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Apple & disruptive innovation: 4 questions innovators need to ask before moving forward!

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Steve Jobs thought that most people live in a small box. “They think they can’t influence or change things a lot.” Jobs urged his staff to reject that philosophy as untrue.

Disruptive innovation is seen by many companies as a threat to them – but not by Apple who are happy to embrace disruptive technologies.

An interview with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, in FastCompany magazine shows that things are not as simple – and this offers lessons for all companies looking at new technology.

The key points are that Apple doesn’t go for every new technology. First they need to understand and have faith in the primary technology behind an innovation. They then consider two questions:

What can Apple add to this – and will it be embraced by society or be seen as something positive. These are interesting questions as a new technology will only be disruptive when people view it as adding to their overall well-being (even if initially people don’t fully understand the innovation – as was the case with first iPad where pundits said “so what” and “why do I need this”). Apple then looks to see if they can be the leader in technology – to own it. If they can’t they leave it to others.

This explains why often Apple isn’t first with something new. For example, they’ve just launched the Apple Watch. It’s too soon to say if this will be a success (although initial signs suggest it will be). Again critics have complained about it. It’s also not the first wearable on the market.

Essentially what’s being said is that to launch a truly disruptive product you need to answer four questions?

1) What is the new technology – and do we understand it?
2) Can we play in this market?
3) Will this innovation / technology / product or service contribute to society i.e. enable people to do things more easily or better than they could before or do things they couldn’t do at all before?
4) Can we be a primary player in this market?

If the answer to any of these 4 questions is no, Apple won’t enter the market. These are great questions that any company should consider before entering a new market. (The third question is perhaps the most interesting in respect of Apple – as what did the iPad offer people that other then existing devices couldn’t do. In retrospect, the answer is obvious but that’s hindsight. Spotting that the iPad, launched in 2010, gave you much more than the iPhone or the Amazon Kindle that predated it by 3 years, and that a laptop wasn’t as transportable, or easy to use was the genius of the device.

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Google versus Bing – a competitive intelligence case study

February 2, 2011 7 comments

Search experts regularly emphasise that to get the best search results it is important to use more than one search engine. The main reason for this is that each search engine uses a different relevancy ranking leading to different search results pages. Using Google will give a results page with the sites that Google thinks are the most relevant for the search query, while using Bing is supposed to give a results page where the top hits are based on a different relevancy ranking. This alternative may give better results for some searches and so a comprehensive search needs to use multiple search engines.

You may have noticed that I highlighted the word supposed when mentioning Bing. This is because it appears that Bing is cheating, and is using some of Google’s results in their search lists. Plagiarising Google’s results may be Bing’s way of saying that Google is better. However it leaves a bad taste as it means that one of the main reasons for using Microsoft’s search engine can be questioned, i.e. that the results are different and that all are generated independently, using different relevancy rankings.

Bing is Microsoft’s third attempt at a market-leading, Google bashing, search engine – replacing Live.com which in turn had replaced MSN Search. Bing has been successful and is truly a good alternative to Google. It is the default search engine on Facebook (i.e. when doing a search on Facebook, you get Bing results) and is also used to supply results to other search utilities – most notably Yahoo! From a marketing perspective, however, it appears that the adage “differentiate or die” hasn’t been fully understood by Bing. Companies that fail to fully differentiate their product offerings from competitors are likely to fail.

The story that Bing was copying Google’s results dates back to Summer 2010, when Google noticed an odd similarity to a highly specialist search on the two search engines. This, in itself wouldn’t be a problem. You’d expect similar results for very targeted search terms – the main difference will be the sort order. However in this case, the same top results were being generated when spelling mistakes were used as the search term. Google started to look more closely – and found that this wasn’t just a one-off. However to prove that Bing was stealing Google’s results needed more than just observation. To test the hypothesis, Google set up 100 dummy and nonsense queries that led to web-sites that had no relationship at all to the query. They then gave their testers laptops with a new Windows install – running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 and with the Bing Toolbar installed. The install process included the “Suggested Sites” feature of Internet Explorer and the toolbar’s default options.

Within a few weeks, Bing started returning the fake results for the same Google searches. For example, a search for hiybbprqag gave the seating plan for a Los Angeles theatre, while delhipublicschool40 chdjob returned a Ohio Credit Union as the top result. This proved that the source for the results was not Bing’s own search algorithm but that the result had been taken from Google.

What was happening was that the searches and search results on Google were being passed back to Microsoft – via some feature of Internet Explorer 8, Windows or the Bing Toolbar.

