How to offer simple RSS badges for your users

The key breakthrough that made it possible for YouTube to ride on MySpace’s heavy traffic coattails into its current state as a mass media service is the concept of widgets, often called badges in related contexts. Although offering widgets or badges may seem like a far off idea for most web site owners to internalize yet, there are a few tools that can make this a snap to offer your users if you’re ready for it.

(I’ll assume here that you already know what widgets and badges are. If you don’t, I’ve been tagging articles addressing the topic of widgets that may be helpful.)

In the case of YouTube, they allowed users to post the YouTube video player to any web page with a simple copy and paste operation. Since most web site owners are dealing mostly with text, the equvilent would likely be a feed of RSS content that people could display on a web page. It would clearly be best to allow your users to display a feed of the things they are contributing to your web site, but if you don’t have user-contributed data to give back to your users it’s still worth trying to offer this functionality using your own content to see what happens.

Here’s a really cool tool I recently found that made it possible for me to offer badges to users on the FlipBait web site. It’s an open source service called Feed2JS, and it appears to be developed by Alan Levine. It requires another open source service called MagpieRSS to operate, but MagpieRSS takes maybe 10 minutes at most to download and install.

After you download and install these scripts you can point to a feed you want to display nicely and get the code back that you can include on any web site to show that feed.

In other words, you now have a badge platform to offer your uses.

I tried this out on the FlipBait web site, and it worked out of the gate. In fact, you can now see on my blog sidebar here the posts I’ve submitted to FlipBait. Each user on the site has access to his badge via his profile page. Now everyone can take their contributions with them wherever their “Internet startup news” identity gets expressed.

It couldn’t have been much easier to setup either. I’m hoping, actually, that the Pligg team incorporates something like this into the source code.

There are also some nice formatting capabilites in Feed2JS that would make people happy, I’m sure. But that adds some complexity I’ll address at a later date. The important thing is to push out a feature like this, watch for uptake, and then evolve it.

I’d be interested to know if other people have tried any other similar solutions or used tools from some of the recent startups in this space and what their experiences have been. Please comment or blog about it if you’ve found another way to accomplish this without having to write the code yourself.

Open source software as a customer capture tool

I just started messing around with a product called SugarCRM which is an open source sales contact management tool much like Salesforce.com.

SugarCRMThey’ve done a really clever thing which is to build a revenue model around the added services rather than try to charge for the core software. You can download the same app that everyone else uses and install it yourself for free. But if you’re not up to the installation challenge, you can let them host it for you and get started in about 5 minutes for a $40/month usage fee. They charge more for additional services that larger groups may require.

I simultaneously started playing with the Salesforce.com free 30 day trial so that I could compare products. But I quickly realized that my learning curve for operationalizing any CRM system as part of my business was much more than 30 days. I also realized that I wanted the ability to do some major customizations which most likely need to happen at the code level. And I figured a Salesforce.com rep was going to call me and start selling to me which seemed like a fair price to pay but one I could actually do without. In fact, I got a call within 24 hours.

I wouldn’t have considered any of these issues as requirements except for the fact that they are available to me. I downloaded the SugarCRM software, installed it, configured it and uploaded a bunch of data in one afternoon. I now have a view into my customer pipeline that is going to simplify both strategic decisions as well as synthesize the variety of conversations happening across the business.

Now, I’m sure that Salesforce.com is more robust and that they have a lot of services and data integration methods I can’t get with SugarCRM. It must work better for larger organizations. I’m sure that Salesforce.com is more reliable, has fewer bugs, has more 3rd party developer tools, etc. At InfoWorld I learned that the cost of open source software becomes time and customization work which is sometimes more expensive than paying service fees (Aug. 2002, April 2006).

The San Francisco Chronicle noted this week that Salesforce.com is in a strong position with its model:

“A growing number of small businesses already realize that, despite recent problems, on-demand software makes more sense than setting up your own computer network.”

A sales manager at Salesforce.com informed me that he has never personally had to sell against SugarCRM in any of his calls. The market for it is probably pretty small.

However I just can’t help but I wonder if SugarCRM is in a position to do to Salesforce.com what Salesforce.com once did to Siebel, undercutting on price and extending efficiencies further out to the edge. The edge used to be self-serve style software as a service. SugarCRM went further and took the edge all the way out to the open source community.

A CRM app isn’t core to running my business. I can do what I need with spreadsheets. But if this tool makes my life easier or allows me to spread intelligence further or faster or if I’m able to make decisions I couldn’t otherwise visualize in my head, and I suspect it might, then I will definitely invest more heavily in it. At that point I may be calling on SugarCRM for additional services.

