It’s a start…

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Real Simple Shopping offers individually customized RSS feeds of advertiser information. Some parts of it still seem a bit rough: you can only subscribe based upon advertiser (even though you can search ads by category), and it’s unclear whether they’re actually doing any targeting based on the demo information that you provide during registration. Solid start, though, and it’s apparently only a few months old, so refinements seem likely.

Update: okay, you just have to scroll a lot to get to the offer by category signup, but it’s there…

Too Much Information

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For a techie, I’m a bit on the luddite end of the scale: always carry a cellphone, but rarely an email-capable portable device. Check email on an ongoing basis, but rarely accepting IM. And calls/voicemail are virtually never forwarded from one number to another.

Doing a rough evaluation of the (work addresses only) email that I get, I find an average of about 125-150 mesages per day sent by actual people. Conservatively (assuming 125 messages and a ten hour work day) that’s one email every five minutes. The only saving grace is that a decent percentage of those messages are just “cc” from my perspective — no immediate response required.

My inbox is a little absurd. God help Laurence Lessig and his inbox.

Six Degrees of Competition

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So anyway, I’m taking half a day to catch up on some of the miscellaneous bits and pieces that intrigue me but aren’t necessarily all that important — a process which naturally starts with rummaging around on the Web to see what new things I should be adding to that list.

Since Jeff Reifman’s Seattle Weekly piece has made a second appearance on Slashdot and seems to continue to attract attention, I’ll note a couple of related items…

Item 0: What is Mr. Reifman doing that he has to reboot XP every day?
I think that I’m pretty much OS agnostic (I split my workdays between a machine running Windows XP and one running Gentoo linux), but I’m as inclined as any tech snob to engage in a little casual MS bashing — it’s easy, and it’s fun! Nevertheless, it’s been at least a couple of years since I’ve had to reboot my Windows workstation daily. In fact, the last time I rebooted either of my current machines was when we were renovating the office and had to cut power for a day.

Item 1: Microsoft’s biggest competition, in some sense, is itself.
Maybe not directly, but I think that it’s true that MS is in a pretty well unique position, where the company needs to think very carefully about what effect one division’s releases may indirectly have upon its other divisions. Does this mean that MS will no longer grow at unprecedented, absurd rates? Yes, that seems likely. Does this mean that MS is effectively dead, and that the coming years will be nothing more than a gradual process of small, agile companies picking the flesh from MS’s dead and bloated carcass? No, that doesn’t seem real likely. Cash reserves, good business people, reputation, and (yes, it’s true) good developers are powerful tools, and MS has all of these things.

The really interesting part of this is that MS is dealing with problems that are unique to MS, and I think that only the psychic or painfully brilliant will be able to predict what might happen. Alas, I don’t fall into either of these categories, but this does remind me of a story that I’ve wanted to note down for a while…

Way back in the year 1999 DCB (Dot Com Boom), the company that I worked for was about to be acquired by one of the giants of the era — a New Economy juggernaut that had business units that touched pretty much everyone who had ever seen a computer. As the deal rolled along, the members of our technology department (of which I was a part) were presented with JuggerNaut’s non-compete agreement and invited to a group meeting to discuss this agreement.

“It says here,” began one of our developers, “that if I sign this, I can’t work for any company that competes with you for a period of two years after leaving JuggerNaut. Don’t you compete with pretty much everybody?”

“Well, yes,” said the JuggerNaut representative, “but we don’t really enforce this non-compete. We just like to have it signed…just in case, you know.”

“Just in case what?” asked the developer, “I’m a web programmer — that’s what I do. ‘Just in case’ I want to work anywhere in the two years after I leave JuggerNaut? If you don’t plan on enforcing it, wouldn’t it be simpler for everybody if I just didn’t sign it?”

The discussion went downhill from there, and even though the deal eventually died, several significant members of the technology department went elsewhere rather than work for JuggerNaut.

People who could have made significant contributions to JuggerNaut were leery of going there, because JuggerNaut was leery of people learning “too much” about the business. There is a real concern there on the part of JuggerNaut: when you’re competing with everyone, how can you every feel secure about what you’re doing and who you have doing it? How do you deal with it when six degrees of competition include pretty much every other company out there, plus the guy sitting three cubicles away from you?

