Changes in TV viewing habits

The BBC reported recently on how TV viewing is becoming a more social experience. When I read through that article, I said, hang on a minute, I had an idea back in October of 2005 along the same lines… I called it audience-inclusive advertising, but the thoughts I wrote in there can be applied to other content on TV, like shows, which is what’s currently happening.

It’s fun to read through my original article and see how much of the stuff has already come to fruition. Here’s one:

A site can be set up and maintained by a consortium of advertising agencies and brand owners or a neutral body, that would either track viewer product preferences through data mining and random surveys, or would actively encourage users to register and provide product preferences. Alternately, existing user data could be compiled from various databases.

Now we have Facebook and Twitter, and advertisers love to mine their data sets for user product preferences, to give them surveys (think of all the annoying quizzes on Facebook), and collect data on them every time an app is authorized. So this has already happened.

Through the medium of the website, brand owners can also take a cue from the users about the kind of products they need to advertise, this time in a more direct way, through hard data. Even more, they can more easily survey the users about the kind of new products they want to see.

Think of all the fan pages set up on Facebook by companies and brands. You can become a fan, learn more about the company, and be surveyed, live, about your preferences. Beautiful.

Another way to keep the audience is to offer prizes for watching the ads and picking through clues that are weaved through both the ads and the shows. Entries can then be registered on the show’s site or at this main site for a chance to win something, perhaps even products featured on the show, or something as banal as an actor’s coat, or the actual bottle of perfume used by an actress on the show. These aren’t things that cost much but mean a lot to the audience.

Do you notice how many product giveaways there are on Facebook and Twitter? Companies are giving away not just stuff that doesn’t cost a lot, like an actor’s wardrobe, but they’re giving fans cars, computers, cameras, TVs and other things that cost a fair bit of money. And it’s all done for the purpose of keeping users (fans, if you will) tuned into the company’s platform and brand.

It’s also fun to see what stuff didn’t get implemented (yet?), but I’ll let you do that by reading through my original article.


A clever bit of marketing

I was driving to work a couple of days ago, and as a MINI passed me from the opposite direction, the owner stuck his hand out the window, making the victory sign at me. I smiled, and responded by raising my hand. This sort of thing has happened countless times since I bought my MINI.

Why do MINI owners do this? Because it’s in the MINI literature. The pamphlets that come with our cars will tell you just how to salute other MINI owners. The victory sign was one of the recommended gestures.

MINI’s marketing stood out from the start. It was different, it was likable, and it was fun. The salutes were one of the things that really stood out. After all, saluting other MINI owners is a nice and friendly thing to do, and on some level, it makes one feel like they’re part of a club that’s not open to everyone — which, incidentally, is another notion taught in the MINI literature and reinforced on the MINI website, where the owner section is called the Owner Lounge.

Let’s face it though, the club isn’t that exclusive. You can get in if you have the money to buy a MINI. And this club’s membership is growing. In 2003, when I bought my MINI, there weren’t that many on the roads. Now, five years later, I see a lot more, particularly in the DC area, where I currently live. If you want to talk about an exclusive car club, take the classic MINI owners. You can’t make those cars any more, and there are very few of them here in the States.

Since there are only going to be more MINI cars on the roads, it begs the question: at what point do you stop waving at other MINI owners? I’m not asking this because it bothers me to wave back, or even to start a salute; I enjoy doing it. It’s the nice and sociable thing to do. It puts a smile on my face, and that’s always a good thing.

But I see plenty of other MINI owners that aren’t interested in it. I look at them as I pass by, hoping for some sort of little wave (after all, I’ve gotten used to this clever bit of marketing), and I see nothing. Then I wonder, did they read the pamphlets? Don’t they agree with the marketing? What could make them so uninterested in being nice to other people? How could they be glum while they’re driving a MINI?

Then I catch myself, and I chuckle. Because let’s face it, it’s the marketing that makes me think and do those things. It’s powerful stuff, because it appeals to the basic human need for company, for social interaction. It’s good stuff.

How To

Block anonymous calls with SkypeIn

You may or may not know that Skype offers a service called SkypeIn, which lets you get a local number that people can call to reach you anywhere in the world, provided you’re logged into Skype. I’ve had a SkypeIn number for the past couple of years, and I love it. Want the number? It’s +1 (301) 637-6885.

