The e-commerce show at Kensington Olympia

e-commerce expo 2013

It’s no surprise to see this show getting busier each year as e-commerce continues its relentless march to global retail domination.

There were about 50 seminars and a dozen keynote speeches, all of them free of charge and many oversubscribed. Visitor numbers are clearly up on last year.

Much of the show’s attention was devoted to mobile apps, personalisation, localisation, site hosting, SEO, online payment, security, fulfilment, ‘big data’ and the cloud, but one of the things that I took away was a reminder of the enduring power of the killer application that convinced many of us to buy our first PCs back in the 1990s.

For the last few years, much of the talk at these expos has been about the impact of social media and how important it is for retailers to engage with customers online. We know that recommendations and referrals from friends carry more weight than even the best marketing department. Most of us have also learned a little about the dark arts of SEO, the means by which businesses and their products can be promoted up the online search rankings. So it was interesting to hear how these methods of reaching the market place are still dwarfed by the scale and reach of the humble email, the primary driver of commerce on the web.

Did it occur to you that Facebook is the biggest emailer on the planet? How else would they reach people who don’t spend most of their time on Facebook?

Customer surveys show that we prefer to receive marketing messages via email. This even applies to younger age groups, who are more likely to spend their days engrossed in social media. Unlike the ads on TV and in the press, we can choose which brands to engage with by email and the data shows we are subscribing to an increasing number of brands.

The marketing email open-rate paradox

It was intriguing to learn that there is an inverse relationship between the percentages of sent marketing emails that are opened and the total number opened. As open rates increase, totals decrease: the message for the marketers is to focus on the totals, unless they’d rather ignore their less active subscribers at the cost of reducing total openings. Instead, efforts would be better spent increasing the list size and the frequency of emails. Dela Quist, of Alchemy Worx, urged marketers not to be embarrassed about this as all the recipients are subscribers who are free to opt out at any time. Indeed, he even took the opportunity to argue that the old chestnut of ‘email overload’ is a modern myth.

I was surprised to hear that marketing emails boost conversion across all channels, so even if they don’t get opened and clicked, they are still bringing in business. It was also counter-intuitive for me to discover that, as frequent email-openers are only a small percentage of the total recipients, the majority of revenue comes from the bulk of occasional openers. These are good reasons for marketers to be careful how they set their goals and measure the outcomes of their email strategy.

One minor gripe

You would think the organisers could fill empty seminar seats with the people who would like to sit in them. The problem was, free tickets were issued 45 minutes before each presentation started, but there were lots of no-shows. Rather than take a decision five minutes before show-time to offer the unclaimed seats to the numerous disappointed and ticketless visitors, the seminars proceeded with dozens of empty spaces. It really isn’t that complicated, is it?

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Why do Spotify penalise their UK customers?

I love music, but gave up buying CDs years ago, when I decided I already owned enough possessions for a lifetime. I still don’t know how to get rid of my old vinyl collection and I don’t want to clutter the place with another obsolescent music format if I can help it.

So, when Spotify launched their music streaming service in the UK in 2009, it seemed the obvious way to go. Their content wasn’t comprehensive, by any means, but it has improved over the years. Despite Radiohead’s criticisms of the business model, I assume the artists who remain on Spotify are satisfied with the arrangement, so I listen with a clear conscience. 

I upgraded to the Unlimited version for £4.99 a month to avoid the adverts and I was considering stepping up to the Premium account so I could also listen through my TV, which is in another room. That was before I discovered that we in the UK have to pay 56% more than our friends in the US, for the same service. 

How do Spotify justify charging £9.99 ($15.63) in the UK, compared to $9.99 in the US?

They don’t; they won’t; they can’t.

Does it cost them any more to deliver digital data to one place than another?

You jest.

Do they charge as much in any other countries?

Not that I can find. The Eurozone pays €9.99 (£8.58) and other areas are charged in local currencies. Users in Canada, Australia and Sweden all pay more than the US but less than the UK at today’s exchange rates.

Is this pricing policy common to similar online businesses?

Some quick price comparisons suggest that Amazon charge identical prices for e-books, wherever you are. I presume they are calculated dynamically, compensating for daily currency fluctuations. iTunes show some price discrepancies, but less dramatic than Spotify’s.

Won’t Spotify’s new music streaming competitor, Google Play Access, force an end to this price discrimination?

Let’s hope so. The launch price for Google’s new music streaming service is £7.99 a month. It doesn’t support Apple’s iOS and I have no idea if it offers a similar range of content to customers or a more generous commission to artistes. Even so, it might force Spotify to match it before too many of their premium service users jump ship.

Economists may explain that businesses maximise profits by raising prices to the point that any further rise would reduce overall revenues due to lower sales volumes. It is conceivable that Spotify have analysed consumer price sensitivity around the world, leading to higher prices where compliant and law-abiding consumers are less likely to seek alternatives. On the other hand, it could just be that they don’t care enough about their customers in the UK.

So what can we do about it?

Firstly, we should refuse to pay £9.99 a month for streaming music from Spotify. The less scrupulous among us might revert to illegal music downloads, or find a way to register as American users via a proxy server, neither of which I advocate. Some may switch to Google but I won’t be joining them while Google maintain their arrogant attitude towards corporation tax and corporate responsibility.

