You have no excuse with these new ways to read RSS feeds, from Microsoft and Google

Once adopted by a critical mass of internet users, RSS feeds will change interactive marketing permanently and in a big way. I predicted that the phase shift would happen when Microsoft releases the new Vista operating system, in the spring. Published reports suggest that the sea change begins much sooner, as in today. That’s when Microsoft’s new version of Internet Explorer (IE) begins distribution through free downloaded upgrades.

Here’s how Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion reports this news in his blog yesterday (The Day the Entire World Gets RSS):

As more people around the world start reading RSS feeds, big things will happen. [The orange RSS button on the new IE toolbar] will force everyone to begin integrating feed communication initiatives in their marketing and PR programs. News and blog posts are just the beginning. Couponing and all kinds of other communiques will go into feeds, as well as ads and more. That little orange button might look small, but boy is it big.

If you’re a marketer who (1) hasn’t started using RSS yet, and (2) doesn’t use IE regularly, you can still experience what RSS can offer. And you really must! Try the new, free Google Reader. That’s what I use and it’s terrific. Gina Trapani in the excellent blog compares this new feed reader to Bloglines, and she agrees that Google, although sometimes criticized for lackluster product introductions, really got it right with this recent product upgrade.

I have a theory that more people today will be setting up a new Google Reader account than ever before. Why? Because Microsoft has officially entered the RSS arena. As usual, Microsoft’s involvement will change everything. And that means that many who use Firefox or other IE competitors will realize that they can no longer sit on the sidelines and had better see what this RSS stuff is all about.

Scrutinizing the long tail of Halloween

Jon Krouse is in a perfect position to help me test a hypothesis about long tail behavior. A co-founder of (a rare success story among regional online communities), Jon recently joined This is the world’s largest online retailer of costumes. As you can imagine, the month of October is major crunch-time for him.

Nonetheless, when I instant messaged him the other day to see if I could test an assertion from Chris Anderson, Jon was willing to help. Anderson is a Wired editor and most notably the author of The Long Tail. He contends that for companies with virtual inventories, just about any item they post for sale — no matter how obscure — will sell (i.e., be downloaded for a price) at least once every three months or so. Using sales statistics from, he made it sound like this was nothing short of an immutable law.

That’s for virtual inventories. Anderson admits it’s a little trickier for companies with real ones. That’s the case with BuyCostumes. I’ve visited their warehouse, which stores over 13,000 very real SKUs. Yow!.

Companies like this must mark down some items teetering at the tip of the tail before they finally sell. Carrying costs are a constraint that virtual inventory merchants simply don’t have. But the fact is, even real inventory items sell with some price manipulation. Or so Chris Anderson contends. I wanted to know for sure, and asked Jon.

He reported that minor adjustments to price do indeed make the most obscure costumes and accessories sell. Sure, there are the rare dogs, but priced properly, nearly all SKUs generate profits. This is huge, because the number of items offered is a precedent for the industry.

Imagine how many items a bricks-and-mortar costume shop can physically stock. Now consider that at one time quite recently, conventional wisdom was that no one wanted more selection than could be held on a really well-stocked costume shop’s shelves. Or, for that matter, in music store’s bins, or along a bookstore’s stacks.

The web, with its power to categorize, search and suggest, has exploded that myth. Which would mean little to a company like Jon’s if the demand for these products wasn’t so large.

How many sales are anticipated in the next couple of weeks for this humble little online costume shop?

“At our busiest, we’ll be doing 20,000 orders a day*,” Jon reports. Tune in November 1 to see a photo featuring the costumes that my wife and I chose and wore at Jon’s Halloween party, the first in his and Peggy’s new home. 

*It never hurts to advertise. BuyCostumes has major private label deals with major retailers, plus an effective search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising strategy in place.

Commerce sites ignore branding at their peril

Real estate on a web site is precious. That’s one reason why many e-commerce sites cram as much merchandise as possible into the home page. You can’t blame them. Shoehorn one more offer onto the page and you see sales of that item go up. But does this practice erode overall sales?

