Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hulu Plus

We recently got a free trial of Hulu Plus. We love Netflix, and don't have regular TV, so we thought we'd give it a go.

The short version: it's got a long, long way to go before it's worth the money.

The long version: the selection of content is pretty lousy. They have a total of 543 movies. That's about 10% of the DVD collection I left behind me, and about half of what Netflix have in just their foreign romantic comedies section. Of those 543 movies, you get a small selection of uninspiring documentaries, a pile of crappy sci-fi B-Movies from the 1950s (Atom Age Vampires, for example), a load of early John Wayne movies, a bunch of straight to video kung fu flicks, and not much more. Out of 543 movies, I found maybe five I wanted to watch, and even those were in the "if there's nothing better to do" category. But guess what, there's something better to do.

The TV selection isn't any more interesting. I'm watching Jack of All Trades, which is fun and which I haven't seen anywhere else. Spartacus: The Motion Comic looks like it'll be worth an hour of my time. And, errr, that's it.

The PS3 user interface is dreadful. They don't, for example, tell you who's in a movie, or who directed it, or when it was made, or give you a rating. They do, however, give you screen space to tell you what network it was provided by. They also give you the ability to sort your movies by network. Guess what, I don't give a damn about the network, I want to know about the actual movies! Navigating around is weird: you can't just click on a movie to find out about it. If you click, you play the movie: instead, you have to press DOWN to access the movie info screen, then click again to see the actual details, then back and click something else to put it in your queue. Even starting and stopping movies is a pain.

I reckon it'll be worth taking another look at Hulu Plus in six months to see if they've improved their user interface and got anything actually worth watching. Until then, we'll stick with Netflix. We've already paid for the first month (we thought it was a month's free trial, but it was actually only a week), which gives me time to finish Jack, but otherwise, we're done with Hulu Plus now. A huge, huge disappointment.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dear America, thanks for everything

Dear America,

Thanks for having me. I'm having a great time, and your hospitality is sincerely appreciated.

Thanks for all the cheeseburgers. No, I really mean that, and not in a lame-ass LOLcat way. Your cheeseburgers really are the best, especially the ones at Margaritaville. And for the pho, the pulled pork, the cuban sandwiches, the awesome breakfasts that would feed ten people, the pies, the tapas bars, the beer (yes, the beer!), the gumbo, the chili, the gator, the burritos... you get the idea. OK, you still have a lot to learn about cheese. And please, stop trying to do fish and chips. But otherwise, you lay on a darn good spread.

Thanks for the sunshine too. You have no idea how happy that makes me. And the palm trees, the dragonflies, the lakes, the wide open spaces, the beaches, the eagles, and the cranes. Frankly, I'd prefer it if you toned down the poisonous spiders and the roaches, but hey, I can live with that. The sunshine makes it all worthwhile.

Oh, and thanks for letting me wear loud Hawaiian shirts without feeling out of place. It may not mean much to you, but it makes me smile.

Thanks for the opportunities you've thrown my way. 2009 was a year of change. 2010 has been all about settling in and working out where to go. 2011 promises to bring all sorts of new things. I finally feel like I've got the chance to really stretch myself and do some of the things I really want to do.

Thanks for all the incredible people. In forty-four years in England, I made maybe six really good friends. I've done the same thing in about one year over here. Not only that, but I seem to have accumulated a huge tribe of talented, creative, supportive, caring people. I am constantly amazed by their generosity, their warm-heartedness, and their openness. The Jungle House is more than just a place. It's a family, and it's a state of mind.

And looking further afield, there are all the people I bump into on a daily basis who are kind, friendly, helpful, and, well, the way people ought to be. People in shops and restaurants, the casual acquaintances I see at art shows, the passers-by in parks, the neighbours who are always ready to help out, and so on. I don't know them, but it's good to be surrounded by them.

And thanks, most of all, for my beautiful Anna. Since finding her, I've been happier than I could ever have imagined. I know it's a cliche, but she makes every day precious, and she makes me feel like I'm finally in the right place. I'm not sure I have the words for this, so let's just settle for one of those man-to-man deep nods, a firm handshake, and one of those silent looks that acknowledges I owe you big time.

So, yeah, thanks for everything, America. You've been more good to me than I could ever have imagined.


Monday, November 22, 2010


As you probably know, I'm a bit of a book lover. I've had a book in my hand since I was two years old, and can't imagine life without reading. Last month, however, I finally succumbed to the lure of the e-book, and got myself a Kindle 3G with wi-fi. I'll admit, I've been hugely prejudiced against them, and only got one because I needed it for work. After all, what can compare with the touch, smell, visual appeal, and convenience of a proper paper book? I hate reading books on computer screens, and can't imagine myself ever preferring an e-book over the real thing.

