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Doing Real Business in the Cloud

Clouds and wing viewed from an aircraft windowYou’ve undoubtedly heard tech geeks (like yours truly) wax enthusiastically about the virtues of “the cloud” or, more specifically, “cloud computing.” Part legitimate game-changer and part meaningless abstraction, the concept of doing things “in the cloud” may mean little more to you than another impressive-looking IBM commercial that interrupts the otherwise endless stream of beer ads during a football game. The internet, that thing that we variously call a distraction engine, mankind’s savior, or a series of tubes, is abstract enough to begin with. Why do we need fuzzy metaphors to render it even more nebulous?

The thing is, the concept of cloud computing does have an underlying meaning that might be useful if anyone outside the insular world of nerds and geeks actually understood it. At its most elemental level, the cloud is just a place other than your computer where computer-y things happen – processing, storing files, serving up videos. That’s nothing new; remote computing – or, taking the load off the computer you’re sitting in front of and moving it somewhere else – has been around nearly since the dawn of computing, since mainframes wouldn’t exactly fit under your desk.

Most of what we do on the internet is sent to us from elsewhere, which is sort of the point of this whole internet thing – connectedness. You don’t want 100 million YouTube videos on your hard drive (trust me on this one). So when people talk about “cloud computing,” it can be especially confusing because, really, most of what you see in your web browser or email program is living somewhere else. (True nerds will scoff at my lack of distinction between regular infrastructure and cloud infrastructure; go back to Reddit and quiet down.) So, the next time one of your customers corners you on the fairway and asks if you’re using the cloud for your business, what the heck should you say?

I’m here to help. I’m going to spend the next few posts discussing practical uses of the cloud for every single business owner. We’ll get past the most obvious manifestation of working in the cloud – document sharing (yes, it’s great) – and talk about how to use the cloud for things that really matter, like closing sales and securing your data. In fact, this month I’m going to dive straight in to the sometimes-prickly subject of presentations. That’s right – let’s talk about Powerpoints.

Slide Into It

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with slide presentations – if you’ve ever sat through a bad one, it’s tempting to blame the format itself for the boredom, anger, slumber or outright nausea that it caused. Mostly, though, a poor presentation is the fault of the speaker or the person that created it. The format itself is a succinct, visual method for communicating ideas (or reinforcing spoken concepts) that is still in wide use for one primary reason: It works.

I’m not going to tell you how to create good presentations (although, in my experience, using on-screen explosions can work wonders), but it’s important to remember that, in one way, a presentation is like a camera – the best one is the one you have with you. If your sales presentations are stuck on a desktop computer and you’re on your laptop, or they’re stuck on laptop and you’ve only got your tablet, they’re not going to do you much good. And, if you just ate a particularly incredible pastrami sandwich and were struck with (before the heartburn) the three remaining key benefits you need to elucidate in order to close the Henderson deal this afternoon, how awesome would it be to add those directly from your smartphone or tablet that you’ve got with you? Put down the mustard and let’s talk.

The Players

Keeping your presentations in the cloud has many of the same benefits as sharing any document in the cloud – you can have other users access or edit them, you can get to them wherever you have internet access, and you’ll always have the latest version. But cloud presentation software can also eliminate the need for, well, software itself. The folks at Microsoft hate to hear this, but (in addition to other passable, open-source alternatives to Office itself), Google gives away a pretty darn good presentation creation tool as part of its own Google Docs offerings. The whole thing lives in the cloud – the application is presented in your web browser, and the document storage (you can store word processor docs and spreadsheets as well) live on something now called Google Drive, which is probably what most people think of when they hear “cloud” – a big hard drive in the sky.

With Google’s presentations, you can build, edit and present your killer, deal-closing slide deck on your computer, your tablet, or even your smartphone. Change a few lines over lunch on your tablet and those changes will be right there when you load it up on your laptop in the conference room. When inspiration hits, you’ll be able to act on it immediately. (Of course, I’m assuming you have internet access – if you don’t have internet access for all your devices, cloud computing is by definition not for you.)

Google’s suite is great, but it’s very Google-centric, and not everyone has hopped on that bandwagon (that said, if you’re on Android, it’s probably a no-brainer). But, let’s say you’re a Microsoft fan and want to stick with Redmond’s products. They’ve got a similar set of tools, including SkyDrive (for document storage) and a product called Office 365 that offers cloud-based Office apps for a monthly fee.

