Monthly Archives: December 2009

Television goes interactive

While visiting my parents last weekend when I saw something I had never seen before: an interactive television advertisement. I was watching something unmemorable (maybe the 19th playing in-a-row of “A Christmas Story”), when during a commercial break a notice from DirecTV appeared in the middle of the screen telling me to press “Enter” on the remote. Assuming this was something to do with the programming guide or perhaps software, I complied, only to be greeted with an interactive advertisement.

While I can’t remember the product (cut me some slack, I was in a food coma), I did notice several options, including playing a singalong of the jingle, printing out a coupon for the product (if I had to guess I’d say some sort of dishwashing liquid?), or finding retailers near my location.  While the ad was ineffective because I can’t remember the product, overall I was struck by this type of advertising. Television becoming interactive and finally breaking the fourth wall is truly a remarkable thing.

Last month the Wall Street Journal ran an article on just this topic, stating

Marketers are eager to bolster the performance of TV ads. In a 2008 study of big advertisers, more than 60% said TV advertising had become less effective over the past two years. Consumers are unhappy with the large amount of ad clutter that appears during commercial breaks, leading to the explosion of devices that allow viewers to circumvent TV ads altogether.

Advertisers believe that the longer they can keep viewers engaged with an ad, the more likely they are to buy. So companies such as Unilever PLC, Johnson & Johnson and Kraft Foods Inc. are increasingly turning to technologies that add interactive capabilities—games, coupons and informational videos—to their TV pitches.

Chrysler is getting in the game too, running a campaign consisting of four of these “Dynamic Ad Units” (DAUs), as DirecTV is calling them. Apparently advertisers have finally realized that in this age of DVR and Tivo that fewer and fewer consumers are willing to wade through the endless barrage of sales material that they face every time they turn on their television. Studies have shown that shows are getting shorter as networks cram more and more advertising into time slots. If that wasn’t enough, they’re now even working product placements into the shows, as evidenced by KFC’s overt placement in shows like “Gary Unmarried” and “Oprah”.

Most American adults completely ignore most advertisements, either by fast forwarding a pre-recorded show, or else simply tuning them out. By providing consumers with a reason to pay attention, these interactive ads are combating buyer malaise. Additionally, this is interesting as it continues to blur the line between television and the Web.

And now a fearless prediction:

As the line between television and online media becomes blurred, television will become a completely interactive experience, perhaps even down to the plots of shows.

In the meantime, enjoy the experience, we are on the cusp of another technological revolution, and right now we can only guess how it will turn out.

The importance of branding

For a long time, I was skeptical of the idea of brands. Sure, they seem necessary for up-and-coming business to improve awareness, but are they really necessary? Take Coca-Cola for example. They could cease all advertising entirely and start selling their products in plain gray packaging and still sell millions of bottles around the globe, right? Of course they could. So why, I thought,  is a brand necessary for them?

Then I realized, I had been mistaken all along as to what a brand was.  A logo and advertising are part of a brand, but they no more make a brand than a bag of flour and sack of apples make a pie.

So what is a brand? According to How Branding Works:

“(A brand) can allow you, your employees, your vendors, and others to know what makes your group unique, both in tangible and intangible terms.”

In other words, the brand is what makes a company unique, what sets it apart from the competition. It’s what the company is known for. Logos, jingles, advertising and marketing materials are integral parts of brand-building, but so are customer service and the overall experience of purchasing.

Let’s look at logos, for an example. Humans are visual creatures, and as a result logos work largely on a subconscious level. Virtually no one looks at a logo and thinks, “hmm, you know what, this looks interesting, I’m going to buy their product.” Instead you notice the Nike swoosh on a pair of trainers or the golden arches of McDonalds. If you had a positive experience there before, the brand is already formed in your mind. You associate the Big Mac you loved so much with the golden arches, and in turn with McDonald’s. That’s their brand. The brand is so much more than “I’m loving it” or the arches, or even the Big Mac. It’s all of these things combined.

Take, for example, one of my favorite brands. It’s from a small, locally-owned service station near my house which has branded itself as “Home of the hand-tightened lug nuts”. Now anyone who has ever cursed, struggled, and cut themselves trying to loosen an over-torqued lug nut knows, this is a huge selling point. This place has probably been using this slogan for 50 years, and while it’s not a flashy and  instantly catchy jingle developed by a Manhattan ad agency, it says a lot about the station. To me, it says, “We’re small and locally-owned. We understand the troubles of our neighbors because we live here too. We’re not out to cheat anybody, and while we may not be the cheapest or the fastest, we do quality work.” And it’s true. That type of branding is invaluable. Plus, it worked on me. Whenever I have an issue with my car, I go visit this station, because I know they’re honest and they do a good job. That’s their brand.

