Wednesday, May 5, 2004

How Launch Beat Me

Yahoo has tried many ways to get my money.

It tried selling me advertising and sponsored results on their search engine (the pre-Google best-of-the-web). It tried to get me to subscribe to their myriad game services, a delightful collection of small web-based games that, alas, won’t run on my Macintosh (shame, shame…)

But they finally got me. I fell for it completely. In one moment I went from bitter online cynic to an ideal e-commerce customer.

The culprit: Launch.

Once sales of advertising on Yahoo's web sites, the company's biggest revenue-source, began to decline in 2001, the company looked to generate more revenue from subscription services, such as their online games. In early 2003, after settling a copyright infringement lawsuit with Sony Corp.'s music unit, Yahoo released the current incarnation of Launch, a service that allows users to stream music and music videos over the Web using Microsoft’s Windows Media Player format.

Launch offers users the chance – for free – to customize their own Web radio and music-video stations and tune in to 24-hour programming on a wide variety of niche channels devoted to everything from show tunes to one-hit wonders. A subscriber-based commercial-free version of Launch's Internet-radio service is offered for $3.99 a month ($35.99 a year).

The site is designed to appeal to users who listen to more than 30 hours of music per month – and it appears to have hit home. By the end of 2003, already logged 12 million listener-hours per month with its free radio service alone. In the same period Launch delivered over one billion music videos over the Internet – nine million monthly users streaming more than 110 million music videos each month.

Damn. Kinda smashes Fight.Boredom’s visitation stats…

But our interest in Launch lies not in what it promises or how often it is used. We’re interested in how well it works and how they transformed us into an ideal online customer so effortlessly.

We have few complaints about how well it works and is designed. The login process is painless and, amazingly, returns you to the very page (even if it is in another window) you had to leave to login. We’re glad to see that Yahoo, with its tens-of-millions of subscribers, has nailed this one on the head.

Creating new radio and video stations is effortless. For the free radio station, an initial checklist of genres and artists establishes your basic preferences. And they can be as varied as you like – mixing Led Zeppelin, Louis Armstrong, Nirvana, Gypsy Kings, Weezer, and Glenn Miller was no trouble.

The music video system skips this step but both video and radio stations are intuitive in their customization once they start playing. As a song or video plays you have the option to rank it both by artist and song in a spectrum of preference extending from four stars to “never play again”. This dual choice allows for powerful customization. It even allows me to have Britney’s “Toxic” (artist rank, “never play again”; song rank, four stars) in my list without getting a flood of her squeaky pop on my screen.

If you want to find out more about an artist, every video and song allows you to visit their Launch artist page, in another window, where you can access their complete library of songs and videos.
But the site is not without detractions.

The free video player, for instance, runs for about an hour and then will inexplicably stop (requiring a “refresh” to get it started again. You’re also likely to suffer through the same Miller Lite commercial two or three times an hour. As for the radio service, it has a wider variety of music than the video station but will eventually crash your Internet Explorer, requiring you to return to launch and login again. Oh, and did I mention that this service isn't Mac compatible? (Damn you, Yahoo...)

So much for its design. Here’s how Yahoo’s Launch whipped me:

I signed up for Launch’s free service using my existing Yahoo account (which I’d totally forgotten about) and began creating my custom music video station. Lo and behold, as I worked all night on (insert client name here)’s website a music video came on that I’d never seen before: “Dark of the Matinee” by Franz Ferdinand. I’d heard of them but had never listened to their music. I liked it.

Here begins the roller coaster of online commerce.

I clicked to Launch’s artist page for Franz Ferdinand. I watched another video and an interview. I linked directly to their website and read about the band. I found out about their new album. I checked their tour dates. I linked from the band’s site to Ticketmaster and (despite Ticketmaster’s pure dark evil and poor interface design) found tickets for their June Cotton Club gig in Atlanta. I bought two tickets, bounced back to Launch (which was playing the whole time in the background), and waited for the next new artist to pop on screen.

It took less than ten minutes. If only they’d linked up with the iTunes music store I could have had the album too (Best Buy came to my rescue, there). And it wasn’t an isolated instance either…only self-restraint kept it all from happening again the next day when I discovered Death Cab for Cutie.

That’s how it happened. That’s how Yahoo beat me. Watch out. They’ll get you too. fb

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