I Have Seen the Future…..and It’s Slightly Creepy

At their annual developer’s conference I/O, Google has just unveiled their latest cut at total reality control called Google Now. It’s designed for Android (which immediately cuts us iPhone users out of the equation). In this new world Google mines your search and browsing activity so that it can remind you of upcoming events, let you know the weather or how long your commute time will be, how your favorite sports team is doing or where to get lunch. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d love to see in reality. It’s clearly aimed at Apples digital assistant Siri, but rather than launch an assistant you can talk to they are offering an AP which anticipates what you will likely want to know.

This isn’t an altogether new idea, on my iPhone I can scroll weather and traffic, sports scores etc but typically only in response to a previous request or through a dedicated AP. The approach Google is taking is somewhat more free form, yes you can set it up to give you specific information but if you have done something whilst logged into Google it may well remind you about it or figure you’d like to know about it without you asking for the information.

This could be very cool, another consequence of having all your data and behavior stored in one place. It could also be intrusive and weird…imagine being at dinner with your spouse when our phone suggests that you call an old girl or boyfriend as the team you both used to follow avidly has just scored a major victory. I’m not entirely sure I want a virtual butler perpetually second guessing my needs or interests, I suspect after the novelty has worn off it will get about as much use as Siri….not much at all. Given the ongoing privacy woes Google has seen in recent years it’s entirely likely that what it has access to and can talk to you about will be on an opt in basis, but it does point the way to an interesting future where you phone is a chatty, informative and occasionally very embarrassing best friend in your pocket.

The New Boss….Same as the Old Boss

Everywhere you look today the story is that local businesses are moving to a Pay Per Call approach. However if we are to believe the latest Kelsey report on local and mobile media this is just the latest manifestation of a major trend. The Kelsey crew claim that last year of the nearly $133B spent on local advertising 60% was focused on driving leads as calls. The spend is across all media but the focus is strongly on lead generation and that trend is gathering even greater momentum. This trend is accelerated by the breakneck growth of smart phones. Kelsey claims that by 2015 the volume of queries from mobile devices will equal all desktop queries, that sounds credible to me. They also claim that conversion from the mobile device to the paid phone call is eight times more likely than from the desktop. I’m not sure I buy that number as we have always seen desktop view to call at closer to 30% but it makes sense that the mobile devices should convert really well.

Interestingly they claim that only about 22% of those calls were generated through paid search. Certainly we use paid search to drive calls but other media such as mobile syndication and even local radio are also extremely effective in driving tracked paid calls. The largely untapped inventory of as yet largely un-targeted local display inventory is another enormous opportunity still emerging. Of all channels we use currently desktop driven search and calls coupled with mobile syndication across the board…mobile search and mobile devices seems to be the most powerful combination.

The rapid drive towards a Pay Per Call based ROI focused approach is even driving traditional publishers. In a world where even the most laggardly local business have figured out that spending money on calls which produce new business makes great sense even traditional print and broadcast media are embracing the paid call as a logical way to prove value. If you are able to drive value people will buy your product. The the adage was that half of all advertising is wasted but you can’t tell which half…now you can.

The Killing of Cable

I was flummoxed the other day to read recently that the media analyst at Citibank  Jason B. Bazinet “Flummoxed” at the recent and continued decline of Cable TV ratings when at the same time the penetration of Cable into a larger and larger percentage of all US homes continues to rise. The message seemed to be “what on earth is going on?.” I’m no media maven but it strikes me we need look not much further than the recently concluded TMC drama show The Killing. It’s a brilliantly dark and occasionally frustrating drama…well shot and well acted. It’s the kind of thing network TV used to do and the kind of thing the BBC still does really well.

TMC (usually a bastion of old movies in perpetual repeat) has gone out on a limb and followed where Breaking Bad and Walking Dead went by producing this striking drama. I have watched both seasons on my iPad. I missed the first season and have been catching up on both. The 24 total episodes 18 hours total cost about $2 each on iTunes. By paying that I avoided having to sit through or zap past about 8 hours of commercials. None of that downloads done by people like me showed up in any statistics.

