To Mob the Web Fantastic: Mobile- and Social Media Confluence Strategies for Brick-and-Mortars

There is as much blood in a Bloody Mary, as there is actual resolve in the average New Year’s resolution. Today is January 24, and the pavement on the road to hell never looked so resplendent in abandoned self-betterment. Take a notion that struck you as clever just a few short months ago (Zumba dancers with nicotine patches, anyone?), douse it in a bucket of forward absolution, and sprinkle a light dusting of discipline on top. Bring to a quick boil on New Year’s Day and let the stir simmer for the twelve months to come. A worthy three weeks into it, and I can assure you, both the novelty and nobility of forcing changes unto life’s design will have worn as thin as a Nicki Minaj character. (Last seen inside a gym when the British left Palestine, your blogger, as a case in point, is tiring admittedly of the thrill of carb counting while spending more time with his family – blaming the waning enthusiasm for wanting to look less like a Care Bear on the two pre-adolescent sodium sales people which the Kraft Foods company has so insidiously installed in his own home. And predictably, he sides with Oscar Wilde – whom else? –, for “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”)

In a professional context, I have noticed that IT leaders are ringing in the New Year with two items seemingly topping the list of their department’s make-it-happen resolutions: the respective implementation of a mobile strategy and a social media strategy for their businesses. While every business may have unique objectives and requirements for how to capture an increasingly mobile and social network-based audience, there are a number of common themes unfolding. Here I shall highlight one that has garnered strong interest in particular from a number of our clients in the retail sector: the “fusing” of the physical and the virtual worlds. In short, 2011 may yet be the year that will see the blending of brick-and-mortar with bits-and-bytes, as many consumers today are “glued to their smartphones and living on Facebook,” as a CIO client of mine recently put it.

Here’s what’s having the CIOs at global retail companies as excited as the residents of Wisteria Lane at the arrival of the UPS delivery man: today, shoppers with their smartphones in hand are browsing the aisles of brick-and-mortar (B&M) retailers with the ability to look up any product information on the spot, including competitive pricing typically from Amazon.com. However, not all paths lead to Amazon; with powerful new mobile applications, merchants now have viable marketing tools to attract and entice customers with in-store specials tailored to the individual. For B&M retailers the future of one-to-one marketing may just have arrived. And if you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report,” you’ll know what I mean.

Think of the smartphone as a “bridge” between the physical and the virtual worlds. Terms like “mobile tagging” or “object hyperlinking” refer to smartphones’ ability to recognize an object and to call up information from the Internet that is specific to that object. This is accomplished through image recognition (a computer science technique that is becoming ever more effective), the reading of a QR code (a format that is fast gaining in popularity, especially in Europe and Japan, and is promoted by Microsoft in the U.S.), or the scanning of the ubiquitous barcode.

For example, when you see something of interest in the “real” world – say a product or an ad – you can take a snapshot with your camera phone, and the phone, equipped with the right app, can recognize the product and allow you to “interact” with “it” right then and there. Scanning a barcode while in a store, can give a shopper real-time access to price-comparison data; reading the QR code printed on a magazine ad can bring up the advertiser’s web page directly on the handheld; and a number of apps can visually recognize book covers and other items just to bring up the corresponding shopping cart at your e-tailer of choice. Regardless of whether this interaction is enabled through image recognition or code scanning (or other emerging techniques for object identification), it is my belief that people will increasingly use their smartphones to take pictures of physical objects (shopping goods, print ads, display windows, movie posters, showcases, billboards, etc.) or “check in” at physical locations (à la Foursquare, Gowalla, and shopkick) in order to instantly obtain object- or place-specific information from the web.

