The Levels move to The Cowshed

ImageAfter the last 3 years enjoying the Georgian splendour of Bath, the bars, the restaurants and the vibrant digital community we thought it was time to have an office all of our own. So, we’ve ditched beautiful Bath and taken up residence in The Cowshed at Castle Farm.  We’ve now got the best of both worlds with the rolling Somerset countryside on our doorstep, the M5 only 10 minutes away and London just 90 minutes on the train.

We’ve also set ourselves up with a new training and seminar room with space to hold courses for up to 20 people – more of that to come in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime we thought we’d make all you city dwellers very jealous with the view from our office window. If you fancy a visit then remember to pack to your wellies!

Our new contact details are:

Postal Address: The Levels, The Cowshed, Castle Farm, Enmore, Somerset, TA5 2DU.

Telephone: 01278 671 082

Barclays Pingit. A baby step in the right direction.

Within 2 days of launch over 20,000 Brits have signed up to use Pingit, the mobile money transfer service at the heart of the Barclays’ emerging channel strategy.

We are The Levels have long been waiting for a Google Wallet type service to be launched here in the UK and we were horribly over excited when rumours started to emerge about what Barclays were up to late last year.  Pingit is a small but significant step in the right direction allowing you to transfer money to others in the UK via your mobile phone.

If you decide to use the Pingit service, your recipient will receive a text message when you send the cash.  All they need to do is to register with Pingit, either by downloading the app or register online at  www.barclays.co.uk/pingit.  All rather slick hey?

There are some downsides -Barclays accept no responsibility if you Ping the wrong person (so make sure you’ve got the right mobile number!) and they also retain the right to hold your mobile number and that of your recipient for marketing purposes. If you want to opt out of the marketing messages you have to, quite literally, send them a letter.

We’re pretty sure that the novelty of the service will wear off and within a few months it’ll be seen as just another way to pay your friends for the half of the bar bill you “forgot” on Friday night.  But, we at The Levels see this as an important step by a British bank to get us, the great unwashed in the UK, used to mobile money transactions and the concept of micro-payments via mobile.

Banks, retailers and financial institutions have a vested interest here, a cashless payment is far cheaper for them to handle so of course Barclays et al want us to Ping for our coffee in the morning and for our taxi on the way home. Horribly convenient for us and more profitable for them.  We all win.

The MD of PayPal UK, Carl Scheible agrees.

“We’ll see a huge change over the next few years in the way we shop and pay for things. By 2016, you’ll be able to leave your wallet at home and use your mobile as the 21st century digital wallet.”

If you fancy debating the pros and cons of a cash-less society with us, we’re very much up for the debate.  However at this point we’d like to emphasise the better access to financial services that mobile micropayments present to all and above all the simple convenience of the whole process of mobile micro payments.  Well done Barclays for taking this baby step we look forward to see what happens next.

What’s the point of Yahoo?

As Carol Bartz is sacked we ask if the problems at Yahoo are simply caused by bad management.

The CEO of Yahoo, Carol Bartz, has been ousted from her job after just over 2 years at the helm of the rather troubled internet giant.  Apparently, she was informed by telephone that she no longer had a job and true to form sent a rather inappropriately worded email to all Yahoo staff announcing her sacking.

It could be argued that she’s been responsible for a lack lustre financial performance along with some questionable deals that included signing over their search operations to Microsoft.  Additionally, advertising revenues have remained flat during her time at the helm even though the market has been growing significantly.

So, Ms Bartz, you’re out of a job and the blame game is successfully in play.  But we at The Levels think that the problems at Yahoo are far more deep-rooted than simply some bad management.  What is the point of Yahoo?  Are you a media company, a technology giant, a communication provider?  When you look in the mirror what is it that you see?  Until you can answer this question we don’t think it matters who’s at the helm the problems you’re facing will only get worse.

As Microsoft, Apple & Google continue to carve up the digital world in a land grab that reminds us all to clearly of the Age of Empires (& no we don’t mean the computer game), what is the future for Yahoo without a clearly defined identity and raison d’etre?

So, if the board of Yahoo are listening we’d like to make the following suggestions:

1. Sell off your Asian assets

2. Don’t try to take on Facebook – do we really need ANOTHER social network?

3. Concentrate on what you do well and define yourselves through that.  See yourself as a communications provider and deliver the very best services out there.

4. Hire some good ad sales execs.

As we go to press we hear that an All Hands meeting of the Yahoo board and senior management is under-way.  Hopefully we’ll get some of those answers!

