July 31, 2007

How would you visit 171 Starbucks in one day?

Filed under: fun, recruiting, starbucks — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:01 am

It’s a sure sign that I’ve been spending a lot of time interviewing that when I saw the story about the guy who bought something at all 171 Starbucks in Manhattan in one day I turned it into an interview puzzle. There are a lot of considerations:

  • Where are all the stores?
  • What are the hours for each store? Many Starbucks are in business areas and don’t say open late.
  • How busy are the stores?
  • How do you get around Manhattan?
  • How does your body deal with the effects of caffeine, liquid and sugar?
  • What happens if a store is closed?

The answer to the last question is “bribe the barista”. The video reports that the barista at the 96th and Madison Starbucks charged $80 for a piece of pound cake when he showed up 12 minutes after closing. A Starbucks representative reportedly refunded the $80 after hearing about it.

About these ads

July 30, 2007

Pepsi to clarify that Aquafina is tap water

Filed under: advertising — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:53 am

PepsiCo is planning to clarify labels to tell consumers that its Aquafina water is actually bottled from public water supplies. According to the CNN story, the labels will be changed from “Bottled at the source P.W.S.” to “The Aquafina in this bottle is purified water that originates from a public water source” or something similar. Aquafina has 13% of the bottled water market in the U.S.

Coke, which distributes Dasani, isn’t planning on changing its label.

In other bottled water news: if you drink Deer Park, it is spring water but from various springs. I’ve seen Deer Park water from Maine and Florida.

Rocky’s fun-filled day at the airport

Filed under: airlines, customer service, facebook, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:07 am

n589258318_184192_4195Yesterday was my travel day from hell.

I arrived at National Airport around 11 to catch a noon flight to Philadelphia. Because of a ground stop at Philadelphia they pushed back the flight to 12:45. We boarded the bus toward the commuter plane. When we arrived at the plane, I noticed that the door was still closed. Due to lightning around National, the ramp was closed and the bus headed back to the terminal.

In the terminal it was an endless string of “another 45 minutes” or no communication at all. Flights to and from cities up and down the East Coast were canceled or delayed.

While I can’t blame U.S. Airways for the weather, I can blame them for ill-considered policies that exacerbate the delays and make their ground staff work a lot harder than they need to. Unlike some other airlines, U.S. Airways phone agents can’t make changes for customers unless their flights have actually been canceled. As a result, you have 3 or 4 agents at the airport dealing with a line of 50-60 people who need to make new plans.

This is never an easy process on bad weather days because it can take 5 minutes or more per passenger to review later flights, alternate airports and rebook. This is in addition to dealing with the few airplanes that are coming and going. Under all this pressure, the agents aren’t able to look at all the options. I called my brother and was able to find other flights, but I couldn’t get anyone to book them for me. By the time I got to the front of the line, those flights had left.

On United, I’ve been able to call reservations while standing in line and get rebooked on alternate flights when it looked likely that I was going to miss my connection. Instead of concentrating all the work at one gate at the airport, United smartly distributes that work. United is now adding kiosks on their concourses that allow customers to rebook themselves. It saves United money and customers can see their options.

Around 5 p.m., we got the go ahead to re-board the Philadelphia flight. This time, we got off the bus and on the plane. A few minutes after boarding, I see the bus return and open its doors. About the same time the pilot comes out of the cockpit and says dispatch is canceling the flight, but he’s trying to talk them out of it before the bus comes back. Too late.

The one good thing about my seven hours at National was that I got to spend quality time with Facebook Mobile, updating my status, checking up on what friends were up to, and uploading pictures and my first mobile videos. It’s among the best mobile-Web integrations I’ve seen yet. More on that later.

My fruitless trip to DCA, as recorded on Facebook

July 28, 2007

Two products I’d never consider buying

Filed under: consumer electronics, product management, wireless — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:15 am

Jitterbug cell phoneThe Post’s Rob Pegoraro has a story this week on two products I’ll never buy. One is the Samsung Jitterbug, a feature-free cellphone. The other is the HP Printing Mailbox. It connects to a regular telephone line and prints emails intended for the owner.

