Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Why be a trainer?

Why any of us get into this profession has always intrigued me. It’s certainly not for the money, or the glory. Trainers are appallingly underpaid for the contribution they make, the hours they put in, and the diligence with which they work. And it is not the most obvious route to take if you want to build an empire or change the world. When was the last time you saw a trainer on the cover of Fortune magazine? Yet a career in training has an enduring appeal to some of the best and brightest, an appeal which, bizarrely, seems to have increased with the emergence of e-learning.

I have recruited dozens of people into training roles, and trained and mentored them as their careers evolved. For the most part, they were perfectly innocent people who would have had dramatically different careers had I not pulled them out of a line job into a life of learning. For the most part, years later, they don’t hold it against me. Over the years, I have encountered more training managers, training officers, trainers, VPs of learning and development, and other more exotically titled training people than I care to count. Wherever they are in the world, whatever culture they inhabit, and whatever industry or organisation they call home, they have much in common.

They all started out wanting to make a difference at a very human level. They cared about individual people and their ability to perform in their chosen roles. And they cared about the performance of their organisation, not as some capitalistic engine, but as a family. For all their initial common ground, though, they end up in very different places.

Many trainers walk a long, hard, bitter path that begins in idealism, winds down through pragmatism, and terminates in cynicism. I am not a trainer by choice or by design. I fell into the role out of a combination of an annoyingly enquiring mind, intolerance for underperformance in my colleagues, and natural teaching aptitude. While there were idealistic underpinnings to most of my earlier activities, they were never my driving force. My buzz came from tuning the performance of an organisation, not from seeing light-bulbs go off over heads in a classroom. So I guess I started out cynical, and am gradually making my way up that hill toward the idealism summit, passing an awful lot of traffic coming the other way.

True, many trainers stay optimistic throughout their careers, but just as many become negative, if not about their role then certainly about the organizations they serve. Some trainers have retreated from reality, existing inside a kind of professorial fog and being sustained by the inherent quality of their work rather than its contribution to organisational goals. In similar vein are those for whom busyness is the business, a frantic life packed with impossible deadlines and superhuman schedules preventing them from having the time to see how futile their lives have become. They gave up trying to “make a difference” to their organizations, but at least they can still make a difference to individual learners.

Others continue to strive to get “management” to subscribe to an organizational vision in which learning is central and leading, not peripheral and reactive. They never stop trying to get strategy defined ahead of operational planning, and resist having training used as a poor substitute for good management. These quiet revolutionaries patiently work at transforming organizations through helping people to transcend themselves. They demonstrate daily the value of learning, and inspire innovative thinking beyond the departmental walls. And they love their work.

In my experience some of the most effective trainers (in terms of impact on learners and impact on organisations) are those with “real-world” experience outside of their training expertise. Seasoned practitioners, subject matter experts, or those who have recently completed their own training, are often very astute, learner-aware, and acutely attuned to the context of their teaching.

Are there inherent personal characteristics that determine whether a trainer will thrive or merely survive? What do you look for when recruiting? I usually look for people who are passionate about their field, have high energy levels, are more interested in learning than in teaching, ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers, and have unusually thick skin. A formal background in learning theory or in instructional design has always been secondary – you can teach people those principles, but if they don’t have “the right stuff” to begin with they will soon be on the slippery slope to cynicism.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 12/3/04

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Podcasting for non-geek trainers

Podcasting, despite its geeky name, is simple and practical, and has a wide range of potential uses in education and training. Abbreviated from “broadcasting to an iPod”, podcasting is, at its most basic, the distribution of audio content via the internet to mobile audio players. The name is a red herring, because you don’t have to be a Mac user – you can podcast any audio format and play it back on any compatible player, even if it is not mobile. Rarely does my audio go mobile – I prefer to simply listen at my desk. Podcasting lets you listen to content of your choice at a time and place that is convenient. In that regard, it is not much different from the old idea of listening to books-on-tape on your Walkman.

But that is where the resemblance ends. Podcasting uses the same technology that syndicates the content of blogs and news sites, so subscribing to a site and having its content updates automatically fed to your computer is a matter of a few mouse clicks. The technology used to push the text content of a blog to your computer is RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication). In podcasting, audio files are simply pushed out as attachments to RSS 2.0 feeds, just as documents are sent as attachments to e-mails.

First, you install an RSS feedreader (such as RSSreader or Amphetadesk, both free) on your computer, and nominate the sites whose content you want fed to you. There are tens of thousands of sites that publish their text content in RSS form. A feedreader is a simple tool that automatically finds and downloads content updates from the sites you have chosen to monitor. It will pull down the latest text entries, and can download enclosures embedded in those entries in the form of audio files. This saves you from having to go to each site, dig around to see what is new, and manually download each individual file. (To add my blog to your feed reader, simply drag the orange "XML" chiclet in the column to the right into your feedreader). I scan several dozen favorite sites a couple of times a day in a matter of minutes, a task that would take me hours without a feedreader.

You can be fed audio files by any up-to-date RSS 2.0 feedreader, but it won’t do the work of loading them into your iPod or Rio player. That’s where podcasting aggregators such as iPodder (also free) come in. iPodder will pull down audio files as they are posted to any sites that you have nominated. Further, it will automatically load the files to your mobile audio player, if you have one connected to your computer. Set your system to do a once-a-day scan at midnight, and you simply have to pick up your already-loaded audio player on the way out to your morning jog.

Podcasting allows anyone to record and broadcast anything, to an audience around the world. It’s like DIY global radio with TiVo built in, for a targetable audience. As a trainer, you can distribute content that is current and relevant. Some obvious applications are product or policy updates for your global salesforce, reinforcement for today’s classroom session, or daily micro-reminders from your online computer security course. Less obvious is the potential for capturing and sharing discussions among SMEs on hot issues, or sharing one learning group’s discussion with other groups.

All you need is a website or a blog, and recording software that converts your audio to MP3 format. Audacity (from Sourceforge.net) is good audio software, and it’s completely free. Install it, plug in a microphone, and record. When you are happy with the audio, export it as an MP3 at the push of a button, then upload it to your site as an enclosure to a blog posting. If your blog service does not support enclosures (Blogger, for example), you can still podcast by registering your blog with Feedburner.com’s SmartCast, a service that does all the conversions for you, for free. It is really that simple, though it may take a little practice to get file sizes down to reasonable sizes and audio quality just right.

Of course the downside of the ease of podcasting is that everyone who likes the sound of their own voice will be adding to the already crowded blogosphere. But the gems will stand out, and corporate podcasting should be subject to more stringent quality control.

Creative use of podcasting will accelerate the uptake of the training, marketing, and technical blogging that is becoming more common within corporations. Audio is often easier to create, easier to digest, and more appropriate than text. With a little vision and a willingness to experiment, I suspect that podcasting will rapidly find a valuable place in the already crowded chest of tools available to marketers and trainers.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 19/11/04

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Phishing: where training, marketing, and security meet

The phishing phenomenon is at epidemic levels, particularly among financial institutions. I like to think that I am acutely aware of dangers such as these (after all, I authored two e-learning courses on security and privacy), but even so I get agitated when I see an e-mail from my bank.

I get half a dozen such e-mails a day urging me to click a link and update my account details. The problem is that though I know they are scam e-mails, but I have to open them just in case they are not. One look at the e-mail's source code tells me immediately I am dealing with yet another attempt to rip me off, so I naturally do not click the link provided. But by then it is too late: the scammer's server has registered that my e-mail client has requested the image for the html e-mail, and my address is confirmed as a "hot" target for future projects related to that particular bank.

According to this CNET article 7 out of 10 people who go online have received phishing e-mails, and 15 percent of those have successfully been duped into providing personal information.

That is a lot of people in anyone's customer base. The absolute cost of reparations to victimized customers is one thing. The impact on a brand that is repeatedly abused by phishers is another. Credibility is eroded, and consumer confidence in dealing with the company behind the brand dissipates. Technology may help sometime down the line. In the meantime, the best a company can do is to educate its customers.

