Social media stress? There’s an app for that

A piece on how one marketing company is capitalizing on what it says is growing stress among social media users. 

Nestle, purveyor of the decades-old KitKat snack, has launched an app it says addresses a growing problem among young social media users – giving them a break from the stress of posting updates by doing it for them.

The software, Social Break, automatically sends random updates to users’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. It will be officially launched in Singapore later this week and is free to download from kitkat.com.sg/socialbreak.

While the application is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick, the developers behind the software, ad agency JWT, say it also highlights a serious problem among younger users, especially in Asia: growing stress about time spent maintaining a presence on social networks.

JWT surveyed 900 19-26 year olds in China, Singapore and the United States and found that more than half considered it too time-consuming to keep up with all their social media commitments and conceded that the time they spent on such sites had a negative impact on their job or studies.

More at Social media stress? There’s an app for that 

We’re Not in the Business of Understanding our User

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A few years ago I wrote about sometimes your product is useful to people in ways you didn’t know—and that you’d be smart to recognise that and capitalize on itn (What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About, 2007).

One of the examples I cited was ZoneAlarm, a very popular firewall that was bought by Check Point. The point I made with their product was how useful the Windows system tray icon was in that it doubled as a network activity monitor. The logo, in short, would switch to a twin gauge when there was traffic. Really useful: it wasn’t directly related to the actual function of the firewall, but for most people that’s academic. If the firewall’s up and running and traffic is showing through it, everything must be good.

The dual-purpose icon was a confidence-boosting measure, a symbol that the purpose of the product—to keep the network safe—was actually being fulfilled.

Not any more. A message on the ZoneAlarm User Community forum indicates that as of March this year the icon will not double as a network monitor. In response to questions from users a moderator wrote:

Its not going to be fixed in fact its going to be removed from up comming [sic] ZA version 10
So this will be a non issue going forward.
ZoneAlarm is not in the buiness [sic] of showing internet activity.
Forum Moderator

So there you have it. A spellchecker-challenged moderator tells it as it is. Zone Alarm is now just another firewall, with nothing to differentiate it and nothing to offer the user who’s not sure whether everything is good in Internet-land. Somebody who didn’t understand the product and the user saved a few bucks by cutting the one feature that made a difference to the user.

Check Point hasn’t covered itself in glory, it has to be said. I reckon one can directly connect the fall in interest in their product with the purchase by Check Point of Zone Labs in December 2003 (for $200 million). Here’s what a graph of search volume looks like for zonealarm since the time of the purchase. Impressive, eh?

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Of course, this also has something to do with the introduction of Windows’ own firewall, which came out with XP SP2 in, er, 2004. So good timing for Zone Labs but not so great for Check Point.

Which is why they should have figured out that the one thing that separated Zone Alarm from other firewalls was the dual purpose icon. So yes, you are in the business of showing Internet activity. Or were.

(PS Another gripe: I tried the Pro version on trial and found that as soon as the trial was over, the firewall closed down. It didn’t revert to the free version; it just left my computer unprotected. “Your computer is unprotected,” it said. Thanks a bunch!)

Phishy Facebook Emails

Facebook phishes are getting better. Compare this one:

facebook real

and this:

facebook scam

Notice how the key bit, supposedly defining that it’s a legit email, is successfully and convincingly faked: image

The only difference that stands out is the domain: facebookembody.com. Although Google classified it as spam they didn’t warn that it would go to a website that contains malware. So be warned. Notification emails aren’t such a good idea anymore, if they ever were.

My War On ATM Spam and Other Annoyances

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(This is a copy of my weekly syndicated column)

You really don’t need to thank me, but I think you should know that for the past 10 years I’ve been fighting a lonely battle on your behalf. I’ve been taking on mighty corporations to rid the world of spam.

Not the spam you’re familiar with. Email spam is still around, it’s just not in your inbox, for the most part. Filters do a great job of keeping it out.

I’m talking about more serious things, like eye spam, cabin spam, hand spam,  counter spam and now, my most recent campaign, ATM spam.

Now there’s a possibility you might not have heard of these terms. Mainly because I made most of them up. But you’ll surely have experienced their nefarious effects.

