Clever Features: Betabrand (Too many to list)

I hate marketing emails.  I get them no matter how hard I try not to and no matter how many times I unsubscribe.  It’s an annoying fact of Internet life, I guess.  There is one exception, though, and when I realized today that I actually open and read the emails I get from Betabrand every time I receive one, I thought it was worth a few minutes of my time to give Betabrand some kudos and do my part to spread the word about a brand that I think highly deserves it.

Betabrand is a small clothing operation run out of the Mission in San Francisco, and from all indications, they are on fire.  I am not a very fashion-conscious person; in fact, people that know me would probably say I’m anti-fashion, or fashion agnostic, or something like that.  Truth be told, I would wear jeans and a t-shirt all the time if I could get away with it.  I mention this simply to underscore how effective the marketing of Betabrand is.  I’m the last person on the planet that would be their customer.  First, they sell primarily men’s clothing, and second, they are beyond hip in a way I can barely fathom.  So why am I on their mailing list, and why do I read every email and immediately go check out their latest products online?  It all started last Christmas – I was looking for a cool pair of corduroy pants as a gift for my other half.  Somehow I stumbled upon Betabrand and the Cordarounds.

I thought the Cordarounds were clever for two reasons:  1) the horizontal ridges on the pants and 2) the bold fabric that peeks out of the sides of the pockets.  These pants are really unique!  It doesn’t stop there, though.  The reason I continue to read all their emails is because they are ridiculous.  They are funny, campy, weird, and just plain entertaining.  Below is part of the text of the email I received yesterday, titled “Betabrand presents: Black Sheep and Sasquatch Sweaters”:

In today’s newsletter: one beautiful wool sweater, two tales of varying veracity. Plus, a strategy for photographing Bigfoot that’s guaranteed to work!

One of the following sweater stories is true. Which one is more worthy of retelling is up to you. Read on!

#1 The Black Sheep Sweater: Now You Can Wear A Figure Of Speech

Every autumn, we knit a small batch of limited-edition Black Sheep Sweaters with loners, iconoclasts, and the oft-misunderstood in mind.

True to its name, this crew-neck pullover is knit from 100% natural (undyed and untreated) wool yarn that comes from actual black sheep. Shunned by most of their paler brethren, these outcast ovines live on a few small Montana ranches near Yellowstone National Park. They’re raised how you’d imagine Western sheep would like to be raised — in fresh air and wide open spaces, with lots of tasty summer grass to munch on and plenty of John Wayne DVDs to watch at night.

Our mill in the nearby Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming takes the shorn black fleeces (more grayish-brown, actually) and spins them into soft, extra-fine yarn for our sweaters. We’ve been assured that no hazardous chemicals or robots are used in the process. In fact, these folks are dedicated to environmental sustainability and preserving traditional ranching culture in the West.

Yes, the Black Sheep Sweater is not only ruggedly handsome and ethically produced, it’s a figure of speech you can actually wear. But what if you want a slightly more exotic (and hirsute) garment? In that case …

#2 The Sasquatch Sweater: Cryptid Couture

Since time immemorial, the hair of the Sasquatch has been prized by clothing manufacturers for its color, texture, and unique earthy aroma. But this shy creature’s reclusive nature — and occasional propensity for sudden and terrible acts of violence — has made genuine Sasquatch-wool garments nearly impossible to find. Until now!

Introducing our new, limited-edition Sasquatch Sweater. Each one is knit from 100% pure Bigfoot fur, harvested from our free-range herd in the Cascade Mountains. We like to say a better sweater begins with a happy Sasquatch, so ours are lovingly raised on an all-organic diet of berries, roots, and fresh salmon, giving their fur a robust character that’s been compared favorably to the finest black-sheep wool.

Know that our Sasquatch enjoy an idyllic existence at the sprawling Double B Ranch, spending their days sunning in wildflower-filled meadows, loping through copses of hemlock and spruce, or just rolling around in mud and fragrant bear scat. And when it’s time for our ranchers to gather lovely Sasquatch fleeces, the gentle brutes are taken to feng-shui-approved wool sheds and given a powerful chamomile-based sedative, lest they grow uneasy and rip off a rancher’s arm or face.