Who is best placed to provide that education? Marketing, Training, IT, Customer Relations? Surely this is one issue to which all parties should commit their best minds. Marketing people are good at building awareness and stimulating customers to act, but they are not the best at providing a learning experience. Trainers can provide a great learning experience, but need to work with the subject matter expertise of IT people. And customer relations people can do a reasonable job of reactively hand-holding nervous customers, but need marketing to handle the pro-active side of the process.

I have talked with customer relations people at my bank. I have talked with people in the fraud department. I have received mailings from (I assume) the marketing or legal people, on the subject of phishing. None of them do anywhere near a decent job of informing me of what it is I have to look out for, what consequences I have to fear, or what course of action is open to me if I do fall victim.

Get the trainers involved. Educating your customers is something that trainers are doing more and more of in other areas. Shouldn't they get posted to the front lines on this one?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Intellectual property and the internet

A trainer’s life is spent neck-deep in intellectual property. Everything we read, every process we teach, every concept we quote, every idea we apply, every training experience we design, every paper we write oozes with intellectual property. The laws which control what we can do with it have always been simple in concept but complex in the details.

Unless you create the work for your employer on company time, or you are a work-for-hire contractor, you automatically acquire copyright over anything that you write, draw or photograph. You don’t need to register your work (or even assert copyright overtly) to have the legal right to decide how others can use it. In fact the law acts as a lockbox by default: unless you specifically grant someone a defined right to use your material, they may not copy it or make derivatives of it, for any purpose. Beyond that, it gets murky and lawyers have to get involved.

So how do you grant limited rights to your work without abdicating all your rights and without having to engage a lawyer to sign an agreement with each and every person who would like to exploit it? Or, if you want to use someone else’s material, how do you do so legally without having to negotiate a contract?

It’s easy, if the work is published under a Creative Commons (CC) license, using a choice of easily-understood licenses available online for free. Founded by a Stanford law professor, and fueled by the blogging explosion, Creative Commons has been around in the US since 2001. CC licenses are popular among those who write online, create music, or publish their art or photography online, and it has taken hold in the offline world too.

Till recently, the carefully-crafted legalese behind the licenses invoked American law and American legal language. Now, as of November 1, there is a UK version of Creative Commons. Over the coming year, local legal versions will roll out in more than 60 countries.

Everything I write online (with the exception of things I do for other people) is published under a Creative Commons license that gives anyone the right to re-publish the work and/or derivatives of it on condition that I am acknowledged. No need to contact me, no need to ask permission, no need to talk to my lawyer. I could have chosen a CC license with more liberal or more restrictive conditions, simply by clicking the appropriate buttons when I selected it online at the Creative Commons site creativecommons.org.

Anyone finding my independent writing on the internet sees a CC icon and, by clicking on it, can know immediately what use-restrictions exist. Here’s the really clever part: because licensed work links back to Creative Commons, their search engine can find material whose legal status matches your needs. Looking for a game to use as an ice-breaker or a photo of an Olympic champion? Creative Commons might deliver what you need in a way that cuts through the legal red tape.

There is already a lot of Creative Commons licensed content available online, and that pool expands daily as individuals and organizations endorse the concept. One of the latest on board is the BBC, who are building the “Creative Archive” in which substantial amounts of BBC archive material will be made available for downloading and use. That’s going to be a treasure trove of audio, video, and photographic material for educators and trainers.

It’s the philosophy behind Creative Commons that appeals to me most. No, not the notion of making lawyers less necessary (though I am all for that), but the idea of making more and more readily re-usable learning material available online. Not in the restrictive SCORM sense, but in the sense of people’s thoughts, experiences, favourite tools and techniques, published in whatever informal way they see fit. The more generous we are with our own ideas, the more we will ultimately benefit from those of others. To me, this is the still-untapped power of the internet.

E-Learning Adventures Beyond the LMS

To corporate decision-makers, the treasure map of e-learning has an island in the centre, seductively illuminated by those clever marketing folks of the learning software industry, with a big X over the Learning Management System (LMS) right in the middle. Outside of that island is blank space populated only by “here be dragons” warnings.

Given the marketing muscle behind the major LMS developers and their complete dominance of the e-learning space, it’s hardly surprising that many people see an LMS as “the solution” to their future learning needs. But an LMS, as available today, is not a universal solution for a corporation’s e-learning problems. In fact, an LMS is often the albatross around the neck of progress in technology-enhanced learning.

When your concept of learning is LMS-centric, you look for opportunities to implement “a solution” that conforms to that concept, and ignore or marginalize all else. An LMS is, of course, a relevant tool for certain applications. If you want to track learner activities, you need some kind of system. And if you want to make use of much of the available e-course content, you have no choice but to use an LMS – not because the learning requires it, but because the established architecture of the “learning supply chain” requires it.

If the only format in which music is available is on CDs, you have to have a CD player. And because everybody gets a CD player, more music is made available in that format. The industry crystallizes around its dominant technology. But the internet can challenge that. Today, I no longer collect CDs, I collect music. Music does not have to be in store-bought CD format. You can go to live performances or communicate directly with the musicians online; you can download only those tracks that interest you; you can compile and burn your own CDs, or put a thousand songs on an iPod; you can post clips on your blog to share your passion with friends.

IP issues aside, thanks to the internet, you can access and appreciate music in ways that for you, the listener, are so much better than the ways the music industry wants you to access it.

So it should be for learning.

The e-learning industry evolved in a more or less linear fashion from the classroom concept, with some influence from CBT. No imagination went into our application of web technologies, and there was little in the way of challenges to established learning paradigms. That’s perfectly normal in the adoption of new technologies – it takes a while before true innovation can take hold.

Initially, we failed to appreciate that the internet is a vehicle for connecting people with each other, and instead pursued a “learning supply chain” concept that had more in common with the 1970’s music industry than it did with 21st century e-business. We pursued systems that imposed bureaucratic control instead of learner empowerment. In a world hurtling toward distributed internetworking, e-learning was still based on a library-like central-repository concept. The first LMS from Asymetrix (now SumTotal via Click2Learn) was even called Librarian.

Our move from classroom learning to e-learning was less like a move from pony-express to e-mail, than it was from pony-express to bicycle courier.

Learning software vendors still doggedly pursue their vision of reusable learning objects that integrate via a central standards-conformant LMS. Meanwhile, trainers who really want to encourage experience-sharing and dynamic learner-created content are scrambling to understand blogging, RSS, and peer-to-peer networks.

Many LMS vendors don’t “get” learning. Can it really be that they don’t “get” the internet either? Are they so afraid of being non-intermediated that they will fight real progress every step of the way or are they about to help us evolve?

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 29/10/04

When Blending Doesn't Mix

I had thought the term “blended learning” would die rapidly, not because the concept is not important, but because the expression itself is a misnomer, and the learning experiences so labelled are often a disgrace to the training profession.

The theory is sound: by getting learners to grasp the basics pre-class, we get more time to have richer human interactions in the classroom. But the reality is often less inspiring. Any learning design that uses both online and classroom activities to achieve its objectives is referred to as blended. There is rarely an attempt to “blend” content, contexts, or learning processes. Many of the designs of blended courses that I have seen are, frankly, disjointed and chaotic - a jigsaw puzzle hastily put together in the dark.

Every training and development department that I talk to is pursuing “blending” as a core component of their learning strategy. They talk about saving costs, reducing learner time in the classroom, and cutting trainer workloads. Most have stopped trying to pretend that what they are doing is more effective; the efficiency argument is more credible.

In business we use technology to improve performance, yet so often in learning, we apply technology to give the illusion of progress while silently accepting that the performance result is a step backward. If we are going to use technology, shouldn’t we make the effort to have it actually enhance the learning experience, rather than merely support the cheapening of it?

Real blended learning offers an opportunity to move training away from its isolated course environment and to merge it with the learner’s real-world work, to allow continuous transfer and reinforcement. And, where feasible, blending should blur the lines between an instructor’s role and the role of the learner’s manager.

