My Favorite Podcasts

Podcasts have become an increasingly important part of my life over the last few years. In fact, I can pinpoint the period in which podcasts became relevant to me simply by looking back into my old blog posts. I’ve compiled some of the podcasts that have had an outsized influence on the way I think about things below.

Exponent podcast art
Exponent, hosted by Ben Thompson and James Allworth, has played an important role in my professional development. The concepts and questions discussed on this show frequently give me a lot to think about and consider, and I find myself strongly disagreeing with one or both of them quite frequently, which always makes for an engaging listen.

Artwork for Let's Make Mistakes Podcast

Let’s Make Mistakes, hosted by Mike Monteiro and the folks at Mule Design, have helped me see things from a design perspective in a way that has been extremely useful to me in my current role. It’s a shame that they only publish a few episodes a year, but the content is evergreen, and I suggest you work your way through their back catalog. 

Artowork for Presentable podcast

Presentable, part of the Relay.fm network, is another design-focused podcast that I’ve drawn significant inspiration from. Hosted by Jeff Veen, partner at True Ventures and founder of TypeKit, Presentable explores a variety of design and user research topics. In particular, I’d suggest episode 34, “What User Research can Learn From Growth Hacking.”

Artwork for Pragmatic podcast

Pragmatic, on the Engineered Network, is hosted by John Chidgey, an electrical engineer who takes the time to do significant research for each show. This show is great for those that like to take apart ideas and consider them from every angle. If you’re not already a listener, I’d suggest starting with episode 22, “Core Business” with guest Horace Dediu.

Image result for overcast.fm

Not a podcast, but Overcast has become not just the way I consume the ~20 something podcasts I listen to weekly, but has been the tool that has enabled discoverability for me. I highly recommend it.

Just Over the Virtual Horizon

Sometimes seeing the expected happen faster than anticipated can be more alarming than the entirely unexpected happening. Virtual and augmented reality becoming a tool to create new customer experiences was inevitable, this should be no surprise. The speed at which these technologies are being adopted by even the most traditional of businesses is, however, somewhat surprising.

Over the past year, more and more B2C businesses have embraced AR as a means of engaging with customers. Lowe’s, for example,  teamed with Microsoft to explore an augmented reality in-store experience. While Microsoft’s HoloLens is no surprise (it was announced a few years ago after Google’s failure with Google Glass), the speed at which Microsoft has partnered with retailers to build new customer experiences is. Beyond Microsoft, other major players are moving quickly into VR. Google has released several Android phone accessories to provide VR capabilities without the need for new hardware. Contrasted with expensive, stationary setups like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR, it’s clear that Google is looking to get a lower-powered VR experience into as many hands as possible.

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But through the continuous churn over VR and its place in the consumer world, augmented reality began to emerge with a clearer, more compelling use case. Google announced Project Tango, an SDK and set of hardware specifications to enable smartphones to provide a true next-generation AR experience through functionality such as depth perception and analysis of the live video feed coming from the phone’s camera.

As 2016 drew to a close and I began to look toward 2017 and beyond, it became increasingly obvious that the means of engaging with a customer is evolving faster than today’s commerce platforms can support.

Shoppers are spending more time ‘in-app’, social media platforms have extended their platforms to support ‘in-context’ transactions, and some of the fastest growing regions are moving beyond the web-based storefront into new channels powered by messaging apps.

When we take these rapidly changing means of customer engagement, and turn back to our observations about AR and VR above, a vision for the future of customer engagement begins to become clear: ‘environment as channel’. Let’s explore some of these use cases.

The Furniture Shopper

Cassie, a loyal Restoration Hardware customer, has recently moved into a new apartment with a larger living room. She now has room for additional seating, but doesn’t want to measure each space, write them down, and go hunting for product dimensions online. Instead, Cassie launches the retailer’s app on her phone and opens the AR experience. She’s asked what type of room she’s shopping for, and instructed to slowly pass the phone’s camera around the room, panorama style.

The app uses what the retailer knows about Cassie, in addition to image analysis of the existing décor and furniture in the room, to start suggesting not just products but their placement in the space. It does this by drawing them on the screen, inviting Cassie to walk around and view it from multiple angles. Cassie is able to easily swipe products away to indicate her interest or dislike.

