Friday, January 9, 2015

Horrible Bosses 2

Sequels generally disappoint people by the time they are announced. As a regular film goer, you go through them like your pack of pop-corn. When they are of the summer blockbuster variety, you typically, leave your mind at home and just see them. When they occur for movies which were sleeper hits, you tend to sit up and take notice. Why would an idea which had little juice in the first place, get another shot at celluloid (pun intended)?

Horrible Bosses 2 gets some things right- Jason Bateman continues his deadpan and matter-of-fact acting, continuing in the same vein as Arrested Development; Jennifer Aniston playing the sex-addict doctor; and Chris Pine as the handsome devil. Apart from this, certain gags do get you- the scene where a runaway car waits past a train crossing because they don't want to leave the police behind, is, in the true sense of the word, hilarious. Apart from that, the only thing keeping one hooked is the presence of high and might actors in guest roles- there's Mike from Breaking Bad, Christoph Waltz and Kevin Spacey. 

The parts the film doesn't do well, it plumbs the depths of inefficiency. The other two leads, Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis gnaw at your sense of humour, so desperately they try to elicit laughs. Charlie as the lovable fool only succeeds in being the latter. This movie may go down as one of the biggest wastes of available acting talent (both leads and guest stars) in history. 

It isn't even comfort food. It's bad Chinese van takeaway. Avoid. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Google's Android One: Project Stillborn

How you do you reconcile this:
The world's biggest online company launches a new wave of devices- devices which
  • overcome buggy stick-on interfaces by partners such as Samsung,
  • provide a great experience for first timers, and
  • launch with big-bang promotions in one of the world's largest mobile markets, with some of the biggest local phone brands as partners
And yet fails?
Google's Android One project, launched in India over the past three months, has been a middling affair, and when seen in context of the booming mobility market, an abject failure.
Google made a critical error at launch. As always, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but this error is so fundamental, it left me in the 'what were they thinking' mind frame- something that shouldn't happen when some of the smartest minds in the business were behind this campaign.
Now, in order to understand the issue, some background is important. Google came up with the Android One Project for some simple reasons:
  • Partners such as Samsung and the entire spectrum of low cost device makers (Micromax, Spice, Xolo) sell very poor devices at the lower end of the spectrum- these devices have buggy interfaces, poor touch screens, and no OS updates. After years of being seen as poor copy of iOS, Google wants to ensure the new experience on Kitkat (its latest OS version at the time) was available to the masses
  • The larger corporate strategy is to get more devices with Google's services embedded (search, Gmail) in the hands of middle and lower-middle class consumers in emerging markets- these would form the backbone of Google's growth in the coming years, as western markets mature and in cases, decay due to the large base effect. In other words, grow the customer universe, and create a larger ecosystem for ads to be served
  • Android has lower satisfaction rates on lower-end devices. Not everyone can afford a $400+ device. And when it comes to that price point, Apple looms large.
All of these were great goals, and I saw the program as the first real product play from the online services company. They made all the right noises, and I could see myself buying such a phone for my dad, a first time internet user, or, I could picture a couple of workers in my brother's factory buying such a device- a step up in price, but a big step up in quality and experience. There had been recent successes within the same product genre- Motorola had come up with the Moto E (a product which must have been developed at the time Google owned Motorola), and sold in good numbers. The Chinese juggernaut Xiaomi had launched the Redmi 1S to great success as well. All of these devices carried Android, and together with the Android One devices, promised to bring in a lot of first-time users- those using feature phones, and those becoming more confident about using smartphones.
And then, with the launch, Google made that critical error- it launched these devices exclusively Online.
The number of issues with this is stupendous, and I'm astounded no one at Google or its partners asked these questions. Again, some bullet points for your consideration:
  • Google's goal was to convert people who don't yet use the internet, to get online using their devices, And they decide to sell their devices... Online! The only analogy I can think of is trying to sell Medical textbooks to grade 1 students. If your most targeted segment of customers doesn't use search and email, how will they jump to e-commerce directly?
  • On-line Banking and Credit card availability, e-commerce awareness among this audience is at its lowest in the entire target market
  • English is a tertiary language for most of these customers. While the advertising reached across language newspapers, the buying experience was entirely in English
  • Buying $100+ devices would be a big investment for many of these customers- why would they invest in a device without seeing, and experiencing it? Google did quite a few activations, but their reach can't be matched by the deep penetration its partners- Micromax, Xolo and Spice enjoy in the offline market
While some of these issues sound rather reductive in their simplicity, the fact remains they are important enough. And not a single analysis I've seen in mainstream business publications has pointed to this fact, and asked these questions.
Offline availability seems to be an issue at this time, with large retail chains boycotting these phones because of their online-only launch, low margins and overall irritability with e-commerce, and any favours bestowed upon it (link). There are some offline availability measures being taken, but I doubt if they will be accompanied with the same large-scale advertising campaigns seen at the time of launch.
I'm a die-hard Google fan, and have been using and recommending its phones to everyone who would listen. But now that Google's getting into the hardware game, it must show the same common sense it has displayed in designing and delivering products that work for billions across the globe. I'm sure margin concerns from the manufacturers, price-point concerns from Google, and margins demanded by offline retail played a part, but that's the part Google had to underwrite to set this ball in motion.
I'm sure lessons are learnt, and distribution would henceforth be a big part of Google's Android One strategy, and it will see success. There are some new Android One devices planned for Q1'15, and they might just be getting things right the second time around.
I look forward to your thoughtful comments here, or on twitter at @ironymeter.
Photo: Android One website
Note: The views in this post are my personal opinion and do not reflect those of my employer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The first major threat to Google's dominance is here