None of this is difficult to achieve technologically, but means thinking outside of the normal content-centric mindset of traditional instructional design. It also needs learners, instructors, and managers to embrace a less simplistic view of what their own involvement in learning can be. The result may actually demand more time, not less, from learners, instructors, or managers. But the reduction in time-to-competence and time-to-business-impact are likely to outweigh any increase in personal involvement required by the blend. And because the learning is so intimately merged with each learner’s workflow, the output – the impact on the business – can be easier to observe and measure. This is particularly true if managers have been “blended” into the process of developing learners’ abilities to meaningfully apply the learning in practice.

A blended solution can incorporate self-paced work, online instructor support, supervisor involvement, peer group involvement, classroom sessions building on job-specific pre-work assignments, ongoing application assignments moderated online by mentors and managers, community threads and chat tools, and dynamic libraries of relevant materials. While clearly overkill for basic training, such an approach is ideal for things like core management methodologies and soft skills such as sales and customer service.

If you get the right learning design, expectations, and management systems, you can achieve greater efficiency. And you can do it by increasing the outputs, not simply by cutting the inputs. Ultimately, that variation on blending has to be good for corporate competitiveness.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 8/10/04

Friday, November 12, 2004

Automotive advertising awards time

The International Automotive Advertising Awards (IAAA), modestly self-described as "advertising's most turbulent, creative, and challenging arena" is still accepting nominations for the 2004 awards. There are 118 categories, which pretty much guarantees that everyone's a winner.

Sadly, my favorite TV ad for the Corvette got pulled because too many people thought it encouraged kids to joy-ride.

My personal "best of" nomination goes to Audi for their brilliant use of dynamic Flash in a viral campaign for the A3 Sportback. They sent individuals a personalized e-mail pointing them to a movie online which featured a Minority Report-like engineer using a futuristic computer system to discover that the DNA of the Audi is a perfect match to the DNA of person viewing the video. How cool was it to see Godfrey Parkin scrolling across the screen? And of course you could submit the name and e-mail address of all your friends so that they too would get their very own personalized movie. Forsprung durch Technik, all the way.

Problem is, there's no category for trans-media strokes of genius like this. There's "Print" and "Television" and "Newspaper" of course, a unique category for every type of vehicle you can imagine. And in the more interactive area there's a section labeled "Interactive Media":
86. Corporate Web Site
87. Brand Web Site
88. Microsite
89. Retail/Sales Web Site
90. Web Promotion / Event
91. Simple Banners (link only)
92. Rich Media Banners
93. Interactive Kiosks

Maybe microsite would cover it, or web promotion. But it's hardly adequate.

Why is it that advertising awards are usually classified by the medium in which they play out and the product category into which the advertised brand falls? What happened to customer focus, or even business performance? I have yet to see an award category like "market share gained" or "enquiries produced" or "attitudes changed" or "conversation generated" or "return on investment". Maybe it's because these award events are for the ad industry by the ad industry, and accountability for business results is rarely part of the brief.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

8 billion pages on the web...

If you are a search engine index, size matters. MSN and Google have each been positioning themselves as having the largest coverage of the web, but today's numbers announced in the Washington Post seem pretty conclusive. At least for today.

MSN has a mere 5 billion web pages in its index. Google, more than 8 billion. Yahoo? Well, their position is probably that size is less important than relevance.

E-learning recovery predicted

Information Week is previewing a report due to be released by IDC next week which forecasts an upturn in the fortunes of "the e-learning industry". Without seeing the actual study it's hard to judge the conclusions, but quoted remarks from the analyst concerned make me suspect it's going to be another one of those annoyingly superficial studies that have characterized e-learning since day one.

According to the article the global market for corporate e-learning will grow 27 percent a year over the next four years. That means that the e-learning market will grow world-wide from an estimated $6.5 billion last year to over $21 billion by 2008.

According to IDC the main drivers of e-learning growth will be compliance training, particularly in areas such as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA. You have to wonder where they get comments like that from. Surely the real growth in the worldwide market will take place outside of the US in those countries just now hitting the internet penetration levels the US was at a few years ago? And I don't see Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA being applicable outside American borders (unless IDC is privy to some secret invasion plans).

I have come to take forecasts such as this (as well as the market size estimates) with a pinch of salt. No two companies in the forecasting business have ever agreed on a definition of what e-learning is, let alone a definition of what "the industry" includes. Not long ago, forecasts for e-learning's growth included predicted growth in the sales of routers and internetworking hardware. It was John Chambers at Cisco who produced the nonsensical statement, much touted by e-learning systems vendors, that e-learning was going to be such a killer app it would make e-mail look like a rounding error. I guess it sold him a few more routers, though.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The official new definition of marketing

The American Marketing Association has redefined "marketing", replacing an old definition that was all about the four P's with something that seems to parody the worst aspects of consultant-speak. Can this be a joke? Sadly, no it's not. Some consultants seem to love it's customer-relationship-centric implications. Real marketers must be cringing.

The old definition
Marketing is the process of planning and executing conception, pricing, promotion and distribution of goods, ideas and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational goals.
is replaced by this new definition
Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.

I hate it. It’s all fluff and motherhood. It uses vague trendy-speak language that NO self-respecting marketer would use in describing their own products, services, or concepts. Imagine briefing an agency to put together a campaign to communicate this new-fangled marketing concept. Imagine trying to get agency creatives to understand what marketing is using the definition provided.

“Er, well it’s an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.”

“Yes, but what IS it? What does it look like? What does it DO?”

“Um. You’re the creative folks. You figure it out. We just do the marketing.”

1) It’s a lot less useful than the previous definition in that the vague description could apply to many functions in an organization. The definition does not talk about what marketing IS or DOES in any meaningful way, nor does it describe its goals in a way that would make sense to someone who had never heard of marketing before.

2) Marketing is not just an “organizational” function and set of processes. Marketing’s philosophy and disciplines (neither gets a mention) apply to many fields outside of the formal organization.

3) The new definition implies, by omission, that the job of marketing has no conceptual, perceptive, or persuasive role. Marketing does NOT start with “creating” but with seeking to understand your market and competitors, and conceptualizing products, services, or experiences that will meet the needs of those markets.

4) Is the role of marketing really to “manage customer relationships”? Perhaps, at a very abstract high level. But for this to be the case in reality, you’d have to have Customer Service, Production, Sales, and every other department that has any impact on customers reporting in to Marketing. For most real-world marketing professionals, that’s a dream that is never going to come true.

My thanks to Jennifer Rice's blog for pointing out this change that the American Marketing Association seems to have sneaked out rather than launching. Oh dear.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Online ads get one dollar in twelve

How important currently is online advertising to marketers? I guess you have to look where the money goes to get a meaningful answer. Yesterday the American Advertising Federation released the results of a survey that showed that eight percent of adspend by the major marketers is going online. They project that the proportion will increase to 17 percent within three years.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Campfires in cyberspace

There is a must-read paper by David Thornburg at the International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, titled Campfires in Cyberspace.

Thornburg talks about the importance of storytelling as an instructional medium, something which most instructional designers (or those who manage them) have yet to get their heads around. In a paper rich in metaphors, Thornburg describes three learning spaces: campfires, watering holes, and caves, which are the most relevant and appropriate places to share information, conversation, concept, and context.

His emphasis in this paper is on storytelling.
One of the distinguishing features of humans is that we are storytellers. In fact, with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence. This capacity of humans is so important that Jean Houston has referred to myth as the DNA of the human psyche.

While storytelling, and the environments that foster it, are sadly ignored by those responsible for creating and enabling learning experiences, Thornburg does not see this as a problem. In his view people will find a way to do what they need to do whether or not the formal gatekeepers make it easy for them.
First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don't, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system.

I have often said that the proportion of corporate learning that takes place informally is not only significantly larger than that which takes place formally, but that unless trainers start to “get” the internet, people will use the web to their advantage in ways which may end up disintermediating formal trainers completely. Whenever I have made that argument I have been focused on advocating experience sharing and peer-to-peer communication within communities of practice, which is in effect all about storytelling. But maybe my concepts to date have been too formal. Thornburg’s notion is much more liberated.