My own problem will soon be resolved by new developments. Spotify recently launched a browser-based Web Player and the new Google Chromecast dongle, which is expected in the UK in time for Christmas, will let me stream content from my PC’s browser to my TV set for a one-off payment of around £30. It is pleasing to see the two companies together conspiring to solve my problem for me.

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Almost perfect?

When I read a recent article announcing Google’s claim of achieving  “almost perfect language translation”, it reminded me of a story our school teacher told us, many years ago.

Apparently, computer scientists wrote an application to translate between English and Russian and it was tested with the expression:  “Out of sight, out of mind.” This was duly converted into Russian and then back again, as:  “Invisible idiot.” The obvious implication is that the nuances and subtleties of language will always be beyond mere machines.

Whether computational linguistics have advanced in line with the processing power and speed of modern computer systems will no doubt be revealed with Google’s product launch.

I know it’s a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist using Google’s own site, http://translate.google.com, to convert the article into Russian and then back again, so here it is, followed by a link to the original:

Do not panic: Google has a prototype for a device is “real-time”, “almost perfect” is used in some

It sounds like Google, Babel Fish-esque instant solution transfer is making progress – Android VP Hugo Barra said that the UK Times, Google received a hardware prototype ( in the form of mobile phones ) are rabotaet.Bolee addition, in a recent test, he took part in, the system was “almost perfect” with certain combinations of languages ​​(English into Portuguese, underlined).

The biggest hurdle for the translation itself, is speech recognition. So many words, the background noise interferes with translation software, thus affecting the results. But Barra said it is working “close to 100 percent” when used in a “controlled environment. “Sounds perfect for diplomats, not so much for real conversations. course, not a real-time Google, text translation software built into Chrome leaves quite a bit to be desired, which makes us all the more careful to put our faith into a verbal decision Google. As the functionality still “a few years”, however, there is still plenty of time to pay us.

I don’t think Mr Cass would have been too impressed if my homework was that bad. You can read the original text at http://www.engadget.com/2013/07/26/google-universal-translator-prototypes/

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Do you really want customer feedback?

Most businesses are wide awake to the benefits of customer feedback and the internet gives them great tools to make it quick and easy to gather. Unfortunately, it is not always appreciated.

When I used to eat in a big staff restaurant every day, I once emailed a complaint to the catering manager. I usually love brussel sprouts, but these were rock-hard. I said that if we ever found ourselves at war, we could either feed his sprouts to the enemy, or use them as ammunition: either way, they would be sure to surrender. Perhaps I could have been more tactful. The prompt reply invited me to meet with the head chef. I had a vision of Giant Haystacks in chef’s whites, with a florid complexion and gritted teeth; a rolling pin in one hand and meat cleaver in the other, so I politely declined.

More recently, I bought a pair of shoes from a national chain and the receipt included the URL of an online feedback form. This was clearly designed to measure the performance of the shop staff: did they give a smile and warm greeting; did they introduce themselves by name; how many pairs of shoes did they show me; did they offer to place an order and so on. I gave high scores on every count, but the lowest possible to the question of how likely I would be to recommend the stores to a friend. The problem was that they didn’t give me the opportunity to point out how disappointed I was by the tiny selection in my size, that the one style that appealed was out of stock and how unsatisfactory it was to buy shoes that they couldn’t supply spare laces for. The form has subsequently disappeared from their website, so it appears to have been a temporary arrangement.

Then I wrote to the breakfast cereal company. Their sachets are designed to measure the milk you need to add but I knew something had gone wrong when my porridge was swimming in it. We discovered the sachets in our box were the wrong size for some reason, so I let the company know about it and they asked for some of the offending examples, which I posted to them. When I opened their reply a couple of weeks later, it simply apologised for the dust-like appearance and texture of the cereal and included some vouchers. I phoned them, thinking they had sent me someone else’s correspondence in error, but they assured me that was not the case. They had dismissed my questions about the sachet sizes and did not address them at all.

My latest experience of giving customer feedback was when I answered a telephone poll about the London Mayor’s activities. Was I aware of his efforts to make Londoners more active? Of his work on the Olympic legacy? Of his financial backing for town centres? Of his support for the establishment of free schools?  My options for these and many other questions ranged from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much). I was left with the impression that their objective was merely to find out how effective their communications are, otherwise I might have had an opportunity to tell them what I think of BoJo or some of his policies.

My experience leaves me with the impression that many organisations are not as sincere about learning from their customers as I had hoped. If they were, their efforts would be constant, prominent and invite comment on any part of their operation. The retailer might get more useful information from people who walk out of the shop empty-handed. The breakfast cereal manufacturers should let their customers tell them what the problems are, rather than vice-versa.

In short, your company must not only ask the right people the right questions, but let them say whatever else they want to about your business, product or service. In addition to all the routine data about day-to-day operations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the most interesting feedback was the most unexpected. Your customers might not only point out some problems you were unaware of but have some constructive suggestions, too. Why pay a consultant a king’s ransom for bright ideas when you can get them for nothing?

