April 27, 2007

On vacation

Filed under: rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:48 am

In New Orleans for my second post-Katrina Jazz Fest.

About these ads

April 26, 2007

No more ugly T-shirts, please

Filed under: advertising — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:57 pm

IMG_2990_editedThis is a half Earth Day/half bad marketing rant.

If you’re running a conference and want to give out T-shirts, make the designs something people will want to wear. I’m talking to you, Search Engine Strategies. Your T-shirt is so hideous I won’t be wearing it. Not even to take a picture of how ugly it is.

If you think an ugly $3 T-shirt will make me feel better about the $1500 or so my conference registration cost, you’re wrong. Make the T-shirts an opt-in. Instead of stuffing them into every conference bag, make people go to the show floor to get their shirts. People who want your crappy shirts can get them and you’ll get more people on the floor.

It’s a win-win. You won’t waste money and the Earth’s resources on a shirt that will end up in the trash. I won’t feel guilty about having to throw another thing away.

Or spend a few extra bucks and make the T-shirt something I’ll want to wear and you get a return for your marketing dollars. Like the Ask shirt. (I’m not just saying that because of the Wii.) And the Web 2.0 Expo shirt.

Beyond design, see Kathy Sierra’s post on making sure that the shirt fits.

Making better ads

Filed under: advertising, email, personalization, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:42 pm

IMG_0066Every week, I get an email from United Airlines telling me about their e-fares for the coming weekend. Almost every week, I ignore this email because the information isn’t relevant to me. This week’s email includes fares from Burbank to San Francisco, Wichita to Denver and White Plains to Chicago.

United knows that I live in the DC area. United also knows (from having years of my frequent flier history) the places I go to frequently. If they used all that data to only send me relevant offers, I’d be more likely to read their email. If they highlighted deals to San Francisco or Seattle, there’s a very good chance I’ll bite.

Despite all the talk about companies using mass stores of data to provide laser-targeted offers, the reality is far from it. United isn’t alone. American Express has 14 years of my purchasing history, yet not one of the six “CustomExtras” offers on my last statement was relevant.

I’m even willing to give United more data than they already have. I’d be happy to fill out a form listing all the places I want to go. Have a last-minute bargain to Prague or Istanbul or Sydney? Sign me up. I’m glad to help you fill those empty seats. United doesn’t even have the challenge of developing custom creative — all they need is the city and the price.

1309 spam messages in 90 minutes

Filed under: email, spam — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:24 pm

I got an unpleasant surprise today – an avalanche of spam in 90 minutes. And technically, I was the one sending it. Or at least that’s what the mailservers thought.

Our current email system was created in a time when there was a lot of trust — if you sent an email saying you were Rocky Agrawal, the other computers assumed you were. They still do. You can be anyone @ mydomain, just by claiming that you are. And that’s exactly what spammers are doing. They’re sending messages claiming to be from Paula547@ Tarnowski@ etc.

Those messages made their way across the Internet to mailboxes that have been deleted, never existed, or were full. Beginning at 2:24, my mailbox filled with a torrent of bounced mail notices, vacation replies and mailbox full notices.

And there’s pretty much nothing I can do about it.

There is at least one initiative that would help end this scourge, but it has seen little adoption. The Sender Policy Framework allows domain owners to specify which mail servers are authorized to send messages for a given domain. I have my SPF record set to allow only to send messages on my behalf.  If a mail server checks the incoming message against the SPF record, it knows that the message is forged. It should also know not to respond to the message. Unfortunately, many mail servers don’t bother to do this check. A few did the check and then sent me messages saying that the message (which I didn’t send) failed the SPF check. Gee, thanks.

Video of Marge Simpson discovering Google

Filed under: fun, google — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:27 am

I added a video clip from The Simpsons to the Marge Simpson discovers Google post. It’s also below. Enjoy.

April 24, 2007

Beautiful architecture and DC’s ugly buildings

Filed under: google, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:40 pm

My favorite US architectureThe American Institute of Architects has a compilation of 150 structures as part of the online exhibit America’s Favorite Architecture. As with any such “top” list, there’s bound to be disagreement, but the site is worth exploring. The list is also available as a layer for Google Earth.

A selection of my favorites is at right. Some other favorites that didn’t make the Top 150: Museum of Flight, Seattle; John Hancock Center, Chicago; Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville; Old Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C.
The D.C. area is home to 17 of the 150. It’s a very impressive showing, until you consider the fact that most of the buildings are DC’s historic landmarks. Outside the Mall area and the signature Washington buildings, DC is one of the ugliest cities I’ve visited (architecturally speaking).

The J. Edgar Hoover FBI building is my current nomination for ugliest building in D.C. It rivals some of the ugliest buildings on Northwestern’s campus, such as the University Library. (It’s even uglier in real life.) The D.C. public library is another eyesore. Compare it with the public libraries in New York and Boston.

Washington’s height restrictions are part of the problem. Despite common lore, building heights aren’t restricted to the height of the Capitol or the Washington Monument, but 20 feet taller than the width of the street they’re on. This helps preserve the prominence of the signature buildings, but these restrictions (combined with economics) pretty much ensure that all new buildings are large undifferentiated boxes.

Web 2.0 design note: The designers of the AFA site missed a natural opportunity to serve up badges of people’s favorite sites. I had to crop a screen grab to get the image in this post.

The hassles of clicks to bricks

Filed under: consumer electronics, customer service — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:47 pm

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story on the hassles of buying online and picking up in store (subscription required). The story includes experiences where the item isn’t available, orders are canceled and other inconveniences. It fairly accurately reflects my experience with in-store pickup.

