SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home

Cool News

Tin Pan Valley

At the turn of the 20th century, Tin Pan Alley songwriters hoped that, with enough exposure, they could sell sheet music and phonograph records. They would hire “‘song pluggers’ to sing songs in public, while making payments to top Vaudeville performers.” A pop song, it was said “was just a clever advertisement set to music.”

At the turn of the 21st century, appmakers dream of similar fortunes, and “hire ‘pay-for-install’ companies that guarantee installations of new apps.” Sometimes they spend heavily for such exposure in hopes the hype will eventually generate a profit.

In the early 1900s, songwriters would “mimic a popular song, often by subtle tweaks in title or song chorus.” Today, appmakers similarly “mimic a popular game or utility app, often by subtle tweak of features or game characters.” Where “selling records helped sell record players,” selling apps helps sell mobile phones and tablets.

The odds, however, are against songwriters and appmakers alike. “Bag It!,” the number-one free download on iTunes, pays a service fee for each download, and has yet to turn a profit. “People don’t realize how much marketing it takes to get in front of people,” says Amos Marvel of Hidden Variable Studios, the app’s developer. Or as a Tin Pan Alley publisher once admitted, there is “not much profit in songwriting.”

[Source: Dennis K. Berman, The Wall Street Journal, 6/13/12]

Retail Heat

“Wi-Fi networks are creating new ways for stores to monitor and influence shopper behavior.” The thing about Wi-Fi networks is that they can track shoppers even if they “aren’t logged on to the network. That’s possible because Wi-Fi-enabled devices regularly check for available networks by sending signals to surrounding base stations.” The networks create a “heat map” that “works by triangulating phone signals received by different Wi-Fi bases.”

It’s even better for the retailer if shoppers are logged in, because then it’s possible to track which websites they are visiting while they’re in a store or shopping mall, while also pinpointing their location in the store. It’s possible to serve ads or coupons based on where shoppers are and what they’re doing on their mobile devices, as well.

Heat maps can help confirm which products are most vulnerable to “showrooming” and perhaps alert a retailer to add more personnel to endangered departments. One important caveat, however: Alan Dabbiere of Airwatch, a provider of Wi-Fi tracking for retailers, notes that “the privacy implications of using Wi-Fi to track people’s locations have yet to be thought through by the industry.”

[Source: Anton Troianovski, The Wall Street Journal, 6/19/12]


In the race to create the next killer app, “it is getting tough to tell the difference between a joke and the next big thing.” Consider, for example, Jotly, an app that “lets people assign grades to anything they can photograph: tree leaves, messy desks, ice cubes, whatever.”

Alex Cornell came up with the idea and his notion was to “think of the most ridiculous possible app that no one would consider a real thing and make that.” Guess what? Jotly has “attracted tens of thousands of users” and spawned “at least two legitimate venture-backed competitors.”

On the other hand, consider TacoCopter, “a service for delivering tacos with drone-like miniature helicopters,” which sounds fake, but is real. “Also very real is “iPoo, a social-networking app that connects people sitting on toilets.” It started as a joke, but “200,000 people have paid $1 apiece to download iPoo since it launched two years ago.”

Alex Cornell advises app developers to use the color blue and create a name that ends in “ly.” He says that Jotly 2.0 is on its way, with a new “frictionless” interface that “works on its own” and rates the user doing things.

[Source: Geoffrey A. Fowler and Amir Efrati, The Wall Street Journal, 6/5/12]


If you want to get the best prices online, be careful what you tweet. It seems that operators at [24]7, a Bangalore-based call center and software developer, “are beginning to scan Twitter for gen on the shoppers they are talking to — and sometimes … their tweets give useful hints about whether a discount is needed to clinch the sale.”

That’s just one of several ways in which online retailers are using what they know about online shoppers to separate the frugal from the spendthrift.

Some retailers use browser cookies to link internet and physical addresses, allowing them to offer “one price for Bel Air, another for Compton,” for example. Others are using software “that helps them detect shoppers who can afford to pay more or are in a hurry to buy, so as to present pricier options to them or simply charge more for the same stuff.”

Ravi Vijayaraghavan of [24]7 says “price-customization software typically brings in two to four times as much money as offering the same discounts at random … One way to do this is to monitor how quickly shoppers click through towards the online seller’s payment page: those who already seem set on buying need not be tempted with a special offer.” Of course, it’s “hard for shoppers to spot when this is going on,” because if they did, there would be a backlash.

[Source: The Economist, 6/30/12]

Handy Pickups

Some retailers hope to defeat “showrooming” by embracing it. Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail consultant, suggests more retailers will actually move toward a “showroom” model, by “carrying lots of products for shoppers to see and test, but asking customers to buy the merchandise via the stores’ websites or apps.”

Alison also says she expects to see e-commerce retailers fight back by opening stores, considering the many advantages bricks retailers have over their clicks competitors, such as saving shipping fees and enabling shoppers to order online and then picking up the goods at a store the same day.

Walmart now offers its online customers the option to pay for items in cash at pick-up. Interestingly, about 40 percent
of those who select the cash option online then pay with a credit card in the store — apparently because they fear identity theft and don’t want to use their credit cards online.

Some retailers originally thought pick-ups would “draw consumers into stores and encourage them to buy more.” Now they see pick-ups as a way to close a sale quickly online and thereby reduce the risk that shoppers will go elsewhere.

Some, like the Container Store, say that “online orders for in-store pickup also tended to be larger than typical in-store purchases, and that customers who picked up orders in the store visited about 50 percent more often than customers who shopped only in the stores.”

Sea Mail

Harvey Bennett became fascinated with “sea mail” as a child, and has since sent hundreds of messages in bottles. “It’s a pretty primitive way of communicating, but it works,” says Harvey, who is now 61.

Of the hundreds of bottles “he has sent into the waves over the past half-century, roughly 50 have been found … Some have been washed up a few miles away and been carried back to him by local beachcombers. Others have floated as far as Bermuda and England and have been mailed back,” according to Harvey.

“It’s a tremendous thrill to throw a bottle in the ocean and get a phone call from some guy in Bermuda saying, ‘I got your bottle’,” says Harvey. “Then you talk to him and find you have things in common and you strike up a friendship.”

Not everybody is friendly, though. Harvey recalls being scolded by a woman who was upset because the bottle might have broken and injured her children. The bottle that made it all the way to England was returned with a note from the recipient criticizing Harvey for “littering.”

Over the years, Harvey has refined his “sea mail” technique, waiting for “outbound tide, offshore wind and, if possible, catching the eve of a hurricane for a maximum weather wallop to somewhere.” He’s also found that the plastic bottles “travel much faster.” Harvey rewards those who return the bottles with “a fly-fishing lure” (he owns The Tackle Shop in Amagansett, NY).

“For me, it’s a wonderful distraction,” says Harvey. “I’ve had adversity my whole life, and this takes me away from it. I become that kid of 6 or 7 who decided to throw a bottle into the ocean.”

[Source: Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times, 6/24/12]

Cool News of the Day, a daily e-mail newsletter of marketing insights, ideas and inspiration, is edited by TIM MANNERS. For a free subscription, visit

SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home