The research of Kevin Hillstrom looked at overall sales from pure selling sites (example) vs branding sites (example) vs hybrids that split the difference (example). The sites evaluated were those taken from the largest businesses represented in the Internet Top 500 retail sites.

I was most interested in how hybrid sites would fare in the study. Although these hybrid sites featured home page offers, they also used much of its real estate to reinforce the brand. White space was more common, and often these hybrid sites didn’t even require you to scroll down to take in the entire home page.

A business that regards its e-commerce site as nothing more than efficient catalog would argue that the hybrid site approach is misguided, since it is not focusing enough on specific offers. But do the numbers bear this out?

The conclusion from this study says no, although it does find weakness in a pure branding approach to the home page:

It appears likely that a hybrid strategy is most likely to maximize the net sales of each visitor to the website. Selling sites may overwhelm visitors, while branding sites may not present enough merchandise to entice consumers.

Many have preached this hybrid approach, but it’s nice to see this validation. It only stands to reason that consumers need to know two things before they buy:

  1. What are you selling?
  2. Are you to be trusted?

Raising levels of trust, through your site’s branding, is the best way to maximize sales in an environment where competitors are only a mouse click away.

New hypervideo linking cheers news junkies and marketers alike

Imagine that you’re on a web site, watching a video of a talking head. The speaker is talking about something that interests you, but it’s hard to get past the frustration of wishing you could ask her to explain a point further before she goes on to the next. Whereas the rest of the web experience is more of a dialog, with us asking questions by clicking on hypertext links, this video is one way only. She talks, we listen.

Now imagine you can click on a section of the video to drill down to another video clip or web page, offering more information. @View Magazine calls it hyper video drilling, and touts it as a way to add deeper meaning and clarity to brief news videos. In another timely application, politicians can support their sound bites on their sites with supporting content. And advertisers and online marketers are, of course, the other big winners in this new web protocol.

If I can boast for a moment: I should say that with the news of this innovation, I experienced for the second time this week a “We’ve been scooped!” moment.

It’s the sensation that my team’s recent brainstorms have already been taken and run with by others. Far from being disappointed, I’m thrilled. It means we’re thinking the right way and finding creative ways to bridge the needs of both our clients and their audiences. The marketplace is validating our work.

Moreover, these widespread introductions of new technologies* are paving the way for acceptance by a mass audience.

Take the example of this hyper video drilling: When we were brainstorming about how wonderful it would be to click off of the talking head videos we were building into a site, and thereby see supporting documentation (in this case demonstrations of the technology described by the speakers), we knew we could build it pretty easily in Flash, but run the risk of it going underused. Or worse, it could confuse unfamiliar users!

Awareness of new user interfaces is notoriously slow to grow.

Think of the hypertext link: It’s a fundamental benefit of the web, but it took a while for the average web user to fully recognize that some text on a page can be clicked on to go somewhere else (those readers under the age of 30 need to talk to your grandparents to fully grasp this sad fact).

Same goes for clicking off of videos. I’m thrilled that this is being tested and talked about widely. It’s clearly the next step in the evolution of online video. And it leaves to groups like mine the thrilling opportunity of how best to leverage this new web convention.

*The other incidence of us being “scooped” was discovering that our ideas exactly — and I mean to the letter — had been accomplished. The idea was how to express visually and with movement and “drillability” the connections in an online community such as Facebook. It’s demonstrated in this video (it loads slowly — be patient), of a visual browser created by UC Berkley Ph.D. students Jeffrey Heer and Danah Boyd. Amazing stuff, and encouraging.

Legend has it that the telephone was invented simultaneously by at least two labs in two countries, and similar innovations have had similar simultaneous origins. If I can be indulged a little more bragging, I’m encouraged that the marketing technology “lab” I’m affiliated with is working at solving the right problems at the right time.