Sunday 6 July 2008

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Vanishing Advertising Budget

(Part of an increasingly irregular series on matters technological. It beats doing real work.)

The TV series Mad Men has recently finished its run in the UK. As in the States (where it won two Golden Globes), viewing figures have been small but the critical reception has been outstanding - "extraordinary" and "virtuosic" are pretty representative examples from the reviews.

But why is anyone writing, commissioning, buying, or (albeit in small numbers) watching what's effectively a costume drama set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960?

Obviously the main reasons are, er, obvious. It's extremely well-written and beautifully acted. It lacks the solipsism and whimsy of, say, Studio 60 - you wouldn't want to beat each and every one of the characters to death if you met them in real life. Mad Men possesses all the usual virtues of costume dramas, plus a more overt contemporary relevance - it's been fairly described as a prism for looking at recent American history.

However, this being a technology blog, we can draw out something a little more specific than that. Assuming that one has some skills, and therefore doesn't have to fall back on freak shows such as American Idol/Big Brother/Azerbaijan's Got Talent, there are two established routes to fame and fortune in contemporary society for the sort of people who are watching Mad Men: (a) sell your heart for a lump of gold in Wall St/the Square Mile, or (b) make a bazillion dollars out of the internet.

And the internet is all about advertising 1. Everyone's plans for world domination via the internet always involve working for the likes of Facebook, or selling services via something like Facebook, or setting up something similar to Facebook. All these putative business plans consist of building up a large user base, and then having that user base somehow magically deliquesce into cash through the power of advertising 2.

In short: Mad Men has a very specific contemporary relevance. The internet is the biggest thing around; the internet is all about advertising; Mad Men is all about advertising. More significantly, a large portion of Mad Men's audience wants to work in the internet advertising, and Mad Men shows them a saturated-colour dream of what that world can be like: booze, women, and your name in big letters on the side of the building. (Everyone used to know stories of excess such as investment banks filling their radiators with champagne at Christmas parties. Nowadays it's the number of Boeing 757s parked out the back of Google's offices for when Larry and Sergey want to pop down to the shops.)

For any reader who's unsure what Facebook et al have to do with advertising, there's a famous old barb about Ringo Starr: "not even the best drummer in the Beatles". You could argue something similar about Facebook: "not even the best social networking application created at Harvard during 2004". Regardless of its technical merits - and they really are very impressive these days - Facebook has always primarily been about marketing and advertising, not technology. Geeks rave about the elegance of its application architecture - the thing which makes it possible for you to play Scrabulous - but the point of that architecture and the reason why it exists are all to do with multi-level marketing, not technology.

The multi-level marketing brings us to the accusation you occasionally hear that Facebook (and its ilk) are pyramid schemes. This, clearly, is nonsense. However, Facebook et al do share one characteristic with pyramid schemes: you really, really want to think carefully about putting in money if you're near the bottom of the pyramid. Facebook is great if you're Mark Zuckerberg. It's still pretty good if you're providing Facebook-based services, such as the booming market for building Facebook applications to order. But things look much more murky if you're at the bottom of the pyramid: if you're the person who's paying for the advertising or third-party services, in the hope that you'll see a return on your expenditure. Noel Coward once said that "television is for appearing on, not looking at". Similarly, Facebook is for making money out of, not paying money into.

The trouble is that Facebook (and Myspace and Bebo and Flickr etc) are fundamentally different to Google (and Yahoo). The search engines, such as Google, can display advertising which is relevant to what you're searching for. They can serve up advertising based on what you're doing. At best, the likes of Facebook can only provide advertising based on who you are - i.e. based on your profile information. Their advertising is much more passive, and much less reliably targeted. In best Sherlock Holmes style, Facebook may be able to deduce that you are a one-eyed teetotal Albanian sailor, recently returned from a trip to Borneo, sporting a limp, but its advertising still won't be as relevant and effective as Google's.

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1 except for the bits which are all about naked ladies.
2 UK readers should imagine the fat-babies in the "Partners in Crime" episode of Doctor Who at this point.

Free tools for working with the Flexiscale platform

We've recently written about the fact that Matchpeg has moved its Disaster Recovery servers to Flexiscale's cloud-computing platform.

In the course of trying out Flexiscale we did extensive work with their API to automate various aspects of our DR. We're now making these tools available for free for anyone who's interested:
  • A console application for starting, stopping, querying etc Flexiscale servers from the Windows command line. For example, you can use the tool to start servers automatically from a Windows scheduled task, and/or notify you if there's a problem with a server.
  • An alternative to Flexiscale's own web-based control panel.
You can read more about these tools at http://www.matchpeg.com/brochure/misc/flexiscale.asp - or use the link at the bottom of our main Products page.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Matchpeg has a new Disaster Recovery site

Matchpeg has a new Disaster Recovery site: we have moved over to Flexiscale's cloud-computing platform, largely because it makes our DR superbly eco-friendly.