Macintosh, iPhone and iPad lovers have a simple, built-in way to create and share presentations with iCloud. Apple offers a basic level of iCloud storage for free, and Apple’s presentation app, Keynote, is a Powerpoint-killer in almost every way. Simple, slick and packed with features, Keynote is available as a download for every Apple device. When you save your Keynote presentations to iCloud, they’re available instantly, everywhere you have internet access, without any web browsers, software or other configuration required. For the road warrior who just doesn’t want to hassle with technology, iCloud and Keynote may be the ultimate presentation machine. Give someone a Keynote presentation on your iPad and you’ll see their eyes light up. It’s that good.

Finally, if you want a presentation tool that works with absolutely every platform and shows no preference for one over the other, it’s hard to beat DropBox. DropBox offers a basic storage plan for free, and has apps for every major platform. The power of DropBox is in its simplicity – it’s just a drive on your computer or an app on your tablet or smartphone. Save your Powerpoint or PDF to your DropBox, and you can pull it up instantly on your other devices.

Dropbox doesn’t do presentations on its own, but since it can view most documents, it works great in a pinch when you’ve got to show someone something and you don’t have the ideal device with you. You can view your Powerpoints, yes, but you can also keep product images, price lists and all sorts of other selling information on your Dropbox for easy answers to customer questions. The data will always be current, synchronized, and at your fingertips. It’s free and works with just about anything. It might become your best sales presentation partner. What are you waiting for?

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Categories: Articles

The Bare-Bones Basics of Web Statistics

Analytics screen

Google Analytics provides a wealth of information about visitors on your site

Here in Austin, I teach classes at a local non-profit organization that helps people start their own businesses. I’ve been teaching folks about building basic web sites, search engine optimization, and web marketing for about five years. Once – and only once, mind you – I taught a class on web analytics.

Web analytics are the statistics that a website generates about users, where they come from, what they do, when they leave, and so on. It’s incredibly valuable information for anyone who operates a web site – in fact, some kind of analytics understanding is mandatory for anyone who wants to understand their website performance.

It’s also very boring. In fact, the class I taught on analytics put everyone to sleep so quickly that I decided never to teach it again. Somewhere, there are statistics professors who can make this stuff interesting. I couldn’t, so I gave up.

But every web site owner should know at least a few things about what’s going on with their site –especially if you have an e-commerce site. And, honestly, if you can pay attention to a few key factors in your web statistics, you’ll have the information you need to make constructive adjustments.

So, grab a double espresso and get ready for the hits – and only the hits – of web analytics. If you can grasp a few simple concepts and remember a couple of key metrics, you’ll know enough to be dangerous in no time.

Start Measuring

First, you’ll need an analytics package. The most common one is Google Analytics; it’s free and most web site building packages support it right out of the box. Signing up for Google Analytics requires a Google account and enough access to your website to insert the tracking code. If putting tracking code into your website sounds like open-heart surgery to you, then call your web developer or web host and they’ll walk you through it or take care of it for you. It only takes a few minutes.

Give Analytics a few days to start collecting data, and at least a month before you really start trying to get anything meaningful out of it. The more statistics you have the better, but if your needs are urgent — let’s say users are abandoning your site in record numbers – a month of data will at least give you enough information to understand why.

The primary metric (metric is a fancy word for measurement) that most site owners look at first is the number of page views on their site. A page view is generated when someone pulls up a page on your web site and looks at it. As a crude number, page views are helpful in determining overall traffic to your site. But alone, page views aren’t a very meaningful statistic.

More meaningful measurements of site traffic actually come from the various visit/visitor numbers. A Visit is just that: a visit to your web site, whether to one page or many. It’s a single user’s experience at your site, from the time they arrive to the time they leave. This number will often be somewhere in the vicinity of your Visitor numbers, which is the actual number of visitors that came to your site during that period.

Visitors are so important that Google now calls out this number on the very first page of Analytics: “3,000 people visited this site.” Look more closely and you’ll notice a qualification in visitor numbers: the term “unique”. Unique visitor metrics are important because they throw out all the repeat visits and give you a picture of how many truly unique visitors came to your site during a given period.