Maybe it is because he is not himself immersed in today’s technologies. Reading between the lines of his paper, his perceptions appear in many instances to be outdated, and his content simply old. His references to the internet and to multimedia read as if he were writing in 1996, not 2004. But while his grasp of technologies may not be too current, his conceptual framework is timeless.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson

On Slashdot there's a great interview with Neal Stephenson that I recommend to anyone fond of geek fiction. For those that don't know, Stephenson's brilliant novel "Snow Crash" was the primary inspiration for "The Matrix" movies. (Though William Gibson fans might contest that). I became a Stephenson fan when I was in the avatar business about ten years ago, and even had a brief but distant brush with his work.

In the mid-late 1990's I was invited to Industrial Light and Magic to give a presentation and demo of the state-of-the-art in PC-based avatar technology. My company, a London-based simulation developer, was at the time way ahead of the industry in producing photo-realistic 3D avatars that could run in real-time over the internet on an unaccelerated PC. ILM's virtual characters were all high-end SGI-based graphics that took hours of processing time just to render a few frames. ILM built for the hi-res silver screen; we built for a pixelated 14-inch monitor. They had been tasked by a company that had just acquired the movie rights to Stephenson's Snow Crash to come up with a production design for a movie to star Keanu Reeves, during much of which he would be an avatar, a virtual character existing inside cyberspace. ILM needed to know what the near-future would actually look like.

In those days ILM's San Raphael premises were well-camouflaged, looking for all the world like a furniture rental business. On walking through the door the full-size Empire stormtrooper parked in the reception area dissipated the illusion. The place had bits of movie models strewn around everywhere: the death star model was sitting on a bookshelf in a passageway, the chunnel train from Mission Impossible gathered dust on top of a filing cabinet. Out in the back lot were some less-shabby models for current productions that I was asked not to notice.

I walked into the boardroom in my NY-LON look: dark suit, tie and shades, and discovered the CEO and everyone else on the production design team in shorts, sandals, and polo shirts. Somebody politely said they were expecting someone more weird, and that I looked like an anti-geek from the bizarro world, dude. Perhaps I inspired the look of Agent Smith. Perhaps not.

The Stephenson interview is interesting, as is his writing, because he is not an author trying to imagine a sci-fi future: he is first and foremost a hacker, with a geek's understanding of technology.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Most Search Marketers are unsophisticated

According to ClickZ's analysis of a new Jupiter report most search marketers are unsophisticated. The study says there are two kinds of search marketers, Sophisticates and Unsophisticates, and they each have characteristic approaches to their work.
Only 25 percent of search marketers use sophisticated bid strategies and measurement techniques, and those who do are more likely to be old-timers, big spenders and direct marketers.

Sophisticates have bigger budgets, smarter bidding strategies, and buy in many more words than unsophisticates (39 percent will buy more than a thousand words in a campaign, while only 14 percent of Unsophisticates will go that high).

What disturbs me about Jupiter's segmentation is that it's all about bidding for keywords. Looks like search marketers have rapidly descended from the dizzying heights of e-marketing gurudom to the less glamorous role of media buyer.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

European e-learning: “experts” get it so wrong

Prompted by a scathing review of ACTeN’s most recent “E-content Report” by Heike Philp of Kolabora, I downloaded the report to see what the fuss was all about. I don’t find anything to support Heike’s conclusion that in ACTeN’s vision real human-being teachers and trainers in classrooms will effectively become redundant. But I have to agree that the report is woefully inadequate in a number of key conceptual areas.

ACTeN (Anticipating Content Technology Needs) is an EU-funded project that
aims at stimulating the development of a European e-content industry by monitoring the digital media market and by transferring know-how in Europe.

Given ACTeN’s content-centric brief, it is not surprising that it ignores or dismisses much of the value that internetworking brings to learning and focuses only on “e-content.” But it is alarming, and to my mind outrageous, that the EU can set up a project that is doubtless spending a great deal of taxpayers’ money investigating the wrong thing and focusing the attention of learning professionals in the wrong direction.

Having lived in Europe for much of the past two decades, I am aware of the disdain that many Europeans have for the experience of their colleagues in the US. But Europeans have come to the e-learning party rather late, and they would do well to learn from the many mistakes made by the industry across the Atlantic.

One of the central mistakes made early on in the evolution of e-learning was to focus on learning content instead of on learning process, and to see the internet as networked technology instead of as networked people.

That core conceptual blunder resulted in the metastasis of vendors peddling pedagogically impoverished courses-by-the-Gigabyte along with Learning Management Systems exclusively designed to serve it up. It has taken (in internet time) an awfully long time for learning professionals to start backing away from that model and to start moving toward a more enlightened view of technologyahanced learning.

Heike Philp is clearly a fan of synchronicity, and from that perspective her condemnation of the ACTeN report is quite valid. She feels that teachers and trainers will migrate to a virtual classroom. The report, bizarrely, ignores this big chunk of the e-learning industry, possibly because it doesn’t fit ACTeN’s concept of industrially packageable content. But the report does say that most companies have adopted various implementations of blended learning rather than “pure” e-learning, so the classroom is still in their picture by implication.

Just some of the statements in ACTeN’s report are worth commenting on:

Content, technology and services are the three key segments of the e-learning industry, where content still seems to receive the main focus.

This is not only an over-simplification, it is just plain wrong. It seems that ACTeN is supposed to help define how Europe can develop its e-learning industry, meaning define how vendor companies can make money out of the e-learning opportunity. So, they see three segments in which companies might want to compete: they define “technology” as LMSs, “content” as the kind of courses provided by NETg and SmartForce, and “services” as ASP services.

I appreciate that the project is trying to help evolve vendors in the industry. But should it not also be trying to help European employers find the most effective way to benefit from e-learning? Encouraging the growth of a vendor base along the lines described above will simply replicate the same dire misuse of opportunity that already occurred in the US.

Companies that want to be successful as vendors in e-learning should be looking for ways to facilitate truly effective value-added performance-improving learning experiences, not join an already commoditized course production line. The “learning supply chain” model that is entrenched in American e-learning is a 1970’s music industry publishing model that has no place in 21st century e-business.

In order to build a successful e-learning business scenario the cost for an e-learning programme should be lower than an alternative classroom-based, instructor-led training.

This assumption, bought into by trainers and learning decision-makers early on in the e-learning industry, is one of the reasons that so much e-learning today is so bad. Technology should be used to enhance the learning output, not merely reduce its cost for an acceptable loss in quality.

As e-learning becoming more mainstream, learning practitioners are more and more positioning themselves for the next significant movement in the use of technology in learning, namely simulations.

While simulations will play a part in some aspects of acquiring some skills, they will not be anything like a mainstream next phase in e-learning. Anything but the most basic pre-programmed simulations are currently way too expensive to design, build, and maintain. The simulations that will become more popular invoke real people interacting virtually with other real people, rather than people interacting with a machine programmed to replicate such reality.

The internet has a lot more in store for e-learning, including collaboration, deep blending, peer-to-peer, mentoring, social networking, synchronous and asynchronous groupwork, dynamic communities of practice, wikis, blogging, workflow learning and learner-generated content. I’d be encouraging would-be vendors to develop products an services that facilitate learning experiences such as these, rather than pursuing the supply of simulations and canned courses.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Visualizing power and creativity

Here are two sites worth wasting a bit of time on, each adopting interesting "plastic visualization" approaches to presenting complex data-rich interrelationships.

Power: Who runs corporate America, and how are they interrelated? There is some fascinating content at They Rule. They Rule plots the boards of directors of American companies, and shows you which other companies those individuals have board seats on. You can drill down into each individual, link to deeper data on the web, and plot interrelationships. They Rule uses some very friendly use of drag-to-place graphics.

Creativity: An interesting way to pull together the different organizations involved in different fields of creativity around the world appears on NGf - Map of Creativity. The interface takes a bit of getting used to, but it is a very efficient way of packing a huge amount of data into a single small space.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Thought-mail: a paralysed man controls a computer by thought

The cyborg era is drawing closer as scientists discover more and more about the electro-mechanics of our minds and bodies. Five years ago, we were able to "see" through the eyes of a cat. Then wireless chips were used to bypass damaged nerves and stimulate muscle movement in previously paralysed limbs. Now a quadriplegic has had a tiny chip implanted in his brain that allows him to control his computer and send e-mail simply by thinking.
In June 2004, surgeons implanted a device containing 100 electrodes into the motor cortex of a 24-year-old quadriplegic.. Each electrode taps into a neuron in the patient's brain. The BrainGate allowed the patient to control a computer or television using his mind, even when doing other things at the same time.

