Archive for January, 2014

How A Small Problem In Mail Merge Leads To A Big Lesson About Content Marketing

Friday, January 24th, 2014

For close to two years, we’ve been sending out a periodic e-newsletter to our prospects, customers and business associates. Since it takes a lot of effort, we’re able to do it only once a month. Even at this relatively low frequency, we’ve found it to be very effective for staying in touch with contacts and nurturing leads, among other things. To quote just one example of this newsletter’s value, we recently signed a deal from a prospect who had gone cold for 14 months but got back to us when he had a need only because he was receiving our newsletters regularly in the interim period.

We normally send out this newsletter around the end of each month. Last year, the date coincided with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. So we wanted to add a “Happy Diwali!” line in our newsletter but only to those people in our subscription list for whom the festival was relevant.

This included all India-based subscribers. Despite its Hindu origins, Diwali has become pretty much a secular festival in India. By the same logic, when it came to subscribers located outside India, we decided to keep the greeting for all Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).

We decided to skip the greeting for others.

This necessitated the following two versions of the newsletter:


Even we thought the blank line in the second version was not nice.

Before telling you how we overcame this problem, here’s the list of steps we followed to generate two versions of the newsletter.

  1. In the Excel-based list of our newsletter subscribers, we added a new column called “DiwaliGreeting”.
  2. Under this column, we entered the following formula: =IF(N12=”India”,1,”?”). This automatically populated a “1” for all contacts based out of India and a “?” for those living outside.
  3. We read the name of the contact and, if the contact was a PIO, overwrote the “?” symbol with a “1” or, otherwise, with a “0”. We couldn’t find any formula that could figure out whether a person was a PIO or not based on their name, so we couldn’t automate this step.
  4. In the Word document, just after the salutation line, we used the If…Then…Else command with the following values:


That’s it.

While v1 of the email came through fine, there was a blank line in v2, which we wanted to suppress.

After a quick Google Search, we visited half a dozen websites that explained how to suppress such blank lines in Word Mail Merge.

Unfortunately, all solutions used Mail Merge code, which was Greek and Latin to me (Memo to Microsoft: In the early 1990s, I was tired of WordStar and WordPerfect’s cryptic .WP and .WL commands. You launched Word, which replaced these cryptic commands with very user-friendly GUIs. I switched to Word and stayed with it for the next two decades. If you’re now going to start complicating things by putting code inside Word documents, I’m going to start searching for another word processing software).

But, for now, we were stuck with Word, so I got one of my more technically-savvy colleagues to have a go. After tweaking some code here and there, we suddenly found the document wobbling unsteadily. Yes, literally wobbling, like the following screenshot illustrates:


When Word documents start wobbling

For those of you who’re wondering how a plain vanilla document can develop fits, anything with code inside it is no longer plain vanilla.

Given enough time, I’m sure we could’ve cracked this problem and found a technically elegant solution. However, it wouldn’t have made sense to wait until Christmas to send a Diwali greeting. So, we used a quick-and-dirty workaround that replaced the blank line by “Greetings from GTM360 Marketing Solutions!”

Problem solved!

In this specific issue of the newsletter, this line only appeared in emails where the “Happy Diwali!” line was inappropriate. However, I found that it made the email sound more cordial and decided to standardize it in all editions of the newsletter in future.

While I didn’t solve the basic Mail Merge problem, I was happy find a workaround that made a lot more sense in the larger context of content marketing.

Is The US “Closed Loop” Payments System Making Americans Less Creditworthy?

Friday, January 17th, 2014

uscl01For several years, American travelers have been having a tough time trying to use their magstripe credit cards in the EMV Europe.

In India, many ecommerce and bill payment websites have recently started refusing American credit cards (click here for more details). This is because these cards lack support for Mobile OTP, a two factor authentication mechanism that is now mandatory for Card Not Present payments in India.

From December, in store transactions in India will require a six digit PIN apart from signature. I expect US-issued credit cards to start failing even in Card Present situations since they don’t support PIN.

The above declines are all on account of technical reasons. But, effectively, they’re diminishing the credit worthiness of American individuals traveling abroad.

According to my recent experience, this problem is spreading to American businesses as well.

Around the time I was reading Brett King’s blog post USA – world’s largest closed loop payments system? on Finextra, I received an order from an American business for one of my company’s products. My customer inquired how to make the required payment. I replied back saying that we preferred wire transfers and provided my company’s bank account details, which included, among other fields, SWIFT BIC code.

As I’d highlighted in Why B2B Suppliers Should Accept Credit Cards, the buyer asked us if we could take a credit card instead. I wrote back as follows:

“We can take a credit card. However, shipment will take much longer in this case due to technical reasons. Let’s explain: India uses Two Factor Authentication for all online card payments. We regularly experience incompatibilities with most US credit cards, which don’t seem to support 2FA. The only way we can be sure that the payment has gone through successfully is when we actually receive credit in our bank account, which happens 4-5 days after you initiate the payment. We ship the product on the next business day. For faster delivery, you can use a wire transfer, in which case we can treat the screenshot of your transfer advice as proof of payment and ship the product immediately thereafter.”

uscl02Like mine, several businesses are unwilling to take the risk of failed payments from US-issued credit cards and are insisting on sighting good funds in their bank accounts before making shipments. In other words, they’re declining credit to buyers who might otherwise be creditworthy.

