Category Archives: Web Marketing

New ways to create and measure sites so they improve their ability to bring your best customers closer and attact other individuals just like them

The fat end of the long tail

In my observation about NetFlix as a purveyer of long tail media, I hinted at all of the other ways that online marketers are prospering with this new business opportunity, made possible by word-of-mouth, suggestive selling and virtual — instead of real — merchandise inventories.

I’ve since realized that so much of marketing technology can be heaped under this category that I need to add it as a tag, along with my intentionally general tags of direct response, database marketing, etc.

True, the term long tail has more than a whiff of a meme ready for replacement, much as how push technology in the early 1990’s crystallized into RSS, and how the overworked online communities, the other buzz of the 90’s, turned into what we’re now calling online social networks.

Regardless of what the phrase long tail becomes, it certainly has legs (why am I thinking of a lizard?). This Google Trends graph shows that in terms of searches and news coverage, it also has a fat end.

The Kevin Smith DVD commentary that will change the film world forever

In a prior post I had mused that podcasts are disruptive of established business models, but not yet an economically viable alternative to them. Since then, I have watched a favorite podcast go more mainstream. But don’t get your hopes up. This move to a better neighborhood, in terms of legitimacy and distribution, in no way guarantees a huge financial payback for its producers or the podcast advertisers supporting it. With this news, which I will get to in a moment, I was still waiting for a true breakthrough — something that will spell real, hard cash for the podcaster, in a way that cannot be ignored or discounted.

Then I learned of an ingenious way that Kevin Smith, the writer, director and co-star of the cult movie hit Clerks and its soon-to-be-released sequel, Clerks II, has found to turn a podcast into heavy incremental box office sales.

First, let me tell you about that first development. It’s the move of Filmspotting (formerly Cinecast), the web’s best film review podcast, to WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Other star programming from WBEZ, such as This American Life, has already gone from a radio broadcast to a streaming audio product, sold through and iTunes. It appears that Filmspotting will be taking a reverse path: I’m guessing it will gradually go from a free audio product to a radio broadcast and perhaps, a podcast only available by subscription through and iTunes.

Filmspotting has sponsors now, primarily the Honda Fit and Peerflix. What will happen to them as Filmspotting goes Public (with a capital P) is just another question I can’t answer. Can anyone comment with more information?

The one aspect I can speak to with a reasonable level of confidence is this. As much as I respect and enjoy the programming of Public Radio, I know it is not the path to riches, either for its producers or its sponsors. As I’ve suggested earlier, though, the big wins of mass media exposure, and the hefty rates that advertisers will pay to achieve these wins, may simply be a thing of the past.

But wait. Perhaps the riches won through podcasting will come from skillful integration with other media. Which brings me back to Kevin “Potty-mouth” Smith. Okay, that’s my nickname for him, but I introduce it with this warning: His movies can be extremely vulgar and prurient. Like John Waters before him, he pushes boundaries of taste and subject matter, and I’m sure Clerks II will be no exception.

This film, which received a strong positive reaction from the audience attending its midnight showing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has two big things going for it: A built-in cult following that every film franchise needs, and a creator who has proved he can still surprise and entertain. For these reasons the film is almost certainly going to do well when it opens in theaters. What’s more, I suspect many fans of the original will come back for a second or third viewing. Did I say suspect? No, I know they’ll be back, consuming even more overpriced concessions and generating even more positive buzz and cash for its distributors.

Clerks II will be helped significantly by a brilliant interactive ploy.

A commentary by Mr. Smith and others close to the production will be produced in the standard DVD audio commentary format. By that I mean, it will run as long as the film, and provide real-time, behind-the-scenes color commentary. But instead of fans waiting for the DVD to come out to enjoy this narrative, they will be able download it as a podcast from iTunes, just in time for the film’s theatrical release. I can’t imagine there will be a cost to this download, but that’s not the point.

The message to fans will be: Enjoy Clerks II the first time as you normally would, then return to the theaters with your iPod or other MP3 player, for a second viewing and a new perspective.

I love two things about this tactic. It is both measurable and viral. Theater owners will be able to visually scan their audiences, and know exactly who has come back for the commentary. White iPod earbuds are hard to miss. Those earbuds are also the main driver of the viral aspect of this tactic.

