarro World 1992

I'm really not into politics. I think this is a direct result of having worked politics a couple of years in Washington, DC (many years ago) and seeing how the sausage there is made. But with that, like everyone else, I do get captured by good political theater. And this year's Democratic race has been great theater.

I actually remember quite vividly 1992, the year the country first contemplated electing a Clinton to the national scene. Clinton the 1st (Bill) was at the time best known as an inexperienced candidate (his service being limited to Arkansas state politics) who gave one of THE most boring political speeches ever (the 1988 Democratic national convention speech).

His opponent on the other hand, was a different matter. Bush the 1st was the sitting President of the US. In addition, he was a former Vice President, congressman from Texas, ambassador and director of the CIA. During his tenure as President and Vice President, the US had won 1 cold war and 2 real wars (Panama and Gulf War I), come out of a vicious recession and set the ground work for one of the most comprehensive free trade agreements in history. Pretty impressive.

Looking at their resumes, 1992 hardly seemed like a fair fight. But we all know what happened - the governor of Arkansas became the 42nd President of the United States.

So what happened? How did David upset Goliath? What was the slingshot? Call it whatever you like - messaging, positioning, marketing, branding - but that's where the answer lies.

Most people don't have the time or the inclination to understand the different nuanced approaches each candidate has on issues like health care, taxes, etc. But they don't need to. Issue stances are the ingredient lists on the box cover. Sure the candidate needs to know them, but that's not what sells. People don't buy paper towels because of the grade of fiber in the towel, they buy Bounty because its the quicker picker upper. Campaigns are no different. They need to give people a reason to vote for their candidate - and that's not the ingredients list. Pick a word and own it.

In 1992, Clinton was the became the candidate of change. He was literally the guy from Hope (Ark.). He was the heir to Camelot - remember the video of him shaking Jack Kennedy's hand when he was a kid? His campaign song was Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. And what was the problem he was going to solve? Why, the economy stupid. He was young, energetic, optimistic and likeable. That was his brand. He knew the details but didn't run on them.

His opponent, on the other hand, was the candidate of the past. His accomplishments were many and his campaign's chief attribute was his resume. He had a resume, experience and judgment. Unfortunately, none of that mattered. He got positioned as establishment guy who broke his "no new taxes" pledge. And we all know how that campaign ended.

Anyway, I bring this up because as I look at today's Democratic race it seems like a bizarro world 1992. Did Hilary really learn nothing from he husband? (Or from pretty much EVERY OTHER modern presidential campaign?) The candidate of hope, optimism and vision always wins. People want to be inspired, they want to be LED. That's what they expect from their leaders - that's the job of being a leader. Bill knew this. He acted like a president, not a middle manager policy wonk. Don't stop thinking abut tomorrow, it'll soon be here.

Can you imagine Bill Clinton running an ad asking American's whether they want an inexperienced person answering the phone at 3 Am? Or asking what his opponent had accomplished in the Senate? No. Those are bad arguments. Bill was all about sunshine, and optimism and the future. Unfortunately for Hilary, as far as 2008 goes, those are the brand of her opponent.

March 13, 2008

AOL to Users: We've Got you Surrounded

I'm trying to figure this AOL - Bebo thing out. No, not the $850M price, although that is interesting. Almost 3 years ago Rupert Murdoch pays $560 million for the then rising star MySpace. Two years later, new star of the net Facebook gets valued at $15 billion. Now AOL pays $850M for Bebo, the little social network you think you heard of but no one you know uses. It's the second largest UK social network. Hmmmm.

AOL is an interesting company. Ever since merging with Time Warner, it seems like they're perpetually on the block. First, Google doesn't want to lose their search business so they invest $1B for 5% of the company. Next, with Yahoo under a bit of pressure itself, the idea of combining it with AOL has come up. Even the CEO of Time Warner says the company's in play.

Usually, this type of "activity" has a paralyzing effect on the company. Internally, no one has any directional sense so no one takes ownership of new initiatives. Externally, with the future ownership being so uncertain, people don't feel comfortable doing deals. Not AOL though. They keep trucking on. $850M in cash has a way of convincing people otherwise I guess.

Anyway, so what's in it for AOL. What do they get for their $850 million. Well, since AOL sells two things - access and ads - and this deal has nothing to do with access, then they're buying impressions. Presumably targeted impressions. Because people reveal so much about themselves on their social network pages (age, location, interest, etc.), the thought is that these impressions are more valuable than generic page impressions from a CPM standpoint. Thus far, this has not proven to be the case, but that could change in the future.

