Aug 24

The Internet of (poorly working) Things

In the mythical Land of Theory, where everything “just works,” we can connect all the objects in our lives. We have the sensors, the wireless networks, and the computing power, but progress is slow if not comically wrong. Why?

It was twenty years ago this month that the cover of the adorably geeky Boardwatch Magazine, a journal dedicated to the world of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS, remember them?), featured bearded professor Vint Cerf, the grandfather of the internet.

Cerf’s pithy “IP On Everything” prophecy was simple, resonant, and inexorable: All objects in our lives will someday feature an IP stack.

Two decades later, where are we? Moore’s Law has given us a 2¹⁰ to 2¹³ improvement in chip performance—that’s 1,000 to 8,000 times more computing power. Personal computers and smartphones are everywhere, well adopted, and put to productive and enjoyable uses.

(As an aside, smartphones are actually the most rapidly and broadly adopted product of all time, leading observers to conjecture we’ll never see anything like it ever again. False prophets and worried CEOs looking for the next big thing, take note.)

With a three-orders-of-magnitude power increase and oceans of wireless data packets, surely we can endow our everyday objects with all sorts of sensory and connectivity magic.

So how is it that we don’t have connected objects that Just Work?

Before we offer an answer to this question, I beseech you to follow the Internet of Shit (@internetofshit) on Twitter. Trust me, you won’t regret it:

Internet of shit profile description

With more than 2,000 tweets and 130,000 followers, IoS is an eye-opening poke at today’s IoT (Internet of Things). To whet your appetite, regard the very smart toaster:

Joke ad for bill paying toaster.

Or consider the “famous” $700 connected juicer:

Quotation from juicer article, tweeted.

Anything you can imagine—plus a few you don’t want to.

Of course, not all connected devices are so easily mocked; some devices are dead serious: home security, HVAC, almost any kitchen appliance—even our very smart toaster. And it’s not that the IoT doesn’t work. The situation is actually worse than that: The IoT randomly works. Devices stop and restart, and require visits to unsupportive customer support pages and helpless “Your call is important to us” help lines (and now we have chatbots). If you think I exaggerate, google “Nest trouble” or “smart bulbs trouble.”

We don’t have to look around much to find the culprit: with its razor-thin margins, the Consumer Electronics (CE) culture offers a big fat target for our inquisition.

With a tight budget and limited software know-how, Consumer Electronics product development teams are issued orders from on high: Get on the IoT train…now! They buy the cheapest possible processor, grab some software from the open source shelves, throw on a skimpy user interface, hastily assemble and test, and ship it.

The meager budget doesn’t leave much room for user instructions and customer support, and it sometimes leads to dubious design solutions. I once served on the Board of a company that contemplated acquiring a home networking business. In our due-diligence work, we found that many of their software modules were simply lifted from another company. Not open source—pure misappropriation. I doubt that this was an isolated case.

After a device has made it to the market, the real fun begins. Software updates are a problem when your connected lock or your connected car is in the middle of an update and you need to get into the house or drive to the emergency room.

There’s another reason for disappointing adoption: Complexity. It’s one thing to power cycle your router when your internet connection slows to a halt. How do you debug a network of ten, twenty, or more connected objects in your house—from lightbulbs to locks and sprinklers—that run on a mixture of wifi and something else, such as ZigBee for LED lights that require a special bridge?

As expressed in Barron’s “The Internet of Things Is Too Confusing,” [paywall]:

Even tech experts are frustrated by the complexity. “In one out of 10 cases, I get in my car and my smartphone just won’t connect to the stereo system,” says Cees Links, a pioneer of WiFi wireless networking. “And in those instances when it doesn’t work, there’s no clear reason why.”

Then there’s the truly ugly side of consumer IoT: security, or the lack of it. The lackadaisical approach—to be polite—to software leaves many connections open to hackers who can see passwords exchanged in clear text on home wifi while they sit in a car parked outside a house. Or we see that 100 million Volkswagen cars are open to wireless hacking. Using the One Cockroach Theory, how many more other makes of cars will be found to be insecure?

Speaking of cars, Apple’s CarPlay sheds more light on connected devices. After a long wait (it was announced in 2010), CarPlay is now available on “selected” models from Ford, Honda, Fiat Chrysler, GM, and others. According to the initial reports, it’s good, not great. Of course, CarPlay is a software layer on someone else’s hardware/software infotainment system. In other words, it’s a situation where Apple doesn’t control the whole hardware/software stack, similar to the relationship between Windows and PC makers, or Android and handset manufacturers.

A look at the so-called Smart TV reinforces the observation about CE culture. In less than two years, the CPU inside the TV quickly becomes obsolete and can’t be upgraded, while the display itself easily lasts a decade and software updates are perfunctory, if they happen at all.

Word of mouth is still the most potent marketing weapon, especially when a product doesn’t work. Two years ago, Apple introduced HomeKit, “a framework for communicating with and controlling connected accessories in a user’s home.” Now, look at how many HomeKit devices are on the shelves at Apple Stores—pardon—venues. The number isn’t growing. Some make a brief appearance and are never to be seen again after too many returns or customer service calls.

On the bright side, we do have an Internet of Things that works: The industrial version. Modern buildings are equipped with sensors, connected HVAC, security, and power management. But there’s no scrounging on the cost of devices, they must work and last, and the building owner has a technical team to install, maintain, and run the whole system.

This is the lesson that Consumer Electronics makers must learn: A successful IoT can’t be built on the cheap. And this is precisely what we see in the Amazon Echo.

Echo is a connected wifi/Bluetooth speaker and microphone that features “Alexa,” an agent that responds to your queries, plays music, controls devices, and even starts your car (if it’s the right make and model).