The New Home Buyer or Remodeler

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Today a builder must build multiple demonstration homes and is limited in the variety of floorplans and finishing materials they can easily display to prospective buyers. Using VR technology, a couple building their dream home can enter a virtual world and view every possible customization available from the builder. Floor plans, window styles, kitchen layouts, cabinet colors, hardware, anything.

This technology could not only allow the builder to sell higher-margin finishes and accessories, but would substantially reduce the need and associated expenses for model homes.

As we saw with Lowe’s and HoloLens, the opportunity to help drive DIY business by empowering homeowners to find their ideal fit and finish is clear. Additionally, guides and tutorials could be delivered through an AR interface, further enabling retailers like Lowe’s to extend their DIY business.

The Space Planner

Remodeling retail stores, or even just updating Plan-o-grams, are extremely complex and expensive endeavors for retailers. A space planning team could meet in VR to build the store’s new layout by simple pushing walls around, moving giant gondolas, and cycling through signage. They could easily move product around to create the perfect Plan-o-gram and ensure it looks right no matter how unique each store may be.

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At the store, associates tasked with resetting an area could launch an app on a smartphone and immediately see all the product positions that need to be changed. They would then simply follow what they see in AR to reset the section, no paper or interpretations needed.

These are just a few examples, but each demonstrates the potential for AR and VR in commerce. As with customer engagement moving beyond the web storefront, we must acknowledge customer engagement in new channels that we cannot even yet envision. How can be we prepared to not just support this, but lead in the space?

Supporting AR and VR experiences will require a new set of tools. Today a web or mobile storefront requires product images, categorization, product details, offers, and other creative data. AR and VR drastically increase these requirements to not just 3D models of products, but also texture and color data, style and other information to help drive suggestions, and all the processing power to make use of new, real-time streams of data.

We must also support a variety of means of transacting. Customers will want to complete their purchases in these environments, so the concept of a cart, purchasing information, and payment must adapt to support these means of engagement.

Microsoft and Google are clearly working on this. Each is using their advantages (HoloLens and Azure for Microsoft; ‘we know everything about you’, Android, and Project Tango for Google) to test the waters in this space. As they do, providers of marketing and commerce engagement platforms such as Adobe, SalesForce (with Demandware), and SAP will start to think about how to serve the back end of these technologies (3D models, customization and targeting, and payment).

The future of eCommerce lies beyond the website, in channels we can’t yet envision. We must be prepared to embrace and capitalize on these channels at a moment’s notice. So the question is, “what can we do to not just prepare for this, but to embrace and lead the change?”

 

The Missing Signal

My Circuit City store in Silverdale, WA being demolished to make room for a Trader Joe's
My Circuit City store in Silverdale, WA being demolished to make room for a Trader Joe’s

When I took my first Sales Manager job with Circuit City at a store in Silverdale, Washington, I was made aware of a report available to store managers that I hadn’t previously seen. I learned the true reason that employees were forced to use the side entrance: to avoid skewing the close rate. On either side of the main entrance were two small devices that counted any time the beam was broken. This kept a count of roughly how many people entered the store during business hours, and was compared to sales transactions to calculate a “close rate” and metrics such as average spend across all visitors. We were held accountable to the metrics that used it, regardless of our level of trust in the data. 

Counting the number of potential customers walking through the door, and comparing it to transaction data, is an interesting exercise in trying to divine what went through the minds of those who passed through the door but failed to buy anything. In Circuit City’s case, they wanted to understand if stores were capitalizing on the opportunities generated by local marketing efforts to generate store traffic. If a store only “closed” 15% of customers who entered, but their district averaged 19% and the total company averaged 21%, there would be some tough questions. 

Retailers still track customer traffic, but the sources of non-purchase signals have continued to grow over time. We now have web traffic, email views, Tweets, Likes, and even Bluetooth and WiFi tracking using in-store beacons. All of these technologies generate data that is a demand signal, but not typically considered part of the demand signal. The reports reviewed daily within retailers are dominated by summarizations of transactions. As mentioned above, some analysis is done on traffic data, but it’s rarely incorporated into the data that drives decisions on a daily basis. In this regard, eCommerce is slightly different. Instead of “close rate”, conversion rate is used. The number of views, add-to-carts, and purchases are typically published with similar importance to sales data. This helps merchants better understand if products are resonating with customers that view them, and if they’re getting the views they need to begin with.

