Understand Your Customer Better Than Anyone Else

Our top priority at World Vital Records is understanding our customers needs. A VC friend told me recently that if you choose a market and understand your customers’ needs better than anyone else, and meet those needs, that you will be successful.

In addition to monthly usabilty tests of our web sites, we now have a panel of 783 customers who are willing to answer any questions that we ask them. The first question we asked is what kinds of records they want us to add to our web site. Our next question will be what countries they want us to gather these records from.

We are also studying our site analytics regularly, doing A/B testing on our outbound email campaigns, and have begun using Google Website Optimizer so that we can test various landing pages in real time to see which ones perform best.

We have found by analyzing our customer database that 72% of our paying subscribers are women and 28% are men. Using Quantcast, we have a good glimpse of the demographics of our site visitors, what other web sites they tend to visit, and what keywords they are searching for.

Quantcast is an extremely useful tool and it will only get better. The founder of Quantcast emailed me recently and told me how many pixels they are tracking on a monthly basis. Their open system (where webmasters can opt in for validated numbers) will make their system better with time. As more media planners use their site to design interactive marketing campaigns, Quantcast will be able to play a key role in the ad selling process, and take a slice of that pie. To build audience, they’ll continue to make their audience measurement and demographic information free.

I love this service.

Quantcast is extremely valuable to understand all the companies in an industry. We can use Quantcast to learn the demographics of visitors to Ancestry.com or any other genealogy web site. Ancestry’s users tend to be over 45 years old, and more female than male.

I can start to see differences in audience composition and determine who is strong in what area. For example, World Vital Records already has a lot of users from a variety of ethnic groups, whereas Ancestry.com’s audience ranks high on Caucasian but low on most other ethnic groups. As we launch international databases and search engines, perhaps this gap will only widen.

We can use Quantcast to find hundreds of genealogy sites that are potentially good partners, where cross promotion could help us and them.

If you have not yet started using Quantcast, I suggest you set aside a few hours to do so, and write down all the insights you gain about your competitors and your customers, and what other sites they visit and what other interests they have.

In the traditional direct marketing industry you can use a service like Claritas which can provide you with a customer segmentation report if you provide them with the mailing addresses of your customers. They can answer questions like:

* Who are my customers?
* What are they like?
* What do they buy?
* Where can I find them?
* How can I reach them?
* How can I keep them?

They also have Data Enhancement services, which they describe as follows: “Claritas can help you learn all about your customers – their demographics, lifestyles, and consumer behaviors. We can append Claritas data to your customer file of names and addresses to give a richly detailed profile of what your customers are like and why they buy from you.”

Quantcast is providing a combination of Alexa/Hitwise/Comscore-like data along with free Claritas-like data. I’m a little surprised that it’s not getting more buzz than it is. I have found a few good posts on Quantcast, including this post on Rojo.com that says it may be a valuable tool for advertisers, and potentially an acquisition target for Google, but that it has been self-funded and may not have a business model fully figured out.

I suppose if it had venture backing then it would be getting a lot more media coverage than it is. Or maybe the company is lying low and perfecting its service until it is ready for prime time.

I blogged earlier this month about how Quancast is the best free tool for internet marketers in years, and I stand by that claim. The more I use it, the more I like it, and the more potential I see for it.

But back to our topic … understanding your customer. One more practice that we are going to start at World Vital Records is requiring all our executives to have regular phone calls with customers.

I remember when my brother Curt Allen was CEO of MyFamily.com and he asked his executive staff of 12 people how many had spoken to a customer in the past month. If I recall correctly, not a single hand went up. He was making a strong point that when a company is growing fast, it is easy to lose touch with the customer.

So when I ran the marketing department, not only did my staff each visit our call center every week to be involved in customer phone calls, but we also started holding group discussions with our customers to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they wanted us to do next.

It is so easy to get busy with housekeeping and putting out fires that you can completely neglect speaking with customers.

We are also planning to attend many, many national, regional, and local family history events. Not only are the people at these conferences the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but they are so incredibly knowledgeable–some of them have been doing family history for decades, so they have so many insights and ideas for what would make their job easier.

A consultant friend of mine told me recently that third-party surveys are far more accurate than those conducted by a company itself because customers will be more honest with third parties for some reason. What do you think? I remember we hired Wirthlin Worldwide to do a major customer survey for MyFamily.com back in 1999 and the results were incredible.

Blogging keeps me in touch with internet entrepreneurs, but not with the family history community yet. I think I’m going to keep this blog focused on internet entrepreneurship and marketing (due to popular demand!) and start a new blog that I’ll probably publish at Worldvitalrecords.com that will focus on family history topics.

