Facebook Questions

Facebook launched a really interesting Questions product a few days ago and after trying it out I have a couple of thoughts on it that I would like to share. Simply put, this service builds on a well documented user behavior exhibited by millions of Facebook users who on a daily basis poll their “friends” using status updates that are questions.

Facebook Questions enables individual Facebook users to ask questions that are then displayed in the public news feed. Replies to the question are threaded under the originating question and the whole feature area is exposed to Facebook’s search function. Anyone viewing the question and the threaded answers can click on buttons to indicate whether or not the question was “helpful” or “not helpful”.

The integration of the feature (service?) is in the sidebar, the news feed, profile area, and a new Questions feature area devoted exclusively to Questions content. BTW, I really don’t know the vocabulary that Facebook uses in reference to their user experience, any online links that lay it out would be appreciated.

Question is not something that companies can readily take advantage of because Questions is not integrated with Community Pages. Each question that is launched also exists exclusively within in full public view, meaning questions cannot be directed exclusively at the follower community for a particular profile.

More significantly, Questions focuses on questions with light, short-form answers, and what that means is that Questions is not applicable for use cases like customer support and social commerce and while there is a “helpful” and “not helpful” button on each reply the fact remains that this is not outcome oriented and no “official answer” capacity exists. In other words, there is no capacity for a customer service rep for a company, in the case of a service and support use case, to act as a moderator for content concerning their products.

While the above is all true I don’t think it really matters to Facebook because they clearly have not conceived this service to be a company-to-person communication tool but rather a person-to-person one. They are committing that Questions will be available in community pages and have an API, but that is a future deliverable and if history is any guide… subject to change.

Facebook has two very distinct competitive targets with Questions, the first is obviously Google. A significant percentage of the searches performed on Google and other search engines are short form questions, as in “what the best taco truck in the Mission?” and “who is the guy in the Dos Equis commercials?”. By excluding Questions from search indexes Facebook is clearly indicating that they want that search traffic to occur inside Facebook rather than in a search engine that brings a Facebook user in.

Facebook’s product roadmap is an all out assault on search engines and by establishing a primary objective of diminishing search engine importance in connecting people with Facebook content. They very clearly has stated that they want people to dwell inside of Facebook longer and use Facebook’s search capability to find content, Questions is a powerful weapon in their arsenal.

This product also represents a symbolic defeat for Microsoft with their very highly regarded Bing search service… it was Bing who first went all out with an ad campaign highlighting the weakness of search as a “decision engine”, which is another way of highlighting the importance of the Q&A search behavior. If anyone should have launched a large scale Q&A service around a search engine it should have been Microsoft… once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The second category of competitor is the dedicated Q&A site, of which Quora and Hunch figure prominently as well as Google’s Aardvark and Yahoo’s relaunched Questions service. it’s not unexpected that the Q&A sites have articulated a spectrum of reasons why what Facebook is doing is not competitive with them but I really don’t think they believe that because it very clearly is competitive.

I really like Quora because they have a kick ass user experience and some remarkably good algorithms for suggesting people I should follow as well as building my own follow community. However the thing about Quora that wins hands down is the quality of the content, which is no doubt a reflection on the quality of the user community that they have attracted. Over time this is harder to sustain while at the same time Facebook’s Questions corpus will feature higher quality providing they work on the mechanisms for enabling efficient surfacing of good content.

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I like Facebook Questions a lot but am also pragmatic enough to recognize that it has some pretty big limitations when it comes to anything but person-to-person Q&A interactions, and their strategy of excluding external search from the content is also a risk because even the most die-hard Facebook users have ingrained behaviors that involve external search for finding content. Facebook’s search is good but it’s not the one I reach for first when looking for something.

Brightidea, Ideas to Innovation

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Vincent Carbone, the COO and co-Founder of Brightidea. The company is one of a small group of vendors pitching solutions that help companies link ideation with managed innovation. I was looking forward to this conversation for two reasons, the first being that Brightidea is a successful 11 year old company that has never taken venture financing (I expect that will change) and as it relates to product R&D, especially for digital products, ideation is contributing to the software tools sector becoming exciting again.

brightidea1.jpg Ideation has always been a funny word to me… it just sounds made up so let’s talk about what ideation is. To greatly simplify the entire market, let us agree that ideation is the process of innovation that begins with collection and sorting of ideas that result in new products or product extensions, validation of the feasibility of ideas, and then integration into a product development process that culminates in a marketing process to create demand for new or improved products. Brightidea calls this “innovation management”… whatever we agree to call it we intuitively recognize that it is a process that every service and product company engages in.