Despite this incorporation of additional elements of the demand signal, something is missing. The typical data requirements for forecasting, demand planning, and optimization systems used by merchants includes transactional data only. This isn’t to say that these additional demand signals are entirely ignored by science-driven tools, it’s just that those tools are mostly targeted specifically toward optimizing specific elements of eCommerce visual merchandising such as page layout, design, images, and direct marketing—elements that drive engagement and improved user experience on the storefront, rather than the larger world of optimization solutions available for price, promotion, assortment, and inventory. 

This provides an opportunity to improve merchant and marketer tooling by finding novel uses for the rest of the demand signal. Knowing what a customer viewed on the storefront before they made the purchase is valuable. It can tell you things about affinity and cannibalization that are hard to derive from sales data lone. Understanding the journey a customer took across social media, your storefront, and app that finally led to an in-store purchase can help the merchant better manage multi-channel pricing and promotions. These data can bolster models that sometimes strain to find meaning in sales data, and provide powerful insights that address more than customers and extend to prospects.

What are some examples of these missing demand signals? The most readily available for retailers with an eCommerce storefront is the browse path taken by the customer prior to purchase. A customer may perform a search on Google for a type of product and follow a link to the storefront. From there they may click on a few recommended products, or perhaps use the site’s search functionality. Eventually, hopefully, they add a product to their cart and complete the purchase. Today, that transaction tells us one thing: Product X was purchased for price N. What else could we learn from this?

Why didn’t the customer purchase the product they found through Google search? Why didn’t they buy a product that appeared in the recommendations, and instead had to use the site’s search functionality? Was the product ultimately purchased substitutable or comparable with the one viewed initially? What search term was used on Google to find the first product, and what search term was used on-site to eventually find the purchased product?

Considering data generated through direct email marketing, coupon redemption, social media, third party shopping portals, and much more, the world of underutilized demand signals begins to look like an endless buffet of potential insights and discoveries.

All Retail is eCommerce

Image from mytotalretail.com
Image from mytotalretail.com

A merchant at a large omni-channel retailer sits and reviews the prior week’s performance on a Monday morning. Sales are broken out by department, then channel. She notices that the ‘WEB’ channel is about 20% of her department’s total revenue for the week, at a much lower margin than the in-store channel. But even then, the in-store channel’s margin is lower than usual, a trend that has persisted for some time now. The average selling price is coming in substantially below plan.

One floor down and on the other side of the building, a web marketer reviews competitive information scraped from a number of competitors earlier in the day, and sorts through the direct email marketing those same competitors sent out that morning. He consults a spreadsheet containing the currently active web promotions and decides to send out a department-wide special offer to the email list.

eCommerce retailing was born of the rapid advancement of the internet as personal computers began to commoditize in the 90s. First-movers saw this as a new channel to both conduct commerce and identify and target new customers. The web became a channel of sales, just like telephone and catalog sales had been accompanying (and in some cases pre-dating) the in-store channel for most of what could be considered modern retailing. But as internet connectivity reached saturation, and ‘the web’ became something users have access to anywhere at any time, does the definition of eCommerce as just a sales channel hold up?

In our opening scenario there are a few factors at work. The merchant is viewing sales through the website as distinctly different than the stores, and is puzzled at the margin erosion experienced in store. The web marketer is hyper-aware of what competitors are doing online, and has the authority to create promotions targeted to web shoppers. It’s a safe assumption that those promotional offers are causing the in-store margin erosion. We know that customers purchasing in either channel frequently utilize multiple channels as part of their journey to purchase, so it makes sense that marketing efforts in one channel will impact the performance in another. We also know that almost half of customers use their smartphones to enhance their shopping experience while in-store, meaning that they are literally shopping in two channels at once.

Is eCommerce just a channel? No. It’s much more. eCommerce is the new retail. Having a paper price tag on the shelf is no longer an excuse for not being competitive. Having different merchant groups managing your storefront is no longer an excuse for an isolated, disconnected cross-channel shopping experience. Retailers have lamented the growth of retailing online as promoting behaviors such as ‘showrooming’, going so far as to work with manufacturers to introduce confusing model variations to make research and price comparisons more difficult. This has come at the expense of the customer experience, one of the few things ‘B&M’ retailers claim sets them apart.

Simply reconciling your sales channels is insufficient. This approach still considers them to actually be independent channels. Instead, retailers must find ways to integrate the different shopping experiences they offer to their customers. Sales channels become sales tools, and suddenly the customer experience means something again.