Also, rest assured that this garment contains only residual amounts of Sasquatch musk, ensuring that sweater-wearers may visit the forests of the Pacific Northwest during mating season with only moderate fear of romantic entanglement.

No matter which story you choose to believe, one thing’s for certain: We made just a limited batch of Sasquatch and Black Sheep Sweaters, so they won’t stay around for long. Order yours today — only at Betabrand.com. (We’ll be tracking the popularity of each product and will report back next week with our findings.)

This company has so many things going for it; it’s really pretty inspirational to watch them expand.  According to a year-old article on FastCompany.com, they debuted with the Cordarounds last May (2011) and expected to hit $2MM in revenue that year.  Pretty insane, and they now carry tons of apparel.  Speaking of which, besides being hip and hilarious, they find really clever ways to design innovative features into their clothing.

Take the Gluttony pants, with three buttons so they can be expanded when the wearer eats too much.  Or the Bike to Work pants, that when rolled up have a reflective material on the cuff and a triangular reflective flag that pulls out of the back pocket to make the rider more visible.  This is definitely a company I’m keeping my eye on.  Their humor has captivated many, and the company has capitalized on how well they resonate with consumers, with a highly successful app for submitting user generated content.  People that upload photos of themselves wearing Betabrand or with the Betabrand ‘B’ photoshopped onto their faces sideways like a pair of glasses get a discount if they purchase within 24 hours, and the pictures the public comes up with are almost as funny as the content the brand produces.  Check them out, even if you’re not a clothes junkie – they are impressive.

Clever Features: Ford Escape Foot-Activated Liftgate

Normally when I think about clever features, I’m thinking about software, as in Gmail’s brilliant attachment prompt, and WordPress’s smart logo redirect.  I caught a commercial on TV today, though, for the Ford Escape that demonstrated the new foot-activated liftgate.  Check out this article and video on Forbes.com.  It struck a chord because I think it’s a great example of one of the concepts I wrote about from The Little Black Book of Innovation – looking for innovation opportunities in the space where people compensate.  When you watch the simple wave of a foot underneath the back bumper of the vehicle, it seems completely obvious that someone should have come up with this idea eons ago.  How often do you struggle with your hands full when you approach the trunk or hatchback of your vehicle?  Especially when what I’m carrying is heavy, the last thing I want to do is put it down and have to pick it up again after I open up the trunk.  Kudos to Ford for delivering some real innovation!

Coursera: Gamification Update – Week 1

The first week of the MOOC Gamification course I signed up for has come to a close, and I’m ready for Week 2.  In Week 1, our primary task was to view a series of 11 video lectures, broken into two groups, recorded by Professor Kevin Werbach, of The Wharton School.  In total, the lectures ran one hour and fifty-seven minutes, and each set was meant to be equivalent to an hour long classroom lecture.  The course is meant to be a pretty entry-level look at gamification, and as such, has no specific pre-requisites.  My initial impressions are that the material is appropriate for an introductory type of course, and subsequently, though the lectures have so far been pretty interesting and informative, the content is not very challenging.

In my initial post about this course, I mentioned there is some minor interactivity built into the lectures, such as the occasional break for a quiz question.  The quiz questions are of the sort that could probably be answered correctly even if the viewer hadn’t paid attention to the lectures, though, and the formal quiz to finish Week 1 had only five questions.  These questions did require that you’d absorbed information from the lectures, but the short length leads me to believe that evaluation of concept mastery isn’t a leading priority in delivering the course.  In my opinion, this element could have a huge impact on where this industry goes.  The idea of courses offered by prestigious universities for anyone to access online has instant appeal, for fairly obvious reasons, and while there are those of us that love learning just for the sake of learning, there are plenty of others that want to rack up certificates and proof of learning to add to a resume or show qualifications for a new job.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but I expect to see things like official certifications come for a fee in time as a means to monetize the industry.  While the concepts are so new, the major players are smart to create as open an environment as possible, to attract the widest range of participants and focus on data gathering to help inform the best future directions.

Because the content in week 1 is meant to be very introductory, providing definitions and examples of gamification and games, key differences between games and play, and a brief history of the concept, my hope is that the remainder of the course is more challenging and gets into these subjects in more depth.

