Amazon’s (Somewhat) Surprising Shopping Stats

Shoppin on AmazonOver the years, Amazon has branched out greatly from its original focus on books and other media to offer all sorts of other merchandise.

In fact, these days people can buy pretty much anything on Amazon — assuming it’s legal.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised to read the tea leaves on some new findings released by Chicago-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.  This research firm surveyed ~1,100 Amazon customers, asking them about their most recent purchases on Amazon.

Categorizing the responses by type of merchandise, CIRP found that books are no longer the most popular products sold on Amazon.

Instead, pride of place now goes to top-ranked electronics products, with ~33% of the survey respondents reporting that those types of products were their most recent purchase on the site.

Books still maintain their high ranking; the category comes in second at ~20% of respondents.  (Incidentally, approximately one-third of those book purchases are e-books.)

Amazon’s Fresh service, which delivers groceries within 24 hours of ordering, has been operating in select West Coast cities for some time now — and it appears that the company has latched onto a winning formula.

In fact, the grocery category ranked third in the survey.

This surprised me:  Call me old school, but I still prefer to select my fresh meats and produce on my own, instead of relying on some anonymous “picker” to do it for me.

What were the bottom three merchandise categories found in the CIRP survey?  Sports-related purchases were low  … and music purchases were lower still (about half of them being music downloads, by the way).

Dead last is the automotive category.  No real surprise here, I don’t think.

Personally, I don’t know anyone who would feel comfortable purchasing a car online.  And since the vast majority of consumers don’t work on their cars either, it seems natural that most of them will continue to rely on their repair shops to procure the replacement parts and consumables they need for servicing their vehicles.

If you have particular merchandise you like to buy through Amazon — or if there is something really unusual that you’ve purchased from the site, please share your experiences with other readers here.

Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

Trying to tame “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”  (David Tarp, CEO, Tumblr)

Online CommentsOne of the most empowering aspects of the Internet is its ability to foster online interaction and feedback, wherein “regular people” have a megaphone in addition to journalists and writers on publisher websites.

But there’s an ugly side to the public dialogue, unfortunately: There’s an awful lot of verbal “dirty laundry” that gets put on display.

It’s sort of like taking younger children to the state fair or a sporting event — and then trying to shield them from the loud profanity (and worse) that they overhear.

The fact is, you can’t get away from the coarseness on online comment sections – particularly if the news content pertains to political or socio-cultural topics.

It’s often a “drive to the bottom” where social norms and common decency fall by the wayside in the name of airing grievances or settling scores.

It extends to less potentially inflammatary zones beyond polarizing politics, too.  Researchers have found that people who read the same news story about a new technology, but who are exposed to different sets of coments — one set fair and the other nasty — have completely different responses to the news story itself.  In the research, commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a news story without the need to back it up with facts, caused ill effects that were neither accurate or fair.

The researchers dubbed it “The Nasty Effect.”

For some time now, Internet news and information sites have tried to strike a balance between access and interactivity on the one hand … and civility and decorum on the other.

In many cases, the quest has been frustratingly difficult. Here’s what some publishers have said about the issue:

“There’s got to be a better [way] to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.”  — Craig Newman, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the worst things about writing in public is fielding random ad hominem attacks … in the space in which you’ve poured out your precious thoughts.”  — Ev Williams, Medium

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”  — Suzanne LeBarre, Popular Science

As a result, now we’re seeing more instances of publishers and bloggers killing their comment sections completely.  Consider these examples:

… As of this month, the Chicago Sun-Times has axed its comment capability for the foreseeable future.

… The much anticipated March 2014 launch of Vox (Ezra Klein’s news venture), doesn’t provide for feedback comments.

… The same goes for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s website.

Popular Science shut down its comment sections this past September.

… Atlantic Media’s Quartz business site hasn’t ever allowed comments on its site since its launch in 2012.

… And neither has Tumblr.

But it seems rather unrealistic to think that comments sections can be banned from the Internet outright. That would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Instead, a via media approach may be what the Huffington Post has done. This past December, it implemented a policy wherein commenters must use their Facebook accounts and real names in order to post a comment on Huffington Post stories.

Those who wished to continue posting comments under pseudonyms have had to “appeal” for the right to do.

The goal? To make people think twice before publishing strongly worded comments — the kind that say as much about the poster as they do about the object of their commentary.