I think it is also appropriate to talk about the distinction between two market segments for ideation products and the distinct requirements that each has. Marketing organizations want ideation that is more appropriately described as a lightweight idea submission and voting mechanism that encourages marketplace engagement, and generally speaking it is also true that marketing driven ideation isn’t primarily concerned with the R&D process even though there is an explicit benefit gained that affects R&D.

I don’t think it’s wrong that marketing driven ideation isn’t primarily oriented to R&D because the process of engaging customer and prospect constituencies drives many benefits that don’t require integration of R&D, like customer satisfaction, marketplace segmentation, new customer group identification, and social commerce through product suggestions keyed off idea submission. I think one of the reasons why streamlined idea submission products are emerging inside community offerings is that marketing organizations see the value of these services in the context of a community effort.

R&D driven innovation management is by definition more structured and while the front end user experience is identical what is happening in the backend is much different. For starters many industries have complex requirements for idea documentation to meet auditing and legal requirements, which is no small requirement on it’s own. Companies also don’t work around the notion of ideas, they work with projects and the management of projects is highly structured with many data points of action and integration.

What begins for many companies as idea brainstorming quickly evolves to a structured process of idea collection, ranking, scoring, and then integration in structured product pipelines where separate process loops interact to manage a portfolio of activities and prioritize according to resources. In short, what starts out as a very simple concept quickly becomes complex because the underlying business function itself is complex and involves many people and disparate activities.

Brightidea is clearly capable of handling the product R&D side of the market and their customer list is a testament to their success in doing just that. I am not suggesting that Brightidea is ill-conceived for the marketing driven side of the market but I’m also not convinced that that is where they should compete. One of the most difficult strategies to pull off in any market is straddling a high price point that serves a direct sale marketplace and a lower cost self-service on demand model that is based on the same product.

Enterprise software vendors have been struggling with price point spread for the last 10 years, therefore I’d say that if you have a business based on direct sales then you go all in on that and tailor price points and product offerings to support the economics of direct selling. Companies like Salesforce.com are successfully dealing in both markets, direct and self-service, but it’s important to recognize that they didn’t start out focused on direct selling and their early leadership driving SaaS resulted in a wave of highly valuable free promotion that they successfully used to lever up their direct business.

I’ve been rambling on in this post about a lot of things not related to Brightidea and the reason I am doing that is that it is important to understand the market context that Brightidea, and others, are operating in. The fact that marketing and product groups operate independent of one another with few points of interaction simply doesn’t have to be that way but each group has unique requirements that pre-position them for different segments of vendors operating in this space. Any company pitching an ideation solution is going to be challenged to straddle marketing and product R&D opportunities, IMO.

The Brightidea product is impressive, at least as impressive as the 300 customers they count using it. The product suite is actually 3 products:

WebStorm: Idea submission and voting.

Switchboard: Scorecarding and routing of ideas.

Pipeline: This is project management at it’s core and integrates with tools like Rally as well.

I’ll close by saying that this market is one to watch and Brightidea is a company that has to be on the shortlist for large company selections of ideation tools. Their customer references are impressive as well as the metrics they track to determine the success of the ideas communities that they are creating. Even though this space is early (as if you could say that about an 11 year old company!) it is clear that by any measure Brightidea is a legitimate leader.

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Puppies!

Some of you may recall that my trusty family dog of 12 years died of cancer last year. It was difficult for me in particular because he was “my” dog before marriage and children, and the idea of getting another dog was a challenge for me to overcome. After months of my wife and children telling me how much they wanted a puppy I contacted a breeder in San Diego to get another Vizsla and then waited… I am pleased to report that yesterday we flew down to San Diego to pick up our 8 week old puppy (name to be determined).

I don’t think I realized how deep the hole in our home was without a dog but it feels filled now, in spite of all the work a puppy brings it is really nice to hear my children playing with one right now.

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Leaving iPhone for Android

This week I picked up an HTC Evo to replace my trusty iPhone 3G. My reason for doing this is twofold, featuring a technical and a philosophical reason.

I should also take a paragraph to explain that this post isn’t about what device is better because better is an entirely subjective quality but more significantly the reality is that the delta between the devices coming out of Apple, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung is so narrow that it is of limited value to determine that one device edges out another. The meaningful difference between Apple and everyone else is that Apple alone decides what, when and how you can use your phone and that is the major reason why I am leaving Apple (I also have no love for AT&T and find Verizon to be expensive when all the extras are added in).

