Friday, November 26, 2010

Facebook eMail: Evolution or Revolution

It was in 1998 during my post-graduation that I opened my first email account with That was also the first time I had ever experienced Internet. My excitement soon turned into great depression.What was the point in having an email id when I didn't have anyone to mail to!

People who had an email id were all my classmates whom I met everyday. I was communicating with them daily. Even if I wanted to write an email what would I write?

Slowly, things changed. I found people whom I could mail. But the real use of email started only when I got into a job. Then, I opened a new account. Again it was a Hotmail id. Little later, I moved to Yahoo! Now, those days Yahoo! was very popular because one could also chat. Yahoo! Chat Room was a great place if you wanted to find a date. I tell you, they were a craze! 

Interestingly, now I had two ids each with Hotmail and Yahoo!.

See how beautifully the economic principles work. During the early 2000, there were far too many email service providers. And when there is too much of supply, the customer always has an advantage. There was this benevolent email service provider called - chequemail. No not check-mail, it's cheque-mail. Now, this service provider wanted to share the money made in advertising with its subscriber base. Wow! Yes, I did jump. Voila, I did receive a cheque for Rs. 50, once. Then? Then the service provider closed down, much to my disappointment. Good things don't last too long, pretty much like the romance in marriage!

Then, I changed to USA.Net. I liked it. But as luck would have it, that too closed. Actually, the free service closed. That was the indication of the dot com burst, maybe. Reluctantly, I reverted to Hotmail and Yahoo! Of course, I should mention that intermittently I also tried various other service providers, too. I can't figure out the rational but that's what it was. 

And then Gmail happened. Google as a brand had become very desirable. With a tactic of invite-only launch, Google further heightened the desire value. I remember begging for an invite from couple of gatekeepers. Actually, Gmail from usage and aesthetics perspective is nowhere close to the others. But then the charm and desire was high. In fact, Gmail didn't even have a chat software at the time of launch. Now, that is the brand pull.

Today, an email id is not only your key to mails and chat, it also gives you access to other services that service provider may have. One id with Google is good for you to access Blog, Orkut, Calendar, Reader, Finance...

Now, here comes Facebook with email service. Except for the fact that it talks of a concept of getting all communication that we do confluence at one point, I didn't understand much. It is proclaimed that it would change the way we communicate. I guess usage may change my opinion, but for now it looks hazy. But then when I was reading about Facebook's move, I somehow was reminded about Google Wave! Not sure why, but that is how it felt. While Wave itself failed, I do think if marketed and packaged well, Wave could be the next Official Communication tool. In fact, it could be the future of Social Networks!

One of the reasons why Wave probably failed was because it was duplicating what Gmail was already offering. Wave was chat and email mixed at the very core. It, in fact, could have been the true Gmail-killer. But then it was a separate offering requiring a separate id and log-in. It certainly was a pain using it. But can you imagine if your current Gmail behaved like Wave! I certainly would have loved it.

That leads me to important email behavior. We have and probably will continue to have two sets of email communications - personal and professional. I am already panicking. Most offices block Facebook, in which case I may find it more difficult to access personal mails. But that leads me to wonder whether convergence of email with social network is necessary? Conceptually, it feels as if it would make life easy. No need to log in into more than one window. But then, in the technology world there are two distinct factors to be considered:
  1. Technologies that enable change
  2. Consumers move or remain inert (Wave being a classic example of consumer inertia) 
Going by my own behavior, while I do use the messaging tool in Facebook, it is not my primary or for that matter preferred email service. But as Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda says future is a mystery. Honestly, I don't think Ray Tomlinson would not have fathomed how email would grow and become an integral part of our lives. Then, who am I to risk a guess? But I do think Google had or still has a chance to revolutionize email while Facebook is evolutionizing Social Networks.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Money Marketing, From the Horse's Mouth

I have been always been in awe of Nikhila Kesavan. In addition to being one of the most talented theater personalities in Chennai and probably in India, she is also a successful PR professional and an ex-colleague. Nikhila is a perfectionist. Despite the fact that she was my junior, I would get jitters every time she reviewed a document that I created. She would rip it apart, highlight how pathetic my grammar was and how poor my sentence formations were. The other person who scares me equally is my wife. I am beginning to firmly believe that grammar is a girl-thing!