With a purpose-built mobile app, a person’s smartphone will not only “know” the shopper’s location but also “carry” detailed, yet hopefully anonymized consumer data which can be used by nearby merchants to issue precisely targeted specials and preferred pricing offers by sending coupons to the phone. These digital coupons are then scanned from the phone’s screen at checkout and thus redeemed. And for extra credit, every time a consumer snaps an item or registers at a location, there is an opportunity to capture a meaningful piece of marketing data: the voluntary and self-motivated signal of interest at the time and place of encounter with any particular merchandise, commercial, or store location. Marketers consider a compilation of such indications of interest a powerful predictor of future consumer behavior, second perhaps only to a shopper’s past purchase history. And, of course, with access to such consumer information in real time – i.e., if products, ads, and storefronts “knew” something about you – that encounter becomes that much more meaningful, as the product pitch can now be tailored to your preferences.

Finally, who knew Coleridge (Jr. nonetheless) had a thing for IT budgets which are customarily cut at the beginning of the year: “The merry year is born like the bright berry from the naked thorn.” Beautiful, of course. Perhaps just as beautiful as being able to stretch your budget to do more with less and to implement some impressive mobile- and social media strategies without going for broke already in the first quarter. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has helped many traditional, brick-and-mortar firms devise and cost-effectively implement such strategies – with flexible access to highly skilled IT professionals located offshore. Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building mobile apps and social media platforms to influence and captivate consumer audiences. Talent Trust has a ten-year history of creating successful technology solutions for delighted clients such as Accenture, Agilent, Autodesk, Brady, CMA CGM, CompuCom, Continuous Computing, Critical Mass, Elan Computing, eMeter, Euro RSCG, GE, IBM, Major League Baseball, Manpower, McAfee, Medtronic, Suzuki, Taylor Corporation, Verizon, Zynga, and many more.

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The New Buzz: Is Google Buying California?

Avid readers of that highbrow literary genre called cyberpunk will barely raise their brow at this dystopian scenario: the once-great State of California is on its financial deathbed. An angry mob with ruined dreams, shattered keyboards, and broken Chardonnay bottles is storming the Governor’s Smoking Tent. After midnight, following an all-stock tax-free acquisition including the assumption of the state’s crushing debt, California is declared a corporate principality, now run by a trillion-dollar market-cap mega-corporation that trades in nothing but information. (At the buyer’s insistence though, a last-minute carve-out is made for Southern California, its perennial water shortage and endless, nagging drain on the well-irrigated North cited as deal-killers; and besides, who’d want all these meddling creative types from Hollywood and those stubbornly Republican Naval retirees living in La Jolla?) Hasta la vista, Golden State!

At first it feels a bit weird, but the corporate citizens of California, Inc. quickly adjust to the perk-pampered life under the new regime. What’s not to like about free Sushi luncheons, mandatory reflexology massages at the workplace, and heavily subsidized 24×7 dry-cleaning? Foosball and frisbee are the official pastimes, red and green are added to the state colors, blue and yellow, and the K-9 police kennel of Alsatians and Dobermans is gracefully retired and replaced with loveable Golden Retrievers. But for the takes there are some gives too. Citizens are required to register with the corporation’s ubiquitous search-cum-information organization-cum-communication-cum-collaboration-cum-social-networking “matrix” (otherwise no comping your Hamachi, hombre). I’m not talking about your vanilla “opt in” EULA; non-compliers are rounded up by Blade Runners and summarily reinstated into the matrix via the corporation’s equally ubiquitous email system. Resistance is futile. Beguiling the populus with brazenly colored and annoyingly ever-present “We’re Not Evil” neon signs, this corporegent – whose business ferocity and trans-commercial ambition has not been matched since the East India Company set sail or before Microsoft lost its mojo – has fooled just about everyone except for these equally annoying and specially crafty Chinese (and look what they’re doing now, tempering with our matrix!).