After several weeks of learning to live with my Kindle, there are still things about it that I dislike. Let's get those out of the way first.

I can't (safely) read it in the bath. On the other hand, there's a lot of books I don't read in the bath either. Big, heavy books are generally out of the question, as are most hardbacks. Bathtime reading is only for cheap paperbacks I can afford to have accidents with. And anyway, I don't have many baths these days. I have a shower, and I have a hot tub, and hot tubs aren't really for reading. So, not so much of a problem, then.

I can't put it in my pocket. Well, it fits in the side pocket of my shorts, quite neatly, as it happens. But it doesn't go in my jeans, and what with living in Florida, I don't have an inside jacket pocket, so I have to carry it. However, most books don't fit in my pocket either, and the Kindle is much, much lighter than a real book. So actually, the Kindle wins, especially as I can now put thousands of books in my pocket, or at least, carry them around with me.

It's hard to organise books on it. When you have 900+ books loaded up, it's not easy to find the one you want. Fortunately, there's a feature called Collections, so you can have a load of sci-fi, a load of reference books, all the books by a specific author and so on. Unfortunately, the user interface for putting books in collections is horrible. It took me all evening to sort out all those books. Which is about as long as it would have taken me to sort through 900 books if you'd dumped a load of boxes on my living room floor, but I could do it all while sitting down drinking a glass of wine. So, could be much, much better, but still an improvement on paper.

E-books cost too much. Many years ago, I was involved with publishing. About 50% of the cover price of a book is the cost of the paper. It can be more if you're doing a fancy cover. Another 10% is the cost of getting it to the store. E-books have no printing or distribution costs, so you'd expect the price to be proportionately lower. Sadly, that's not the case. A book that costs $15 typically costs $14 as a digital edition. It's hard to justify that pricing, and it's going to make me reluctant to buy e-books, especially because...

... you can't lend or resell e-books. With a real book, I can pass it around my friends. Most of my books were inherited, gifts, or second-hand. That's not allowed with digital books. Every person who wants to read the book has to pay the full (inflated) price. You're not building up a collection of anything you can pass on. You're paying for an admission ticket to a reading experience, and there's not even a family discount if you bring your kids.

Many of the things I expected to dislike about it turned out to be completely groundless. One of the constant objections I hear from book lovers is "I like to annotate my books". It's actually way easier to annotate a Kindle than a real book. Just click and start typing. Better still, all your annotations and bookmarks are indexed so they're easy to find. Can't do that with a real book.

Battery life is quite impressive. This weekend I charged it for the first time since buying it. Four hours on charge, and it'll be good for another month. If only my phone lasted that long.

The Kindle has actually proved to be remarkably easy to read. It uses E-Ink, so it's not backlit, and it doesn't strain my eyes like a computer screen. The experience is nothing like trying to read on a Palm or a laptop. It's much like reading a book, in fact. Flipping pages back and forth is just a thumb press, and you can rescale the print to whatever size you like. You can get around a book really fast with hyperlinked contents and footnotes, and judicious use of bookmarks.

The experience of buying a book on a Kindle is quite incredible. I can go to the Amazon Web site, find something, click buy, and within seconds, it's mine. That's less time than it would take me to get up from my chair, answer the door to the postman, and open the box, let alone order something on the Web and wait for next-day delivery or even actually go to a shop. Not only that, but with 3G, I can buy a book any time, any place. See... want... have. It's that simple.

The thing I've noticed most is that a lot depends on the e-book, rather than the reader. As I mentioned, I now have some 900+ books on there, and I've certainly noticed there's a huge difference between a good e-book and a bad one, just as there is between a good edition of a book and a bad one. When they get the formatting right, do proper tables of contents, and restructure the books so it works, it's really pleasant to read them. When you get mixed up fonts, bad OCR so you have typos, and they've just tried to copy the print layout, it's often too horrible to read. Still, you get what you pay for. Good ones cost, free ones may well suck.

Something that's also quite cool is the built-in dictionary. Unsure what a catafalque actually is? Just put the cursor over the word, and it'll tell you. That's something else ordinary books can't do.

The experimental features are pretty unimpressive. The audio player has no controls, so it's practically useless, and the Web browser is possibly the worst I've ever seen. Certainly the worst I've seen in the 21st century. However, this is a book reader, not a tablet, so I'll just ignore those problems and move on. Maybe they'll update them in time, maybe they won't. I'm not bothered either way. The pdf reader seems like a good idea, but it has a fatal flaw: most pdfs are so closely typeset that they're illegible on that screen. Imagine a magazine page shrunk down to 25% of normal size, and you get the idea.

