Acquired by Amazon: Who Might Be Next

I recently wrote an article for the Software Advice blog discussing eight companies Amazon.com might acquire. The article was meant to be thought-provoking and controversial; I concede that all of the companies I mention are longshots for an acquisition. I was pleased by how much discussion the article generated in the social media world and wanted to take a moment to briefly address some of the comments I’ve seen thus far.

One reader noted the US-centricity of the contender list. Indeed, I focused exclusively on American-based companies. Amazon is of course a global player and in the past has made several investments and acquisitions abroad. They will certainly continue to do so. As a side note, one of the companies I considered for my contender list was ASOS, the UK’s largest independent online fashion and beauty retailer.

Also, I focused exclusively on bigger-name companies. Realistically, most of Amazon’s acquisitions will be—and thus far have been—small, relatively unknown players. But of course, I don’t know these companies, and neither do you. Even if I could identify a few viable acquisition candidates, you, as a reader, would have no frame of reference by which to evaluate whether they made sense.

Another reader asked about an oft-cited acquisition contender: Barnes & Noble. Sure, their stock has been beaten down, making it cheap to buy, and now there’s talk of splitting off its Nook business, which Amazon wouldn’t want, anyway. But I just can’t see what Amazon stands to gain from buying B&N’s retail operations.

Other readers made comments that I feel reflect a misunderstanding of the real-world mechanics of acquisitions. For instance, some pointed out that some of the companies on my list “weren’t for sale.” Well, it’s extremely rare that a company publicly acknowledges that it’s looking for a buyer. But companies approach each other, unsolicited, all the time about acquisitions. They often suddenly become for sale if the price and deal structure are sufficiently compelling.

And, along those lines, companies don’t acquire others just because they’re cheap or seem like a “good deal.” There has to be some perception of—here comes the buzzword—strategic “synergy” between the two companies. In some cases, though, a tech-focused company like Amazon just wants to buy core technologies or key staff members. It’s about value, not about price.

What do you think? Check out the article on the Software Advice blog and leave a comment.

Is Product Marketing Dead?

I recently contributed a guest post to A Random Jog, an excellent blog about product marketing. My post, titled The End of Product Marketing, suggests that the entire field of product marketing–at least as know it today–is headed for extinction. I intended this post to be controversial, though I didn’t foresee how much discussion it would generate. Give it a read and add your thoughts to the excellent discussion thread.

 

 

The Irrelevance of Being Innovative

If my headline grabbed your attention, it accomplished its purpose. Yes, of course innovation is critically important for any company. What amazes me, though, is how many companies make the point that they’re innovative in their marketing efforts. In my view, this reflects a fundamental disconnect in understanding between what customers actually want and what companies think their customers want. It also reflects a more subtle disconnect between innovative companies and innovative products.

When was the last time you thought to yourself, “I’d prefer to buy a product from an innovative company?” I’m guessing never. It’s just not important. Whether their internal product development processes are innovative or not is irrelevant to you as a buyer.

Google is an innovative company. Do you use Google products because Google is an innovative company, or because their products provide value to you? If Google weren’t innovative at all but still somehow offered the products they currently do, would you still use them?

The obsession with claiming to be innovative isn’t limited to the tech sector. A few years ago, I recall Ford boasting in a TV ad for their F-150 pickup truck that they were innovative. They backed this up with an example of one of their innovative products: an engine with three valves per cylinder instead of two. Ironically, this wasn’t innovative at all. By the time this ad ran, most cars and trucks used four-valve designs, which were superior to a three-valve design. And Ford itself had used a three valve design a decade earlier on its Ford Probe GT. Moreover, multi-valve engine designs date back decades—and Ford didn’t invent them. But even if the F-150 did have an innovative product component (a “feature” in the tech world), that still doesn’t mean Ford is an innovative company across the board, which is what the ad specifically claimed. (In fact, I think very few people would describe Ford as particularly innovative.) And again, does it matter? Do people evaluate which truck to buy based on whether it has innovative features or that it’s made by an innovative company?

All I’m saying is, you might want to buy an innovative product—but not because it’s innovative, and not because the company that makes it is good at innovation. Companies need to stop beating their chests about how innovative they are because, even if it’s true, customers don’t care.

Product Review: RivalMap

Every company I’ve worked with has struggled to stay on top of its competition. Competitors continuously come and go, merge and change names, and launch, end-of-life and rename products and services. Product marketers and product managers who typically “own” competitive information in companies come and go, too, as do the miscellaneous tools they use to track and organize all this information.