It’s not an easy logistics challenge, which explains why few stores do it and the ones that do generally do it poorly. The keys are 1) having accurate inventory and 2) having enough staffing to pick orders.

Here’s a sampling of my experiences:

  • Office Depot. Their in-store pickup is so useless that I don’t know why they bother. It’s a hassle for their store managers and a royal pain in the ass for customers. On several occasions, I’ve shown up at a store to find that they no longer had the item. (Someone had bought it in the store before the order had been picked by employees.) Employees and managers were generally clueless about the process. To make matters even worse, I was still charged for the items and then had to deal with their inept customer service to get a refund. Never again. They really ought to stop offering it until they can get the many kinks worked out.
  • Comp USA. Similar issues with inventory synchronization. Got to the store to find that only item left was a floor model. After a bit of discussion the manager offered me a discount on the floor model. Comp USA does not process the online order to your credit card until you pick up the item. This means that if you pick it up a few days later, you might miss out on sale pricing and rebates.
  • Best Buy. The biggest issue I’ve had here is long waits. You get stuck in line behind people returning items, applying for credit and other customer service tasks. In most cases, it’s faster to just pick up the item yourself and take it to the register.
  • Circuit City. Easily the best and the easiest. Circuit City has dedicated parking spaces for in-store pickup as well as a dedicated counter (though not always staffed.) If your order isn’t ready 24 minutes after you placed it, you get a $24 gift card. This happened to me once and I got the gift card. (I did have to ask for it.) Circuit City’s point-of-sale system is smart enough to keep the store from selling items to in-store customers if they’ve been ordered online; they’re digitally erased from store inventory when they’re ordered online. Even if the in-store customer has it in hand, they won’t be allowed to buy it.

SmarteCarte lockersThe ultimate question is “Does it save the customer time?” Except for Circuit City, today the answer is generally no. Without dedicated lines for in-store pickup, it generally doesn’t make sense.

I’d love to see a store with in-store pickup lockers. Similar to what you see at some airports, you’d have a bank of lockers of varying sizes. When you go to the store, you insert the credit card used for the purchase and the locker pops open. Grab your stuff and go. That’s real convenience – saves time for both the customer and the store.

April 22, 2007

Marge Simpson discovers Google

Filed under: google — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:35 pm

Google made a guest appearance on The Simpsons this Sunday night, with Marge discovering the joys of the Internet.

“All this time I thought Googling yourself meant the other thing.”

The Springfield search engine’s results are a bit lighter and quite different from my version of Google. Marge found 629,000 results for “Marge Simpson” vs. 1.6 million when I did the search. Marge also didn’t get the images layer.

Her satellite view in Google Maps is also real-time. I’d be thrilled if the satellite view of my place wasn’t four years old. I’ve been living there for more than three years and it still shows the building under construction.

Classic line from Lisa: “I’m proud of you mom. You’re like Christopher Columbus, you discovered something millions of people knew about before you.”

More on Google.

Earth Day and assholes

Filed under: environment — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:22 am

Earth DaySome assholes in California are stealing the HOV stickers off hybrid cars, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The stickers allow solo drivers to use the HOV lanes if they’re driving in a clean-fuel vehicle. The California DMV recently stopped giving out stickers with newer hybrids and is reporting two to three dozen requests a month for replacement stickers.

Someone put an offering on eBay in February seeking $10,000 for an extra set of carpool stickers sent mistakenly by the DMV (there were no takers and the ad was removed).

USA Today reported earlier that in the used car market, hybrids with the HOV stickers were selling for $4,000 more (based on a Kelley Blue Book sampling of 30 cars) than those without. The stickers are valid until 2011, making the cost of less stressful commuting $1,000 a year. (Or roughly 11 tickets for carpool lane violations.)

Virginia Clean Fuel plate

Virginia uses special clean fuel license plates. It’s a little bit more noticeable if you’re stealing someones plates. HOV lane benefits for clean fuel are being phased out here.

via Engadget and Fark

De-cluttering the planet one bill at a time

Filed under: environment — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:45 am

Earth DayI came back from my travels facing a stack of bills in my mailbox. I’ve been paying bills online for years now; with most major billers, this means that there’s no paper flowing back the other way.

The major credit card companies and utilities now offer online bills. Some banks (especially online only banks) either don’t offer paper statements or charge $3-$5 per month for a paper statement. I’ve already signed up for online statements from a number of billers.

This Earth Day, I’m working to reduce that even further by switching as many bills as I can to electronic.

The execution of online bills varies dramatically from company to company.

  • American Express has the best online account tools. Statements are available for the last six months. Older statements can be requested going back to 1994 and become online within a few days. The statements are available as PDFs and look pretty much like the paper bills.
  • Bank of America offers a choice of PDF or text statements. Go with the PDF.
  • Chase offers up to six years of statements online — if you turn off paper statements. Otherwise, you get up to six months. Statements are also in PDF format.
  • Citi has the worst online statements. The online statements don’t include all of the information that paper bills have and aren’t in an easily savable format. I’m sticking with paper statements until they improve.

You can also choose to get reminders a few days before your bill is due.

The biggest problem with online statements is that they don’t come to you. Because email is an insecure medium, you only get an email that there is a statement available to review online. You then have to go to the Web site to review the statement. This is a significant obstacle and inconvenience for many people. This is made even harder with the increasing “security” measures used by bank sites. (More on that later.)

It amazes me that 15 years after I started using email, it’s less secure than paper mail. It should be possible to get secure, tamper-proof, phish-proof email that includes sensitive personal information. I should be able to get the PDF emailed to me.

As much concentration as there is in the email business, the big email providers can make this happen. They just need to decide to work together to hammer out a system that works and dramatically improves email for all instead of focusing their efforts on marginal improvements to their individual products.

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