The iPhone 4 is a really impressive device, probably best in class, but the incremental advantages it offers over the Evo simply can’t overcome the the complexity of Apple’s relationship with me as a consumer, whether it be their iron grip on the app marketplace or restriction of features at the behest of their carriers, like tethering. I’ll still buy Apple’s computers as long as they exist today, multi-use pieces of hardware free of unreasonable restrictions on usage but when it comes to Apple’s mobile devices I am done with them.

One of the most subtle of shifts in how Android is different than the iPhone is the relationship the device has with my laptop computer, which is to say none at all. In order for an iPhone (and by extension iPad) to be truly useful it has to be synced with a computer at some point, whether for syncing contacts and address book or more significantly the ability iTunes provides to manage apps.

Android devices exist completely outside of my traditional compute experience, to date I have not needed to connect the device to my laptop for any function. Everything happens over-the-air (OTA) and you don’t appreciate the significance of that shift until you actually live it. There are times when I want to get my files from one device to the other but Dropbox’s service makes that a fairly trivial process.

The Evo comes with an 8gb microSD card, which I am assuming can be replaced with a larger capacity card. I particularly like the microSD card approach because it makes moving photos and media from Adobe Lightroom, my preferred solution, into the device an easy process. The card itself isn’t conveniently located though, it’s under the battery which means you have to turn off the device in order to retrieve the card, but you can also use a standard micro USB cable to connect it to your laptop, mounting it like an external drive, just like the iPhone. It used to be that moving files from devices to your computer was a hassle, but today it’s a a breeze.

Speaking of batteries, the Evo does have crappy battery life however the one thing I can do with Evo that I can’t do with an iPhone is replace the battery and I picked up 2 spares for $12 each which ensures that even on a long flight I will have ample battery life. I’m pretty confident that the battery life will improve once I finish geeking out over my new gadget and use it sporadically throughout the day like I did with my iPhone.

Last year I wrote a Droid review based on a phone my wife came home with, at the time I dinged the Android app marketplace for not having my favorite iPhone apps. What a difference a year makes, and this is perhaps the area where Android is rapidly achieving parity with the iPhone and potentially surpassing Apple… every iPhone app that I relied on is now represented in the Android market and these apps are not quick and dirty knockoffs but fully developed versions that take advantage of the many features that the Android platform provides.

As I look at Android right now I see a portfolio of well engineered devices that are by any measure on the very forward edge of mobile technology, an app marketplace that is equivalent to Apple’s, and most significantly a sense of momentum that is closing the gap with Apple in every possible dimension, and all of these factors make me excited to experience the wave of Android tablet devices that developing.

Revisiting my Social Media Footprint

A couple of months ago I started to experience a phenomena that many of my social media peers have experienced, which is that I started losing track of tweets that contain links that I wanted to recall. In other words, I had tweeted so much stuff over the years (13k tweets) that I no longer had control of my archive. Twitter’s search capability leaves a lot to be desired and I was losing track of things I really wanted to keep track of.

One of the primary reasons why I have blogged consistently over the last 8 years is that my blog represents a searchable notebook for me but a couple of years ago I started tweeting out short notes with links instead of posting a note to my blog. This was part laziness on my part (easier to tweet than blog) but also a reflection of the powerful broadcasting capability that twitter holds through primary followers and retweets.

Facebook is another area where I have invested time in creating content and unlike most people I treat my Facebook profile as an extension of my blog and twitter experiences. In other words, I stick to business and topics that interest me rather than family and personal content sharing. The reason for this is that I am intensely private about my family life and don’t feel comfortable sharing family photos and notes in Facebook but it also reflects that fact that I think most people really don’t care about what my children are doing or our recent vacation pictures.

My personal publishing initiatives therefore reflect three primary channels: blog, twitter, and facebook. Each provides strengths and weaknesses but all contributed to a fragmentation of my content that decreased the utility to me and eroded the control I have over the content I create over time.

To solve this I revisited something I setup a while back but never really used, Tumblr. I dusted off my jnolan.tumblr.com blog and took the time to connect it to Facebook and Twitter. My intention is to use Tumblr to post the short items that normally would have pushed through Twitter and Facebook but take advantage of Tumblr’s ability to republish content on both of those networks. I will continue to use this blog as the primary channel through which I publish long form blog posts and my Tumblr blog will be the place for short items.

Twitter and Facebook will continue to be important channels to push content through but rather than creating content in those networks I will, whenever possible, post through Tumblr. I will continue to “talk” with people through social networks and Facebook has some unique capabilities that I will take advantage of.

It is my intention that this arrangement will result in my ability to continue publishing quality content and links while at the same time collapsing the source channels I put out with the result being an ability to search through my archive of content and ensure I can find all the stuff I put out.

