Tuesday 13 December 2011

Mass marketing via email

An effective way of marketing to an established set of customers has for a time been mass marketing via email.  You should always encourage your customers to include the email address when they register.  If you include clauses (with opt out buttons) that let you utilize 3’rd parties it will increase the value of your list.  Be careful though, you don’t want it to be a list of people that has banned you from sending to them.    
Genuine offers are required.  And they will feel extra good about it if they receive it before everybody else.  Like sending the email the night before the general release of the offer.

How to send to this list you have collated is a matter of choice.  If you are a regular mailer with knowledge of emailing I would recommend a self run packages due to its lower cost in the long run.  It also leaves you in control of the list.  A list that can have a value in its own.  If you contract out, be careful to have clauses in the contract that expressively say the list of email addresses is yours and yours alone, and is to be handed back if the contract ends.
A good one for self hosting is Listmanager form Lyris http://www.lyris.com  A very high capacity and fast mailer with response tracking facilities. Couple of hundred thousand an hour should be no problem.  It also handles spam filters very well. An important consideration for repeat mailing. You don't want all your efforts to be filtered away. A problem with free and cheap mailers. 
Lyris also has good support.  

Always send from a domain that can be looked up via reverse dns. This is the first test from most filters.  Also set up a real reply address where you can handle automated verification responses from spam filters, and answer spam complaints from the likes of gmail.  Be careful with having a opt out link at the end of all sent emails.
You need to carefully monitor your sending’s.  A good system should track the progress and put non successful conversations on hold.  However a general problem in the transfers can lead to a list where all is on-hold.  See to that they are not wiped off your list to quickly.  I would also recommend subscribe confirmations via email to verify genuine email addresses and sort out the mischievous.
Integrate your emails with your website so you can track the responses and uptake/sales from each mail.  A good package should have this included.

Creating a regular stream of similar emails can be a chore.  Some packages also offers automated help with the composing of the emails, allowing a daily marketing becoming somebody’s part-time job.  

Saturday 10 December 2011

The importance of selling your company name and logo

If you retail in the market for interchangeable consumer goods, it’s important to build up the customer knowledge of your brand.  You should take every opportunity to display your logo and just as important, your brand name.  It is easier to get shelf space in a chain of stores if their customers already request your product.  And the only way they can know it is by you marketing it to them.  This can take many forms.  Traditional advertising in papers, on tv or radio.  Or more modern forms like  website, Wikipedia, or social media like Twitter, Facebook or Google+  A combination is often required to reach momentum.
To get repeat custom they also need to know that it was your product they purchased.  That means displaying your brand name and logo very clearly on the product, and not be happy with a small mention in the nearly visible text on the pricing label.. 

It is surprising how many, that have worked a while in the same company, take it for granted that everybody knows about it.  The truth is that many times I where in contact with people from the UK who was asking Ryanair who, when I contacted them about something else than travel.  People might not associate the company if the query is unrelated to its most visible activity.  Also a company well known in a local area might be nearly unknown outside that area.  This can be an issue if your marketing people are local and you are trying to market nationally, or even globally.   

If you have a website, it’s important to visualise your product on it.  If they click the button products there should be pictures of what you can actually purchase, with proudly displayed logos and company name.  Try to find a way of selling your product on the web also.  There usually is some way of making a variant of the product that can have a longer lifespan so it can be shipped by cheapest way.  It will introduce them nicely to your product range and there will be no delay between seeing and purchasing.  Get good deals on shipping to as many destinations as possible and display them on your website.  You never know where the next purchaser might be from.  Selling online can be done very cheaply using established payment channels like paypal. and can take little effort to accomplish.  What is most important is that it gives you a way of better controlling the  presentation of the product.  On your site there is no big supermarket chain that sets a markup pricing you above your competitor, or give you inferior shelf space.

 If you insist on not selling directly, lead potential customers from your product page to outlets that will do your product.  And make sure regularly that they actually still do.  A customer will not like to travel to a store to get your product and then discover that they don’t stock it after all.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

IT a cost or a source of income

Is IT a cost to be minimized or a, sometimes in a roundabout way, source of income to be maximised.  For a long time companies has seen IT as a cost centre, a necessity.  IT started out as a way of giving your business an advantage.  As your competitors got the same or similar systems iITbecame more of a necessity than advantage.  This has lead to the thinking of coomoditating IT.  Seeing IT as a service that can be bought from somebody else sample in the recent growth of cloud services.  A way of hardware makers to sell you hardware without actually giving you the stuff. 
The people in IT then will want to redefine themselves.  This together with the need for IT directors ad CIO’s trying to gain entrance to the very top management means that they will try to make more of a mark.  Why not by, instead of being a cost,  becoming a source of revenue. 
Early attempts lead to the invention of internal cost centres.  The problem her is the word cost.  Now other departments see IT as even more of a cost.  Something that can be bought internally or sourced externally.  It brought the cost of IT to people that before wasn’t used to paying directly for anything.  And with that a backlash. 

If we think about it, IT is already a source of revenue generation for many businesses.  The growth of the web has seen to that.  IT runs websites that in some companies all sales goes through.  However this is seldom attributed to IT.  Even though they often sourced the system, organized all the technical necessary, and created the site itself. They are just the facilitator, and out of the goodness of their heart, or as a lack of being present at the top where these things are discussed, IT has let the company continue to believe that.  
There is many other examples on where IT is revenue generating.  Take the customer helpdesk or call centre.  Sometimes originally an extension of the IT helpdesk it facilitates the continued sale of your products.   And at some companies at a cost of contacting.
What IT becomes in a company often depends on the person in the IT director role (+his/her team)  some times, but not necessary, combined with the interest the CEO has of the area.  If your IT management is inventive and has a good business acumen they see the potential in the new trends of the market in areas like social advertising, network building and customer interaction.  With the current development rate IT has not yet reached the stage where it cannot bring business advantage for the inventive that can redefine the market by their differentness.  To state anything else is to say the world has come to its pinnacle of development and there is nothing more to be done. 
For the rest maybe commoditation is the way forward.  There is certainly enough internal naysayers, and external forces, that sees profits to be made, for that to work too.  But then you have given away a potential avenue of making your offering different from everybody else.  If you sit down and wait, eventually a competitor will seize the advantage.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Social media a faux pas danger or advertising possibility

In the last years social media has become a way of “normal people to express themselves on the internet.  Before you had to use forums, where mostly other people set the order of the day.  Today you have a number of possibilities like blogs, twitter, facebook and now also google+
Modern websites needs to keep up with these new media by adding interaction to them like +1 and like buttons to allow you communicate directly with the people, = potential customers, that interact on these site.  

Many new and smaller businesses do take it up.  It is probably easier to organize if you don’t have to go through several layers of corporate bureaucrazy for a decision to use the media to be made.  It also takes somebody with an interest, yes nearly a passion for it, to keep up with the constant changes needed.  The modern web is about constantly changing content and interaction.  No longer is it enough with a single page with your product and contact details.  The more you interact the better your site will be responded to and the more potential customers will know about you.

More established companies are more afraid of what it can do to their current reputation than what potential it brings with it.  Some companies insist that no should be done by anyone that isn’t authorised, meaning the company spokesperson or the ceo him/herself. In the day of the social media that person just becomes 1 though.  So even with a powerful voice and a lot of resources behind them they will have problem reaching as wide as the whole companies thousands of employees could.
Instead of trying to stop this potential, one should look into better ways of spreading the word in a controlled fashion.  In a way it has been tried in the past where sample, companies would invite their employees to vote for them in award competitions.  And I don’t just mean “employer of the year”.

The company that don’t follow the customer risk being left behind.  For some years the way of advertising n the internet was with email campaigns or advertisements placed on webpages like  or internet search engines like Google.  Now even large companies consider stopping using emails, switching to other forms of communication.  There is speak of a move from search engines to social sites like Facebook, which could be one reason Google has shown interest with it’s + 

In the internet age we move fast and newcomers can quickly become the established for so to be overtaken again.  They who don’t follow can easily be left behind.  Ignore at your peril.

When did the full dump ever help

Most advanced systems will automatically do a dump of their memory, or challenge you to do a dump if they recognise a failure has happened.  Some os software vendors also love the dump. Problem is that if the system was able to recognize the cause of the crash, it wouldn’t have crashed in the first place, and a dump is usually just a snapshot of what is in memory at that exact time and tells little about the action prior to the problem. 
If a system was able to recognize a crash situation it means the vendor when building it knew this could happened and included a way of logging it.  If they had known it could happen they would have put in measures to prevent it in the first place.  Most crashes is due to unforeseen circumstances and can therefore not be logged.

A downside with dumps is that they usually become very large and take a long time to extract.  If you successfully extract them the tools to analyze them are either longwinded or difficult to interpret the results.  This means you usually have to upload them to a os or hw suppliers site.  And internet connections have increased a lot in size but the amount of data in these dumps mean you will be clogging a link for a long time.
After all that 99% of the time you will get back, nothing found.  I will advocate that it is a lot better to do targeted log extracts.  As an admin you will usually have an idea on where the problem lay.  Work with the developers or suppliers of the application your run for finding the best tool for logging what is going on.  Then play with the parameters of the logging tool at the same time as you put load on your system.  This may take some provocation, like artificially increasing the load or reducing the capacity of the system.  Easy if you have a multi computer system – turn off some of the resources.  But even on a single system you can sample limit the number of processors used or run up an additional load (can be from an additional dummy program). 

There can be many different causes to system crashes / malfunctions.  I have experienced amongst other missing non-public patches, bent processor pin, bad programming and the reaching of system limits.  These last can and have been in  os, db, app and hw.   What I haven’t experienced is that any of them has been diagnosed correctly and the solution found from a full system/memory dump.  

Friday 2 December 2011

Danger of overcomplicating

Today there is many additionals to os and databases that will keep systems running or automatically fail them over if a problem is detected.  Well and good as long as everything run according to plan, which of course it never does
What of the undetectable problem.  There is no reason a well supplied and admin’d system should fail for a known issue.  (Unless that issue has been kept secret from the suppliers side).  If the issue is known it should have been patched.  But there are many possibilities for issues .  very few systems are exactly the same due to the manual ways of installing a system and the many permutations possible when it comes to server, storage, networking, os, database, application, adorns and  patching of them all.  This usually means that a change can at any time lead to an unexpected event.  The only way of taking fully height for this is to have another unchanged system, just in case.

Do not fall in the trap of creating more problems  than you guard against, resulting in more downtime rather than less. What these automatic additionals do is add complication.  More layers of things that can go wrong.  There is a lot to be said for the old manual failovers or restarts as long as there is a 24x7 human interface in place.  Yes they had a time delay in data replication, but this could be controlled by you the admin down to a, for the company, acceptable level. Most can live with that if it means higher security of the system = less dependency on the “no system available” manual routine.  And higher security regarding the maximum downtime.

Often the fastest resolution is a quick reboot or to fail over to a completely independent system running a bit behind the main system this can be caught in a non failed state.  If you make systems that can automatically failover you often have sample the databases running exactly in sync.  This can lead to that both db’s have the same error.  You can also have problems with the failover process  and a worst case scenario is that both systems ends up in a hung state.
Not that a manual secondary system is any guarantee.  It requires strict discipline by the admin to see to that it is fully updated to a runable state.  Regular testing will be required, and I would recommend regularly do planned switching between the live and the standby.  This to ensure that both are in a production capable state when you need them.

Automation and full synchronisation can give problems at time of upgrade or patching.  How do you patch in such a way that at least 1 full solution is available in a pre patched state.  And stays that way  until you know that the patch isn’t going to cause any issues.  What do you fall back to if you upgrade your live and your standby as one.  

Thursday 1 December 2011

Decision making and the art of management

You are a manager, take that decision and live with it. The advantage is that if you select door a over door b, nobody will know what would have happened if door b had been selected as long as you see your decision through to fruition. 

In all decision making there is a bit of “no risk no rice”.  You make your choices and take your chances.  But see to that you get a result.  Nobody can for sure know that the other choice would have been better as long as you make your choice do the job. Abandoned projects in the technology sector is a sign of lack of work at the preproject state, unless you are engaged in r&d.  There is a reason it’s called the bleeding edge.  There is no reason for why a company where IT is in support of the primary business rather than is their primary business should need to be on it. 
That said a successful new way of using IT in a business can give you a competitive edge, but the risk need to be managed and the potential cost upfront. 

If you want good admins enable them to make some decisions.  But always remember that you can delegate the decision but not the responsibility for it.  Train them in your way of thought so they know the direction you would have taken, and therefore is most likely to approve off. 

There is nothing wrong with, if there is time, a healthy discussion on alternatives.  Hearing somebody else’s view could increase your own knowledge and let you see possibilities you might not yet have thought of.  If you are sceptical, play devils advocate and magine up the worst possible scenarios to see if they have a solution for that to. 

The worst thing I see is management bringing in consultants to make the decision for them.  A popular way in government and the bureaucrazy.  If management can’t make decisions maybe the problem is just there.  It leads to lack of accountability, but accountability a very important part of management.  

Customer support an activa or a burden

Is there a point to ignoring customer support if it can be done for negligible additional cost.  Many companies sees customer support as a way of retaining previous customer so they come back for more.  Other sees it as a legal requirement that must be bared.  Some see it as a way of making their business stand out from the crowd.  Other sees it as nothing but a cost. 

Support can be done for little or no money.  A faq on your website is the easiest sample.  It takes little time to assemble a list of possible questions and answers about your product.  Other is more resource depending.  Like having somebody actually answering questions that customers communicate in, but it can be made profitable by making the customer pay extra for the privilege.  Sample support contracts, or a callcenter with a premium phone line.  Selling insurance can also be a way of taking payment for your support, or outsourcing to a 3’rd party.   A modern way in the internet age is to facilitate a live question and answer page where the answers are provided by 3’rd party agents who finance their time by leading you to additional paid for ads or services.    

Some forms of support can be seen as profit reducing.  In the shadier side of business a sample can be telling potential customers how to avoid the built in pitfalls in the purchasing process so they can reach the best bargains.  Here there is a fine line between naturally occurring issues with the purchasing process and deliberately engineering profit making problems.  Alternatively not prioritising fixing issues when they are discovered.  Luckily for your customer, if your business is very large there is 3’rd parties at hand, let’s call them agents or facilitators, that will help them overcome/bypass the issues, for a fee of course.  Thank’s to the help of the search engine many websites can also be found that will help a frustrated customer.  If you are a business owner you will have your work cut out finding them and let’s say ensuring that they are corrected.

Is no customer support a bad thing.  Not necessarily if you have a unique selling point that brings customers back to you regardless.  Sample if you are a monopolist, they who want your product has no choice and  have to buy from you if they want that product.  This is one of the reasons monopolies are frowned upon legally.  They take a lot of time an effort to police to avoid questionable profiteering.  

Importance of monitoring what you have outsourced

Your outsourced system is never as important for your supplier as it is for you.  Most contracts has check times counted in minutes, and by the time the set amount of alarm has been triggered, to avoid false positives and an operator has been alerted 15 minutes can easily have gone.  And 30 minutes or more before anybody takes it in hand.  Since you squeezed the price you pay for the service down to the absolute minimum the agreed penalty is seldom in relation to what the outage means financially to your organisation.
Another reason for doing your own monitoring is that it will give you the unmasked truth.  Do you trust your supplier to always tell you what’s going on.  Is their answers at times vague or slow forth coming.

The easiest way to see traffic is by network monitoring. A simple network graph from a tool like Utilwatch will give you second by second information, and can run on the cheapest oldest pc you have.  If it’s running in the background but within your field of vision you will immediately know if something is amiss.  Experience lets you interpret the data better.  You can also via simple scripts create easy traffic-lights.
Cheap second by second tools do however seldom store the data. They are wysiwyg.On screen current display only. You seldom need to store this much data though.  The interpretation is dependent of other factors at the time.  Like did you start/stop something.  Where your web caches reloading,  Was the blip due to a scheduled maintenance.  A simple screenshot will capture the moment for later inclusion in a manual log together with comments.  

There is also many tools that let you set up triggers and alarms to your own liking.  I would pick at least one that isn’t from the supplier of what you try to monitor.  If the supplier know how to monitor it / trigger the alarm they would/should have fixed the problem in the first place. 
Some like ipmonitor is also cross platform, and store the history of previous alarms if configured correctly.  If your urgency is lower in priority, and/or your problem is outside normal hours tools like Cacti will give you a view of last nights/weeks/months proceedings.

If you don’t feel like spending time or effort on monitoring yourself but still see the value of an outside eye on your hosting/network/resource provider there is many third party suppliers that will happily let you try before you buy their monitoring services.  But then you are back to the 15-30  minutes instead of seconds response again.