Eye spam is when something is put in front of your face and you can’t escape from it. Like ads for other movies on DVDs or in cinemas that you can’t skip. Cabin spam is when flight attendants wake you from your post-prandial or takeoff slumber to remind you that you’re flying their airline, they hope you have a pleasant flight and there’s lots of duty free rubbish you wouldn’t otherwise consider buying wending its way down the aisle right now.

Then there’s hand-spam: handouts on sidewalks that you have to swerve into oncoming pedestrian traffic to avoid. Counter spam is when you buy something and the assistant tries to sell you something else as well. “Would you like a limited edition pickled Easter Bunny with radioactive ears with that?”

My rearguard action against this is to say “if it’s free. If it’s not, then you have given me pause for thought. Is my purchase really necessary, if you feel it necessary to offer me more? Is it a good deal for me? No, I think I’ll cancel the whole transaction, so you and your bosses may consider the time you’re costing me by trying to offload stuff on me I didn’t expressly ask for.” And then I walk out of the shop, shoeless, shirtless, or hungry, depending on what I was trying to buy, but with that warm feeling that comes from feeling that I stuck it to the man. Or one of his minions, anyway.

And now, ATM spam. In recent months I’ve noticed my bank will fire a message at me when I’m conducting my automated cash machine business offering some sort of credit card, or car, or complex derivative, I’m not sure what. I’ve noticed that this happens after I’ve ordered my cash, but that the cash won’t start churning inside the machine until I’ve responded to this spam message.

Only when I hit the “no” button does the machine start doing its thing. This drives me nuts because once I’ve entered the details of my ATM transaction I am usually reaching for my wallet ready to catch the notes before they fly around the vestibule or that suspicious looking granny at the next machine makes a grab for them. So to look back at the machine and see this dumb spam message sitting there and no cash irks me no end.

My short-term solution to this is to look deep into the CCTV lens and utter obscenities, but I have of late realized this may not improve my creditworthiness. Neither has it stopped the spam messages.

So I took it to the next person up the chain, a bank staff member standing nearby called Keith. “Not only is this deeply irritating,” I told him, “but it’s a security risk.” He nodded sagely. I suspect my reputation may have preceded me. I won a small victory against this particular bank a few years back when I confided in them that the message that appeared on the screen after customers log out of their Internet banking service—“You’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off”, accompanied by a picture of some palm trees and an ad for some holiday service—may confuse and alarm users rather than help them. Eventually the bank agreed to pull the ad.

So I was hoping a discreet word with Keith would do the trick. Is there no way, I said, for users to opt out of these messages? And I told him about my security fears, pointing discreetly to the elderly lady who was now wielding her Zimmer frame menacingly at the door. Keith, whose title, it turns out, is First Impression Officer, said he’d look into it.

So I’m hopeful I will have won another small battle on behalf of us consumers. Yes I know I may sound somewhat eccentric, but that’s what they want us to think. My rule of thumb is this: If you want to take up my time trying to sell me something because you know I can’t escape, then you should pay for it—the product or my time, take your pick.

Now, while I’ve got your attention, can I interest you in some of those Easter bunny things? They’re actually very good.

Podcast: HP, Palm, Spam and Social Media Cold Turkey

This podcast is from my weekly slot on Radio Australia Today with Phil Kafcaloudes and Adelaine Ng, wherein we discuss HP buying Palm, students going cold turkey on social media, and China no longer being the spam capital of the world?

To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I appear on Radio Australia Today every Friday at about 9.15 am Singapore time (that’s 0.15 GMT/UTC.) There’s a live stream of the broadcast here, or find out your local frequencies here.

The Undignified Death of Social Networks

I’m intrigued, and slightly depressed, at how social networking sites deteriorate so quickly into what are little more than scams. I think it started about a year ago, when a number of sites started pulling the stops out to build up membership.

Now, it seems, it’s all about the money. Take Quechup, for example, which has never had a very good reputation, though some say it’s undeserved. I don’t think anyone would try to argue that now.

I opened an account at Quechup about a year ago, and left it, with no friends. no connections, no activity (a bit like my real life.) I didn’t get anything until last month. In the past month I’ve received more than 30 messages. All of them from people I don’t know; all of them, from the subject line, spam:

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So what’s the scam, then?

Well, if you’re fool enough to open one of these messages, that’s your limit. Suddenly your inbox looks like this:

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The message is basically that you can’t open any messages until you upgrade your membership:

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Upgrading, of course, costs. Not a lot, but if you’re curious to find out who’s been scamming you, sorry, flirting with you, you have to cough up:

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My question is this: Who is behind the spam in my inbox?

