You to your cell phone: I’m feeling lucky

If you want to watch your friends hyperventilate, just suggest that someday soon marketers will be monitoring their behavior on their cell phones, both in terms of buttons pressed on the device, and places the device is carried. Be kind, though. Resist the temptation, and don’t add that it may already be happening. Right now.

And so you don’t freak out right along with your friends, let me reassure you of two things:

  1. I am not doing this monitoring. No way. Honest.
  2. Those who are don’t care about you. They use totally anonymous data.

They have no interest in what you’ve been up to — if it doesn’t involve legal commerce. Ultimately, all they want to do is make your cell phone more valuable in your pursuit of the next purchase.

Mediapost recently interviewed GoTo CEO Lee Hancock about the future of behavioral targeting in the mobile phone space.

He talks about a world where your cell phone serves up relevant ads and opportunities the same way that (for example) Gmail, the email account from Google, serves us ads based on keywords embedded in our messages. In both cases, an automated process eavesdrops on you to a certain extent, but only in the service of customizing the user experience. It’s a good thing. And, I’m sure, this cell phone behavioral profiling will be something consumers can opt out of once it is refined and deployed for real.

How would this particular type of monitoring improve a cell phone experience? Here is Mr. Hancock’s example:

One way [that] interest, behavior and location [data] could work seamlessly together is: Say someone has downloaded Madonna song ringtones and goes to the movie menu frequently. An entertainment company promoting a new Madonna movie can target based on that content and behavior, but also focus on the specific movie theater near where that user is. Then a Starbucks nearby having a special Frappuccino offer can target their promotion or a Barnes and Noble nearby the theater can promote a new Madonna coffee-table book. Very powerful stuff, but obviously something that needs to be done responsibly.

My take on this is that it shows promise, but I wonder how these messages will be presented to the user. We know that cell-based ads are not drawing strong responses when they are embedded in a phone’s web browser. And I, for one, would not want an SMS (text message) ad showing up on my cell phone every time I pass a Starbucks or music store. No, I need to initiate the suggestion process and be ready to consider the opportunities it presents.

A Modest Proposal

What if my cell phone had a single, additional button. When pressed, it “rewards” me. The reward it sends my way would be customized, as Hancock describes, based both on my behavior and where I am physically.

Please bear with me a moment. I’m going to make another Google comparison to illustrate my point.

When that search engine was new, it usually delivered more relevant and correct search results than competing search engines, including the goliath Yahoo! directory.

Google was boastful. The search page ballyhooed this advantage by providing two “Search” buttons. These buttons remain to this day. One delivers the top ten results, as most other search engines do. The other button is called, “I’m Feeling Lucky.” It takes you to the top result. Period. If you’re disappointed, you always have the “Back” button. But more often than not — especially back then, when the web was a smaller and simpler place — you got what you wanted.

That Google button is not something I use, but I’m sure for many it is like the food lever in Skinner’s classic box we learned about is Psych 101. That lever delivered a pellet of food each time it was pressed. It trained lab mice to associate a reward with this action.

Now imagine I’m the mouse — er — consumer. I’m in a mall, let’s say, and I’ve got a few minutes to kill before my wife returns from a shopping sortie. And I figure: What the heck. I press the button on my phone … the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. And I receive via SMS a list of offers that I am likely to welcome. I may even act on one or two of them.

Will this be a game-changing feature on my phone? No.

But like Dr. Skinner and those lab mice, the behavioral targeting geniuses will have caused me to associate the gathering of this type of data with a positive outcome: The delivery of customized goodies that I truly welcome.

The “Lucky” button will connect me in a far richer way with my surroundings. I’ll receive merchants’ offers, yes, but also, possibly, news about nearby friends who have also opted into the system, or even tips on events in the neighborhood that may have passed my notice.

I like it. The button feels right to me.

How about to you?

Would you press such a button? Are you feeling lucky?

Should your brand spawn an online community?

Some brands are clearly benefiting from their own online communities. Nike’s community is quite active, with over 57,000 members. The largest Blackberry community has nearly twice that number. Marc Andreessen is betting that more niche brands — as well as sports teams, community groups and hobbyists — will want to reap the same benefits.

