Posts tagged: Innovation

“We tried that before and it didn’t work”

Light bulb“We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

Man, I’ve heard that phrase a lot in my life. And truth be told, I’ve spoken it more than I care to admit.

But when something fails once in the past (or even more than once) should it be doomed forever?

I was lucky enough to hear futurist Bob Johansen speak last week at Resource Interactive’s excellent iCitizen conference, and he said something that really stuck with me:

“Almost nothing that happens in the future is new; it’s almost always something that has been tried and failed in the past.”

It’s so true. Think about Apple’s recent successes. MP3 players floundered before the iPod came along. Smartphones existed in limited fashion before the iPhone changed the landscape. And tablet computers had been an unrealized dream for quite some time. In discussing the tablet computer in 2001, Bill Gates famously said that “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” When that didn’t happen, it wasn’t hard to find people predicting the tablet’s failure: “The Tablet? It isn’t RIP. But it’s certainly never going to be the noise Bill Gates thought.” But then along came the iPad and its million units sold in the first month alone. And don’t get me started on e-books, which many loudly proclaimed were bound to fail. Jeff Bezos begs to differ.

We humans have this tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater when something fails.

But the reality is that the success of any new idea — be it a product, a promotional idea, a merchandising technique, a sales tactic or website functionality —  is dependent on many different variables. Execution matters a lot. But we’re also dependent on many other situational contexts in the idea’s ecosystem, like timing, audience/customers, design, the economy, and the general randomness of life. Even slight tweaks to any of those variables can be the difference between success and failure.

In the others words, we shouldn’t automatically assume a past failure of an idea means the idea was bad. To be clear, I’m not suggesting there aren’t bad ideas that deserve to remain in the trash heap. However, we should at least break down the failure of an idea that we must have considered worthy at one point. (Why else would we have tried it in the first place?) What went wrong and what went right? Was it the execution? The positioning? The audience? Did we even have enough data points in our measurement that our findings of failure are statistically significant? Did it really fail?

Once we’ve broken the failure of the idea down into its component parts, we’ll have a better sense of whether or not the idea itself was at fault. We’ll have a much better understanding of the problems we would face if we tried it again, and that better understanding will give us a better platform from which to base our next attempt if we so desire.  We’ve all heard the stories of Thomas Edison’s thousands of failures before he finally got the incandescent light bulb right. Would we all be in the dark today if he gave up?

What do you think? Have you good ideas junked because of past failures? Was it the idea or something else?

My Favorite Sites of the Year

It’s the end of the year and the end of an amazing decade for e-commerce. So, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of awarding “bests” at the end of the year, I’m listing some of my favorites sites and site features of the year. I always enjoy discovering new sites and techniques when I read other people’s lists like this, so I hope you’ll find something interesting in my web award show.

The overall best e-commerce site award goes to:

Moosejaw.com

Moosejaw has it all. They’ve done an excellent job creating a very intuitive site that provides lots of options to narrow your selection; you can easily sort by price, color, size and brand. They have lots of what they call “custy reviews” available for their products, and you can even choose a “custy reviews” search/browse results page that highlights recent reviews in the product listing. Moosejaw has a great checkout process that does a good job of guiding the customer through the process, and their error messaging is clear and easy to understand. And no commentary on Moosejaw would be complete without mention of their Madness section, which is full of wacky content that keeps you coming back for more. In a final stroke of branding brilliance, Moosejaw provides free Moosejaw flags to anyone who requests them, and encourages people to take photos of themselves with Moosejaw flags at the height of their adventures, literally, like at the top of a mountain. What a brilliant way to make your customers your greatest marketers. As a final point of support for this award, when I asked people around the office for their favorites sites, Moosejaw was by far the most common choice.

Runner-up

Net-a-Porter

Net-a-Porter shows they understand how their customers shop, and they understand that the self-service experience of the web requires extra attention. They have a prominent “What’s New” section, and their landing pages get right to the products (without lots of “window” signs screaming about promotions). Each item in the listing has an alternate view when hovering over it, which is becoming fairly common, but Net-a-Porter uses and alternate view that features the item being worn rather than just showing it from the back. When you click through to the product pages, there are many more product views and some items have an excellent video of a model walking in the clothes so customers can see how the clothing looks in action. Finally, there are details about how items fit and an invitation to contact a “Fashion Advisor” for more help if you need it.

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Best use of video:

K-Swiss

I’ve always wondered why more sites don’t do what K-Swiss is doing with their product videos. Namely, use them as the primary image for the product when they’re available.

When you arrive at a product page that features a video (which, unfortunately, isn’t all of them) the video launches immediately and shows a model walking in the item. You can easily switch the view to see her walking from the front, from either side and from the back.  And best of all, there’s not sound that could get a workplace shopper in trouble. 🙂 K-Swiss also features multiple static images of product to ensure customers are getting as much information as possible.