To help address these issues, RivalMap (www.rivalmap.com) from California-based RivalSoft is a Web-based SaaS application priced at $24-$199/month that centralizes and organizes information about your competitors. Its core functionality is divided into five areas:

  • Dashboard presents a rolling list of what’s new and what’s hot.
  • Posts is where RivalMap users enter nuggets of competitive information, add links, upload files, or discuss ongoing competitive issues. These posts are presented in the dashboard.
  • Profiles are descriptions of competitors and their products or services, along with SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, tags, related files, concerns and more for each competitor.
  • News displays RSS feeds about competitors (if available).
  • Comparisons allows you to make graphical comparison charts of product functionality.

After having used RivalMap for several months—in an environment with 20 users, tracking 30 companies—my impressions are mixed. A few standout positives:

  • RivalMap is a relatively inexpensive, easy to learn and use tool that does a good job at storing and organizing competitive information.
  • The fact that it’s Web-based and requires authentication makes it convenient and safe to access by distributed sales and marketing teams.
  • The ability to set up email alerts for new posts and to submit posts via email is great.
  • The comparison chart tool is superb.

Alas, RivalMap has a few issues.

First, elements of RivalMap’s interface are quirky and would benefit from some finessing. For instance, when looking at the most useful screen, the Dashboard (analogous to the News Feed on Facebook), posts about various competitors are displayed by their subject line but the name of the competitor to which the post refers is not displayed. This makes it hard to tell, at a glance, what posts relate to which competitor—imagine Facebook status updates without knowing who posted them. Also, the posts display how many days ago the post was made; a simple date-stamp would be more useful here.

Another area that needs work is the wiki used to enter notes (“profiles” in RivalMap parlance) about competitors. Like many wikis, the editing capabilities are extremely limited. Glaring example: you can’t skip lines. When these profiles get long, they got hard to read.

The News system should theoretically be the most useful functionality in RivalMap, but I actually found it to be the least useful. In short, it aggregates too much and doesn’t present information in an easily digestible format. There are plenty of other free tools that do a better job at compiling this kind of information.

My second issue is that I feel like there are some things missing—this isn’t a criticism of RivalMap, but rather more of a wishlist. How about auto-populating Profiles of publicly-traded companies from one or more database services? How about having RivalMap automatically search the Web for news about competitors instead of relying on RSS? How about integrating other off-the-shelf tools that could be useful for competitive intelligence (Google News Alerts and WatchThatPage.com come to mind). How about some rudimentary social media integration to add the Twitter feeds of your competitors? And in Profiles, it would also be nice if you could set up a template for filling these in (e.g., Product Names, Pricing, Where We Compete, etc.), rather than having them be completely free-form.

In the end, the real question about RivalMap is whether it’s better than other tools out there. And there isn’t another tool quite like RivalMap out there that I’m aware of, though there are of course dozens of substitutes for specific functionality within it, most of which are free or low cost. Any wiki, for instance, could enable group note sharing about competitors. Any news reader could automate collection of public information about competitors. You could make comparison charts with a spreadsheet or word processing application. You could create a simple intranet site for collecting and disseminating all this information. And so on.

But perhaps that is the point of RivalMap. RivalMap brings all these functions into one tool. There’s always value in consolidation, even if each tool isn’t as good as some of the other tools out there. From that perspective, RivalMap can be perceived as a steal for as little as $24/month. There’s also a free plan with some limitation, if you just want to try it out.

Other reviews of RivalMap:

Registration Required: Yes, No, Maybe So?

There’s an ongoing debate in the online marketing world about whether visitors to your website should be required to register before downloading an informational asset you offer, such as a white paper. My position has wavered on this, but now—in most cases, at least—I’m in the camp that you should not.

Most companies consider the free resources they offer on their websites to be lead generation vehicles. It seems like a reasonable trade: you get valuable information, while they get your contact information for sales prospecting. If someone wants your information badly enough, they’ll of course provide their contact information to get it.

But let’s be honest: most of the free information assets you find on the Web aren’t particularly valuable, and many are nothing more than thinly-veiled advertisements. As a result, site visitors are increasingly unwilling to be added to yet another contact database to gain access to your “valuable” information—which means that if you require registration, far fewer people will download your asset.