As far as statistics and engagement go, our written assignments will be peer-graded, and they are only required for those of us that want a certificate of completion.  Our first written assignment should be released tomorrow.  Also, it looks as though participation jumped to 71000 people in the first few days, and results of the survey we took when we began the course have been posted.  There are students from at least 147 countries, 67% of survey respondents are between the ages of 22 and 39, 70% are male, and the US is most heavily represented with 32% of respondents originating here.  More than half of respondents are employed full-time, as opposed to other statuses, such as students enrolled in an institution.

I intend to jump in on the discussion courses this weekend, and will report back on any particularly interesting threads I find.  Wish me luck on my first written assignment, and in my second week in the course!

Massive Open Online Courses – Gamification on Coursera

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been in the news a lot lately, and Coursera seems to have an edge over other major competitors, at least when measured by the variety of courses currently available.  See below for a quick breakdown of courses and participating institutions.  I have long been a proponent of online education, and am excited to see where this industry goes, so I signed up for a Coursera course that started today.  The course is Gamification, and is being taught by Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

I’m particularly interested in how data will be used and what the interaction dynamics will be in an environment like this.  The term “Massive” is part of the name of this category of courses for a reason.  Almost two weeks prior to the start of the course, Professor Werbach tweeted that he was amazed to see more than 50,000 registered students.

My first impressions today are positive.  After logging into the course, the information is well organized, and there are both discussion forums and wikis to encourage engagement.  At a glance, it seems approximately 300 primary posts have already been made in discussion forums, with hundreds of replies.  The discussion has a voting feature, which is useful and should allow us to focus on the most popular threads, which I imagine will be vital with the ridiculous volume of information that will likely be posted here over the six week span of the course.  Posts can also be tagged, which makes it simple to find a collection of posts on a given topic if tagging is used well.  Integration with the wiki feature could be tighter.  When I navigate to one of two wiki links, I have to log in again to view the content, and have no simple way to navigate back to the course site itself.  The wiki is labeled ‘Beta,’ so I imagine better integration will come with time.

As far as data goes, students were asked to complete a survey answering questions about demographics and the reason for taking the course.  I would love to see an analysis of that data at the close of the course, and hope there are further surveys to capture additional data points along the way.

After having watched the first two video lecture segments, I’m happy with the quality of the video, and like the fact that interactivity can be built into the lectures.  Occasionally, the video will pause to offer a simple quiz question, and the instructor seems to use a stylus to highlight elements on screen as he’s speaking.  It’s easy to navigate directly to the next video without having to “exit” the viewer, and the site design in general is simple, clean, and easy to follow.  Another interesting point to note is that in the spirit of free learning, there are no required materials to purchase to go along with the course.

I’ve joined in my first discussion, and so far, everything looks good.  I’ll be back with more thoughts as the course progresses.

Provider # Courses Participating Institutions
Coursera 120 Princeton University, University of Michigan, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Georgia Tech, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, University of Washington, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Udacity 14  None, Udacity develops its own content
edX 7 MIT, Harvard, University of California Berkeley

Click here for an article that discusses all three providers.

Missing Features: LinkedIn

I use a lot of software, and I spend a lot of time using most of the applications I use.  Sometimes I am particularly frustrated with missing or poorly implemented features.  Other times, I’m not necessarily frustrated, but still stumble upon thoughts or ideas about features I think would be a great addition to a product.  Since I periodically post about the clever or well-designed features I notice, I thought it appropriate to write about the converse as well.

First, let me start by saying I think LinkedIn is a great company.  They offer a very useful service, and in the past year or two, I have relied almost entirely on LinkedIn when searching for job opportunities.  There are a couple of areas where I think they fall short, though.

Saved Searches

The concept of saved searches and associated email notifications of jobs that match your search criteria is a must-have for any job posting service today.  LinkedIn offers this feature, but it doesn’t seem to consistently work.  I have found that over time, I stop getting emails, and it’s not because there are no jobs that match my search.  While I can’t prove this beyond a doubt, my experience is that I can run the saved search from the LinkedIn site and see results even when I’m not getting emails.  If I delete and recreate the saved search, the notices will start coming again.

I imagine that the volume of automated emails that LinkedIn sends is significant, but that’s a feature that has to be absolutely rock-solid.  Too many professionals don’t have time to come to the website to run searches on a regular basis, especially if their interest in new opportunities is fairly passive.  Not to mention, those emails don’t simply provide a service to users – they represent a significant channel through which LinkedIn gets people to come back to their site.