Runner-up

Ice.com

Ice.com is also making excellent use of video and using it as their primary image when a video is available. And they’re getting great results. Ice’s Pinny Gniwisch reports conversion rates jumping a whopping 400% after customers view a video, and return rates drop 25% for products with videos. Video really helps give customers a much better understanding of what they’re buying, which helps to remove one more barrier to purchasing products online. I’m really impressed with the quality of the short videos they’re producing, as well. The folks at Ice.com clearly understand the value of video, and they’re making the right investment to improve their business.

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Most interesting merchandising tool:

Polyvore

Polyvore is not a retailer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to learn from or leverage what they’re doing. They call themselves “a fashion community site that lets you mix and match products from any online store to create outfits or any kind of collage. It is also a vibrant community of creative and stylish people.” They have a really cool drag and drop capability that let’s visitors “create looks” from product feeds from many different retailers. Essentially, the visitors become merchandisers, and they’re looks are posted to be voted on and commented on by the community. The best looks rise to the top. There are some really amazing collections, and of course each product has a buy button. Polyvore is now making their technology available to retailers, as can be seen in Charlotte Russe “Design Your Outfit” section.

Runner up:

Hunch

Hunch is also not a retailer, but as with Polyvore, there’s lots to learn and leverage. Hunch describes themselves as “a decision-making tool that gets smarter the more you use it. After asking you 10 questions or less, Hunch will provide a concrete result for decisions of every kind.” Basically, they ask you a series of questions and then provide product recommendations that match. The general concept is not new, but Hunch’s implementation is the best I’ve seen and it gets better the more it’s used. They’re using the community to build and refine the question sets, and they’re covering a massive range of topics. The whole experience is really addictive.

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Most proactive:

Restaurant.com

Poorly written error messages are the bane of the web and a shameful way to lose sales, as I’ve previously discussed. But even well written error messages can be annoying because they come after the fact. Restaurant.com has taken a proactive approach in their account creation process. As a visitor enters a form field, a small box appears to the right giving the user detailed descriptions about what’s expected to be entered and, when appropriate, giving the reason why it’s important. Try it out to see how helpful it is.

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I could go on and on about lots of great features on a lot of different sites, but the seven above really stood out for me as great examples worth checking out.

But there are tons of great sites I haven’t even seen.

What sites stand out for you? I would be grateful if you’d use the comments section to share your favorites with the rest of us.

Amazon is hunting for you this holiday season

The holidays are hunting season for Amazon, and they’ve got your business in their sights. Over the years, Amazon has consistently proven to be extremely adept at
maximizing their competitive advantages and creating innovations to
shore up their disadvantages. And the holiday season is the time they most leverage their advantages to grab more market share.

But here’s the thing: many of Amazon’s advantages are shared by e-commerce operations of all
types, but Amazon seems to be quicker to recognize and capitalize on
those advantages than everyone else.

This morning, I pulled up the Amazon home page and was greeted by yet
another letter from Jeff Bezos announcing Amazon’s latest brilliant
innovation. This time, it’s “Frustration Free Packaging” – just in time
for the holiday season when those of us who are parents still haven’t healed the scars from last year’s unbelievable frustration with trying to release our kids’ new toys from wicked constraints that would have defied Houdini (all while the kids are jumping up and down with excitement to play with the new toys).

The secure packaging we’ve been fighting with is designed for physical stores to allow for attractive displays while at the the same time preventing theft. You can see all gory details in this patent filing for toy packaging. But the need for that type of packing in an e-commerce warehouse is moot. So, why not push manufacturers for “e-commerce packaging” that is designed to protect items in shipping but allows for easy removal from the package? Amazon’s size probably gives them an advantage in pushing for this type of action from manufacturers, but many of today’s biggest multi-channel retailers certainly have massive pull with manufacturers and probably could have pulled this type of thing off either individually or collectively — had they thought of it.

And, of course, Amazon has been the trailblazer for many of today’s e-commerce innovations, including customer reviews, affiliate programs and recommendations. So, you might say, let them bear the costs of the innovations and we’ll just capitalize on them after Amazon has proven the way.

While that strategy may work sometimes, it’s fraught with risk because Amazon doesn’t often relinquish market share once they’ve gained it (particularly if they hook customers into Amazon Prime), and they tend to gain that market share during the holiday season. Check out their quarterly results in the “North American Media” category over the last 22 quarters in comparison to Barnes and Noble and Borders:

You can see it’s the fourth quarter where they gain market share. They don’t gain much in the other three quarters, but they certainly hold on to a lot of the share they gained the prior holiday season.

So, what can the rest of us do about it?

For starters, we might want to put innovation on the front burner. Yes, there are costs and risks associated with innovation. But the costs of doing nothing or simply following the crowd might be greater. And successful innovations don’t always have to be earth-shatteringly new, whiz bang technology. They simply need to solve problems better than current solutions.

I believe the most successful innovations have at least one of the following characteristics:

  1. They create convenience for consumers
    We love convenience, and we’ll sacrifice quality and spend more money to get it. I’ve talked about this previously in my post “Predicting the Future of Retail.”
  2. They create efficiencies for businesses
    Efficiencies allow us to make more money faster, and we love that. Given the unusual shapes some toy packaging can take, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging is also alleviating frustrations in their warehouse and giving Amazon added efficiency in the supply chain.

