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Mobile Marketing Made Easier & Smarter: Urban Airship Launches New Publishing & Reporting Tools

February 17th, 2011 02:15 admin View Comments

airship150.jpgCross-platform mobile push notification and in-app purchase service Urban Airship announced two new features this morning that mobile savvy marketers are sure to find compelling. In a world fast becoming more mobile, more real time and more data-centric, these technologies are very well timed. Hopefully they’ll be self-correcting enough that app users won’t be driven crazy.

The company’s new Push Composer is a simple web-based publishing platform for publishing messages that will be delivered to app users’ iOS, Android or BlackBerry screens. Messages can be scheduled ahead of time and delivered to groups of users segmented by a variety of tags. The second new feature, UA Reports, displays daily metrics about notification open rates by time of day. With nearly 10 million notifications sent each day, Urban Airship says it intends to offer mobile marketing benchmarks, best practices for maximizing engagement through push and more data-centric insights in the near future.

An Unusual Company

We first wrote about Urban Airship eighteen months ago, when the then tiny startup unveiled its plans to act as a technology middle-man for app developers interested in outsourcing the infrastructure required to take advantage of the new push notifications and in-app purchasing on the iPhone. The company was founded by a scrappy group of engineers with a bizzarre story: their previous employer collapsed overnight, offering company computers in lieu of final checks, they built and sold an online bacon delivery website and a number of them were fortunate enough to receive unemployment payments for bootstrapping entrepreneurs under an innovative program from the state of Oregon.

Then they built Urban Airship. Led by serial innovator Scott Kveton, the company started landing customers fast and furious.

Fast forward to today and the now venture-backed startup says it has more than 7500 customers, using the company’s services in almost 16,00 different apps, and adds an average of 43 new customers each day. In addition to push and in-app sales, the company was powering some of the first experiments with iOS content subscription. Urban Airship’s list of customers is long and interesting, from Target to the Guardian, ESPN and Groupon. That’s right – this little startup powers the push notifications for the fastest growing tech company in history. Say what you will about Groupon (I’m no fan) but that’s impressive.

As we discussed in depth when it was revealed that push notifications were coming to the Twitter iPhone app, push enables new forms of interaction with mobile apps. Beyond increasing user engagement, push offers users opportunities to interact with apps in ways that are real-time, synchronous and rich with flow. The interruptive nature of push allows for finer-tuned prioritization of certain messages from certain sources. Push is a big deal, and Urban Airship makes it easy and systematic for app developers to implement it.

From its humble beginnings, the startup has now grown to 25 employees, has taken over a spacious office in Portland, Oregon and is quickly hiring many of the most cutting edge engineers, designers and sales people in that tech-rich town. The building now houses a number of mobile startups, including former Twitter engineer Alex Payne’s forthcoming BankSimple. A publicly available mobile device testing lab is in the works as well, gathering devices from manufacturers around the world for anyone to come and test their apps on.

Moving Beyond Speaking to Geeks

Urban Airship says that companies come to it to save time and money on deploying push notifications, but there’s far more than can be done once the customers are in the door. The startup is building new features quickly – some go over well (like RSS to push) and others have been slower to gain adoption, like the feature the company calls “rich media push.”

The two features the company is releasing today speak to a new audience, though. While the legacy product is ultimately an API play, the new features adress the needs of marketing organizations. Both features are being tested with existing customers but will be made generally available once that testing is complete.

The new Push Composer is like a little blogging platform, or a Twitter client, but for writing Push Notifications. An attractive UI allows anyone to compose short messages, schedule them for delivery and segment the audience based on tags that users may have opted-into or that a mobile app provider applied to people themselves. For example: one group of recipients might like the Portland Trailblazers, another group may be people who have opened a push notification within the previous 24 hours. Tagged groups can be whatever you like. Click send and boom, the message will be sent and received in seconds.

UAcomposer.jpg

At launch the Composer does not allow users to determine what screen in an app gets opened when a notification is viewed, but the company says that may be offered in the future. Right now when recipients view a notification, the app simply opens up its front page.

Even more interesting are the new UA Reports. At first the reports are simple. They just track app opens, time in app, and push volume over time.