This software model also has the nice effect of helping me drive myself through the customer marketing funnel at my own pace. At the end of it, I won’t mind paying them for their services, and, in fact, I might be asking to pay for them. What sales person wouldn’t rather receive calls than make them?

Of course, the moment I need services that are worth paying for, I may need to switch to Salesforce.com. SugarCRM is banking on the possibility that I’ll reach user lock in before I get to that point. If I have to make that decision, then it means things are going well. And for that, SugarCRM will already have “loyalty” checked off in their column of my product comparison chart.

A good marketer doesn’t have to advertise

The real power structures behind the advertising industry appear to be staring at the Internet for the first time. The big agencies, in particular, are wondering how to make money as the vehicles they once relied on lose influence in the market. It was probably people like Warren Buffett who finally convinced them that something actually really scary is happening:


Photo: Thomas Hawk

“The outlook for newspapers is not great. In the TV business, a license from the government was essentially the right to a royalty stream. There were basically three highways to people’s eyeballs, and companies like P&G, Ford, Gillette, and GM would pay a significant amount of money to be get on those highways and advertise their products to a mass audience. But as the ways to get in front of people’s eyeballs increases, the value of those highways goes down.”

What’s a marketer to do? They are desparate for attention. In many cases they even threaten to drop campaigns if they don’t get editorial coverage.

“Almost 50 percent (48.9%) of senior marketing executives reported paying for an editorial or broadcast placement – and almost half of those who haven’t said they would…If 65% of consumers assume that the products, companies or services they read about are there because someone paid for them – and half of marketers have actually paid for media coverage – the press, PR industry and news consumers are all in trouble.” (via Forbes.com)

Buying coverage isn’t how you get people to spread the word about your product. It’s also shortsighted if not suicidal to damage the credibility of the vehicles that you rely on to communicate trusted messages with your customers.

There is another way, however.

I’ve been watching Colin Roche turn his PenAgain invention into a real story with real coverage from big outlets over the past 3 years or so now. I don’t think he has spent a single dollar in marketing, yet media coverage only improves and as a result sales keep soaring.

This stratgegy is not for the weak. Colin keeps a handful of pens in his pocket at all times. He hands one out to everyone he talks to pointing out the latest enhancements such as the new packaging or the new flip cap spring. He makes people feel like they are helping a guy startup a cool little company with him.

He slips it into conversation whenever he gets a chance. He sends his pens to famous people. He sends them to reporters and editors. He chats with store owners who are selling his pen knowing that they are going to help sell it, too.

Everyone is not only a customer in Colin’s eyes, everyone is a potential marketing vehicle for him.

Colin has also refined the “story” of his company. It’s all true. He did in fact dream it up in detention in high school. And the name did come to him after someone woke him up and he said, “I was dreaming about that pen again.” But it’s these anecdotes that make his company feel human and interesting to talk about.

Colin also just started blogging and is now collecting photos of people using the PenAgain on flickr. His flickr photo stream looks like the walls of a New York City diner covered with images of people shaking hands with the owner.

He’s doing all the right things to help people who love his product share his enthusiasm for it.

Contrast his marketing efforts with traditional advertising agencies and you’ll find people stuck with a system that doesn’t work. Agencies get paid more for the expensive print and television campaigns than they ever will for search marketing. They have no incentive to jump into the online space and will continue to sell their clients on the virtues of big expensive branding efforts.

And then you have the media buyers who get paid for allocating a big budget across media vehicles that meet the agency’s campaign goals. But since the goal is usually wide exposure, media buyers have to use vehicles like TV and big circulation magazines to justify their existence. And there’s no incentive to spend less than the budget…quite the contrary. The more they spend, the harder their job is which means they can justify billing for more.

Agencies and buyers are both wrapped up in a dynamic that profits from the waste they create. This worked when there was more friction in the distribution process, as Umair Haque will tell you, but media has taken a lube bath on the Internet and the need for an expensive shoehorn to squeeze expensive campaigns through no longer fits. (yikes…bad mixed metaphor there. sorry.)

“Edge platforms have a number of key features. The most familiar are that they’re often massively distributed, and open-access….they can usually almost completely vaporize the fixed costs of production from most of the resources that are necessary and sufficient to compete in those industries.”

Similarly, Jeff Jarvis sees a tipping point coming for the advertising industry:

“Advertisers can get away with moving slowly – for now – because they are the ones with the money. Funny how that works. But this won’t last for long, as one client and then one agency discovers that the lazy, traditional, one-stop-shopping of TV upfront and the big-media lunch circuit is inefficient, wasteful, untargeted, irrelevant, and ultimately damned irritating to your customers.”

