So, I read an article on Bookish.com the other day from a Sports Illustrated writer about his favorite baseball books. So, I thought I would throw (ha – see what I did there? Throw – baseball – HA!) together my own list:

  1. Ball Four: Great, funny scandalous work about the real life of a baseball player. Written by the very funny Jim Bouton, who in addition to being a knuckleballer, helped invent Big League Chew. This takes you through baseball in the 1960s and 1970s – different than today, but fun, engaging and timeless.
  2. The Art of Fielding: College baseball, May-December secret romances, depression, and a scruffily bearded friend and an untimely death. What else do you need?
  3. Catcher with a Glass Arm: OK, so anything by Matt Christopher had me riveted when I was 8, but this book has stayed with me for decades. (And I was a little crushed when my baseball obsessed son didn’t love it as much as I did, but when I read it, it is a little dated. But whatever. It still makes the list.
  4. The Catcher Was a Spy: Baseball and spies?!? Yeah, the story of Moe Berg, a journeyman catcher who just happened to work for the OSS. Awesome stuff. Read it. Seriously.
  5. Shoeless Joe: I will admit that the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams was actually better than the book, but totally read it. There is magic here..
  6. A Pitcher’s Story: Anything that Roger Angell writes about baseball is worth reading. And when he writes about thoughtful and passionate people like David Cone, only good things can happen.
  7. Moneyball: Baseball is a business. And I dare anyone to find a better business writer than Michael Lewis. He makes dull things like WAR (wins above replacement value) come alive, and makes drama from the data that is the business of baseball. Skip the Brad Pitt version and read the book. It is great.
  8. Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion: So, Roger Angell makes it twice. His look at baseball is just the right mix of cerebral and emotional. He is enthralled with the boyhood hero-worship of the men that roam the green grass of the diamond. But he knows that they are flawed and imperfect heroes. This kind of tension haunts Angell’s writing to make him the finest long-form baseball writer ever. (I would posit that Peter Gammons is the finest short-form writer.)
  9. The Wrong Stuff: So, it ISN’T a great book. Bill “Spaceman” Lee is completely insane, and his editorial voice wanders. But this is reminiscent of Bouton. Bill Lee was (and is, still) an original voice in baseball. For any Red Sox fan, this is worth reading.
  10. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball : You either like George Will or you hate him. I dislike his conservatism immensely. However, he has a romance with baseball that is true and real. Like Angell, he wonders at the majesty of the players – their athleticism, their grace. But he sees them for who they are, and it is this flawed hero worship that I am drawn to again and again.

What are your favorites?

I read Rob May’s post on Venture Beat over the weekend. The general thrust is this – the internet kills innovation because everyone in tech is part of a self-selecting club. We wear the same pants, all have the same phone, like the same stuff, therefore the culture and viewpoint of the tech community is fixed and unchanging.

There is an argument to be made around insular communities driving self-reinforcing beliefs. Political parties, religions, and cults all require some agreement on fundamental values and world-views before you join. They then give you a world-view that reinforces their premise. So, sure, they can be limiting because they force you to think about things from a particular viewpoint. Tech can be insular, too. Check out Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble (and I wrote about this book here). Basically, Google watches what you click on and feeds you more stuff like it, so if you are liberal, you see more liberal leaning content, etc. That can be insular, too.

But Rob, to say that the internet is killing innovation is just this side of silly. The internet has made our world more connected. And you are right, connectedness breeds cultural cross-contamination. But that is the nature of human interaction. It has happened for hundreds of thousands of years. Languages, religions, fashions and political beliefs have spread over the world and given different cultures a common place to engage. When ideas and beliefs spread, they change both the converted and the evangelist.

You say that we’ve homogenized the startup culture – you may be right in a superficial way. Homogenization doesn’t mean that innovation is dead, it just means that you have to look a little more closely to see the variations in community and culture that rest beneath the obvious surface similarities. Because we all speak English (language is a very homogenizing force) US/UK/AUS aren’t the same – and Spain and Mexico could hardly be more different.

