Why Do Not Track Hurts Consumers

Chains wrapped around computer keyboardEveryone is hurt by “Do Not Track” and other well-meaning privacy initiatives that  hurt the economy, reduce the number of online options consumers have for news, entertainment and research and could even change pricing of mobile phone, Internet, television and other plans.

Most business leaders would agree that any short-term gains generated by compromising customer privacy would be offset by reputation damage and may eventually drive an organization out of business.  But consumers may not understand what happens when they install ad blocking software or take advantage of Firefox’s proposed “do not track” flag.

By informing companies that they don’t want their activities tracked or they don’t want to see advertising on websites or smartphones, consumers will block  the activity that allows organizations to provide free and subsidized services.   Google said that today that they would make code available for Internet developers to embed this opt-out mechanism in future browsers, but even The Washington Post conceded that doing so might cause repeated or less relevant ads.

Smart advertisers aren’t tracking you–they are tracking the activities of a computer session to serve better, more relevant advertising.  That tracking leads to better advertising targeting which means the companies sponsoring the information and connectivity are more profitable and can continue offering free services.  Imagine a world where  you pay a membership fee for access to a search engine or for Facebook or to watch a video.

Advertising pays for all of the services and more, including subsidized telephone services, broadband pricing initiatives and a global economy where a small business in Europe can compete with a multinational conglomerate in Los Angeles for the same consumers in South America.

You must know that companies have to be paid.  Someone pays the employees, pays for the lights to be on, pays for the things we all enjoy now free.

Forget free applications and consider how your daily surfing habits would change.  Email would likely remain free, but would probably have more restrictive sizes that wouldn’t allow pictures or files to be transmitted.  Even browsers are advertising or product supported.

Two popular browsers, Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, are directly supported through donations from Google, an organization that creates almost all of its revenue from online advertising.  You don’t pay $29.95 to buy browser software as you were expected to during the web’s nascent days.  And that’s true in so many situations because online advertising is affordable and effective.

I know that because I help small businesses and non-profits generate more revenue from their online advertising efforts.  That profit means they can create new jobs, keep prices stable a longer time and fund philanthropic activities.  Today’s Wall Street Journal print edition featured a story about Mozilla’s “do not track” future capability on the front page of its Marketplace section.  Further inside the section and no coincidence was an article about The New York Times’ plans to begin charging consumers for access via Amazon’s Kindle and the Apple iPad.

The Journal called this “the biggest test to date of consumers’ willingness to pay for news they’re accustomed to getting free.”

Providing bandwidth, content and creating websites costs money.  When consumers realize that some of their favorite activities may now be unavailable for free, it may be too late to restore some of those services.  Online ads are effective thanks to the tracking mechanisms that make ads appeal to the proper audiences. If ads become random and less efficient, you just may pay for the privilege of telling law-abiding companies that you don’t want to be tracked while organizations who don’t follow the practice or are not based in the United States will do as they please.

Ad blocking and “do not track” initiatives are bad for America’s businesses and worse for America’s consumers who use free Internet services.

Source:  ”Web Tool on Firefox to Deter Tracking”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Times Prepares Pay Wall”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Google, Mozilla Detail New Privacy Procedures“,  Washington Post, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Do Not Track FAQ“, Mozilla, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Keep Your Opt-Outs“, Google, 1/24/11
Image:   Courtesy of Armin Hanisch

Why You Should Consult An Attorney Before Writing Policy

Small businesses may be more prone to hair-trigger responses than giant global corporations because those big companies have layers of rules and bureaucracy.  I’m not a fan of those layers, which is why Silver Beacon works exclusively with small businesses and non-profits, but there’s something to be said for an army of attorneys on the ninth floor.

The Legal Times blog is reporting that an ambulance company in Connecticut terminated an employee who made negative comments about her supervisor on Facebook.   Other employees reportedly participated in the Facebook discussion, and the woman. Here is the worst part.  Just four months ago, the local newspaper ran an article about the company sponsoring the employee’s 60 mile fund-raising walk for breast cancer.  Yet if the Legal Times article has its data right, the employee didn’t quit for health reasons.  She was terminated a  year ago.    And if that’s the case, why did the company have anything more to do with her?

Now the National Labor Relations Board is involved and has issued its own press release, announcing that it has investigated the original incident and will conduct a hearing January.   (pdf of that release here)

This isn’t the forum to debate or discuss the case.  Your takeaway as a small business leader is to recognize that the passion you feel for your business is your greatest asset and a potential liability.   Mistakes are made by organizations of all sizes, but a small business that many not want to spend on attorney fees is especially susceptible.

Critical in this case is the government agency’s finding that the company’s

blogging and internet posting policy contained unlawful provisions, including one that prohibited employees from making disparaging remarks when discussing the company or supervisors and another that prohibited employees from depicting the company in any way over the internet without company permission

If you’re nodding your head right now that the company should be able to tell paid employees that they are not allowed to disparage the company on the Internet, then you are underscoring the point about seeking counsel before writing policy.  The law isn’t about what’s right or wrong and while any business owner can empathize with a business that terminates someone that it may believe is a bad employee, writing and policy without assistance can lead to a federal agency publicly finding fault with your company and opening up the gates for potential fiscal liability.

Call your attorney.  If you don’t have one, call your accountant and ask for a recommendation.  If you don’t have an accountant or attorney, please call the local Small Business administration and ask for help in protecting yourself and your business.