I wrote this post originally on LinkedIn.

The future is finally here. For long, we've been hearing about social media overcoming search and display advertising. That Facebook and Twitter would overcome Google. In the past ten days, there has been one minor, yet important change which isn't a digital savant's proclamation. You might not have noticed or received access to this new feature. And learning about what it is, you might go 'meh' But it's more important than anything that's happened in the past 10 years combined.
Here's what happened: Facebook and Twitter have added in-app browsers to their smartphones apps. This means any time you click a link within their mobile apps, the page will open in a browser window which opens within the app itself, rather than opening the Chrome or Safari mobile browser. This changes everything.

Here's why:

Facebook and Twitter now own News Discovery: Viral stories and email forwards aside, users struggle for a viable way to consume news. Google News is always buggy, and our tryst with portals like Yahoo is coming to an end. Chances are, 90% of the news you consume these days is from what you see links for on Facebook and Twitter. They've fixed discovery by adding the social layer to it- both those who produce and consume news can now share it with you seamlessly. There may be exceptions, but I would hazard a guess to say up to 40% of digital immigrants (those born before 1980) and up to 80% of digital natives today consume news through these two social networks. Primarily Facebook, but Twitter is adding stickiness by constantly answering the 'What's happening in the world now?' question.

Mobile ads within Facebook and Twitter apps are ineffective. But, on mobile web pages, they can still work: Twitter has 140 character tweets, Facebook has story units which can't do display ads well, or distract from the experience. That's why we have incestuous advertising units- promoted trends, promoted tweets; App install ads, Page 'Like' exhortations.

The number of times users would be okay to see such ad units is limited, and raising them beyond a point would impact stickiness. Both Twitter and Facebook have sold these units for more than 18 months now, and I'm pretty sure Sales are plateauing.

This isn't the case with mobile web pages. The page structure allows for ad units to be inserted, in some cases, dare I say, in an engaging, clean design. While click through rates are abysmal (and mostly accidental), there's still some money to be made. Brands get better visibility because of larger ad unit sizes.

Both Twitter and Facebook have added mobile advertising chops: Twitter acquired MoPub, and Facebook acquired and re-made Atlas. Both of these are mobile ad exchanges, and they will challenge Google on one key parameter: they'll have built in cookies- something Google doesn't have in its mobile offering. Also, they can build in user targeting at a much deeper level- this goes beyond demographics- Facebook likely knows more about us than we think. The targeting will please the marketer, and would likely be more effective.

Why these acquisitions are important is because they'll take Facebook and Twitter out of the experimentation mode, and getting down to selling some inventory straight away.

Google+ has failed: I don't need to elaborate on this. Google has lost the platform battle, and with it, the content consumption battle. They'll continue to own search, but on display, they'll have to be content with a product that will now lose the race.

And finally,
He who owns the interface owns the ads: Google owns the browser today. For Facebook and Twitter, the right to sell ads within the interface, and with it, the race to break Google's dominance, has begun.

In the online advertising market, Facebook currently has ~8% market share, and Twitter is much lower at ~0.80%. Google lords over the market with a ~31% market share. (link). If everything I say above plays out as I foresee it, Facebook's share should double, Twitter's increase by about 5%, and Google's decrease by at least 6% in the coming year. The other smaller networks would decrease to make up the difference. Others like LinkedIn, with its Pulse content publishing network would get in to the game. Also, the market would grow, as audience classification becomes acute.
Maybe, I'm calling this trend way too early, before in-app browsers are commonplace, before they're accepted by users and bought by marketers. But there's a big probability this might be the biggest change in the mobile market. I'll be keenly watching.
I look forward to your thoughtful comments here, or on twitter at @ironymeter.

Photo: facebook ad solutions
Note: The views in this post are my personal opinion and do not reflect those of my employer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Five reasons Politicians fail at Social media

I wrote this post originally on LinkedIn.