What you call homogenized, I call connected. So, yeah, tech folks may all have iPhones and think about artisanal foods, but we are connected in those commonalities. Those commonalities allow us to discuss those things that are dissimilar in our approach – and that is where innovation comes from. You and I both wear glasses and have facial hair – and you are in Cambridge, MA and I am in Arlington, MA. It seems like we would be the same, then. Homogeneous, even. I bet we aren’t.

So, forget about dismissing the internet as a force that kills innovation. Forget about surface homogenization as a crushing blow to ingenuity. Forget haircuts, forget phones and focus on the particular set of experiences and emotional influences that you brought to this very moment. They are the fuel that powers disruptive thinking – not what kind of restaurants you frequent. You have confused social trends and proclivities for thinking.

Let’s have lunch sometime – somewhere outside of Kendall Sq – you know – in the real world 😉

PLAJust today, I was doing some client work and wanted to check out the competition for a search – so I typed in a search “canon sx30 is“. And I was expecting a typical set of PLAs – 8 or 16 all from merchants I never heard of…but I have never seen a single pane PLA. (If this is old news, then please forgive me.) But this was one of the most high-impact presentations for a search result that I have seen. Google’s foray into Schema.org data to identify products and then mixing that with the power of PLAs is great. I feel sorry for all CSEs out there. This just kills your business.

The Knowledge graph explosion has been pretty incredible too – especially in the world of books. Title and author searches lead you into the world of Google books – do a search for “italo calvino” and see what you would rather click on – 10 blue links or the gorgeous Knowledge graph entry?

As a consumer, I love this – Google is aggregating information and giving it to me so I can make an informed click. As a marketer, it feels, a little bit, like Google is trying to keep my traffic rather than refer it to me. Wasn’t that the point? That Google finds everything and tells you where to go? Know, they are telling you what you want to know without you having to experience the site that has given them the information that they are serving you.

I am loving and hating this. You?

Here is a snippet of an article I wrote for FounderDating:

“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.” -Nolan Bushnell

I have started a small handful of companies–some successful (SpinShark – sold to PM Digital), some not (The Kilroy Group crashed and burned so hard they brought in FEMA). And the start is always exciting. You are full of ideas, opportunity, visions and dreams.  But then the work

Adchemix, my current company, started innocently enough in the shower. I was in the midst of one of those deep-thought reveries, chewing through problems that I wanted to solve, enshrouded in steam and hot water. And then the solution hit me. It was electric. I ran out of the shower, soaking wet, and started writing down my explosion of insight. For some other founder, that might be the start of an amazing overnight success story. But, truth be told, that shower was nearly 3 years ago. (And  I have taken other showers since, but few have been as exhilarating)… Read the Rest at Founder Dating

I have been crazed this summer. Adchemix, my new company, has started down a fun path, and it has taken up all of my mental energy. But, there is stuff on my mind as the first chilly day of fall arrives, in no particular order:

  1. The Red Sox: In December, I pegged them for 5th place in the AL East. Who woulda thunk that they’d be at the top of the AL East? I guess this why I always get crushed in fantasy baseball.

     