As Google states in their Blog article on the discovery (which is illustrated with screenshots of the findings):

At Google we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We’ve invested thousands of person-years into developing our search algorithms because we want our users to get the right answer every time they search, and that’s not easy. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop.

Interestingly, Bing doesn’t even try to deny the claim – perhaps because they realise that they were caught red-handed. Instead they have tried to justify using the data on customer computers as a way of improving search experiences – even when the searching was being done via a competitor.  In fact, Harry Shum, a Bing VP, believes that this is actually good practice, stating in Bing’s response to a blog post by Danny Sullivan that exposed the practice:

“We have been very clear. We use the customer data to help improve the search experience…. We all learn from our collective customers, and we all should.”

It is well known that companies collect data on customer usage of their own web-sites – that is one purpose of cookies generated when visiting a site. It is less well known that some companies also collect data on what users do on other sites (which is why Yauba boasts about its privacy credentials). I’m sure that the majority of users of the Bing toolbar and other Internet Explorer and Windows features that seem to pass back data to Microsoft would be less happy if they knew how much data was collected and where from. Microsoft has been collecting such data for several years, but ethically the practice is highly questionable, even though Microsoft users may have originally agreed to the company collecting data to “help improve the online experience“.

What the story also shows is how much care and pride Google take in their results – and how they have an effective competitive intelligence (and counter-intelligence) programme, actively comparing their results with competitors. Microsoft even recognised this by falsely accusing Google of spying via their sting operation that exposed Microsoft’s practices – with Shum commenting (my italics):

What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

To me, this sounds like sour-grapes. How can copying a competitor’s results improve the user experience? If it doesn’t accurately portray how customer data IS used, maybe now would be the time for Microsoft to reassure customers regarding their data privacy. And rather than view the comment that Google’s exposure of Bing’s practices was a back-handed compliment, I’d see it as slap in the face with the front of the hand. However what else could Microsoft & Bing say, other than Mea Culpa.

Update – Wednesday 2 February 2011:

The war of words between Google and Bing continues. Bing has now denied copying Google’s results, and moreover accused Google of click-fraud:

Google engaged in a “honeypot” attack to trick Bing. In simple terms, Google’s “experiment” was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as “click fraud.” That’s right, the same type of attack employed by spammers on the web to trick consumers and produce bogus search results.  What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? Nothing anyone in the industry doesn’t already know. As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index.

Bing seems to have ignored the fact that Google’s experiment resulted from their observation that certain genuine searches seemed to be copied by Bing – including misspellings, and also some mistakes in their algorithm that resulted in odd results. The accusation of click fraud is bizarre as the searches Google used to test for click fraud were completely artificial. There is no way that a normal searcher would have made such searches, and so the fact that the results bore no resemblance to the actual search terms is completely different to the spam practice where a dummy site appears for certain searches.

Bing can accuse Google of cloak and dagger behaviour. However sometimes, counter-intelligence requires such behaviour to catch miscreants red-handed. It’s a practice carried out by law enforcement globally where a crime is suspected but where there is insufficient evidence to catch the culprit. As an Internet example, one technique used to catch paedophiles is for a police officer to pretend to be a vulnerable child on an Internet chat-room. Is this fraud – when the paedophile subsequently arranges to meet up – and is caught? In some senses it is. However saying such practices are wrong gives carte-blanche to criminals to continue their illegal practices. Bing appears to be putting themselves in the same camp – by saying that using “honeypot” attacks is wrong.

They also have not recognised the points I’ve stressed about the ethical use of data. There is a big difference between using anonymous data tracking user  behaviour on your own search engine and tracking that of a competitor. Using your competitor’s data to improve your own product, when the intelligence was gained by technology that effectively hacks into usage made by your competitor’s customers is espionage. The company guilty of spying is Bing – not Google. Google just used competitive intelligence to identify the problem, and a creative approach to counter-intelligence to prove it.

Leave your comfort zone!

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The Biblical Abraham was one of the world’s most successful individuals. (It doesn’t actually matter whether or not Abraham really existed – from a Biblical critical perspective. He is revered by at least half the world’s population who belong to one of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As such his influence has been immense). In the Bible, the story of Abraham starts in Genesis – chapter 12. God commands him to leave his country, his extended family and his father’s house and to move to a land that God would show him. In return, God promises that Abram (Abraham) would become a great nation, and that he will be blessed.