The chip's 100 electrodes can tap directly into 100 neurons, and theoretically can transmit whatever each of those neurons is communicating. The learning curve is apparently rather short compared with other systems used by paralysed people, such as eye control or tongue-control.

Now, when the direct communication between mind and computer gets to be two-way, you won't need a keyboard OR a screen. In fact, your PDA might simply become a wireless supplement to your mind. And if it's a PDA connected to the web, your potential mental capacity is scary, to say nothing of your ability to communicate by thought -- imagine the future of IM. But I'm getting ahead of reality just a bit. Or am I?

Friday, October 15, 2004

Googling your PC just like the web

Yesterday Google released the beta version of its Google Desktop Search tool. It's available as a free download here. When you first install the tool, it sets about indexing every file on your system. In my case, that took nearly a day. Indexing takes place only while your computer is idle, and involves spidering the contents of each and every file it can get into -- including e-mails, documents, spreadsheets, databases, Instant Messages, images, and system files.

Once your drive has been indexed, Google Desktop Search searches all of the files on your computer in the same way that Google searches the web. Just enter the search term and click the button, and instantly a listing that looks remarkably like a web search results page lists all of the files on your system that contain that term. No more frustrations trying to get Explorer to find a document (or was it a spreadsheet, or maybe an e-mail?) that you last used months ago. It's brilliant.

There have been other desktop search tools, of course, but this is the big league and, if you are a regular Google user, it feels comfortable. And it does something that other desktop search tools don't do: it integrates your desktop search with your web search. If you search for a term on the web, a summary link to all of the files already on your computer containing that term appears at the top of the list.

What's more, Google Desktop will search all of your previously viewed web pages, and show you thumbnails of the relevant matches.

Amazon.com's A9 and AskJeeves recently launched personalized search features that let you store viewed web pages for future reference, but unlike Google Desktop, they don't do it automatically. I prefer the A9 system, because I try to keep my system as clean as possible, and purge history files, cookies and so on daily. That means Google Desktop is never going to find past-viewed pages; A9 keeps its own folder of only those pages you specifically ask it to save. But combine Google Desktop Search with LookSmart's Furl, and you get the best of both worlds.

Google's Desktop Search does not serve up ads, and if their privacy policy does not change, in-context ads will not be possible. Google does not feed any data about the contents of your desktop, or any personal data that you do not authorize, back to its systems.


Lycos becomes a social network

Lycos has released a beta of a consumer service that, at first glance, may be an excellent prototype for a corporate toolset that makes collaborative social networking among members of project teams (or within restricted communities of practice) easy and intuitive.

Last year, social networking was the Big Buzz. Friendster, a peer-to-peer networking environment became instantly popular among younger web users. Spoke made some inroads into professional users. Even Google launched a social networking system called Orkut. None of them set the world on fire, but maybe that's about to change.

Earlier this year, Lycos said it was going to change its business model and become a major player in social networking. Lycos changed ownership two months ago when the South Korean company Daum Communications bought it from Terra Networks, but that transition has not affected its change in strategy. In fact, a Korean perspective on networking may be just what is needed. Yesterday, Lycos released the beta of its new incarnation: Lycos Circles.

Lycos Circles is a "social sharing platform" designed to help users users stay in touch with their different circles of friends and acquaintances. Other social networking tools have tended to focus on broadening your network of contacts, or helping you connect with others via mutual acquaintances. Lycos Circles seems to be focused on adding value to existing social relationships.

Unlike the major blogging tools, which allow anyone on the web to see your content, Lycos Circles lets you restrict access to different circles of people. Lycos Circles gives users a set of instant personal communities within which users can choose what to share or discuss and what not to share or discuss, and who to include in which circles. You might have a family circle, a friends circle, a professional circle, a neighborhood watch circle, and so on, each with different priveleges and levels of access.

Lycos has a number of properties that can be invoked to make these social networks more feature-laden and content-rich: Angelfire and Tripod allow blogging, personal websites, and photo sharing, and People Search and Discussion Search allow you to find and connect with others. It's all about creating and sharing dynamic, relevant content that is not only personalized, but "circle-specific".

As with all new concepts on the web, the new Lycos business model is a little unclear, though apparently in-context ads a la Google AdSense will appear within your content. Lycos Circles is also partnering with outside services, such as the truly excellent online photo service Shutterfly.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

An RFID chip on your shoulder?

A little over a month ago I suggested that fast-food operators and coffee chains give their frequent customers a card with an imbedded RFID chip. Scanners at the door would recognize the customer and would transmit his/her most likely order to the kitchen well before the customer gets to order in person. Some interesting privacy issues there, but the fast-track VIP status would be rather appealing to many customers.

Now, amid all the controversy about WallMart’s obliging its suppliers to RFID-tag their products, and the resulting murmurings about potential invasions of consumer privacy, comes yesterday’s announcement by the FDA that it has approved the implantation of an identity chip under the skin of human beings.

The same technology that has been used for fifteen years or more to “chip” domestic pets is finally available to people in America. The FDA hopes that the chip, encased in a glob of glass smaller than a grain of rice, will be used to make vital medical information instantly available in emergencies. The chip is syringe-implanted in the upper arm in seconds, and when a scanner is waved over the body, the chip transmits its imbedded data.

The applications of this technology already go beyond the healthcare concept. A few weeks ago, an article on the BBC news site talked about a beach club in Barcelona that offered implanted chips to its patrons as a way of controlling access and instantly paying for drinks, like a tollbooth smartcard. For a beach club, this makes perfect sense: you get to leave your wallet and your ID card at home.

The time will probably come when we all have a dozen or more chips in our arms, one for every piece of plastic we now carry in our wallets. The state of Virginia is already looking at imbedding RFID tags in driver’s licenses. Can the move to arm implants be far behind? And speaking of driving, do you really need car keys if your car can recognize your chip?

Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Parkin Space - a new weekly column on the UK's TrainingZONE

Claire Savage, the editor of the UK's TrainingZONE has asked me to write a weekly column for the forty thousand or so members of that online community, and the first Parkin Space piece went live last Friday.
Sometimes controversial, sometimes combative but with a liberal dose of common sense, Godfrey Parkin's columns take a sideways glance at topical training issues.
It's a challenge to remember to spell in English English, but Claire's editing is excellent, so I'm not sure why I bother.

If you are not a TrainingZONE member, registration is free, and the community provides a uniquely British insight into training that is sometimes inspiring, sometimes a little scary.

Some changes in the blog

I've had a number of e-mails asking if I'm still blogging or if I've abandoned the effort. Good to know there are actual readers out there, not just stats on the tracker! I just took a week off to get reorganized, and am back with some minor changes..

I have drafts of eight to twelve topics for every one that gets posted, partly because I have been reluctant to do the typical blogger thing of saying "here's a link that is interesting, go read it" and partly because the Blogger default keeps putting that irritating "read more" message in even when there IS no more.

I am now persuaded that providing a link and brief introduction is better than the items not making it at all. In the meantime I'll try to hack a solution that prevents the read more message from showing up every time. Anyone who has a ready-made solution, please e-mail me!

And maybe if I am less long-winded there will be more comments within the blog itself (though please feel free to continue e-mailing me if that's what you prefer).

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Search sucks. Foraging rules.

Juan Dürsteler at InfoVis suggests that
The behavior of human beings when searching for information intensively resembles that of the hunter-gatherers of our past and that of the foraging of animals.

The way we present information on the web should acknowledge and exploit what we know about this foraging methodology.

In his article, he points out that biologists believe that animals go after a food target that maximizes ROI, delivering the most nourishment for energy expended; so they will target something young and frail rather than something large and robust, even though the total reward is less. They will move on to fresh hunting grounds when the energy involved in foraging outweighs the probable payback of finding anything to eat. We humans would do that with complex decision-making algorithms; other animals just do it.