Don’t laugh too hard at that one; it’s not intended for you, either. While most products these days focus on adding as many features as possible to entice the young, these products are designed for older users who don’t want to learn all those features.

There are two versions of the Jitterbug. They both do one thing: make phone calls. You can’t text someone, browse the Web, play music, view pictures, watch TV, check email or get driving directions.

The simplest version, pictured above, does away with the 10-digit keypad and replaces them with three big buttons — 911, operator and a big custom buttons. (According to the Jitterbug Web site, “We’ll personalize the middle button for you before we ship your phone. Choose ‘Friend,’ ‘Home,’ ‘Tow,’ ‘Work,’ or ‘My Choice.'”) There’s also a menu of 10 speed dials. If you want to call someone else, you call the operator and he or she puts you through.

Ironically, many of the ads I saw while researching Jitterbug were for phones at the other end of the spectrum. The CNET video in the screenshot above is sponsored by Blackberry.

The Jitterbug has two big problems. It’s offered by an MVNO named GreatCall. MVNOs have had a tough time lately. One of the largest, Amp’d mobile, is likely to be shutting down next week.

The other is price. The phones cost $147 and the service is also premium priced. Features like unlimited nights and weekends and unlimited in-networking calling aren’t available. It only really makes sense if you rarely use the phone. It would be a much more compelling offer if you could add the phone to a family plan for a major carrier.

The HP Printing Mailbox from Presto is designed to print email and photos sent to an email address. In theory, you buy this printer for your parents, set it up and connect it to the phone line.

When you send them email, it gets printed out the next day. There’s no way to send an email back. (“Users do not have the cost and hassles of a computer and Internet account, and do not need to learn to send email or use a keyboard.”) They can call you (using a Jitterbug?) or write a letter. Only emails from approved email addresses are allowed. There’s also an option to subscribe to newsletters and articles from companies like Better Homes and Gardens and the Wall Street Journal.

Cost is an issue here, too. The printer costs $99 and the service is $10 a month. And then there’s the pricey HP ink cartridges.

The big problem I see with the HP Printing Mailbox is that it assumes a one-way relationship. To me, giving this to someone says “I don’t really care about you.” When I send an email to you with HP Printing Mailbox, I know you can’t email me back. It’s like calling someone’s work number at 9 p.m. hoping to get voicemail because you don’t really want to talk to them. There’s one opportunity for increased interaction: if you actually use the thing, you’ll probably have to visit every few months to change the ink cartridge.

But then again, I’m not the target market.

July 25, 2007

Measuring the Facebook traffic tsunami

Filed under: facebook, statistics — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:55 am

Upstart traffic measurement company Quantcast has released some impressive data on the effect of the Facebook platform on audience growth. The company measured pre- and post-Facebook platform usage on three popular companies: Slide, HOTorNOT and RockYou.

All three have seen substantial jumps in traffic since the Facebook platform launch, with domestic uniques doubling or tripling. These sites were substantial to begin with, making the growth more meaningful.

According to Quantcast, U.S. uniques for Slide went from 312,000 to 1.1 million. Growth in global uniques outpaced growth in domestic uniques for HOTorNOT and RockYou. RockYou’s global uniques increased from 286,000 to 1.3 million.

There’s been a fair amount of debate about whether a Facebook user is “worth” as much as a “regular” user. As long as the value of a Facebook user is greater than zero, these data indicate that being on the Facebook platform is a good place to be.

Facebook effect daily uniques (U.S.)

Facebook effect - daily uniques (global)

Unlike other measurement services which rely on data from ISP logs or panels to represent the Internet audience, Quantcast bases its data for these sites on actual traffic measured by a hidden pixel.

Quantcast allows anyone to “quantify” their site by putting the tracking pixel on it for free; sites without the pixel are measured based on a panel. Anyone can also look at the traffic statistics for any site by going to Here’s an example report for Yahoo!.

Disclosure: I’m friends with several Quantcast employees.

More on: Facebook

July 24, 2007

e-Vic – Personalization that works

Filed under: advertising, personalization — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:45 pm

I’ve seen many tries at personalization in the last decade. Most don’t work very well. Among the best personalization systems are Netflix’s and Amazon’s recommendations engines.

