An open letter to American Express

Dear American Express,

I have been a loyal customer of yours for around 20 years. (Likewise my significant other.)

I typically pay my monthly statements on time and in full.

I’ve opted for paperless statements.

I pay my annual membership fee.

I even accept the fact that 7-8 times out of 10, I get charged merchant fees for paying by Amex – and in most cases I incur much higher fees than other credit or debit cards.

So, I am very surprised I have not been invited to attend your pop-up Open Air Cinema in Melbourne’s Yarra Park – especially as I live within walking distance.

It’s not like you don’t try to market other offers to me – mostly invitations to increase my credit limit, transfer outstanding balances from other credit cards, or “enjoy” lower interest rates on one-off purchases.

The lack of any offer in relation to the Open Air Cinema just confirms my suspicions that like most financial institutions, you do not really know your customers.

My point is, that you must have so much data on my spending patterns and preferences, from which you should be able to glean my interests such as film, the arts, and entertainment.

A perfect candidate for a pop-up cinema!

Next week: Life After the Royal Commission – Be Careful What You Wish For….

 

Looking back on 6 years of blogging

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past 12 months, the season of lists and growing wistfulness (to misquote Keats). Time to think about the year that was, and what might have been. I have been writing this blog for 6 years, and it seems like a good opportunity to take stock, as Content in Context takes a break until the new year.

First, some facts. The most popular post this year has been “I’m old, not obsolete”, even though it was published more than three years ago. In a similar vein, my most popular posts of all time could both be regarded as evergreen articles: one about crate digging in Japan, and another about the new conglomerates (update here). This year’s most popular new posts were both about Blockchain (here and here). In fact, I have mentioned the broader topic of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and digital assets more than 50 times in the past 5 years, starting with a reference to CoinJar in mid-2013. Not too surprising, given this is where I have been focusing most of my efforts over the past two and half years.

Second, as regular readers will know, I have tried to be very disciplined about the frequency and scheduling of my posts. Whether this is purely for my benefit, or whether it helps my audience, I don’t know – but it seems to work, as I need a regular deadline, and posting on a weekly basis avoids the risk of fatigue (my own and the readers’).

Third, I realise it took me a while to find my voice – and to gain confidence in sharing my thoughts and ideas in public. Some of my early efforts didn’t quite hit the mark, as I was either trying too hard or I hadn’t yet identified what made my content have impact. Over time, based on reader feedback, the more I express my own opinions (rather than regurgitating other people’s’ views) the more that people engage with the content.

Fourth, I have always maintained two key principles in producing this blog: 1) every word is my own; and 2) no cash for comment. Over the years, I have been approached by numerous freelance bloggers who want to produce articles for me (for a fee, of course); and by PR firms who want to push sponsored content on behalf of their clients. I have managed to avoid going down that path. Nothing wrong with either activity, but it’s not in keeping with what I set out to do, and it would undermine my desire to be authentic – plus, I think it would potentially compromise my independence.

Finally, writing this blog often helps me to work out my thoughts, and develop them into ideas that I can use for my consulting work. At the same time, this platform allows me to air my views on topics which don’t immediately relate to my professional life – but which are consistent with my personal perspective and tastes. And while this blog doesn’t define who I am, it does form part of my personal branding, and I also hope it is a true reflection of my beliefs and values.

On that note, my I wish all my readers a safe, peaceful and reflective festive season. Usual output will resume in the New Year.

 

 

 

 

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

#AngelCube favours B2B #startups…

The latest intake to AngelCube‘s accelerator program presented at the recent Startup Victoria meetup event. It was interesting to see that all 6 pitches were aimed at B2B audiences, since I have heard several angel investors and startup advisers express a strong preference for end-consumer products (or those with 2-sided markets). Perhaps there is more appetite for enterprise solutions, despite the longer lead times for sales, and the challenge of strategies required to displace incumbant products.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.18.46 pmWhether there is a new interest in B2B startups, or whether more founders are identifying B2B opportunities, there’s probably some further analysis to be done. Meanwhile, here are the 6 fledgling startups in the order they pitched on the night:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.45.53 pm1. Peer Academy

Peer Academy aims to “change the way professionals learn”. It does this by offering students access to open enrollment classes via an online market place. The classes are conducted by facilitators and experts (“hosts”) who have been “screened” for quality by Peer Academy, with a focus on “soft” management and leadership skills.

Peer Academy hopes that students will act as “warm leads” for corporate sales, by taking their classroom experience back into their organisations, and acting as champions or brand advocates. With follow-up introductions to training and HR managers, Peer Academy then curates programs for corporate clients, by matching training needs to individual users.

I like the notion of “peer-to-peer” learning (although I presume that the hosts are expected to have more advanced and developed skills than their students), and there is certainly a trend for alternative learning platforms. At least one major bank has expressed interest in sourcing corporate training via Peer Academy, who take a 30% commission on course sales.

A huge challenge will be to engage corporate clients who already have established relationships with trusted training providers, or who have existing panels of approved organisations, or who outsource training procurement to third parties.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.04.05 pm2. Jack

Workplace wellbeing is becoming big business ($5bn and counting?), and in the process, sedentary workers are in the firing line. According to Apple CEO TIM Cook, “Sitting is the new cancer”, and hence the recent fad/trend/fashion for sit-stand desks which is driving market interest in ergonomic solutions. The team at Jack have built a device that can monitor how much time people are sitting or standing, and even provide some feedback on user posture.