I'm based in India, the battleground of one of the last few decades' most divisive national elections, and the first one where Social media is arguably playing a big part. Political parties have hired specialist agencies and established large volunteer teams for a wide range of roles: to support their agendas, malign opponents with both propaganda and lies, and to act as trolls and converts as the day turns.
While I try to be nonchalant about their shenanigans, it is near impossible to ignore their efforts from a marketer's perspective. And so far, I think most politicians, whether in India or other regions of the world, fail miserably on social media. Here's why:
  1. Can't be firm on policy: Depending on the way the wind is blowing on a given day, a politician needs to change tack immediately. With multiple stakeholders, and a diverse set of audiences to satisfy, they end up making promises to everyone. With conventional media and one way dialogue, they could take a misstep on a given day and course correct in due time, or simply, say they were misquoted. With social media, the audience hears from the proverbial horse's mouth, and they have to be firm- which simply isn't the way politics is played.
  2. Spend half their time dissing competition: When in doubt, blame the other party- with such rules of engagement, politicians don't have the wherewithal to sustain campaigns by the strength of their manifestos. They necessarily try to malign opponents, and try to convert fence sitters. On social media, name calling and other such activities are frowned upon by people engaging with you, even as your supporters rejoice in your pot shots. With conventional media, one could think of responses and reply with wit, derision or amity in due course. With social media's instant pressure, they can't mostly keep up.
  3. Too serious for their own good: Try to remember the last time you heard a politician bring their personality to the table, Obama's House of Cards tweet notwithstanding.Politicians, often to add respectability to their 'image', become split personalities, reserving interesting aspects of their personalities for family and close associates. One of India's Prime Ministerial candidates, Rahul Gandhi, has been constantly criticized for being dour and unforthcoming, despite being collegial with groups closer to him. This isn't just about him- Politicians from every country strip their personality of candour and become a wee bit 'stuffy', which isn't something that wins you admirers on social media, who later convert to votes, hopefully.
  4. Engage with social in the same way as traditional media: While comparing thesetwo forms would take another blog post, suffice it to say Politicians don't want to appear ill at ease. With social media, their response is to create the same support teams and structures. God help you if you are a politician and not naturally 'media savvy'. Next to your publicist, your social media team will have the toughest task.
  5. Fearful of social media: Above, I cited examples from countries where social media is mainstream enough to congregate voters, and thus politicians. Let's however, not forget a wide swathe of countries, from Turkey banning Twitter to Russia restricting social media usage at the Sochi Olympics. Totalitarian regimes realise the losing battle they fight if they participate on social media. This is perhaps the most important reasons for many politicians' failure on social- they just can't stand to scrutiny.
These reasons, and the examples I cite above, may be limited in their worldview, because, like you, there's only so much of Politics and heated debates I can take on various platforms before I watch the next cat video. I look forward to your thoughtful comments, and examples of social media successes you've seen emerging from Politics in your country.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Power of Marketing

With marketing inundated with measures upon measures, and people hard pressed to show marketing's relationship to sales and revenue, it is always tough telling anyone what marketing does.

A couple of days back, I came upon a great example which shows the true power of marketing. Even though it involves a 'brand' that eschews capitalism and branding per se, but is a brand at the end of the day. I'm talking about the graffiti artiste Banksy. He is one of the most prolific street artists in the whole wide world, and his documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, is one of my favourite pieces of non-fiction. Pieces of art made by him sell for millions

Banksy is in New York this summer. He has been pulling various stunts, his art appearing in places for a couple of days before someone else spray paints over it. He's painted side walks, trucks and a project where the art spilled from a wall to a car parked nearby. All that done, he did something fairly unusual- he sold his art work off a stall in Central Park. 

The frames were selling for $60, and the first couple sold for a 50% discount. In the entire day, the total sale was a measly $450. Banksy abhors marketers and brands in particular, and yet this moment shows the power of marketing. Without information that aids their decision making, people thought of his original artwork as knock-off prints, and then too worth less than even the stated price.

This episode reminded me of something similar. Some years ago, Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, one of the contemporary world's most well regarded musicians, once took up a street musician's place at a subway station. He played for over 45 minutes, getting no more than cursory glances from passing commuters. Two days prior, he had had a sold out show where connoisseurs paid more than $100 per seat. 

Without context, both these greats received little more than the cursory glance, and very middling success. For me, if that isn't the success of marketing, I don't know what is. Reams have been written about the scepticism marketing faces, where people ask for numbers to prove its effectiveness. This rather simple yet stunning series of examples, shows what matters.

I'll leave you with a quote from the Washington Pots article Joshua Bell pulled the stunt for:

In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would Beauty transcend?

UPDATE 22/10: Some guy put up a Fake Banksy stall some days after this stunt. His stall was sold out in 60 minutes, and someone even bought the sign with the sale price on it! Read here: