August 27, 2009

Twitter and foursquare: the tipping point to getting local business online

Filed under: foursquare, lbs, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:48 pm
Crepe cart in Seattle

Crepe cart in Seattle

Getting small local businesses to go online has been the holy grail of the Internet. I’ve written before about some of the reasons local business don’t go online and suggested several ways that they could use emerging technologies to get online with minimal effort.

That finally seems to be happening. Whether it’s a crepe cart in Seattle, ice cream store in San Francisco or a restaurant in Sedona, businesses are using the simplicity of Twitter for their virtual presence.

Most local businesses are too busy running their business to exert a lot of effort maintaining an online presence. If it’s not easy, it won’t get done. My favorite example of a small business reusing their existing work is the Webcam pointed at the wall of Beachwood BBQ where they list the pints on tap.

The challenge is that these businesses are only announcing their presence to existing customers or passersby. While this can help drive repeat visits through specials, notices of new arrivals, etc. it does little to bring in new customers.

That’s where foursquare comes in. This location-based social game allows users to “check in” to places they visit. Check in often enough and you become the “mayor” of that place. Savvy businesses have latched on to this and begun offering discounts to their mayors.

It has also been incorporated into the foursquare check in process. When I checked in at a restaurant in Seattle, I was presented with an offer at a nearby bar: happy hour all day for the mayor or $1 off well drinks for anyone else who checked in. (Checking in updates your social network status, providing further exposure for the business.) It’s one of the first examples of location-based mobile advertising that works. The process is a bit cumbersome now, but it provides a glimpse into where the technology is headed.

In addition to providing exposure to businesses, it solves a user problem that local search has long failed at: discovery. People often don’t know what they’re looking for when they’re out. Suggestions, even if they’re sponsored, help fill the discovery gap.

Foursquare offer

foursquare mayor offer

About these ads

August 16, 2009

Building sandcastles on the Web

Filed under: journalism, newspapers, product management — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:41 pm
North American Sandsculpting Championship

2007 North American Sandsculpting Championship, Virgina Beach, Va.

As I’ve been figuring out what to do next, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what I’ve done in the past. The sad reality of building Web products is that your work quickly disappears. Just as waves and winds tear down sandcastles, the rapid pace of innovation on the Web means that your best accomplishments get wiped away.

Despite all of the talk about newspapers having failed to innovate these are some of the things we did at the Star Tribune:

  • Created one of the first dynamic publishing systems.
  • Launched a local Yellow Pages product, complete with maps and driving directions.
  • Launched a home search with full MLS listings. Someone actually ran a tape over to the building from the MLS offices to make this work. It even had Google Street View-type pictures of all the homes in a neighborhood.
  • Created a searchable entertainment guide.

We even tried to get people to pay for news! (It didn’t work in the mid-’90s, it won’t work now.)

That work has been washed away, as has most of my other work. My work at Tellme still exists, but experiencing that requires buying a new Ford.

Sure, I have screenshots of some of the products I’ve created. But they don’t capture the essence of  the work. If a Web site can be captured in a screenshot, its creator didn’t do a good job.

My longest lasting legacy is partnering with genius designer Jamie Hutt to create the weather mascot for Someone had pointed out that there was a thermometer on the roof of the Star Tribune building that was recording the temperature for the Strib’s audiotext system. We decided to incorporate that reading on to the front page. To capture some local flavor, we made the weather icon a snowman. He appears differently depending on the weather. This a typical summer look:

Star Tribune Snowman

My favorite is when it gets really hot — you see a puddle with glasses and a carrot. The snowman’s look and placement have changed over the years but the essence of the idea remains.

August 8, 2009

Favorite airports from around the world

Filed under: airlines, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:08 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of travel the last few years and have gone through a lot of airports. There are huge variations in quality from airport to airport and even within terminals of the same airport. A few stand out.