There’s another to add to the list, and it comes from an unlikely source: my grocery store. Each week Harris Teeter emails me weekly specials. But there’s a twist. The email is customized based on my purchase history. Using the data from my loyalty card, they present the offers I’m most interested in first. Unlike United’s weekly spam, this email gets opened once in a while.

It’s personalization that works for me and for them. Most grocery stores collect the data; Harris Teeter is the first that I’ve encountered that uses it to directly enhance my shopping experience. They benefit by selling more stuff.

Another convenience: I was able to pull up my personalized circular email on my cell phone. Now they just need to tell me which aisle each item is in.

Harris Teeter e-Vic

Debate 2.0 a resounding success

Filed under: elections, journalism, media, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:52 am

Note: If you are reading this on the blog (instead of an RSS reader) you can roll over any of the links and watch the video right on this page.

Last night’s CNN/YouTube debate was a triumph of public participation in the political process. Although it served as a long promotional stunt for CNN (I saw breathless hyping of it on CNN 48 hours out), the format worked.

The first questioner of the night asked the candidates, “How are you going to be any different?” The same question is apropos for the debate.

Ordinary men, women and snowmen were given the chance to ask their questions of the Democratic candidates for president. While this has been attempted before in a town hall format, many town hall audiences are thoroughly screened by the parties. The video format added the ability to use backgrounds and props to illustrate the question. A question about Darfur came from a refugee camp in Darfur. A question about gun control features a seemingly crazy man grabbing his “baby.”

Having the public ask questions produced questions that you wouldn’t get from professional journalists, who worry about decorum or being perceived as biased. Is Obama black enough and Hillary feminine enough? (Host Andersen Cooper presented this first to Obama, protesting “not my question.”) Would you be willing to work for the minimum wage if you’re elected as president? Do you send your kids to public school or private school? Will a woman president be taken seriously in the Muslim world?

The videos also served to humanize the questions. Many questions in traditional debates are asked in the abstract. It’s an altogether different feeling when you have to tell a lesbian couple why you think they shouldn’t be allowed to get married or a guy in a wheelchair what you will do to give him access to health care.

It’s tempting to say, let’s throw the journalists out of the process. Tempting, but wrong. The two dozen or so questions were selected by CNN from among almost 3,000 videos submitted on YouTube. The debate began with an explanation of how CNN selected the questions. No people in costumes. No using children to ask grown up questions. No stuffing the ballot box, as Joe Biden’s campaign tried to do with a question on the war. The most viewed question on YouTube — about whether Arnold Schwarchenegger is a cyborg — wasn’t put to the candidates.

As interesting as the questions were, most of the responses weren’t. Candidates, as in ordinary debates, often deflected the question and went straight to their talking points. I thought John Edwards did the best job of directly answering questions.

My biggest complaint about the format was the way the YouTube questions were shown. Instead of being shown full screen, they were shown as projected on a screen in the auditorium. When Mike Sharley was using flashcards to ask his question from a wheelchair, the camera cut away to a shot of Andersen Cooper staring at the screen. Even now, I can’t easily find all of the original questions that were selected. Here is my best guess at the Sharley video.

Here is my pick for the most entertaining question of the night:

July 23, 2007

Crying babies and cell phones

Filed under: fun, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:05 pm

Among the top complaints among restaurant customers are screaming babies and cell phones. Now you can combine the two.

My friend Jonathan mentioned that he wanted to capture the dulcet sounds of his five month old for posterity. I suggested that he make it into a ringtone for his Nokia N95. (Unlike most American cell phones, this European phone lets you use your own custom ringtones.)

Hear the resulting ringtone on his baby blog.

I just hope he doesn’t make it into a ringback tone.

July 22, 2007

Carl Kasell is a fake… friend

Filed under: advertising, facebook, social networking — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:01 am

I’m a fan of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a weekly news quiz hosted by Carl Kasell. The usually funny show features C- and D-list celebrities as well as audience callers answering questions about the week’s news. The prize is having Carl record the message on your answering machine. (It may be a nod to NPR’s demographic that it’s not on your voicemail.)