Back then, Nikhila and I were servicing Lason India, a leading BPO player in Chennai/India. They had a network of business associates, an innovative operations model. We were briefed that the business associate model had been taken to the next level and that Lason had set up what was probably the first BPO center in a village! Rural BPO! Though I initially suggested that we do a small press brief in Chennai, I changed it to a press junket to the obscure village in Thiruvallur District, at the last minute.

Being the person she was, Nikhila swelled with anger. She had already started working on the press meet in Chennai and now she had to start from scratch to organize the logistics for a larger event. But more importantly she was upset that we were not sticking to the initial plan. She demanded to know why the plan was being changed. And I didn't have an answer. It was a gut feel.

Thankfully, the event was a big success.

I couldn't articulate why I changed the plan. It was certainly based on the experience and understanding of what would or wouldn't work. 

Now that leads us to No Money Marketing by Jessie Paul. A veteran marketing professional who has worked with the leading software services companies in India (Infosys and Wipro) and played an important role in building the brand that they are today, she has no such articulation issues.

Also, I realize that there are two kinds of writers/authors. One who are academicians who research and look at the big picture. They give guidance with their theories and support it with observations. And then, there are those like Jessie who are doer-authors. No Money Marketing is like a ready reckoner. Read it, roll up your sleeves and get to work. The book is unpretentious and doesn't test your patience by giving models that are great to read but difficult to utilize. But it does have models that can be easily digested and provides a great framework to develop marketing campaigns. There are nuggets of wisdom which provide excellent cue to marketers who always work on a diet-budget.

This book is a must read for marketing professionals in the technology industry, especially those in the software services space. The challenge for players in this space is that most of them are Me-Too. Last time I checked the Nasscom member's list in 2007, there were more than 1000 software services company. The glory story is limited to the top 50 or 100. For the rest in that list, it is a tall order.

I liked two lessons, in particular:

  1. As I said, Jessie is a doer-author. This book is full of practical inputs for a marketer who wants quick solutions. But what is more important is that before she presents the ideas, she sets the context. First few chapters are dedicated completely for self assessment. While the tools and ideas are common, Jessie urges every company to self introspect and develop a strong unique story. She in fact provides many examples and thoughts on how it could be done.  
  2. The avenues for brand building. The chapter on Core Branding versus Surround Branding is very important. For many software services company India is not a market but they certainly do lot of brand building activities, here. While it may not directly bring in business but it does help in recruiting and retaining the talent. And of course, in a flat world, a term you will find Jessie has used just too often in the book, there is always a spillover.
As a professional who has practiced a few of the ideas and other times observed being practiced, I think this book is the ultimate guide for marketers in software services industry. A book that CEO of every software services company, especially the small and medium sized who do not have a differentiated offering and work on frugal budgets, must read. And if you need more help, there is always Paul Writer.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

eCommerce: The Buying Online Story

Arun Kumar Dhadwal was a sort of role model. I was in the 1994-97 batch at IHM, Chennai. And he taught us French and Food & Beverage Service.

Thin-framed man, he himself passed out of the alma matter just a couple of years back. Passionate about French, he also pursued course in Alliance Francaise de Madras and became proficient in the language. After completion of the Diploma in Hotel Management, he decided to pursue lecturing rather than get into the industry. He was very good, I loved the man's style, his demeanor and the way he taught us. He was refreshing in that old Government-run institution.

It was a period when Computers were quite rapidly penetrating.

On one of those lazy afternoons after our free lunch at the QTK, sorry the Quantity Training Kitchen, I settled for Arun's class. And he said something which excited and left me confused. Blame it on the lunch that caused the blood from brains to flow into the primary digestion chamber, maybe. Arun said that internet was becoming popular the world over and that it was changing the way people shopped. He said it removed any barriers in geography. As I said, he also taught us F&B service. And since wines and spirits were in the second year subject, he took the example of how one could order a bottle of wine from a different country through internet sitting inside the confines of his house.


Ok, I knew what computers were and how they looked. But I couldn't imagine how a bottle of wine would drop out of those white boxes!

If you are laughing at my naivety, please consider that even today the vast majority of Indians are still not blessed. Internet has touched only about 70 million Indians. And 1995 was another period. I got my first email id only in 2000 and no one to email to!