I’m thinking he’s onto something, due to the new ways that consumers are interacting with brands, as well as the power of search engines to fuel these connections. It wouldn’t be the first time Andreessen has a winning hunch.

You may recall that in mid-’90, the sweetheart of the internet was Netscape. Marc Andreessen was co-developer of this free web browser. During Netscape’s zenith, he was on the cover of every magazine from Business 2.0 to Time. That’s before Microsoft moved into the browser business, and its Internet Explorer did to Netscape what its Word did to WordPerfect and Excel to SuperCalc. Microsoft has rained on a lot of parades. Andreessen got drenched. But also quite rich.

As reports these past few weeks have declared, he has invested his money in Ning, a way to “launch a social network with a few mouse clicks.”

Ning would take much of the pain out of testing an online community surrounding your brand. But is it a wise decision? Let’s put aside for a moment the legal considerations (liability for bad advice shared on your forum, for instance), as well as the logistics of moderating the thing.

Does this marketing tactic support your brand? I say yes, for the following three reasons:

  1. Your customers experience your brand but could not care less for your company. As David Raab eloquently put it, “Brands are movie stars. Companies own the theater.” An online community becomes a place in that theater to congregate.
  2. People will trash talk your brand regardless of whether you host a community sounding board. Sam Decker of Bazaar Voice contends, and I agree, that it’s better to have them do it on your forum than someone else’s. I’ve quoted him speaking about negative user-generated content (UGC) in an earlier post.
  3. Search engines can’t get enough of the UGC that these forum sites generate. They just love ’em. Isn’t it better for people searching on generic brand features to find content about your brand as opposed to a competitor’s?

Does the prospect of an online forum about your brand scare you? It should. But you need to know more about online communities, and what better way than to launch a simple test? If not for your brand, how about for your church group? Marc Andreessen is preparing a well-stocked marketing laboratory just for you.

Want to check out a sample Ning-driven community? Here’s one on the evolution of broadcast and personal media.

Mobile phones just want to be free

Your cell phone is capable of doing far more than you realize. Okay, not your phone specifically, but your model of phone could have been manufactured to perform some pretty useful tricks. These include preserving your contacts list on your computer, allowing you to more easily share photos and other media, and even tell you what talking on the device is costing you that month, in real time. What’s stopping this progress is not in dispute: Phone companies are scrambling to find ways to charge for these services.

It’s a story that sounds familiar. Two weeks ago I was fascinated to read all of the takes from readers on my music industry post. Its premise was that CD sales are falling because of a changing business model, and this changed way of doing business might be better served by removing digital rights management (DRM) protections. It’s an appealing idea if you’re Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently posted an essay, called Thoughts on Music, proposing this change. And it’s a terrifying idea if you’re a typical music label executive.

Similarly, if you’re Columbia law professor Tim Wu, you call the removal of cool features from a cell phone “feature crippling.” He presented a paper to the Federal Trade Commission last month, where he makes a compelling argument for using legislation to free the phone manufacturers to innovate. Currently, the features they build into cell phones sold domestically are dictated (he would say stymied) by the big wireless carriers: Verizon, AT&T / Cingular, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobil.

Mr. Wu makes his case on his blog, and in an interview on this week’s On The Media podcast. He calls the atmosphere “restrictive” of any significant application innovation, and quotes one mobile application developer who characterizes the atmosphere these restrictions have created as, “a tarpit of misery, pain and destruction.” Working every day with bright, imaginative application developers and designers, I can understand this developer’s frustration. Your cell phone really does want to be free.

The crux is how are these innovations to be paid for? Each new feature requires additional support, and that support has to be offset by increased revenue. And although new features offer an opportunity for greater profits, how do you get consumers to pay for them as a service? This argument was made in the On The Media piece by Chris Guttman McCabe, the VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA, The Wireless Association. He ultimately says regulation should not be imposed because competition and the free market is working in this industry, albeit slowly. Even Mr. Wu admits that although each of the big wireless carriers are restrictive, the degree to which they restrict this innovation varies greatly from one to the other.