Read the original report of the sacking at AllThings D

Microsoft and Apple find common purpose as they gang up on Google

Apple versus Google in mobile warsHead on over to the official Google blog and you’ll find a very interesting article posted yesterday (August 4th 2011) entitled “When Patents Attack Android” that went on to spark a very pubic and very bitter argument  between the technology giants.

Chief Legal Officer at Google, David Drummond, used the original post to launch a highly critically attack on Microsoft, Apple & others for buying up mobile technology patents with the direct intention of limiting innovation and forcing up prices for handsets using the Android operating system.  In Drummond’s own words

“Android’s success has yielded…a hostile, organized campaign against Android by Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and other companies, waged through bogus patents”

This is what seems to have happened.   A group of companies (Rockstar) led by Apple and Microsoft have acquired a number of old patents previously held by Novell & Nortel that cover mobile operating software.  They were purchased for the princely sum of $4.5 billion, 5 times more than the pre-auction estimate.  A hefty investment and one seemingly made to inflict maximum pain on Google’s ambitions for the mobile space.

In doing so they are now able to levy a $15 licensing fee against every handset that uses the Android system.  They’re taking violations of these patents very seriously and have already launched suits against Samsung, HTC and Motorola.

Google have hit back and called upon the US Department of Justice to look into this purchase citing it as anti-competitive.   Google claim that the Rockstar group are both stifling innovation and limiting consumer choice and that rather than competing “by building new features or devices, they are fighting through litigation“.

At this point  Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith disputed Drummond’s version on the Novell patent issue on Twitter.

“Google says we bought Novell patents to keep them from Google. Really? We asked them to bid jointly with us. They said no,” Smith tweeted in response to the blog.

And so it seems to go on with executives from both sides taking shots at each other over the issue.  But with the mobile market continuing to expand and the prize of dominating the (non-Apple) mobile OS space being granted to the winner of this fight we think it’s going to get much worse for both sides.

To read the original Google blog post go to

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/when-patents-attack-android.html

 

 

 

 

Has Android killed the video games star?

As sales of Android powered smartphones soar across the globe, Nintendo announces drastic cuts to it’s profit outlook and slash the cost of the new 3DS by up to 40%.   Has the Google effect finally hit the video gaming mark?Image of Nintendo 3DS

In a striking reversal of fortune for the world’s largest video game maker, Nintendo drastically cut its annual profit outlook on Thursday and said it would deeply discount its new 3DS hand-held device as it struggles to stem a flow of users to casual gaming across other platforms such as smartphones and tablets.

On August the 12th , Nintendo will cut the price of the 3DS, introduced in March, by 40 percent in yen and 32 percent in dollars, a remarkable drop so soon after a game system’s debut.

Nintendo said it lost 25.5 billion yen  in the three months that ended June 30, the first quarter of its fiscal year, as sales plunged 50 percent from a year earlier. The loss prompted Nintendo to lower its annual profit forecast 82 percent, to 20 billion yen ($257 million) for the year ending in March, down from a previous estimate of 110 billion yen. The company also slashed its annual sales forecast by 18 percent, to 900 billion yen.

The gaming giant had been looking to the 3DS, its first major innovation since the launch of the revolutionary Wii home console, to propel them back to the heady days of the success they achieved with the console so memorably advertised by Jamie Redknapp!  This hand-held machine lets users play games that appear in 3-D, without the need for the weird geek-boy glasses that accompany most current 3-D technology.

But sales of the 3DS — which went on sale in February in Japan and in March in other parts of the world — have fallen short of expectations, hurt partly by the device’s worldwide release date, just after the devastating earthquake that struck Japan in March.  However, this isn’t the root of the problems.

Nintendo have been badly hit by the huge up turn in sales of the Android powered smartphones that are being purchased in such large numbers that Samsung overtook Apple in terms of sales in Q2 of this year.

Smartphones that run Google’s Android operating system are the perfect platform for causal gamers to play instantly downloadable games and critically don’t require gamers to carry multiple devises as they travel.     Smartphones also allow users access to games played within social networks like the now ubiquitous Farmville.

Yes, the 3D technology is amazing and Nintendo have produced another revolutionary product but unlike the Wii this handheld is facing massive competition on multiple fronts.  Will casual gamers invest in this technology when smartphones are delivering a good (if not great) experience but critically a massive choice of available games, many of them free?    So with cost, portability and gaming choice already stacking up against the 3DS, do Nintendo have any choice but to slash prices?

Nintendo has dominated the last generation of consoles with the Wii  but for now, players complain of a lack of games for the 3DS, a problem that plagues most new systems. Nintendo said Thursday that two flagship titles for the 3DS — Super Mario 3DLand and Mario Kart 7 — would go on sale in November and December. The releases are expected to improve sales of the device.

But unless more consumers start buying the 3DS soon, third-party developers could be discouraged from making games for it, leading to a vicious cycle of fewer games released and fewer 3DS units sold.

Nintendo is hoping that the steep price cut will help drive sales. From August the 3DS will cost 15,000 yen in Japan, down 40 % from the original price of 25,000 yen.

In a letter posted online, Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president and chief executive, offered a profuse apology to Nintendo users, saying that lowering prices so soon after a game machine’s release was a painful move.

“Never in Nintendo’s history have we lowered prices to such an extent, less than half a year since the product launch,” Mr. Iwata said. “But we have judged that unless we move decisively now, there is a high possibility that we will not see many of our customers enjoying a Nintendo 3DS.”

Say hello to the new Leveller!

We’re delighted to announce that we’ve just appointed a new Leveller, Matthew Winwood who joins us as Managing Partner.  Matthew has launched some of the biggest and best websites in Europe including Techradar.com and joins us as we move into helping businesses across the UK and Europe improve their digital content offering.

Matthew has extensive experience in the web analytics and digital publishing industries  and will be working with clients to ensure that the content they are deploying works across multiple digital channels to drive maximum engagement, conversation and most importantly conversion.

You can get in touch with Matthew at matthew@the-levels.com.

Welcome to The Levels Matthew!

Business issues you should consider before you launch your website

Website launch party imageAt The Levels we agree with the mantra that it’s all in the planning!  Every now and again we’re asked what we think are the most important business issues to consider when launching a website and we keep coming back to that mantra.

Write your business plan, consider your customer, understand your market and your place within it.  Once you’re confident you have a great product, you’ve engaged with a web development agency and you’re about to hit the “Go Live”  button stop for a minute.   Take a look at the site afresh and go through the following check list.

1. SEO AUDIT

Run a full SEO technical audit of the site: However good (& or expensive!) your web development agency is, it’s vital that you take another look at the site from Google’s perspective.  It doesn’t matter how powerful your content is or how numerous your site back links may be, if you don’t have a clean & searchable site you’ll struggle to place well at Google and the other search engines.  An SEO audit of your test site will allow you to fix any major issues before you launch.

2. ANALYTICS
In order to measure the success of your site and to spot any usability issues it’s vital that you’ve deployed an appropriate web analytics tool.  Spend some time with your provider or your web development agency configuring the tool to measure  the success metrics applicable to your business and to flag any usability issues that might present themselves after launch. If you’re spending any money marketing the site then ensure that your agency or marketing department is using your analytics tool to track these campaigns as well.
3. eCRM PROCEDURES & POLICIES
We all hope that no one will ever be critical of our site or the business we run but in reality everyone likes to complain some of the time!  Before you launch you need to understand exactly how you will deal with negative comments or complaints.  Have a clear & documented eCRM policy in place.  Ensure  that everyone in the organisation is aware of this and understands escalation policies. 
4. CONTENT POLICY,  CHECKLISTS & TRAINING
If you have a team of writers or contributors adding to the content at your site you need to establish the ground rules.  Work with them to establish a tone of voice and brand identity that will colour all of the content you deliver to your users. It’s also vital that they’re considering how their content will be consumed on-line.  Are they trained to write for the web? Are they aware of SEO considerations when uploading content?  Have they been fully trained on your content management system?  If you’re running a content heavy site it’s worth considering a “Writing for the Web” training course to refresh even the most experienced journalist on the latest trends and techniques.  

5. CHANGE MANAGEMENT
As with any business it’s vital that everyone involved in the launch and development of the site has clear sight of the change management responsibilities and procedures.  You must have well defined & documented sign off polices in place and quality checking on any changes that effect the user experience.  Many a great website has been ruined by a lack of change management. 
6. TEST, TEST & TEST AGAIN
Before you launch you need to test every element of the user experience again and again. Have you delivered a site that meets the needs of your users or the assumptions you have made about them?  If you have the resources to run lab tests to observe users travelling through your site then do it.  If your launch budget doesn’t run that far then ask your friends, family and colleagues to play with the test site and let you know what they make of it.  It’s better to delay the launch of a site which subsequently meets the expectations of your customers  than to launch with a substandard product.  TEST, TEST & TEST AGAIN

Social Media Tips for Small Business

As social media evolves and it becomes harder and harder to get your voice heard amongst the noise there are a few pieces of best practise that all businesses should follow.  These are especially pertinent for small to medium sized firms who are launching themselves into social media for the first time.a street with shops

1. Stick to what you know. If you’re a garden maintenance business we don’t want to hear about your views on the Alternative Vote. What we want are your tips for growing the perfect sweetpeas and a nudge when it’s time to get the tomato plants in. Remember you’re the expert and your customers will listen to you if you demonstrate these skills and give them genuinely interesting and informative information.

2. Tell me that you’ve joined the party. Let your customers know that they now have a new way to communicate with you. Put up a sign in your shop, email your customer database or add Facebook ‘Like’ functionality to your website. No one will know you’re there unless you tell us and talking to a void can be depressing for even the most optimistic of us.

3. Give me a reason to be your friend. Social media is a crowded place with everyone competing for your customers’ attention. How do you stand out in all that noise? Give them a reason to be your friend. If you’re an independent coffee shop will you be offering free refills for everyone who ‘Checks In’ with you on Foursquare? If you’re a fashion retailer can I be notified of sales and special offers via Facebook? You need to make your customers feel as if they’re being rewarded for their loyalty to you.

4. Make a plan and make some time. We all know how precious time is when you’re running your own small business and it may seem daunting to think about adding yet another task to the daily list of must-dos. The trick with social media is to plan ahead – think about what you want to post and pull together a weekly plan of attack. You can then use a service like Tweetdeck to schedule these updates well in advance and it’ll then go away and publish them for you across Facebook and Twitter at the right time and in the right place.

5. Remember that this is SOCIAL media. You need to be prepared for your customers to talk to you through these channels as well as listening to you. It might also be the case that they aren’t always saying nice things about you. If they have a reason to complain about service and they do this through social media this isn’t such a bad thing. Resolve the issue in public and show everyone just how much you care about customer service. Don’t ignore the complaint, deal with it and show all your customers how important they are to you.

ITV left standing as Google’s UK ad revenue soars

Thames TV logo ITV is left standing as Google’s UK ad revenues soars, but what is the relationship between TV and search and does the health of one mean the failure of the other?

It was only going to be a matter of time, but if research from the Guardian is to be believed this is the year when Google will take more advertising revenue from the UK market than ITV currently billed as our biggest advertising earner.

The number boffins have done their work and come up with some nifty calculations that track Google’s current growth rate (of about 25% per quarter) and made deductions for traffic acquisition costs.  This brings them to the conclusion that 2012 will see the search giant acheive advertising revenues of “between £2.4bn and £2.55bn”.  This compares to the “£1.7bn ITV will manage if it achieves a 15% rebound during 2011” according to these left leaning men of numbers.

So what does this say about the relative health of these two businesses and the advertising channels they represent?   Does the old maxim of “you never get fired for buying TV” still ring true?

Google appears to be going from strength to strength, but this does mean that there’s something rotten at ITV?  The short answer is no – they seem to be bouncing back after a torrid few years that saw ad revenues plummet but there’s been a decent recovery since 2010 and their advertising revenues are expected to rise again by 15% this year in part boosted by the Royal Wedding.

What Google have managed to deliver is both the democratisation of advertising coupled with transparency of reporting.  Now anyone who owns or manages a business large or small can reach a local, national and international audience and be confident that their money isn’t being wasted.   You don’t need to employ a fancy Soho creative agency to “translate your vision” to TV and you can set up an ad campaign from your sofa.

However, we should all be mindful that the most successful companies employ a “mixed media” approach to their marketing activities. They understand that our response to their message will be different while we’re searching than while we’re being entertained or reading a magazine.  To capture and hold our attention and to build a brand that is liked and recognised needs more investment than a few lines on a Google page.

There have been multiple studies that show the direct link between a new ad campaign on TV and the number of associated searches at Google.   Studies show that this uplift depreciates over time but that for the first few days and weeks of a campaign hitting our screens our search behaviour is altered.

A fascinating peice of reasearch from Matthew Chesnes and Ginger Zhe Jin in the US looks at the effect of above the line advertising on the number of searches made for prescription drugs.  They conclude that  “Overall, offline advertising increases not only the likelihood that a user searches for a drug, but also the intensity of search within a search session”

This study seems to back up the view that a mixed media approach will deliver a better outcome in the long run,  so big or small companies need to recognise this and try to diversify their spend and effort to incorporate  more than just search.

To read Chesnes and Zhe Jin’s research paper on “Direct-to-Consumer Advertising and Online Search” go to http://bit.ly/glPDQu

To read the Guardian article in full  http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/apr/15/google-uk-ad-revenue-itv