The obvious counterpoint to this is that the people who do provide their contact information are probably better prospects for your company, anyway, so it’s fine if only a handful of people register to download your assets as long as that helps you obtain a high-quality prospect list…right?

I see this kind of thinking as a missed opportunity. The obsession with “building a list” revolves around short-term sales goals and, more accurately, sales qualification goals—typically, someone who downloads an asset will be contacted within 24 hours and qualified as quickly as possible; if they don’t meet the minimum qualification criteria, they’re essentially forgotten.

Wouldn’t better goals be to use information assets to build market awareness, establish thought leadership, and encourage the viral spread of your marketing messages? If so, you should want as many people as possible to download your assets, which means removing any potential obstacles for people to do so. The more people who download them, the more people will be introduced to your company’s name and your way of thinking. Good content, like a legitimately educational white paper, will get passed around the Internet thousands of times. It’s incredibly hard, and expensive, to get that kind of exposure in any other way.

In comparison, think about blogs. If I asked you to register to read this blog, would you? How much extra time and money would I have had to put into marketing my company and this blog to overcome your natural resistance to give out your email address? A lot, right? By putting this blog out there—so anyone, anywhere can read it without having to give up anything—I’m engaging in a long-term, open conversation with the world. Perhaps one of you will become a client of mine someday, or perhaps not. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that you now know something about me, my views, and yes, my company. In this regard, a white paper or any other asset is no different. All you should really want is for people to read it—not to get another prospect to qualify.

For some other perspectives on this issue:

I’m curious what you think. Please add a comment.

Worst Practices in Site Search

If your website has a lot of content, you need to make it easy for visitors to search your site for the information they want. The easiest, quickest, cheapest solution I typically recommend to clients is to implement Google Site Search. It works flawlessly, and your users are already familiar with its user interface and the way it delivers search results.

Despite the availability of Google Site Search, I still see countless custom site search engines that for the most part just don’t work well. The most common problems are irrelevant or meaningless results, far too many results to be useful, or infrequent indexing.

Here’s an extreme example of things gone wrong. The search function within the online help system of a popular e-commerce platform has a bizarre quirk. If you search for “how to add a product”— a very common search string for an e-commerce platform— you will get six pages of results like these:

search

There are a few obvious problems here. First, the search engine is not smart enough to ignore words like “to” and “a.” Second, the results highlight every instance of “to” and “a,” even if the characters are part of another word. As bad as these two problems are, there’s a much bigger problem: of the 40+ results you get, not one comes close to explaining how to add a product!

Another problem site: IRS.gov. Try searching for “Schedule C”. The good news is, the very first search result is for the PDF version of the Schedule C form, and the second result is for the instructions on how to complete Schedule C. The bad news is that there are 3,930 results thereafter, with unhelpful results like these:

irs

Another common problem I encounter are site search engines that don’t re-index sites frequently enough. Some engines don’t even do this automatically from time to time – the webmaster has to manually re-index the site. This can result in outdated results with broken links.

Take some time today to test your site search functionality. If it’s not up to par, a small investment in Google Site Search — which starts at just $100 per year — will be money well spent.

Take a Shortcut

A primary goal in all your online marketing initiatives should be to make it easy—not tricky—for your customers and other interested parties to connect with your organization. Which is why I was shocked to come across an advertisement in Car and Driver magazine for Purolator oil and air filters. At the bottom of the full-page ad for was this sentence:

Save up to $6 by logging on to www.purolatorautofilters.net/Pages/PromoA.aspx

Seriously? How many people will type in that URL? And what percentage of people who try will make a spelling error that will prove fatal, such as typing “.com” instead of “.net,” or “.asp” instead of “.aspx?”

A better way for Purolator to have handled this would be to use a simplified URL such as http://www.purolatorautofilters.net/cd (to indicate the campaign source as Car and Driver). I’m guessing there were minor technical issues that made it easier for Purolator to implement it the way they did, but that’s not the point: they should do the extra work to make it easier for their customers, not make their customers do extra work.

Another approach to shorter, easier to use URLs is using one of the many free online shortcut URL services, such as tinyurl.com, budurl.com, or bit.ly. Using budurl, for instance, the long Purolator URL would become a much more manageable budurl.com/7xux. Moreover, these shortcut URLs mask bizarre or hard to spell company names. Another key advantage of these short URLs is that they’re easy for your customers to spread virally, such as in Twitter updates, in emails, or in status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Help your customers help you!