Saturday, March 29, 2008

Products are dead. Long live services.

An interesting post this morning from Jack Loechner, in his Center for Media Research blog. He toplines some of the findings of the 5th annual "The State of the News Media" report issued by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Both Loechner's topline of the major trends amd the report itself, (which is quite extensive) are fascinating reads. But it was the first line of the first bullet in the Major Trends section that stopped me cold.

"News is shifting from being a product - today's newspaper, Web site or newscast - to becoming a service - how can you help me, even empower me?"

The report's authors have succinctly captured the essence of the tectonic shift happening everywhere with everything. The trend of products becoming services is universal. In a shift so subtle and incremental that marketers are still trying to comprehend it, consumers have redefined their relationship to products. The technology tools that have empowered all of us have permanently changed our needs and expectations. Dialog, utility, interactive tools, and on-demand convenience are no longer optional. They're the expected standard equipment.

Some products and marketers are beginning to understand this. Kraft Foods, figuring that we expect our food products to do more than just nourish us, has launched a desktop recipe widget. Saucy Pork Medallions, anyone?

As marketers, I think we have to start considering that the question in most consumers' minds isn't "Is this product NEW and IMPROVED?", but rather "What have you done for me lately?"

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Coat of Arms - 2.0

A story in today's New York Times reports that Toyota's Scion brand has launched a web application that extends the quirky-hip identity of the car and recognizes the social bonding and personal expression needs of its drivers.

The website,, features an online program that allows visitors to design their own personal coat of arms using a collection of hundreds of artist-designed components. The designs can be downloaded and turned into window decals or users can take them to airburshing shops to have them painted onto their cars. The campaign was created by StrawberryFrog in New York.

I went to the site and even though I'm several years beyond and many levels of hip below their target, I got totally sucked into creating a coat of arms (yes, I am Sista Diva the Finest.) Toyota is calling it their foray into social marketing. I wouldn't go that far, there doesn't seen to be any actual social interaction components or ways for users to interact. But I give it kudos for being well designed, fun and relevant to their target. It's slim and direct, featuring only the symbol building program and some videos on the creation of the utility. The interface is clean and elegant without a single superfluous element. The navigation is fast and straightforward and accompanied by satisfying, yet simple sound effects. Best of all, there aren't any bloated downloads. You can create your coat of arms and download it in minutes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.

Jeff Jarvis, in his wonderful Buzz Machine blog has recently posted some interesting and provocative viewpoints. His post on the future of government online is an intelligent and worthwhile read. But it was Friday's post on Obama's speech on race and religion that inspired me to leave a response. Jeff posits that he might be the single person not worshipful of Obama's speech, which he finds more, rather than less divisive. I'm not sure that I agree with his perception, but I love the number of responses he's gotten and the conversation it's sparked. His characterization of Obama fans as "worshipful", however, struck me as right on the money. Coming from German Jewish stock, my unease in the face of fanatical adoration of political figures might be genetic. Or maybe I prefer my heros slightly imperfect, just like me. In any case, my response to Jeff was as follows:

"Jeff, you certainly struck a chord, proving racial, religious, and ethnic bigotry are still extremely hot buttons in this country. It is great to see how many people responded and how the threads of discussion are evolving. Not to sound too Pollyana-ish, but I think anything that forces discourse on this 800 pound gorilla, which is our country’s dirty little secret, can’t be all bad.

That said, I think your choice of words in the very first sentence, “worshipful”, is the thing that makes me uneasy about this man. He should represent everything I’m looking for in a presidential candidate, he’s smart, insightful, engaging, articulate, moral, and charismatic. But instead, I find the aura of worship that has materialized around him, this “cult of Obama”, to be sort of scary. There seems to be an appetite among Democrats to anoint a saviour. To find someone who will weave such a dazzling vision of peace and stability and unity that, like desert wanderers dying of thirst, we will flock to him to drink the KoolAid. And anyone (including other Democrats) who challenges this saviour is a spoiler who must be stopped. I would like to think that both Democratic candidates have strengths that should be carefully and reasonably evaluated as we make decisions. I would prefer not to have a preference for Hilary be considered heretical."

For sixteen years we have been fed escalating and damaging infusions of divisive partisanship. Nuanced and objective democratic conversation is being trounced by the neo-religious pronouncement "You're either with us or against us." Really? Are those my only choices? Have politics in the U.S. become so polarized that there is only one right answer and disagreement is synonymous with treason? I hope not.

The brilliant cartoonist, Walt Kelly, from whom I "borrowed" the title of this blog, has expressed this more eloquently than I ever could:

"Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle."

"There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us."


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Little Is The New Big.

With apologies to the Who and Pete Townsend, online advertisers have been singing the same refrain for years, "See me. Feel me. Touch me. Click me." But, as Los Angeles Creative Club director, Roger Poirier pointed out at the OMMA Conference last week, "Most creative--both online and off--falls flat."

While there may be some clicking, consumer engagement is rare and there's not a whole lot of feeling or touching going on.

It seems silly that, in an environment where interaction is everything, brands haven't quite found a way to walk through the open door. Instead of adapting their online communication strategies to leverage the power of interactive technology, they've been intent on using the technology to replicate their offline executions. But, as Laurie Sullivan discussed in Tuesday's MediaPost Marketing Daily, branded widgets just may be the big little thing that gets them through the door.

Personally, I think advertisers should kiss the Red Bull stained fingers of their API programmers. Widgets give brands the ability to bring something more than a just sales message to consumers. Widgets can engage them with a game, information, content, or any kind of interesting, useful or entertaining utility. And brands can syndicate widgets in the places that their users gather, like Facebook.