What are they doing?

Once you understand how many people are coming to your site, you need to get at least a basic idea of what they’re doing when they get there. Ideally, you want people to stay on your site long enough to browse, read or buy something. This is where “time on site” or duration comes in. Obviously, if users spend only a few seconds on your site, that means they’re arriving and very quickly leaving. This is not uncommon – many people quickly leave (or “bounce” out of) websites very quickly because it’s not what they were looking for.

However, a continuous pattern of very short visits (a very low overall visit duration) probably means that there’s something wrong with the content on your site, or that many people are finding it for the wrong reasons. If your average visit duration is very low – say, 30 seconds or less – you’ll need to take a hard look at the content you’re presenting.

Visit duration dovetails nicely with “Bounce Rate”, which is a measure of how many visits result in a single page viewed followed by an immediate exit. A bounce is likely (though not always) a visitor who didn’t find what they wanted – they came to a page on your site and left. However, with more and more sites presenting a lot of vital information on a single page these days, high bounce rates are not uncommon. One way to reduce high bounce rates is to build landing pages for your products and services that encourage users to explore further with a prominent call-to-action – e.g. a “Click for more info!” or an invitation to a special offer or discount.

The last vital statistic for visitors is the percentage of new vs. returning visitors. If your goal is to bring in new customers via your website, you want a healthy number of new visits every month – that is, users that have not visited your site in the past. If you have a site where existing users must come back all the time to get new information (say, order status information) then it’s not unusual to have a high percentage of return visitors. In that case, your returning visitors might make up as much as half of your total visitors.

Now you’ve got a picture of what visitors are doing when they come to your site: How many of them came, how many of those were new, how long they stayed, and how many of them came in and left immediately. The final set of metrics you need to understand are what, exactly, your visitors are looking at when they come to your site.

Content is King

Under the “Content” menu in Google Analytics is your other vital set of statistics: information on the pages that users view. This one is pretty straightforward, but you’ll want to check it out frequently. It’s a simple list of the top pages viewed on your site, along with a percentage of total views for each page. If a page has “5.5%” next to it, that means all its views constituted 5.5 percent of the total page views during that period.

For most sites, the homepage (usually “home” or “index”) will have the vast majority of page views, unless your site is structured in such a way that a particular product or service of yours is vastly more popular than everything else on your site. The key here lies in what’s directly below that home page statistic: What are the other pages on your site that are most popular? You may find, for instance, that a product or service of yours is much more popular online than it is in other areas of your marketing presence.

What do you do with all this information? Visitor numbers should give you an idea of how your site is performing (and growing) overall, and whether or not the content on your site is appealing to visitors. Content metrics provide insight into which areas of your site are most popular. That might lead you to push a product or service harder, or it might indicate that something you feel should be popular on your site needs more prominent placement. With just a few simple numbers, you can analyze and make changes to your site to squeeze the best possible performance out of it.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Categories: Articles, How-to

Are QR Codes a Retro Marketing Miracle?

QR Code for www.eblox.com

Scan this with your cameraphone – you’ll wind up at eBlox.com

QR codes are popping up everywhere these days, from store windows to packaging to magazine ads. You’ve probably seen them; they look an awful lot like a cross between a bar code and badly-pixelated artwork from a 1980s video game. They’re black and white with big squares on three of the corners and, like their more primitive counterpart, the UPC barcode, they store encoded information in that mass of glitchy-looking pixels.

More information, in fact, than the short set of numbers that a barcode can represent. Originally designed to help automate car manufacturing, QR codes—the QR stands for “Quick Response”—are now employed by marketers of all stripes to transmit a large block of information in an image, often to a phone.

The general idea is this: You see something that interests you —say, an ad, a sign or a shelf tag in a store—and you take your smartphone and snap a picture of the QR code that’s displayed along with it. Many smartphone apps can read these codes and take action on them. For instance, the Google app on your iPhone can decode a QR code directly and read the information from it (the Google app, along with many others, can also do the same nifty trick with regular barcodes).

It’s pretty cool, and there’s something satisfying about deciphering this clutter of computer-generated code into its real-world output. QR codes are also compact, can be printed just about anywhere, and require nothing more than a quick snapshot from your camera to record their information. In some ways, they’re like the quickest note you’ve ever taken.

