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Online Retail in China

“It is ‘one of the few bright spots in the Chinese economy,’ says Zeng Ming. He is talking about e-commerce. Mr Zeng, the chief strategy officer for Alibaba, a giant Chinese internet firm, predicts that digital transactions on his firm’s platforms will top 1 trillion yuan ($159 billion) this year—more than Amazon’s and eBay’s combined. That is a bold claim; but consider what happened on Singles Sunday.

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Collaboration and the Ballbuster

On the 29 October, a senior exec at Apple – Scott Forstall – leaves. Official line: “change to increase collaboration across hardware, software and services”. Media reports ascribe the departure to the failed attempt at replacing Google Maps in iOS and the significant rifts he was rumoured to have generated with other senior members of the team.

“Software engineers and designers who worked for Forstall were loyal to him and ranked among the hardest working at the company, the people said. Yet his management style also led a several senior executives to leave Apple because they found working with Forstall difficult, several former Apple employees said. The mapping missteps were a final straw, people said.”
(Bloomberg, 30 Oct)

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Chasing Conversion Rates

Econsultancy released its annual Conversion Rate Optimisation Report earlier this week. The highlight? “Satisfaction with conversion rates has been on a downward trend in the last four years. Just over a fifth (22%) of companies surveyed are satisfied with their conversion rates.”

This is the usual case of a new technology over-promising and under-delivering. Conversion Rate Optimisation has been vigorously chased over the last couple of years: it clearly offers a way to boost the bottom line, not just click through rates in one’s online campaigns. The tools are improving. But we need to keep in mind that any optimisation technique is relative.

By relative, I mean it is not a gain that gets permanently locked in. It’s a process of structured experimentation to provide the most relevant and efficient path for a customer to travel. By relative, I also mean it is sensitive to the quality of the site, the quality of the traffic acquisition, as well as the rigour in which the experimentation takes place. All of which fluctuates quite regularly.

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Making Online Advertising Work

I love the internet.
Online advertising makes the internet work.
Therefore, I love online advertising.

That’s not meant as a confession, but more a statement of wobbly logic to introduce something very close to any online business: online advertising.

An advertiser and a publisher have a huge learning curve to tackle if he or she wishes to use the latest innovation in ad technology to unlock the promise of higher returns on ad spend (for the advertiser) or yield (for the publisher). The great catalyst for this innovation over the last 5 years must surely be ascribed to the increases in cheap, scalable computer power and digital storage. It’s a full time job now to keep abreast of new ideas and technologies, especially if you are trying to derive an income from online advertising, lead a marketing department or talk to an ad agency. Encouragingly, many a conference speaker continues to implore the world to look beyond the technology and focus on the online value chain (it’s just a deal between buyer and seller after all!). That’s all good sentiment, but you still need to figure out your ad servers from your trading desks, your DSP’s from your exchanges.

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Timing is Everything

On a human-computer interaction (HCI) and design thread again. I was reading the seminal article by Dr. Vannevar Bush in which he introduces ‘memex’ to the world (Atlantic, July 1945), I love this passage which eloquently reminds us that however brilliant an idea, it’s quite possible the rest of the puzzle/ stack/ ecosystem isn’t ready for it yet.

“Two centuries ago Leibnitz invented a calculating machine which embodied most of the essential features of recent keyboard devices, but it could not then come into use. The economics of the situation were against it: the labor involved in constructing it, before the days of mass production, exceeded the labor to be saved by its use, since all it could accomplish could be duplicated by sufficient use of pencil and paper. Moreover, it would have been subject to frequent breakdown, so that it could not have been depended upon; for at that time and long after, complexity and unreliability were synonymous.

Babbage, even with remarkably generous support for his time, could not produce his great arithmetical machine. His idea was sound enough, but construction and maintenance costs were then too heavy. Had a Pharaoh been given detailed and explicit designs of an automobile, and had he understood them completely, it would have taxed the resources of his kingdom to have fashioned the thousands of parts for a single car, and that car would have broken down on the first trip to Giza.”

Have We Got a Good User Experience?

What is user experience beyond the obvious reference to the experience a user (or customer) has of a product or service? And importantly, do we have one!

In the online world specifically, we have great tools to measure how people use and interact with our business. The question is whether we make use of this to extract the most benefit.

In many online business situations, user experience is the thing that suffers when there’s a mentality of ‘just do it’, demanding deadlines, etc. Like most things, user experience needs a business case along side many other operational decisions like timing, staffing, marketing, etc. Without a strong business case it cannot be prioritized and ends up being a bit of an artistic flourish.

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Work is a Game, Seriously

I love video games. In the not-so-distant past, I have lost countless midnight hours totally absorbed with particular games. From Tetris and Sid Meier’s creations in the early days, to Second Life and Minecraft more recently (I’m more of a strategy guy than an FPS junkie). So much so, that I forbid myself to start new games now for fear of losing chunks of my life.

It’s no wonder that research and opinion makers have latched onto the fact that a task, when treated like a game, becomes enjoyable and perhaps even addictive. If you can persuade someone that a task is to be ‘played’ as a game, the perceived time spent doing the task reduces and a more positive energy is created.

This is interesting: can gamification be a legitimate way to boost someone’s motivation in the workplace?

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Investing in UK Technology

“Investment into UK technology start-ups reached a 10-year high in the first half of 2012, with nearly £600m put into early-stage businesses. This level of funding exceeds the last boom year, 2008, when some £550m was invested in tech companies in the first half – and is already three-quarters of the total funding committed last year – according to figures released Wednesday by Ascendant, the corporate finance advisory company.

Ascendant says the total for this year is likely to be between £900m and £1bn. “There is a lot of money going in to companies,” said Stuart McKnight, managing director of Ascendant. “We have not seen a boom year like this since 2008.” Much of the money is going to internet, mobile and digital media companies, as well as new cleantech businesses.”

Source: “Investment in UK tech at 10-year high” from Maija Palmer at the Financial Times

Following on from my post about UK Competitiveness, excellent indicators from the technology sector on new investment. Let’s hope this translates into some world-class enterprises that grow, employ and stay rooted in the UK ecosystem.