In the past, due to the sheer size of the US market, many countries went out of the way to accommodate American citizens and businesses. However, I don’t expect this to continue forever because of the following factors:

  1. Economically, the gap between the US and the rest of the world is narrowing. Faster growth in many emerging markets is moving the center of gravity away from America.
  2. Payment system wise, the gulf is widening. In the eight years since the FFIEC issued guidelines for implementing two factor authentication for online shopping, online banking and other high risk transactions, I’ve been hard pressed to come across even a rudimentary implementation of 2FA – e.g. Verified by Visa  – on any leading American ecommerce website or Internet Banking portal. During the same period, other countries – including India – have moved on from static VbV passwords to more sophisticated security mechanisms (e.g. card readers, mobile OTP). While these new steps might increase online friction and cause more number of abandoned shopping carts, respective regulators in these nations insist that they’re making online payments safer.
  3. More than one of my American customers has regretted inability to pay by our preferred method of wire transfer saying that their credit union doesn’t know how to make a wire transfer. Apparently, some of their banks don’t even know what SWIFT BIC means! I find this very odd because our customers in other countries, including some tiny ones like Mauritius, have absolutely no problem with wire transfers.

As a result, regulators in most other nations – including India for sure – are unlikely to compromise their payments systems just for the sake of accepting the payment products prevalent in the USA. The “closed loop” like payments system in America will lead to the inexorable decline of credit worthiness of Americans while doing business abroad. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Panic Not If Your Nook Color Charger Blows

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

What do you do when the original charger that came with your Barnes & Noble Nook Color tablet conks out?

Short Answer: Use any modern smartphone charger.

Long Answer:

Recently, the charger that came with my Barnes & Noble Nook Color tablet blew. Since this product is not very popular in India – I got it as a gift from my US-based sister – I couldn’t find an original spare. I took my sister’s advice to try using a regular mobile phone charger.

This alternative works. Just power down your tablet completely before connecting it to the charger. You can be sure of success when you see the following telltale signs on the Nook Color device:

  1. The NC boots up automatically as soon as the mains-connected mobile charger is plugged into it. Within a few seconds, you should see the familiar “Read Forever” message on the screen. All this happens even though you haven’t touched the power-on button
  2. Although the Quick Settings screen will display “Not charging” – in contrast to the customary “Charging” message that’s shown when the original charger is used – don’t despair. This is a false alarm, probably meant to nudge NC customers to buy an original charger for around $75. You’re okay unless you see “Discharging”, which is the error message signaling that the device is really not charging
  3. If you’re up to watching grass grow, you’ll be rewarded by seeing an increase in the battery % figure under Quick Settings.

Although I happened to use an Android smartphone charger in my case, I don’t see why any other late model smartphone charger approved by Barnes & Noble wouldn’t work.

One caveat with using a mobile charger: Longer charging time.

That said, this solution is workable and can at least serve as a stop gap measure until you can source an original NC charger from abroad or it becomes widely available in India.

Mobile Wallet Has Few Takers – Even At Starbucks

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

In a world that’s awash with exuberant projections of mobile payment spends in 2022 from products that are not yet launched in 2013 – no, I’m not just looking at you, ISIS – GigaOm introduced a sense of reality by providing some actual figures. Quoting Berg Insight in this article, GigaOm reported a total mobile payment spend of US$ 500M in the USA last year. Most of this happened at Starbucks.

From here, it might be tempting to infer that mobile payment is a very – if not the most – popular method of payment at Starbucks. But, that’d be jumping to a wrong conclusion. The same way as it would be to start from the factual statement “The USA dominates Indian IT services” and end with the erroneous conclusion, “India dominates American IT services”.

Before going further, let me first list down the number of ways in which Starbucks accepts mobile payments:

Starbucks Card App
Digitized version of loyalty card to which consumers can upload $$. The money can be spent only at Starbucks. In other words, this is a “closed loop” method of payment (MOP).

Square Wallet
Consumers can pay with the digitized version of their regular network credit or debit card. This is an “open loop” MOP.

While the company doesn’t make an explicit mention of Apple Passbook and KeyRing, many consumers report using these third-party mobile apps to scan in their Starbucks plastic loyalty cards and pay for their lattes via smartphones (see here and here). In fact, Apple illustrates Passbook on its website by using the Starbucks Card (at least it used to do so until its website underwent a refresh subsequent to the recent iOS7 upgrade).

All these mobile payment methods together generated a spend volume of almost US$ 500M at the coffee retailer. This works out to a measly 3.75% of Starbucks’ revenue of US$ 13.3B in FYE 2012 (Source: Yahoo! Finance).

This means the coffee retailer derived over 96% of its revenue from other instruments like cash and plastic cards.

Even going by transaction volume, Starbucks’ recent announcement that 10% of instore payment transactions happened by mobile means that 9 out 10 transactions at Starbucks took place with cash and plastic cards.

Therefore, whether it’s reckoned by spend or transaction volumes, mobile payments have a long way to go at Starbucks.


Payment Methods At Starbucks

It’s true that the company is equipping an increasing number of its stores to accept payments by scannning bar codes displayed on smartphone screens. It also invested US$ 25M for a 0.8% stake – see this Q&A on Quora – in the mobile payments startup Square last year. These initiatives signal the company’s confidence in the rising popularity of mobile payments in the years to come.

However, as of now, mobile payments is nowhere near Starbucks’ dominant MOP.

As an aside, the fact that its share by spend (3.75%) lags that by transactions (10%) might suggest that the average ticket size in dollar terms is lower for mobile transactions than cash or card payments. This doesn’t make much sense on first glance but it doesn’t change anything – even ascribing the higher 10% share to mobile payments, cash and plastic cards still reign supreme at Starbucks.

I didn’t think mobile wallets had hit the mainstream. But, until I did the above math, I never realized how they still accounted for a very tiny fraction of the payments market that’s worth trillions of dollars every year. Their marginal status is reinforced by this article in The Telegraph, according to which fewer than 1% of all transactions happen via mobile phone even in Japan, a country that’s widely considered to have a 4-5 year lead on mobile technology over the rest of the world.