Why we need Michael Jackson

If the elections in Iran have brought out the best in Twitter, Michael Jackson has brought out the worst.  His death June 25 unleashed a torrent of morbid celebrity gawking that brought Twitter to its knees.  (Ironically his death will also give him a bigger career boost than anything he had accomplished artistically in recent years.)  So what are we to make of his legacy?

Michael Jackson shaped the 1980s as we remember the decade, culturally speaking.  His landmark recording Thriller shattered the racial divide.  He and Madonna were to MTV what Michael Jordan was to ESPN: catalysts to an important phenomenon.  He was also a humanitarian who used his fame to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS research and charities.

But he was also a deeply troubled soul.  At first we tolerated his eccentricities, such as his fondness for plastic surgery and a chimpanzee named Bubbles.  But in 1993, after he was accused of child sexual abuse, his reputation was tarnished.  (It didn’t help that his sister La Toya accused him of being a pedophile.)  Although he was never criminally charged, in the court of public opinion, he was guilty.  Eventually he settled a civil complaint against the family that accused him.  Then in 2003, he expressed a fondness for having young boys share his bed, which led to more charges of child sexual abuse.  Again he was acquitted, but his reputation received another blow partly because of his own public statements.

Is it possible to divorce Michael Jackson the entertainer from the Michael Jackson the person?  Is it OK to accept the gifts of people we also ridicule, fear, and loathe?  Roman Polanski gave us Chinatown and The Pianist yet he remains a fugitive from the United States after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1977.  O.J. Simpson and Phil Spector were brilliant artists in their chosen fields, and both men are in jail.

In fact, we need these tragic figures and villains to remind us that people who do great things are capable of doing very bad things, too.   We not only allow ourselves to accept the contradiction between Michael Jackson’s life and his art, we need to do so.  We need to be reminded that he was a flawed human being, like we are

Redbox delivers a social experience

If you haven’t heard of Redbox, you will soon.

Redbox rents DVDs for $1 a day through more than 15,000 vending machines.  As reported by the Associated Press recently, Redbox is fast emerging as a rival to Netflix.  I’ve rented from Redbox several times and agree with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who said that movie rental kiosks will likely be the Number 1 competitor to Netflix, according to the AP.  And why is that?

  • Redbox is convenient.  The vending machines are often found near the entrances of supermarkets and drug stores.  It’s easy to combine a DVD rental with a quick trip to pick up some soda pop and chips.  But Redbox is also banking on the impulse renter. It’s just too darned easy to pick up a DVD on the way out of the store similar to scooping up a magazine or candy bar at the check-out lane.  The concept is brilliant.
  • Redbox is simple.  The pricing terms are easy: you rent movies for $1 dollar a night.  There are no complicated, multi-tiered pricing systems to understand.  And the movie rental categories are simple. You don’t encounter the dizzying array of specialty categories found at movie rental stores, like Family Favorites, Hollywood Favorites, Movies about Psychotics, Just Fallen off the Top 10, Classics for Kids, Classics for Teens, Romances Pre-1950, and so on.  Redbox has to keep the choices simple.  You don’t have a lot of time to ponder your options on your way out to the car with a gallon of cold milk in your shopping cart.
  • Redbox is social.  I don’t even think Redbox knows this yet.  But renting and returning DVDs is a social experience at Redbox vending machines.   I’m amazed at how many times strangers walk up to each other at a Redbox and seek out each other’s movie opinions or swap informal movie talk. (“You returning Revolutionary Road?  What did you think?”) Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised given that Redboxes are located in places where people congregate.

In the digital world, peer reviews of movies happen all the time.  Capturing that dynamic in the offline world is trickier.  Even still, I  would not be surprised if Redbox figures out how to capitalize on the surprisingly social aspect of renting movies from a vending machine.  It’s not difficult to imagine what would happen if you could find Redboxes near restaurants and bars, for example.

Redbox has its flaws.  The downside of a simple inventory is a limited inventory.  You still have to leave your house to return movies, and it’s possible for the vending machines to malfunction.  But until Netflix can figure out how to deliver movies on demand to your television set, Redbox is a fun, social alternative.

if you’ve tried Redbox, let me know what you think of it.

Zappos, Shaq, Whole Foods, Twitter, and you

On June 15 I was privileged to be a speaker at the O’Reilly Twitter Boot Camp (#OTBC) along with luminaries such as Tony Hsieh, Steve Rubel, Tim O’Reilly and Eric T. Peterson.  The purpose of the event was to swap insights on employing Twitter for business use.  Topics ranged from measuring Twitter’s value to integrating Twitter into a marketing and PR program.  Here are some ideas that resonated for me:

  • Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, described Zappos’s employee Twitter policy this way: “Just be real and use your best judgment.”  Incidentally, Tony also dangled the possibility that 20 years from now, Zappos could diversify into more businesses — even airlines — because Zappos is about obsessive customer service, not just shoes and other consumer goods.
  • Eric T. Peterson and Mike Volpe covered Twitter measurement tools. Mike shared the HubSpot Twitter Grader, which you can use to measure your reach in the Twitter universe.  Eric shared the Twitalyzer for assessing your Twitter influence.  These tools are easy to use.  Check them out.  Eric T. Peterson: “Measure your return on influence, not your ROI.”
  • Amy Martin gave a peek inside the world of Shaquille O’Neal’s justly famous the_real_shaq Twitter account, which has 1.3 million followers (Amy herself has nearly 500,000 followers).  If you enjoy following Shaq on Twitter, thank Amy — she got him to do it.  And how hard was it?  Getting started was not that difficult, as it turns out.  Amy just needed to get Shaq plugged into Twitter and set him loose.  He quickly gathered a following because of his authenticity. (Amy: “Shaq has zero ability to fake anything.  He’s transparent and genuine.”)  After a few months, Amy collaborated with Shaq on an idea: what if he used Twitter to give the world more than his ideas and random observations?  The result: “random acts of Shaqness,” in which Shaq uses Twitter to do good deeds for fans such as offering free tickets to basketball games.   At a time when celebrities are carefully protected from the public, the concept is quite stunning, actually. If you’re lucky enough to catch the right tweet from Shaq at the right time, you stand a good chance of meeting him at, say, a food court, where you can pick up a free ticket.  We can learn a lot from this example.  Per Amy: “Don’t ask what Twitter can do for you.  Ask what you can do for Twitter.”  Amen.
  • Marla Erwin of Whole Foods discussed how Whole Foods uses Twitter to be responsive to customers and build the Whole Foods brand.  She also cleverly demonstrated her point by offering Whole Foods gift cards to boot camp attendees who could generate the most retweets about Whole Foods during the event — a nice way to generate consumer enthusiasm.  Marla also dispelled the notion that consumers just want to talk to each other about your brand on Twitter rather than talk with you.  She asked, “If people don’t want to interact with a brand, then why are 786,000 people following Whole Foods on Twitter?”

Marketers: even in an era of consumer-generated content, your message does matter and consumers do care about you. It’s just that marketers need to share their messages in a different way.  To cite a popular — but true — cliche, we must join the conversation that consumers are having about us. And we need to empower our brands to do things, not just say things.  Marla’s nifty contest during the O’Reilly Twitter Boot Camp was a case in point.

One of the benefits of appearing at the event was receiving the recently published The Twitter Book by Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein.  The book is like Strunk & White for Twitter: a summation of practical tips for communicating clearly and effectively in the Twitter universe.  I highly recommend it even if you consider yourself an experienced pro. Brushing up on your Twitter etiquette never hurts.

Incidentally, you can find my O’Reilly Boot Camp presentation, “Twitter: The Two-Edged Sword,” here.

Does winning matter in Major League Baseball?

Recently Forbes updated its ranking of the most valuable Major League Baseball teams from a financial standpoint.  The top 5 teams — the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs — had zero World Series appearances in 2008.  But we should not be surprised.  Relying on a successful product on the field to obtain financial success is a risky strategy.  Superstar players win batting championships by getting on base only a third of their at-bats.  The The New York Yankees, arguably the most successful team in baseball history, haven’t won a World Series since 2000.  The Atlanta Braves defined the standard for excellence in the National League in the 1990s yet struggled with fan indifference.

No, success in Major League Baseball is all about locking in lucrative media deals and providing an experience (not necessarily a great product) for fans and corporate sponsors at the stadium.  Going to a ball game really isn’t much different than going to a rock concert anymore with exploding scoreboards, slick merchandise, and an element of theater keeping fans entertained.

As we all know, the baseball world has been rocked by allegations of abuse of performance enhancing substances by its marquee players, which calls into question the validity of their successes and their teams’ successes.  In other words, fans are probably not getting an authentic product on the field, anyway.  But really, do the fans care?  Banning beer sales from Wrigley Field or removing the swimming pool from Chase Field would be far more damaging to the future of the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks than substance abuse scandals.

Baseball, as it turns out, is just one more option in a world awash with video games, personal devices, a proliferation of TV channels, and many other forms of consumer experience.  Competing to win is one thing; competing to survive financially is a different beast altogether.

Multitouch technologies taking Razorfish by storm

Multitouch technologies like Microsoft Surface are taking Razorfish by storm.  Encouraged by the popularity of Wii and the iPhone, Razorfish user experience designers are creating new ways for people to communicate with applications on devices through body gestures like a simple tap of a screen.  As my colleague Garrick Schmitt has cited in many blog posts, the esoteric sounding term “user gestural interface” has become part of our vocabulary.  The new Razorfish Emerging Experiences blog shows why.

The blog is the brainchild of the Razorfish Emerging Experiences team, which explores newer user experience metaphors, with a focus on multitouch.  The Emerging Experience blog gives you a glimpse at some of the ideas the team develops for commercial use.  For example, the blog showcases the Razorfashion retail application, which demonstrates how multitouch can enrich retail shopping.

Incidentally, Razorfashion was developed using the Razorfish Touch Framework.  Introduced at the 2009 Razorfish Client Summit, the Touch Framework enables the rapid development of multitouch technologies.

At Razorfish, multitouch is more than a blog.  Amnesia Razorfish just worked with Microsoft and Lonely Planet to introduce Surface commercially in Australia.  Earlier this year, Razorfish and OMD launched for Dockers the first known interactive “shakeable” ad for the iPhone.  The advertisement, which ran for about one month, featured a dancer wearing a pair of Docker khakis.  People who saw the ad between levels of game play on their iPhones were prompted to shake their devices and make the dancer perform various moves.

And as announced in 2008, Razorfish built the first known retail application of Surface for AT&T wireless stores.  Inside select stores, consumers sit down at Surface tables and play with the touch-and-recognition technology to learn about mobile devices. For instance, consumers can review features of a device by placing it on a table.  Surface recognizes the device and displays a graphics-rich overview of features.  Consumers may also use touch-and-hand movements to explore a map that reveals how much coverage AT&T provides in different areas of the United States.  (More about the design of the application here.)

We are grateful that we have clients who want to explore the commercial application of multitouch especially during recessionary times.  Meantime check out the Emerging Experiences blog for a glimpse at the future of user experience.