The Socialconomy

“…successful companies will be more like Dale Carnegie and less like Mad Men, listen first then sell.”

Conversation is everywhere and there are so many cliches about conversation and business that it would be difficult to catalog them, but the truth still remains that conversation is at the center of business whether you are Zappos building a business or P&G and your interest is in growing the Tide business.

Conversation involving customers and companies is like a flywheel and once it gets going there is tremendous energy that sustains momentum and throws off a lot of interesting business outcomes like social commerce, brand loyalty (promoters), R&D ideation, and customer satisfaction.

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. – Sam Walton

Paywalls Are Dumb, Statistics Prove

I don’t know how anyone could look at the traffic data coming out of Murdoch’s paywall initiative and not conclude that they are ill-advised and monumentally stupid.

According to data from Experian Hitwise, which charts Internet traffic, visits to The Times of London and The Sunday Times’ Websites have dropped by 66% since parent company News International put those sites behind paywalls on July 2.

[From London ‘Times’ Sees 66% Traffic Drop, Post-Paywall]

Just 12% of The Times pre-paywall audience created a registered account and of that new number of 10% actually agreed to pay for the content. Couple that with 12k iPad apps that have been sold and you are looking at less than $20 million a year in revenue, which come nowhere near close to supporting the cost structure of a newspaper as large as The Times.

As Steve Forbes said in an interview on Bloomberg radio just last week (I don’t have the link and am repeating the segment from memory), paywalls don’t change the economics of journalism and while these companies are driven by an absolute requirement to find new revenue sources paywalls alone are not enough. Forbes went on to describe how a fundamentally different way of delivering advertising, as integrated programs across many sites and tailored for specific advertiser audience targets (not demographics alone) are how they are changing the dynamic.

Paywalls are dumb, most certainly, not because they are an attempt to monetize content or because they attempt, as Murdoch has declared, to focus on a smaller but higher quality audience. Paywalls are dumb because they, as The Times numbers indicate, prematurely drive down the audience denominator number and limit the ability do the kind of integrated advertising strategy that Forbes outlines. The cost to serve the pre-paywall audience is not significant but the cost to create the content is, and now we know, at least so far, that the revenue generated by a paywall on a major media site is insufficient to fund either.

Capshured

intro_imageA new photo sharing service called Capshured launched a few days ago and it worth taking a look at. The concept is based around location and high image quality. Rather than host a free for all of images, the creators of Capshured are applying some editorial controls to ensure that high quality images are uploaded and then organized according to location.

I have uploaded a couple of images and had a conversation with the developers to better understand what they were targeting. Now I’ll be the first to admit that my original thought was that the web really doesn’t need another photo sharing service or photographer gallery for that matter, however this caused me to consider what exactly is compelling about existing services and why people use them, which I have to qualify by reminding you that I don’t have any experience with these services beyond being a user.

The way I see it there are two categories of users, the people who want to share their photographs publicly or privately irrespective of the quality of the images they are uploading, and prosumer photographers who wish to maintain portfolios of work and be associated with other photographers of similar quality.

I’ve used Flickr and Zooomr for years to upload and share my images, often linking them in my blog posts but more typically sharing with friends and family. Zooomr is particularly rich in features and their marketplace feature makes it possible for even the most amateur of hobbyists to sell their images. As much as I like the feature set of Zooomr, the UI is a little stale and I can’t create a stylized gallery of my images.

As my own photography skills improved and I felt more confident in my abilities I wanted to get something more in terms of a feature gallery. I checked out a number of services and demo’ed Zenfolio for a month to get a feel for the service. Ultimately I liked the service but did not feel it was a good value for the monthly service charge so I installed some image gallery software on my own.

When I heard about Capshured there were 2 aspects that caught my attention, the first being the editorial function they were exercising that ensured a high level of quality for the included images. Quality is a tricky subject because what is good to one person may not be to another and composition itself is a very subjective quality in photographs. However, I appreciate their attempt to filter images based quality and avoid the free for all aspect that consumer photo sharing services embrace.

The second dimension of Capshured that I like is the location aspect with photographs being included as a regional composition. I think their approach falls short of the mark at the moment from a UI perspective as the map pushpin function is almost hidden but with a few UI tweaks they will resolve this. A bigger issue is the way that regional centers (e.g. San Francisco) are presented at a top level organization tool, which imposes some obstacles for uploading images if the region is not included in to top level cities and this will have to be addressed as the service evolves.