Wish I knew. I’d probably be a lot richer right now.

weekend followup: standards good. stupidity bad.

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I suppose that it’s just bitterness after yesterday’s shiny new firewall installation/de-intallation (mentioned in the previous post), but I feel the need to mention this…

The company that makes the shiny new firewalls that we (hope to one day) use at our colocation facility also made the firewall that we recently installed at our main office. The office firewall is a perfectly good appliance in most respects, but it has one limitation that just boggles the mind.

A few days after installing the office firewall, I started hearing curious intermittent complaints about some Web sites behaving oddly, certain (nonessential third party) applications not working, and the like. After a fair number of hours of review, we found that SSL was the common thread in all cases.

It turns out that the firewall that we installed in the office takes a very strict view of RFC 2246 (The TLS Protocol Version 1.0); if the communication doesn’t follow the RFC, it is dropped by the firewall.

That seemed great, at first.
“Excellent default setting!” we said, “it would have been nice to know about it before we installed the device, but nevertheless cool! But since we live in the real world, though, where we have to communicate with people who are using software that may not be strictly RFC compliant, how do we turn this feature off?”

Turns out you do that by moving out into slightly experimental territory…there is no “stock” way to turn this feature off. RFC compliance seemed like to good idea to the designers and engineers, so RFC compliance was dictated. It apparently never occurred to anyone involved that the world might not always comply with the RFC.

If the issue with the shiny new firewalls is anything similar to this, I may have to kick somebody’s ass.

I Love Weekends

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Yes, I know it’s a controversial statement to make, but I love weekends.

Weekends are the time when, after a long, hard week of work, you can go in to your colocation facility with your system engineer, spend two hours pulling out your creaky old firewalls and racking the shiny new firewalls that you finally received from your security management and monitoring company, test your shiny new firewalls, spend an hour on the phone with your security mgt. company discussing the fact that the pre-configuration they did on the shiny new firewalls was definitely supposed to allow DNS queries to resolve, spend four more hours working with said company to troubleshoot shiny new firewalls’ dislike of DNS queries, decide to leave the (freezing cold) colocation facility and have dinner, walk (uphill, in the rain) to the nearest restaurant, make mean jokes about the security mgt. company’s mothers, get an “it’s all good now” phone call from the security mgt. company, feel bad about the mother jokes, walk back to the colo (downhill, rain stopped), discover that all is not, in fact, good and DNS still does not work correctly, spend an hour re-racking a creaky old firewall and testing it, call your car service to get home, discover that the car service is booked up and can’t send a car until 1AM (almost a two hour wait), call your CFO (who lives nearby and said to call if he could help) for a ride, get his voicemail, picture CFO pointing and laughing at your name on the caller ID as he sits in a leather armchair smoking a cigar and sipping brandy, curse and shake your fist at the heavens, explain to your system engineer that you haven’t really lost your mind, find the number for another car service that says they’ll have a cab there in ten minutes, go down to the parking lot and wait for forty minutes until the cab actually shows up, discover that the driver is a little vague on the location of this mysterious city of “Brooklyn” that you speak of, get an interesting driving tour some of the more obscure parts of Weehawken and Hoboken, help the cab driver locate the Holland tunnel, help the cab driver locate the Manhattan bridge, help the cab driver locate your apartment, decide against asking whether the cab driver can find his way back to the Manhattan bridge, and collapse on the floor of your apartment.

Mmmmmmm…weekends…

MarketingSherpa discusses nine things that aren’t specific to Gmail

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MarketingSherpa.com yesterday published an article entitled Special Report on Google Gmail: Six Concerns & Three Solutions for Emailers. It’s an interesting piece, and does bring up some issues that anyone doing email marketing should consider; it doesn’t, however, present much of anything that’s actually specific to Gmail.

Let’s start with the potential problems that they note…

Their first concern is the “related links” to Google News that appear below the AdSense ads:
More hotlinks equals more distractions from your message

Yes, more links means more distractions, but Gmail’s interface is actually much cleaner and less distracting than many other Web based email readers. When viewing an email sent by a major computer manufacturer, my Gmail account shows three “sponsored links” and four “related pages” (and many of the messages I tested generated fewer links). Hotmail/MSN splashes up two big graphical banner ads when you read any message, and Yahoo tips the scales at five graphical ads (one banner, four small logo/text ads).