My last complaint about saved searches is that they are not editable.  The ‘Settings’ link below each saved search allows you to change only the email notification frequency.  None of the search settings themselves are even viewable, let alone editable.  Some simple features that allow users to copy and modify saved searches would be very welcome.

General Search Features

When you run any job search on LinkedIn, you have a variety of ‘Refine By’ options to narrow down your results if you so choose.  This is great and also necessary from a feature perspective.  What would be even better, though, would be the ability to EXCLUDE certain values.  For instance, there are some recruiting companies out there that I’m not particularly a fan of.  I would really love to be able to exclude them from all of my searches.  To be fair, when I run my search, I can go down to the ‘Refine By … Company’ section, un-check the box for ‘All Companies,’ then re-check the boxes for all the companies except the one I don’t want to look at.  But, that’s crazy.  There’s no way I’m going to do that for every search I run.  If I could store some global search settings, though, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.  I’d extend this ability to other search criteria, as well, like City.  For those of us that live in major metro areas, we might want to do a 25 mile radius search, but filter out some particular cities or areas that fall within that radius.

As a side note, if you combine a feature like this with a feedback mechanism, you could end up with a new value-add service for employers posting jobs.  If I chose to explicitly exclude a particular employer from my searches, I’d be happy to provide the reason why I’m excluding them.  If I were an employer that relied heavily on a service like LinkedIn, I’d want to know why potential candidates didn’t want to see my job openings in their searches.

I’ll close by saying again that I really like LinkedIn, and I think they are the premier place to look for jobs, build a professional profile, and create and stay in touch with your network in an increasingly distributed professional world.  I’m excited to see where the company goes in the future, and I think they have a lot of opportunities to develop additional features to make their service even better for both job seekers and employers.

E-Book Readers and Big Data

The July article, “Your E-Book is Reading You,” published in the Wall Street Journal, is an excellent example of how marketers can use big data to learn more about what consumers are doing, thus tailoring what they offer the public.

“Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.”

While it’s clear that a primary objective of B&N (or any other company operating in this space) is to make more money by learning about consumer reading behavior, I see plenty of opportunity for this data to be beneficial to individual users, too.  The article states that B&N reviews data in terms of groups of readers, not individuals, though it’s not clear whether they do so for consumer privacy or other reasons.  Personally, were I offered the ability to view statistics and information about my own reading habits, I would happily opt in to a program as long as my data couldn’t be shared for the wrong reasons or without my permission.  Here’s why.

1 – The software and devices have the ability to track how quickly I read.  That’s interesting information to me.  Assume an average reading pace was established for me, and I was reading a particular piece more slowly than normal.  Perhaps that’s because the material is difficult to digest.  I might really like to have new features enabled in the piece I’m reading, such as links to other related explanatory materials – word definitions, wikipedia entries, whatever.  I can imagine this having educational applications, as well.  iPad popularity has exploded in public education.  Imagine content designed with features that could help educators track the skill level of readers and tailor assistance and interventions based on detailed data profiles for students.

2 – I am an avid reader, and though I don’t read on my iPad or Kindle all that often, I might increase the time I spend on those devices if I felt I’d get legitimately strong recommendations for further reading.  Amazon is in an obvious position to capitalize on this, and you might argue they already do so via their primary e-commerce website.  But imagine how much more relevant their recommendations might be if they could analyze data from within a book (the lines or phrases I highlight, the bookmarks I place, etc.), and not just based on the titles I’ve purchased with them.

3 – Similar to my point about recommending related or similar reading, there are other recommendations that could be relevant to specific kinds of readers.  For instance, if I read multiple books by a particular author, I might want to know if that author is going to be speaking at a conference or signing books in my area.  If I tend towards academic reading, I might want to know about related courses offered by local or online universities.

4 – Often we are measured for job opportunities based on degrees and job experience, and not much more.  If I invested significant time reading and learning about topics that might be relevant to my career, or even a career change, imagine the benefit of being able to integrate information about what I’ve read into my LinkedIn profile.  I can currently link to my GoodReads page if I want to, or incorporate an Amazon reading list – but these lists don’t show I’ve actually read any of the material.