Things have changed and I have become more aware. Most importantly, e-commerce is a reality and is happening.

2000 and for the next few years was what everyone remembers as the period of dotcom bubble and burst. Honestly, I think there were great ideas, but came quite early.

I can't remember when I first shopped online but the most vivid memory was ordering monthly groceries at Fabmall (now, India Plaza). I was super thrilled about buying online. I didn't possess a credit card but then Fabmall offered payment on delivery, so it enabled me to do the transaction. Incidentally, I was never able to complete my ordering and the page became invalid! And for a moment, I thought this transaction was not going to happen when I got a call from Fabmall and they took the order on phone. So, we probably cannot strictly say it was online shopping. It was almost-online shopping.

And when things changed, they changed quite drastically and I have used Internet quite heavily. Whether it is netbanking or shopping, I have bought a wide variety of products and services over the Internet. And I am not alone. Some reports suggest that in 2009 the e-commerce market was about INR 9000 Cr!

I did start as a skeptic despite having enthusiasm. Am sure many would think why should they shop online? There are many reports on net being an unsafe place. Is there a recourse if the product is defective? Net is only good for buying only some goods...

When I look back and think I seem to have shopped a wide variety of things in the last 10 years. And here are some reasons why I like online shopping:

  1. Romance in the delivery: Call me an technology enthusiast or visionary (terms from Crossing the Chasm), I have always been kicked about buying online. Though I couldn't muster courage in initial days, it was just matter of time before I picked it up. My initial shopping for groceries on net was to showcase to my folks that I was a responsible son, which I realize they would never acknowledge! I believe that I am a networking person. More so, if it's to connect to the fairer sex. And one thing that women loved was flowers, I had learnt. Ordering flowers for my interests across the country was enabled by the online sites. There is also certain amount of charm in the process. And I think the impression made is far more impactful.
  2. Almost everything under the Sun: Books and tickets (cinema, train and flight, in that order) has probably been the commodities that I have bought most online. Though, I have also bought jewelery, gift items, apparel, mobile phone and tennis racquet!
  3. It so bloody convenient: I was notorious for forgetting paying utility bills. Ah, and at one point of time, I had four credit cards and trust me finding the branch or ATM to drop the cheques was a pain. Skypak was an option but it had its own issues. Thankfully, net banking allowed me to pay these bills with a click. But more than paying through netbanking, it is the gateways that provide greater flexibility. 
  4. Research, compare: About two months back, I was seriously considering purchasing a sedan. In the first two car purchases, I never bothered to check for options or do research or performances. Alto and Swift were obvious choices. But now, surprisingly, in addition to test drives and speaking to lots of friends and acquaintances, I did so much of research, I can't believe it myself. A visit to Carwale and TeamBHP sites became an integral part of daily life. But I am not sure if I will order a car of the net? Will you? But you never know, if there is a strong motivator, I might. Why not? There was a time buying books meant going to Landmark. Today, I do a camparison between Flipkart, Indiaplaza and Rediff before ordering a book. You would be surprised the variety of prices the same book is offered for. And tennis racquet! Aren't we supposed to hold and feel before we purchase such goods!
  5. Recourse, of course: In the initial days, I bought an unbranded walkman (the small cassette player that Sony created) from Rediff. And as my luck would have it, it failed to play. I mailed Rediff and they gave refunded the money. I didn't have any issues. Even if there were, they were solved quickly. Refunds, apologies and a free gift vouchers took care of any bad experience. But yes, online shopping isn't all rosy. Recently, I ordered flowers and gift on Ferns & Petals and they terribly messed it up. You have to remember that when you buy from one of these online portals, you are buying it from some unknown vendor, unless it's a branded product. While I have had good experiences with both Rediff and Indiaplaza, there have been disappointments, too. But there is recourse if you are shopping with an established portal.
In this context the eBay's ad on the eve of Diwali is quite relevant. I am beginning to get excited to think of the future of eCommerce.

And of course, it would be interesting to see what is in store for the physical stores. Long ago during the dotcom bubble, I used to handle PR for Mr. Agarwal who founded the company during a seminar said that click-and-mortar has to work with brick-and-mortar. Have you seen Bharatmatrimony and Shaadi's marriage centers?