As you would expect, Jack uses cloud connectivity to monitor user activity, and to relay data via cross-platform apps and dashboards. It also uses elements of social media engagement and gamification, and has already launched a pilot scheme with several desk suppliers, as well as a paid beta at a well-known payments provider.

Customers will buy the device plus pay for a monthly subscription service. There is a direct competitor, but Jack claim their device can be retrofitted to any sit-stand desk. The unit price is much higher than, say a Fitbit, but since this is not a consumer product, Jack is confident it can sustain current pricing.

Finally, with the data it aims to collect, Jack reckons it may even be able to help reduce insurance premiums, although this will no doubt be subject to actuarial scrutiny, Work Cover and OH&S requirements, as well as data privacy issues.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.24.11 pm3. Coin-Craft

In the professional services and consulting sectors, tracking project costs and resourcing have become highly demanding activities – witness the plethora of project management, costing, billing, ERP and time-tracking solutions on the market. Based on personal experience, the founders of Coin-Craft have identified a specific need among architects, and have built an all-in-one tool for Project Management, Cashflow Analysis and Resource Planning. Built “for architects by architects”, Coin-Craft is designed to help clients stay optimal, by managing staff over/under utilisation, and tracking cashflow projections.

The system also claims to integrate with third-party accounting software, and has around a dozen firms using the service, with another 30 in the pipeline. Although Coin-Craft have chosen a niche client base to protect their market entry, they claim the solution can also be adopted by engineering practices, graphic art studios and project management firms.

However, feedback from the audience suggested there are already similar, mature products that are tracking individual billable hours against specific projects, so Coin-Craft may need to work on their value proposition and differentiation.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.38.22 pm4. CurveUp!

As social media and content marketing become more ubiquitous (if not more sophisticated), companies need to understand the value of their direct marketing spend. Mostly, they can do this via web analytics, e-commerce tracking, campaign conversions, and cost of customer acquisition. According to CurveUp! however, measuring the ROI of your PR activity is not so easy using “conventional” social media monitoring tools. For example, CurveUp! claim they can deliver tailored reports to show which blog post or article converted to a ticket sale for a concert or event.

Currently using web and online sources only, CurveUp! track mentions and link this to customer data. Some platforms, such as Instagram, are harder to track, and even via a possible API solution, it will only be possible to monitor the number of views and shares, but otherwise little or no data will be available.

However, at least one online market place has expressed interest, and CurveUp! has the potential to integrate with Facebook and Google, so that clients could possibly use campaign codes to track referral activity from mention to firm sale. Overall, the service will need to align itself with the ROI outcomes linked to PR campaign goals – which will vary between clients and markets, depending on organisational KPIs around brand advocacy, share of wallet, products per customer and customer satisfaction.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.56.07 pm5. TribeGrowth

In a similar vein, the team at TribeGrowth claim to have built “artificial intelligence for social media marketing“. Their goal is to help clients build an audience and get customers, via the use of “intelligent engagement” to generate conversions.

Initially targeting startups, professional service providers and the hospitality sector, TribeGrowth offers a tiered monthly subscription service, and claims to be a (cheaper) alternative to agencies or even Twitter ads.

Currently in private beta (and so far, only designed for Twitter and Instagram), TribeGrowth focuses on audience growth by careful selection of connections and influencers. According to the founders, this is not “pay & spray”, but uses machine learning to refine audience outreach and engagement.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 6.59.11 pm6. SweetHawk

Finally, and in what was probably the most technical presentation of the evening, came SweetHawk, which is building “voice for e-commerce”. I have to confess that, although I had previously heard about this product, I’m still not totally clear how it works.

In essence, it’s an outbound platform that enables companies to have more focused/targeted real-time conversations with warm sales prospects, namely people who are visiting their websites. Personally, I would find that a bit spooky, if I was browsing a site and suddenly a widget popped up asking me if I wanted to receive a call right there and then. Isn’t it a bit like stalking?

The business model is designed to offer tiered services in return for monthly subscription fees – depending on call volumes and functionality, such as workflow tools. I would see it as sitting somewhere between an outbound sales call centre and a SaaS-style inbound helpdesk solution.

On the plus side, I do see the opportunity to deliver superior and more responsive customer service, except that SweetHawk appears to be a sales and prospecting platform, not an after-sales or support solution. I’m also used to live chat tools that pop up on various software and other service sites I use, so I would probably engage with a similar offering if I was browsing to purchase.

Final Thoughts

While none of these pitches has so far demonstrated anything truly disruptive (but let’s not criticise them for that), they all seem reasonably sensible and logical solutions using a mix of digitally-driven technologies (cloud, mobile, social, peer-to-peer, data analytics) that we are all increasingly familiar with. So, rather than major game changers, I see each of them building on established platforms. By refining the potential that new technologies and business models are creating, they are tapping into better-defined client needs rather than taking a “build it and they will come” approach.

In conclusion, I was generally impressed by the 6 pitches on offer, although some of the presentations will no doubt be reworked in light of the audience feedback and Q&A, and before the plucky founders hit the investor road show organised by AngelCube.

The event was hosted by inspire9, and sponsored by BlueChilli and PwC.

Next week: More on FinTech – another look at data and disintermediation