There are probably plenty of additional ideas around how this data could be used not only for a seller’s benefit, but for a consumer’s benefit, and I believe success with Big Data is going to be “bigger” when both parties are served.

Book Review: The Little Black Book of Innovation

Scott D. Anthony’s book, The Little Black Book of Innovation, is a quick and pleasant read.  For those of us that think we aren’t as innovative as we could or should be, this book provides a practical approach to developing your innovation capabilities.  Anthony draws on years of experience both practicing and teaching innovation, and presents his perspectives in a 4-week program made up of actions that will help you become more innovative.  The four weeks break down as shown below.  I’ve added one lesson from each week that particularly resonated with me.

Week 1 – Discovering Opportunities

The first week’s activities are designed to help you identify your target customer, identify a problem the customer is trying to solve today, and find signals suggesting customer dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Day 5, titled “Find Compensating Behaviors” is devoted to the central question, “How can I find nonobvious opportunities?”  I love this advice because it instantly changes my mindset from one of attempting to dream up “something big,” to one of examining what’s out there already and where it falls down.  We all use compensating behaviors all the time, often unconsciously.  A silly example that pops to my mind immediately involves my morning coffee.  I make myself coffee as soon as I wake up, and I drink it throughout the day.  I take my coffee with milk and sugar, and I would imagine that at least 7 of 10 times, when I pour milk from the big plastic gallon container into my cup, I spill just a little bit, no matter how careful I try to be.  I compensate for this by keeping a sponge nearby, and wiping up the drips of milk that have run down the edge of my cup.  This isn’t a particularly big deal, but I can’t imagine there isn’t a way to design a spill proof container for milk.  It’s been done for plenty of other liquids – why not the milk jug?

Week 2 – Blueprinting Ideas

The second weeks’ activities are designed to help you use multiple sources of inspiration to develop an idea, determine where your idea will be “good enough,” and develop a comprehensive blueprint for your idea.  I found the advice on day 11, “Avoid Overshooting,” to be well aligned with design and development processes that I already subscribe to, and something I know people struggle with all the time.  The central question in this section is, “Is there such a thing as too good?”  The answer depends on the context, but it is certainly possible to build something that is “too good.”  Take web design, for instance.  People that are part of a software team often think of, or come across, new feature ideas.  There is a cost to building a feature, though, and that cost varies with just how fancy you want to get.  When something simple will do the job and satisfy the customer, it may not warrant the extra investment to make it flashier than it needs to be.

Week 3 – Assessing and Testing Ideas

Week 3 is all about assessing the true potential of your ideas, and I think this is something that innovators naturally struggle with.  As the originator of what seems like a great idea, it’s very tempting to move full steam ahead without stopping to assess whether the idea is the right one.  On Day 18, Anthony presents the important step, “Test Critical Assumptions.”  This exercise first gets you to define your assumptions, and that in itself can be very illuminating.  Then, the exercise prompts you to get out and back those assumptions up with testing.  Going back to my milk carton example from Week 1, one of my assumptions is that I’m not the only one annoyed by dripping milk, but do I really know that’s true?  Even if it’s true to a degree, are people annoyed enough that they’d pay for what may end up to be a more expensive gallon of milk if the cost of producing packaging is higher?  If I really wanted to pursue my genius idea for a new milk carton, I’d be smart to test my assumptions before I go very far forward.

Week 4 – Moving Forward

Week 4 covers a lot of obstacles and pitfalls related to managing innovation within existing business environments, in order to position a company and its people to be successful innovators.  On Day 26, Anthony says, “Reward Behaviors, Not Outcomes.”  I don’t know about you, but practically every place I’ve worked at, outcomes are valued above behaviors.  I’ve seen this work negatively in a few ways.  First, a rotten coworker can get away with being rotten if he or she delivers.  Or, a really innovative thinker can be punished when a particular idea doesn’t work out in the long run.  It’s this case that Anthony is specifically targeting.  It can take many, many failures before a success is achieved, but if the behavior is rewarded, employees will keep trying, anyway.  On the other hand, punish people for ideas that don’t turn out, and they’ll quickly turn into automatons.

Anthony uses a few metaphors and examples here and there throughout the book that I didn’t particularly like, but they don’t harm his overall message, which is valuable, practical, and quite accessible to anyone interested in becoming more innovative.