Lessons I Learned Running an E-Commerce Store

For many years, my wife and I have enjoyed spending our weekends at estate sales, yard sales, auctions, and thrift stores. It’s fun treasure hunting for the rare and unusual, and antiques give you a physical connection to the past that I find worthwhile. I collect old books, vintage technology, art supplies, pencils, and whatever else I happen to find interesting. At some point, I started routinely culling my collections so they wouldn’t get out of hand. Then I began looking for things I could sell for a profit to fund other purchases. I sold smaller items in my eBay store, and larger items locally on Facebook Marketplace. At a certain point, I realized that my side hustle was generating enough revenue that I could quit my day job as a Web App Dev and become a full-time e-commerce business owner. So I did. This is what I learned from that experience:

Become an Industry Expert

I thought that I was in the business of flipping rare antiques for profit. What I came to realize is, I was really in the business of leveraging knowledge. In order to acquire valuable inventory, I needed to be able to identify value where most people saw trash. Moving items from a market where they are under-valued to a market where they are highly sought. This is difficult to do, and requires a great deal of knowledge.

I studied certain areas in great depth. I read books and blogs, I watched videos, I joined online groups, I pulled sales data from various sources… I made myself an expert on the sorts of things I could likely find in the places I most often looked. Not just the monetary value, but also the market trends for those categories.

For example, some items sell for a high rate, but don’t sell very quickly, so you have to account for how long your funds will be tied up in that piece of merchandise. Every dollar trapped in inventory is a dollar that you can’t spend on acquiring new inventory. Some items you might be able to buy for $50 and sell for $500, a healthy ROI, but the customers for that item are few and difficult to reach. Some items are so rare that it’s impossible to find data on previous sales, which creates an element of risk that must be accounted for. Data is king.

I’ll give you a real example. There was a certain model of Polaroid camera that I would occasionally come across, usually for about $5. Most people saw Polaroids as virtually worthless since they require a special film that hasn’t been produced in decades, making the camera essentially a paper weight. However, I knew that a new company had recently sprung up to cater to the vintage camera enthusiast market, and this company was now producing film for old Polaroid cameras. Suddenly, these “worthless” cameras were in high demand in certain circles. They would sell almost instantly for around $80, meaning every time I came across one for $5 I knew that I would make a quick return of 16 times my investment. I did this many times. Knowledge equals profit.

Find Passionate Niche Markets

My specialty was finding hard-to-find, high-value antiques, and selling those antiques to passionate collectors. I sold fountain pens, movie props, cameras, books, art, industrial decor, and anything else I knew a collector would highly prize. Truly obscure items don’t pop up on eBay as often as common items, and when they do, they are often not optimized in such a way that collectors can easily find the listing. This can make it difficult for collectors to find the items they are the most motivated to acquire, and with the economics of supply-and-demand, the more difficult it is to acquire an item the more a collector is willing to pay for it. Connecting these motivated collectors with their holy grail equals profit. Thankfully, groups of like-minded collectors tend to gather on social media platforms, which made my job easier. To reach them:

  • I joined niche collector groups on Facebook, Reddit, and certain forums.
  • I posted quality pictures of my inventory on Instagram, with hashtags that would attract the attention of collectors, and descriptions that indicated that the items were for sale.
  • I marketed my social media accounts to grow followers, who would eagerly watch to see if I posted the items they collected.
  • I kept lists of good customers so I could send them special offers.

When you sell common items, there is a larger market, but also a greater level of competition. Greater supply, less demand. On the other hand, passionate niche markets have less supply and greater demand, but you have to work harder to reach those customers. You have to go where the customers are.

Know when to Pivot

I enjoyed running my own company. I learned a great deal, and I earned enough money to live pretty comfortably. But I also came to the realization that what I was doing was not scalable. There is only one of me and only so many hours in a day. Unfortunately, that means there is a limit to how much I could conceivably earn (since the nature of the business wasn’t conducive to expansion), and I also knew that my personal income potential was higher than this business could provide. Besides this, I found myself ready to take on a new challenge. After running my company for a few years, I decided to pivot and channel the passion I had devolved for business and marketing into a new career. (However, I still sell as a side hustle, and likely always will.)

