Google Custom Search, where have you been hiding?

Just came across this really neat Google feature…

The copyright says 2007 so it has been around for a while. I am quite surprised it does not get more visibility, because it is a must have for everyone who does topical searches on a frequent basis. Yahoo! has been talking about using social / collaborative input to improve its search platform… and it seems like Google has had it for a while?

Google Custom Search is packaged as “community search” and it delivers the goods: users can include lists of sites that present more relevance to a topic. Actions speak louder than words, so click below now to try the Digital Spotlight Search Engine!

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Obama’s data capture ploy

Over the past week, presumptive Democrat candidate Barack Obama dominated once again the US news cycle. In an otherwise relatively uneventful week, there was intense speculation over the airwaves, online and in print about who was on the Democrat VP shortlist… According to Google Trends, always a good buzz indicator, searches for “VP” doubled over the past week.

More importantly, the press gleefully echoed the campaign’s insistent wish that the supporters should be “the first to know” by registering their email or mobile phone number on the Barackobama.com web site. Everyone anticipated a rapid announcement which will come later than expected… but what if that was the plan all along?

Whether you support or not the Democrat hopeful, you have to admire the carefully orchestrated marketing move around this opportunity.

“First To Know” was an elaborate way to boost the size of the presumptive candidate’s direct marketing database. This may sound a bit innocuous right now but in a potentially close race, every little counts and tactics like this may make all the difference on Election Day. The Barack Obama campaign is earning the permission with the VP announcement to regularly broadcast text alerts to its support base in the fall.

There are a few notable subtleties in the way this was executed.

First the Obama campaign is managing this data capture recruitment drive at a minimal cost since they are not resorting primarily to advertising. I guess that like countless other people, I am contributing to spreading the word through the fact that I am blogging about it. Obama seems to have a strong ability to shape the conversation – both in old and new media.

The capture form includes the zip code of where registrants live, and future text messages could therefore be targeted by state or by district if needs be. This is crucial to adapt messages based on the shape of the local political battlefield, and push different issues in different states. The zip code may potentially allow to refine messaging at an even more local level.

Finally, this operation will allow the Obama campaign to communicate primarily by text message to a younger audience that is notoriously using email much less than instant messaging or mobile devices.

The message “be the first to know” is also a textbook example of proven word of mouth marketing techniques… to target the influencer type, offer exclusive, ahead-of-the-crowd information that they can use as a social currency.

As I write these lines, the announcement of Obama’s VP choice will be made in less than 24 hours (on Saturday August 23rd). It is still too early to tell if Obama’s data capture ploy was successful, and the Obama campaign will probably not disclose how many mobile phone numbers and emails they captured over the past week – if only to keep the McCain campaign guessing.

Let’s just sit back, and watch how often the Democrats leverage this new channel in the coming weeks… the political world is getting addicted to the direct relationship opportunities enabled by digital technologies, and there is no turning back.

Database Marketing Metrics in a Digital World

I have had a lot of conversations in the last few months about the fact that digital marketing is fundamentally not that different from traditional marketing.

Of course important adjustments are in order when you have to communicate to a consumer who is in control and has less tolerance than ever before for interruption and irrelevant messages. But a lot of things you know about marketing stay the same, and digital only brings more depth and richness to the way. Here is one example from the world of database marketing.

In the early days of database marketing, catalogue marketers were trying to find ways to identify which customers were most likely to buy than others when there was a communication effort. The straightforward way was to segment customers based on how much they had spent to date – and that turned out logically to be a good predictor (or “proxy” for the DM purists).

But relying on the monetary value only proved somewhat limiting: there were lots of customers who were buying even if they were amongst the most valuable ones, and there were many customers identified as very valuable who used to buy a lot but not anymore (you may have heard of them as “lapsed customers”).

It turned out that by looking also at how recently and how frequently customer bought over the last few months, the accuracy was greatly improved. By adding and combining these two additional parameters, database marketers could guess who would buy and who would not – and that could lead to significant savings in printing and postage costs.

And so very empirically the RFM prediction model was born – R for Recency, F for Frequency and M for Monetary value or Money spent. Its efficacy is still as impressive today as it was over the past two decades. Of course, more sophisticated models have appeared over time using statistical techniques such as regression analysis, neural networks or genetic algorithms… RFM has the merit of simplicity and can be applied without advanced statistical know how and resources.

Visit this site if you are interested in reading more about RFM.