Bill Marriott claims that his new blog will help him do on a global scale what he has been doing for years: talking to the customer.

What are your topic 3-5 techniques for staying in touch with your customers and really understanding their needs? And how has this helped you achieve success in your business?

Please share….

Note: I have not been involved as an employee of MyFamily.com (now The Generations Network) since February 2002.

International Genealogy Search Engines

Our World Vital Records team has launched international genealogy search engines for 11 countries, with 18 more in the pipeline already.

Our intial list includes a search engine for genealogy in China and a search engine for genealogy in India. Other countries include Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines, Tonga, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Also this week, we are uploading 200 electronic back-issues of the famous genealogy magazine, Everton Genealogical Helper. We have indexed more than 10,000 pages dating from 1947-2006. That’s 60 years of content from the magazine that is the most interactive of all genealogical publications. For decades, readers have been writing in their queries, which would get published, and other readers would then connect with each other. The Helper was a genealogy bulletin board before the internet was even invented.

We are currently designing and building the interactive features of our new family history web site. If we can engage the Helper audience in using our new web based tools, then we’ll be able to take interactive genealogy to an entirely new level.

Family history is a global phenomenon

In December our web analytics showed that Worldvitalrecords.com had visitors from 117 countries. Now we are up to 141 countries. The web is truly a global phenomenon. So is family history. World Vital Records is helping people all over the world find their ancestors. Stay tuned for some exciting announcements in the coming months.

I remember a few years ago a Roper Starch Worldwide survey found that “protecting the family” was the key driving value in the lives of most consumers from most countries. In fact, I believe it was ranked #1 in 22 of the 35 countries that were surveyed.

“Respecting your elders” was also in the top 5 values. These values were ranked ahead of health, money, and other things that we normally think of as driving consumer behaviors. (Now of course our values and our behaviors are not necessarily always in sync!)

The family still is the most fundamental unit of society, even though 44% of adult Americans are single (I saw that factoid on the news the other day), they all still belong to at least one family. Everyone is connected. If families ties can become stronger, society benefits a great deal, as families take more responsibility for each other’s well-being.

The future of Google Video search

From the Official Google Blog, we learn that Google Video searches will now include links to videos hosted at YouTube, but in the future, Google Video will index “the world’s online video content” whereever it exists.

Starting today, YouTube video results will appear in the Google Video search index: when you click on YouTube thumbnails, you will be taken to YouTube.com to experience the videos. Over time, Google Video will become even more comprehensive as it evolves into a service where you can search for the world’s online video content, irrespective of where it may be hosted.

This actually makes a ton of sense. Google will focus on indexing all the world’s video content, regardless of where it exists, and not try to host it all. There are scores of “YouTube” like sites cropping up everywhere, so one of the major challenges for Google will be how to manage duplicate video content. Many marketers/advertisers will upload their videos to all the video sites they can. It will be interesting to see how Google will rank the results when the same video is hosted in dozens of places. I suppose Google Video and YouTube results might appear first.

The biggest challenge of all may be to avoid indexing all the UGC (user generated crap) that millions of amateur video producers will be posting online.

I was in Las Vegas recently when the CEO of CBS took the stage at CES and showed us a glimpse of the future. As they presented a totally lame video produced in Second Life using some CBS Star Trek content, I began to worry that the future of television will include millions of home-made poor quality video clips with all the intelligence and redeeming value of South Park or Beevis and Butthead, or the kind of fake porn or near porn that Mark Cuban says exists in so much abundance on YouTube.

Mark recently blogged about the the top 20 most played videos on YouTube in December.

Go through the list. Only the StarWars PSA, the Christmas Tree Jump and PowerTool Racing are really user generated content. 3 out of 20.

From there you have a contrived 12 days of christmas that is one of thousands of promos for Youtube users themselves trying to build a following. Is this social networking at its best?

From there we have commercials or promos for movies, tv shows, blenders, knives, music videos and for a phone company. Then we have the most popular of Youtube videos these days. The fake Porn thumbnail with headlines of: Britney, Paris, whoever, nude, in the shower, wherever, doing whatever. 5 of the top 20 are fake porn.

This is the future of TV and entertainment ?

Thats what Youtube has become. Fake Porn and Commercials. Sure there is still some fun stuff on there and being uploaded, but how long before fake porn just takes over? It was 9 of the top 20 for the week as I write this.

At CES, Michael Dell showed a historic cartoon showing what might have happened if ancients had access to personal computers (Dell computers of course), and he wondered outloud what Spielberg would be doing now if Shakespeare had been producing action movies in the 1500s.