Amazon spared no expense in developing and supporting the Echo, and the investment has been repaid by excellent word-of-mouth. This is the antithesis of the cheap CE approach—they’re a well-funded company with proven technical expertise in Cloud services, a successful history with Kindle devices, and, above all, a determined group playing the long game with Jeff Bezos at the helm. (Let’s add in the “helpful failure” of the Fire smartphone.) Speaking of support, Echo customers—and I have one sitting in my office—get a weekly newsletter that announces new features and suggests new uses. I know I have this fixation of weekly writings, but how many companies write to users of one of their products every week?

I have little doubt that the success of Amazon’s Echo inspired Google Homestill a demo at this stage. I hope to see others.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.

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Aug 23

5 Smart Ways to Integrate Cross-Promotion With Online Marketing

Online marketing is an efficient way of promoting your business, but there are still channels that are not exploited to their full potential. There are many tools, techniques and social networks you can use to increase the scope and reach of your product or services online. Unlike traditional marketing, content for online marketing is sustainable. If you want to take your online campaign to another level, you should think outside of the box and integrate cross-promotion into your online marketing strategies. 

Cross-promotion is a technique whereby you utilize another medium or channel to promote or distribute your services and products to new markets. It is a powerful and inexpensive approach to generate more sales and expand your marketing efforts. In simple words, you find a partner that sells a complementary product for your company, and you cross-promote each other. 

Related: 7 Steps to Finally Master Content Promotion in 2016

By doing cross-promotion with a partner, you can tap into an already established community and potentially get more qualified leads. Done properly, it can build your brand by creating a strategic partnership or alliance with another business. 

Popular businesses use cross-promotion all over the world. The most famous example of cross-promotion is the partnership between Google’s Android and KitKat. Over 50 million KitKat chocolate bars were created with Android’s branding, and the buyers had a chance to win a Nexus Tablet or Google Play gift cards. 

Below you can find five ways to do cross-promotion for your business

1. Partner with a non-competing brand.

Collaborating with a non-competing brand is a great way of expanding your business to new markets. Among the ideal partners to look for are:

  • Influencers
  • Local Businesses
  • Businesses outside your current niche
  • Nonprofit organizations

Before crafting your posts, you and your partner should discuss the nature of the content — its tone and description so that it would be relevant to the respective market. As a non-competing business, you should always establish relevance for the market to consider your product or service.

An example worth mentioning is the cross-promotional partnership arrangement between Macy’s and Special Books by Special Kids, a non-profit organization.

Macy’s mentioned Special Books by Special Kids on their Facebook page which was then cross shared on their partner’s Facebook page. 

Instead of creating a new post, the non-profit organization merely shared Macy’s FB post to stay consistent with their online marketing campaign. 

It introduced their group to Macy’s followers and created a strong brand affiliation. 

2. Online businesses that want to cross-promote via newsletter.

Cross-promotion is popular among mobile applications. Various tools can automate the promotion process, but if you work in a SaaS or own a general online business, you don’t have to give up on this technique. The opportunities are even greater if you are in the business to business market. 

To find partners that are willing to cross-promote their services and products, you have two options:

  • Reach out to companies that are not direct competitors and ask if they might be interested in a partnership. You can cross-promote each other’s services through newsletter campaigns. Before reaching out, always do your research and make sure that you agree to associate your company’s name with theirs. 
  • Use tools like Cross.Promo which promises to help SaaS and online business find and manage cross-promotion campaigns. The platform gives users the flexibility to segment partners based on the number of users they have and how many of them are actively paying for a service. 

Related: 4 Tips for Marketing Events That Will Transform Your Online Business

3. Social media posts cross-promotion.

Social media is a powerful online marketing tool that has been proven to influence consumer decision-making. Statistics have shown that 46 percent of consumers’ decision to patronize or purchase a product or service was influenced by a social media post.

Cross-promoting your social media can further enhance your online marketing efforts:

  • Include social tabs to your Facebook page. Facebook allows you to use third-party apps to add social tabs to your page. Among these third-party apps are ShortStack and PageModo. Social tabs allow your page visitors access to your other social networks and view your content.
  • Integrate social media with email marketing. To further enhance the power of social media, integrate it with your email marketing strategy. Email is highly effective because everyone opens their inbox at least once a day. Promote your latest social media post to your usual email newsletter. Not only will email marketing increase the number of page views, but it can potentially improve overall engagement.
  • Use your website or blog page. If you are using WordPress for your site or blog page, a plug-in such as Publicize will automatically send your website content to your social media network. You can also embed your latest social media posts on the sidebar of your website. It’s a cost effective and highly efficient way to improve inbound traffic to your website. CoPromote is a useful tool for cross-promotion on social media. 

4. Content marketing cross-promotion.

Content marketing is becoming an increasingly popular online marketing strategy. That’s because content marketing reflects the online behavior of the majority of the internet’s searchers. People go online to search for content that is relevant, fresh, engaging and compelling. Cross-promoting your content marketing is an excellent way to expand its reach to new markets.

  • Add links inside your content. Link building is a perfect strategy for introducing new markets to your content. If you link to websites, they may return the favor and link back to you or share your post on social media. This is why it is highly important to ensure the links are relevant to your content. After linking back to a site, make sure to do email outreach and inform the editors that you placed a link to their site. 
  • Update existing links. Information changes at an unpredictable scale. Make sure the links to your content are regularly updated to reflect current information.
  • Blog in other communities. Guest blogging in related communities is a great way to introduce your content and you, specifically, to new markets and audiences. Not only will guest blogging bring more views to your site, but it may encourage some of the new audience to share your content on their respective networks.

Related: 11 Content Marketing Myths You Need to Stop Believing

5. Pinterest cross-promotion.

Pinterest is not as big as Facebook or Google Plus, but it is great as a cross-promotional tool for online marketing content.

  • Create a customized board. Pin images that tell the story of the product, then pin images from your blog, website, Facebook or a landing page. The pins will create a link back to the original content.
  • Create a group board. If you have a loyal following whom you believe wants to promote your products and services, invite them to become part of your group board. They can pin content directly to your board which can be seen by their respective followers. By creating a group board, you improve the visibility of your page and produce customized content for a varied audience.