So how do you apply a digital lens to RFM? The model stays the same but there is room for additional information. RFM appeared in an era where storage and the number of opportunities for collecting data were limiting factors. RFM focuses therefore on transaction data – but does not necessarily leverage interaction data which can be more easily tracked today.

There is an opportunity to look at two more dimensions: Attention and Engagement. Attention can be for example measured by how frequently a consumer opens your emails or how many of your last 10 emails they opened. Engagement can be indicated by the time a consumer spends on your web site after clicking from an e-mail. In fact the model can be extended outside of e-mail marketing to include online advertising – although it would apply in this case to anonymous prospects rather than identified customers. And in a not so distant future, with new technology that allows delivering targeted TV advertising to specific households, such an approach could expand to other marketing channels.

Moving from RFM to FRAME is a good way to describe how marketers should approach their migration to the digital world – key basic principles stay the same, and additional data open up new opportunities for understanding customers. At the same time, it is very easy to look at too much information or at the wrong information: so when it comes to new marketing models, keeping things simple is paramount.

Airbus A380: a memorable flight experience

One of my early posts on this blog was a comment on the commercial launch of the Airbus A380 in October 2007. I never ceased to be amazed by the steady flow of search engine traffic I got around this topic. Having recently had the opportunity to fly on one of Singapore Airlines’ A380, I feel compelled to revisit my initial post and share some of my flight impressions.

A380 at the gate

Much has been said about the fact that airports have to invest to accommodate the dual deck boarding requirement of the A380. The boarding is indeed quite fast in spite of the large number of passengers (more than 400).

However the check-in experience did not go through a similar overhaul, and there the pinch can be felt. The wait was on the edge of excruciating, and it certainly did not help that a large group of travellers to an ashram in India clogged the process that day. This is probably the only part of the experience that can be significantly improved… once in the plane, it is an entirely different story.

You notice immediately three main differences compared to even recent aircrafts.

The first striking difference is the legroom, even in economy class. The layout of the cabin with a lot of overhead space and the very large windows add to the impression of roominess.

The second difference is the low noise and vibration level in the cabin. If you are used to the rumble and roar of a 747 or a 777, you are in for a real surprise. The superjumbo accelerates so effortlessly and silently that you barely realize that the plane has left the ground.

Last but not least, the third difference lies in the interactive in-flight system. I guess that some people would point out that it does not offer a touch screen – however, I have to say flat out that this is by far the best remote-based user interface I have tried in a plane.

There are a few simple things to expect from any user interface: consistent, intuitive, visually pleasing, and that there is little to no lag time in terms of responsiveness. Yet you would be surprised how many in-flight systems fail to deliver on the basics. The A380’s in-flight system has a few very small flaws but it clearly sets a new standard – I am curious whether it is the work of Airbus’s or Singapore Airlines’ interface designers?

By the way, the interactive system does not limit itself to entertainment (movies, music, games) and to flight information. It also offers the Sun StarOffice productivity suite – you can launch a word processor or a spreadsheet program, and plug a USB key in the seat to save your work. The seat connectivity also includes a video-in feed, a network cable plug and even the economy class seats feature Empower electric power plugs.

If you are interested, you can watch more screen shots and pictures on Flickr: cabin and interior, entertainment menu screens shots, flight information menu screen shots, productivity menu screen shots.

I was really impressed by the incredible attention to detail in order to improve every single aspect of the flight experience. In my humble opinion, all other things being equal (price, class…) it will be very hard to beat, let alone match the new benchmark established by the A380. In fact, bar the seat recline and the meal, my A380 economy class experience on Singapore airlines did not seem too far off from what some US carriers offer in business class.

I have talked mainly about the “product” until now, so let me continue and conclude with a few words about the communication.

In my initial post, I wrote about Singapore Airlines’ dedicated A380 web site, a key element of their marketing to support the plane. There is also a significant presence through paper billboards and digital displays in the airline’s main operations hub, Changi Airport. The airport is featured prominently, given the effort to adapt the airport infrastructure for the A380.

The rest of the communication does not emphasize the benefits of the A380 but on which routes the plane will be flown.

This complements the significant word of mouth activity around the new plane. There were actually tens of passengers taking pictures of the plane before take-off and after landing… and the search engine traffic on my own blog around the A380 is another anecdotal evidence of the lively online buzz.

The A380 success is not assured yet, given the economic uncertainty facing the world economy and the increasing pressure on oil prices that airlines are facing. Regardless, the Airbus A380 is highly likely to be considered in the future as a key milestone in the evolution of the aeronautics industry.