How can retailers embrace this? In my previous post, “Put a ‘Buy’ Button on That!”, I discussed the new shopping model being introduced by social media platforms and search providers, and how we might be best equipped to help them make the most of it. Could ‘Buyable Pins’ be considered another sales channel? Is it really an entirely different sales model? Perhaps it’s best to consider it simply another part of one large channel, ‘commerce’, and put it on the board along with store, web, and phone as methods for a retailer to sell a product.

Take what we used to consider channels and put them on the board as equals. Now we have in-store, web, mobile, platform-enabled (‘Buyable Pins’), telephone, and catalog as the major selling tools. Let’s also consider these to not just be selling tools, but also buying tools. While retailers leverage each of those to drive sales, users leverage them to discover, learn, and make purchases. Knowing that our customer is using many of those tools, frequently at the same time, means a merchant should consider tactics that leverage this fact.

And with that, the walls between the-tools-formally-known-as-channels come down. Instead of defining each by the things that make them different, retailers should embrace the fact that customers consider them the same. This point has not gone unnoticed in the market. Apple, and others, are promoting in-store beacons that allow systems to identify customers when they enter the store, and even locate them within the store itself, while powerful analytics comb through information about the customer to figure out the best way to improve their experience and close the sale.

The proliferation of Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs) in other countries (due to a combination of tough consumer protection and environmental/labor concerns) has begun to blur the lines between web and in-store further. Retailers are looking for capabilities that squeeze the most out of these systems by changing prices mid-day to remain competitive, or capitalize on intra-day demand patterns.

Much as rapid innovation and availability of technology created the world of online retailing, so too will it further enable the retailer to blur the lines between in-store and online. These technologies will be met with high demand, and along with that demand, software and systems to help retailers make the most of these new opportunities.

Across the web one can find bits and pieces of capabilities and concepts starting to form, but not yet coming together. Retailers aren’t sure what to ask for and software providers are ramping up development based on an extension of today’s capabilities, tactics, and methods. The puck is still moving, and today it’s passing by intra-day in-store price changes and beacon-enabled targeted mobile offers for in-store visitors. Where will it be tomorrow?

Put a ‘Buy’ Button on That!

Carrie Brownstain and Fred Armisen’s characters in Portlandia offering to put a bird on your bread (via toasting, of course).
Carrie Brownstain and Fred Armisen’s characters in Portlandia offering to put a bird on your bread (via toasting, of course).

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s Portlandia has arguably become the de-facto skewering of Hipster culture in America, and much like the ‘put a bird on it’ meme started by the show, web advertising platforms are hoping to make ‘put a buy button on it’ equally as popular.

Google just confirmed they’ll be adding Buy buttons to Search results in the next few weeks, calling the service “Purchase on Google”. Facebook has been testing a buy button for some time, but has announced that users of Shopify’s ecommerce platform will be able to push content, buy button included, directly to Facebook. Of course we can’t forget about Pinterest and ‘Buyable Pins’, announced in June. Pinterest has several major retailers as launch partners, including Macy’s, Neimen Marcus, and Nordstroms and are able to integrate with the Demandware and Shopify ecommerce platforms. What does this mean for those hoping to provide solutions to retailers and merchants?

First, and most obviously, it means there is a dearth of solutions catering to this new method of shopper engagement. Tremendous effort has been put into providing tools to merchandizers that let them craft the ideal customer experience on their storefront, but this technology (which will be embraced by retailers, make no mistake) reduces the customer experience to a product image, brief description, price and a Buy button. That must be sufficient to either trigger the purchase decision or at least entice the user to click through to the storefront. How do we address this channel? What levers do we have to pull?

Second, it introduces an additional layer of mediation between the retailer and their customer. Much like the recent goings-on in online publishing (I suggest reading The Awl’s ongoing series “The Content Wars” if interested), “platforms” are hoping to cash in on the access to customers they can provide. The key here is to not just help the merchandizer best drive customer interest through the platform, but to understand the value proposition offered by the platform and be armed with facts to improve their negotiating position as they engage with the platform owner.