The theory goes that data such as hyperlinks have an "information scent" that implies more than is overtly revealed about what lies beneath, and we have to learn to sniff out which paths may be the best for us to search down. Some of us get rather good at it; others flounder.

The lessons for information architects (as they like to be called) are clear: populate your sites with strong but un-confusing information scents, make your search paths clear and inviting, and make sure your information ecosystem provides more easy prey than hunting effort. Clear out the unnecessary information and gratuitous design elements, and build an environment that makes foraging a rewarding experience.

The last line of the piece is interesting.

Maybe we’ll have to begin thinking about the creation of an Information Agriculture.

I used the term "information agriculture" in a debate at a conference in Paris back in 2001, where I criticized then-mainstream approaches to Knowledge Management as unproductive foraging-and-storage rather than productive planned agriculture of information. Of course I was roundly rebuffed by a Knowledge Management professional from the European Commission for failing to understand that the purpose of KM was to gather, catalog, and make accessible the knowledge inherent to an organization -- not to proactively do anything with it. But I think things have changed since then.

Thanks to Maish Nichani of elearningpost for pointing out this article.

Asymptotic freedom in the color force

This has nothing to do with marketing, training, or the internet, but it's very cool. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics is going to three Americans, David Gross, H. David Politzer, and Frank Wilczek for discovering that, in the tiniest of particles, gravity appears to go into reverse and act like a rubber band.

The closer to each other that the quarks inside a proton and a neutron get, the weaker is the force that pulls them to each other; the further apart they move, the stronger the force. When the quarks get very close to each other, they act almost like free particles that are not bound to each other by any force at all.

The force attracting quarks to each other is known as the "strong force" or the "color force". The reverse-gravity phenomenon is called ”asymptotic freedom”.

Why does it matter? Because matter matters, and quarks are at the heart of matter. The discovery is a foundation of the theory of Quantum ChromoDynamics, which in turn is important to the dream of building a theory of everything, a model that explains the interactions among everything from the largest objects in the universe to the smallest. And all of us in between.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Instant Messaging in the workplace

Instant Messaging (IM) allows people who are working to interrupt each other with quick questions, and equally quick responses, in a sort of short-hand socializing. IM is banned or simply not supported in most corporate environments -- only 18 percent of Fortune 500 companies allow IM in the workplace. That's a little like the internet a few years ago. Remember companies refusing to allow employees to access the web at work because they believed it was counterproductive or insecure?

IM has been one of those contentious technologies that corporations don't approve of because of its frivolous roots. It's hard to control or monitor, it may have security problems, and it rarely leaves an audit trail. It's disruptive.

Which is why it has been succesful. AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) started out many many years ago as a feature of AOL, the least business-like of the online services, and was adopted by teens as a natural way to stay in touch. Microsoft and Yahoo launched their own instant messaging service, because you couldn't woo AOL customers away if you were going to deprive them of their AIM. People started using IM as an aid to collaboration in the workplace, and it rapidly became a communication tool that many could not do without. Why is it popular? E-mail is cumbersome and slow, and ill-suited for quick informal exchanges; the phone is similarly unwieldy. Like SMS, Instant Messaging is, well, instant.

And that matters to business.

IM is no longer a marginal technology: A Pew Internet and American Life Project report says that 11 million people in the US use IM at work. There are more than 76 million IM users in total, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, with MSN finally edging out AOL (28.6 and 27.6 million respectively).

Typically free with a consumer account at MSN, Yahoo, or AOL, Instant Messaging is now trying to find a corporate business model. Companies such as Jabber, Akonix, and Five Across are providing IM tools that look a little more business-like than the gaudy, smiley-face-laden interfaces of AIM. They hope to overcome the prejudices that corporate decision-makers have by presenting IM as a serious communication tool in a serious package.

IM will generate $131 million in revenues in 2004. But according to the Radicati Group, IM-revenues will hit $413 million in 2008. Jabber is already the corporate IM tool for companies like Disney and AT&T. Their approach has been to go for the enterprise sale, and implement IM top-down. Companies like Five Across seem to be taking the opposite approach: make the basic tool free, get lots of people to use it, then sell a corporate upgrade.

As with the web, once business accepts IM as a useful productivity tool, we’ll find many creative uses for it.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Books printed on demand in Ugandan villages

This article in Wired magazine shows what can be done for education in developing nations, with technology and a little imagination. An organization called Anywhere Books is providing free custom book-printing services out of a modified vehicle that visits Ugandan villages. In partnership with the Internet Archive, Anywhere Books can print from a catalog of public domain works. (These include books, of course, but also cover a library of reports, articles, images, and audio). They also partner with Pact, a non-profit development organization. So while kids can get reading books, farmers can get how-to guides.

All of this on a $150,000 grant from the World Bank.

Here in the US we have all been using remote print-on-demand services for years: if you are in New York about to rush to JFK to catch a plane to a client meeting in Chicago, you submit your presentation or report to an online Kinko’s site and nominate where you want the hardcopy printed and delivered from. By the time you reach your client, a pile of locally-produced reports is waiting for you.

Anywhere Books is a novel twist on that concept. Now if only they can replace Alice in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit with something more relevant to the local Ugandan culture.

Nielsen finally rates commercials! So what?

For years, advertisers have been trying to get Nielsen to report on the audiences for commercial breaks, instead of just the audiences for television programs. Everybody knows that the audience shifts when commercials come on: some people go to the kitchen, some go to the bathroom, some surf the channels till their show returns. Advertisers want to know who is actually watching their ads, instead of inferring this from who is watching the shows around the ads. Now Nielsen has agreed to provide minute-by-minute audience stats right through the commercial breaks.

Advertisers are delighted, though it will probably cost them millions to get the data.

The question is “why does it matter?” The information will tell them nothing useful, other than perhaps giving them ammunition to bargain down the rates charged by the broadcasters. But since all networks will probably have similar audience attrition during breaks, the relative desirability of their ad slots will probably not change.

Audience composition and size during a break does not matter, because it is bound to be more dynamic and less predictable than audience composition during the television program. And the actual content of the ads will have a bearing on audience retention – a slot with some popular creatives will retain audience, while a slot with less riveting ads will lose audience. So the data for a particular slot is not predictive of the data for the same slot the following week, unless the ads don’t change. And there are much cheaper ways of testing the attention-grabbing power of an ad than handing over millions of dollars to Nielsen.

What will be interesting, though, is to know the average scale of the audience loss and how it varies in size and composition as the evening progresses. Interesting, but not particularly actionable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

New Jersey expands its online job training program

Today, labor commissioners and officials from more than a dozen states and the federal government are meeting to talk about leveraging e-learning to teach job skills to low-income workers. They have evidence that online learning actually works. The AP is reporting that the New Jersey region of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau has completed a truly successful pilot program in which it provided 128 women, all low-income single parents, with internet access and a computer, and had them take essential job skills training online from home. After the program their average wage rose 15%. Now New Jersey is expanding the program and other states are following.
In Maine, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman is exploring how to tie in the New Jersey program with one there that gives seventh- and eighth-graders laptop computers for the entire school year, putting around 30,000 laptops in homes around the state. "I think this is going to mushroom into something very big," said Plotkin.

Of course it is.

The internet has been an underutilised training resource for too long. Once it becomes obvious that anytime-anywhere learning is helpful to people who otherwise could never get it together to learn, the question becomes "Why have we not done something to address the access obstacles before?" Those obstacles are not insurmountable, and, with a little imagination, solutions are not impossibly expensive.

Giving laptops to people to allow them to learn is not that expensive, given the benefits to society that can result. But it doesn't have to be laptops. Access devices are now available in the $200 price range, and that price is falling. And entire cities can be WiFi enabled for less than many companies spend on a corporate LMS.

Let the corporate trainers squabble endlessly over the finer points of implementing e-learning. Let the Luddites say that technology must be rolled out slowly and carefully. If you provide access to learning opportunities on the internet to people who need to learn, they will do so, no matter how unsophisticated the training vehicle may be. If learners such as those in the New Jersey program are motivated to succeed, they will do wonders with whatever is available to them. Just Do It!