The Power of Building a Personal Library

As the famous American writer Mark Twain is believed to have once stated: “The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t.” Perhaps you are an avid reader, or like most you may only read books rarely if at all. There is a great benefit however in building a quality personal library and reading from it regularly. In fact, I am going to argue that this is critically vital if you wish to be successful in your career.  If you don’t start building your own personal library now, and adopt an aggressive pattern of daily reading, then you simply won’t be competitive with other prospective employees in the marketplace.

For example, I personally read 45 mins every morning, of a book that I believe will be beneficial to my career. I take Saturdays off, so that is 4.5 hours of reading a week, or 234 hours of reading per year. I average 2 books a month, or 24 books a year. Meaning that in four years, someone following this same regiment would have read 96 books in their field of study. That is a lot of self-study. And when you are interviewing for jobs, you will be up against interviewees like me who use their free time to get a leg-up on their future competition. As Amitesh Jasrotia says in a 2021 blog post for Bookjelly.com, “your library can be your armory of knowledge with which to aim at higher things in life.”

So allow me to share the many benefits of building your own personal library, how to find relevant books to buy, and what sort of books you may want to start with. 

A lack of reading is a critical problem in modern society. According to a 2021 article by Pew Research, titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?”, roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they haven’t read a book in the past year. Maybe this describes you. You may think to yourself that you can just google any information you need. Living in the modern digital age, it is easy to get into the mindset that any question can be answered with a few keystrokes, but this simply isn’t the case. For starters, there is a lot of information that can only be found in the pages of a book. Most books have never been digitized, and books tend to explore subjects at a much greater depth than an online article or YouTube video. Some books are rare and difficult to acquire, full of information difficult to find elsewhere. It may be that reading such a book gives you an advantage over people who don’t have access to that knowledge. That is one of the reasons that I like to search for and collect rare books that are relevant to my field of study. The extra effort it takes to hunt down and read a rare book might just pay dividends in the future, when you know things that people that you are in competition with don’t. As historian Matthew Muller stated in a 2020 blog post, “collecting actual books is a great way to gain access to knowledge and preserve it over time.”

There is also a psychological difference in absorbing information from a book rather than from a computer screen. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote an entire book, “The Guttenberg Galaxy”, on the power of the printed page. It’s a rare book, difficult to find. I am lucky enough to own a copy. McLuhan states in this book that when we read text off a page of a book, that our brain processes that information differently than when we absorb content through electronic mediums. In other words, the method that we take in information has a degree of influence over how we understand it. So we can’t equate googling an answer to finding answers from a book, as they are quite different things.

So why build a library and not simply check books out at your local library? There certainly is a financial benefit to using your local library, however it isn’t a great substitute for building your own library. For one, it isn’t very efficient. Every time you are ready to pick up a new book to read, or anytime you need a quick reference, you would have to jump into your car and drive to your nearest library. With the price of gas being what it is, this is quickly becoming less economical than it may have originally seemed. You are also at the mercy of what the library has in stock, which means the books most beneficial to you might not be accessible to you. Furthermore, especially niche books or truly rare books aren’t often stocked by libraries. Building your own personal library will allow you to select the books most relevant to your own needs, and you will have instant access to them 24/7.

There are lots of ways to help offset the cost of books if that is a concern. Frequenting used bookstores and searching auction sites like eBay will often allow a frugal book buyer the opportunity to amass a large collection quite economically. But how do you figure out what books to buy? There is after all an almost limitless number of books, and a finite amount of time to read them, and certainly a finite budget to spend on them. Surely it would be wise to sort through them all and make a list of the most beneficial books? Well, one way that I like to do this is my searching appropriate subreddits and forums for recommended books. The social media platform Goodreads also contains user recommended lists for any number of book subjects. Sometimes with a bit of googling you can find blog posts or YouTube videos where content creators share books that were helpful to them. I also find that as I am reading, it is often the case that an author might suggest another book to read on the subject, so I keep a notepad next to my reading chair so I can jot these recommendations down to find later.

Now you may be wondering where to start? Well, lets take my own library as an example. Your library should be unique to you and your own goals, however there will likely be a good deal of commonality with other libraries as there are certain topics and genres that have universal benefit. Your library should also reflect a diverse range of subjects, so you can be a well-rounded reader. According to Justin Brown’s 2018 blog post for IdeaPod, titled “15 incredible benefits from reading every day”, being a well-rounded reader will lead to you being better equipped to handle many of life’s challenges. I have a number of books always at hand, and they are organized by category. One shelf is entirely fiction, including a number of the classics and many science fiction and fantasy. You may think that reading fiction won’t be any help to you professionally, but I beg to differ. Fiction opens your mind to places, cultures, and circumstances. It places you in the shoes of others, and lets you explore different points of view. This experience can be beneficial to us in a lot of ways.