The We’re-Not-Evil-Doers are just fabulous at day-to-day execution, and promptly they prove that this deal has been, in the words of their banking buddies who helped put it together, “exceptionally accretive.” Here are just a few highlights from the prospectus:

  • By virtue of having their lives digitized and uploaded onto the matrix via continual live feeds, every citizen becomes a “data node” on the company’s data-mining grid. Statistical analysis and pattern recognition across data-sets such a medical records create revolutionary advances in predictive medicine and preventive measures: “Results 1 – 10 of about 1,790,000 for people with identical symptoms, similar backgrounds, and typical outcomes. (0.19 seconds).” Healthcare savings in the billions.
  • Everybody has a smartphone that’s powered by the matrix-gone-mobile, which means every citizen, continuously geo-located (via the phone’s GPS chip), is an extra set of eyes (the phone’s camera) connected to the company’s brain. Location-tagging is a popular sport and hyperlinking reality with useful, personalized information (the “IndiWiki”) creates an augmented reality of astonishing depth and utility, rendering any Luddite “blind” to the “real” world. Advertising revenues in the billions (move over, mayors of foursquare, you’re in our augmented reality now!).
  • It is a citizen’s sworn duty to uninstall all local instances of productivity software (and those who fail their hardware inspection get a nasty house-call from Mr. Deckard). If it has words, columns and rows, or slides, it’ll move straight into the company’s Cloud – no discussion. Naturally, this one is about pocketing rightful revenues from Microsoft, but additional billions are minted when the company’s analytical clout is unleashed on the thousands of documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows that are uploaded every second; in a strictly anonymized fashion, mind you, trends, patterns, and common if not best practices are spotted (“meta-content”), and work product is now put up for search and sale, provided the owner agrees, making this the Lego store for intellectual property on the web.

(Note, if you will: the dystopia of governments ceding power to private organizations and entrepreneurs in a “distributed republic” was, of course, first portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, an immensely enjoyable read, which popularized terms and concepts such as “avatar,” “metaverse” viz. Second Life, and “Earth Software” viz. Google Earth. Also, the numbers are not far off. PetroChina became briefly the first trillion-dollar company by market capitalization, following its debut on the Shanghai index, but having since “settled down” at today’s value of about $200B, while Google is currently trading at $178.92B, to be precise. California’s deficit will grow to $28B through June 2010 with a Moody’s rating only three inches above non-investment grade, which is slightly worse than Kazakhstan’s. And factoring in its long-term bond debt, California is in the same obligation order of magnitude as Europe’s favorite spendthrift, Greece. Google, by comparison, has a surplus of over $24B in cash sitting on its balance sheet.)

The above – however far-fetched! – was, as you would expect, inspired by some of the recent “problematic” PR (to be polite about it) that greeted Google’s launch of Buzz, its integrated social networking platform. If you didn’t buy the part about Google buying California, try to fathom, however, the influence that a truly integrated Google-powered communications-productivity-social-media-platform might wield over people’s everyday lives. Buzz is only scratching the proverbial surface of what’s possible for Google. You can check it out at: http://www.google.com/buzz and for a useful overview watch their introductory video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi50KlsCBio

Some critical voices questioned “how far” Google would go to catch up with the undisputed social networking leader Facebook. While other, more technical reviews centered around security and privacy concerns and quite serious vulnerabilities (such as betraying a user’s geographical location via the company’s integrated Location Services). In general, the reception has been mostly mixed, which – quite frankly – surprised me. Your blogger believes that Google is the technology company of our time for a simple reason that transcends all their technical brilliance and business savvy: Google can be trusted. The element of trust is so central to our business that it’s part of our corporate identity (for more on Talent Trust see http://www.talenttrust.com/). In turn, as an organization we trust Google to help us all become more informed, connected, and productive, while safeguarding the user (his security, privacy, and data assets). In fact, we recommend that our clients use Google Sites (http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/overview.html) for most aspects of virtual collaboration – nothing could be easier to set up, more intuitive to use, and safer in terms of reliability and backup. Google Sites is literally everything-you’d-ever-need-out-of-the-box in order to set up a web presence, an intranet, or a web-based collaborative work environment for distributed teams. Although you won’t have the full-blown functionality or, let’s be honest, the refinement and elegance of a mature Microsoft application, you should keep Google Sites and now Buzz in your technology repertoire or even just your ‘starter kit’ to enable remote work. We’ve been using Google Sites extensively – so please contact me if you have any questions or need any professional assistance (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com).