Would you have a few minutes for a brain map?

A few weeks ago, publications like The Economist and Discovery Channel reported the results of research linking price and perception of quality in wine. It was essentially a blind taste with different bottles of wine priced differently.

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However, unknown to the study participants, researchers included some of the same wines twice, presenting them as different wines with different price tags. Wine enjoyment was directly and strongly related to the perceived price tag, more so than to the actual content of the glass.

This has direct implications for marketers of luxury and premium products. Take note, Starbucks! It also means that “trading up” should not be considered just a passing fad, even if the trend is likely to be affected by an economic downturn.

The striking part is the tools that were used for this research. It was yet another example of using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) for marketing and consumer research purposes.

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Neuroscience technologies have their original roots in the medical world: as the price and the size of the equipment is decreasing, brain mapping usage is becoming widespread … from evaluating soda formulas to cars and (of course) US presidential candidates.

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In my opinion, there are at least three reasons that make MRI technology so attractive for market research.

First, unlike other research tools, it promises to reveal the real nature of audience reactions, not just what they claim to think. It also helps capturing an overall brain response to multiple sensory stimuli, which brings the results closer to real life. Finally, this type of technology brings a flavor of precision and exactness to a marketing discipline that still resembles more art than science.

There are obviously clear limits to mention: brain maps deliver fairly basic information, allowing to only read simple reactions such as pleasure and displeasure. Furthermore even if the brain response that MRI captures is more holistic in nature, the complex installation process does not bode well for spontaneity and the resulting environment will remain a far-from-perfect recreation of real life situations. Having said that, the observer effect applies to other market research techniques as well.

Implementation remains complex and limits sample sizes. I think this has an impact on the way the technology is being used: there is a clear focus on highlighting universal patterns, rather than identifying clusters and differences. Let me explain that in simpler terms 🙂

For example, if researchers could repeat their experiment on wine price and taste with a larger sample, they could start investigate a lot of other questions on the “price enjoyment factor”: Is it roughly the same for everyone or does it vary by age or sex? Does the impact vary depending on people’s disposable income? If people were to receive “bargains” on premium product, how does the size of the bargain impact their enjoyment of the product?

Even if the technology is still in its infancy, we are probably witnessing the dawn of a new era in market research. One day, brain maps may well replace surveys. In fact, here is a tell tale sign: research giant Nielsen just invested in a company called Neurofocus.

I would also expect some interesting developments coming from the videogame industry, as they have tried for years to develop control systems directly linked to brainwaves – and they would surely be interested in making two-way devices that can read how much a player is enjoying its gaming experience.

If anything, this will create a brand new field of investigation for privacy advocates!

2008 Trend Blend

Just came across the latest trend map published a few weeks ago by futurologists Nowandnext.com.

They borrowed from the Shanghai subway map and chose to elevate 5 key trends: Anxiety, Ageing, Globalisation, Digitalisation, Virtual Worlds.

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On a similar topic and with more focus on the here and now than the future, I would recommend Mark Penn’s book “Microtrends”. Since Mark Penn is one of the main advisers behind the Hillary Clinton campaign you can definitely see how that sort of targeted thinking has become increasingly important in marketing aspiring U.S. presidential candidates.

And for the Tufte fans amongst you, more on subway / underground maps!

EMI group moving from retail to media

Back in October, I wrote a post about how the music industry had lost control of the music distribution and retail game to Apple… and how it would probably have little choice but to evolve into a content business funded by advertising. Well, it looks like this transformation may happen at a much faster pace than anticipated.

Recently published numbers have shown the extent of the music industry crisis: record sales fell 15% in 2007 compared to 2006, and even the 45% growth in digital downloads does not seem to be enough to reverse the music industry’s retail fortunes.

Like many other companies, EMI Group was acquired last year by a private equity group and that usually translates rapidly into a dual effort to cut costs and increase revenues. In EMI’s case, what caught my attention are the plans to aggressively seek corporate sponsorship arrangements beyond youth / lifestyle brands like Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

From time.com: “Dreaming up new ways to make money is vital. One solution: teaming willing artists’ albums up with corporate sponsors, as EMI plans to do. That might have some artists turning in their grave — just imagine that, John Lennon — but with music arenas often branded these days, EMI is confident it can sell the idea to some of its talent. Coldplay’s next CD, brought to you by ExxonMobil, anyone?”

Full article here.