Source: “NLRB Sues Company for Firing Worker Over Facebook Post” – Legal Times, 11/03/2010
Source: “Person of the Week” – The Day, 06/24/2010
Source: “Complaint alleges Connecticut company illegally fired employee… - NLRB, 11/02/2010
Image: Public domain

Gmail Becomes Perfect For Your Small Business

I added another organization to Google Apps yesterday. This one was a small non-profit whose capabilities immediately increased from the free webmail that came with their server package to the collaborative suite Google offers free.

By changing a few records in the configuration (don’t try this by yourself if you don’t know what the phrase MX record means),  the organization immediately was able to share  contacts, calendaring, forwarding, start pages and my absolutely new favorite thing:  priority inbox.

Everyone wrote about priority inbox last week, but I wanted to take a more cautious approach.  Silly me.

Priority inbox is hands down the best innovation for Gmail since… well, I think ever.  My personal time savings on my main email account is around an hour after one week after using priority inbox.   I reached that number by allocating 20 seconds to email.  That includes the opening, scanning and deleting or filing for later of email that is not mission-critical.  I’ve had just about 200 emails in the last week and there are still 86 nestled in the “not important” category.

They aren’t important.  They’re  nice to know.  They’re kind of interesting.  They won’t change my business, my life or help my family.  They’re the information overload that help pass the time while you’re waiting in a dentist office, having your car’s oil changed or waiting for a train.

This mail doesn’t need to interrupt your day, and priority inbox assures that it won’t.  If this trend holds, an hour a week is an amazing pickup for a usability change.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that Gmail has evolved to the point where it demands your attention as a free email solution for many small businesses. Setup is relatively easy, especially if you’ve kept up with your old email and are willing to start with a fresh email box.  You can use your company name, use the Gmail interface and use an internal Google search to find an old email so you don’t have to categorize or file your mail in folders.

Google Maps Adds Local Info To Street View

I’ve been talking about this day for years.    And although Droid wasn’t out then, one of the favorite BS topics around search conferences was how Google could leverage Business A to advertise or at least contribute data.  The answer is a mashup of Droid, Google Maps and Business B willing to advertise.

The actual news part

Google announced today that Street View will have local business annotations.   Street View is that nifty section of Google Maps when the traditional maps disappear and are replaced by photographic images of the area.   Street View now has those little boxes from Google Places overlaid on the images.  Take a look at the image below that Google is using on its blog.

The wildly speculative part

So this is a terrific upgrade to functionality.   I’ve asked more than once while looking at Maps, “Hey what building is that again?  No, not in this picture.   Even an East Coast guy like me recognizes San Francisco landmark buildings.  But look closely at the photo.    Now you can see individual businesses in those buildings.

And you know that really, really nifty feature about searching Google Maps for a business?  How about you search for George’s Pizza, but he happens not to be an advertiser.  Up on your Droid phone pops the lovely Street View with directions and reviews just like it’s shown above.  But Sara’s Pizza, just three blocks away, is an advertiser and has a coupon associated with their account.

*ding*

Up pops the coupon in a little window.  Sure, go have a slice at George’s, but you get 2 slices for the price of 1 at Sara’s.

That’s potentially how an information company leverages two small businesses against each other.   And that’s only one way.

But Google Maps’ Street View is an awesome tool.

Save Money by Auditing Invoices

woman with pencil

Check each line on your vendor invoices

One of the best ways consultants quickly gain traction in an organization is by auditing vendor payments.   Start with several months or a year’s worth of data.

First, do the math.

Making an official looking invoice is easy.  Hard-keying numbers into those invoices leaves them open for errors.  Check the extensions (X products at $Y each equals $Z) and check the totals column.  Confirm any tax that is charged and check that calculation too.

Once you find the arithmetic errors, check the agreements.

This part is more fun than you think.  Segment your invoices by number of line items and then again by amount.   Go for the low-hanging fruit by tackling the single line items first.  Pull the agreement and make sure that the proper rates were charged.   If no agreement exists, quickly use a search engine to check for market rates.  Many vendor relationships are based on older market rates that may no longer be valid.  If the rate seems in line with market pricing and there are no errors on this invoice, approve the vendor, but check their other invoices.

A word about market rates

Market rates change over time.  Sometimes customers are grandfathered into price plans that no longer exist.  Other times, both parties know that the rate changed no longer matches the market — it may even be higher — but there are other value adds that the vendor supplies free.  This is an opportunity to codify that pricing and those agreements.  You’ll end up with a lower rate or an agreement that the vendor will supply the value add for a period of time.

The win-win

I’m convinced most companies want to set a rate and sell their goods and services at those rates.   I also believe that all small businesses want to fix mistakes and not let things fester, or worse, build up over a period of many months.

The Doctor’s Story

Credentialed professionals such as doctors and attorneys often retain a business manager simply to keep up with the arcane rules and pricing surrounding their services.   I had extended discussions with one physician’s manager in a role like this who told me that a number of patients had been billed for an amount over their copay.

“It’s the beginning of year reset,” she explained.  ”People have to meet their deductibles”

This is a smart person who knows her industry and practice.  But what she missed was that these patients had all been treated by one physician and different insurance levels had all been billed.  She seemed reluctant at first to dig, but imagine her surprise when she learned that the lead physician who controlled the practice was not listed as accepting the company’s insurance.  Those were out-of-network charges, not new year deductibles.

You can do the same in your small business.  Set aside a block of time each month and go through all of your invoices for a category or vendor type.   You may be spending money unnecessarily because someone’s spreadsheet that is sent to the accountant has a formula error.