All in all, though, I've learned to love my Kindle. I've sprawled on the sofa with a Dreamweaver manual. I've sat in airports reading thrillers. I've had lazy mornings in bed reading classics. I've taken it everywhere, and found myself reading at times I didn't expect. I can carry a whole library with me, and that's as liberating as when I discovered I could carry my entire music collection in my pocket. My only real objections are the pricing and the DRM. However, there are loads of free books, there are libraries, and there are torrents, so I suspect the book business is soon going to find itself facing a piracy issue just like the music and film industries are facing right now. Set fair prices and allow fair use, and people will pay. If not, they'll find ways to get what they want anyway.

Will it replace books? Probably, and surprisingly, to a large extent, yes it will. Digital books are more convenient for many reasons, just like mp3s are more convenient than vinyl, and Netflix is more convenient than a houseful of DVDs. I still cherish books as objects, just as I cherish some of my favourite album covers (even though I have nothing to play them on) and the deluxe box sets of some of my favourite movies. But for everyday reading, the Kindle is marvellous. And, dare I say it, better than paper.

I never thought I'd say that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Seductive marketing

I recently read David Meerman Scott's New Rules of Marketing and PR. It's one of the better books on the subject that I've encountered. In some ways, it has nothing in it I don't already know, but he does a great job of summarising the issues and presenting them in a clear, informative way.

His main thesis is that old-style marketing is about interrupting people and trying to distract them so you can sell them your stuff. Modern marketing is about chatting to them, getting to know them, and letting them buy from you when they're ready. Effectively, it's about giving the control of the business relationship to the consumer.

The analogy he uses is that the Web is like a giant party. If you walk around the party talking about nothing but your job, trying to make a sale, and refusing to talk to anyone unless they give you a business card first, you'll pretty soon find that nobody wants to talk to you, because, not to put too fine a point on it, you're boring. You need to mingle, to socialise, to get to know people, and then, if it's appropriate, offer to help them out. You don't just talk about work. Laurens van der Post used to say that he knew he'd met an interesting person when he could talk to them all night and never find out what they did for a living.

I'd like to use a somewhat cruder analogy. (If you're offended by f-bombs, step away now.) Of course, this is all written from a man's perspective. I know you ladies have your own bag of tricks that work for you, but I won't pretend to understand them.

The direct approach

Old-style marketing is like walking up to a girl in the street, regardless of what she's doing or who she's with, and saying, "hey, baby, wanna fuck?" You might get lucky, but the chances are she slaps you in the face and you walk away. (Or, more likely, turn to the girl she's chatting to and ask her instead.) You ignore the slaps, and you just count how many times you get laid. And once you've got what you want from her, you move on to the next girl. Some people are, apparently, quite successful with this technique. But really, it's pretty offensive and pretty ineffective. That's the way a lot of marketing is done, though. You just persevere and eventually, someone will put out.

Modern marketing is about establishing a somewhat more mature relationship. Yes, you're still hoping for the same outcome, but you go about it in a different way. You start out by getting to know her, seeing what you have in common, and then, gradually, seducing her. It may blossom into a long-term relationship, or it may just be a short fling, but either way, you go about it with a little bit more charm and elegance than Mr Sleazy Seventies Lounge Lizard.

Stage One: getting to know her

First, impress her with your wit, knowledge, and sophistication. Have something relevant and intelligent to say on the topics that interest her. Don't do anything more than have entertaining conversations, and make sure you're not talking about yourself all the time until she asks. Start by listening to what she has to say. Take an interest in her as a person. Find out what she really likes, and whether you're compatible. You'll soon find out if this relationship isn't going to go anywhere, but you can at least part on friendly terms. And be sincere. She'll tell if you're faking it. It's not just about what you say, but how you say it.

In marketing parlance, this is called being the "thought leader". Show your potential customers that you really know what you're talking about. You don't just know your own product, you know everything that goes around your product. You understand your customers because you share their passions. You're the go-to guy when they have a question. You know everyone, and everyone wants to know you.

If you're in the business of selling rugby boots, you don't want to be into rugby boots. Sorry, but that's boring. You're into rugby. You watch rugby, you love rugby, you love spending your weekends talking to rugby players. You'll chat to people about who's going to win the Hong Kong Sevens this year, whether the new rules changes are a good thing or a bad thing, and who should be in what team. But you're not just a single-minded rugby fanatic: you know your beer, where to get good fish and chips anywhere in Northern England, how to fix the clutch on a Massey-Ferguson, and you have an opinion on whether Bruce Willis should make any more Die Hard movies. In other words, you fit in, not because you have a great range of boots at the right price, but because you're one of the crowd, you're an interesting person and you've earned respect.

