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John Davitt has included a short paragraph and link to ode in his BETT 2008 review in the Guardian Educational Link supplement.

I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting what he says about us as we’re all glowing with pride here, even if it is only a small mention, as it is alongside some august company.

Little bits of learning

Another company that may have caught the spirit of the times is Ode with its strapline “little bits of learning”. While most other suppliers are working on systems encompassing everything, Ode simply hopes to tag and share small and varied learning resources by working with content holders (blog.odeworld.co.uk).

http://education.guardian.co.uk/link/story/0,,2266345,00.html

In the article itself John has actually posted a fairly damning revue of the BETT trade show this year. The major issue as he sees it is the link between government “interference”…

“The heavy-handed compulsion for all schools to have a learning platform by the end of the year has removed the chance for schools to try some different approaches to find what suits them best.”

…and how the industry reacts e.g. the overwhelming dominance of giant VLE/LMS systems that attempt to provide all singing all dancing solutions.

By fixating on these tools he argues that the smaller more interesting elearning products are squeezed out. Potentially to the detriment of the teachers themselves.

It’s always been a bit of an in joke at each BETT I’ve attended (and I’ve been going for years now) that most of the people you might speak to if you are manning a stand are likely to be industry people who have faked their badges. John is saying we should face up to it.

“Perhaps it’s time to stop talking up Bett as something with mass-classroom appeal and accept it’s become more of a business-to-business event.”

Well, we had a blast running our stand and you might have read about it on our blog, but I guess that’s because we weren’t actually there to speak to teachers as such. We were looking for potential content partners to sell their content through the ode platform. We were quite open about that. We did speak to many teachers though as they too seemed to be intrigued by what we’re trying to do.

(And because they now have these big empty VLEs and nothing to go in them).

BETT was good to us this year but will have our own stand next year? Nope and, currently, neither will the BBC. We do hope to attend Teachmeet 09 if we can, rightly highlighted by John as one of the true stars of BETT 08.

If we do our job right and build a worthy kick ass platform for education that our users love and evangelise we simply won’t need to. Especially if BETT keeps leaning further and further towards B2B.

Also when I see EMAPs bland corporate response at the end of John’s article where they seemed to claim Teachmeet was their idea “…building on the success of the TeachMeet, our plans for 2009 are already underway to develop this feature further.” – it wasn’t, Ewan Macintosh takes all the credit for his unconference here) I don’t really warm to them.

What ode is attempting to do is pretty new, in the education sector at any rate. When you are trying to do something never attempted before you are keenly aware that you are unlikely to be the only person thinking in that manner.

There are almost certainly business people out there cleverer, better funded, more smartly dressed and considerably more successful with women than you’ll ever be. At least that’s how it feels when one company after another announces it’s involvement in this space.

But the reality is you shouldn’t fear the competition. You need to flip that thinking on it’s head and approach it from a completely different angle. And here’s why.

Like any business we keep an eye on what our “competitors” are doing – what new features have they added? What content have they got? What markets are they trying to break into? What are people saying about them? Do our customers use them? And so on.

Feeling a bit sick of riding this paranoia roller coaster I emailed one of my personal heroes, Seth Godin, internet marketing guru extraordinare, and asked for his advice on dealing with this issue. This is what he said:

  1. the enemy isn’t the competition
  2. it’s obscurity
  3. they help you
  4. they legitimize the space
  5. just do a great job

I never really expected a reply (I mean, this is a man that advises Google and been described as “the Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age” by Business Week) so once I’d got over the shock at his quick and valuable response I realised that what he said made enormous sense. I reprint them here with his kind permission.

The enemy isn’t the competition, it’s obscurity

In this new information age customers can move between products and brands faster than at any other time in history. We are digital magpies, flitting around looking for the shiny stuff.

The ability to make quick choices, to gather commentary on services and products and bask in the glow of a million and one paths has never been easier. As consumers we are empowered. As businesses we have to integrate widely and cheaply to earn people’s interest.