The next bookcase mostly contains books that are directly relevant to my career. I am an Advertising Major, so the first row contains books on Communication Theory and Media Ecology and the second row contains the most recommended books on Advertising. Then, because I am interested the data analytics side of things, we have a row of books about Programming and Databases, and a row about Math and Statistics. The last two rows are Religion.

The third bookcase is where I keep books on subjects that I find personally interesting. Including Art books, Graphic Design, and Typography on the top shelf. The next row of books are all about Economics, and finally a row of books about Politics and American History.

As you can see, there is a great deal of variety in my library. The goal is to become well-rounded in your reading, while still being relevant for your personal career goals. I implore you to begin constructing your own library, one that is inline with your own goals and aspirations, and that will give you a well-rounded base of knowledge. And as you build this library, read from it, every day. This will give you a competitive advantage that can’t be acquired adequately in any other way.

Brown, J. (2019). 15 incredible benefits from reading every day. IdeaPod. https://ideapod.com/15-incredible-benefits-reading-read-every-day/

Muller, M. (2020, December 9). Matthew Muller New Orleans: The Benefits of Collecting Books. Matthew Muller New Orleans. https://matthewmullerneworleans.com/matthew-muller-new-orleans-the-benefits-of-collecting-books/

Jasrotia, A. (2021, July 5). Monday Musings of a Bibliophile | Why should you build a personal library at home? BookJelly. https://bookjelly.com/why-should-you-build-personal-library/

Twain, M. (n.d.). Quotation of uncertain origin. The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t.

Perrin, A., Gelles-Watnick, R. (2021, September 21). Who doesn’t read books in America? Pew Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/21/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.

AI Generated Advertising Content

Due to recent progress in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, many of the creative tasks within advertising, such as writing ad copy or ad image selection, are increasingly being performed by machine rather than by humans. The rise of AI generated content stands to shake the advertising world, as some professional roles become obsolete. The ways that consumers and brands interact are also rapidly changing as a result. To understand this phenomenon, we must delve into the benefits and pitfalls of AI generated content.

Some advertisers dream of a time when they can enjoy a three-hour work week, utilizing a myriad of AI tools to streamline and automate their workflows to extreme lengths. While this particular scenario isn’t very likely to happen, it’s not hard to understand the desire: This would be quite the leap from the current day-to-day slog that many advertisers find themselves struggling through. In the digital era, marketing departments must churn out dizzying numbers of variations of digital ads for the various social media platforms currently popular, each with slightly different imagery and calls to action. Wouldn’t it be nice to automate this process, and let robots handle the boring bits? Well, that might seem like some manner of science-fiction futurism, but it is actually a possibility today.

AI can be used to completely generate both the advertising copy and the visual imagery for the ad, and when combined with customer profile data, AI can even customize the ad to be more persuasive to that particular viewer. These ads do not exist before the target consumer is ready to view the ad, then in an instant an ad is automatically generated just for that particular viewer. The AI takes into account the viewer’s interests, behaviors, and demographics. The result is a very tailored communication, which will likely be more effective than a traditional one-size-fits-all ad. It also has the benefit of saving the brand a fortune in advertising costs. All the man hours that would have traditionally been spent in crafting the ad, and then creating endless derivatives for every possible platform, was all accomplished without any man hours spent at all (well, besides the initial setup of the AI campaign that is).

Multiple AI technologies can be used in tandem for particularly creative results. Companies like DataGrid and Rosebud.ai have developed AI technology that allows advertisers to utilize completely artificial models that are almost indistinguishable from real, human models. These virtual models can be used as actors in commercials, or as fashion models for brands. You could even showcase fashion products on a generated model that looks identical to the viewer, letting the viewer know how those items would look on them specifically. The possibilities are almost endless. Albert.ai is another AI brand, one that autonomously plans and executes paid search and social media campaigns. Tech company OpenAI (co-founded by Elon Musk) launched the AI tool “GPT-3,” which can write copy so well that it’s hard to tell that the text wasn’t written by an actual human. Using tools like these, brands can save advertising costs, allowing smaller brands the ability to make advertisements that rival the quality of larger brands. They will also be able to experiment with more creative advertising, since the cost to experiment will be much lower than using traditional methods.