Of course, not all branding is successful. According to David Brier, president and creative director for DBD International, there is a litmus test for branding:

“Does your brand really create the necessary ties with your consumers and potential consumers to rise above an overstimulated marketplace? Very few brands do, and the smarter (not necessarily bigger) brands take full advantage of this weakness.”

In order to fully optimize a brand, a company first must identify what type of brand it is. How Branding Works identifies two specific types of brands:

Specific brand: A brand that defines itself narrowly and with detail. Examples include Starbucks, Ray-Ban, and Kleenex.
Vague brand: A brand that defines itself via characteristics, emotions, and broad strokes. Examples include IBM (the new IBM), National Geographic, and Disney.”

A lot of companies struggle with a brand identity, especially in the start-up phase. As a result, they’re unsure which branding strategy to utilize. That really depends a lot on unique needs and goals, but a good rule of thumb, again from How Branding Works is:

“As you develop your brand, try to think into the future to where you want to take it.”

But one thing any company can not afford to be without is a brand.

Ridiculous ad idea #1

Scene: A dark kitchen, the blinds are drawn, it’s a mess. A pretty young woman roots desperately through the drawers looking for something. From another room we here zombie-like moaning.

Girl (frantically) : C’mon, c’mon!

Zombie moaning gets louder, footsteps are heard approaching.

Girl (almost panicked, still searching): Where are you?!?

Zombie appears in the door, moaning.

Girl (triumphantly finding what she was searching for in a cabinet): Aha!

She runs across the room, fiddling with something else.

She’s standing in front of a single-serving coffee maker. She grabs the cup, now full of coffee and hands it to the zombie. Instantly, as the zombie drinks, the room becomes lighter and he transforms into her handsome young husband.

(Cut to product on table)

Voice-over: K-Cups Single Serve Coffee, For those hellish mornings

The rise of the machines

Anyone who has seen Terminator, or The Matrix, or any one of the countless imitators those movies has spawned, surely knows it’s only a matter of time before the machines we depend upon so much rise up and kill us, their human overlords. Before this happens, one of the requisite steps is the creation of artificial intelligence. When this is viable, the machines (or machine, if you prefer the Terminator doomsday scenario) will become self-aware and kill us all.  Armageddon may be just around the corner, thanks to recent technological advances, not least of which is Google Goggles.

Google Goggles is a new application available for Android phones that acts as a visual search tool. By pointing the phone’s camera at an object, you can search the Web for related topics.

I haven’t had a chance to play with this yet (my phone is something of an antique), but from all reports I’ve heard, it works surprisingly well.

What’s truly interesting to consider is all the doors that this type of device can open up. Forgot someone’s name? Do a quick search based on their picture. Want a recipe for a certain dish? Just point and click. Want to know where something was made? Just look it up.

For marketers the options are endless as well. By running in the background, a program like this could recognize where you are shopping or what you’re looking at and instantly pull up nearby places with similar options or better prices. While you’re looking at flat screen televisions in your local electronics store, your mobile device (it hardly seems fair to call them phones anymore), can pull up TV prices for all the stores in a three-mile radius. Why pay twice as much, when you can easily find the cheapest store in your area? It could honestly be the death of retail as we know it. People will likely still make some purchases based upon convenience and traditional sales factors, but devices like this will ensure that price is king.

Of course this isn’t all roses and puppy dogs; there are some drawbacks, rise of the machines aside :-). First is the astonishing lack of privacy that this creates. But then, in this age of information, privacy is primarily just a myth anyway.

Secondly the destruction of competition is a cause for concern. Small mom-and-pop stores are already over-matched when facing retail giants like Walmart and Best Buy. If you provide concrete evidence that their prices are significantly higher than their mega-competitors (as they surely are), they will be driven out of business. The spirit of entrepreneurialism (is that a real word?) will be gone. Of course, the exponential growth of technology will probably find a way around this. At least I hope it will.

Collective online culture

Believe it or not, I was just rick rolled. Completely unsuspecting, I innocently clicked on a seemingly innocuous link, only to be greeted with this:

You may remember this phenomenon. A few years back you couldn’t visit a forum or Web page without seeing some link that begged to be click. On a hip hop forum, it might be “NEW TRACK – WU TANG ft 2PAC“, a sports page might have “LEBRON DUNKS FROM 3-POINT LINE“. Whatever it was, it was something lots of people would click. And when you did, who greeted you but Mr. Rick Astley, performing his biggest hit. (Be honest, you clicked one of those links didn’t you?:-) This was known as rick rolling, and it quickly became the biggest Internet meme of all time.