Cross-promotion is a smart technique that allows you to tap into already established communities and expand your reach. By integrating cross-promotion with your online marketing channels, you’ll have the opportunity to advertise your product in front of new potential users without spending a big budget. It’s a dynamic approach that makes online marketing more efficient and productive in building your brand.

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Aug 22

Werner Herzog Has Met The Internet and It Is Us

Look, the internet is so many things, everywhere and nowhere, necessary but often completely obscure to us. Talking or thinking about it is, like a sign-on screen, practically an invitation to get lost. The so-called “network of networks” now represents digital culture, new media, new war, the global commons, a digital Times Square, the world’s economic engine, increasingly, everything. It is also arguably a kind of work of art—is it the greatest masterpiece of human civilization? It’s what William Gibson imagined it would be, after wandering around Vancouver, listening to his new Walkman for the first time: “A consensual hallucination,” he wrote in Neuromancer about cyberspace,

experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

The metaphors for the internet that I think of first—a series of tubes, a cloud—aren’t even mentioned in Lo and Behold, Reveries Of A Connected World, Werner Herzog’s new ten-part, two-hour documentary about cyberspace. That word isn’t mentioned in the movie either—in a way it sounds as ridiculous as tubes or clouds or superhighways, and doesn’t get us closer to really confronting what it is—but the tension these words suggest, between the gutter and the stars, the profane and the sacred, the sublime and the absurd, the virtual and the real, has long been a part of Herzog’s adventuring. Usually he’s climbing over hard and specific things—a mountain, a glacier, a volcano—but here the terrain itself is nowhere and everywhere.

He ranges through it like a web browser, never lingering very long, delighting in links and tangents, sometimes doubling back, sometimes landing on something truly strange. None of the stuff he finds should be too surprising for those of us who live in the consensual hallucination or who follow the news of the future. But it should also come as no surprise that those of us living on the internet probably aren’t often sitting down for two hours, phones on airplane mode, and simply confronting it.

Where to begin then? At the very first node, in the actual room at UCLA where the first message was sent:

After majestically gliding down a corridor that Herzog describes as “repulsive,” we are with Leonard Kleinrock, the engineer who helped work out the math for the protocol of the internet, in front of the refrigerator-ish modem responsible for first contact. (The title comes from that accidental but too-perfect initial message: only the first two letters of LOGIN made it through before the system crashed.) The room feels alienating and dismal, but “we are now [in] a sacred location,” “a holy place” centered around a machine “so ugly, it is beautiful.” Kleinrock bangs on the thing to demonstrate its military-hardened strength.

It’s a reminder that while the internet may pass as godly and god-given—think of its ubiquitousness, its inescapability, and the bowed-head devotion it inspires—at its heart and at its origin is actually a very hard human thing: evolutionary, faulty and ugly, as complex and problematic as its forebears in road and train and electricity networks were. It is actually made of tubes.

And yet, this crude Mecca is just the shell of a more ethereal dream. “The internet has yet to evolve to that goal I was hoping for,” Kleinrock admits, in the stranger second section of the movie, sitting in front of that giant old modem, “of being invisible.”

It’s moving there. Already we are encoded and have encoded ourselves in the imperceptible networks that sit atop the internet and classify us, rank us, follow us. We are “targeted,” in marketing speak, or military speak, by spies or drones if need be, though usually by hackers and advertisers.

Fittingly, Lo is itself a product of an internet marketing campaign. It began as a project of short videos, sponsored by the network application and performance management company NetScout. Herzog is apparently a savvy master not only of film but of new sponsorship models: ATT sponsored a 30 minute PSA he made about the deadly dangers of distracted driving, and a documentary about the band The Killers backed by American Express and VEVO, but this time he realized there was something more here, and he convinced NetScout to pony up the budget for a full length documentary, on which Herzog would have final cut. (He says NetScout requested one change, that Herzog excise some of the more abhorrent troll comments, a choice the director agreed with; more on that below.)

The movie’s many characters (mostly older white males), sit and recount and prognosticate in front of the camera about a lot of interesting things: this also somehow feels of the internet. He’s not so interested in what these people have done specifically or their business or political interests—we are mostly left to intuit or google that, or seek out films like Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Herzog is more interested in engaging people in a conversation, and in the sometimes Herzogian things they say and think. After the legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick regales the director with the story of one of his masterful computer thefts—his tool little more than “the gift of gab,” Herzog blurts out, “but you didn’t sell it—it was curiosity, it was sport!” Mitnick concurs. “No! Trophy!” Hacking is like filmmaking is like the internet. It’s about fun, lulz, fascination, curiosity, adventure. The internet is people.

It was a visit to Ted Nelson on his houseboat that reportedly convinced Herzog this was more than a piece of sponsored content and was deserving of a full length film about this human dimension. Nelson, who is credited with coining the term hypertext (as well as hypermedia, transclusion, virtuality, and intertwingularity), was an early dreamer with an alternate model for the web’s architecture, Project Xanadu, in which the links between webpages are far more visible. But as the web took off instead, Nelson’s pursuit of the idea led some to dismiss him as crazy. “To us,” Herzog insists on camera, “you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane.”

Nelson is so relieved to hear this that he collapses into his chair. “No one has ever said that to me before,” he says with a big grin. Herzog thanks him and shakes his hand. Nelson pulls out his camera and snaps a photo.

Point being, the internet didn’t have to be the way it is. Too easy to forget that about all technology really. For all of the cloud and water metaphors, the internet is not actually fluid or free: it’s physical, often with a heavy carbon and monetary footprint, and based on decisions made mostly by white men working with significant government funding, or venture capital funding, with good and sometimes gracious motives, and sometimes not necessarily good ones. In principle it’s an un-owned entity, but there were moments there, for instance, where the internet or parts of it could have been patented or owned. (Imagine if the world wide web had been founded not by a researcher at a big government physics lab but by a precocious kid in his Harvard dorm room?) Think about that, and then remember that these days, the big companies that didn’t get to invent the internet are still grabbing, consolidating, and walling in pieces of it.