However, the technology isn’t all AI generated roses. For example, according to Google’s Search Advocate John Mueller, content automatically generated with AI writing tools is considered spam and against webmaster guidelines. It is possible platforms will begin banning AI generated content in the future, which would certainly dampen the technology’s potential. As of now though, no ban exists for this emerging technology, and platforms like Google are unable to detect if ads were AI generated or human created. Another concern is that AI generation tools might lead to a stall in the advertising job market, as many traditional roles are replaced with AI counterparts. However, it is also possible that freeing advertisers from the more tedious aspects of ad creation will have a positive effect, allowing them to spend more time and resources on more creative pursuits. This could lead to higher quality advertising for consumers, and more high-level positions for prospective advertisers. A more pressing fear is that AI generated content might lead to empty, uncreative, repetitive advertising. This could further crowd an already crowded market, and could erode brand trust with consumers, if the technology is used to generate low-quality content. 

Despite these potential pitfalls though, the future of AI generated content is going to be too lucrative to ignore. Advertisers that learn how to put these new tools to work for them will enjoy an advantage over brands who aren’t able to capitalize on the power of generated content. And as this technology matures, that will only increasingly be the case. Even as it stands now, if some parts of this paper were AI generated using the tools currently available, would you be able to tell?  

Machine Learning in Advertising

Innovations in Machine Learning are having a radical effect on how consumers and brands interact. Machine Learning also greatly expands the toolkit companies have, both to gather analytics, and to use that data to craft a deeper understanding of their consumers. Better customer profiles lead to better sales and happier customers, but there are pitfalls to be wary of too.

Machine Learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, consists of algorithms that can iterate through large sets of data and then make smart conclusions and helpful correlations that would be difficult for a real person to detect. They can also learn over time to become better at their given task and improve their results with more exposure to data. These algorithms can digitally replicate the mind of a consumer, or the mind of an advertising researcher, or they can be utilized to communicate with consumers on behalf of brands. 

Gone are the days when armies of support staff wearing phone headsets are the only option companies have to communicate with inquiring customers. Now chatbots are the norm for many companies; Machine Learning allows chatbots to converse with human beings in a natural, human-like way that doesn’t frustrate users. The algorithms used by chatbots are able to pull bits and pieces from previous interactions and use them to infer answers to future questions, so they only get more effective at communicating over time. Chatbots are attractive to brands because they greatly reduce the overall costs they spend on customer service. Chatbots provide fast answers to the day-to-day queries of customers, resolving their queries immediately and simplifying the user decision process. Suppose a customer comes to your site and has trouble locating a certain product. In such a scenario, a chatbot on your site will solve the customer’s dilemma quickly. And unlike human agents, chatbots provide round the clock services.

Machine Learning can be used for a lot more than just chatbots though. Predictive targeting is a marketing technique that uses Machine Learning to predict customer decisions based on behavior patterns. Algorithms iterate through large data sets to predict the probability that a customer will take a certain action. They can help answer questions like: will a customer likely purchase this item or that? Will they be interested in engaging with a certain campaign, or would they react negatively to an advertisement? Machine Learning tools can help advertisers analyze the performance of ads, or help optimize marketing content, or they can analyze images posted on social media.

Social Media platforms can be an incredible source of data for advertisers. People tend to use Social Media to talk about their interests, comment on the places they have visited, and share their personal experiences with products and services. For example, a system that uses Machine Learning might conclude, after analyzing some social data, that young women who like a particular tv show and who are also interested in a certain celebrity are statistically more likely to purchase tickets for a certain vacation package. That could be very handy information for a brand. Suppose instead that you wanted to search through photos posted on Instagram to find images that contain your branded products: Machine Learning based tools could do this, and then analyze the content of those images to form a complex customer profile by observing characteristics about the people and environment in them. Using these customer profiles, a company could then launch new advertising campaigns that are more persuasive to this finely targeted audience.