But, with respect to AOL, how much MORE targeted can they get. First, for their access customers, they already know all sorts of information about them. Their names, locations, email addresses, REAL addresses, time spent online, their credit card number, etc. On top of this, AOL just bought Tacoda for a crap load of money. Tacoda is a behavioral targeting ad network. They watch where you go and then serve you up ads based on your surfing.

Oh yeah, AOL also owns Ad.com - one of the biggest ad networks out there. I've advertised with Ad.com before - they too sell demographic and targetted buys. On top of that AOL bought Quigo - the text ad provider. Text ads are the ones most people click on and Quigo tracks.

Imagine being an AOL access customer, a more closely watched web surfer doesn't exist. Now add Bebo.com users to this mix. They have their data to target ads with too. OK, we get it. You like user info. Makes sense. Now if you actually do something prodcutive with it, perhaps you might not be on the block....

March 18, 2008

Crash Course On the Subprime Crisis

This preso manages to be entertaining, humorous, sad and accurate all in one fell swoop. Definitely worth the three minutes of your time. Check it out....

Subprime Mortgage Cartoon

March 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Economies

Its seems that the world is very Dickens-esque these days - simultaneously, the best of times and the worst of times. A recent peak at some of the latest headlines: the dollar continues to sink to new lows, oil prices continue to soar to new heights, venerable financial institutions literally disappear off the face of the earth overnight, the housing market is so bad that people are torching their homes because they're worth more burnt than standing. People are actually speculating that our banks are riskier than Nigerian banks. Sounds like the worst of times indeed.

But the best of times? Well, yeah. You would think that all of this would have a major impact on economy. But it just doesn't seem to be the case - yet, anyway. Unemployment numbers seems to be pretty stable. Thanks to the Fed, interest rates are actually shrinking. Yes, gas prices are high - but other than that inflation seems to be in check. Even the IPO market came roaring back with an $18 billion IPO from Visa - the largest ever.

Heck, the only folks that seem to be suffering these days are the burglars and that's because there's no market for their stolen goods ("everybody has everything now" is the quote of a frustrated thief). For the rest of us, that's a good problem to have.

Of course I could be missing the boat and this could just be the off-base personal oberavations from someone living in the bay area bubble. Remember this is the place where the housing market continues to stay the course (for now), layoffs are more rumor than fact and VC's and start-ups continue to thrive. But I don't think so.

I don't hear anything different from my friends scattered across the country. It seems to me that the response to the financial calamity that is occurring before our very eyes is a collective shrug. Not that I'm advocating anything different. It just seems, well, odd.

So these are the best of times and the worst of times then. Fine. I can live with that. In fact it's good. No harm, no foul. Everyone keeps on keeping on. Great. That works for me. No problemo. Um.....so why am I nervous?

March 25, 2008

Contextualizing to the Web, Not the Page

Ever notice you don't hear any ads for clothes when you listen to the radio? Flip through a magazine, they're everywhere. On the radio, non-existent. The reason is obvious: clothes are visual and the radio is not. The point is that not all things are meant to be advertised on all mediums.

I wrote a bit about this the other day when I asked whether brand advertisers were actually going to migrate to the web. Everyone presumes they will - what, with TV viewers, newspaper readers and radio listeners each shrinking daily. The logic being that if those forms of media continue to decline audience wise, brand advertisers will have to go to the web because it'll be the only game in town - or one of a few anyway.

Lately when I've been thinking about contextual advertising, I haven't been thinking about it in terms of how an ad can be made contextual to the content of a web page, but rather how and if an ad is and can be contextual to the web period. In other words, what products and services are conducive to web advertising in general, never mind the form?

The obvious answer to that question are those things that are related to the web. Everyday people come to the web to read, write, watch and listen to certain classes of products and services. If your in those businesses, the web is a great medium. For instance, if your sitting in Hollywood and want to have your next picture promoted online, you should feel good. There are all sorts of paces that people go to watch trailers, get reviews, discuss plots, gossip about stars, etc. that are perfect outlets for your advertising. Same with cars, books, etc.