It’s not enough anymore to rely on catalogues and pull outs in magazines to sell our message. We have to focus our attention on taking our products to where the people are, and they are splintered across multiple niches now, not just a homogeneous mass silently consuming in front of the TV.

So the message here is that if you are going to focus anywhere, forget what others are doing and concentrate on making people aware of your product. When there are 1000’s of companies all using megaphones to shout at potential customers they understandably tune out and become ultra selective.

Understand where YOUR people hang out, LISTEN to what they have to say, make your product FLEXIBLE enough that you can tailor it to multiple needs. People want to talk about good products more than ever these days. There’s kudos and respect being gathered by consumers out there – make your product worth talking about and the real enemy, obscurity, will fade away.

They help you, they legitimize the space

You may be the only chocolate umbrella company in the world but on a global platform you will likely be a lone voice. This doesn’t make your product awful but it makes it harder to acquire customers. When customers are actively blocking out marketing noise you may remain forever niche without the funds or reach required to take your Chocobrella™ to the next level.

But then you hear that Mars is making a range of confectionery based outdoor apparel – liquorice scarfs, toffee wellington boots and nougat gloves. Initially you will panic, because they are a global corporation with huge marketing budgets, R&D departments and national distribution networks.

But instead what they are doing is raising the awareness of sugar laden weather wear, a wave which you can capitalise on.

Suddenly you have options – people will start searching for similar items on Google, you can work your niche appeal and create bespoke Chocobrellas™ for the more discerning client, lifestyle magazines will start to run comparison articles on this new trend for edible clothing and so on. They have justified your idea and will expand your market for you.

They are not the competition, they are simply a different angle on the same market. Soon others will join in and before you know it you are playing in a million dollar marketplace that previously didn’t exist. This isn’t to say the hard work has finished (see point 1) but your choices suddenly become infinitely more appealing.

Just do a great job

This is the killer point though. Forget what the competition is doing, it’s out of your hands after all, and expend your energies on being the best you can be.

It’s not enough to say your product is good (“Product X will save you time!”), it has to be truly good (customers are spontaneously telling each other Product X saves them time without prompting from you).

People will have passion for it, they will champion it, they will spread the word – the tools are all out there for consumers to do that on massive scale.

I’d add one more point: A competitor might be a collaborator

We are building ode in such a way that it can be broken up into elements, re-packaged or white labeled and inserted into almost any web based technology for any number of reasons.

We can open up ode’s functions and data bit by bit, exclusively and/or publicly to whoever we like. We are in favour of collaborations that are mutually beneficial. In this day and age products that offer openness and willingness to participate will win. So before you label someone a competitor – could they really be a collaborator if a middle ground can be found?

So, Seth did a great job of when answering my email and now I’m telling you about it thus making him look cool which I’m happy to do. Simply by taking a minute to answer my email he has likely won some new fans. Now go and buy Purple Cow, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers and his new book, Meatball Sundae.

Joe Nocera, writing in the New York Times about how Amazon sent him out a free, no quibbles replacement Playstation when the one he had ordered was stolen on route to his house, says that Amazon’s success is not down to discounting or functionality or ubiquity (although of course all these things help) – it’s down to absolute, unwavering focus on the customer.

“I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by that customer experience. We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them.”

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, on the Charlie Rose show

Until I saw it written down like that I hadn’t really ever stood back and understood just how much this novel attitude is threaded throughout the Amazon experience. So much so that I don’t even notice it anymore, I just take it for granted. If I want to buy ANYTHING these days I always go to Amazon first (and usually last too).

But what really floored me was this:

“According to Forrester Research, 52 percent of people who shop online say they do their product research on Amazon.”

When I read that I thought that’s completely astonishing. Half of all internet shoppers check with Amazon before buying, as if Amazon is a trusted and wise friend. And I realised, like a splash of water to the face, that I do too. And I do it instinctively. I tend to do it in this order, mentally creating a set of benchmarks against which all other retailers must meet:

  1. Price
  2. Stock availability
  3. Customer reviews
  4. Preview and/or photo

And before I know it I usually then meander down to see what categories it sits in, have a little go on the sort/filter, check out what other people have bought and perhaps other items by the seller or band or author etc.