There are however some potential downsides of using Machine Learning in advertising. For instance, Machine Learning only works with very large data sets, which will have to be harvested before any analyzing can take place. Machine Learning also struggles to reliably analyze sentiment because, despite advancements, algorithms simply aren’t capable of human intuition. Some tasks that are simple for humans are very difficult for a program to replicate. Sometimes AI is not a human enough replacement for an actual person. There are also companies who use machine learning in less-than-ethical ways. For instance, by sending out bots that can post deceptive content on social media platforms to falsely promote their brand, or falsely besmirch a competitor.

Despite these challenges though, there are many tasks that better suited for a Machine Learning based approach, and there is great potential in this emerging field. As the technology advances, there will be lots of new creative ways for advertisers to capitalize on the unique benefits of Machine Learning. Companies will need to adapt to these new methods if they are to stay competitive in the marketplace.  

Virtual Reality Advertising

Virtual Reality (VR), often the plot device of futuristic science-fiction stories, has actually been around for some time now. Both YouTube and Facebook have been supporting the adoption of 360-degree videos since 2015, Nintendo’s ill-fated “Virtual Boy” was released way back in 1995, and Oculus (a company Facebook would later purchase for $2 billion) debuted their popular Rift VR headset on Kickstarter in 2012. Even so, VR should be considered an emerging market, as only now has the technology finally caught up to the demand. And as consumers are introduced to this new medium, there will be a virtual gold rush as advertisers seek out new ways of engaging with users.

VR content can be viewed in multiple ways. Smartphone users can view 360-degree content (content that has been recorded on omnidirectional cameras) by moving their phones around in real space, allowing them to view videos from different angles. The effect can also be accomplished on a computer by moving a mouse around. While using “low-cost” options like smartphones and computers can often be a fun way to interact with content (and has helped spark interest in VR), these options only offer users a limited VR experience. The driving appeal of VR is in its ability to create fully immersive experiences that don’t need to be grounded in reality, but in order to experience the full extent of what VR has to offer, users need to use a Head-mounted Display (HMD). These headsets combine many advanced technologies, like gyroscopes, motion sensors, spatial audio headphones, HD screens, and fast computer processors. The gyroscopes and sensors allow very sensitive tracking of the head, body, and hands. This allows the crisp HD screens to show a simulated world that responds to the user’s physical movements, just like the real world. Headphones with spatial audio capability allow directional sounds that envelope users. These components are important for creating immersive experiences that feel “real”; however, they have historically also raised the price of HMDs out of reach for the average consumer. Even though VR enjoyed lots of early hype, by 2017 reports showed consumer interest in VR was declining as a result of the high cost of the technology. Since then though, companies have been able to lower the cost of adoption drastically, while at the same time improving VR hardware and software significantly. This has caused a renewed spike in consumer interest as the hardware has now become affordable and accessible. According to Grand View Research, the global VR market will grow to 62.1 billion dollars by 2027. Currently, VR is most commonly used for entertainment applications such as video games, 3D movies, and social worlds. According to a study from Ericsson Consumer Lab however, shopping was the top reason users were interested in VR. Interestingly, 64% of respondents stated that their interest was in “seeing items in real size and form when shopping online”. That should be a call-to-action for advertisers.

We live in a distracted world. For example, an in-home eye-tracking study Facebook IQ commissioned revealed that 94 percent of participants kept a smartphone on hand while watching TV. This can make it difficult for advertisers to reach consumers, as their content often gets tuned out. However, VR creates a new world around users. A world free of distractions, with a tailored focus of attention and obligatory user interaction. More than that though, VR promises to re-define the advertiser-consumer relationship. In essence, VR could mean an end to the enraging ads of the past. Lithium Technologies recently polled 2000 customers aged 16-39, and the results showed that 74% of the interviewees found the advertisements in their social media feeds intrusive and irritating. Intrusive advertising alienates customers, however in the modern landscape it can be difficult to attract attention without becoming intrusive.

Unity believes the answer to intrusive ads is a “virtual room” users would be transported to for brief periods of time. This would allow users to experience advertising without it becoming a distraction to games or movies. While inside this room, users would be immersed in a fully interactive branded environment where they could engage with products or services. These ads could be targeted, allowing users the chance to interact with the ads they would likely be the most interested in. And creating in-person experiences will drive empathy, allowing advertisements to have a deeper impact. This won’t be the only method for advertising with VR, however. Product placement will allow advertisers to seamlessly embed ads within VR gameplay. For example, game characters could wear branded apparel, and in-game posters or billboards could portray real-world brands. VR could potentially change the hospitality industry as well by allowing hospitality brands to recreate aspects of their travel experiences in VR. Imagine being on the fence about what your next vacation should be, and then spending a few minutes enjoying a virtual luxury cruise: enjoying the sun, waves, entertainment, and service. This might be just the push a consumer needed to go ahead and book the cruise, and how convenient that they can order the tickets without even taking their headsets off!