Like alternatives such as Amazon EC2, Flexiscale makes it possible for us to start the DR servers automatically, transfer the latest customer data onto them, and then shut the servers down again. Instead of consuming electricity 365x24x7, the servers only run for minutes per day.

(Yes, strictly speaking, Flexiscale's very big iron is still running all the time even when our virtual servers aren't, but there's nevertheless a major reduction in energy consumption.)

We obviously hope that we'll never actually have occasion to use these DR servers. However, we're convinced that cloud-computing platforms are the way forwards, and we expect that the Matchpeg live site will also be running on something similar in the not-too-distant future. (Though we can't have both our live and DR servers at Flexiscale - they obviously need to be in separate physical locations).

Friday 4 July 2008

A minor cosmetic enhancement

To celebrate the 821st anniversary of the Battle of Hattin (or, if you prefer, US Independence Day), we've made a couple of minor cosmetic changes to the Matchpeg software: the menu bar now looks a little more slick, and the page border and background have been made slightly easier on the eye.

As ever, you can still change any of the aspects of the user interface which aren't to your liking: from the main Dashboard, just click on the Customise menu-bar link.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Outlook plug-in now available for downloading

Matchpeg's plug-in for Microsoft Outlook has finished its beta period, and is now freely available for download.

You can find further information on the plug-in at http://www.matchpeg.com/brochure/outlook/index.asp

The plug-in seamlessly integrates Matchpeg with Microsoft Outlook:
  • Your meetings in Matchpeg are automatically added to your Outlook calendar.
  • You can also choose to have the minutes of meetings automatically filed against the Outlook appointment in PDF form.
  • Actions from meetings are added to your Outlook task list.
  • Workflow items assigned to you are also added to your task list.
  • You can create meetings in Matchpeg from appointments in your Outlook calendar: in other words, schedule meetings in the usual way using Outlook/Exchange functionality, and then add the meeting to Matchpeg once the attendees are confirmed.
  • You can edit the minutes of a meeting off-line, and then upload the minutes into Matchpeg when an internet connection is available again.
The plug-in is in fact a "suite of off-line tools". The off-line minutes editing is available both within Outlook and as a standalone application. Therefore, it's worth having a look at the tool even if you are not an Outlook user.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

NEW feature - guest access to workflow items

You can now include people outside your firm in workflows - in other words, you can send workflow items to anyone on the internet and have them approve things, add comments, send the item back for further work etc.

When you choose who to assign a workflow item to, the pop-up list of users contains a new option (at the bottom) for entering the e-mail address of a "guest". This new option is available in three contexts:
  • When delegating a workflow item, and choosing who to delegate it to.
  • When moving a workflow item to the next stage, and choosing manually who to assign the item to next.
  • When creating a workflow definition, and choosing who an item gets assigned to at each stage of the workflow. In other words, you can set up workflows where items are always assigned to a particular external person.
When a workflow item is assigned to a guest, a random 6-digit PIN number is generated. The guest is sent an e-mail containing this PIN, plus a URL for logging in to Matchpeg and viewing/modifying the workflow item.

The guest's PIN only gives them access to that one single workflow item (via a special, cut-down version of the usual workflow editing page). If multiple items are assigned to the same guest then they receive multiple e-mails, each with a different PIN.

Once the workflow item moves on to a new owner, the guest's PIN stops working. If the same item is then later re-assigned to the guest user, a new PIN will be generated and a new e-mail will be issued.

N.B. If you are assigning workflow items to guests, please warn them that the e-mail which is sent to them may get classed as spam. Please ask them to check their junk/spam folders, and to "white-list" messages from matchpeg.com so that the spam filter always lets them through.

If the guest doesn't receive the e-mail containing their PIN number, the e-mail can be re-sent using the link at the top of the page about the workflow item. As a last resort, administrative users of Matchpeg can "grab ownership" of workflow items and re-allocate them back from guests to normal users.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

NEW feature - new participant roles in meetings

When adding participants to a meeting, you can now choose from additional "roles" which appear against each person's name in the minutes. (These roles don't affect the system's behaviour in any way, or what the participant is allowed to do. They're just for display purposes.)

The new options which are available when creating a meeting/editing participants are as follows:
  • Chairperson
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • Observer
  • Note-taker