Admittedly, my profile is a bit provocative:

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Still. One can’t help feeling that either the spam is being allowed by Quechup as a money-making exercise, or, the only other explanation I can think of, it’s spamming its members with silly messages in the hope they’ll be curious enough to upgrade and read them.

Either way, it’s a social network that’s dead from the neck up.

Sad, really.

How to Rip People Off Like Disney World

If you’ve ever visited Disney World, or some other overpriced resorts (last year I visited Warwick Castle and Legoland in the UK, both appallingly people-traps) you’ll have done what I did: vow never to come back. Of course, the companies running these places both know that and don’t care — which is why they are ripping you off royally while they can.

Seethu Seetharaman, an associate professor of management at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, calls it a variety-seeking market and says it doesn’t just apply to tourist attractions:

Turns out that the resorts in Orlando are in a market where consumers want variety. Indeed, if a family is in Orlando for a week or more, there is little chance — at least if parents and children want to remain on speaking terms at vacation’s end — that they’ll do the exact same thing day after day. Instead, they’re likely to visit both Universal and Disney World and take in as many different rides and sights as possible; in other words, they’ll seek variety.

Seetharaman says that the same is true of people who are too lazy to shift brands: what he calls consumer inertia:

Using a mathematical model, Seetharaman, along with his research partner Hai Che, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California at Berkeley, was able to determine that the impact on price in both variety-seeking and inertial markets is similar. “The main point of the paper is that in markets where consumers seek variety, firms have an incentive to rip them off,” he says. “The surprise is that when markets are characterized by the opposite of inertia, the exact same incentive in terms of price competition that characterized inertial markets goes through as well.”

Basically, we’ll pay to go to Disney World whatever it costs, especially if we’ve already gone to Universal Studios or whatever else is within our daily trip radius. To that I’d add a couple more observations:

  • it pays to charge at least what rivals in the neighborhood are charging, because if a family has shelled out once, they’re likely to shell out again.
  • Secondly, customers may well equate price with the quality of experience; there’s no point in trying to undercut your rivals because that would imply the experience you’re offering is not as valuable as theirs.
  • This doesn’t seem to stop these kinds of resorts from trying to gain loyalty. There’ll always be some families who want to come back each year, so it makes sense to offer them a steep discount.
  • The only problem I see with all this is that while you want to have a boisterous, noisy crowd, if the queues are too long you may scare away some visitors from the whole concept. In that sense the companies are not rivals at all, but are partners in trying to lure more and more families into the idea of vacationing at these places. Which, as an afterthought, raises the question: should we be thinking cartels and price fixing?

Seetharaman concludes:

None of this comes as a big surprise to companies involved in a variety-seeking market. “The firms know this. They know this market is characterized by variety, so they know that they are going to eventually get their competitor’s previous customers,” says Seetharaman. “Knowing this they are actually trying to rip them off.”

Rice University | Explore Rice

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Stoop to Congoo?

Is business networking site Congoo resorting to spam to build its user base? I suspect it is.

Congoo is on one hand a good idea — a place to gather and monitor content on your industry, including content that is usually subscription only (like WSJ.com, who publish my weekly Loose Wire column.) But it’s also a networking tool — indeed, its blurb emphasizes that over the content:

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But I don’t like being spammed, and I think Congoo may be doing that. Of course, they’re not alone in being accused of spamming — the likes of Plaxo, Zorpia and other networking services make it overly easy for a new recruit to send an email blast to everyone in their address book without them realizing it. To me that’s spam. Even Facebook isn’t entirely blameless: Add any application to your profile and you’re usually within a whisker of spamming all your friends unless you’re alert and scout around for the “skip” button.

But Congoo seems to be taking a different, and in a way more openly spammy, approach. It’s emailing non-subscribers — apparently at random — inviting them to join the network — with no apparent invitation from an existing user, or even a personalized email to indicate the recipient is being chosen for a specific reason. Here’s part of what I got this morning, from someone called Rebecca Simpson, identified as “Manager Network Development”:

We would like to formally invite you to add your professional profile on Congoo. You may recognize many of the professionals already featured:  Media & Advertising  Healthcare  Internet Finance Technology  Politics  & Law

Rebecca’s Congoo profile says she has “specialized in working with press and media outlets to distribute information. I have also organized and executed guerilla marketing campaigns as well as developed proprietary systems and methods for measuring ROI on Web buzz.”