In time, Urban Airship hopes to see what kinds of data their customers want and to offer a wide variety of information based on that data it collects, cross referenced with other data sources. The company says it believes that app developers will eventually make decisions based on the data the reports deliver: what kinds of notifications get the most response? What kinds of features are users best alerted to by push? Which features or content types should be more prominent in the experience of the app?

uareport.jpg

The company says, for example, that one of its customers, Slate Magazine, found that push notifications and icon badges for its mobile apps were being opened more often at 9 PM than at any other time of the day. In response, the company now regularly pushes new content and notifications around 8:30 to prime the pump for evening readers.

Push notifications are great for keeping users engaged with apps, but some mobile devices handle them better than others. On iOS they are frankly terrible – though rumors are flying that drastic improvements may be forthcoming.

Will putting push composition in the hands of marketers lead to notification overload, a declining user experience and consumer backlash? That seems like one of the risks, but one that Urban Airship hopes to tackle with data-based education about best practices. The company says it has one full time engineer dedicated to metrics right now, but does not offer any formal training or guidelines in pushing just right instead of too much.

“2011 is the year that mobile apps need to prove their value,” says Urban Airship’s Jason Glaspey in the company’s announcement today. “With thousands of apps fighting for consumer attention and an average app lifespan of one month or less, developers and marketers need powerful tools.”

With a full-speed-ahead attitude and plenty of momentum, Urban Airship will now try to provide just that kind of tools. Hopefully the data analysis the company shares with its customers will help keep trigger-happy push composers in check and not lead to an overwhelming flood of notifications. Time will tell. It looks like this new mode of communication is about to become easier and smarter than ever before.

Source: Mobile Marketing Made Easier & Smarter: Urban Airship Launches New Publishing & Reporting Tools

Techmeme Taps Twitter For Faster Headlines, Pithy Context

January 20th, 2011 01:39 admin View Comments

It’s been no secret that for a number of years now, quite a few posts you see on this site and others come directly as a result of a tweet from someone. It usually works like this: someone tweets out a bit of information either to quickly promote it — or even better, that they probably shouldn’t — and we jump all over it, adding context. But as fast as we are at that, it can still take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to get those posts up. And in some cases, that’s just not good enough for an aggregator like Techmeme. They want it now.

And now they’ll be able to get it now. Today, the service is launching the ability to turn tweets into Techmeme headlines. Yep, they’ll no longer have to wait for the first tech blog to jump on the news. They’ll just put up the tweet itself. That is, if it’s worthy.

So are we, the tech reporters who scan Twitter for news, now out of a job? We spoke with Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera about the new feature. He’s quick to point out that Techmeme still loves context and good angles — because the audience that reads Techmeme still loves context and good angles. Further, he notes that there will only be a few scenarios under which a tweet would hit Techmeme.

First of all, some straight-up product announcements sent via Twitter first have a good shot of making it if Techmeme can find it fast enough. Rivera says that companies who wish to utilizes this should add a “@Techmeme” or “@TechmemeFH” to their tweet (or simply link to Techmeme) so that they’ll be able to find it more quickly. Secondly, some rumors sent via Twitter that are generating a lot of buzz have a shot as well. And then there are the interesting tweets sent out that perhaps shouldn’t be sent. Rivera cites the post we did on then-Twitter developer Alex Payne tweeting about new Twitter.com features overshadowing third-party clients as one example of this.

Tweets will also be able to hit Techmeme in the discussion section (the smaller area of links below the main headlines). Here, Rivera expects more commentary about news items to appear. So if Robert Scoble has something interesting to say about a new Microsoft announcement, it could land here, for example.

This idea to add tweets to Techmeme follows the service’s willingness to look for information in places beyond traditional blogs. For example, they’ve linked to threads on Quora and Google Buzz in the past (something we’ve been doing more and more as well). But Twitter should now be a bigger part of this Techmeme ecosystem. And as long as it doesn’t put us out of work, we look forward to it.

Source: Techmeme Taps Twitter For Faster Headlines, Pithy Context

Take The Red Pill: The Rise Of The Hybrid Startup

December 24th, 2010 12:27 admin View Comments

Editor’s note: Glenn Kelman is the CEO of Redfin and formerly a co-founder of Plumtree Software. In this guest post he discusses the rise of the hybrid startup: with one foot in the virtual world, and one foot in the real. You can read his previous TechCrunch guest posts here.

Several years ago, before Gilt, One King’s Lane and Zulily, I argued that some of the most valuable, disruptive tech startups would be in commerce, not advertising, cutting out the middle man rather than adding another one. It’s fair to say that 2010′s fastest-growing technology companies have largely been examples of this trend.