Despite the predictable howls from some readers who feel that the right to express an opinion without fear of reprisal is a big part of the appeal of the Internet, four months later the Huffington Post sees the move in positive terms.

The publisher’s community director Tim McDonald reports that the number of “faux” accounts in its system has gone way down – and the quality of discourse is up.

With this approach, perhaps “shameless” needn’t upstage  “shame” after all — and the benefits of interactivity and debate can be preserved at the same time.

The [dis]connect between content “quality” and online advertising.

Jack Marshall
Digiday’s Jack Marshall

I really appreciate the work of Jack Marshall, a reporter at marketing e-zine Digiday, who is helping to expose and explain the “brave new world” of online display advertising and how it has evolved into something that’s rife with problems.

ad exchangesConsider a recent column of Marshall’s titled “Is this the worst site on the Internet?”

In it, he notes that for “legitimate” online publishers that rely on advertising as their revenue model, that model is becoming a more daunting proposition with each passing day.

And a big reason is the emergence of other websites that are “gaming” the online system – not to mention the ad tech middlemen that are their willing accomplices.

Essentially, what’s happening is that ad dollars are being siphoned away from websites that provide professionally produced content and are going to sites that are explicitly constructed to serve up as many ad impressions as possible.

These sites contain little or no original content.

Marshall’s “Exhibit A” is Georgia Daily News, a website which purports to cover “news, traffic, sports, politics, entertainment, gossip and local events in Atlanta.”

As Marshall contends, “What it actually features is content ‘curated’ from elsewhere on the web, and some it has simply stolen from other major news sites” such as the Daily Mail.

Sizable chunks of the website’s content have nothing to do with Atlanta.

GADailyNews home pageConsidering the type of general news site it purports to be, GADailyNews.com doesn’t attract very much traffic at all.  And why would it? — since it contains precious little information of value or interest to anyone who is actually “seeking news about Atlanta.”

But it sure does generate a lot of ad impressions.  According to Marshall, each article page on the site features seven display ad units – all of which refresh every 20 seconds or so.

In the two-minute span of time it took him to read an article about Katy Perry and John Mayer (content copied from an Australian news site), Marshall was served more than 40 ad impressions.

Marshall continues:

“One page has served me nearly 500 ads in just 20 minutes – and I couldn’t stop refreshing them even if I wanted to.”

[And these ads aren’t for B-list advertisers, either.  They’re for brands like American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Charles Schwaab and others.]

What’s happening here, of course, is that websites and ad tech middlemen have figured out that the algorithms of even the “quality” ad vendors like Google, AdRoll, and Bizo can be gamed pretty easily to serve ads on a low-quality site like Georgia Daily News, which is owned by a single-person entity called Integrated News Media Corporation.

It’s hardly the type of media vehicle that big-brand advertisers would normally wish to use for advertising.  But thanks to the vagaries and complexity of the ad exchange landscape, they are.

For every Georgia Daily News site, there are hundreds of others like it that cobble together seemingly valuable content with a passably convincing set of audience characteristics.

Put it together, and it adds up to problems on two levels.

First, advertisers are paying for impressions that are near-worthless.

Second, since there are finite ad dollars available, legitimate online publishers are losing out on those funds, which are far more important to their well-being than they are for sites that don’t engage in any true journalism at all.

As Jack Marshall concludes:

“Thanks to fraudulent traffic, dubious sites and middlemen with low quality standards, life is only getting harder for those publishers with expensive content teams to support.”

It had to happen: Google Glass begets facial recognition apps.

Google Glass wearerWell, that didn’t take long:  Now that Google Glass devices have started to be worn by more than just the first few early adopters, a new facial recognition app has promptly been developed.

It’s an app that enables users to snap a photo of someone, and then search the Internet for more information about the image – essentially, to identify the person by name.

Of course, Google has always maintained that such activities are an inappropriate use of Google Glass devices.  But that hasn’t stopped an outside app developer from doing just that.

The app is called NameTag, and it was introduced in late 2013 by a developer group known as FacialNetwork.  In December, the developer uploaded a video showing how NameTag works.  You can view it on YouTube here — and note that it’s quite controversial with more “dislikes” than “likes” from voters; how often does that happen?