Vancouver's beautiful airport

YVR makes a grand first impression for arriving travelers

Some of the things that I look for in airports:

  • Open, airy spaces. I’m going to be crammed in a metal tube for hours. I don’t want to be crammed in the airport, too.
  • Well-managed security lines. Atlanta (ATL),  Denver (DEN) and Washington Dulles (IAD) go on the hate list for this reason alone.
  • Reasonably priced food with options for healthier eating than burgers and pizza. A big plus for airports that promote local restaurants.
  • Free WiFi and easily accessible power ports. Most large airports don’t have free WiFi (the better to soak business travelers), but a lot of the mid-market and small airports do.
  • Convenient public transit options to the city.
  • Good signage.
  • Big windows to watch airplanes from.
  • Service from airlines that I’d want to fly.
  • Public art installations. They add character and provide a pleasant diversion when flights are delayed.

None of the airports on this list excel at all of these things, but as a whole each airport stands well above average. This list is also available as a Google Map.

Workstations At Airport

Workstations at ABQ

10. Albuquerque International Sunport – A great mid-market airport. It’s one of the few that I’ve seen that have free WiFi and desks with power plugs that are open to all passengers. The restaurants have a strong local flavor.

9. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) Terminal 3/International Terminal – SFO,  much more than most airports, has really highlighted local restaurants in its terminals. They aren’t cheap (but then it’s San Francisco, so they aren’t cheap in the city either), but do give travelers a good taste of the city. I recommend the Boudin Bakery in Terminal 3. Terminal 1 food options are lacking. SFO also features a rotating selection of art, though I have to question the recent display of clock art. The confusing, expensive and poorly executed public transit from the airport is my biggest knock against it. It could be much better, but BART has taken a soak-the-travelers attitude.

What The Hell Are The Guys Doing Inside The Engine

Maintenance workers climb inside an engine with a giant blow dryer to remove ice crystals at MSP after a long delay

8. Incheon International Airport (ICN) Seoul – An architecturally impressive airport with first-rate amenities, including a spa. Like Seoul itself, the airport is littered with American fast food chains. Unfortunately the airport is a long way from the city and Seoul’s brutal traffic makes it seem even farther.

7. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) Lindbergh Terminal – Clean, easy and efficient. Navigating the sprawling tentacles of the airport is made easier with clear signage and trams, but if you’re connecting, you could be in for a lot of exercise. A few Minnesota favorites such as D’Amico & Sons, Dunn Bros Coffee and French Meadow Bakery are sprinkled in among the airport chains. The new light-rail line takes you downtown or to Minnesota’s biggest tourist attraction – the Mall of America – for $2.25 or less. Minnesota’s harsh winters often mean long waits for deicing or missed connections, but I haven’t had the nightmarish experiences of O’Hare here.

DTW makes it easy to get up close to the planes

DTW makes it easy to get up close to the planes

6. Detroit Metro Airport (DTW)Detroit gets the prize for most improved airport, moving from worst to not-quite-first. The McNamara Terminal is architecturally impressive and has great views of planes. It’s daunting length is reduced by the Express Tram, which provides a birds-eye view of the terminal as it goes from one end of the terminal to the other. The light show in the tunnel between the A and C concourses can be entertaining. The Westin is one of the nicest airport hotels in the country, with its own security entrance. Restaurants are on the chainy side.

5. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) - The gigantic atrium in the central terminal is one of my favorite airport spaces. Sculptures of local fish are embedded in the floor throughout the terminal, with occasional river noises. On a rare clear day, you can see Mount Rainier from the airport. Dining options highlight local flavors including wines and seafood. A new light rail line connecting Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle is one of the simplest and cheapest ($2.50) city connections you’ll find in the United States. (The light rail isn’t complete yet. You have to take a bus to the current end-of-the-line.)

4. Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) – Charlotte has wonderful public spaces, free WiFi and power plugs next to comfy rocking chairs. The last time I was through CLT, there was even a piano player. The food court includes local barbecue options. Charlotte would probably be my favorite airport, but it has one big drawback: the dominant carrier is US Airways.