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Is culture the new counter-culture?

Last weekend I attended a day of graduation ceremonies in Massachusetts, expecting only a series of speeches celebrating the achievements of the new alumni and exhorting them to go forth and do good in the world. I was unprepared, at 8am,  for Leon Wieseltier, shock-headed literary editor of The New Republic, who kicked off the day with the following blistering address to the humanities faculty:

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honoured to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.

“For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology and happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American world view instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.

“Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality. Modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

“The greatest assault on human attention ever devised”

“The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised. They are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers –  reputable ones if you can believe it – who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that (as one of them puts it), there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human, but Google is very excited by it.

“In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch; that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.

“And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways. For example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification; in which happiness is a fit subject for economists; in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

“Scientism is a curse”

“Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science – I mean what practising scientists actually do – is acutely and admirably aware of its limits and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions, but scientism is dogmatic and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one. And so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical – which is to say, a humanistic – question.

“Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behaviour that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules.

“We are becoming ignorant of ignorance”

“Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

“So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology and to recover the old distinction eschaton once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man.

“As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You, who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history, you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves and I commend you for it.

“Culture is now the counter-culture”

“Do not believe the rumours of the obsolescence of your path. If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen. There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counter-culture. Perhaps culture is now the counter-culture.

“Numbers will never be the springs of wisdom”

“So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honour of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.”

Wow! Stirring stuff, indeed. And I was delighted to learn that members of the science faculty at the same institution, later that same day, were treated to the exact opposite argument in their own ceremony. As soon as I can get hold of the text I will reproduce it here, in the hope of stimulating discussion.

PS: If you found this interesting, you might enjoy an article and comments in today’s Grauniad: ‘Philosophy is not dead yet’.

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An open request to online course organisers

I’ve written before about the opportunities offered by MOOCs (massively open online courses) and how they threaten to disrupt and transform the education sector. The number of subjects available keeps growing, the quality of the material continues to improve and my opinion remains unchanged.

However, I have a modest request for course organisers that would make them much more useful.

One of the more challenging and rewarding courses available so far is Stanford University’s “Human-Computer Interaction”. Here is one of the course certificates …

Image

.. and you still have no idea what this student learned, do you? The course title gives no sense of its scope, though even a stark outline would look like this:

Image

Now you might be thinking that this is a pretty comprehensive list, but any fool could sit through a few videos and answer some multiple-choice questions. What if I told you this candidate devoted at least 15 hours a week for two months on it? Amongst other things, students had to find volunteers to interview and observe; take photos; solve practical problems; make prototypes; design, build and evaluate their own apps …

My request is simply that the certificate should give an idea of the scope and depth of the course, with some of the challenges it presented, otherwise it serves no purpose. This would give the certificates some currency in the workplace and make the courses even more appealing.

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You might be intelligent but are you a good communicator?

I have come to the conclusion that there is no correlation between intelligence and communication skills.

This should hardly be a surprise when we know from our schooldays that some teachers, despite their academic qualifications, just could not get the information out of their heads and into ours.

It reaffirms the wisdom of using a professional communicator in preference to a subject expert with poor delivery.

Aristotle believed that effective communication depended on credibility, emotion and logic. Modern coaches say you need to be a good listener, articulate, expressive and fluent in body language.

I don’t disagree but, to my mind, the most fundamental qualities of a good communicator are a generous spirit, empathy, attentiveness and patience.

A generous spirit makes you want to share ideas and information with others. It motivates you to find a way to do this, regardless of obstacles and misunderstanding. Someone with a less open nature might not be so inclined to give the message the context it needs for the audience to absorb it. When I am learning new procedures, I always wonder: Why must we do this? What if we didn’t?  What comes before and after? Why doesn’t somebody else do it? Why doesn’t it come earlier or later in the process? Are there better ways of doing it? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I get it wrong? I try to address these questions when training someone else.

Empathy is essential to view the problem from the other person’s perspective. It helps you decide the best way to deliver your message. Should it be written, oral, a diagram or a chart? This in turn may determine the best medium to use: email, telephone, face-to-face? Is it best delivered to a group or individually? In a training room? In an informal setting?

You need to be versatile and capable of using different means of reaching people who prefer to digest their information in a variety of ways. I always used to write procedures for my staff to follow but one of them just would not read my, ahem, excellent instructions, which used to frustrate me no end. Eventually, I learned to show him what to do and watch him have a go himself and we never looked back. I should have followed Benjamin Franklin’s advice: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

In contrast, another manager told me that her team was thick because she had showed them how to do something SIX times and they still didn’t get it. If she did this the same way each time, did it not occur to her that the outcome would be the same? Isn’t that a definition of madness?

Being attentive helps you recognise when your message is being received and understood. More importantly, it tells you when your words of wisdom are falling on stony ground and it’s time to try something different.

Patience will prevent your frustration when you don’t succeed first time. You will appreciate that the other person’s failure to understand is your fault rather than theirs.

So, assuming that you are capable of organising your message and articulating it, aptitude is more important than intelligence when it comes to communication. This is good news to those of us who might not be the brightest, but the two combined will always be the ideal.

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