Let’s say I’m in the audience to see the film. If I see people listening to the commentary and enjoying the theatrical experience just as much — or more — as I am (and, I’m sure, laughing at things that don’t sync up with the film’s laugh lines, because of the podcast’s banter), I am going to find out how I can become a member of the initiated. Yes, I too will seriously consider coming back for a new way to enjoy the film. What’s most exciting is I’ll consider doing this even if I’m only a so-so fan, which is precisely what I am, as a matter of fact.

And what was spent for this surefire sales driver? Almost nothing. Which, not surprisingly, was exactly the production budget of the original Clerks — that audacious and obscene raspberry by Mr. Smith directed at the Hollywood status quo.

A textbook offline / online marketing effort

I’m coming back into the swing of things after a week of vacation. During it, I was struck by the absolutely textbook example of driving folks to a web site from a print ad. The business is Angie’s List.

The uninitiated can read about them on their site, but what is impressive about this organization is that it is publicized by ubiquitous (and I’m sure quite pricey!) newspaper display ads. Featured in both local and national papers, they clearly are successful or they would never be continued.

My only critiques are that I would do a better job of tracing visits back to the source, so I could see exactly which papers pull the best. This would be accomplished with unique URLs. Also, I would test other ad sizes and approaches (they may be doing this already). Overall, this is an excellent campaign supporting an outstanding service.

Want more people to use your tricycle? Take a wheel off.

There was a time when a micro site designed specifically to be viral absolutely required a “Tell A Friend” link, to facilitate its contagion. Today, especially with a young audience, this rule is frequently broken. I have a couple theories.

The obvious one is the anti-marketing factor. When you’re communicating to a jaded audience that wants to feel like they’re doing something spontaneous, make the pass-along more difficult.

Take the recent viral campaign waged by SanDisk. It’s to promote their latest alternative to the ubiquitous iPod music player. Talk about David versus Goliath. They’ve taken a shot at felling the giant with, a site that positions the act of listening to a song on anything other than an iPod as the stuff of rebels and iconoclasts.

The campaign includes outdoor and print ads driving folks to the site. The ads appear most notably in the alternative weekly The Onion. This graphic is a screen cap from the site.

Click to expand the cartoon

Most of the ad units are small, and effectively intriguing and edgy. Little but the web address is on them. This cartoon ad is an exception, in that it gives a few more details about why visiting the site might be rewarding.

And what rich rewards await you? The main one is the promise of feeling like an Apple Mac owner in 1984 (how the tides turn, with the Apple iPod being the status quo of portable listening devices!).

Keeping with a less promotional marketing approach, there is only one link in whole site (as far as I can tell) to the SanDisk site, and that’s a link to a dealer locator tool. It allows you to investigate and perhaps buy “The Alternative” — the Sansa e200 MP3 player.

So: To make the site feel right to the audience, take away a helpful feature.

My other theory is that this audience — those under 30 — are far less likely to find the “Email a Friend” helpful in the first place. This market segment would just as likely pass the link along via instant messaging (IM), in the course of an online conversation, or through a personal message (PM). Less likely, it might show up on a social networking page or a personal blog (as I’ll get to in a moment).

My point is that all of the sharing strategies mentioned above require either the typing of a simple, five-letter domain name, or more likely, the cutting and pasting of that web address. Cake.

A youth wasted on generating content (that the press has creatively dubbed “user-generated”) has taught even the least swift of this target market to pass along something without the aid of an email form. The very use of the form may scream of yesterday’s media.

The big question remains: Will this be passed along? And on a macro level: Can anyone not of this demographic create something compelling enough to want to share? These statistics tell the story. The site has a Google Page Rank of zero, and, although MSN has found over 5,000 links to it, Google and AOL showed zip. Goliath can sleep safely.

Forget the ‘Z’ — the latest heat maps show we scan web pages with an ‘F’

Web heat maps are produced by following users’ gazes as they read a web page. The longer the eye lingers on something, the more intense the color produced on that zone of the map.

Preliminary heat map studies talked about users scanning in a “Z” shape. This fit what we knew about scanning in the world of ink and paper. But the latest heat maps I’ve come across show that — with little regard for the type of page we’re taking in — our gaze traces the letter “F.”

The take-aways from these findings:

  • Place navigation on the left where appropriate.
  • Insist that all of the most important points appear near the top of the page, using the journalist’s classic “inverted pyramid.”
  • Begin your headings and lead paragraphs with strong words that help the reader anticipate meaning.

On that last point, I counsel that where possible, lead with a strong verb. Just as I did in the headline and three bulleted items above.

Based on “F” heat maps, as opposed to the “Z,” the bottom content of a page gets very little readership , freeing the writer to type out any old rubbish, including rabbit Ontario astronaut. Wait, you read that last bit? Just my luck. You don’t consult maps.

More evidence for the power of the long tail

A few days ago my wife and I were in a restaurant, commiserating with a friend about her difficulties as a film fan on a mission. She told us she has been taking in as many of the films of Woody Allen as she can rent. It hasn’t been easy. She has been forced to rely on the shrinking inventory of the neighborhood video store, Video Adventures. Not surprisingly, the store just announced it will be going out of business next month.

Alas, our friend has a lot of Woody Allen yet to cover. My wife and I almost simultaneously blurted out the obvious solution: Netflix.

Netflix has an extensive film selection, excellent search capabilities and the brilliant ability to build and share your film wish lists. It’s the perfect tool for a film completist such as our friend.

Allowing customers to rent videos from home, without the threat of late fees, is an obvious point in the favor of Netflix over the brick-and-mortar video store business model. But the other major reason Netflix has become such a marketing force, and a threat to the video store, is its ability to exploit the long tail phenomenon.

If the term long tail is new to you, I recommend you read Wired editor Chris Anderson’s article, if only to learn the origin of the name (here’s a hint: think of the slim, wedge-shaped outer region of a graphic showing gross sales numbers along the vertical axis and the amount of variety of titles along the horizontal).

The significance for marketers of the long tail is described well by Anderson below:

[The emergence of] unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service … People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

When I first read that article I was skeptical. After all, Hollywood has done a great job of dictating to the masses what they should be viewing. And true “video adventurers” like our friend are rare.

Are we truly willing to take a chance? When given the opportunity to scratch an itch for more movies like those that we’ve enjoyed, even if they are obscure and heretofore unknown, is the typical consumer really going to risk disappointment?

Now I have my answer.

In his latest column, New York Times technology writer David Leonhardt explains that Netflix stocks approximately “60,000 movies, television shows and how-to videos that are available on DVD (and that aren’t pornography).” He continues below:

Just as important … Netflix lets users rate movies on a one- to five-star scale and make online recommendations to their friends.

The company’s servers also sift through the one billion ratings in its system to tell you which movies that you might like, based on which ones you have already liked. [Something described in a blog entry last month.]

The result is a vast movie meritocracy that gives a film a second or third life simply because — get this — it’s good. [Here’s a]  brainteaser I have been giving my friends since I visited Netflix in Silicon Valley last month. Out of the 60,000 titles in Netflix’s inventory, I ask, how many do you think are rented at least once on a typical day?

The most common answers have been around 1,000, which sounds reasonable enough. Americans tend to flock to the same small group of movies, just as they flock to the same candy bars and cars, right?

Well, the actual answer is 35,000 to 40,000. That’s right: every day, almost two of every three movies ever put onto DVD are rented by a Netflix customer.

I’ve personally experienced the long tail in music. My musical diet is more varied today than it has ever been, all thanks to access to a nearly unlimited variety of musical genres and artists in digital format. It’s exciting to read that the same exploration is taking place by consumers in the film industry, with the same predictable disruptive effects.

Although I hate to see neighborhood businesses fold, with the resulting ripple effect on local economies, in this case that is outweighed by the fact that I’m a fan of many of those films found in the outer reaches of the long tail (and not found in any video store).

So I find this latest news comforting. Less so, the news that our friend actually enjoyed Woody Allen’s Celebrity.

Internal search statistics tell the story

I mentioned in a post last month that internal search data from your site contain insights that can be quite valuable. The assumption was that the people using your internal search aren’t doing it for amusement. They want answers, presumably about your products or services. A recent white paper on the topic by WebSideStory provides two eye-opening stats that hammer home the importance of improving your internal search function and watching its data closely.

The first has to do with who uses internal search. The white paper contends that these “searchers” are definitely in a buying mood. They were almost three times more likely to make a purchase (or in some other way convert) than people who had not used the internal search function.

But another stat from that report indicates that, “Nearly 12 percent of all site searches led to zero results. Among e-commerce sites, this figure was 8.5 percent.”

In other words, approximately one in 10 of all visitors is being frustrated when they do an internal search — and they are some of the people most likely to be ready to purchase!

To build upon my recommendations in my prior post, follow this tip: Look through your search data for the most common search phrases, and make sure they are yielding good results. If they don’t, create a forced search return index (FSRI). In other words, make sure that the correct page shows up for the search phrase typed in, even if that phrase is misspelled.

According to this new set of findings, and the experience of my team at ec-connection, you’ll be rewarded with more conversions and happier customers.

Interactive, synchronous theater

There was a time when the ultimate computer-based entertainment was pretty much confined to CD-based computer gaming. That was back in the stone ages, when the web was the exclusive stomping grounds of scientists and academics, and bulletin boards were the only way to experience the asynchronous power of email and forums. Asynchrony is what makes email the original “killer app.” It telescopes time, allowing us to communicate on our terms, when and where we want.

CD-ROMs are themselves asynchronous. By that I mean that they allow you to pop a game in at your convenience and stop and save your place when you are rousted away from your computer by the need for nutrition, or by the beckonings of other carbon-based life forms. (I’m using a little of my dear friend Marty’s terminology. I was never into gaming, but Marty made up for it by playing and mastering computer games the way other people read novels. Once again I merely stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Online games with multiple players can be synchronous, or asynchronous, or a little of both. An online chess game can be played over the course of a year, if the players want it to take that long. Whereas EverQuest, one Marty’s more recent passions, has real-time cooperation among its players. Although breaks in the action are inevitable, when playing resumes there is a synchronizing clock maintained by Sony’s servers behind the proceedings.

A “synchronizing clock” maintains the action of another type of entertainment: live theater. That clock is held by the stage manager. Although plays telescope time with scenes and intermissions, one or more actors on stage at any given time sets up all that is needed for a real-time event, one that must be played out on its carefully scripted schedule.

I bring up theater because way back in the stone ages, I wondered how CD-ROMs could conceivably improve standard modes of storytelling. I thought about live theater. It occurred to me then that a computer could allow a scripted performance to be filmed from many angles. That’s interesting. Instead of a play having three walls (or less), it could have all four. But isn’t that just a film, except you choose the angles and not the film editor and the director?

Then I thought about how the cameras could themselves be point of view shots (POV), and “players” could occupy the bodies of characters as the dialog unfolds. The POV could in fact jump from one character to the next as desired by the player.

That’s interesting, but also creepy and pointless. Plays were written to have audience members participate as “flies on the wall,” not as mics and cameras hidden on one or more of the characters’ bodies. Also, significant action often takes place while one or more characters isn’t looking. What then for plot developments based on hidden letters or stolen glances?

Then I remembered a wish I once had (and still do!) to see performed all three plays of the wonderful The Norman Conquests trilogy. This set of stage comedy/dramas, by the brilliant British playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, takes place over a weekend, and is set in three locales of the same home: the living room, the dining room and the garden. Each full-length play is set in only one of those locales. In other words, one whole evening’s performance is set in the living room (that one is called Living Together). Another, Round And Round the Garden, is exclusively set … guess where? Likewise with the third, called Table Manners.

Ayckbourn is something of a magician, in two ways. First, he really understands the folly and drama of human relationships. And secondly, he is a stage-craftsman of the highest degree. He actually managed to pull off three consecutive nights of entertainment, all telling the same story about the same weekend and each being uniquely enthralling.

What’s more, when one character storms off stage in one play, she enters the next night’s performance of the next play, still peeved and cursing the person she left in the last room, one whole play ago. Magic, huh?

Assuming I ever get a chance to see these performed live, on three consecutive nights, and assuming I’ve got the bank account, and the posterior, suitable for that level theater-going, I’m sure I’ll love the experience.

But wait! Why not pop a DVD into my computer and watch the performances all in one interactive experience? What’s more, what if I could be a fly on the wall that literally buzzes along — tracking, say, that actress who just stormed out of the room, to follow her and see her performance in the next room?

I would still need approximately five hours to hear every single line of the plays (I’m guessing each is one-and-two-thirds hours long). But just like a CD-ROM based game, you would be able to pause at any time and pick up where you left off. Perhaps there would even be a pie chart in the corner of the screen, to show you how much of the action was left unwatched. In other words, how much that happened in the adjoining scenes did I miss by being in this one, and which wall does this fly have to light upon in order to take in that fresh action?

The closest I’ve seen to this in cinema is a film called Timecode, which shows the action of the same 97 minutes in real time, across a movie screen broken into quadrants, with each showing a different, related scene. It was a good experiment by director Mike Figgis, but not a total success as a work of art. The Norman Conquests is, by contrast, a triple-success, and I think the trilogy would be greatly improved — in fact, transformed — by the ability to view it in an interactive way.

Has a multiple, synchronous theatrical experience ever been presented as an interactive entertainment / game? Does it succeed, and actually improve on its parts? I’d love to find out.

This blog entry is a message in a bottle to all innovative video game developers / playwrights / filmmakers to get cracking. I, for one, have been awaiting this type of experience for a long, long time.

Monetizing podcasts

Last night I had dinner with a couple of friends, and for the first time found myself trading the names of favorite podcasts. I was surprised it took so long.

After all, they are free, they’re convenient, and the variety of types is growing by the day.

I suspect we will someday soon be discussing podcasts — what happened this week on one, when that one will be releasing new episodes, etc. — the same way we discuss television shows around the water cooler today.

But we pay for television, either indirectly, through the commercials, or directly, through our cable bill. The broadcast television model is certainly on shaky grounds, but somehow I think a visual medium is easier to monetize than an aural one. I could be all wet, but I somehow think podcasts are going to be very tough to turn profitable.

Perhaps the low production costs will allow advertisers to consider the occasional ad break, or full-blown sponsorship, too big of a bargain to pass up. But whereas other online media have very track-able ways to measure results, how will we know if a podcast is moving the needle for those advertisers that support them?

Perhaps there will someday be a podcast solution that is similar to the Brightcove streaming video player, and its ability to enrich ads with more information and relevance.

Bored? Let’s put on a metaverse!

Second Life is a “metaverse,” which is short for metaphysical universe. In Second Life, everything you see — every scrap of clothing, every piece of scenery and every avatar (which is a player-operated character) — is “built” by the players themselves, either for their personal use or for sale to others. Someday, this world’s ability to empower and inspire its residents to build and share could challenge movie studios. In the meantime, Second Life is becoming the defacto movie studio (and dance studio, and design studio, and much more) for tens of thousands of people with a strong vision and a lot of spare time.

I only wish Second Life had come along 20 years ago, when my wife and I were two such restless auteurs.

This young couple — the Jeff and Julie of the mid-1980’s — are only a memory now, but a particularly vivid one this weekend. I’m writing from a cybercafe in my home town, during a holiday visit with my many family members who never left. Visits like this remind me of who I was back when I lived here too, and how my wife (who also grew up in this town) and I responded to this quirky way of life.

How do I describe my home town? Deep in the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), it’s not as heartwarming as the place in the 90’s TV show Northern Exposure, but it was, and is, no less eccentric. For instance, I may be in a cybercafe, but it’s one that caters to people who proudly call themselves “Yoopers” (sound out the letters U.P. and you get the epithet’s origin).

So naturally, you can buy a piping hot pasty along with your WiFi access. What’s a pasty? It’s is a meat-and-potato pie that is the closest thing Yoopers have to soul food, which tells you as much about Yooper “soul” as it does about Yooper food. What I mean is, when I think of the U.P., I think of words like traditional, genuine and consistent. These are qualities that I’ve come to appreciate now — both in pasties and in people — but back then these small town virtues were easy targets for rebellion.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived near this town, and wanted to capture the area’s eccentricities before we moved on. We scripted a movie, called The Porchlights, about a fictitious nuclear family who loved each other and their Upper Peninsula lifestyle. It was to be a comedy.