Basically, the Google Glass wearer snaps a picture and the app runs the photo through a database containing ~2.5 million facial images.  If a match is found, it returns that finding along with the name and profile associated with the facial match (e.g., occupation, personal interests and relationship status).

According to the developers, NameTag can detect an image match even from behind obstructions like glasses and a hat.

What does FacialNetwork see as the benefit of its new NameTag app?  The developer touts the potential for dating and relationship-building.  On its website, the following scenario is presented:

“Jane has lots of different social media profiles and loves to meet new people.  By using NameTag, she can link all her social networks to her face and share her information, and meet new people in an instant.”

Personal privacy concernsRight. 

… And I’m sure “Jane” doesn’t worry one bit about the “creepiness” factor of someone learning her name and her personal information before she’s even aware of it …

As if pre-anticipating all of the hackles, NameTag quickly goes on to explain that people can choose whether to have their name and profile information displayed to others.

As entrepreneur and NameTag’s co-creator Kevin Tussy notes, “It’s not about invading anyone’s privacy; it’s about connecting people that [sic] want to be connected … We will even allow users to have one profile that is seen during business hours, and another that is only seen in social situations.”

If all of this sounds like it’ll be a tad more difficult to carry out in real life than it sounds like in theory – that you’re not fully comfortable “assuming” an app like this will actually offer the proper degree of safeguarding – I’m sure you’re not alone in your concerns.

In fact, some people aren’t waiting around to see what “might” happen, but are moving now to take preemptive action.  Certain congresspeople are in on the action.  And consumer advocacy group Public Citizen notes that Google Glass users in certain states could potentially face criminal prosecution in addition to civil penalties for recording people without their knowledge or consent.

Up to now, no one has faced such legal action – but that could be because the technology remains so new that few people are actually using Google Glass devices at this point.

The question is this:  Are people giving their “implicit consent” to be recorded just by talking with someone who’s wearing the device?  (The devices are fairly distinctive looking, after all.)

The answer may lie in whether the person even knows what Google Glass devices are.  One person speaking to another automatically means they know they’re being recorded seems to assume too much – at least at this relatively early stage in the product adoption cycle.

Things remain murky at this point because we’re still in an emerging phase in the application of the technology.  But one thing that seems clear is that we haven’t yet seen the beginning of what promises to be an airing of “dueling rights” in this area of the law.

For those who may already be using Google Glass (I’m not one, by the way), here’s your chance to share your perspectives with other readers here.

Mobile advertising doesn’t work so well … but why?

Lack of advertising engagementOne of the complaints marketers have had about mobile advertising is that the engagement levels are so pitifully low.

But is this really so surprising? … seeing as how clickthrough rates on online banner ads have been in the dumper for years now – well before the explosion of tablet and smartphone usage.

Helpfully, a research study conducted by Praveen Kopalle, a Dartmouth marketing professor, gives us insights as to why mobile ad engagement is so low.  Here are the reasons cited most often in that survey:

  • Mobile screens are too small – 72% of respondents cited this as a reason why they steer clear of mobile ads.
  • Too busy for ads – 70% claimed they don’t have time for ads when they’re on-the-go.
  • Can’t return easily to the content originally being viewed – 69% found this aspect irritating enough to avoid taking action on an ad.
  • Ads take too long to load – 53% cited this factor, which is clearly dependent on the type of mobile device or service available.
  • Not in the mood for ads – 42% identified this as a factor (some things never change).

Other findings in Dr. Kopalle’s survey underscore the fact that mobile advertising needs cut to the chase, because mobile device owners are generally not in “browse” mode while using them.  Consider these contrasting findings between mobile device users and people using desktop or laptop computers:

  • The typical mobile consumer is on his or her smartphone or tablet eight times a day for approximately 15 minutes per session.
  • Desktop and laptops users are more likely to be engaged only once or twice per day – but spend around two hours per session.

Moreover, when mobile devices users are performing information-seeking tasks, nearly half of them reported that ads “do not register” with them. 

The takeaway message for marketers:  In addition to targeting ads to the right audiences, the advertising messages themselves better be super-compelling, because mobile users won’t be paying attention for very long – if at all.

Is AdTrap the answer to our prayers when it comes to blocking online advertising?

ad blocking deviceYou may have heard of AdTrap … or maybe you haven’t.

AdTrap is a newly developed device that intercepts online ads before they reach any devices that access a person’s Internet connection.