VR Advertising is not without its limitations, however. Laws tend to lag behind technological advancement, but eventually they do catch up. We know already that the ASA treats video content with greater sensitivity than still images when it comes to rules on “harm and offense” or “social responsibility”. We should expect that VR ads will be scrutinized more severely do to their more immersive design. Precautions will need to be taken by advertisers to make sure ads are VR appropriate, as well as age appropriate. Another challenge is that the act of using HMDs is often culturally viewed as “dorky” due to how large and clunky the headsets tend to be, and how clumsy users can appear as they play virtual games. In order to achieve widespread VR adoption, advertisers will need to market the technology with positive traits like intellect, youth, and success. The focus will need to be on the content and experience of VR, and not how users look while they are wearing the tech. Also, as with any connected technology, it is only a matter of time before cybersecurity issues are raised. Up until now, VR hasn’t been widespread enough to attract the attention of hackers, but as adoption rates grow that will likely change. New technologies will require new best practices to be formed around cybersecurity, and users will have to choose how much risk they are willing to accept.

Even with these challenges, the benefits of creating immersive advertising for attentive users is too good an opportunity for advertisers to miss out on. Brands that are able to capitalize on this new medium will set themselves apart from their competitors. They will also have the opportunity to re-imagine the relationship between advertisers and consumers moving forward. 

Hyper-personalization in Advertising

Hyper-personalization utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) and data harvesting to deliver targeted advertising content that is closely tailored for each user. It can be a useful tool in an advertiser’s toolbox; however, it also raises several privacy concerns, and there is an inherent risk of alienating consumers.

Hyper-personalization is an evolution of personalized marketing, which consisted of such practices as adding a first name to an email opening line. However, personalized marketing never attempted to understand the individual preferences of each customer. Instead, it merely created the appearance that marketing messages were aimed at the individual. On the other hand, a hyper-personalized version of that same email might take a customer’s browsing behavior and location data into consideration, to offer products or services that would likely be of more interest to that particular customer. A hyper-personalized approach could also make use of real-time data, to make recommendations that were perhaps only relevant for a small window of time. For instance, a person who spent their morning googling car reviews, might be more receptive to an ad that promoted a local car dealership.  

Before venturing into hyper-personalization, relevant consumer data must first be gathered. This data can be harvested from a variety of sources, including social media, browsing tracking, purchase history, consumer trends, and data from IoT (internet of things) devices. Take Amazon for instance: their hyper-personalized recommendation engine is responsible for over 35% of their conversions. The engine’s algorithm is called ‘item-to-item collaborative filtering’ and it suggests products based on four data points:

  • Previous purchase history
  • Items in the shopping cart
  • Items rated and liked
  • Items liked and purchased by other similar customers

Using these data points, all harvested from their own site, Amazon can create a detailed user profile and then email this user ads that are specifically relevant to them. Thus, greatly increasing the likelihood of success.

Once consumer data has been collected and analyzed, companies can then segment their consumers into different subgroups. These subgroups can be based on a variety of factors, including demographics, location, brand interaction history, satisfaction, average amount spent, etc. Segmenting will allow for targeted communication, which will increase the potential for conversions. When customers are given offers that are unique to them, it’s likely that a solution will surface to their problem.

Returning to the idea of using hyper-personalization to promote local car dealerships, let’s take a look at an innovative way it could be used. Imagine a car dealership wanted to increase sales, they could target local consumers who had recently searched for car reviews, directions to a car dealership, or directions to a mechanic (if they are experiencing car problems, they may respond positively to messages to buy a new car). Once the car dealership had a group of local consumers that were likely interested in buying a car, they could then segment this group into subgroups based on their income levels, demographics, and browsing behavior. This would allow the dealership to send promotional content that included the specific vehicle (perhaps even in the specific color) that would mostly likely appeal to that consumer. 

There are challenges when it comes to hyper-personalization, however. Hyper-personalization requires a modern digital infrastructure. Most legacy systems fail to offer this capability, so many traditional mom-and-pop retailers (who may not have the resources to overhaul their existing platforms) have trouble adopting this new approach. There are also huge limitations that come from increasingly strict privacy regulations and consumer adoption of data protections. Consumer privacy laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are putting cookie tracking at risk (the key component to tracking consumer behavior online). Free adblocking plugins and proxy servers can also be utilized by any consumer concerned about their data privacy, nullifying data collection and making hyper-personalization impossible. Users also often share devices, making it difficult to create a reliable user profile based on browsing behavior in those cases. Then there is the danger of eroding trust in brands if they appear to be too invasive. A poorly designed hyper-personalization campaign could push consumers away, if the communication makes it seem as though the brand has been spying on them. A recent survey showed that 86% of consumers are concerned about their data privacy, with 40% claiming that they don’t trust companies will use their data ethically.

Even with these challenges, hyper-personalization can be a profitable tool when utilized intelligently. Knowing the behavior and interests of your audience in real-time is very valuable, and new methods of capitalizing on this information are still being developed. Brands who are unwilling or unable to put hyper-personalization to use in their advertising strategies, will be at a disadvantage to brands who use it successfully to cleverly communicate with their audience.

Advertising: Research Vs. Creative

Louis Cheskin (pictured above reclining in his chair, mid-thought) was an innovative marketing researcher who spent most of his life advocating for the benefit of using research to determine successful packaging and advertising. In the 1930s, he founded the Color Research Institute of America in Chicago. He also authored many, many marketing books that are quite difficult to track down now (I’ve only managed to find three so far). In his books, Cheskin makes the claim that the success of advertising can be accurately determined beforehand through research, and it seems that he was renowned in his day for his accurate predictions and startling ROI. His research methods focused on analyzing the unconscious psychological responses of test audiences. In his writing, you can feel the utter contempt Cheskin had for the prevalent notion that advertising should value artistic merit foremost, and blamed bad advertising on creatives who tried to express themselves artistically instead of promoting the brand using quantifiable methods.

On the other hand, there is Luke Sullivan. Sullivan spent 32 years in the ad business at elite agencies like The Martin Agency and Fallon, was afterwards a professor of advertising for many years, and authored the popular advertising book “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This“. In his book, Sullivan takes the exact opposite stance from Cheskin. He found no merit in researching ad campaigns beforehand to determine their likelihood of success. Like Ogilvy before him, Sullivan found research a pesky thing that only created road blocks to his creativity. Instead, Sullivan advocates that ads should value creativity over profit; that even if an ad was successfully profitable, if it doesn’t have artistic merit then it should be thrown out. He states that the alternative would be a world full of annoying, soul-draining (though ultimately effective) ads.

Who was right? My inner artist wants to side with Sullivan; a world full of uncreative, uninteresting advertising seems terribly dull, and there is something special about an ad that transcends to become a work of art. But art at the cost of profit seems too high a price to pay. Cheskin valued applying the scientific method to advertising so that each move was calculated and precise, with results that were predictable. Even still, he recognized the value in ads also being creative, but only if creativity was used to make an advertisement more effective.

History of Distributed Teams

The concept of Distributed Teams is not a recent invention. Militaries have long employed the best communication technologies of the day to strategize with and command distributed teams of soldiers across great geographical divides. Two hundred years ago, the Battle of Waterloo was directed with the use of flags and bugles communicating prearranged sequences of coded messages. Later developments in radio technology allowed soldiers to communicate more complex messages, over longer distances. This granted a greater degree of managerial control on battlefields.

Over time, communication technologies evolved further, and recent advances have made it easier than ever to keep teams connected virtually. The widespread availability of high-speed internet creates a platform for applications specially tailored to connect people regardless of location. Many companies now take advantage of these advancements to save themselves the cost of physical offices. For example, companies like InVision and Automatic have decided to forgo offices altogether and staff their companies entirely with remote employees. In 2018, a Facebook official was quoted saying that the company wanted as few employees as possible to work from home, because they were concerned productivity and accountability would suffer. Facebook recently changed their philosophy though and are expecting over half of their workforce to go remote by 2025.

