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21

Apr 2011

Is Amazon trying to manipulate innocent indie developers?

Posted in Business tactics, Technology | 0 Comments

I own an Android phone, and one of the advantages is access to a marketplace that’s extremely easy to use, and has a lot of high-quality content there to try, buy, or download for free that may not meet Apple’s sometimes excessively picky standards. The downside to any good software market is that eventually, someone will come up with the idea that their company can offer the same stuff, but in a different way and in a manner that they can profit from.

Simply, Amazon are slightly dodgy people when it comes to supporting small organisations or businesses, and I think this is becoming increasingly obvious. From their sudden lack of support of WikiLeaks to this latest debacle, the clear message they are sending is that they’re out for number one only. The organisation who brought their failings to light this time around was none other than the International Game Developers Association, who have illustrated in a well-thought-out blog post that Amazon’s contract with developers clearly treats them rather badly in a number of ways.

First of these, and in my opinion one of the worst of all the bizarrely scam-esque clauses in their contract with a developer is the clause in which it is stated that if you, say, generate more sales with a 50% price-slash on Google’s Android Markerplace, you have to slash prices by 50% on Amazon’s market as well. Fine, that’s okay. But when you’re putting prices back to normal after the promotional period is over, you cannot do that on Amazon’s marketplace.

Small businesses get started in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is by being able to offer a lot of content for a small price, then raising the price again once a promotional figure has brought in a sufficient user base. Is it then justifiable to expect them to subsist, as a business that, like any person, requires money to retain a sense of stability, merely by selling their products and services for a lower price than is necessary? Sure, the customer wins, but what does the customer “win” when the business goes bust due to Amazon’s sneaky pricing clauses?

What’s worse is that the IGDA are worried that this may prompt other Android marketplaces to do the same thing, and that’s simply not on. Creating an environment where you can only sell your product at the price you want to and have it fluctuate both high and low, and then putting that next to a thousand similar marketplaces, some of even higher quality, where your product could be sold permanently for less simply drives everyone away from the only fair market for your business.

It’ll be interesting to see how Amazon respond to the IGDA’s comments, but I doubt they will to any informative or even honest degree, much like they did when it came to answering why, exactly, they felt the need to boot WikiLeaks off their servers the moment Cablegate hit the headlines. Interesting insights by an organisation who care about small developers, who are clearly trying to protect individuals who don’t.

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28

Mar 2011

Has eBay given up on being eBay?

Posted in Business tactics | 0 Comments

Two-point-four billion dollars. The highest purchase eBay’s ever made, and now GSI Commerce is theirs, they’ve got access to a mind-numbing amount of brands, in an ongoing attempt to transform themselves from the site that’s sold everything from your old wardrobe to one person’s virginity and someone else’s blackness, to something more similar to Amazon.

Sadly, it’s not going to work. If you found yourself on the principles of an open market, an auction house that allows anyone to sell almost anything, and find success beyond your wildest dreams, you have one main advantage: your service tends to make Amazon’s Marketplace look fairly bad.

A crisis meeting may have been called. Evidence that Amazon Marketplace is, in fact, very reliable, was probably shown to company directors. And of course, most eBay users do not log on to buy anything from eBay itself.

In their new direction, I think this may be what eBay are missing – they are not an online shop to most people. They are the site where people sell their stuff, nothing but a middle-man. To start selling products out of their own garage is going to throw people, slightly. I’ve seen their brand pages, and even after getting over my aversion to eBay a wee while back (my old argument being it’s being run by anonymous users with infinitely less accountability than corporations – incorrect, I know), I wouldn’t touch them with a tent pole.

It’s worth asking what makes me feel that way, and I guess the answer would simply be that they’re not a company I buy things from, just a site I use to buy things from random people around the world. I’d stick with that angle, because no one’s ever going to out-do them.

Competing with Amazon, even if you’re just as big, if not even bigger, is a fairly silly idea. As is Microsoft’s attempt to rival Google’s eponymous engine with Bing. It begs the question of why, exactly, companies this large haven’t yet realised that they are their own brand. Amazon is “buy new stuff, at a shop on the web.” eBay is “bid on auctions”. They all have their unique angles, and bar Apple and Google, no one’s done that well by attempting to branch out.

Arguably, the range of brands is impressive, with GSI Commerce having deals with everyone from Ralph Lauren to Hewlett-Packard. The problem this raises is that sellers are now going to need to slash their prices.

It’s a buyer’s market – if I know eBay’s doing a Ralph Lauren polo for £80, I can guarantee someone’s selling it, with postage costs included, for £75. It looks like a bizarre eventuality, of eBay competing in a price-war with its own users. Then again, if it wasn’t going well, it wouldn’t be expanding, so we’ll wait and see.