As I was browsing my Facebook network, I noticed Carl on the profile page of one of my friends. Just for grins, I decided to see if I could get Carl to friend me. To my surprise, Carl and I were friends later than day. I quickly discovered that Carl’s profile page is mainly a marketing page for WWDTM.

Unlike others in the media, Carl’s producers seem to be doing the work. Once I got past my initial disappointment that the 73-year-old NPR host wasn’t updating his status on Facebook, I was drawn in by how effectively the show’s producers are using Carl’s Facebook profile as a marketing tool. They post guests for upcoming shows as notes and pictures from show tapings. You can also listen to a podcast right on Carl’s page. I also found that of Carl’s 624 friends, 5 are also my friends.

Carl’s wall is full of admiration from fans including Katie O. who writes, “I love everyone at Wait Wait especially you Mr. Kasell! You make my long school weeks bearable.” Another posted a limerick in honor of this week’s guest, Patrick Fitzgerald:

A Law School Girl’s Heart Throb
P-Fitz Must Fend Off The Mob
As A Prosecutor He’s Special
In the Hot Seat Tonight He Will Dwell
We Can’t Wait for this Week’s ‘Not My Job!’

Audience members uploaded pictures from this week’s show in Chicago’s Millennium Park and tagged them to Carl’s profile. Other fans have hugged, thrown sheep at, tickled and chest bumped Carl. (Carl has responded by buying drinks, taking sexy back, goosing and throwing sheep.)

As the illustration below shows, some of Carl’s Facebook fans are clearly outside of the NPR demographic. It’s a great way for the show to connect with that audience.

Graffiti from Carl Kasell’s wall

July 21, 2007

Redefining news

Filed under: facebook, journalism, media, newspapers, social networking — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:24 pm

I was at a party earlier this week with some journalists from The Washington Post and some recent journalism graduates.

We started talking about Loudoun Extra, the Post’s new hyperlocal Web site focused on a wealthy suburban county. Among the things on today’s Loudoun Extra home page is the grocery store staying open late for the last Harry Potter book, preparations for the county fair, Web cams of the area, local restaurants and church services. In the fall, you will be able to get score-by-score updates of high school football games.

Someone said, “they only publish two or three news stories a week.” I argued that they need to change their definition of news.

Last fall, I was visiting some colleagues at AOL’s Dublin office with some of my coworkers from Dulles. At the end of a long day, we had a party at a pub. One of our vice presidents chugged a Guinness in 35 seconds. I made a video of this and put it online the next morning. Within a few hours, much of our team on both sides of the Atlantic had seen it. It wasn’t News with a capital “N”, but within that group of about 100 people it was one of the biggest news items of the day. If you hadn’t seen the video, you were out of the loop.

It’s the same with hyperlocal. I really couldn’t care less when a bar in Loudoun County opens up or changes their happy hour specials, but for people who live nearby, that is news. It won’t make the front page of the Post or ABC’s World News Tonight, but it’s still news.

Another part of our discussion was the decline in importance of national and international news in favor of gossip on the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. That’s true and it’s not true.

Technology today is shifting the role of editor from the producers of news to the consumers of news. Never before have there been so many choices in how, when and where we can consume news. There’s a huge river of information on all topics and consumers get to choose.

Although the mainstream media have a mix that I don’t like, I also have more access to high quality news than ever before. I can get international news from the New York Times, BBC, The Economist and Foreign Policy magazine. If I want news on India, I can go straight to the Times of India.

For those who want all Paris, all the time, they don’t have to settle for the limited coverage CNN offers. I’m sure there are countless blogs and celebrity sites that will fill their minds with the latest on the celebutante. Just don’t ask me what they are.

Technology is enabling us to return to old fashioned word-of-mouth distribution of news; my friends are serving as deputy editors. News stories get pass around by email and IM, with friends sharing stories that we might be interested in. It was rare for me to cut out articles from newspapers and send them to friends, but I’m constantly sending and receiving links.

As social networking takes off, those networks (and the algorithms behind them) become editors as well. This week, I found out about the troubles facing Business 2.0 magazine when I saw in my Facebook news feed that two of my friends joined the group I read Business 2.0 – and I want to keep reading!

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