That basic action means that people are able to surf the web – including viewing videos – without the onslaught of online advertisements that seem to become more and more pervasive with every passing month.

The fundamental promise that the developers of AdTrap are making is a return to the “good ol’ days” of web surfing.

You know, back when most web pages you downloaded contained text and pictures – and virtually no advertising.

AdTrap’s motto is a simple and powerful one:  The Internet is yours again.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal of excitement surrounding this new product.  In fact, interest has been so great that the invention attracted more than $200,000 in funding — raised in a 30-day Kickstarter campaign in early 2013.

Those funds are now being used to manufacture the first AdTrap units for shipment to “early adopter” consumers across the country.

How New an Idea Is This?

advertisingIn actuality, there have been a plethora of (often-free) software and browser plug-ins offered to consumers that can block online advertisements. 

But most of them have significant limitations because they’ve been designed to work only with specific browsers or on specific devices.

Free is good, of course.  But the developers of AdTrap are banking on the willingness of consumers to shell out $139 for their product – a rectangular box that looks a lot like a wireless router and that intercepts advertisements before they reach a laptop, tablet or mobile device.

The beauty of AdTrap is that it will work on every device connected to a person’s network.  Situated between the modem and router, it takes just a few minutes to set up.  

CNN technology correspondent Dan Simon reports that AdTrap does an effective job blocking advertising content.  But not perfectly; ads still appear on Hulu content, for example. 

But the developers of AdTrap report that they’re working on ways to block even more content going forward, including ads on Hulu.

Is this Bigger than Merely Blocking Ads?

Beyond the collective sigh of relief you’re likely hearing from those reading this blog post … what are the larger implications if AdTrap and similar devices are adopted by consumers on a large scale?

One not-so-positive implication may be that websites will no longer offer be able to offer content without charge, since so many publishers’ business models rely on advertising content to help pay most of the bills.

If advertising isn’t appearing thanks to AdTrap, people aren’t getting paid.

So let’s think about this for a minute:  It’s true that the Internet was blissfully free of wall-to-wall advertising 15 years ago compared to today. 

But cyberspace was also far less robust in terms of the quantity and quality of the informational and entertainment content available to us.

So yes … having a device to block 80% or more of the ads served to us is a very attractive proposition.  But if it means that some of our favorite sites move to pay-walls as a result, it might be that making a $139 investment in an AdTrap device isn’t such a “no-brainer” choice in the final analysis.

What do you think of this development — pro or con?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Are small businesses under increasing risk of cyber-attacks?

cyberWhen it comes to cyber-security, high-visibility data breaches get all the press, which is understandable.

But small businesses are also victims of cyber-attacks.  And sometimes those events can be financially devastating.

Now a newly published survey quantifies the extent to which small businesses are at risk.  The National Small Business Association polled nearly 850 U.S. small business owners (most with annual revenues between $500,000 and $25 million) in August 2013).  The NSBA survey found that nearly 45% of the respondents’ businesses had been the victim of cyber attacks such as malware, spyware or banking Trojans.

The average cost of these cyber attacks was reportedly nearly $9,000 – with some dollar amounts going much higher.

Separately, another study shows that a record number of cyber attacks targeted small businesses in 2012.  Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report examined 855 data breaches and found that over 70% of them involved victim companies with fewer than 100 employees.

Verizon’s 2013 report is showing a continuing increase in cyber attacks on small business, meaning that 2012 was no fluke.

What’s going on here?

According to the Verizon study’s conclusions as well as comments from security experts like Vikas Bhatia, small and medium-sized businesses could be doing a better job of “offensive defense.”

Among the mistakes commonly observed in small businesses are these:

  • Lack of conducting regular backups of business data
  • Neglecting to store backed up data offsite
  • Failing to test data restore functions on a periodic basis
  • Neglecting to keep antivirus software up to date, including software patches and updates
  • Practicing sloppy password protection behaviors (using plain-language passwords … using identical passwords across multiple accounts, etc.)
  • Not understanding cloud-based data storage and what outsourced providers’ liabilities are (and are not) for protecting data

There’s no question that cyber-security continues to be a big challenge – and probably a growing one – for many companies.

But it’s also pretty evident that many businesses could be doing more to protect themselves from the heartburn (and financial fallout) along the way.