Basically I go in there to do a little research and before I know it I am deep into their site adding things to my basket, which means Amazon wins.

Even the basket is focused on my needs as I can leave things in there indefinitely until I’m ready to buy. I’ve never abandoned a basket on Amazon (and this is in an industry where there is typically a 50% abandonment rate of shopping baskets!).

They’ve made the online ecommerce experience so trustworthy that they get probably 9/10ths of all my online purchases.

We can all learn a lot from this approach. I can strongly recommend reading “The Institutional Yes” from the Harvard review for more insight into the Amazon experience.

I am writing this in our hotel suite after our first ever day at BETT. Our feet and backs hurt but what a day! We’ve had massive amounts of interest from an eclectic range of suppliers and spoke to lots of teachers about ode. Basically we’re exhausted but glowing with pride that our platform was received so warmly by so many people.

But you’ll have to excuse this short post as my feet hurt and there’s a Wagamama round the corner and I’m starving. I will post much more considered and reflective detail later this week when I’ve had time to absorb it all.

I’m also BURSTING to tell you about a deal we sealed today which we’re all excited about but I want to make sure we announce it right. So come back tomorrow for the news hot off the press.

Anyway, if you visited us today we are humbled and grateful for your time and interest – it was a genuine pleasure to speak to you all. Have some photos to tide you over until proper posts later this week.

The riot of elearning goodness and bottomless marketing budgets that is BETT

BETT show from the balcony

Our stand. It can’t compare to the carnival of excess on the lower floors but we like it. Plus the rolling green hills make us feel soothed.

Our stand 2008

Anthony entranced by our massively over the top 24″ imacs.

Anthony at the stand

An arty photo by Dik, clearly influenced by a quiet period

Stand up close

In the words of Jim Anchower, one of my favorite all time Onion columnists, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but the pedal is to the metal right now, if you know what I mean.

Alongside progressing a host of exciting content and platform partnerships that I’d love to tell you about (but should wait for the ink to dry first or the lawyers will send in the big dogs) we’ve been trying to get ready for our first BETT.

For those of you who don’t know about it or have never been BETT is THE elearning industry trade show in the UK. It’s run over 4 days and held in Kensington Olympia in London. I’ve been many times, occasionally manning a stand (tough, tough work), most times as a visitor and last January as a one man band bugging whoever would listen that ode was coming.

This time we have our own stand: N30 on the upper balcony. It’s 4m x 2m (about the same size as a walk in wardrobe) and will be our first outing in the glare of the public. Up until now other people have always set stands up for me but going through it this year for the first time I have a new found respect for those people who organise these trade show events.

Trust me, it’s a labour of love and frustration. And the whole time you cannot shake the feeling that it’s a lot of money with a questionable return on investment. So you have to know why you are going and how to measure success. These are some of the major questions we have had to ask ourselves…

  1. Why are you going? Strangely enough, the answer to this is usually because everyone else is so you should too. But it’s always a good idea to have a secondary interest and know what you want to get out of it before you go. We want to meet any content/platform companies interested in ode and get them on board. And if any educators want to join in as beta users even better. We will have a little postcard thing to fill out just for that purpose.
  2. Who is going to run your stand? This is important – remember these folks will be meeting your customers and clients face to face, perhaps for the first time. Can they sell your idea? Are they all aware of what to say and how to get value from visitors to your stand? You may also have to have a thick skin as people may knock or not be impressed by your product. You must certainly have a strong bladder. Then you have to rota everyone, organise the hotel, sort out stand food, a place to hang your coats…
  3. How do you want your stand to look? We’ve employed a proper agency to design it for us. Left to our own devices it would have been a cardboard box with a laptop on it.
  4. What do you want people to wear? Suits? T-shirts and jeans? Some sort of all in one star trek type velor jump suit?
  5. Who will come to your stand? It’s worth analysing who is likely to be interested in your product. Obviously we are brand new so no one has heard of us. Ultimately we want to engage with potential content suppliers who are also exhibiting at BETT and hopefully sign up a handful of interested teachers to contribute to how ode works. With all the huge educational suppliers dominating the show it’s unlikely we will register on most visitors radars but some may stumble on us – you are very welcome.
  6. Should you give something away? I cannot believe some of the pointless freebies I have picked up over the years – branded pens, fluffy gonks, lightbulb erasers, highlighters, paper weights, mousemats and the current freebie du jour, the USB memory stick. So, to save some money, we thought we’d look more original by NOT giving any freebies out. There will be minicards though.
  7. What’s your contingency plan? Something will go wrong I promise. Someone could go sick, the internet connection could drop out, the product could crash in front of an important customer or client, meetings could be missed, your logo might be misspelled on your stand banner, your stand could be right next door to Loud-House-Music-And-Shouty-Salesperson-Software-Company, someone could trip on a loose carpet tile and douse one of your monitors in coffee and so on. Have a selection of back up steps to cater for Muphy’s law.