So twitter about rugby, make posts on Facebook, hang out in the online rugby communities. Post pictures of yourself at the local rugby game. Pass comments about the appalling decisions or the great kicks. Make sure your site appeals to rugby fans - not just to people who want to buy a pair of rugby boots.

Stage two: get romantic

Once you've impressed her, the next step in this carefully planned seduction is to romance her. Give her little gifts now and again. Nothing expensive or gaudy, just something to show that you're thinking about her. Don't spoil it all by talking dirty to her or pushing things too fast. Be romantic. Give her visions of the wonderful future you could have together. It may be a weekend on the Mediterranean, it may be a lifetime of domestic bliss - you have to play that one by ear. You can't use the same script all the time. All you need to do is dangle a few ideas out there, and with luck she'll be coming up with suggestions of her own, and she'll love it when you murmur your agreement.

Incidentally, if things are going well, she'll now be telling all her friends how wonderful, kind, gentle and generous you are, and what a great time she's having with you. That's fine. You can see them too. In fact, she'll probably invite them to join in. Who knew marketing could be so much fun? And, to make it even better, the more they tell her what a good time they're having with you, the more determined she'll be not to miss out.

Back in the mundane world of marketing, this is where you start giving away freebies. Free trials, free resources, free research, free just about anything you can think of. Reward your potential customers for bringing you more potential customers - with luck, they're talking about what a useful and likeable bunch of people you are. Get them to like you on Facebook, retweet your tweets, blog about you, and tell others about the free thing(s) you've got.

At this stage, you're still not asking them for money. Don't go with the "buy this and get this free" approach. Using the "buy" word reminds them you're just a salesman after all, and will scare them off. At this point, you can be quite open about what you do for a living, but you're not pressuring your new friends into giving you money. That would be rude. You're going to help them out. For free. Don't give away the stuff you're selling if you can avoid it, though. Give away something else.

So what do you give the rugby fans? Well, how about an iPhone app that has all the results of every Six Nations game ever, plus pictures. That's cool, and it's a neat place to stick some branding. Give them links to sports medicine sites that show how boots can affect ankle injuries, and ways to deal with the kind of injuries you get. Maybe a personal training program, optimised for whether they're forwards or backs, and perhaps a deal with some gym supplier for 10% off weights. You're not giving away boots, but you are giving them useful stuff that shows you understand the needs of rugby players.

Stage three: play hard to get

By now, she should be entranced with you. But, as every Hollywood scriptwriter knows, you need a bit of a reverse. Don't assume that what happens next is a given. Now that you've built yourself up, it's time to be modest. Tell her you don't want to pressure her into anything she doesn't want to do. Maybe go so far as to suggest she sees other guys. Point out your own shortcomings, but in such a way that it doesn't make you look like a loser.

Now she'll really trust you. She won't think you're just after having your wicked way with her. She'll appreciate your honesty and forthrightness, and she'll probably end up telling you how wonderful you are. Be prepared, though - she may take you up on your suggestion, and she may stay with the other guy. In that case, then you two weren't meant to be, so get over it. More importantly, though, she'll probably still look on you as a friend, and will tell her other friends how great you are, and how understanding you are.

This is something that fills most marketeers with terror. Recommend your competitors. Yes, really. It proves to your customers that, first of all, you really understand your market. Secondly, you are interested, first and foremost, in meeting their needs and helping them, not just trying to make a sale. It makes it much harder for them to criticise you if you've been honest about your competitors' advantages right from the beginning. It's OK to be critical of them too, but only in a scrupulously fair way.

Back to those boots. When your customer starts making enquiries about getting some boots from you, ask what he really wants. You can say things like "Butz boots are really comfortable, although a bit pricey," or "Tuff boots will last you for ever, but they do take some time before they mould themselves to your feet," or "Plastiboots are great if you're on a budget and just starting out." When it comes to your own, you can be straightforward about saying, "I wouldn't necessarily recommend Rug-Bees for serious professional use, but for your typical weekend club player, they're fine and they'll last a couple of seasons." People respect that. You're making it clear that you won't make a sale to them unless it's to their benefit. Even if they do go somewhere else, they'll recommend you when their friends are looking for boots.