Still getting my new stuff from sellers and Amazon, though. For now.

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31

Jan 2011

Is print becoming obsolete?

Posted in Technology | 0 Comments

For many of you, whether you own an e-reader or not, it’s likely the news that Amazon’s selling more e-books than paperbacks has not come as a shock. The Kindle has single-handedly changed the way consumers look at literature, and allowed for a wider entryway for new writers. But it’s definitely an eyebrow raiser to learn they’ve now sold more Kindles than anything else in their history, including the final book in the Harry Potter septilogy. But what does it say about the way we’re consuming media, these days?

Print has changed. The rise of blogs and news websites and their composite RSS and Twitter feeds has rendered the daily paper nearly obsolete – unless you’re the editor of The Telegraph and you’ve got a pen to hand, existing articles on a bit of paper still can’t be updated. However, even if you do want to read it, it’s delivered to the Kindles of thousands of people, every morning, for a reasonably small fee.

It’s hard to see the need for a cumbersome paper for the commute, with its endless magazines and removable sections, when you can carry around a small machine that enables you to access everything from Mansfield Park to your latest revenue figures in seconds, on a screen that looks like paper anyway. So what does that mean for advertising?

If you own a Kindle (and if you don’t, try it out – like me, you may find that your initial wariness turns to a new-found addiction to reading outside of your usual genres within hours, if not minutes), then you’ll know it doesn’t do advertising. But if that’s the case, are businesses who rely on those little ads in the Sunday sections are going to suffer. Supposedly it’s not too difficult to build adverts into your current content, but are you going to lose out when it comes to several industries built around pulped trees?

A lot of people have serious issues with giving up paper altogether. They claim it’s traditional, that there’s nothing better than the feel of a book in your hands. I agree, to some extent. It still feels like I’m reading a pseudo-novel, something not quite tangible, even on the Kindle’s e-ink screen. But when it comes to storing books on SEO that would weigh my bag down, why not the Kindle? I work through journalism, manuscripts and of course, read a lot of literature, so it suits my purposes.

Small businesses focusing on documentation are going to want to start refining the way they do business. Offering Kindle transfers of PDF documents optimised for being read on the device (Kindle offer optimisation but it comes at a price – on a 300 page document, that’s going to cost the world) might be the smart move. There are other e-readers out there, but the Kindle’s dominance is so clear that it’s like comparing the Sony Walkman and the iPod. We’re talking thousands of these things sold on a weekly basis, and soon enough a significant portion of the globe will have made the switch.

HD was a hard change, 3D HD will take years or not work at all. So why have we taken to the Kindle so easily? Is it the ease of use, or the fact it’s not too different from the endless screeds of opinion and fictional wordplay that we consume through our phones (Kindle App, right? I should be earning commission, at this rate) and computer screens on a daily basis. Eventually, RSS feed integration and social media will mean we could end up with a device that “does everything”, and appeals to the non-techno savvy.

Just hope the Kindle isn’t a mind-control device, and that Amazon eventually open up to advertising – as a marketing blogger, that’d be great news. But I’ll admit, as a consumer, it’d ruin the device. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the pros and cons of changing the Kindle to become a more universal device, though I’ll state now that its current form (3rd generation) is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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13

Dec 2010

Why can’t businesses cope with DDoS attacks?

Posted in Business tactics, News, Web 2.0 | 0 Comments

Last night, I had almost completed such a monumental task, that it seemed the world held its breath, and one of the most popular websites widened its eyes at my efforts. I was working on one of the most intense tasks that can be completed using a computer, something that truly showcases cunning, daring, intelligence and drive beyond all reasonable doubt.

I had almost finished my Christmas shopping.

However, with half an hour or so to go before I hit the checkout, Amazon died. I tried reloading. Still dead. The reality dawned on me, I realised that when Anonymous stated they didn’t have the numbers to pull down Amazon.com, they’d decided on a “smaller” target: Amazon EU. Of course, within minutes Twitter was ablaze with Christmas shoppers, irate that one of the busiest online shopping days of the year had been interrupted for political reasons.

Now, I became pretty torn. On the one hand, I think the idea of a political hacktivist is something quite incredible. If you’re a company who severed ties with an organisation who could be said to be standing up for openness and freedom of speech (the very bedrocks’ of Western democracy), then they’re coming for you. Fine. But not when it interrupts the Christmas shopping of others, right? Then I noticed a retweet of some poor bloke who’d been stuck thousands of miles from home with no cash due to Visa getting hit hard by the Anonymous chaps.