Dealing with all this will cost you a fortune but you can make some brilliant contacts at events like this.

We’re not selling anything except the opportunity to collaborate with us. Even if it all goes wrong and we’re reduced to the cardboardbox/laptop scenario we’d still love to speak to you. So if you are interested in ode in any way please book an appointment with us by emailing support@odeworld.co.uk .

See you there!

The irony of the thing is, any place but a movie theatre, that’s a joke, but if you sit in a theatre and hear ‘In a world‘, you don’t hear laughter.”

Don Lafontaine, the gravel voiced man who has voiced over 3,500 trailers, who wrote his own scripts and popularised the term “In a World…

There are hundreds of books, thousands of blogs and plenty of companies dedicated to marketing but promoting a new software platform into the nascent digital education market is not so well understood, or at least proven.

Web 2.0, blogs, Wikis and RSS are in schools (mainly with the students!) but are still only representative of a small percentage of the communication channels used by the majority of educators. We appreciate that.

Hence schools are still bombarded with old school calls to action: leaflets, Rep visits, catalogues, email newsletters, cold calls and conference requests to name a few. The noise must be deafening. It might not please (or surprise) the more traditional marketeers in our industry but the vast majority of these pleas for attention end up in the bin or ignored. A 1% response rate to a flyer is considered a huge victory. 1%! Think of the trees if nothing else. Just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s effective.

The newest generation of educators is no longer passive, but thoroughly proactive when sourcing educational content thanks to the internet. Does this make “marketing” as we understand it obsolete?

So every time the ode team is asked what our marketing strategy is we can only reply “whatever you are used to, we probably won’t do it”. This might lead you to think we’re all about stealth marketing or viral marketing or gaming Digg. But not really, that sounds like the sort of thing that would wind Bill Hicks right up and his genius is unassailable so we’ll give them a miss I think.

You can’t hide from your customers anymore behind corporate speak, business jargon or be overly manipulative. Your mistakes are amplified and your methods transparent to the world. You can no longer control the message.

We don’t want to patronise our users by pretending we’re not in a 2 way conversation with them. This is how really effective marketing has changed since the advent of the internet – you have to try harder to be relevant, be more personable and honest. Just be more exciting. One easy way to understand how using old style marketing cannot really deliver to new style consumers is the modern art of the film trailer.

The 1977 Star Wars trailer:

The 1999 Phantom Menace trailer:

The original 1977 Star Wars trailer makes the film look drab, cheap and unengaging. In fact nothing like the the actual film itself. The Phantom Menace trailer on the other hand makes the film look thrilling, mysterious, epic and heart stopping. In fact everything the film is not. A clear case of the marketing being better than the product, which happens all the time these days. What a let down, eh?

What seems to work best these days is concentrating on involving and talking to your users, getting them passionate about your offering and making the best product you can.

It’s not “If you build it they will come” it’s “If you build it and it’s awesome they will not only come but bring their friends too”.

Your product is the message.

What is ODE?

ODE will be a webstore where educators can buy little bits of digital educational content and put them back together any way they like. Simple.

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