Of course the Biblical commentators have a field day looking at the wording and what was being said. However I think that in fact, the idea is quite simple. Abraham was being told to take a risk and to do something new. In return, he was promised success in his venture. This is a lesson that businesses and individuals can learn from – and perhaps governments too.

  • Where is the safest place for an individual? Generally the parental home.
  • Where can one expect help from when things go wrong? From close family and friends.
  • Where are you most likely to know your way around and know the “system” – and least likely to get lost physically, or metaphorically in bureaucracy? In your home town and country.

Abraham is commanded to leave each of these – in reverse order, with the easiest first, and the place you feel most safe last. In terms of business the same lessons apply.

Igor Ansoff is famous for the Ansoff matrix.

Existing
Product
New/Modified
Product
Existing
Market
Penetration Product
Development
New/Modified
Market
Market
Development
Diversification

When you have lots of opportunities in your home market and your product is doing well the objective should be to increase sales with this product to this market. However when things start to change – perhaps most people in your current market already have your product – then you need to move outside your immediate comfort zone and look to a new product or a modification of your existing products. You need to be willing to take a risk. Failing to change is likely to lead to eventual corporate failure, as the market becomes totally saturated, and profit levels reduce as the only way to compete becomes price. Product enhancement gives you the choice to differentiate your product and maintain profitability. Leave you father’s house and try something new.

This also applies in many other circumstances. The recent phenomenon known as “boomerang kids” is not just a problem for parents having to cope financially with adult children returning to the nest, but also the children themselves. Although living at home can be comfortable and secure, it becomes difficult to move out when all your needs are being met and to become truly independent. It means that such children are less likely to be successful – until or unless they do leave home.

The next stage is when even product variations don’t work – as your current market sector is saturated. You need to look for new markets. In Biblical terms – Leave you family and friends and try something new. In business this means looking for new markets. These can be different industry sectors or geographies. Again, being scared of taking the risk will lead to failure – as your current customer base ceases to purchase your products in sufficient quantity for you to make profits.

Globally, many people are now in this stage of the cycle. Their opportunities in their home countries are poor – for various reasons, and emigration to another market promises a better chance in life. Historically this has often been the case – with emigrants being highly successful and also enriching the cultures and life in their new countries. In contrast, their compatriots who stayed at home often continue a cycle of poverty or lack of success. I believe that many governments see emigration as a threat – and I think that they are correct, as often emigrants are the very people who should be encouraged to stay as they are the innovators and the risk-takers within society. If emigration is a problem in a society it means that the society itself has problems, and perhaps the government should look to itself as to why people want to move. Conversely the antipathy to immigrants in the destination countries is also misplaced – as many immigrants contribute massively to their new homelands, especially when welcomed and encouraged to integrate into the new society.

The final stage is the most difficult and also may appear the riskiest. However if the markets (old and new) for your current product lines are stagnant then the only hope is to move into completely new areas – with new / enhanced product lines targeting new customers and markets. You need to diversify away from your home products, your home markets and move to a new area -i.e Leave the location you are now in and try something new. In fact this promises the best chance of all for success – as it allows you to capitalise on both current product lines and markets and also the new ones. Companies that manage to diversify into new markets are likely to grow at a much faster rate than their “stay-at-home” competitors. Of course how to manage a successful diversification programme is a different question – requiring research, planning and strong, thoughtful and innovative management. The willingness to try and to leave comfort zones should help prepare management for this stage – so that when the time comes, they are willing to take risks necessary to protect their organisations.

Only by being willing to change, and move away from your comfort zones can success be guaranteed. Do it right, and like Abraham, you can succeed and make a name for yourself.

© Arthur Weiss / AWARE, 2005-2010

The importance of lateral thinking!

February 9, 2007 Leave a comment
A story is told about a supermarket that was having problems with gangs meeting in its car park after the supermarket had shut for the night – trading drugs, fighting and generally making a mess and nuisance.

The supermarket tried various conventional solutions to solve the problem: fences, increased security, and the like. Nothing worked long-term and, moreover, they were all expensive. Then somebody thought that perhaps a different approach might work.

The gangs were all trying to look cool, and the supermarket car-park had gained a reputation as a cool place to hang out at night. So what did the supermarket do? They thought about what could make the car park an uncool place to be, and started up a loud-speaker system piping the music of Mantovani over the parking spaces. Quickly the problem disappeared – as what kind of “cool” 16-18 year old wants to be associated with visiting a location that plays the kind of “easy listening” music beloved by their grandparents!