Third, finally, and perhaps even most critically, it introduces yet another channel to drive customer confusion. As noted by Pinterest, Macy’s is participating in the launch of Buyable Pins. How exactly does Macy’s plan to manage Pinterest as an additional channel of commerce? Does it get the same price as Macys.com? Is that price aligned with their in-store pricing? What about the catalog and phone channels? When Macy’s realizes a gain in revenue from a fairly low-effort engagement with Pinterest what do they do next? Put up Buy buttons on Facebook, in Google Searches, and any number of other me-toos that will emerge from the Valley (you know which one) to become the hottest new platform for direct-consumer-social-purchase-engagement.

These issues need to be solved in a way that improves the customer experience, and makes platform owners and retailers more successful. No sweat!

Social purchasing like this has a unique challenge from a pricing perspective. It’s inexorably linked to social interaction. If we version pricing by user it won’t be long until someone Likes it and posts a comment mentioning the price. The jig is up! So what else can we do? Well, if the retailer has control over how and to whom the content is promoted we may be able to identify cohorts and offer them, plus anyone in the Friends list, or their followers, the same offer as to avoid the situation. This forces us to select a somewhat suboptimal price, while still enabling more optimality than one price across the entire web.

What about other aspects of merchandising? In this example from Facebook the merchant has very little to work with. Perhaps the same product image used on the retailer’s storefront isn’t going to cut it? Maybe customers in this interaction model assess and respond differently than when viewing the storefront. How do we help merchants make the best possible visual merchandising decisions? What about the product name, how do we get the most out of the character limit imposed by the platform?

Retailers will need to invest not only in tools to manage this, but also in time, creative assets, legal to review the platform contracts, and much more. How do they know the decisions they’re making are successful? How will they know that the deal they’ve made with the platform is advantageous for them? This needs a solution as well. A/B testing could be powerful, if it’s supported by the platform. Will Facebook provide retailers with the same, or better, user targeting features as they do for ads? How do we leverage this capability to enable a test and learn approach to maximizing value from all the Buyable Pins retailers are going to start placing?

These are problems we can solve. They strike at the core of “commerce” as a concept and retailers will be looking to us to lead the way and help them make the most of these new capabilities. What other ways could we get ahead of this trend?

It’s happened to me, too.

I never thought this would happen. I saw it happen to others, and always thought to myself, “How can they let this happen? What are they doing wrong here?” Well, I can no longer ride high on my mighty horse.

Why? I’ve filled up a 64GB iPhone.

Yes, I’m working on clearing out Overcast. I have a habit of stopping episodes with ~1 minute left causing them to not delete until I reach the “keep n episodes” limit. But I think this means my iPhone 6S+ (Yes, I’m going BIG this fall!) will be 128GB.

Hello, my name is ____

During episode 29 of the 5by5 network’s Quit!, Dan mentioned to Haddie before taking a call from show regular and romance eCoach Virginia Roberts that he needs stickers to give to those he worries about, and those he doesn’t.

I was listening to this episode on Saturday, June 30th while walking around downtown San Francisco. I happen to have my laptop with me and decided to find a quiet place and throw something together. 

Here’s what I came up with.

PDFs were sent to Moo.com for printing and mailed directly to 5by5 world headquarters in beautiful Austin, Texas. 

If you’d like to print your own, the PDFs can be downloaded here

 

Creepy. Creepy. Crappy.

Robert Scoble reporting on comments by Bryan Trussel, CEO of Glympse, as he explains why his firm develops for Android before iOS:

Glympse‘s CEO, Bryan Trussel, told me his team develops its contextual mapping app on Android first, then moves it to iPhone.

Why is this?

A few reasons:

1. Android lets developers have access to the dialer so that app developers can watch who calls you and who you call.
2. Android lets developers look at the wifi and bluetooth radios on the phone so app developers can build better systems to track where you are, who you are near, and whether you are near things like your car.
3. Android lets developers ship and test without waiting up to three weeks to have their apps approved.

In other words,

1. Android lets us be creepy
2. Android lets us be creepy
3. Android lets us be crappy

Via Daring Fireball.

Lobby or Innovate

Google announced the details of their fiber service in Kansas City today. 1,000mb/s down and up for $70 a month, or pay a $300 construction fee and get at least 5 years of free 5mb/s internet service. They also launched a TV service for an additional $50 per month.

The big question: How will the cable industry compete with this? They only have two real options. Lobby state and federal governments to strengthen their monopoly and hinder Google’s efforts or innovate and transform their business model.

I’m guessing they go with tried and true buying of government influence.