Take Me Back

Yet if taking a picture of a strange, pixelated code seems a little bit, well, dated to you, that’s because it is. The format of QR codes is almost 20 years old, and there’s something quaint (and, to my mind, a little bit backwards) about scanning codes to get information. In this world of wireless communication, texting, instant messaging, Bluetooth and apps, it’s odd to have to take a picture of a code to get vital information about a company or product.

In fact, if you’re a geek like me, this may give you an overwhelming sense of déjá vu. Back in the late 90s, when the first internet boom was just gearing up, a product called the CueCat was released that did much the same thing – except you had to plug it into your PC in order to read the barcodes. Wired and a number of other magazines joined in briefly with the CueCat hysteria, printing odd slanted barcodes in their publications that you could scan with a cat-shaped reader (I’m not kidding) and have the information input directly to your PC. Because, you know, typing the URL of a website was such a chore – you needed a plastic cat with a cable for a tail to do it for you.

Of course, we now have smartphones with capable cameras, so you don’t need a fake feline to read the codes, and the web browser in your phone can go directly to the web site or resource that the QR code specifies. But, this leads to my primary problem with the current excitement over QR codes—do we really need them? In most cases, at least in a marketing or retail environment, they’re used to transmit very simple information, like the web address of a company. For the marketers, they do have the advantage of also transmitting that the visitor arrived via a QR code—which is great for the marketers to know, but useless for the consumer, who just wants to get information.

So, scan a code with your smartphone, wind up at a website. It’s not too hard to type the URL of a website into your phone (some of you with fat fingers might disagree with me, but still), so it’s tough to see QR codes in a marketing or retail campaign as much more than a gimmick. Mind you, I’m not suggesting QR codes or any type of barcoding are gimmicky when used in situations like purchasing, badge scanning, manufacturing, and so on. But in an ad for a beer company that takes you to that beer company’s website and nothing more? That’s a gimmick.

Which is not to say gimmicks are a bad thing. Many of them work, especially if they have a gee-whiz factor, and QR codes get people excited about what their smartphones can do. Look, it’s a scanner! The risk with any gimmick, however, is whether or not it will hold its appeal.

Should You Use Them?                   

For marketers looking to make it simple for their customers to get to their e-commerce website or download their app, QR codes are a potentially risky investment. Luckily, they’re inexpensive to implement and relatively innocuous—few consumers will be bothered by the presence of a small barcode in an ad or on packaging or signage. Still, it’s worth considering some of the threats to the long-term livelihood of this old-school technology:

  1. Wireless replacements: While wireless technology might not supplant QR codes printed in magazine and newspapers, elsewhere the threat of wireless technology is very real. Google and others have put their support behind NFC (Near Field Communication), which is a technology very similar to the SmartPass gas station payment cards and security system access cards that many of your currently use. NFC and RFID (a similar system that is slowly replacing barcoding in many warehousing and distribution systems) both constitute substantial threats to QR codes as they become more inexpensive and ubiquitous. After all, if you could get information about a product just by waving your phone near it (instead of holding up and focusing your camera) wouldn’t that be much simpler? As these technologies get even cheaper and smaller, don’t be surprised to find an NFC code in your favorite magazine or in a shelf talker at your grocery store.
  2. Limitations: While QR codes can store many times the information of a barcode, they’re still very limited in most forms. They’re fine for a website URL, a link to an app, or a special link to a promotion, but they’re not too useful for longer-form information. It’s best to think of QR codes as a quick way to transmit a short blast of information—at most, someone’s full contact info – but not much else.
  3. Fatigue: Like all gimmicks, QR codes run the risk of becoming passé, even as they enter the mainstream. As a supplementary form of marketing your product, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a QR code onto your marketing materials. But any marketing strategy that relies purely on QR codes for user response is likely going to be short-lived.

In a strange way, QR codes are actually forward-thinking: they are geared primarily toward mobile users of smartphones. Mobile web usage is skyrocketing and there’s no doubt that a good deal of the future of marketing lies on the mobile web. If you do build QR code campaigns, make absolutely sure that your landing pages (the pages that users go to when they scan the QR code) are mobile-friendly. But I’d recommend against building your mobile strategy on QR codes—they’ll likely be replaced by more advanced technology before you know it.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Categories: Articles