There's one issue you have to face, though. If everyone picks Butz, Tuff or Plastiboots instead of your Rug-Bees, then there's something wrong with your product. You haven't given anyone a reason to pick you. That's actually valuable market intelligence, and means you should rethink your product or your pricing. Or, perhaps, get out of the business.

Stage four: tonight's the night

Eventually, you're want to get around to popping the question. Ideally, of course, she'll do this first, so it's all her idea. She's looked around and, frankly, you're the best there is, for oh so many reasons. Result!

Failing that, however, you may have to arrange a little something special to give her a nudge. Send her a little note telling her how much you care, and invite her to an evening she'll never forget. It may be an intimate tete-a-tete with wine, roses, and moonlight or she may be your date to a huge party with a thousand of your closest friends. Either way, you're letting it be known how you'd like the night to end up. But you do it with grace so that she can back out if she's not ready for it. Or, if, you know, it's not the right time. She'll let you know if it's OK to ask her again later.

What you don't do is to get bored of waiting and ask her straight out, "Are we going to fuck or not? Because if not, piss off." She really won't appreciate that, and she'll start yelling that all those nice things you told her were a lie just to get into her pants and you never really cared about her. (Which wasn't true, was it?) Accept that you may end up as just friends. That's good. It's good to have friends. And if you drift apart, so be it.

Be patient. Wait for the sale to come to you. It may take customers months, or even years to decide to buy your product. They can have all sorts of reasons to delay: they may not have the money right now. They may be waiting for something else to come to an end first. They may be getting your product as part of a suite of other things. Don't push too hard.

Discreet, enticing invitations work well, as long as they're sensitively handled. Tell your customers when you've got special offers, or when you've got new product lines in, but make sure that doesn't dominate your relationship with them. Nothing pisses a prospective customer off faster than a clumsy sales drive. A chatty email, a brief tweet, a mention on FB, a forum post or blog - and maybe a coupon - that's all it takes. If they're ready to buy, they'll love you.

Boots again. "In case you hadn't noticed, rugby season starts in a few weeks. We're going to be really busy, so we may not be on the forums as much. If you're getting kitted out, drop me an email or check out the store and we'll see if we can fix you up with a good deal. Just tell us you came from the ScrumDown forum and we'll give you a discount. We'll be back in a few weeks - in time to give you our prediction for the All Blacks game. Cheers, Matt."

Stage five: riding off into the sunset

So there you are, basking together in the afterglow. Perhaps it turns out to have been a wonderful moment. Perhaps it's the start of a lifelong relationship. But either way, wasn't that more fun than a quick shag in your sleazy bachelor pad? And it doesn't do your reputation any harm either if she tells people what a wonderful guy you are. She loves the fact that you didn't just want her for her body. She loves that you spent time with her. She's going to tell her friends to stop messing around with sleazebags and find themselves some real romance.

Even if you never get intimate with her again, she may well stick around, listening to your stories, telling you what she's been up to, laughing and joking with you. And the more of those ladies you have around you, the more desirable you become to others. And, you never know, maybe for old times' sake...

That first sale isn't the end of the story. Keep being nice to that customer, keep being their friend, and you'll continue to get more out of them. Even if they don't buy anything else, they'll spread the word. The larger your community, the more attractive it is. Having satisfied ex-customers around can actually be a real benefit to you.

Okay, for the last time, boots. If you've done your job right, they'll come back to you when they need their next pair of boots. They may not: they may stop playing, or they may perhaps be picked for the national squad and get themselves those Butz boots after all. But maybe you can get an interview with them, and perhaps even an endorsement. Either way, being able to say, "I knew that guy when he was just playing in the county league" makes you look good.

Casanova used to say, when asked how he slept with so many women, that he just talked to them and listened to them. He made them feel good about themselves, and he made them feel that, just for a short time, they were the most important woman in his world. Once he had achieved a certain level of notoriety, it became easier, but he never forgot that his success was due to offering more than just a quick bit of rumpy-pumpy.

That's what modern marketing is about. Listen, talk, converse, share, participate, help, support, and relax. Let people know that you're there for them, and they'll come to you when they need you, willingly, and eager to do business with you. It's not about sales messages or brand loyalty or pushing your product. It's about earning respect, earning trust, and making yourself and your company the people that other people want to do business with.

Just for the record, the book doesn't use this analogy at all. That's all mine. And I don't advocate spending your life trying to seduce as many women as possible. I just figured after all the books on what businessmen could learn from Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan and other military leaders, it was time to redress the balance by drawing on the works of the world's greatest lover. I do, however, draw the line at doing a sequel based on Peter Stringfellow. Though, you must admit, he must be doing something right!