Do you know why I can give it out so freely? First, because all my calls go right to voicemail. I get that bundled with SkypeIn. I screen all my calls that way and delete all of the annoying telemarketing calls. Second, because of a great feature that I’ve discovered yesterday. It’s hidden away in the Advanced settings for Calls, and it blocks most telemarketing calls automatically.

Here’s how it works. Open Skype and go to Tools >> Options. Then click on the Calls icon, located in the sidebar of the Options dialog box. You’ll get the following screen:

Basic call settings in Skype

Now click on the “Show Advanced Options” button. You’ll get this screen:

Advanced call settings in Skype

Now look for the option that says “Allow SkypeIn calls from…” and select “anyone”, then make sure to check the option called “Block calls when number is hidden”.

Doing this will block most telemarketing calls, since they usually hide their numbers. Isn’t that beautiful?

If you want to make sure none of them get through to you, just go to the Voicemail section and look for the “Send calls to voicemail if…” option, then change the number of seconds to 1 or something really small. That way everything that makes it past the initial call filter goes right to voicemail. This allows you to listen to the messages later and hit delete without wasting your time. I have my threshold set to 10 seconds. If I’m logged into Skype, that usually gives me enough time to see who’s calling and decide if I want to take the call or not. If I’m not logged in, then all the calls go directly to voicemail anyway.

Voicemail settings in Skype

Hope this helps!


There's hope after all for independent web developers

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post describing my thoughts on the web development industry, and things looked pretty bleak. I did promise a brighter outlook in a short while, and this post is the fulfillment of that promise.

So, what can we do to ensure that we’ll continue to have jobs? Well, we can do any of the following, and these are loose thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Develop our skills even further, and become more specialized in the new and cutting edge technologies, that aren’t yet offered by the “masses”. Make a living from that, although we’ll live in constant stress, always re-learning, always jumping on the next “hot” technology.
  • Form networks of peers, and work together on projects while maintaining our cherished independence. I’m not talking about cheesy networking, I’m talking about finding people who are really good at doing certain separate things, and sticking together in teams, then bidding for projects and sharing the revenues.
  • Who says we can’t lead? We can form our own companies, and hire specialized developers for the projects we have contracts to do. But that would mean we wouldn’t be by ourselves anymore, and I for one like being by myself.
  • If you can’t beat them, join them. We can seek employment with the larger companies that will gobble up the market, or are already doing so. Or, we can seek employment with already established brick and mortar companies that need web developers as they realize more and more of their technologies will need to move from the desktop to the web.
  • Develop free or low cost turn-key solutions, and hope we make enough money from donations or from the sales volume to sustain our efforts and allow us to make a living.
  • Develop systems that fill specific needs, and support those systems. Sell them to niche industries. Question is, how do you gain credibility as a one-man team when companies are looking for long-term solutions where support can be provided indefinitely? If you’re gone, what happens to the system? Those are real questions that demand good answers.
  • Move offshore and do our work from there. I would imagine there’s an offshore market for Americans who understand American business and the Americans as a people.

Furthermore, we can differentiate ourselves on service, on approachability, on geographical closeness, on people-to-people relationships, through networks, because of no language barriers, through innovation, truthfulness, and trustworthiness. Those are all very, very real and tangible assets that we can develop and possess, to our most definite advantage.

I think nowadays, by far the biggest differentiator is innovation. Just look at the slew of Web 2.0 companies that have sprung up, and they’re all getting funding! It’s shocking, even to me. But while innovation opens doors, good work, reliability and good customer service keep people coming through those doors. And the great thing is that while not all web developers are innovators, all web developers can and should strive to do good work, create reliable products, and provide good customer service.

You may think I’m being dismissive, but it’s true, and I speak from personal experience when I say this. Treat your clients well, make good products, and they’ll keep coming back. Not only that, but they’ll recommend you to others. You want to know something? I have never gotten a client solely through my website. It’s shocking to say that about a web development business, but it’s true. My clients may have used my site to research me and to read more about my services, but I get clients after personal meetings with them. And they usually find out about me not from my website, but from my previous or existing clients. Or, they’ll have interacted with me in a completely different setting, like my community or my church, where my occupation didn’t matter that much, they liked what they saw in me, then contacted me for work-related purposes. That’s important to remember!