Now there’s a second trend emerging in 2011 that seems at least as important: the hybrid business, with one foot in the virtual world and one foot in the real world. This isn’t the old “clicks-and-mortar” concept from the 1990s, which put web glitter on an old-school business, building Walmart.com for Walmart. A hybrid business is built entirely from scratch, to be innovative in its online technology and its real-world operations.

Redfin, for example, is a hybrid business: we couldn’t try to fundamentally change the real estate industry just by building a  real estate website, so we also hired a team of our own real estate agents, paid on customer satisfaction rather than commissions, and trained to use technology to make home-buying more transparent. What we’ve learned is that being able to straddle virtual and physical worlds makes us far more powerful than any company confined to one or the other.Morpheus Offers Neo the Red Pill, in the Matrix

The Rise of the Hybrids
We’re in increasingly good company. In the past month, I’ve talked to half a dozen other companies with hybrid business models. These can work on a tiny scale: the developers of an iPhone app for tracking local specials use a Filipino call-center for contacting bars and restaurants across the country. Or hybrids can hit it big: Redfin’s newest board member ran a $7 billion chain of used-car lots based on the idea that a computer-driven system could value a trade-in more precisely than a person.

Do these companies seem unglamorous to you? Not to me. It’s hard not to be curious and delighted that former Twitter engineer  Alex Payne is now co-founding a bank, which promises to be set apart as much by its corporate values and customer service as by its Android app. The reason everyone loves Square is that it involves an actual credit-card reader that you attach to your iPhone, the kind of gizmo that nobody except Steve Jobs or a Chinese manufacturer now considers building. Groupon is outpacing the revenues of local online guides because it has never been too squeamish or standoffish to hire thousands of sales people and copywriters to enroll coffeeshops in its deal-of-the-day promotions.

Even Amazon, which hid its telephone number for years to avoid talking to customers, now also has its own trucks that rumble down my street every Wednesday, delivering groceries, headphones, books, toys in reusable tote bags; every time I see one, I think Amazon is more likely to be around in 100 years than any other technology company we know today.

We’re used to thinking of competitive advantage coming from a Eureka-innovation like Google’s PageRank, but the most lasting advantage comes from a million incremental improvements in an operationally intensive business.

And there are thousands of opportunities to get operationally intensive. The entire real world is being dissected and tagged to become more intelligible to the virtual world: Redfin real estate agents are uploading photos of homes that they tour, banks are accepting images of checks in lieu of deposit slips, and restaurants are adding scannable bar codes to their menus so iPhone users can read more about the wine list. This is how technology will change life at the most intimate, local level.

Any Profitable Idea Scales
The conventional thinking has been that local, operationally intensive business don’t scale, because they don’t scale for free. As recently as this week’s New Yorker, James Surowiecki argued that the greatest new businesses, like YouTube and Twitter, are great because they “scale easily… growing very big without much effort.â€

Surowiecki seems to have confused traffic with revenues, and speed with scale: glaciers move ponderously, but they shaped the face of the earth. Even where hybrid companies grow more slowly, venture investors have become increasingly tolerant of longer timeframes for large-scale opportunities, especially now that there is so much late-stage capital to keep everyone happy five years from founding.

And good things come to those who wait: Redfin can pay $20 million a year to hundreds of our local real estate agents, so long as we make $30 million from our customers. Once you establish profitable unit economics, you want as many units as you can get, regardless of each unit’s initial cost.

Focusing only on the $20 million in costs, not the $10 million in profits, early-stage investors value companies based on the percentage of revenues that fall to the bottom line. But what matters at the end of the day is the total number of dollars on the bottom line. Our attitude about profits should be as simple as Nikita Khrushchev’s when he was asked about the quality of Soviet tanks: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

Go Where Other Technologists Dare Not Tread
The real objection many entrepreneurs have to hybrid businesses isn’t quantitative but qualitative. A friend of mind in technology used to love asking me, “So how do you like being a realtor now?” as if this were a horrible fate. A would-be competitor to Redfin abandoned the idea of selling houses directly after the co-founder found himself hanging a yard sign in a rain storm.

You see the same attitude in other industries: who in technology wants to work with retail bankers, teachers, doctors, restauranteurs? As a result, hybrid businesses have little or no competition: technology companies want nothing to do with the real world, and real-world companies struggle to develop competitive technology.