It’s important to carefully examine our businesses to truly understand where we have advantages and disadvantages. As is the case with packaging, these advantages might not always be immediately obvious. We really need to dig deep to understand the problems our customers and businesses are facing and then carefully look for ways to solve those problems by leveraging our inherent strengths. In this process, we need to listen hard to our customers to understand their needs. Steve Jobs once famously said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” He’s right. Customers often can’t give us the specific solution, but if we listen properly they can describe their problems well enough to give us the basis for developing effective solutions.

Innovation usually takes time and money. What can we do this holiday season?

There are lots of little things we can do to improve the experience for customers who come to our sites this holiday season.

  1. Truly look at our sites from our customers’ perspective.
    Go to Google and click on one of your search terms. Is the experience what a customer should expect? Try taking a different path on your site to a product than you normally do. How is the experience?
  2. Get more product front and center
    Physical stores pack the front of store and end caps with gift ideas. How well does your site parallel this sort of technique?
  3. Review your error messages
    A poorly written error message is a shameful way to lose a sale. Go through your site and intentionally generate errors. Put yourself in your customers’ seat. Are those error messages clear and easy-to-understand?

While it may be too late to implement huge changes for this holiday season, it’s certainly not too late to pay attention to customers’ needs and start thinking about what can be done for next holiday season. We can carefully consider our advantages and think about how we could better leverage them next year. And we can carefully consider our disadvantages and think about how we can better mitigate them next year. I’m confident Amazon’s already actively considering their next moves.

What do you think? What tips do you have for retailers for this holiday season? What types of innovations do you see coming?



Innovation by popular opinion – evolutionary or revolutionary?

What do Best Buy, Starbucks and Barack Obama all have in common? They’ve all launched sites designed to solicit customer ideas for their business and policies. (At least Obama used to have this capability on the transition site Change.gov. I can’t seem to find the ability on WhiteHouse.gov.) MyStarbucksIdea.com has been around for over a year, and Best Buy’s Idea X just launched. Given my recent post on how defending the status quo kills companies, I wondered if this sort of solution would help companies find that next great revolutionary idea to transform the company.

I really like this idea as a way to generate some fresh new ideas that come from the people being served by a business. And there are some very good ideas on the new Best Buy site; ideas that range from improvements to their Reward Zone program to ways for customers to register for help in busier stores. I love that customers have this ability to submit their ideas, and I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are using open brand techniques and letting all ideas be shown publicly, even when they aren’t always complimentary.

But, man, what a task to review all of those ideas! As a way of helping to sift through the ideas, each of these sites has a voting mechanism ostensibly designed to move the best ideas to the top.Or at least the most popular ideas.


So, will this concept help companies find that next great revolutionary idea for their businesses? 

I’m not so sure. My experience is that popular voting is a pretty good way to find evolutionary ideas, but it doesn’t work as well for revolutionary ideas. This is because most people tend to gravitate towards incremental improvements to concepts already familiar to them and have trouble visualizing radically new concepts.

To be clear, I’m not in any way knocking these systems or the idea of the popular vote. I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are reaching out to their customers and trying to find ways to improve their businesses by better meeting their customers’ needs and expectations, and my guess is they’re not looking for revolutionary ideas via this mechanism. (Although, given both company’s solid histories of revolutionary innovations, if they come across a revolutionary idea I’m sure they’ll act upon it quickly.)

So, how then do companies find revolutionary ideas?

It seems we often rely on executive brainstorming sessions. Those sessions almost always use the same technique (i.e. generate lots of ideas and vote on your favorites) and I find those techniques are exactly the reason they usually fail to produce transformational ideas. Usually, there aren’t a lot of guidelines issued prior to the session — by design — and the problems to be solved are usually not well-defined and agreed upon. As a result, the most out-of-the-box ideas tend to lack votes and end up in the trash heap.

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that promoted a different approach. Instead of coming up with random ideas on the fly, the approach is to spend time garnering support with individuals from a variety of functional areas prior to submission of the idea. Feedback is incorporated and the idea is able to develop more fully. Only once it’s gone through some development is an idea submitted for review by executive decision makers.

How different would these strategy brainstorming sessions be if the ideas had some development before they were suggested? Of course, radical ideas that cause transformational change will still meet resistance from all who benefit from the status quo, particularly when those revolutionary ideas are, almost by their nature, not likely to produce immediate financial results. This is the primary issue address by Clayton M. Christensen in his excellent book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen advocates creating entirely separate groups or even funding new start-up companies as a way to incubate these new strategies while they develop. This incubation approach is much the way many e-commerce organizations got their start, and I think it worked in many ways. Of course, now the new dilemma is how to bring it all back together with the parent companies. (Sigh) Nothing’s easy.

I hope more companies will follow Best Buy’s and Starbucks’ leads in opening their brands to customer ideas and public feedback. I look forward to the many great ideas I’m sure will come from it. I hope also that we can all find some techniques to deliver some really great revolutionary ideas to keep our companies vibrant and relevant for a long time to come.

What do you think? Do you have any great brainstorming techniques to share? Have you seen new ideas come to life in your company?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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