Monday, September 20, 2004

Targeting car buyers on the information superhighway

J. D. Powers has just released the results of a survey of more than 26,000 consumers who leased or bought a new vehicle in January or February 2004. Apparently nearly two thirds of all new car buyers in the US use the web as a resource, and half of all new car buyers use it to help them pick make and model, and find the right price to pay. As other industries are discovering, it is not just Gens X and Y that are using the web to make big-ticket buying decisions. Nearly half of all new car buyers over 60 years old used the web in their search for the right vehicle.

As more buyers are looking to the web for pre-purchase information, manufacturers are actually responding by providing sites that now go beyond the mere brochure-online of a year or two ago. So while six out of ten "online automotive customers" still start their new car search at third-party sites, four out of ten go right to the manufacturer's site, and this proportion is growing.

This is the beauty of integrated marketing, creating awareness and interest using conventional media, and pulling those potential customers to a tactical microsite or brand website for an immersive, comprehensive, salesman-free experience to turn that interest into desire.

A great example of targeted personalized marketing is Audi UK's latest promotion for the A3 Sportback. I received an invitation to view a movie online which shows Audi engineers discovering a link between the heritage of the Audi and the DNA of Godfrey Parkin! I was invited to send similar invitations to other people, who also got to watch their own personalized movie. This is a very creative twist on microsite viral marketing.

It's a pity that manufacturers are getting e-marketing right, but shy away from e-commerce. In most cases you still have to go to a dealer to place an order for a new car. And (in my limited experience) don't expect much in the way of online customer service after the sale is closed. Forsprung durch Technik is still about manufacturing engineers and marketing execs, and has not quite made its way to dealers or corporate finance people. But that will come with market pressure.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Web Marketing Association's WebAward Competition Winners

This year's Web Marketing Association's WebAward winners were announced this week, and can be seen, if you have the patience, via a surprisingly user-unfriendly awards site. I've listed all the best-of-industry winners below. Overall winner was agency Arc Worldwide for their work on the potentially unglamorous Behr Paints, who now provide some really useful functionality on their site. Why would you go to a paint manufacturer's site? To do exactly the kind of stuff Behr has made possible: to get inspired, to create and try out colors, and to get expert advice on your project. Behr is not advertising its products; it is providing a custom service.

The overall "Top Agency 2004" award went to Arnold Worldwide who won thirteen WebAwards this year.

The award winners tend to be heavy on gratuitous Flash intros, but collectively they are a good window into the state of marketing online across many industries.
Of particular interest:

Hass MS&L
Best Education Website
GMability Education

Vérité, Inc.
Best Marketing Website
Symantec Client Security 2.0 Channel Launch Kit symantecclientsecurity.verite.com

Redhead Interactive
Best Consulting Website

Best Design Website
Gigapixel Creative, Inc.

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Best Professional Services Website
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt Website

PixelMEDIA, Inc.
Best Retail Website
ECCO USA, Inc Web Site

The complete "Best of Industry" awards were:

Cisco Corporate PR
Best Public Relations Website
News@Cisco: Innovating Cisco's Corporate Press Room

Standard & Poor's
Best Institutional Services Website
Standard & Poor's

Batiz.com, Inc.
Best Government Website
Drive Clean

Gigapixel Creative, Inc.
Best Design Website
Gigapixel Creative, Inc.

Impact Interactions
Best International Business Website
SAP Community

webfact gmbH
Best Broadcasting Website
Endemol Corporate website

Redhead Interactive
Best Consulting Website

Imirage, Inc
Best Credit Union Website
APCI Federal Credit Union

MarketSource, Inc
Best Construction Website
Four Seasons Consumer Web Site and Franchise Portal

Fusion PR
Best Directory or Search Engine Website

Hill and Knowlton
Best Computer: Retailer Website

Best Restaurant Website
Mercy Wine Bar

The Tuesday Group, Inc.
Best B2B Website
Universal Studios Consumer Products Group

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Best Professional Services Website
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt Website

Best Home Building Website
Crane Performance Siding Web Site

Roche Diagnostics
Best Health Care Website
Diabetes Assistant

Strong Financial
Best Brokerage Website
Strong Financial

Arnold Worldwide
Best Events Website
Pods Unite
Currently not available

Best Advocacy Website
Register and Vote 2004

Gerard Konars
Best Small Business Website
Bridal and Formal, Inc. Website

Best Game Site Website

Best Sports Website
RBK Sound and Rhythm

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Best Intranet Website
DHL Merger Intranet

Diamond of California
Best Food Industry Website
Emerald of California Website

Saturno Design LLC
Best Legal Website
Pierce Atwood - Attorneys at Law

Brody PR
Best Real Estate Website
RealEstateJournal.com, The Wall Street Journal’s guide to property

Moving Minds, LLC
Best Financial Services Website

Best Internet Service Provider Website
Verio Global IP Solutions

Best Airline Website
AirTran Airways - E-Annual 2003

Best Beverage Website
Early Times

Organic, Inc.
Best Telecommunication Website
Sprint PCS Ready Link site

WeightWatchers.com, Inc.
Best Online Community Website

Kel Geddes Management Ltd
Best Catalog Website
The Anne Geddes Baby Clothing Collection Website

VSA Partners, Inc.
Best Investor Relations Website
Ameritrade Holding Corporation Web Site

BGT Partners - Miami
Best Leisure Website

Allied Capital Corporation
Best Investment Website
Allied Capital Corporation

Aesention, Inc.
Best Associations Website
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce

Vérité, Inc.
Best Marketing Website
Symantec Client Security 2.0 Channel Launch Kit

bbdigital (Blattner Brunner)
Best Mutual Fund Website
HighMark Funds Website

Best Publishing Website
New Homes Guide Website

Hass MS&L
Best Education Website
GMability Education

ISL Consutling
Best Toy & Hobby Website
Chevron Cars

BURST! Media
Best Newspaper Website
Christian Science Monitor

Best Faith-based Website
A Worldwide Community of Christian Photographers

PixelMEDIA, Inc.
Best Retail Website
ECCO USA, Inc Web Site

Bent Media
Best Consumer Goods Website
TABASCO® PepperFest®

Best Music Website
Sting: Public & Pay Member Site

Blitz Digital Studios
Best Entertainment Website
The Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divded Website

I.T. UNITED Corporation
Best Non-Profit Website
WWF Children of the Earth

Conselleria de Turismo - Generalitat Valenciana
Best Regional Website
Official tourism site of the Land of Valencia

Ion Global Limited
Best Bank Website
HSBC Card Services HK

Macquarium, Inc.
Best Other Website
The Home Depot Nursery Certification Program

Best Medical Website

Best Application Service Provider Website
Leopard em Web site

Stellent, Inc.
Best Biotechnology Website
Genzyme Web Initiative

Azavar Technologies
Best Diversified Business Website
CFC Corporate Website

Weber Shandwick Web Relations
Best Military Website
V2C2 Electronic Press Kit (EPK)

The Weather Channel
Best General Interest Website

Idea Integration
Best Employment Website
Aegis Therapies

Bridge Worldwide
Best E-Zine Website
Health Expressions

Hanon McKendry/The Brand Consultants
Best Advertising Website
Lake Effect Website

Nurun Inc.
Best Manufacturing Website
BRP Corporate/Brand Web Ecosystem

Bailey Lauerman
Best Energy Website
Abengoa Bioenergy

Best Insurance Website
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey Website

CNET News.com
Best News Website
CNET News.com

Peppers & Rogers Group
Best Media Website
Peppers & Rogers Group

First Marketing
Best Email Website
Mediacom e-news

Arc Worldwide
Best of Show, Best Interactive Services Website
Behr Paint

Quicksilver Associates
Best Travel Website
Seabourn Cruise Line

Best Family Website
Bring Elsie Home

2Advanced Studios, LLC
Best Movie Website
Exorcist The Beginning

Wind River
Best Computer: Software Website
Wind River

Interactive Sites
Best Hotel and Lodging Website
The New York Palace Web Site

Hill & Knowlton for HP
Best Computer: Hardware Website

Onlinefocus, Inc.
Best Transportation Website
FedEx Identity

eSiteful Corporation
Best Magazine Website
Saudi Aramco World

eSiteful Corporation
Best School Website
Plano Independent School District

Best Radio Website
Live365 Internet Radio

The Harrington Group
Best Portal Website

EYE and MIND Studio
Best Arts Website
EYE and MIND Studio Website

Visual Arts Press, Ltd.
Best University Website
School of Visual Arts Website

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

How surfers' eyes scan your site

The Eyetrack III survey tracked the eyes of people as they looked at news web sites. There's a lot of interesting detail on their site that may give web designers and e-marketers some food for thought. The study focused on news-style web sites and aimed to see if there were different viewing and comprehension results for different styles of layout. But the insights go way beyond news site design issues.