It makes you think, doesn’t it. Why are businesses so vulnerable to the biggest modern threat to their continued operation and success? DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks are nothing new, but online stores and services are likely to collapse completely whenever they occur. I’m sure Amazon has a phone network, not to mention considerable externally hosted (I’d hope, anyway) customer support, so why was everyone left in the cold?

As it is, they deny that it was a WikiLeaks-motivated hack, but let’s be realistic, here. Amazon are in essence implying their hardware is poor rather than admit they were the victims of a DDoS attack. This is ridiculous, and if anything confirms it was Anonymous, who were tweeting about it being down, but not admitting being the culprits because they were reluctant to lose their accounts again.

As for the thousands, if not millions of customers Amazon was serving that weekend, did none of them think to ring Amazon up? Of course not, because unlike a shop that has both online and physical storefronts, Amazon has no back-up plan, and therein lies the rub. If you were, like me, on the verge of not having things delivered in time (and thankfully I’ve swung it, in the end) and there wasn’t even a phone number you could call to order your goods, you were stuffed.

If you’re a small business that sells goods in an online-only fashion, take careful, careful note. The internet is a fickle thing at best, and although none of you will be hosting WikiLeaks any time soon (though credit to you if you do), be careful how you treat your customers while your site is vulnerable to an attack against which there is no defense whatsoever.

Take care of your customers – update your error pages, offer them customer support numbers and email addresses, and reassure them that while you may be getting pushed over by the big DDoS bully in the playground, their data remains safe and the site will be up as soon as possible. Don’t do what Amazon did – deny the whole thing and never offer the majority of stuck shoppers any kind of updates or support. That way leads spoiled Christmases, and Amazon’s looking like the Grinch a little too much for their liking at the moment as it is.

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3

Aug 2010

Are online-only companies even more faceless?

Posted in Business tactics | 0 Comments

I feel frustrated with Amazon sometimes. I’m sold on their new Kindle for the UK, and I’ll order products from them over anyone else. However, recently, I ordered a DVD box set which arrived, as have many Amazon-bought products as of late, not in the best condition, and certainly not what most people would classify as “new”.

Now, what to do about this? I complained, of course, but nothing’s happened. I’ve received no voucher, no apology whatsoever. Nothing. Silence. What makes it even more insulting is there wasn’t even an automatic response, no “Dear Customer, we’re sorry to hear”, just a complete lack of care.

Currently, Amazon are beginning to sell more best-sellers in their Kindle e-book format than in physical form, as I mentioned last week. However, they seem to have forgotten that those ordering physical products aren’t going to be pleased if they’re arriving in poor condition. You can’t dog-ear or scuff a Kindle download, but you can break the hearts of literature lovers with a book in shoddy condition.

It would seem, with the arrival of the Kindle, and now especially BankSimple, the world’s first “online-only bank”, that those willing to go all-digital get a better deal when it comes to quality of service. With BankSimple, this means low-to-zero fees, great rates and less paying out for the offices and branches that need to be paid for, rented, furnished and staffed as a result. But what about the downsides?

One of them would definitely be the lack of actual human interaction. I’m as loathe to sit on the phone talking to a bored twenty-something in a call centre as the next person, but I like the fact that I can walk into Abbey, Lloyds TSB or Citibank and actually speak to someone. I can’t do that with Amazon, or Paypal, and that’s a major source of worry. Being able to know that there are people who have to deal with their customers face-to-face, on the other hand, is comforting.

Of course, it’s not the CEO behind the glass wall stamping your cheque, but it’s someone, at least. BankSimple reminds me a bit of the Mac OS X. It’s simple, easy, visually friendly and quick. But it’s so simple that if something goes wrong, figuring out how to fix it can be an exercise in sheer frustration.

So how to promote a brand as human and friendly when you’ve got absolutely no humans on show? Put humans at the forefront of your business strategy. BankSimple’s plan to integrate itself with Facebook Connect and @Anywhere is a vital part of bringing banking to the next level of “online” compatibility. I don’t know about you, but given the choice between the traditional awkward exchange of bank details anywhere but online (our main source of communication now, don’t you know?) or being able to click someone’s name on a network page and transfer funds, I’d take the latter.

So, given the advantages, what about the disadvantages? Everyone’s forgotten, seemingly, about Amazon’s rather awkward George Orwell scandal, but I sure haven’t. What if BankSimple were to make a mistake? You can’t give someone a voucher to replace the money they spent on, well, their money, can you? Social media is a popular but casual affair, and I’m not sure how seriously the bank will attempt to get everyone to update their status while paying off a debt to a friend in the same five minutes on the same site.