The internet (note the lowercase ‘i’, as standardized this year by the AP) sometimes is as fluid as air or water. We surf it, we breathe it, we dive in, maybe we drown. In Green Bank, West Virginia, Herzog meets the radiation-averse people who have come to live in the federally-mandated National Radio Quiet Zone, where wi-fi and cellular and radio signals are largely banned to keep the airwaves quiet for the magnificent Green Bank Radio Telescope. There’s a sweetness to their offline activities in nature, reading, playing guitar, playing banjo, even if they are living far from their families. These are also the sorts of things that Internet addicts do by force of will as part of their recovery routine in a treatment center in the woods near Seattle, where Herzog also goes to chronicle the risks of humans having access to too much information.

Leonard Kleinrock with the first IMP. UCLA. Photo via Magnolia Pictures

In the one-scene section titled THE DARK SIDE, a mourning family describes how their daughter died in a horrific vehicular accident, and how photographs of her mangled body–taken by a first responder and later sent to friends–leaked onto the internet, became a global meme, and led lulz-seeking trolls to harass and mock the family. “I have always believed that the Internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist,” the girl’s mother says.

The internet can be terrible, like humanity, and Herzog approaches its black holes the way we all may find ourselves doing online: half gawking, half turning away. He’s in awe of its glory too. Preventing automobile deaths, educating the masses attacking disease—these are all motivators for a subsection of innovations Herzog learns about. There is also beating the World Cup champions at soccer—a proxy goal for a global community of roboticists designing autonomous machines. Increasingly, there is real affection and companionship too. Herzog pops the big question to a student researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab about his team’s prized Robot 8. “Yes, we do,” he replies. “We do love Robot 8.”

For now, it’s not a Love Story kind of love, and it’s an unrequited one. Robots are still pretty dumb, as another roboticist admits (“It’ll be great when we have anything resembling the intelligence of a cockroach”). But it’s possible and even likely that robots and the internet at large will make its own decisions, and more. In the movie’s coda, Herzog cites the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Klausowitz, and his notion that “sometimes war dreams of itself,” and asks: “could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?”

This may be the ultimate philosophical question about computers, hitting up against our own understanding of what dreams are, how brains work, what consciousness is. But as Herzog has said, “I do believe that asking a deep question is sometimes more important than getting a straight answer.”

My favorite answer to this is from the ever-clear-eyed Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain. “Sir Tim Berners Lee could conceive of something called the World Wide Web, and choose not to copyright it, not to patent it, to allow some people to speak server, and speak client, and now you’ve got websites. The web is the internet dreaming of itself.”

Once again, that seemingly miraculous turn of events wasn’t a miracle of silicon but an evolutionary process guided by carbon-based life forms. And yet, given the pace of computing and artificial intelligence, there are hints that, cockroach or not, the pace of that evolution is well beyond our own. After a car accident, only the driver can learn from his mistake, Thrum points out. But a robot car could share valuable lessons with every other robot car instantaneously, and they’ll never make that mistake again. The internet already allows humans to do something similar, and it will only get better at that. One of the dreams of the connected world is everything and everyone connected, all the time, through an internet not only of things but also of brains.

But when we can tweet our thoughts, as one scientist in the film imagines we will, edging closer to that global brain, the hive mind, a frictionless fantasy, will the real world become the final source of friction? In an age where every need and wish might be met and perhaps even anticipated instantaneously, what happens to the soul, to empathy, to community? An internet of things that knows our feelings and bends to our wills would lead, not just to self-driving cars and even self-aware robots but, one of Herzog’s talking heads imagines, to an even more self-centered world. Every need could be catered to; most ills remedied; instant gratification made ever more instant. By then, in any case, we may be able to escape to Mars.

Before they say much else to each other, Herzog interrupts Elon Musk to sign up for the one-way trip. Soon, we see the skyline of Chicago from the shoreline, devoid of people. In a counterfactual digression, Herzog imagines that a mass exodus from Earth has taken place, and then he spots “some stragglers,” a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks ambling about, many of them looking at their phones. “Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying?” Herzog asks. “They all seem to be tweeting.”

Kids these days, Kleinrock laments at one point, “they look at numbers instead of ideas and fail to understand concepts, and this is a problem.” The man who helped create the internet and who laments that it’s not more ubiquitous now is also regretful about some of the effects of its use. “Computers—and in some sense the Internet—are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking,” he says. As skimming and mercurial as its approach is, Lo and Behold is an ode to that kind of thinking, specifically about that thing that is shaping our thinking.

At one point, Herzog asks Musk about his own dreams. “I don’t seem to remember the good dreams. The ones I remember are the nightmares.” He doesn’t say what those nightmares are, but he does describe one of his danger scenarios. Musk isn’t concerned that a future AI will establish a rule on its own but rather will follow the will of people who establish its optimization function. Even a benign intention could lead to a bad outcome.” For example, “if you’re the head of a hedge fund or an equity fund, what I would want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio. The best way to do that is to short consumer stocks, go long defense stocks, and start a war. And that,” he adds, “would obviously be quite bad.”

The concern, for now at least, isn’t super smart computers or the internet itself: it’s us. Herzog is not a journalist or even a documentarian as much as he’s a poet, finding bits of reality, zooming in so close, pushing metaphors and languages to their limits, if that’s what it takes, that we can see them in a new light. What we see is repulsive and weird, confusing and stimulating: a place we live now and a place we may even love.

Herzog’s Favorite Obscure Dutch Painter

Werner Herzog Made A Weird Documentary About The Killers

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Aug 21

Online retailers give the boring brown box on your doorstep an extreme makeover

Birchbox ships its subscription beauty products in colorful cardboard as a way of distinguishing their goods.
Birchbox ships its subscription beauty products in colorful cardboard as a way of distinguishing their goods.