Many employees favor this arrangement as it saves them commute time, but also because it is inline with the current cultural practice of constant job-hopping. Previous generations were more likely to stay at one company for prolonged periods of time, and companies often frowned on applicants who were shown to change jobs rapidly. However, younger generations are more likely to change jobs frequently, and companies can make themselves more attractive to prospective applicants by offering virtual positions. These virtual positions not only open companies up to a larger pool of applicants, but it also allows employees the freedom to change jobs without the expense and frustration of relocation.

O’Duinn, J. (2018). Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart. Release Mechanix.

Gupta, A. (n.d.). The History of Remote Work: How it Came to be What it is Today. Sorry, I was on Mute! https://www.sorryonmute.com/history-remote-work-industries/

Slack Versus the Competition

Slack is an internal communications hub that conveniently connects teams together, regardless of physical distance. I worked for several years as a web application developer in a department that relied heavily on Slack for all employee interaction, as our team was distributed across a large college campus and it was rarely possible for employees to have any face-to-face conversations. My team needed to be able to communicate quickly and easily, so we began using Slack exclusively for this purpose. We found that it was a great benefit to the unity of our team.

Essentially, Slack acts as an instant messaging system, with the added benefit of optional add-ons. There are two methods of chat in Slack: channels (group chat), and direct message (person-to-person chat). Direct messaging is a great way to connect one-one-one with colleagues, while channels allow the right people to get the right information in the fastest method possible.

When Slack came along, there were no real competitors in the market, however as the popularity of digital communication in the workplace grew, so did competition in the communication tools market. One current alternative is RocketChat, a communications platform that allows users to tailor its look and feel to their own requirements. Both platforms allow users the option of one-on-one and group chatting. However, unlike Slack, Rocketchat is a free, open-source solution. One of RocketChat’s most prominent features is how easy it is to migrate to: a user can export their existing files from Slack and upload them directly to RocketChat, making them a convenient option for dissatisfied Slack users.

Another popular Slack alternative is Chanty, a simple team chat tool for small and medium-sized teams that doesn’t limit its searchable message history. Chanty organizes a user’s files, links, tasks, and conversations into folders in a feature called Teambook. Compared to Slack, Chanty is also faster and more affordable (up to 75% cheaper) and it offers twice as much storage compared to Slack. Also, while Slack limits users to 10,000 messages in their free plan, Chanty offers unlimited messages in all their plans.

Regardless of which digital communication hub one employs to stay connected to their respective team members, the fact remains that no point in history has had such an abundance of choice when it comes to long distance communication options. Users can now select whichever platform suits their particular needs best.

Fallavena, L. (2020, December 14). We’ve Tried 4 Different Slack Alternatives & Here’s Our Conclusion. https://rocket.chat/blog/learn/slack-alternative/

Mykhoparkina, O. (2021, February 5). We’ve Tried 8 Slack Alternatives. https://www.chanty.com/blog/using-slack-alternatives/

Benefits of Distributed Teams

One of the costs of maintaining a physical office space rather than a distributed team is a limited pool of job applicants. The business must settle for job-seekers who happen to live within a convenient commute to the company’s physical location, and those candidates may not be as suitable or talented as applicants in other parts of the world. It is even possible that a company cannot find any suitably skilled candidates in their area, and this is especially true for positions that require very specific niche skills.

By employing a distributed team instead, and thus removing the geographical boundaries imposed by a physical location, a company has a much larger pool of applicants to choose from. This allows for greater diversity of experience and potentially more talented employees. A distributed team approach also lessens the risk of a company having trouble remaining adequately staffed, as some physical locations may not have the populace required to maintain staffing needs and could thwart company expansion.

However, there are also benefits to maintaining a physical location that cannot be replicated with a distributed team. For example, physical locations anchor a company to a local community. In some fields, that anchor is required for creating brand loyalty and awareness. Employees who live together in a certain community are also uniquely aware of the community’s needs and wants, and those employees are more likely to share some cultural experiences that could aid with communication and relationship forming within the company. Building and maintaining relationships within a distributed team is uniquely challenging; Sometimes communication is more easily achieved in close physical proximity rather than digitally, and a sense of shared community certainly aids the process.

O’Duinn, J. (2018). Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart. Release Mechanix.

Breu, K., & Hemingway, C. (2004). Making organizations virtual: the hidden cost of distributed teams. Journal of Information Technology, 19, 191–202. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.jit.2000018