People are cagey about money and their purchases, but they’ll talk at length when in the local branch or on the phone with customer service (unless they’re on pay-as-you-go). But if BankSimple reneged on its pledge of loyalty to customers, and became another bail-out bank like the ones it so wishes to put out of business, then what happens?

A word of advice: whenever wondering whether to invest in anything digital where your rights seem blurry, think of  Space Odyssey: 2001. Now imagine the bank telling you they “can’t do that, Michael”, when you’re trying to pay your mortgage. Makes Wall Street look like Sesame Street, doesn’t it? If It’s a Wonderful Life taught me anything, it was that warmth and love for your customers make your bank a good ‘un.

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30

Jul 2010

Do businesses need paper?

Posted in Business tactics | 1 Comment »

I’m going to introduce you to a theory I’ve been formulating today that many old-school businessmen and women would reject instinctively – the paper business document is effectively dead in the water.

My father, a respected and well-known IFA in the UK, often has to refer to legal texts and various volumes in order to make sure he’s doing things “by the book”. A lot of people have this problem – piles or shelves full of books – hardbacks, softbacks, A5, A4, cracked spines, pages falling out, overuse, damage, spilt coffee. It’s a nightmare. But what’s the biggest problem?

Dad seems to feel it’s the weight. If you, like him, are slogging it through Moorgate and Bank with a laptop bag that holds not just a netbook, but a 400 page, hard-bound, A4 legal text, it’s going to hurt after a while. That’s a big thing, for a man who could walk from here to Manhattan without stopping for breath. “One block further,” he used to tell us, and we’d mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable marathon to the finish.

Now he uses an Amazon Kindle. I met him for breakfast in Farringdon soon after he’d bought it, and I will admit: I was excited. I adore paper – the feel of the pages, sticking a paperback in my back pocket, reading on the train. But I picked up the Kindle and wanted it more than I’ve wanted most material objects I’ve seen, as appetising as the scrambled eggs on toast I had that morning. It also contained PDF files, many of them, and some of them hundreds of pages long. Was his back as sore? Not any more.

Currently, Amazon’s sales of hardback books have been overtaken by its ebook sales, and by 2011, the company predicts ebooks will outsell its physical form. Admittedly that’s just one company, but let’s not mess around, here – it’s Amazon. The online store sells everything bar the kitchen sink, although they do outsource a fair few items (DVDs from IndigoStarfish in the UK, for example). The fact they’re seeing the light when it comes to a digital page isn’t just because the Kindle is their platform.

Let me put you in a situation, and picture it for me if you will. You’re in a conference, and you need to read a speech, and refer to several documents. Either you somehow organise several pages of A4 onto a small lectern, or you whip out a Kindle. Ooh, everyone will say, this person’s done this before.

Yeah, it’s an image thing – so what? Why have you all bought the iPhone 4 even though it’s broken? Image. Why do we still buy most things in life? Image. Image is important, and it goes beyond your company logo. Someone with a portable database of files, speeches and charts on what is no larger than a thin paperback is going to feel a lot more organised and less chaotic. I can’t stand ploughing through reams of paper, but I could read PDFs for hours.

Many businesses would argue that the 50 cent price per PDF converted (read: downloaded) by Amazon for your Kindle would amount to thousands within the month. Allow me to debunk this one as well. Buy a USB cable, and do it yourself. It’s no more difficult than using a USB dongle, and it saves you a good tenner a week if you’re getting a lot of client portfolios or sales reports.

The new 3G functionality seals the deal – have a document on your Blackberry, but not the Kindle, and need to transfer on the move? Your Kindle has its own PDF-receptive email address and free wi-fi everywhere it goes in the UK. Add Wikipedia and Google searches, and you’re golden.

Paper is quaint, but we all work on laptops, not typewriters. Let’s move forward, and move on.

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12

Apr 2010

Walk Like an Egyptian

Posted in Blogging | 2 Comments »


Lately, many websites have begun to follow the trend of the inexperienced startup – lots of enthusiastic content, but very little effort put into marketing, expecting the hits to come from (presumably) the quality of the content itself. Allow me to offer a single sentence of advice that will forever change this peculiar perspective.

That hasn’t worked for almost a decade.

What does work (and I’ll go into more detail below) is the following:

  • Making sure your website is as well-designed as possible; making it easy for them to buy or get information from your site means they’ll make purchases and, more importantly, return at a later date.
  • The right kind of advert – if you’re a filmmaker, a wraparound flash advert will work well; some other businesses find a quieter, subtle approach more effective.
  • Suitable advertising format – there are huge differences between text and flash adverts, wraparounds and small adverts in sidebars. Think about your impact and the message you are sending. Do you want to subtly suggest your site, or make a bold and forward statement?
  • Customer feedback – you need to take this into account more than anything else; put yourself in the shoes of the average customer, and take feedback from friends posing as potential customers, or from the customers themselves.