A recent Business Week article describes the efforts of A&E Television to publicize their new series "Parking Wars". It's a reality show about meter readers, so they had their work cut out for them. They hired a multimedia developer to create an online game based on the series. The result is a widget, distributed between users, and played on Facebook. Newsweek reports that in less than 3 months time it's "attracted more than 198,000 unique users. many of them repeat players, and generated more than 45 million page views." Better still, these little applications, that can run on a desktop or online, are relatively quick and inexpensive to build, making the risk small and the potential payback big.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Drawn From Real Life

If you missed SXSW Interactive you may want to crib Mike Rohde's notes on the event, or just flip through them for their creativity and design. Because, unlike me and the rest of the scratchy, sloppy note takers of the world, this guy turns information into art. Word has traveled fast. In the 5 days since he uploaded the notes they've been featured all over the web and he's even gotten some project offers. Yesterday he posted some interesting observations from the experience.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

It Started with a Pot of Coffee

This is a story about an epiphany. It stars a coffee pot, a Mac II, and an early web browser called Mosaic. In 1995 I was working at BBDO, heading up a group that designed and produced interactive new business presentations (we worked in Photoshop before it had layers!). Our IT group had just installed Mosaic on my computer, giving me a window into this odd new world called the Internet. Poking around that landscape in the mid '90s was like walking through a half-empty convention center populated, intermittently, with billboards that displayed only welcome messages and the locations of all the other billboards. In other words, there wasn't a whole lot of "there" there. My reaction was a big, "Huh?". And then someone gave me the URL of the Cambridge Coffee Pot . The caffeine addicted computer scientists at Cambridge University constructed what may have been the world's first web cam as a way to determine if the single coffee pot in their building, located in a far recess, was filled or not, thereby saving a wasted trip involving several flights of stairs. Even though the image was updated only about three times a minute, my first viewing of it felt electric and I realized that everything we knew about communication was about to change. With nothing more exotic than my chuggy little computer and a primitive browser, I was looking, in near real time, at an image of something incredibly obscure and very far away. I could see around the world.

I had a similar shiver of excitement at this year's SXSW interactive conference. It wasn't the ubiquitous laptops, Blackberries, and iPhones that nearly everyone was using to tap out their thoughts and comments. It was how they were doing it. They were Twittering and nothing illustrated the power of this mini-blog form more than the now infamous Sarah Lacy interview of Mark Zuckerberg. In the old days (ummm, 3 months ago, for example) public opinion would coalesce only after an event passed, when conversations could happen and reviews could be published. But once again, technology has removed the time lag. From the very start of the interview, in real time, the audience twittered their opinions to each other as well as to the twitter universe outside of the conference room. Inside the room, people coalesced around a nearly universal opinion that the interview was a train wreck. Emboldened by the confirmation of their opinion, people heckled and left - near the end they poured out in droves. Outside the room, it became a topic of discussion, blogs, and reporting, before the event had even ended. An analysis of what this may mean for the future is a topic for another post. But be assured, we're on the cusp of another seismic change in communication. In the meantime, use your voice wisely. It can be heard around the world.

communication, SXSW,Twitter, blogs

Thursday, March 13, 2008

At the (Digital, Interactive, On-Demand) Movies

A little over a hundred years ago, the good people at The Ladies' Home Journal looked into their crystal ball and came up with a page of predictions for the future that ranged from quaintly wrong to strangely prescient. There were even a few that missed the mark, but should have been right, such as the prediction that university education would be free to everyone, economically disadvantaged students would have room, board, and clothing subsidized if they couldn't afford them, and health care (including optometric and dental) would be available to every child who needed it.

Two of the most striking predictions, though, actually got it somewhat right: "Man Will See Around the World", and "Grand Opera will be Telephoned" to private homes. The LHJ foresaw cameras capturing images that would be transmitted electrically to screens thousands of miles away. And they predicted that "Great musicians gathered in one (sp) inclosure in New York will, by manipulating electric keys, produce at the same time music from instruments arranged in theaters or halls" throughout the country.

How surprised would the audacious seers of the LHJ be to see us now. Today, nearly everybody under 20 believes that instantaneous access is an addendum to the Bill of Rights, and the Metropolitan Opera - HD Live series, launched by director Peter Gelb, has been packing movie theaters around the world.

At a panel discussion titled, "Digital Cinema for Indies", at last week's SXSW Interactive, the conversation focused on the "top down" issues of distribution: studio costs for film digitizing and promotion, theater costs for installing digital equipment, and the ongoing problem of getting butts in seats. This conversation seems to be continuing at ShoWest in Las Vegas where, as CNBC's Julia Boorstin notes, "The movie theaters owners and studios are together moving towards digitizing the 38,000 movie theaters nation-wide."

Good for them. The problem is, the landscape has changed in an important way that the ladies of the Home Journal couldn't predict, and the film studios at ShoWest don't get. Interactive technology has changed us. Getting access to the content and entertainment we want, where and when we want it, has become addictive and that genie's not going back in the bottle any time soon. I may want to go to a movie theater occasionally, but I also expect to see films, on-demand, on my computer, my TV, and even my iPhone. These days, entertainment is being influenced from the bottom up as much as from the top down, and viewers voices are getting louder all the time.

If filmmakers, studios, and theaters, want to continue to be relevant to audiences, they'd better start thinking more about where audiences want to see entertainment product, and less about forcing them into appointment viewing. It doesn't take much to turn a creative visionary into a dinosaur. Just ask David Lynch.