But what if you make soap? Or toothpaste? Or whiskey? Or shoelaces? Where's the right place to advertise those online? Sure you could do some banner ad buy and hope that some percentage of people actually notice your ad, but since they they won't, it'll be ineffective. So is the web the right place for you to spend marketing dollars? Probably not. Unless you can find people actively looking for informtation on your product - i.e. Google. Other than that, shampoo ads online seem like clothes ads on the radio: out of place.

So what does all this mean? Well, as soap, toothpaste, etc. ads can be contextualized to the TV and the radio (the passive viewing experience), there are advertising dollars spent there. But when you're sizing up the web advertising market in the future, I'm not sure you can include all of the old TV, radio and newspaper spends. Some things might not make it.

March 26, 2008

Talking Pills

Many years ago, stealing a page from Lewis Carroll, Grace Slick sang about a pill that makes you larger and another that makes you small. If such pills existed, their effects would be immediate and noticeable by all. Unfortunately, that's not the case with most pills. While the effect a medication has on the body is apparent over time, real time information is not available. For now.

There's a company that's just a stone's throw from our offices here at Blekko called Proteus Biomedical that is trying to change all of that. Their device, called the Raisin, aims to provide real time data feedback on the effects that medication has on the body, once taken. How do they do that?

In the Raisin system, each pill contains an "ingestible event marker" (IEM). The IEM consists of a sand-grain-size microchip with a thin-film battery that is activated on ingestion, as it is exposed to water. The battery, Proteus says, is nontoxic because it is made from materials similar to those in a vitamin pill. Once swallowed, the IEM sends through the body's tissues a high-frequency electrical current that's modulated in such a way that it provides a unique marker of the pill. It's not an RFID technology: it uses the conductive tissues of the body to conduct the signal, rather than a radio, and the signal is confined within the body.

Pretty cool, eh? If nothing else, just being able to have some sort of compliance monitoring for whether or not people are actually taking their pills or not would be a big win. According to the above linked article, 40 percent of hospital readmissions for heart failure happen because patients fail to take their medications properly. This sounds like health care reform we can all get behind.

Anyway, kudos to Proteus on their development - and kudos to my friend Rob (the ex-satellite designer) who has done a lot of the design work on raisin.

March 31, 2008

Yahoo Name Clouds Shine

The big news today is that Yahoo launched a new site in its network, one that is designed for women. Ignoring the arguments over conflict of interest, on its face this seems like a good idea.

If you look at the magazine rack, its consists almost entirely of women's magazines. Vogue, Cosmo, Lucky, etc., etc. all have one reader in mind: women in their 20's and 30's. Flip from the magazine rack to the online world and the translation is lost. The online world is filled with content sites targeting men in their 20's and 30's like Techcrunch, Techmeme, etc. Other than Jezebel and a few others, there's not much out there for women.

So, good move Yahoo - see a hole in the market and go after it. You have the advertiser base and the content team to which you can sell a whole new demo. Great move. Except for one thing: you blew it.

How? Bad content? Bad layout? Nah - those problems can be overcome. They blew it with the branding. Shine - ok, kinda like the name. Happy, interesting, unencumbered, not bad. So what happens when someone tells me to go check out this new site called "shine." I of course go to shine.com. Unfortunately that's a parked domain, not Yahoo's new site. If instead I decide to Google "shine" in hopes of reaching it, well, the Yahoo site barely makes it above the fold. Why is this? Because Yahoo's shine is located at shine.yahoo.com . Ugh.

Like everywhere else, brands matter online, and like it or not a brand starts (but it doesn't end) with a URL. The URL is the translation of the name, and so it is the name (just the .com of course, the rest don't matter - .net, .info, etc. haven't entered the lexicon). It needs to stand alone.

You'd think they would have learned this lesson by now. Yahoo has strong consumer recognition of its name, but not a strong brand. One of the reasons for this is that they insist on hanging every single property they own off of the Yahoo name. Autos.yahoo.com, finance.yahoo.com, news.yahoo.com - all good properties in their own right, but together have the net effect of collectively rendering the Yahoo name meaningless and individually stripping each property of an identity. Now, add shine.yahoo.com to the pile.

In fact, from a brand perspective, what is the only Yahoo brand that continues to have meaning and, not coincidentally, continues to be the market leader? I'd say its flickr. Guess what? Flickr sits on its own url, not folded into something silly like pictures.yahoo.com. They should do the same for shine.

About March 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Marksonland in March 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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