These are just few ideas, and it starts simply. You need to market a website for people to visit – this is as simple as business practice in the real world. Small websites are not like a local florists – although we have word-of-mouth equivalents everywhere from IRC channels to horticultural forums, it’s not going to bring you as much traffic as, say, an advert on Google or a gardening blog will. Hits on sites that are newly built are often random – people will visit sites because a random combination of words in a search by someone looking for a cheeseburger recipe may throw up a link to your article about the lovely yellows and browns of daffodils on fresh soil.

A lot of review and criticism sites have grown steadily by word of mouth, having established themselves in the days when Google was just one of many options, and all anyone could talk about was AOL and their endless amounts of free internet CDs (or floppies, if you’re going back far enough, there’s no shame in the humble slice of plastic). However, these sites, now massive and garnering millions of hits a year, if not per month, have adverts to other sites on them – some will be for the manufacturers of the products they review, and some for sister sites or affiliates that do the same things as their own site, just differently enough not to pose as a competitor for their online title.

So, our florist website. How do we advertise and make this online business bigger? There are a few ways to make sure you’re easily searchable and appealing to those who might just see your advert next to an article on dating advice, and I’ll go into these below.

Step one is most definitely to make sure you’ve got a consistent image and tone across your site. If it comes across or reads like a jumble of half-thought-out ideas and clashing colours, people are going to view your business as a mess, even if this isn’t the case. It’ll cost a pretty penny to get a decent website built, but having a slick online interface for window shoppers and potential customers is the difference between a mangled bookstore’s address and a list of books in a PDF file, and Amazon. Amazon are by no means a site with corporate roots – they clawed their way to the top the same as everyone else, and they benefit because of their presentation and constant redesigns according to feedback from customers. Of course, Amazon’s popularity rose with their use of text adverts – customers hovering over text content talking about subjects relevant to Amazon’s products and services were offered them and as a result, their influence grew mroe subtly than many of the dot com boom businesses.

If you’re looking for feedback on your site, but would rather it came from its users than your online business pals, consider a contact page. Even if it’s a text box, an email slip and a “submit” button, this unassuming bit of HTML can save you a lot of time when considering your next web-expansion and what direction to go in. When the site is slightly larger, consider a forum, though be careful to disguise this – forums tend to encourage criticism and, more often, arguments and heated debates between users, as anonymity is the number one cause of antagonistic online behaviour. Amazon, as our ongoing example, have discussion forums situated deep into their site as opposed to it being a front-page feature – long time customers and site veterans are the main contingent writing content in this area, and this means you’re not clearing out swathes of spam, unwanted or inappropriate content, or dealing with arguments when you could be selling products and services.

The second major thing to consider to is making sure your business or brand is out in the public space. When browsing sites, people tend to take in everything on an internet page, and for this reason everyone from Eurogamer to YouTube are now offering wraparound advertising space to businesses, artists and artistic products. Make sure, however, that any sites you approach and wish to advertise on coincide with your vision and your views, both as a business owner and a person. If you’re working with text-based advertising, many companies will ensure the site your advert appears on is closely related to the site whilst remaining a subtle suggestion – bear in mind doing the job yourself may sometimes lead to problems; specialists are worth what they’re paid. A lot of sites that would seem fine on the surface may contain content that reflects badly on you as both an individual and a CEO, so make sure to nip problems like these in the bud when negotiating with sites about advertising deals.

When advertising on other sites, consider how you’re advertising. Are you using text adverts, banner images, or Google ads? The method by which you’re advertising needs to suit the business you’re running, or you risk confusing potential consumers. Advertising a film with a banner image is smart: it’s a visual advert for a visual medium. Advertising the same film with a text advert isn’t the right direction for it, and this is why it’s rare to see this happening. Going back to our wonderfully convenient (because I’m constantly using it, assumably) analogy, a florists would benefit from any kind of advert – because it’s visual, but we’re also likely to look it up on the web, text adverts supply the same amount of information. Films, games and TV are transient products that aren’t in the commercial space long enough to warrant directory entries, and this is a great acid test when considering whether you want Flash, or some smart SEO text content.

These are just a few ideas to get you started, but consider your options – who are you? What are you offering? How would you want to display these products and services to your target market? Make everything smart and straight-forward, and you’ll attract new visitors whilst still retaining the old ones. If you’re reading this and you sell flowers, however, I think you’re definitely quids in, now.

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