Online retailers are giving the humble cardboard box an extreme makeover, transforming a four-sided receptacle for delivering goods into the new shopping bag.

Out: brown, plain, boring.

In: neon colors, ornate lettering, glossy surfaces and geometric stenciling that looks like modern art.

By trying to replicate the delight and status jolt of in-person shopping — walking around New York with a Bloomingdale’s bag once signaled affluence — online retailers trying to break through the Amazon juggernaut are turning front doorsteps into new branding canvases.

As one box veteran puts it, “Every box tells a story.”

And the story often does not end with box cutters. Recipients post photos, videos and reviews online of the coolest boxes. Some re-purpose their boxes to store makeup, watches or even fishing lures. Others hang boxes on their walls, with dioramas inside.

“You all are going to be horrified,” one commenter wrote in an online discussion on a site that reviews boxes (such a thing really does exist), “but I just recycle them.”

This is the best of times for boxes. For decades, a stagnating economy and shift away from manufacturing flattened sales of corrugated and paperboard boxes. But in 2013, sales rebounded and have kept climbing, thanks to an improving economy and, analysts say, a fundamental shift in shopping habits.

Box sales are growing about 3 percent a year and will rise to nearly $40 billion in 2018, according to Katie Wieser, an analyst with the Freedonia Group, a market research firm. But boxes for e-commerce are growing even faster, at 4 percent. Amazon is thought to be the biggest customer, shipping nearly 5 billion packages a year.

(Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, runs Amazon and commands its boxes.)

Amazon, in keeping its shipping process lean and cheap, is mostly utilitarian in box design – brown, with the company logo – though it did produce yellow boxes with smiling Minions to promote the movie about the little yellow helpers. The real action in box innovation is taking place among online retailers who specialize in monthly subscription services selling, among other things, makeup, jewelry, razors, underwear, socks, dresses, gluten-free snacks, dog snacks, Paleo diet snacks, snacks from Japan, sex toys, stationary and topsoil.

Birchbox, which offers makeup and men’s grooming supplies, ships boxes decorated with flowers, bright neons and abstract designs. Graze, a healthy snack service, uses the underside of the lid for paintings of scrumptious fruits. Loot Crate, which ships a monthly assortment of gaming and pop culture gizmos, has included scannable codes that play video clips on smartphones.

FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, an package awaits delivery from UPS in Palo Alto, Calif.
FILE – In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, an package awaits delivery from UPS in Palo Alto, Calif.

Box advocates are proud of what is happening in the industry. Earlier this summer, the Paper and Packaging Board, an industry-funded organization formed by the federal government to stem paper declines, held a box summit in New York for executives from several subscription box companies to discuss, as the invitation put it, how “the next step in the evolution of subscription boxes and e-commerce is packaging innovation.”

Jalem Getz, the founder of Wantable, which sends a monthly package of women’s designer clothing hand-selected by personal stylists, spoke about the dual role of his company’s starkly white and smooth boxes, with a solid “W” on the lid.

“The box,” he said, “is an ad unit that travels to the customer.”

Neighbors see it on doorsteps or in recycle bins. Co-workers spot the boxes around the office, shipped to employees ignoring the no-personal-packages-please edict from human resources. That’s one part. This is the other, he said:”The box is a reminder of why she shopped with us, and it’s an exciting moment to open the box.”

Shelly Huang, head of U.S. marketing for Graze, echoed Getz.

“We are building customer affinity to the brand,” she said. “It’s not just a snack.”

Companies such as Loot Crate, Wantable and Graze represent two worlds colliding – tech and manufacturing. Most subscription-box companies are founded by technology entrepreneurs seeking a slice of the $1 trillion market in e-commerce.

And while most of these entrepreneurs pride themselves on thinking outside the box, what’s needed for the box itself is a mystery.

That is where another group of box entrepreneurs come in – the box outsourcers. Started by box-industry veterans or ex-Web coders who become self-taught box gurus, these third-party companies are a one-stop shop for design and manufacturing.

Dennis Salazar, a longtime executive in the box industry, started Salazar Packaging in the Chicago area about 10 years ago, hoping to help companies build their brands with environmentally conscious packaging. When the e-retailing took off, Salazar sensed an incredible opportunity.

“They are trying to create the shopping experience at home, but that’s difficult to do,” Salazar said. “We were in a great position to help them understand boxes.”

Salazar provides, as his company’s tagline puts it, “packaging that communicates” – design expertise, material selection and production: everything. His clients include Harry’s, one of the largest online sellers of shaving products for men. And his sales have grown more than 20 percent for four straight years.

Miriam Brafman comes at the business from the other direction. A former engineer and web designer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Brafman had a fascination with product packaging. A couple of years ago, Brafman wanted to design a box with her own graphic design, but when she looked into custom box companies, she found many still stuck in the offline era.

Brafman, now 25, created Packlane, a Silicon Valley online point-and-click service for designing and ordering boxes. Her customers have included Baltimore in a Box, which ships food from Charm City, and Bullymake, a subscription service for dog chew toys.

“Boxes are really fascinating business,” she said. “It’s one of those industries that people think is really boring, but that’s because they don’t know anything about it. The more you learn about it, the more interesting it is.”

For instance, typing “#boxreview” or “#unboxing” into Instagram reveals a strange incongruity of the digital age – boxes are Internet icons. People take selfies with boxes. They post videos of themselves opening their boxes. They post things like: “My @lookfantastic box has arrived!! This month is all about BEST OF BRITISH. Can’t wait to open this gorgeous box xx.”

There are even box review websites.

A reviewer at offered this observation about a Birchbox delivery: “It’s also bright, beautiful and downright pretty. This month’s box had very such bright colors and a fun geometric design.”

The reviewer could not wait for the next shipment.

“I know that I will love everything in that box,” the review said, “down to the creative box design!”