3. Vancouver International Airport (YVR)You’ll know you’ve landed in the Pacific Northwest when you arrive at YVR. The entry from international flights is one of the most impressive welcomes I’ve seen in an airport. It wouldn’t be hard to think of YVR as a Native American history museum. Some of the art on display is on loan from museums. Free WiFi is also a plus. The Canada Line mass transit system linking the airport to the city should be opening any day now.

United jet and Kona airport

A United jet dwarfs the airport buildings at KOA

2. Washington National Airport (DCA) Terminals B & C – Wealthy Alexandria neighbors, overblown security concerns and the idiotic perimeter rule keep more people from experiencing this terrific, underutilized airport. Terminals B & C are clean, modern and airy. They feature amazing views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument across the Potomac. The views from Continental’s Presidents Club are especially impressive. Dining is much more chain-oriented than I’d like, but I do try to hit the Five Guys when I’m there. A covered walkway takes you to the Metro which connects you to much of the DC area. Security lines are usually not an issue. The biggest knock: Terminal A, the original airport. A lot of third-world nations would disown it.

1. Kona International Airport (KOA) – OK, the deck is stacked here. A big part of the reason that Kona is my favorite airport is that when you land, you’re in Hawaii. The approach from the mainland includes a view of neighbor island Maui, goes over turquoise water and you land on a lava flow from 1801. (Look out for messages in white coral on the lava.) But the airport itself has a lot of charm. There’s a little bar tucked away in the corner.  There aren’t big windows to see the planes, but that’s because everything is open air, letting you get up close and personal with the planes. (Just don’t take a lot of pictures like I did or you might be interrogated.) Food options at this tiny airport are limited. I was too distracted by the beauty to check if there is free WiFi.

Two other international airports that I really liked are Kuwait International Airport (KWI) and Schipol (AMS) in Amsterdam. My last visits there were too far in the past to include in this list.

And for those who are wondering, here’s the hate list in no particular order: ATL, DEN, BOS, IAD, LGA, JFK, LHR, ORD, MIA, SJC, OAK, FRA, IAH, MSY, CDG.

The benefits of starting from scratch

Filed under: airlines, customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:28 am

Today marks the second anniversary of the launch of Virgin America, an upstart carrier that has inspired many loyal followers. Virgin America is a clear example of the benefits of starting from scratch.

Virgin America cabinAmong Virgin’s features:

  • Brand new planes.
  • Cheerful gate staff and flight attendants.
  • AC power plugs at every seat.
  • In-flight WiFi on every seat on every flight.
  • Live TV.
  • The best in-flight entertainment system on a domestic carrier.
  • The best premium economy offering (Main Cabin Select) in the U.S.
  • The best domestic first class, with the exception of three-cabin transcontinental offerings like United’s p.s. It even rivals some U.S. carriers’ international business class offerings.
  • In-seat, on-screen food ordering.
  • Specialty food choices.
  • A simple frequent flier program with no redemption restrictions.

Virgin America is the airline I’d design if I were designing an airline from scratch. It solves the needs of today’s travelers.

The legacy airlines can’t come close to Virgin’s offering. Retrofitting aircraft is expensive and many carriers are facing liquidity crunches. Union rules make it next to impossible to fire rude and bitter flight attendants. Bureaucratic processes and lethargy prevent innovations like Virgin’s IFE system (see my post Could YouTube have come from a large company?) To the extent that Virgin America has a legacy, it’s the halo from Virgin’s fun, irreverent brand and Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group. (see video below)

On most airlines I complain about things like surly flight attendants, seats held together with duct tape, dirty planes, long mechanical delays and shabby terminal facilities. On Virgin America the complaints are in a different (and whiny) league: the IFE system has some bugs in it, seat-to-seat chat needs status messages, in-flight WiFi can sometimes be slow. The only substantive complaint I’ve had so far is that the Web site is incredibly slow and painful to use.

I’m not the only one who has noticed: Virgin’s load factor has been steadily increasing, even as it has expanded capacity. Virgin’s flights often sell out before those on legacy carriers on the same routes.