But what is a meme? British scientist Richard Dawkins is widely considered the originator of the term, having introduced it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined the term as “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” In other words, it’s a piece of shared culture that is passed from person to person, essentially an inside joke shared by millions.

Of course when Dawkins wrote this book, it was well before the advent of the Internet as we know it. He surely had no idea the twist that the Internet would add to this concept. Thanks to the rapid sharing of information allowed by the Web, these inside jokes, at least the successful ones, spread like wild fire.  Almost everyone by now has been exposed to some of these.

A few of the more memorable memes:

McDonald’s Rap

Dramatic Chipmunk

All Your Base are Belong to Us

Of course not every meme has to be a video. The LOLcats, Fail Blog and One Red Paper Clip were and are incredibly popular internet memes.

But now the question remains, how can a company harness the power of this phenomenon to raise awareness and generate revenue for themselves?

One way is through the use of viral videos, or other catchy commercials. A perfect example of this is the FreeCreditReport.com commercials, catchy and fun, they attract a lot of attention on both television and the Web. Anyone who owns a television by now knows all the words to these infectious and amusing jingles, making these commercials a highly effective meme.

According to Melo Villareal at Manila Freelancer:

“Memes allow a marketing company to actually control the informative content of a certain website. At the same time a company can use a casual, light approach of marketing in the form of writing. Also, memes allow marketing companies to swiftly get vital information out to the vast customers. And since memes are “contagious” in nature, it is very likely that information will spread like wild fire in no time.”

Additionally, the use of memes creates a sort of sub-conscious peer pressure. If many people are familiar with a particular meme, those not in the know will seek it out, ostensibly to see what the buzz is about. Thus, by utilizing memes, companies are taking full advantage of peer-to-peer marketing, a leftover from the junior high days, and a highly effective form of marketing.

Of course the real reason why memes are successful as marketing tools is likely the same reason why social media has caught on among marketers: it allows for a two-way conversation. By allowing feedback, marketers are allowed a glimpse into the minds of potential customers. By seeing what these customers do and do not like, they are better able to understand both them and their purchasing habits. And isn’t that really the ultimate goal?

For further examples of successful memes, check out Know Your Meme.

Is free the future?

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired is a man with a radical vision of the future. Observing trends created via the Internet, Anderson envisions a future in which things cost less, rather than more, a world in which the very nature of the digital world means things which were once available only on a paying basis, become available for free. He’s outlined his vision in his book Free: the Future of a Radical Price( ironically available for $21.49 on Amazon).

The entire premise of this work is based on the concept that, thanks to the underlying technology of the Web, things (at least digital things) are getting much cheaper. Due to advances in computer science, Web-mail services like Yahoo can now offer their users unlimited storage space for free.  Similarly, because of globalization the price of many manufactured goods has dropped drastically (thank you China). Anderson expects this trend to continue, and even grow.

Of course, as he is quick to point out, this trend towards free doesn’t mean no one is making money. Instead, the burden of purchase has begun to fall not on consumers, but rather upon advertisers, Web businesses, etc. A case in point of this would be Google. Google offers all sorts of e-services from email to search engines for free. And how does it fund this massive digital empire? Why with sponsored advertising, of course.

Other means of revenue generation and innovation Anderson outlines are premium services (i.e., the basic service if free, but users must pay for the good stuff), cross-subsidies (buy this, get that), labor exchange (e.g., fill out a survey and receive access), and altruism (shareware written out of the goodness of a programmer’s heart).

According to Anderson, the entire concept of free will change everything. This is probably best demonstrated in the music industry. No one buys CDs anymore, and it’s probably safe to assume that many people don’t even pay for downloads. With the rise of file-sharing networks like Napster and Limewire, to the emergence of services like MegaUpload and RapidShare, never before has music been shared so easily. As as a result, the giants of the recording industry are witnessing their own destruction (not that many music lovers have much sympathy). Many people, including lots of artists, feel that music was made to be shared, and actively engage in what might be termed as “piracy”. Though it has cut deeply into the massive profit margins of Island, RCA, et al, kids today are exposed to more music in a week than their grandparents were in their entire lifetime. According to Anderson’s theory, this is the model that will be followed by more and more industries in the future.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Anderson. Malcom Gladwell of the New Yorker posted a rather unfavorable review of the book here.

Is free the future? It seems only time will tell. Until then, Anderson’s theory is definitely worth a longer look.

Writer’s Ruminations #4

Sometimes the hardest part about writing is just doing it, especially when you’re not getting paid for it. I’ve been planning a novel for months. So far I have an outline. Just an outline.