Another important aspect is trustworthiness, and I can’t emphasize this enough. You’ve got to be credible. Your clients need to be able to trust you. My clients trust me with their SSNs and credit card numbers and passwords to various accounts. I don’t ask them for that information, they give it to me and ask me to help them conduct transactions related to the projects we’re working on. It goes without saying that I do my best to delete that information from my mind and computer, because I don’t need to know it beyond the project itself, but if that’s not trust, I don’t know what is. And that’s the sort of relationship you need to establish with your client. When they trust you like that, you know they’re going to stick with you. And if you continue to be honest and hold to your promises, that relationship will only strengthen.

So it turns out that the secret to a good career as a web developer is no secret at all. It’s simply good business, and that’s a relief! Here’s to our collective entrepreneurial success!


Consolidation lurks in the wings for web development industry

I’m struck by the amount of consolidation that’s taking place these days. Companies are gobbling up other companies in order to scale up, expand horizontally or simply eliminate competition. We in the web development industry have so far been spared this fate, simply because of the amount of incredible innovation and changes that always take place in what we do. Let’s face it, a company needs a solid product that can be sold, and so far, it’s really hard to pin down “products” in web development. Plus, the very nature of our work, which can be done anytime, anywhere, rewards individuals, especially those willing to stretch the boundaries of what’s thought possible and come out with something cleaner, something nicer, something slicker, something cooler.

But, even with all of these road bumps in the way of web development consolidation, it’ll still happen. Don’t think I’m enjoying myself as I write this. I don’t want it to happen! You know what’s going to act as the catalyst? The same thing that’s driven manufacturing companies out of the States: price. Look at some of the free products that are out there, that let you create websites with no cost at all: Google Pages, MSN Spaces, Yahoo (whatever it’s called), etc. They’re not full-featured, but they work to get people started. And they’re really easy to use, to the extent that even a “moron in a hurry” (aka the Apple courtroom test) would know how to use them. I’m not implying that most people are morons, but most people don’t need fancy sites that do lots of cool things and manipulate databases, etc.

If you don’t believe me, look at MySpace. It’s there that you’ll see the tastes of most people: that site is full of tasteless decoration, crowded, nasty-looking things that can’t even be called web pages. And that’s only the content. I’m not even talking about the MySpace-imposed page layout and horribly big, screaming ads. The whole site is gross. But, that’s the idea of a “nice” web page to most people. They don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to web development. They don’t understand how to design a site. They have no idea about the stress and hard work that goes on when coding/designing a real site. And they shouldn’t be expected to know this. After all, that’s what web designers and developers are paid to do. But the point is, the masses don’t crave and don’t care about good design, they want the free stuff, and most don’t care if that free stuff is ugly.

As free products like the ones I mentioned get more full-featured, and more complicated systems like WordPress or Drupal get even easier to use and customize (not that WordPress isn’t easy to install and use, it is, but you still need to know how to code and design when customizing it) the needs of more and more people will be met. And as that happens, the market for web developers shrinks more and more. And here we get back to my opening comments: solidification of product offerings leads to consolidation. Once a market develops for a clear-cut product, competition will increase, the main differentiating factor will become the price, and the biggest company will be able to offer the lowest price — hence the catalyst for consolidation. Besides, who can beat FREE stuff? How do you beat that? Who can beat offshore web development, where people can live on dollars a day and can afford to develop a complicated site for a few hundred dollars? It’s really, really sad to see web designers and web developers who aren’t able to make a living in the States anymore. I can understand why it happens, but it’s still very troublesome.

What recourse is left to us, as web developers? I would hope we can find some solution that would allow us to keep our independence while also allowing us to make a living without competing purely on price with Ivan in Russia or Mihai in Romania or Jose in Argentina, because living in the States, we’d lose the price battle very quickly.

I realize the outlook as portrayed in this post is a bit depressing, but I plan to write a counter-post to this in the next few days. I do think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s hope for those of us willing and able to seize certain opportunities.