Ceteris Paribus

There was a time when online retailing was a novel concept in India. There was Flipkart, a company started by two employees of Amazon working off their Bangalore offices. They started by doing books and slowly have added stuff like computers, mobile phones and cameras. While they were at it, information and news portals started e-commerce offshoots, specialized services like Ferns & Petals (for flowers & gifts) came up and one-stop-shops like Infibeam happened. Internet retail is no longer a novelty in this country. Products retail for pretty much the same prices everywhere and user experience of websites largely the same (Infibeam is a blatant copy of Amazon.com, including the arrow metaphor that has been twisted – literally – as a smile). Given this, how do these web services distinguish themselves?

One key dimension is customer service

Take Flipkart for example. Their customer service has been boringly efficient. My experience with them was restricted to books, which they delivered with unfailing punctuality and never with any glitch. Then a few weeks back I decided to buy a Nikon 35mm AF-S f/1.8G lens from them. The value of the order was more than all my previous purchases at Flipkart put together. Thus I was naturally concerned when the item did not ship in the three promised days. For the first time I had a reason to write to their customer support. I won’t bother you with the details but here are some key experiences going through their support infrastructure

  1. Every e-mail was replied to. With a human touch, including splashes of random bad grammar at places. No canned responses. If you replied to their mail, someone actually replied back, referring to your mail. They read your mails, it was apparent. And each correspondence has embedded in it the history of responses against your complaint ticket
  2. Their helpdesk did not have irritating marketing messages at the greeting tone. Three rings after you made the IVR choice there was an agent on the other side. No, thankfully they did not tell me how important my call was to them
  3. The agents spoke with normal Indian accents. Not the stuff that Sumitra churns out at night when she becomes Susan. They sounded like a normal Flipkart employee trying to work through a customer issue
  4. Sometimes the same agent that you spoke to would call you back, giving exact details of where the order stood. No bluffing. “If we cannot ship this by Monday morning, I promise to call you and help you cancel the order”. Now try that with an airline call center

It is unknown how Flipkart will behave once they reach Amazonian proportions. Actually, I hope they never become of Amazonian proportions. So often we put of the binary choice in front of businesses – Big or Small? Neither, is a perfectly acceptable answer. Let’s just stay “Best” is as good an option as any

Facebook e-mail

The battle is on to gain control over all your communication touch points. All. As rumors floats that Microsoft is buying Skype for an alleged $8billion, the rock-star of social media – Facebook – quietly switched on its email services (I am not sure if this was available earlier too but I noticed it today when I was about to message a friend. So if I am late to this party, my apologies in advance)

 How it works

  1. You get a name@facebook.com e-mail ID. The “name” is the same vanity URL name that you had chosen once when Facebook allowed you to
  2. The “Message” section on the left hand menu becomes your Message center. It integrates messages, texts and chat sessions and displays them in a conversation threaded manner
  3. The e-mail address brings in other mail clients to your Facebook account – in a way. So now you can send a mail to your Facebook buddy from Outlook and Gmail even if you do not have a Facebook account (and know that your buddy is a Facebook junkie)
  4. The service tries to integrate all your communication touch points, including your mobile phone. The service is available in India and pre-configured for some carriers, such as Aircel. For others – like Airtel – one has to send a txt message to a designated number to get a confirmation code and then set the service up (The thing did not work for me. I am awaiting my confirmation code still). I believe once this is up, you will be able to send messages to and from your phone to your Facebook friends (even if you do not have their phone numbers). This is particularly helpful and in the direction where phone numbers shall merge with other social identifiers that are more permanent in nature

For one, Facebook chose to keep the messaging application within their ecosystem and not spin it off as a separate web interface. By doing that it retains the user experience of the platform, but it does not stay faithful as a true-blue e-mail system given the potential of interruption (and distraction) from stuff happening on your timeline. Facebook e-mail will be less about e-mail than it will be a casual messaging platform

Gmail, in 2004, was a revolutionary step for e-mail clients. Unlimited storage (Facebook is silent about storage space), threaded conversations, google-search on emails, integrated GTalk , Labs – it truly changed asynchronous communication. Compared to that Facebook e-mail is merely evolutionary. All it strives is to give its users a Facebook Identity, which they hope will become calling cards of people in all forms of social interactions

The next round of upping the game will happen in VoIP, as social networks rush to control voice communication touch points. It would have surprised me less if Facebook had aggressively pursued Skype instead of Microsoft. This area promises to see a fair amount of action in the months to come

LinkedIn Today: News meets Professional Social Graph

Social news has got its latest avatar. LinkedIn Today, launched this morning, making the professional social networking site the latest entrant in the growing trend of social discovery and consumption of news

LinkedIn today invites publishers to contribute editorial content on the LinkedIn platform. Users of the platform can configure what they get to see in terms of industry news (I suspect LinkedIn snoops your profile to create the industries of interest. For me it was quite accurate to start with). The Facebook “Like” button is replaced with a “Share” button that looks quite like the action buttons in i-pad applications like Twitter and GMail. The whole initiative is powered by Twitter & LinkedIn, which probably explains the “Follow” metaphor to subscribe to content from a publisher

What I liked about LinkedIn Today

Analytical News: I am a big fan of news that analyzes – as opposed to news that merely informs. There is no “breaking news” thing in LinkedIn Today (great news doesn’t rush) and all the articles that showed up in my – what does one call it in LinkedIn? Timeline? – were good quality analytical stories. “Like”

Email digest: I get to configure my e-mail newsletter. This is a great plus and completely does away of having to discover the most interesting news stories from e-mail newsletters

Save feature: You can “save” a news article for reading later. I find this approach more convenient than bookmarking. Though I am yet to test, LinkedIn informs that the saved items can be read on mobile devices as well (kind of syncing web and wireless activity streams). By the way, LinkedIn also gives the world the word “Unsave” – in case you want to change your mind after saving a news story

Interface: The display of  the news is nice. It has the i-pad design metaphor of news widgets that croon “touch me” even when rendered on a desktop browser

“Like” button for websites: Growing trend popularized by Facebook also gets adopted by LinkedIn. You could add a small script to your webpage that will allow users to publish stories from your webpage onto their LinkedIn ecosystem (actually, I haven’t yet made my mind up if this feature is a good thing or bad – but that’s just me)

What I did not like

Social?: There is nothing social about the first (“beta”) release of the service. I get to see what looks like the most shared articles. And these could well have been shared by people I don’t know and are completely out of my network. There has got to be a better algorithm to show me those stories that my network peers have shared (I guess today being the first day there wasn’t much sharing data to go by. Benefit of doubt to LinkedIn) Update: There does exist a section called “From your connections” buried in the bowels of the page – bad design. Even worse intent (withdraws benefit of doubt)

Post click: Click on the news you wish to read and you leave the user experience of the parent platform. That is, the news service that contributed the story takes you to their platform. This experience is jarring. Facebook does a neat job of serving the information and retaining the experience of the platform

LinkedIn has the potential to bring a lot of sobriety in social discovery and consumption of news, much like the professional social networking (serious social networking, as a colleague had once described) it pioneered. It has the serious capability of handing back the control on consumption to the reader (and not ruin their experience by the ever encroaching ad space). It will be sad though if LinkedIn Today pretty much becomes yet another media aggregator service

Disclosure: Reuters, the media division of my employers is a contributor to the LinkedIn Today platform. The views above are entirely my personal