The sample used to produce the report was only 46, and most of those sampled were Anglo/Caucasian (apparently eye-shape can defeat the Tobii ET-17 eyetracker that was used). So you can't get any meaningful data about ethnicity or other segmentation such as education. But the big-picture aggregates are interesting, and the heat-maps that are used to display the data are really great.

I got involved in a much more primitive eye-scaning study back in the early 1980s. We were trying to quantify the impact of placing brands at different heights on supermarket shelves, testing the impact of "shelf talkers" (the supermarket shelf equivalent of an ad banner), as well as trying to see what package designs got most eye-attention from passing shoppers. I think we concluded that whatever the results were telling us was exactly what we would have expected anyway, so the testing had little real value. It seems that what Eyestracker III tells us is also pretty much what we would have expected anyway, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

From my perspective, the most interesting observations were on advertising. With web ads getting a clickthrough rate of less than 0.5 percent, the more we know about surfer interactions with ads, the better. Some highlights:

Performance of an ad is very dependent on its placement. Ads in the left and top sections get more attention than those in the right and lower sections of a page:
We found among our test subjects that there were often instances when they did not look directly at ads, even for a fraction of a second. That doesn't mean they didn't see them at all -- in some cases eyes fixated close enough to the ads to be able to view them in peripheral vision; in other cases they looked at ads directly; and in many cases, they didn't see them at all. And placement of ads mattered a lot.

Visual breaks in design can be barriers to ad visibility:
participants tended to avoid ads when a visual barrier of either white space or a border sat between the ad and the editorial content. A border or rule, or a visible area of white space, seemed to stop many people from viewing an ad.

Ads that blend into the page, especially text ads, get more attention:
ads that blended into surrounding editorial content on a news homepage attracted people's eyes more often than ads that featured contrasting colors or designs. If an ad was approximately the same background color as the rest of the page, it received more eye fixations.

The size of an ad has an impact, with large ads performing well:
Larger ads are seen before smaller ones, our observations suggest. The larger ads on homepages do not, however, get viewed for any longer than smaller ads. With the exception of text ads ... all banners of all sizes on homepages were seen, on average, for between 0.6 and 1.6 seconds.

Some other observations in the "well we knew that, didn't we?" category that really could use further detailed study:

  • Ads inset within article text are seen more than most others.

  • Mouseover-expand ads were viewed more than other banner ads.

  • Static ads vs. animated ads revealed mix results.

  • Ad creative quality, content affect viewing behavior.

  • Small pop-ups are quickly viewed, then closed or hidden

  • The Eyetracker III study opens up the potential for a lot of other less generic studies based on the same technology, but with bigger sample groups. It might help answer questions like such as do surfers have different eyepaths depending on their home language or alphabet, and what are those paths? What role does site color scheme play? In e-learning, does animated content really make comprehension or retention faster than static content? And is a picture really worth a thousand words?

    Kudos to the Eyetrack III team for a fascinating study, and even more kudos for providing such a comprehensive insight into it on the dedicated Eyetrack III website.

    Monday, September 13, 2004

    Viral marketing gets communal

    There was a time when viral marketing was what Hotmail did so successfully - attaching your pitch and contact link to someone else's messages in order to spread the word through a kind of endorsement-by-default. But as the internet population evolves into more sophisticated networked communication, including p2p communities, viral marketing is getting more subtle -- and more creative.

    The contestants on this season's "The Apprentice 2" all have profiles on Friendster, the online community. This is an interesting effort to make reality TV even more real, to add layers of depth to the entertainment experience, and to generate buzz from fans that will bring others into the fan-base. It's not the first time: as part of the marketing of the movie "Anchorman" each of the key characters had Friendster profiles, so you could talk to them and about them.

    I suspect this is just the beginning of a trend toward exploiting online communities to build marketing momentum. It's a natural progression for interactive mixed-media marketing campaigns, because it starts to personalize the experience of the individual consumer, and allows for a sustained level of interest and involvement beyond the 15 second spot. Popular television shows and movies started offering fan sites rich in information and background several years ago; then they added centralized threaded discussion capabilities to try to stimulate interaction. Stimulationg decentrazized peer-to-peer communication in an organic community is a logical next step.

    But it takes some courage to do this -- traditional marketers have usually had an almost paranoid obsession with controlling what is said about their brand and how it is said. Those who live by viral marketing can die by it too.

    Of course, online p2p is only one aspect of the drive to go viral. Face-to-face communication and good old fashioned e-mail and IM are effective ways to spread the message, so long as you have a core group of advocates in your target market ready to get passionate about your product and make the effort to tell their friends. Services like P&G's Tremor are hoping to crack the secret of teen word of mouth advertising. They use "social marketing", leveraging the stories teens tell each other about a product to amplify the essential promise of the product and generate a wave of viral advocacy. Tremor claims to have a posse of 200,000 or more teens on its books who meet the criteria to be "connectors". A connector is someone who is not only networked wide and deep, but is also an enthusiastic early adopter and a persuasive communicator.

    Network television should start to worry about losing both audience and advertisers. Not only are teens spending less time in front of the box these days, advertisers are finding alternative ways to get their message out to them.

    But it is not just teens who use online communication, so I guess we can expect some of the advertising for cars, financial services, and pharmaceuticals to start along that path any time now. Car manufacturers have already had success with mixed media interactives, such as running radio campaigns that drive listeners to a website. Encouraging knowledge-sharing, community-building, and p2p advocacy under a Ford or Pfizer umbrella may already be on the drawing boards.

    Thursday, September 09, 2004

    The American dream loses its appeal for foreign students

    A while back on a discussion forum (I think it was trdev), I made the point that the US will only start taking China and India seriously as major economic threats when those countries stop sending their best and brightest to US schools for their education, and start favoring their own academic institutions. Well, it's happening.

    Applications to US graduate schools from people in China, India and Korea — the countries where the majority of international students come from — dropped 45%, 28% and 14% respectively from last year to this year. According to a study released by the Council of Graduate Schools and reported on in USA Today, U.S. graduate schools this year saw a 28% decline in applications from international students.

    The reasons cited by those institutions surveyed included the increased difficulty in getting visas and the perception that the US is less foreigner-friendly since 9/11. They don't mention the fact that US-based high-tech careers are no longer a major draw since our knowledge industries are being offshored at an alarming rate. Or that the rapid growth in opportunities at home makes the American dream relatively less attractive than it used to be.

    America is no longer the education-and-career destination of choice for many in places like China and India. Their own domestic hi-tech economies are booming while ours is deflating. And as a new affluence and international prestige sweeps across those countries, the quality and reputation of their premiere education institutions grows too.

    Maybe the lack of interest from foreigners also accounts for the dramatic drop-off in applications for undergraduate engineering and sciences positions at US universities; it certainly exacerbates it. As I mentined in a post last month:
    India keeps graduating more technical people than the US, so the “economic discontinuities” are likely to be around for a while. US enrollments in computer science degree programs are apparently down 30-40 percent on 1999. A June 19 article in the LA Times said computer science enrollments at MIT dropped 44% from 1999 to 2003. "The decline has hit just about every type of school. At UC Berkeley, the number of students enrolling in computer science and computer engineering dropped 41% in that period. Enrollments at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta fell 45%. Nationwide, new enrollments are at 1996 levels — and few expect them to rebound soon."

    This is not a temporary blip in the numbers. It is the start of a serious trend that has very bad economic implications for the US. If Americans are not pursuing careers in the sciences, and foreigners are not attracted to come here to pursue those careers, where does it leave the US knowledge economy a decade from now?