That may be so, but frankly I’m not impressed at this particular pitch. No attempt is being made to categorize me, as I’ve shown only an amateur’s interest in healthcare, and my grasp of law goes no further than thinking ‘tort’ must be in some way related to the word ‘retort’. And I’ve had no prior dealings with Congoo that I can recall aside from several pitches from their (somewhat, er, insistent) PR company, whose own contact database could do with some consolidating.

It appears I’m not alone in thinking this might be a bit too spammy to be decent business practice. The net-abuse mailing list last week collected four examples of an identical message from one Heather Faulkner, who also happens to carry the title of “Manager Network Development” (how many managers of one department are you allowed? I’m not really up to date on that kind of thing), while the spam manager at AKBK Home captured more than 50 in a few hours.

And then there’s Congoo’s own policy on spam, of which this seems itself to be a transgression:

Congoo is concerned about controlling unsolicited commercial e-mail, or “spam.” Congoo has a strict policy prohibiting the use of all Congoo mail accounts to send spam.

I’ve asked Congoo for more information on this, and on their policy about emailing people. At best, I’ve got it all wrong and it’s all a big mistake. At worst, it’s a pretty poor display of a networking site trying to build its base through tactics that make it little different to those of a Viagra salesman. Times may be tough amidst the runaway success of something like Facebook, and the critical mass of LinkedIn, but stoop low and there’s no way back to standing straight.

“How’s the Review Going?” Spam

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At a conference I have been attending I was asked to explain to PR folk there what journalists want. Apparently, by the time my session came around, the PR folk had been put off by several previous journalists who had presumably used clear language to express what they want because most didn’t turn up. Wisely, since the three who did either nodded off, feigned stomach convulsions and left the room or got overly fresh with their BlackBerry.

This didn’t stop me ranting and raving like a lunatic about how PR people don’t often understand what we want. One thing I didn’t mention is the Bane of the Follow-up Email. These are emails sent (often automatically) in the period after a journalist expresses interest in a product sufficiently to download it, or receive further details on it, or whatever. From then on the PR person will send a weekly email — exactly the same one, each time — asking for a status update. Forever, or until the PR company no longer represents the client, or the PR person dies, or the company they work for gets shut down for being a spammer.

Now, not many PR agencies do this, but those that do seem impervious to the irritation this causes folk like me. Imagine if every PR agency did this: A journalist’s inbox would be so full of these things they wouldn’t be able to do any reviewing at all. So my policy is never to reply to them for fear of encouraging the practice. But, frankly, it is no better than spam, and it leaves the journalist (well, this journalist) in a frayed and hostile mood, which can’t be good for the company or the product the PR person is being paid to promote.

So, please, no mindless follow-up emails unless it’s to offer fresh (and relevant and useful) information, and certainly no automated one that goes out every week. We’ll get to your products when it suits our schedule, not yours, and if you start to bombard us we’ll probably ditch the idea of writing about your product in a fit of petulance.

Your Phone as Stalker

Phone spam feels like it’s getting worse.

I and my wife have been receiving numerous calls from the local arm of ANZ Bank — a bank I am happy to identify by name because I’ve sought comment from them without reply for nearly a week now. Our mobile phone numbers were probably sold by another bank or possibly by the cellphone company.

Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase starts picking up SMS and phone spam on Hutch in India within a day of activating his SIM card, and finds that the company is three times as slow at removing his number from their spam lists:

Locals in the know send a text message to opt out, a process that, according to Hutch’s automated response takes at least three days to activate: “We respect your privacy. Please give us 72 hours to include your number on our Do Not Disturb list. Thank you” and an unspecified amount of time this to filter through to the companies that already have you on their disturb list.

I’m quite aggressive at fighting SMS and phone spam, but not always successful. One nightclub spammed me regularly until I got upset. Now they don’t. (Embarrassingly, it turned out to be owned by a friend of mine.) Now a lot of people here don’t answer their phone unless they recognize the number on the display.

Still, there’s nothing is quite as bad as this case of cellphone stalking in the U.S., where one family claim to feel harassed to the point of paralysis through their cellphone. A good clear-eyed view of the mess here.