We had little choice in what technology we would use for our proejct. If we were going to shoot this thing at all, it would on 16-millimeter film. The format wouldn’t make us candidates for commercial success, but that was far from the point. This film was for the exclusive entertainment of ourselves and our friends — most of whom were to be involved in its production.

None of these friends were actors, by the way, but we solved that problem as well. All of the characters in our little film would be pink, plastic lawn flamingos (clever, huh?), manipulated off-camera and synchronized later to sound studio voice-overs.

The project died a quiet death in pre-production, as they say, and much of the reason was the technology challenges. Film stock. Lights. Editing equipment. Producing even a humble Porchlights was so out of reach.

Not today. Right now, many thousands of people have similarly daft plans and dreams. But they are making them come to life, in quirky patches of virtual real estate.

They’re putting their stories on Second Life.

I mentioned that all the objects in Second Life are residents’ creations, including the avatars. Roughly a third of these objects are scripted, which means they can realistically interact with each other, at the whim of Second Life’s 230,000+ residents. Roll-playing games are common, as are amateur theatrics. These are sometimes “filmed” using special cameras that other residents have developed, for replaying and sharing.

You see why I wish Second Life had been around 20 years ago. To be clear, most residents find their fun in ad libbed interaction, not carefully plotted entertainments such as The Porchlights. But along with the typical night club and public park gathering places, Second Life includes such innovations as a “living” re-creation of a dying Native American culture. Built by a real-life Native American, this authentic village keeps alive his tribe’s heritage.

That’s just one example of how this metaverse is absolutely anything residents want it to be, even if their vision might include a U.P. ranch home populated by talking pink lawn flamingoes.

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, the software company behind Second Life, says his residents are far closer to the norm demographically than participants in most multi-player game environments. These residents are more likely to be middle-aged, and more likely to be female.

He says it’s hard to generalize in any way about these residents. Their stories and motivations are that diverse. Except for this fact. Rosedale says that Second Life resonates most with people who live in parts of the world with bad weather, limited entertainment options and good broadband connections.

In other words, right here.

Perhaps right now that woman I see at the next table, tapping away at her laptop, is creating her own Second Life send-up to this odd little corner of the world. If she is, I’m sure that she — like Julie and me before her — is having a great time of it.

Curious about Second Life? This link shows a video that will help fill you in.

Sharing is good, but only with a few hundred of your closest friends

Metcalfe’s Law says that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially with its size. A recent New Yorker article by John Cassidy (pp 50-59, 5/15/06) pointed out that if this were the case, MySpace would be far more useful than Facebook. My calculations are that it would be about 100 times more useful.

MySpace has 70 million members. Facebook has 7.5 million.

However, if usefulness is measured in activity, you can’t get much better than Two-thirds of all members are on the site every day, and they spend an average of 20 minutes there!

If “stickiness” isn’t a measure of usefulness, consider this fact. Cassidy reports that since a recent Facebook policy change, members can upload an unlimited number of photos to their Profiles. Boy, are they enjoying that free ride! 

The volume of photos added to the site is unsurpassed anywhere on the web. One and a half million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day!

Other sites, most notably Yahoo’s, also have members, and unlimited uploading bandwidth. So why isn’t Flickr the leader? After all, it has far fewer restrictions to membership (just a Yahoo account), and far more open sharing between members (anyone can see everything).

Here’s a hint: That’s the explanation. Cassidy suggests restrictions add value to this type of network. Who wants to share really interesting photographs* with everyone in the world?

Unlike MySpace and Flickr, Facebook is a gated community. Only if you have an email address from one of the 2,000 colleges and universities it recognizes can you get in and establish a profile. And even within its walls, there is limited sharing of profile information between members who don’t designate each other as friends. Its very exclusivity encourages sharing.

* Speaking of interesting photos, many have discovered that you can have a fun, if useless, online experience by going to and searching on the tag “interesting.” But it’s a pain to browse through pages with very limited numbers of thumbnails on each. I discovered this cool way to view 500 of the most interesting photos of the day — and any other day you specify. Thank you for wasting more of my time!