I worry when we start thinking that video is more important than text.

If you haven’t read Neal Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, you should.

I hope Google or someone can figure out a way to index all the good, wholesome, uplifting, educational, informative, appropriately entertaining and useful video content and filter out all the rest, at least for those of us who don’t want to fill our minds with garbage. Some of us still believe in the “law of the harvest”–that what you sow, you shall also reap. And some of us want to have all the positive benefits of technology without all the negatives.

Think about it. Stanford hosts the most successful investors and entreprenuers of all time and posts the full video interviews on their entrepreneur education web site. This is really valuablel stuff. Probably get a few thousand views each, if they are lucky. Meanwhile, YouTube gets millions of views of the fake porn videos that Mark Cuban refers to.

Makes you think about the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and other civilizations that lost their bearing and got corrupted by entertaining themselves to death (sometimes literally).

Recent polls show that about a third of young people in the U.S. read the bible weekly, but a third have also watched a particularly violent TV show in the last month as well as a violent movie. If you add “a violent or raunchy” web video to the poll, I bet the numbers are much higher.

So if the Bible and Shakespeare and the classics keep fading from popular culture, and our minds become more and more filled with lousy UCG, what will our country look like in the next few decades, and how will we respond to the incredible economic and educational energy coming from China and India and elsewhere in the world?

As a social entrepreneur, I like to look for opportunities to counter the negatives that I see in our culture with new positive things that can be done with modern technology. My focus for the next few years will be on genealogy and connecting families using technology. But I admire other social entrepreneurs who find ways to use modern technology to improve our minds and solve all kinds of problems.

I’m especially excited about Google Book Search and the other projects that are underway to digitize all the books in the world. I haven’t seen any Hitwise or Comscore stats showing the usage of these online projects. But I’m interested to see how many people will use them. I fear that it will be only a fraction of the people who use video search.

When you don’t have time to blog, at least share what you are reading

My Google Reader (for RSS feeds–highly recommended!) now has a wonderful “share this” feature, which allows me to quickly tag the best news stories that I read each week, even when I don’t have time to blog about them.

Then, those shared items show up online for others to view. My shared items can be found here.

Soon, I hope to have my shared items incorporated into my own paulallen.net web site, but that will take a bit of development work. And my blog developer has 6 priorities ahead of this one.

Speaking of paulallen.net, I was happy to discover yesterday that Yahoo Denmark now ranks paulallen.net the #2 top result for the search “paul allen.” In fact, several Scandinavian sites did the same thing. (No wonder I get so much email from all over the world for the Microsoft billionaire!)

Make your web site mobile friendly

I’m reviewing some of the powerpoints from December’s Search Engine Strategies Conference, particularly the presentations on mobile web site design and marketing, which were excellent.

The session on Mobile Search Optimization, moderated by Danny Sullivan, was excellent. Someone took copious notes and posted them. Must have been a court reporter present.

One URL was given out that gives instructions on how to make your web site mobile friendly in just a few minutes.

I’m finding that I use my Blackberry web browser more and more frequently. I’m sitting at a desktop less and less for web browsing, and even more rarely for email.

Janice Roberts from Mayfield Fund (founded in 1969), a veteran VC firm from Silicon Valley, gave the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture at Stanford last week. (You can get the podcast for free.) In her career, she worked at 3Com, bought more than 30 companies for them, was involved in acquiring Palm and taking it public, and has been at Mayfield for 6 1/2 years. In speaking of trends for the future in this lecture, she talked a lot about mobile devices and how many people (especially younger people) want anywhere access to everything.

If you haven’t thought about making your web site mobile friendly, you are falling behind the times.

If you have tried it, tell me what you think of the instructions from mikeindustries.com or how you approached the task.

Also, in your comment, give me the URL of your mobile-friendly site, so I can try it out on my Blackberry.

NONE of my portfolio sites are mobile friendly yet, including World Vital Records (where I am CEO), which is why I continue to lecture on this topic and blog about it.

The best free tool for internet marketers in years

My friend Spencer sent me a link to Quantcast.com this morning and I tried it out and then made in the centerpiece of my training today at the Provo Labs Academy.

This is an incredibly powerful tool that provides demographic information on the visitors who visit your site, your competitor’s sites and any one of 20 million other web sites. It’s like the wonderful free Alexa tool combined with the extremely expensive data that comes from high end internet traffic companies like Comscore or Hitwise–but the Quantcast service is free.