At the end of the day, the product vendor doesn’t want to work as hard as someone like Colin to sell their product. If they did, then they would be inventing their own things and selling them to the world. The moment they hire an agency to take on that work, they have jumped into a spending whirlpool.

What they should be doing instead is talking about their product every day with everyone they meet and crafting the story that will get other people talking about their product for them. They need infectious enthusiasm for their products, not clever billboards.


Photo: jjjjjjj

Product sales isn’t getting any easier. In fact, it might be getting harder. Since the Colin Roche’s of the world are learning how easy it is to manufacture interesting products, and anyone with a computer can tell their story on the world’s stage, it probably means that selling things is more competitive than ever before.

If marketing industry leaders want to retain the downtown office spaces, nice chairs and designer clothes by riding on cushy vendor marketing budgets, they have to reinvent themselves in ways that make them invisible again. Forget about the Clio awards. You need to get back to work finding ways to get your clients and their customers talking with eachother about eachother.

I recommend starting out by pretending you have no budget before that becomes the reality.

Copycat ad networks threaten Google’s stability

Any successful business model is going to have imitators.  Google knows this as well as anybody.   But now the stranglehold on the distributed ad model is feeling weaker than ever with new competitors every day.

The magic formula = isolate revenue collection system into a platform + make it available to other web sites – share earnings back to transaction/click source.

Yahoo! rolled out a similar offering about a year ago with YPNeBay launched their own version recently.  Amazon has had their affiliate program for years.  Kanoodle, IndustryBrains, Feedburner and a host of others all know this solution with their own twist on it.  Media networks such as IDG smartened up to the opportunity, as well.

The magic formula is showing cracks, though.  Click fraud is not being measured effectively by independent audits nor is payment being adjusted to compensate for it.  And Google has no short term incentive to solve the problem just as Microsoft once had no incentive to fix Windows security threats.

Linux gave Microsoft reason to change.  I wonder who will push Google into panic mode.  They may just sleepwalk into the death trap as long as their search market share remains strong.

Though have no doubt that Google can change.  At some point Schmidt’s insistence that Google is a technology company may actually trickle down and create some revenue opportunities that are more service based.  If they can scale their office products for mass adoption and perhaps create a browser optimized for those products, then they will finally have a potential revenue model to match the rhetoric.

The question is whether the market share losses surely in AdSense’s near future will fracture Wall Street’s love affair with the company before they can not only diversify but also stabilize on a mix of technology service revenue streams.

I can’t even imagine the complexity of the cultural war that will wage internally when/if the “technology” part of the business actually becomes a real slice of Google’s revenue pie.  Manufacturing consent will probably work while Google continues to grow.  I’d still hate to be on a “technology” product team at a company where 99% of the revenue comes from media products…wait…from one media product.

The Google Phd’s are probably predicting the copycats, the corporate positioning conflicts and internal competitive challenges as I write this, but are they smart enough to get their Product Managers and Biz Dev guys to help them actually figure out how to solve the problems, or do they just write papers and send long emails with subject lines in all caps?

CORPORATE STRATEGY RESEARCH STUDY: IMPACT OF ‘TECHNOLOGY’ MARKET POSITION IN THE FACE OF MULTI-FRONT WAR ON ONLY REVENUE STREAM MAY CAUSE INTERNAL STRIFE

Maybe Microsoft’s MSN team has some advice for Google’s technology product teams about operating in the shadow of the cash cow.

Why (and how) the online ad model needs to change

Somehow I keep expecting some company to break through and solve the problems with the Google AdSense model. As advertisers, buyers and media vehicles get smarter about efficiency, the holes in the system get bigger and bigger.

AdSense revenues help a lot of mid to large-sized web sites, but really more as incremental revenue. By the time you’re big enough for AdSense to support your business there are several other revenue opportunities with larger payouts avaiable to you.

And there’s no doubt that AdSense (and most Internet advertising) is failing to help people find and buy the things that matter to them. How can it be that we have an ad model that is considered wildly successful when a campaign or ad unit gets a click-through rate of 1%? And the reality is that it’s much much worse than that on average.


Photo: DWS

Why are click through rates so low? Because the ads don’t matter to people. They aren’t relevant. They don’t help people identify products or brands that matter to them. They don’t help people locate the right deal at the right time.

Yes, some people get lucky if they’re paying attention. There wouldn’t have been $5B in search ad revenue in the market in 2005 if nobody was clicking on the ads. But the click performance and subsequent conversion rates suggest this kind of ad network is just a spray hose of wasteful bits showering the Internet with clutter.