  2. Syria: The New Yorker nailed the complexity of my feelings about Syria. WaPo totally put the morass in context. And speaking of ass – Ed Markey voting “present” makes him seem like an ass. And the Repulicans continue their assery – Obama can’t do anything without congressional approval, but Congress stays on their summer break. And then complain he isn’t moving fast enough. Seriously, WTF?
  3. Congress: I simply can’t get over how broken congress is. The partisan BS is just killing the progress this country is trying to make. Syria sucks and it is hard, but we have got to decide what we are doing. The president can’t be right and wrong, and Congress shouldn’t demand to be involved, agree to what the President has suggested and kill him for it. This is passive aggressive behavior at its best (or worst).
  4. Congress 2: The debt ceiling is here again. This is such a simple issue. We can’t spend and save at the same time. The sequestration was supposed to be the poison pill that stopped this nonsense. Great. We’ve had the sequester and nothing happened. Get off your asses and compromise. Find a way. Stop grandstanding and get to the work that you were elected to do. The debt ceiling is NOT a zero sum game. Everybody can win (from a political standpoint.) Inaction that grinds the country to a halt makes it more difficult for us to move forward because our credit rating is dinged, and makes it difficult for us to have the international authority that we want. Our credibility is compromised because we can’t agree on our checkbook. That is really cutting off your nose to spite your face.
  5. Books: Salinger looks salacious. Zealot looks interesting, too. And for fun, I am reading Rob Sheffield‘s Turn Around Bright Eyes – a fun ditty about mourning, love and karaoke. Totally worth the time. (By the way, all of the book links point at Bookish.com. They are a client. They are doing awesome stuff in the world of books. They are, in all the right ways, the anti-Amazon for books. They aren’t selling books because they think they can disrupt something. They sell books because they LOVE them. It’s different.)
  6. Retail: My company spends a lot of time thinking about large-scale search for retailers. So we have a good look at what is happening in the economy as represented by retail sales. Here is what we are seeing: a) Online sales are up double digits, store sales flat to up a few percentage points b) Online budgets are taking away from print in a big way – more bad news for newspapers and magazines c) People are spending more – in our look at things, average order values are up 10-12% – significantly more that the rate of inflation
  7. Music: I had some small part in helping birth OMusic, an upstart Indian music service that allows for streaming or local playback. If you have an Android device, check out the OMusic application. Some of the music is just awesome. Congratulations to Parijat Shah and his team. They have worked incredibly hard and done amazing things on a shoestring budget. I wish you every success! On other musical notes, I have spent a crazy amount of time listening to X – See How We Are and I miss my cassette of “Introducing John Doe” that I listened to incessantly in 1990 and I can’t find a digital version anywhere – any ideas?

I had the pleasure of working with Kevin Chan, and know the team at BloomReach really well. They are a terrific fit and I wish them all the very best of success!

BloomReach Completes Acqui-Hire of E-commerce Startup ShopLogic (via PR Newswire)

CEO Kevin Chan and CTO Dennis Maskevich Bring Ad Technology Expertise to Big Data Marketing Leader Download image BloomReach. (PRNewsFoto/BloomReach) MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., May 30, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — BloomReach, creators of the first big-data marketing applications, today announced the acqui-hiring…

Read more…

My wife has an analog habit that she never wants to break. You see, she likes to get the Sunday New York Times and read it. You know, ink on paper. I suspect that the real thing is Sunday mornings are just about the only time that is remotely quiet in our house, and the newspaper makes a wonderful companion to hot french press coffee. The ritual of the Sunday paper is awesome.

And here I am – Mr. ADHD and Mr. Digital – I like it when things are flashy and blinky. I like the internet. I like the busy, I like the constant, I like the now. The newspaper, well that was printed last night, and honestly by the time it hits our doorstep, it is old news. But there is one thing that draws me to the Sunday paper, especially the NYT, and it is the ads. Print ads are wonderful. They are sensuous, even the all text ones, they are stately, they are composed. And they draw me in and capture me in a way that the digital advertisements that surround the rest of my life never do.

Perhaps it is because for the advertiser, the printed page really is a blank canvas. There are no limitations to what you can express other than maximum size and minimum legibility. In the digital world, there are limitations like text character limits, image size limits, file size limits. It seems to me, as a marketer, that print is like the luxury form of marketing.

But as a consumer, the print advertising, although wonderfully delicious to behold, is hardly relevant to me. Unlike the web, where everyone rushes to make the right impression on me at the right time, print has no idea who the f*@# I am. And to some extent, I hate that. For the magazines that I subscribe to (Inc., Fact Company) I am starting to resent the intrusion of ads that aren’t relevant to me. These publications know where I live. They know how long I have lived there. They know how I engage with them digitally. They have an enormous trove of online and offline information about me. I would suspect that only my iPhone, in-car GPS, and debit cards know more about me. So why don’t these publishers leverage what they know about me an make their advertising programmatic. As online publishers know, programmatic buying can improve yields on pageviews. Perhaps print players could keep some spots available for personalized ads. I know that I did some very sophisticated print of demand stuff for direct mail 10 years ago – could it be time for large scale print operations to move away from a 100% premium (and potentially irrelevant) ad model to a mix of premium and ads printed just for me? After all, the newspaper delivery gets the paper to my house, I invited it there. What advertiser wouldn’t to be part of that platform and provide me with relevant advertising in its most luxurious form. Ad think of the ad sales opportunities – print, digital and personal – all in one.