I teach a weekly diploma course at Thames Valley University, as part of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing‘s Marketing Research & Information module. One of the joys of teaching is that you often learn a lot from your students. Last week was no exception, and provides another great example of lateral thinking – combined with a crucial awareness of the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction while still making money!

One of my students had spent some time working as a hospitality manager in a Greek hotel. He was working the night shift, when a package group of 15 tourists arrived at the hotel. They’d just landed, and the time was 3.00am. All were tired, having had a delayed flight, and all were looking forward to the rooms that they’d paid for. Except because they hadn’t turned up, they had been treated as no-shows, and their rooms had been sold on.

Overbooking is a not-infrequent problem faced by hotels. Normally the way round is to find another equivalent hotel, and transfer the overbooked guests there. Nobody is particularly happy about the arrangement.

  • The guests are unhappy as they had been expecting hotel A and got hotel B – and have to move on, when they were looking forward to resting from their journey.
  • The hotel is unhappy as the replacement hotel needs to be as good, if not better than the original. This means that the hotel has to pay for its mistake – financially, and if the replacement hotel is not better, in good will and reputation as well, which can be even more important.
At 3.00am, with tired and irritable visitors desperate to sleep, the problem is even worse. You have to phone around your competitor hotels in the area – speaking to the night staff – to find a replacement. Often the other neighborhood hotels will also be full, meaning that the group will have to be split up – guaranteed to cause problems. Furthermore, you are likely to have to book people in lower quality hotels. You will also need to arrange several taxis to transfer people to the replacements. All told, you have a PROBLEM!

Christos found another way.

The locality ran regular cruises to the Greek island of Santorini – which necessitated an early morning start, and a couple of nights on the island.

Santorini is one of those magical islands that, once visited, you never forget. It offers all that is best of the Greek islands – white washed villages, great beaches and views, fun restaurants, archaeological sites, monasteries and churches. However this is not all – it also has a volcano in the middle of the archipelago, with regular trips to see its caldera. This volcano has been attributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, and even the cause of the plagues that the Biblical book of Exodus mentions as having led to the release of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian servitude (so, for example, the plague of darkness resulted from a cloud of ash that fell from the volcano). This eruption, 3500 years ago, was undoubtedly one of the largest ever volcanic eruptions during human history – much bigger than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The island has even been linked to the legend of Atlantis.

Christos knew that there were always places on this trip. He also knew that the costs of the trip, including the island hotel costs, would be considerably less than what would need to be paid to competitors to find beds for the group so early in the morning, as well as the less tangible costs in lost goodwill and so on. Accommodation on Santorini was much more basic and low cost – but the surroundings compensated for this.

Rather than apologizing to the group, and then getting on the phone to search for replacement hotels at 3.00am – a depressing and tedious task – he welcomed the group and said that they were really lucky. They were the hotel’s 1000th tour group and as such had qualified for a superb prize – a free trip to Santorini to start their holiday with a bang. The tour bus that would be taking them to the boat would be arriving shortly so there was no point in checking them in. They’d check back into the hotel in 2 days time, after their mini-cruise.

The tourist group may have been tired. But tiredness evaporates in such circumstances, and instead of an unhappy and probably angry crowd, you now had customer satisfaction par excellence. Instead of a short-night’s sleep and then a day recuperating by the pool, this group had been chosen to visit one of the highlights of any trip to Greece – for free. The tour group were overjoyed at their lucky break.

Next morning, the day-shift manager queried why the hotel was paying for 15 tourists to go on the Santorini trip. This was normally seen as a profit center by the hotel – as the margins were considerable. Christos explained the situation: how, instead of paying out to competitor hotels to accommodate the overbooked tourists, the hotel had covered its costs by just diverting the payments already made to the tour. Quickly the wisdom of the decision was realized, and it is now part of the hotel operating manual.

More importantly – this second story shows some of the skills all great marketers need:

  1. Ability to be able to think quickly, laterally and if needed, sidestep conventions and rules;
  2. Awareness of the importance of customer satisfaction: a happy customer leads to a strong reputation, and repeat purchase;
  3. Awareness of the importance of profit and that customer satisfaction needs to be balanced by an ability to make money.
Successful marketing is not all about reading the text books. Generally it is about solving everyday problems using innovative approaches. Many of these require skills in lateral thinking. Such solutions often are low-cost or save money, and build reputation at the same time. There are many examples of how lateral thought has been used to create opportunities or limit threats to the business. These two stories illustrate two different ways problems were solved through lateral thinking.
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