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Aug 20

Martin Shkreli Weighs in on EpiPen Scandal, Calls Drug Makers ‘Vultures’

A growing chorus is calling on the Mylan pharmaceutical company to justify its price hikes on EpiPens, a potentially life-saving medication for children and others facing fatal allergies that has little real competition.

In 2007, a two-pack of the epinephrine-filled devices went for $56.64 wholesale, according to data gathered by Connecture, a health insurance data specialist. Now it’s jumped to $365.16, an increase of 544.77 percent. Since the end of 2013, the price has gone up by 15 percent every other quarter.

EpiPen prices

EpiPen prices

Doctors, parents, patients, and a former presidential candidate are speaking out on social media — and negative comments are filling up Mylan’s Facebook page following an story Wednesday.

And now, the Senator who allowed pushed for emergency epinephrine to be stocked in public schools has pledged to investigate the price increases.

At least one in 50 Americans has experienced anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“You are forcing many families to gamble with their children’s lives, when your costs haven’t gone up,” wrote one Facebook post. Others questioned why the prices in the U.S. were higher than other countries for the same medicine.

“Amazing that Epipen prices in CA EU with prescription are about $85. No govt negotiated buy in US,” said another tweet.

Image: Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, prepares to testify before a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Developments in the Prescription Drug Market Oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington

Image: Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, prepares to testify before a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Developments in the Prescription Drug Market Oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington

Even Martin Shkreli, the disgraced former chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, has weighed in.

“These guys are really vultures. What drives this company’s moral compass?” he told NBC News in a phone interview.

In 2015, Shkreli famously jacked up the price of Turing’s malaria and HIV medicine Darapim overnight, from $13.50 to $750, a move that earned him a grilling by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February — and the nickname “Pharma Bro” for his seemingly carefree attitude toward affordable medication.

But Shkreli told NBC News he had originally considered gradually raising the price of Darapim, as Mylan did with the EpiPen. Ultimately, “the math, we felt, was a little silly; so we decided to come out and say ‘This is our desired price.'”

The House committee doesn’t currently have an open investigation into the price of EpiPens, MJ Henshaw, a spokesperson for the committee chair Representative Jason Chaffetz, said in an email.

In response to NBC’s story earlier this week, Senator Bernie Sanders sent out a tweet questioning the price increase.

There’s a lawsuit in the works as well. Ari Kresch, CEO of 1-800-LAW-FIRM, said his firm was finalizing a filing against Mylan in the next couple of weeks.

“I’ve been looking at EpiPen for years,” said Kresch. “It’s a very cheap drug but I haven’t been successful in getting any experts to tell me why the price has gone up as much as it has.”

Mylan did not respond to phone or email messages seeking comment on the backlash.

In an earlier emailed statement, Mylan said its prices have “changed over time to better reflect important product features and the value the product provides,” and that “we’ve made a significant investment to support the device over the past years.”

The statement noted that commercially insured patients have successfully used its $100 coupon program, with nearly 80 percent of the My EpiPen Savings Card™ getting their auto-injectors for $0.

Image: Image:   Two EpiPens used to treat severe allergic reactions with a dose of Epinephrine delivered in an autoinjector.

Image: Image:   Two EpiPens used to treat severe allergic reactions with a dose of Epinephrine delivered in an autoinjector.

However, those without better insurance plans, or the uninsured, aren’t able to take advantage of the program.

Dr. John Vann, a pediatrician in Omaha, Nebraska recalled the mother of a 14-year-old girl with walnut allergies crying in his office two weeks ago. She was on an HSA with a high deductible, and an EpiPen dual pack would have cost over $600. She didn’t know how she would pay for it.

“You essentially have to have epinephrine around because if you have a reaction you need it,” said Vann. “They hardly ever get used and it’s a good thing — but if you don’t have it, you’re in trouble.”

After doing some quick internet research, Vann was able to find “Adrenaclick,” substitutable as a generic for EpiPen in 21 states, for just $200. The pharmacy was able to order it and have it available the next day.

Not all providers will cover it, though. He tried to do the same for another patient and the drugstore said that patient’s insurance only pays for EpiPens.

“They did a pretty good job marketing themselves where it’s just like Kleenex,” said Vann. “People don’t say ‘epinephrine auto injector,’ they say ‘EpiPen.'”

Patients also expressed outrage in tweets and Facebook posts, and emails to NBC News.

Donna, a 52-year-old archaeozoologist from Hoover, Alabama who asked only her first name to be used, told how she felt her mouth, tongue, and eyes swelling shut after she was stung 26 times by yellow jackets on caving expedition a few years ago. That’s when she learned for the first time that she was allergic. She hiked back several miles to her truck and sought treatment at the nearest hospital, two hours away.

“I barely survived and now have to carry two EpiPens at all times, even to the mailbox,” she wrote in an email. “For Mylan to be the sole producer of this product and hold my life, and the millions of children and adult lives hostage for profit, is extortion and an outrage.”

On Friday Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said he would investigate the “shocking increase.”

“As kids across the country head back to school, it is critical that their parents have affordable access to this life-saving product. I have heard from parents and first responders across Connecticut who are terrified that this steep price increase could put epinephrine out of reach for American families—and literally cost lives,” said the Senator in a statement released to NBC News.

“Sadly, this case is just the latest in a greedy trend of skyrocketing prescription drug prices that are hurting consumers, limiting health options, and strangling our economy. I will investigate this shocking increase and continue doing everything I can in the Senate to combat the rising cost of prescription drugs across the board.”

Senator Blumenthal was the original cosponsor of the bill whose passage awarded grants to states that required public elementary and secondary schools to maintain emergency supplies of epinephrine and authorized school personnel to administer it to students experiencing an anaphylactic reaction.