It doesn’t work for advertisers, either. Advertisers want more control over their ads, where they appear and to whom they are shown. Blanketing text links blindly across the Internet does not necessarily result in paying customers. They know they’re wasting money, but they can’t afford not to be present in the network.

The AdSense model does much more to help Google and the Google shareholders than it does to help any of the customers it is supposed to serve.

I think the Amazon affiliate program is much closer to a more sustainable ad model for the future. When you can track clicks all the way to a sale then everybody wins. The weakest link in the Amazon affiliate chain is the media vehicle which has to work a lot harder to drive clicks that convert to sale. But the buyer and the seller are both happy, and that’s ultimately what matters most.

I’d love to see an ad network that is able to let media vehicles optimize the ad content and display rules for the ads. The look and feel of an ad is not going to crank up the conversion rates. Media vehicles need to help the right ad get to the right person.

For example, when I post on my blog, I should be able to flag a stream of ad content and define the type of algorhythm that makes the most sense for that post and the users who are most likely to read it. This post should probably link to lead generation service providers even though I haven’t explicitly used the term “lead generation” anywhere in the post…uh, well, you get the idea.

Likewise, users should be able to self-identify as buyers. I haven’t yet setup a wifi network in my home, so I’d love for every tech-related web site I visit to show me the latest deals and setup guides and retailers for wifi gear. I’d actually like the content on all those sites to adjust, as well. I want to see what’s new and interesting at these sites, but they should be able to surface content from deep in their archives that is relevant to the things I’m actively pursuing. My intent should edit the home page for me.

I guess I’m saying that somebody needs to build a service that on one side connects directly into an advertiser’s sales conversion or transaction systems and on the other side distributes marketing links and images for media vehicles to take and optimize. The system should track performance across the chain and offer optimization options at all points along that chain.

Pieces of this exist and some of it is very complicated, I know, but I don’t see why efficiencies can’t be improved. And if enough advertisers are able to offer affiliate programs to track impression-to-click-to-sale, then they may even start competing with eachother and offer better incentives to media vehicles that find customers for them.

Users would see ads for things they want to buy. Advertisers would sell more product. And media vehicles would earn more from the revenue share.  Where’s the down-side?

Reach vs target marketing: how to reduce the waste

There are 2 somewhat opposing forces that advertisers are always trying to reconcile:

  1. broader reach
  2. higher precision

Search marketing solves the former. And niche publishing solves the latter. It seems to me that there are ways everyone could benefit from combining those systems in some way.

What B2B trade publishing discovered is that more valuable customers can actually be found and identified with the right kind of carrot. The methodology is very simple. If the value of the content on offer is higher than the cost of obtaining it, then people will give the publisher marketable data about themselves.

Globalization and Innovation by John Hagel and John Seely BrownIt hit me after giving my email and then downloading John Hagel’s and John Seely Brown’s PDF’s that I should be able to setup something like this through a simple self-serve tool if I wanted the same functionality on my site. There are a couple of longer papers I’ve been considering writing, and I’ve started playing with screencasts that might be particularly valuable to certain people.

If my paper or screencast had specific advertiser appeal, I should be able to triage the lead collection and bidding for temporary access to those people who agreed to be contacted in exchange for the content.

There are some smaller players who focus on certain kinds of lead generation activities. Some focus on webcasts such as Accela and On24, others on PDF’s such as ITBusinessEdge and IT.com.

Online tech publisher TechTarget purchased BitPipe in late 2004 for $40M, a successful whitepaper-based lead gen provider, so they could own the whole service chain from promotion to lead collection. This is very smart as they collect ad revenue all the way along the marketers path.

The next step after that, of course, is to connect directly into the sales channel at the advertiser’s side. That way you could watch the whole chain. You could see which promotions converted to leads and then translated into sales.

KnowledgeStorm shares this vision and has made some progress toward that end. They offer a lead generation system in tech B2B publishing which includes several methods for following up with the leads they pass to marketers. For example, they actually phone the lead and ask whether or not they purchased anything. (It turns out that in many cases the marketer doesn’t even contact the lead.)

There’s a lot of work going into algorhythmic improvements to ad targeting and behavioral approaches to identifying the right customer for a particular advertiser. These are certainly important, but there’s a much larger opportunity, in my opinion, in a distributed lead capture system. As always, the first to market in that kind of ecosystem will be difficult to unseat.

Regardless of who gets there first, that kind of efficiency would potentially create a win-win-win across the board. The marketer could spend less to get more, better customers. The publisher would improve yields on their already limited inventory. And people would get more relevant promotions for the things that interest them…well, we can dream, at least.