This divide prevents us from making things fundamentally better, or cheaper.  The divide between the virtual and the real also prevents the basic ideology of Silicon Valley from reaching other professions. The Valley’s emphasis on empowering consumers and employees—on innovation, transparency, even idealism —isn’t just good for building software, it’s a universal good. There are thousands of bankers, realtors, doctors and lawyers who would love to practice their craft, but in a company run like Google. Our culture can be Silicon Valley’s second gift to the business world.

Data Dominance
In turn, the real world has a gift to offer the Valley: data. Companies that operate in the real world will always have direct access to data that purely virtual companies can only dream about.  Redfin can build a better house-hunting website because we know when houses start getting bid up months before prices are recorded in county records. 

Because customers meet us exclusively through our website, we also know which customers are the best match for us, before the customer ever meets an agent. This kind of analysis is far more important to us than it is to a purely virtual business: we have to pay for it every time an agent drives out to meet a customer at a house. The rest of the world, with its actual costs rather than just virtual opportunities, needs Silicon Valley’s ability to analyze massive data sets more than Silicon Valley does.

Customer Value
The final reason to operate in the real world is that people live in the real world, and the impact you can have on their lives there is much greater.

What if someone persuaded Jeff Bezos to skip the warehouses and the delivery trucks, building a purely digital business instead? What if Alex Payne helped start a lead-generation website for Citibank and JPMorgan, rather than his own bank service? What if Groupon decided that the copywriters and salespeople didn’t scale, letting local merchants develop their own deals? Margins would certainly be better, and operations would be much simpler, but, as we’ve argued before, Christmas shopping, banking & bargain-hunting would be much worse.

There is a similar opportunity in almost every industry: even as we speak, web entrepreneurs are teaming up with doctors to build better hospitals, with scientists to build better drugs, with lawyers to build better firms, with manufacturers to build better factories, with teachers to build better schools. We can make it new everywhere, not just on the web.

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Source: Take The Red Pill: The Rise Of The Hybrid Startup

Why Twitter Should Stay Out of the App Business

September 17th, 2010 09:33 admin View Comments

waderoush writes “Twitter has come out with some impressive new tools this month — the Twitter app for iPhone/iPad on September 1, and the overhauled Twitter website, or #NewTwitter, this week. But Twitter is late to its own party, Xconomy argues today. #NewTwitter still lacks basics like photo uploading and URL shortening, and apps built by third-party developers like TweetDeck and Flipboard continue to provide more compelling ways to explore the information in a Twitter stream. While Twitter may finally be ‘getting focused’ on ways to achieve mass market growth, as former Twitter platform manager Alex Payne wrote this week, the company will have a hard time competing with its own developer community — and might do better instead to acknowledge, and focus on, the service’s growing role as a general Internet utility.”

Source: Why Twitter Should Stay Out of the App Business

OSCON 2010 Emerging Languages Camp

July 27th, 2010 07:44 admin View Comments

Read some reviews of Alex Payne’s OSCON two-day meet-up:

Ola Bini, Day 1

Ola Bini, Day 2

some other person: What I Learned at ELC

Chris Laffra: Emerging Languages Camp at OSCON 2010

Dean Wampler: OSCON: Emerging Languages Camp

Source: OSCON 2010 Emerging Languages Camp

Microsoft Accuses Google Docs of Data Infidelity

May 15th, 2010 05:58 admin View Comments

Hugh Pickens writes “For years Google has been pitching migrations from Microsoft Office to Google Docs, arguing that Docs makes Office 2003 and 2007 better because users can store Microsoft Office documents in Google’s cloud and share them in their original format. Now eWeek reports that Alex Payne, director of Microsoft’s online product management team, says that moving files created with Office to Google Docs results in the loss of data fidelity including the loss of such data components as charts, styles, watermarks, fonts, tracked changes, and SmartArt. ‘They are claiming that an organization can use both seamlessly,’ Payne writes. ‘This just isn’t the case.’ Meanwhile, Google defended its original ‘Docs makes Office better’ in a statement, noting that it has made a lot of improvements to the Web editors in Docs with its recent refresh, and promising that functionality will only get better as Google integrates the DocVerse assets into Docs. ‘It says a lot about Microsoft’s approach to customer lock-in that the company touts its proprietary document formats, which only Microsoft software can render with true fidelity, as the reason to avoid using other products,’ says a Google spokesperson.”

Source: Microsoft Accuses Google Docs of Data Infidelity

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