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Aug 19

Effective Ways Businesses Can Reach Larger Markets

Franchising – One of the more common ways that business owners find larger markets is by allowing interested parties to open franchises. Sometimes business owners may discover that banks are unwilling to lend money for further expansion of their businesses if the owner is already operating a couple businesses. For this reason, many business owners turn to franchising. Franchising is a great way to get ahead of the competitive curve while spending less of your own time and capital to do so. It is also a great way to mitigate the risk to you and your own business. Franchising allows you to focus on your own business while still growing into new markets. It is the new franchisee who is ultimately responsible for hiring, firing leases and a host of other responsibilities. Of course, franchising is not for everyone. Therefore, before embarking on a franchising quest, business owners must first ask themselves a few questions such as will potential franchisees find your concept saleable and does their passion match yours? Also, can the concept be duplicated without an excessive need for training? If the answers to these questions are yes, franchising may be worth looking into.

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Aug 18

How one Aussie company became huge in China

SYDNEY, Australia — Walk through any Australian shopping mall, and you are likely to spot a Chemist Warehouse. Synonymous with bright yellow signs advertising heavily discounted vitamins and perfume, you might not expect the chain to dominate in China with an entirely different message.

Chemist Warehouse launched on Tmall Global, Alibaba’s ecommerce platform for international products, just in time for Singles Day on Nov. 11, 2015. 

Singles Day has become the world’s largest online shopping event. Sales on the day last year across the Chinese retail giant amounted to an eye watering 91.2 billion yuan (A$1.8 billion) in 24 hours.

The day also marked an impressive arrival for Chemist Warehouse, company spokesperson Damien Gance told Mashable.

On Singles Day, Gance claimed Chemist Warehouse became the fastest retailer in the world to sell one million yuan (A$195,979) in products in just three minutes. Not done done there, Chemist Warehouse was the first merchant on Tmall Global to reach 10 million yuan (A$1.96 million) in sales in only 46 minutes, an Alibaba spokesperson confirmed.

“It was a very successful launch,” Gance said, in a bit of an understatement.

Image: tmall

Gance attributed the brand’s Chinese success in part to marketing and messaging — less mass media than its Australian catalogs and far more targeted. “We promote heavily what we do, and I think that was somewhat new and novel to Alibaba,” he explained. 

In an effort to reach a heavily mobile-focused set of customers, the company chose to market its products and brand online and on social media through platforms associated with Alibaba and the Internet portal Tencent, in addition to the Chinese messaging service WeChat.

Its pitch in China was one of origin, playing into local demand for reliable and safe healthcare and skincare. 

“The primary driver for Chinese consumption of overseas products is provenance,” Gance explained. “They want to ensure they’re receiving the best product in the world.” China is Australia’s second largest market for pharmaceuticals, according to a 2015 report from Sydney University’s China Studies Centre.

That strategy has been vital, because Chemist Warehouse has not always been able to compete on price in China. The fees associated with using Tmall and its Alipay payment gateway, among other costs, has meant they can’t offer the kind of discounts Australian Chemist Warehouse shoppers get, Gance said.

“The primary driver for Chinese consumption of overseas products is provenance. They want to ensure they’re receiving the best product in the world.”

Importantly, it’s offering products for which there is already heavy Chinese demand. “It’s really saying to the consumer: You want this product? We can supply it at or near the price you can buy it elsewhere, but you know 100 percent this is legitimate product.”

Gance said that message has worked for the Chinese consumer. “They’d rather spend a dollar buying Australian products with proven provenance, where they know the legitimacy of the supply chain and the legitimacy of the product, than 50 cents on a product where they can’t find the provenance,” he added.

On Tmall, Chemist Warehouse is selling mostly vitamin products, as well as healthcare and skincare. Its top sellers are the vitamin brands Swisse and Blackmores, as well as the Goat Soap line.

Much has been made in the media of overwhelming Chinese demand for baby formula clearing Australian supermarket shelves, but Gance said the company isn’t offering such products at this point. “Our focus has been [healthcare and skincare] and we’ve always been able to maintain stock on the shelves for our Australians without having Chinese demand deplete what’s available,” he said.”

Thriving on China’s biggest ecommerce platform

Transacting on Tmall has some challenges, however. For one, the company needed to be set up with bonded warehouses within China, where product can be held without yet clearing customs. 

Ultimately, selling on an ecommerce platform like Tmall Global helps simplify any quarantine or border issues. “The only real regulatory hurdle that we’ve had to encounter is the listing and registration of product into those bonded warehouses,” he said.

While Chemist Warehouse would not disclose internal numbers, Gance said Chinese sales were still only a small portion of its overall sales.

Around 1,300 Australian brands currently sell on Tmall and Tmall Global, and Alibaba has announced plans to open its first Australian office in Melbourne by the end of 2016, in part to promote its platforms as an option for local companies.

Nevertheless, Gance warned first time players the process of getting ready for Chinese sales on Tmall can seem convoluted.

“If you’re prepared to invest time, energy and capital in getting it right, the rewards upfront have been great, but there have been many Australian retailers who have failed,” he said. 

“Just like anything, application and aptitude can get a good result.”

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Aug 17

To Get More Out of Social Media, Think Like an Anthropologist

There is something marketing managers seem to forget about the internet: it was made for people, not for companies and brands. As such, it offers managers a source of insight they never had — social listening.

Eavesdropping on consumers’ social-media chatter allows marketers to economically and regularly peer inside people’s lives as they are being lived, without introducing biases through direct interaction. Armed with traces of revealed opinions and behaviors, managers can at long last discover the manifestations and ripple effects of their actions on consumer behavior. Clear indications from marketing science underline how chatter affects sales, brand health, and even stock performance. Social listening competency will be critical to competitive advantage in the digital age.

But despite its potential, companies underleverage the social media stream for market intelligence. Analysts look for data confirming a predetermined viewpoint, or view the social media conversation as something to be managed rather than listened to. They frame listening as a descriptive exercise rather than the high-potential strategic project it should become.

Some pay attention to social media data only when corporate crisis demands it. Although insights from social listening can and should drive corporate strategy and innovation, these are more likely trapped inside the marketing and service departments that “own” them. Social listening promises the Holy Grail in business: superior understanding of customers. Why, then, do managers fail to fully exploit it?