Could this be the thing to make print relevant? Is relevant advertising an opportunity for success?

Amazon Frown

It is Amazon 4Q earnings day. Normally this is a day of both joy and despair. The e-commerce community revels in the sheer scale of Amazon’s revenues, thinking that they can capture some fraction of that. Amazon is ongoing proof that e-commerce is a rocketship. At the same time, there is despair because at the bottom line of the earnings report, there is marvelously little left over. Profits, when there are any, are minuscule.

But Amazon, when it’s results come today, will surely show that it won the holiday. Amazon is simply killing it in e-commerce. The world’s e-commerce poster children, like Fab.com, and Wayfair, and One Kings Lane, in aggregate, do less annually than Amazon does monthly. (In 2011, Amazon did something like $4b in sales a month. Good luck catching that any time soon.)

The question remains, however, is why anybody else even tries? Amazon has nailed the logistics of e-commerce. They have nailed the essence of customer service. They have nailed the ease of payment thing. They offer added services that make it hard to want to shop other places (Prime, Video, Music).

So, why do we even try to compete?

The answer is really simple. Amazon sucks at telling stories. When you buy a suit, you want to see how you might look. When you buy a couch, you want to imagine how your room will look. When you buy a toy, you want to see the wonder in your kids eyes. In its essence, Amazon has come as close as anyone to perfecting the transaction engine. And Amazon is great for making refinements to your purchase process. You can find alternatives to what you want to buy, or options, or what have you. But Amazon is simply too big to endorse. And unless the shopper is really a buyer (namely, someone who is in the transaction zone rather than the discovery zone), Amazon is a hugely overwhelming place with no sense of context.

Amazon has everything, so they have no idea what you want.

That is why the rest of us try. That is why the rest of us can make more profit on a dollar of revenue. Because we share the human element of story and context that allows us to help you discover what you want. Shopping – the discovery part – is fun and social and engaging and somehow elemental to our societal experience. After all, here in America, we’ve built thousands of shopping malls to give us the opportunity to shop socially and collaboratively. Window displays work because they help discover. Glossy print ads create desire. Believe me, I am not bullish on the prospects for most real-world retailers, and while I am an Amazon fan, Amazon does retail a disservice because of it’s mastery of the narrow end of the funnel.

Shopping and selling are fun. There is joy in the discovery of the right sweater for you. There is little joy in deciding amongst 25 versions of a yellow sweater from 60 different sellers. Customers want to have romance, and curation, and serendipity and joy in their purchase experience. And those things don’t have to happen in a store. They can happen on your website. They can happen in your e-mails. They can happen in your display advertising.

Don’t chase Amazon at its strengths. You will never be able to do Amazon Prime. Attack it at its weakest point – the essential human activity of storytelling.

I spend a lot of time thinking about growth. I help companies generate more traffic, generate more leads. I spend my days thinking about scale, share of voice, acceleration. I have worked in search, in display, in mobile, brand advertising, direct response advertising. I’ve been around the block a couple of dozen times. Someone that I was working with looked at the plans that we were putting together, and he said, “OK, so what do we do with all the traffic we are going to get?”

 

Nobody ever asks that question.

 

For many companies, how to treat your visitors is an entirely separate exercise from getting visitors. There are “Acquisition Managers” and “Site Experience Engineers” and “Director of Low Intent Consumer Engagement” (that is a real title, by the way). Each of these chops up the consumer experience into silos. But customers don’t perceive your efforts that way. Acquisition and engagement are part of a continuum for consumers.