All things considered I really like where Capshured is going and with some links to output services like Mpix.com and marketplace integration for stock photography buyers to take advantage of, this could end up being an exciting new offering in a mature space.

Measuring Popularity in Communities

I was browsing Netflix over the weekend and captured this screen image…

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Judging by the online reviews none of these movies should be considered “popular new releases” but I had to ponder this a little more before arriving at the critical framing question, which is what is the nature of popularity?

The answer to the core question really depends on what your context is, or in the case of Netflix what they want to promote… new releases that rank about the most downloaded and/or shipped or the best new releases as measured by customer review and then overlaid to my own preferences and history.

The problem with reviews is that they don’t necessarily map to what I would review them as, and as much as Netflix has invested in their matching algorithms they still leave much to be desired. I really don’t trust Netflix’s recommendation system but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because I recognize how hard this is and with continued development the system is likely to improve.

If I scratch recommendations off the list then popularity is simply a function of viewership numbers or customer review but the problem with viewership is that we don’t know what it is and unlike an actual movie ticket where you are investing $10 to see it the Netflix experience imposes few penalties for selecting your movies poorly therefore you add pretty much anything to the queue knowing that if it’s a dud you send it back and don’t incur any incremental charges.

I think where I come down on this is that Netflix should be ranking movie popularity according to customer reviews and applying a weighting or logarithmic function that normalizes the curve to allow new movies to float up the ranking ladder to avoid “the more you have the more you get” phenomena that voting systems often fall into.

This may seem like an arcane or really niche issue but if you think about the mechanics that are involved in measuring popularity in communities then you can start to see the broad applicability of what I detailed above and why it becomes an issue of strategic importance for not just incentivizing engagement and contribution of reviews but also serving your customers the content most likely to appeal to their preferences, or simply avoid the mistake of misrepresenting something like popularity

The Headline as Content

One of the challenges in deciphering online news is that a catchy headline is often peddled instead of the actual story, something fully on display today in a NYTimes article.

As an exercise to demonstrate this, read the headline below and stop to consider your emotional and intellectual response:

“Wall St. Hiring in Anticipation of an Economic Recovery”

Allow me to pull a couple of important sentences from the article for you to consider:

“Since employment bottomed out in February, New York securities firms have added nearly 2,000 jobs, a trend that is also playing out nationwide at financial companies, commodity contract traders and investment firms.”

Okay this is good, right?

“Though the figures are small in comparison to overall Wall Street employment, executives, economists and headhunters say they expect the growth to pick up steam in the coming months.”

Okay so maybe not so good… and on what basis do “economists and headhunters” expect growth to pick up? Dunno, the article doesn’t say why or how.

“The financial work force in New York has shrunk by more than 28,000 since its peak in January 2008″

So what exactly would suggest to the author that economic recovery is causing the hiring, even if the numbers are conservative we are talking about less than 10% of the jobs that were lost?

“The shift underscores the remarkable recovery of the biggest banks and brokerage firms since Washington rescued them in the fall of 2008, and follows the huge rebound in profits for members of the New York Stock Exchange, which totaled $61.4 billion in 2009, the most ever.”

Okay so now the picture is a little clearer, Wall St. firms are sitting on an enormous pile of cash and they have opened the hiring spigot to what amounts to a drip… and near the end of this article we learn the obvious. Of course I’m assuming they have a big pile of cash… one of the peculiarities of our modern accounting system is that cash flow and profits can diverge substantially, but here is yet another area where business media is very weak in coverage.

“As the nascent increase in jobs suggests, the recovery is still very fragile. And executives say it could halt or even reverse if earnings reports for the second quarter, which begin this week, are disappointing.”

So I’m left wondering what exactly makes this journalist think that a weak hiring number (remember as well that natural attrition in this industry means that all the hires aren’t even net new jobs) indicates forthcoming economic recovery when it mimics so many other industries in that companies have very strong balance sheets but are not adding jobs en masse. Also it is worth pointing out that just a few paragraphs earlier “economists and headhunters” said that expected hiring to pick up without the all important qualifier that it’s all “very fragile” and prone to a reversal if earnings reports are disappointing.

This is what passes for drive by journalism today, a headline that is technically accurate but disconnected from the content of the article it leads. Back in the day, when newspapers came exclusively with dirty fingers, such issues were less critical because newspapers delivered the news content with the headline as a unit.

Today the headline stands independent of the full content article, and thanks to search engines and news aggregators we get a lot of our news in headline format only… we’re a generation of skimmers not readers and in this context the example I laid out above is far more serious because taken independently the headline actually contradicts much of what was written in the article and therefore delivers a completely different message than what the author intended.

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