You can see the age, gender, income, and education level of your site visitors. The power here, of course, is not to just get free data about your own site visitors, but to use this tool to find hundreds of other sites with similar demographics for media planning and buying purposes.

It also includes keyword research. You can see the keywords your site visitors are likely to search for. You can find other web sites that your site visitors tend to visit.

I know I will be spending many, many hours using this service.

At the Academy, one of the members expressed concern about how Quantcast would make money. I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of internet marketers will get addicted to their free services, so that if they roll out premium services, they’ll have a willing audience to sell to.

I’m not sure a more important free service has launched since Goto.com (later Overture and now Yahoo Search Marketing) started providing its free keyword suggestion tool for search engine marketers.

This takes that concept to an entirely new level. I applaud the team behind this incredible new Quantcast service and predict that it will spread very quickly. The user interface is excellent. It’s fast and easy to use.

My first hope is that their premium service will provide access to “more….” data under each category that they track. But for now, I’m very excited to use Quincast for genealogy purposes, and to encourage all the Provo Labs portfolio companies to use it as well.

In our Academy training today we also discussed direct mail list brokers who can provide extremely targeted mailing lists for promotional purposes. We discussed Microsoft’s efforts to one-up Google with better demographic targeting and behavioral targeting on AdCenter, which is possibly because they have some demographic data on their 263 million Hotmail users, and they combine it with search engine query histories for each customer.

A few other topics we covered include:

  • Microsoft getting into Web Analytics with a free service to compete with Google Analytics
  • How to use Clickatell‘s SMS services to provide your customers with valuable opt-in SMS alerts. We discussed some potential uses of this service.
  • How some merchants are using Google’s $10 bonus for new Google Checkout customers to advertise “$10 off of our product when you sign up for Google Checkout.” (NY Times article from December).
  • Netflix is now letting its customers stream 1,000 movies as it finally launches its online movie rental service. Netflix has 70,000 DVDs in its rental library.
  • Skype’s founders are backing the launch of a potentially industry changing online peer-to-peer television platform called Joost. It’s been code-named “The Venice Project” for some time now; but Joost is now in beta. Based on this week’s Alexa chart for Joost, I would say this project has the most hype potential and therefore may be the single most disruptive play in online video to date. Skype’s founders first launched KaZaa, then Skype (sold to eBay for $2.6 billion plus.) The chances are good that this company will sell for even more than Skype after it gets its 50-100 million users; after all television is a much sexier industry than telecommunications. It’s too early to tell for sure, but I wouldn’t bet against this company and its backers.

I wanted to talk about several other things, but we ran out of time. They included:

  • Google may someday put advertising kiosks in Malls to compete with the OnSpot Digital Network.
  • Millennial Media, a mobile advertising network raised venture funding this week. It will compete with AdMobs (the leader I think) and Third Screen Media.
  • Geni.com launched this week with a very cool web 2.0 family tree builder application. They got TechCrunched and got a huge spike in traffic. (See the Alexa Chart for Geni. Also, see the 5-year chart for MyFamily.com and Geni.) It will be very interesting to see how much stickiness they have over time.
  • Bloglines may still be the most used RSS reader, but Google Reader may be catching up.
  • Popular Science’s best of CES 2007 included the Nokia N800 internet tablet, the Ion iProjector (plug in your video ipod and project!), the OQO Model 02, and the Garmin Astro 220 (used by hunters to track the location within 10 miles of their hunting dogs, who have mini trasmitters on them. Would this work with kids?)
  • MTVu acquired RateMyProfessors.com (900,000 professors rated, 10 million annual student visitors). They now have the 2nd highest trafficked college interest network.
  • Microsoft will be embedding hyperlinks in online video by this summer.
  • How Flixster got 5 million registered users for its social network around movies.
  • This week was an especially good week with news and announcements for internet entrepreneurs. It’s impossible to keep track of all of them, but with the help of my Google Reader and it’s 100 RSS feeds and my network of hundreds of business friends who pass along news, and my Blackberry which I can use any time to search Google News, we do a pretty good job at the Academy of covering the major ones.

Amazon’s Jeff Barr visiting Provo Labs

Jeff Barr is coming to Provo Labs in February!

This is going to be a great opportunity for Utah’s entrepreneurs and IT crowd to learn more about what Amazon is doing with web services. Jeff is a Web Services evangelist at Amazon; he has an great inside view of the powerful tools and services that Amazon has built for internal use that they are willing to provide to other companies, some for free and some for a fee.

I’ll post information about time and place later. We will have room for all our Provo Labs Academy members and may have space for others. So please let me know if you’d like to be on our waiting list.