Possibly more significant, though, is that fact that when you set aside third-party ads, Gmail only has one link on its message page that isn’t dedicated to gmail functionality or information: a single link to the Google home page. Hotmail/MSN has about half a dozen such non-required links, encouraging you to sign up for or use other Microsoft services from MSN Shopping to their free newsletters, and Yahoo more than thirty (though in their defense, most of their links appear in the page footer and might not always be obvious to the user).

The second issue is also “related links,” but more hypothetical at the moment:
Danger: $30 press releases can show up in new “related Pages” section

The article notes, however, that “in our beta of Gmail, AdSense and ‘related pages’ links didn’t appear follow a regular pattern. Some emails showed up without ads or links, including third-party ad emails that should have been ad magnets, such as diet aids and financial investments.” So while press releases could, in theory, be used as a sort of gmail-specific contextually targeted advertising, the fact that the selection algorithm for these links is unknown, unpredictable, and subject to change at any time without notice makes it seem unlikely that this could be reliable enough (or profitable enough) to become a widespread practice.

Now we move on the the more technical issues raised in the article…

#1. Gmail blocks all HTML on download.
For now, say good-bye to the little 1×1-pixel image that tracks whether recipients opened your email […].

Well, you really should have started saying goodbye to that little image some time ago. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the “open rate” reports generated from those images were never much more than a back of the envelope estimate of the number of opens, and Gmail is just following the larger trend in email readers in disabling image loading by default. Open rate will hang around for a while, but unless a new technological approach to open tracking comes along, its days are numbered.

As long as we’re on the subject, I might as well mention that I’ve never really understood the value of open rate tracking, anyway. The most cynical part of me remembers that open rate became a popular metric at about the same time that response rates for many email lists were tanking, and views it as a sad effort to substitute a warm and fuzzy metric-lite for the sometimes ugly but clearer clickthrough and acquisition metrics.

#2. Gmail may someday block click tracking.

Gmail may do a lot of things, and this doesn’t even make the list of possibilities that worry me. They would simply be eliminating one technological approach to click tracking. It’s inconvenient to have to change how you track, but redirect tracking is generally more reliable than referrer logs anyway, so it’s worth doing.

#3. Gmail messes up HTML email forwarding.

I’m a bit biased on this one, not being a big fan of HTML email in any case, but it still seems more significant that the other items. Of course you should always have a compelling plain text version of any email you send, and the creative is only a part of what makes a successful email campaign (list quality, targeting, offer quality, creative), but it’s unfortunate to have an appealing HTML creative that your recipients can’t share with others. As with the other concerns, there are ways to work around this, but if Gmail becomes popular it will force advertisers to re-evaluate their approach to email creative — maybe drastically. (I’ve also seen some really remarkable response rates with plain text only creatives recently, but that’s a discussion in and of itself.)

#4. Gmail “disappears” much bulk email in the spam folder.

Like problem #1, this is just a continuation of what’s happening everwhere else; Gmail may accelerate the process, but it’s an issue that marketers have to deal with sooner rather than later, with or without Gmail. If you’re not (at minimum) checking your outgoing messages against common filtering tools like SpamAssassin, or better yet analyzing the final allocation of your messages using your own test accounts at the big ISPs — or one of the commercial providers that offers deliverability analysis — you just don’t really know what’s happening to the messages that you send.

Because this post has gotten horrendously long, and because I actually more or less agree with MarketingSherpa’s three recommendations, I’ll deal with them all at once…

#1. Create a good-looking text version of your email.
#2. Experiment with tweaks to both your HTML and text mailings […]
#3. Chart subscriptions by domain

Again, with or without Gmail in the picture, you should be doing all three of these things. A surprising number of people (like me, for example) still check email using programs or devices that read text, not HTML. Without a good plain text creative you’re automatically dumping a section of your audience. When you’re developing your creative, don’t assume that everyone is using Outlook: Hotmail/MSN, Yahoo, Outlook, AOL, Eudora, and Lotus Notes may all display your message differently (to say nothing of the dozens of other email readers and sites). Check to see how your message appears in a variety of readers, and adjust it accordingly. And finally, if you don’t know what the domain breakdown of your housefile looks like, you should. That, too, is a topic in and of itself, though — if there’s interest I’ll post on that another day.