 

So, as my client and I started to talk about ways to engage the new visitors that we were starting to drive. He immediately jumped to reviews as a method of engagement (and I can also share that they have a measurable impact on search engine visibility). And I think when I was an SEO guy, I would have stopped the conversation right there and dialed up PowerReviews. But my experience as a CMO of a $200mm fashion retailer tells me a different story. We had product level reviews on many of our 20,000 products. The SEO boost from those reviews was 1-2%. But we were redesigning our pages and were trying for simpler. So we started doing some multi-variate testing of the new page design. Amongst other things, on the new page, there were no reviews. At the end of the testing, we saw a meaningful difference in conversion on the cleaner page. And when we did all the math, removing the reviews resulted in about a 9% increase in conversion.

 

I, to put it mildly. was shocked. How could this be? Reviews are supposed to add the texture and nuance that drives consumer trust and conversion. In our case, it was the exact opposite. Why?

 

Our brand already had a high degree of trust with our consumers. We were the authority in our space. This is where math fails a little bit, because we couldn’t do a sophisticated sentiment analysis, but it was our opinion that reviews are too subjective. Products got bad reviews because they didn’t fit, or the color was not as expected, or the shipping was too expensive. Reviews tended to be experientially-based rather than product-based regardless of how they are written. And reviews are written by two kinds of folks – those with an axe to grind or those who are cheerleaders. And to be honest, neither is unbiased.

 

So, I started to reflect on my other experiences in online retail over the last two decades, and at the largest online furniture retailer, we tried to improve the customer experience by adding all of the product specific Q&A from our customer service department to the product page. We had questions like “How heavy is this item?”, “Will it fit through my door?”, “What is the seat depth?”. These aren’t sexy questions. But we saw real conversion lift with this tactic. But my client doesn’t have 200 call center employees with reams of data at their fingertips. What he does have is 7 years of customers who have experience with his product.  They know the facts about his products. And by shaping the information that is asked for from those consumers by making them specific questions about the product (“Will it fit in a space X by Y?”, “Does it work in Europe?”, “How long is it from shoulder to cuff?”) it removes the subjective nature of experience into objective fact distillation.

 

It is the answers to questions that make you want to buy. It is the product as solution that justifies the purchase (honestly, shopping online isn’t all that much fun, so if you end up on a product page, the impulse to buy is probably pretty high). UGC does make me want to buy the product. It is the information that removes the reservation. But why doesn’t that work in the review space? Frankly, the review justifies what you want to hear. If you have enough reservations, inevitably, you will gravitate towards those reviews that make it easy to walk away. If you want to make the purchase, you will, of course, focus on the positive reviews. Product reviews can be self-reinforcing events. The cheerleaders hang out with the cheerleaders, and the axe-grinders hang out with the axe-grinders. Reviews are a self-reflexive lens.

 

I’ll share a personal holiday shopping anecdote – I bought a Chromebook for my kids for Christmas (shhhh…don’t tell them). I read a million reviews and they were all positive…but too high-level. I don’t actually care about processor power or inane memory specs, those things that professional reviewers care about. And the product reviews definitely fell into the “GOOGLE ROCKS – The Chromebook is the end of Apple!” or the “It isn’t as good as Windows because you can’t install a faster graphics chip, who would buy this….” And, truthfully, those reviews were just noise. I had one simple question – is there something like Skype for the Chromebook? That is what I needed to know. That was my point of reservation. I travel a lot, and I love to video chat with my kids while I am away. It is meaningful to me and them. So I asked that question on a product forum (NOT on the product page, mind you, but rather a forum that I had to search for…). As it turns out, it doesn’t do Skype, but someone was nice enough to tell me that you can do a private Google Hangout, and someone else told me that Skype was actively working on a browser only plug-in, so there would no need to download a client. These were objective answers to my objective question. And that single bit of information that was relevant to me, when answered, made the purchase decision simple.

 

Consumers are looking for information, not opinion. Decision purchases are made on rationalized facts, not influence. Passion and emotion run high on the engagement end of things (Do I like the site? Is this a good price? Is my credit card safe? Will my friends laugh at me for buying this?) All of that happens before the decision to buy. What drives the “Add to Cart” button click is information that helps me make the decision.

 

And just like Detective Joe Friday, we all really just want the facts, ma’am.

 

This post was originally published on the Turn To Networks blog – they do Social Q&A like none other.