The sad fact is that cable is rapidly becoming a premium content delivery and online access platform rather than a traditional advertising medium. As the number of channels continue to proliferate the availability of advertising inventory rises so the tolerance of the audience for interruption goes down. Content like Netflix for $9 a month and even premium content like The Killing is more entertaining and over all much cheaper than traditional cable TV. Our thirst for broad band immersive access shows no sign of slowing but our tolerance for banal interruption rapidly drops. The cable companies as gate keepers for high speed access high quality programming are making a killing…at the cost of  traditional advertising supported content. The question is ‘when’ will the body of traditional programming be found in the trunk of a car at the bottom of a lake….not ‘if’.

Check In … Check Out

If you want to see where we will be online in a few years time take a look at South Korea. It’s a highly advanced country with pretty much everyone living in what amounts to one huge city. I was there maybe eight years ago, back when you could climb the highest mountain in the country and still be connected to WiFi….not cell phone WiFi. I was reminded of that trip when I read this week of several advances in the field of mobile payments.

Back nearly a decade ago, I was impressed to watch Korean locals pay for just about everything with a swipe of their phones. There is finally a push in the U.S. to link payment methods to mobile phones with products like Google Wallet and the recent deal between foursquare and Amex.

All of these advances are closing in on the big win: being able to pay for anything with your mobile device. To a certain extent, we are already doing this. I regularly purchase content and aps with my iPhone, but it is still a bit of a stretch to swipe your phone at the grocery check out. Or is it? I was at the grocery store the other day when a lady in front of me swiped a coupon from her phone, similar to a boarding pass at the airport.

In any event, I have to imagine that rather than dealing with the heavy infrastructure challenge of installing payment chips, some kind of secure QR code that could be scanned by the checkout red laser would be relatively quick and simple to deploy.  The enormous complexity of the U.S. banking infrastructure and the even more enormously entrenched special interests have made this difficult, but it feels like critical mass may have been reached.

These advances are likely to make all things local even more integrated. The time when I might search for a restaurant, make a reservation, get a deal coupon, get directions to the venue, invite a friend, share the experience and pay for the entire exercise all from the same phone is nearly here. I did five of those eight just today, and just think any day now we might be where South Korea was nearly a decade ago.  Makes you proud.

Places Goes Plus

Google Places has ruled the local online roost for several years now. It’s morphed over the years, changing the rules of engagement over time to the point where the only way a business owner can really benefit from it is by getting online, adopting their listing and talking about their business….which is a lot like social media engagement. So it was with little surprise (but on further reflection maybe not that much surprise) that I read last week of Google’s plan to replace Places with “Google+ Local.”

Google hasn’t had a great track record to date with social media. The ill-fated Google Buzz created much more heat than light when Google essentially forced Gmail users into becoming inadvertent Google Buzz users. The much better thought through but still a little underwhelming Google+ is a late entrant to the social media race. The key problem Google has had with Google+ is driving user engagement. Google+ has enjoyed rapid growth with millions joining the platform, but there appears to be good data that although many join, the level or return visits and engagement is much lower than on Facebook. Given that, Google’s strategy of fusing Google+ with the very successful and highly used Google Places follows the Google Buzz strategy of essentially forcing a large number of users (in this case local businesses and reviewers) to join the game.

If you were already a Places user, you are now a Google+ Local user…like it or not. The acquisition by Google of the Zagat guide last year dovetails into the Google+ Local strategy. Zagat has been a trusted authority for reviews for restaurants and hotels. They currently have coverage for more than 100 cities but have nowhere near the number of reviews Yelp boasts. Presumably, Google will be seeking to grow the reach and coverage of Google+ Zagat as quickly as possible.

One problem they may run into: the qualification bar set and enforced by Zagat may slow growth. The Zagat name carries a certain cachet; Yelp (for all its strengths) is a collection of often poorly written and in some cases almost incomprehensible end user reviews. The key question: Will the forced collision by Google of Places, Plus, and Zagat amount to enough critical mass to set off the social local explosion Google has been seeking for so long? It will be interesting to listen for the Big Bang.