Econometricians, computer scientists, and information systems (IS) professionals often manage social listening efforts and their skills in database management and big data analytics are essential. But these hard scientists lack the social science skill set that allows managers to move from data to insight in the social listening world. At issue is the fundamental difference between information and meaning. True to their titles, IS professionals specialize in managing information. Their function is reductionist: bringing complex data down to the simple level of numbers — zeros and ones.

Anthropologists and the culturally sensitive analysts who think like them specialize in meaning management. Their function is to take complex bits of data and develop a higher-order sense of them. Information and meaning work at cross purposes. In managing meaning, context is everything while in managing information context is error and noise. When we give our social listening projects to information specialists, we lose an appreciation of context and with it the ability to extract the meanings that provide insight for our companies and brands.

Insight Center

To fix this problem, we need to move from functional data management to a more holistic meaning-management mindset. Social media data is inherently qualitative and while it can and should be quantified for manageability, at some stage in the analysis it must be treated and represented as qualitative. In order to “appreciate the qualitative” and extract meaning from it, managers have to think like anthropologists and jettison many of the scientific principles that underlie traditional hard science research.

Consider the tenet of “adequate sample sizes” and its antithesis online. With social listening data, one quote, one comment, or one posted picture can spark an idea with profound implications. A large pharmaceutical company, for example, learned about an unsuspected customer challenge through a single photo on Flickr. The image showed a man wrapping a part of his leg in foil after applying a pain relief ointment. It turned out that the medication left untreatable stains on certain fabrics, hence the protective foil. Executives had been unaware of the problem despite years of conventional consumer research.  This single picture led to changes in the product and communications, and increased customer satisfaction.

The notion of “representative samples” that we impose when judging the value of quantitative research must similarly be put aside.  Engaged social-media participants are no doubt a different breed from non-users, or those who read but do not contribute content themselves, yet they can serve a valuable signaling function nonetheless. Listening to internet chatter can provide a heads-up on which signals to take in, which are being amplified in the culture, and which need response from the firm. Many firms capitalize on this benefit but still listen only in an exploratory fashion, as a precursor to so-called “real research” that will determine the truth of what is being said. But theory development does not require representative samples. Non-representative consumers can be relevant because relevance depends on the question at hand.

Consider for example posters to an internet discussion group focused on video processing chips. Though this is a narrow group that is in no way “representative” of the broad sample of computer users, these heavily vested and deeply knowledgeable netizens provide critical knowledge about new product pick-up and quality concerns that is relevant to a broader population. In this case, social listening revealed how category-level loyalties can trump brand loyalties, reinforcing the need for first-to-market product strategies and a marketing engagement plan that includes presence not just in the branded community but also in general computer forums as well.

“Appreciating the qualitative” challenges notions about how knowledge advances. Quantitative reasoning serves a hypothesis-testing mindset or, at least, a quest for statistical relationships between known concepts. Social listening in its purest form does not presuppose anything and this unsolicited quality creates an opportunity to answer questions that managers do not even know they should ask.

A manufacturer of baby strollers, for example, operated for years on the assumption that it owned an acutely defined brand positioning, with “no nonsense” being one of the core brand associations. Qualitative analysis of thousands of online statements across several countries revealed a gap between the intended and realized brand perception. Not one statement reflected the core association, forcing managers to the realization that the no-nonsense positioning was lost on consumers. Their reaction was curiosity – an approach Isaac Asimov put this way: “The most exciting phrase in science—the one that heralds true scientific progress—is not, “Eureka!” (“I found it!”), but rather, “Hmm…that’s funny.’” Managers should drill into the data to ask questions, not confirm or reject hypotheses.

Meaning management also involves a deeper appreciation of social listening as a component of a broader meaning-making system, rather than as, simply, a data source to be exploited. Social listening data don’t stand alone: they are part of a complementary package of insights into consumers, consumption, markets, and cultures. Often managers stop at the first step of correlating what is “known” through company research and what is revealed on the internet. This correlation is often low, prompting managers to ignore or minimize the social listening data. This dismissive tendency is reminiscent of how managers treat focus group data: they love group discussions for their convenience and the comforting sense that they offer in-depth insight, but managers are quick to write off anomalous findings that do not align with their thinking. But, if social chatter reveals consumers’ lives in a way that commissioned research never can, then for this simple reason there are bound to be misalignments. Misalignments are a key source of customer insights because they challenge assumptions. Misalignments suggest a mandate to attend particularly closely to the data.

To get the most out of social media data, operations have to go beyond data scientists and the marketing departments that house them. Every executive has to be a listener. Chief executives at cutting edge companies actively listen to social media commentary—in real time each day, not through a sanitized monthly summary report from the marketing department. Senior managers across all departments likewise have to get their hands dirty.

Social media comments need to move beyond the marketing departments and service agencies that collect them and become part of monthly management committee meetings. Many tools exist to make it easy to integrate social listening data into reporting or other business processes — and this can be part of the problem.

For one client of Oxyme (the analytics firm author Rietveld co-founded) the team counted the number of dashboards available on market and customer behavior. There were 19. Instead of deploying dashboard 20, Oxyme created a daily email containing provocative positive and negative statements voiced that day by customers online. This simple approach yielded new consumer insights that would have been hard to uncover though conventional data-mining. For example, sentiment is always context dependent, and the analysis needs to be sensitive to what the affective feeling is about and who is doing the talking. Existing research on bad breath revealed the expected negative sentiment, but by analyzing the context, managers learned that the authors responsible for the negative comments were mothers and the solutions they sought to bad breath were for their children, not themselves. By focusing on the context of negative sentiment rather than its magnitude, the research revealed a new target audience. Now when managers look at their consumer sentiment charts, their interpretation is aided by the qualitative data that provide context and meaning.

To leverage social media for customer insight move beyond the science of data management to the art of interpretation, embrace the context offered in qualitative commentaries, and don’t delegate social listening to the marketing department.

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