It’s a tough quandary. I got extremely excited about the Microsoft Zune when I thought it could allow for the free exchange of music files and podcasts. Then I learned that DRM deals restricted sharing to “three plays or three days,” whichever comes first. After that the file you’ve exchanged goes away, even if it’s an MP3 produced by a struggling garage band that posts the very same MP3, for all the world to trade, online. Similarly, the new Apple cell phone, due for release this summer, is designed to work for only one carrier, AT&T / Cingular. That’s a big limitation.

Meanwhile, as the free market sorts this out, I’m using hacks to play music on my cell phone, and I’m using shareware and an expensive connection cord to sync my contacts list with my computer — even though both use Bluetooth. And if you want to see the photos I took last night? I only hope you use Verizon. Otherwise I can’t text them to your phone. Not at any cost.

MarchFirst, Second Monday, and the scarcity of good domain names

Today is an auspicious day, and not just because it’s the first ever One Positive Day. This is the eighth anniversary of US Web officially changing its name to I recall realizing for the first time that the business world was running out of good dot-com brand names, and fast.

Back then, US Web was the fastest growing web development franchise in the country. They were hot stuff — super-heated, in fact, by the plentiful VC of the Dot Com Boom. When they chose the new name MarchFirst, they gave marketers such as myself a clear look inside their rebranding process.

To me the new name suggested a frustration – and ultimate resignation — over a growing domain name scarcity. Eight years hence, this scarcity has has only gotten worse.

I can understand why they had opted not to choose a non sequitur, like, or something flippant and undignified, like Yahoo!

They chose instead what I like to call the cocktail party story variety of brand name. It’s an opportunity for employees to tell something about their company, because saying who they work for at a cocktail party forces the question, “What does that name mean?”

Sadly, the answer in this case is hardly memorably, or instructive of the brand: “That’s the day we were renamed MarchFirst.”

When I started my first business in a new market, I chose a similar cocktail party story name. I chose Second Monday Direct Marketing. People would ask, and I would explain that in a direct mailing, the second Monday after the first day of response was often the best day of response.

It wasn’t a scintillating story, but it was novel. It also associated my business with direct mail and results. What’s more, it helped me say the brand name a few times during the course of the story, which was all that it took for people to remember it. The name was easy to say over the telephone, and spell. It made a good domain name.

If I had to name a direct marketing company today, however, I’d be out of luck, and not just because the factoid this name was based on is no longer true. went into circulation long ago, and has been scooped up by someone else. Just like nearly every other good domain name you can imagine.

More recently, I had luck with another cocktail party domain name, (If you want to hear the story you’ll have to invite me to your party.)

Second Monday is not availableThis week my team is embarking upon yet another “namestorming” exercise, for yet another client whose brand name will be inextricably tied to their domain name. Once again, the process won’t be pretty. It will require lists of hundreds of word combinations. There will be disappointing WHOIS searches –brief high hopes dashed by a message like the one on the right. When I try my luck with domain name ideas, I feel like the poor schmo in the convenience store, scratching off another lottery ticket that yields — zilch.

If there is any good news in this, it’s that the soul of good art (and branding is an art!) is constraint.

The boundaries of the rectangular picture frame actually free the painter, and the limitation of the 88 piano keys inspires the songwriter. Struggling as we have been with the ever-shrinking canvas of available domain names, I was inspired this morning to hear on NPR a story about Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

He took the challenge of writing a book to replace the unbelievably boring Dick and Jane series of reading material. Seuss was on a noble crusade to teach six- and seven-year-olds how to read without prematurely sapping their will to live.

Accepting the challenge, Seuss faced a huge limitation. He was handed a list of only 200 words that children this age were likely to be able to understand. According Philip Nel, the author of The Annotated Cat, and quoted in the NPR story:

“[Seuss’] favorite story about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is that it was born out of his frustration with the word list.

“He said he would come up with an idea, but then he would have no way to express that idea. So he said…: ‘I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book. I found cat and hat and I said the title will be The Cat in the Hat.'”

In the end, Nel says, Seuss used exactly 236 words to write The Cat in the Hat, words that young readers can understand.

The assignment took nearly two years to complete, but the result is a book that is still read and loved – which is inspiring until you realize that his pace works out to less than three words a week. Yikes!

Our domain namestorming must produce a half dozen viable name options in as many business days. It’s an especially tall order because, I swear, there simply aren’t 200 good domain names remaining in all of Whooville.