Virgin came into the market at a really tough time for the industry, with record oil prices last year and the toughest economy in decades. Here’s hoping Virgin America makes it to its 20th birthday.

August 5, 2009

Past, present and future of online maps

Filed under: bing, google, local search, maps, microsoft — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:55 am

Business names and landmarks on Google MapsGoogle announced yesterday that it has added more detail on its maps, highlighting businesses and landmarks. They even solved the Albert Einstein Memorial problem that I wrote about last year.

Businesses and landmarks are important because they make maps more in line with the way people think, instead of the way that computers operate. This change also means that businesses won’t have to resort to painting their rooftops to be easily identifiable.

There are two big challenges with what Google is doing:

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Web when maps consisted largely of roads and a clunky user interface. We’ve seen the addition of aerial imagery, building outlines, photos, public transit, Street View, neighborhoods, user-generated content and live traffic. Google has driven much of this innovation, although to be fair MapQuest had aerial imagery first and A9 had a version of street view early on.

There is still a lot of work to do to improve maps:

  • College and corporate campuses. Campuses such as Google’s and Microsoft’s buildings have numbers, but these aren’t shown on the map. If you were meeting someone, they’d probably tell you to go to “Building 43″. My friend Adam at Google keeps a custom Google map to show where his building is. (Oddly, Microsoft’s Bing maps show building numbers for the Microsoft campus, but don’t let you search for them.) The same thing applies for airport terminals.
  • Controlled-access facilities. Businesses in controlled-access facilities should be hidden by default — few people are going to park and go through security to eat at an airport restaurant. On the other hand, if I’m in the airport, I want to know what businesses are in my terminal.
  • Handling nonstandard locations. Databases are organized around cities and states in the United States. This works for most places, but is problematic in areas that don’t follow the convention like Hawaii or Las Vegas. Hawaiians talks about islands, but the local databases don’t know the concept of an island. This is made worse by the fact that the same town name is used on multiple islands — there’s a Waimea on Kauai and Hawaii and a Kailua on Oahu and Hawaii. Local constructs such as “North Shore” and “South Shore” aren’t understood either. Navigating using local search on my recent trips to Hawaii was error filled.
    In Vegas, hotels are a primary navigation construct and many of those hotels have more shops and restaurants than do a lot of American towns.
    Given how popular these destinations are, I’m surprised this problem hasn’t been solved.
  • Parking availability. In a big city it’s rare that you can drive up to your destination and park right in front; finding parking can easily add 15-20 minutes to your trip. Companies like Urban Mapping are already collecting this information. I had a book called Park It Here! that showed street parking restrictions for every block in Manhattan. I’d love to see that data online.

More on: google, maps, local search

August 3, 2009

Missing out on the big stuff on Twitter and Facebook

Filed under: facebook, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:44 pm

One of my friends recently got engaged and posted that fact on Facebook. I missed it.

It’s one of the frustrations of the constantly flowing river of news in social networks — births, deaths, weddings and job changes get lost amid the links to pictures of kittens, “what state should I live in quizzes?”, stories about Internet celebrities and the other trivia of life.

There’s no way to get a summary of the important stuff. On many news sites, we have a variety of clues: the size of a headline and the relative placement of stories serve as indicators a story’s importance. We need similar clues for social media.

One place to start is the publisher: the author knows how important it is relative to other entries they write. I post content to social networks on average 5-6 times a day. About once or twice a month I post something that I’d want to call extra attention to. But short of posting it repeatedly (further polluting the stream) there’s no way to call attention to it.

Something like this wouldn’t work in an open Web environment where spammers would designate everything they create as spam; but in a social context, the network serves as a check against excessive spamming.

Another way to identify important content is to look at how many people act on it. If a lot of people like a post or comment on it, that post is likely more significant than others. This should be normalized so that someone with a lot of followers or a more active network doesn’t drown out others with smaller networks.

Identifying important content also helps when looking at a longer period of time than the last hour or last day. It would be useful to be able to look back through my Facebook or Twitter history and see what were the most important things this year.

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