I am not ashamed to admit it: I just found some solace — even hope — in a YouTube video from a movie star I’ve never met and probably never will.
Let’s face it: we’re getting hammered with bleak news on our social feeds. I don’t know about you, but I’m quickly learning how to manage my time online as the reality sets in that enduring this crisis is like running a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s not easy to curtail online time right now, though. Staying informed can protect the health of you and your loved ones. During a time of crisis, we need to know about changes that dramatically affect how we live. But on the other hand, the bleak COVID-19 news flooding our social feeds can be overwhelming. Can I get a witness?
Amid the bad news that’s taken over my digital screens, though, I have sometimes found little islands of encouragement. Let me tell you about one of them.
Yesterday, on my LinkedIn feed, a video of Matthew McConaughey popped up seemingly from out of nowhere. Because someone I especially trust and admire, Brian Solis, shared the video, I decided to click on the image of McConaughey’s tanned, angular face and find out what Mr. “Alright, Alright, Alright!” had to say about COVID-19.
In words that seemed genuine and caring, the man who stars in movies and Lincoln ads urged people to band together and prevail over the global pandemic.
“Just want to say that in these crazy times that we’re in with the coronavirus, let’s take care of ourselves and each other,” he said. “Let’s not go to the lowest common denominator and get paranoid. Let’s do our due diligence, take the precautions we need to take care of ourselves and those around us.”
Instead of needlessly dwelling on the threat, he focused on you and me. He urged viewers to embrace values: “values of fairness, kindness, accountability, resilience, respect, courage.” As he put it, “If we practice those things right now, when we get out of this, this virus, this time might be the one time that brings us all together and unifies us like we have not been in a long time.”
You could argue that this video is just another role for an actor to play, but it worked for me. For one thing, the message of treating each other with kindness is compelling. And McConaughey is both likable and credible. The star of Dallas Buyers Club, True Detective, and many other productions is also known as a humanitarian and overall nice guy (I still remember the time he helped rescue pets stranded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005). In 2014, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world.
And he nails it with the tone of the message: encouraging, but not sappy. Strong, but not cocky or brash.
There is a lesson here for leaders: show humanity. If you are a CEO, reach out to your employees in a personal way. Host a webcast to talk about what’s going on and to encourage people. Post a video message of your own. Let people see your face and hear your voice. Everyone is stressed. You can relieve that stress even in a small way by using digital to uplift others. By now you’ve certainly delivered plenty of bad news to your people, and that’s part of the job of being a leader. But being a leader also means encouraging and reassuring others.
What have you been doing during the coronavirus lockdown?
I have been reading emails from businesses. Lots of them.
Seems like every organization in the world wants to reach out and let me know how much they care about me as the coronavirus spreads. Their emails are clogging my in-box, muscling aside missives from my accountant, online bills, and updates from my daughter’s college about the relocation of undergraduate students off campus and transformation of classes to a virtual format for the rest of the semester.
Everyone — retailers, banks, associations, restaurants, movie theaters, car maintenance companies, car rental agencies, museums, and churches to name a few — wants to contact me now to have a friendly talk about COVID-19. If you want proof of a highly planned conspiracy of email sending, I’m looking at it right now.
And boy, there sure is an outbreak of caution out there. An abundance of it.
I’m reading. But I’m not listening anymore. That’s because every message not only says the same thing, they also read like they were composed by the one beleaguered copywriter with Legal, HR, and PR breathing down their neck.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Dear valued customer . . . at [Name of Company], your health and safety are always our top priority. Therefore out of an abundance of caution, we are taking several proactive steps to ramp up our procedures and ensure that our high standards are maintained to the utmost, as follows . . .we are monitoring this evolving situation closely . . . rest assured, we are in close contact with governmental health agencies . . . we realize you are being impacted . . we are committed to keeping you informed . . .
Maybe a human being isn’t even writing these rote messages. Maybe every business that wants to tell me about their concern for my well-being is relying on the same artificial intelligence algorithm to compose the notes. If these emails were blog posts, I’d wonder if all the writers were competing to stuff their posts with the same keywords.
Alas, concern has become a commodity.
But amid the sea of same-sounding emails, one stood out, from Barnes & Noble:
The note was so short that for a hot second, I wondered if I needed to scroll down for more. Where was the offer for a discount if I visited my local B&N? Where was the impassioned statement of commitment to put my needs first?
I almost felt a twinge of loss, like an amputee feeling a phantom pain.
But yup, that’s all B&N had to say about the matter.
This was a risky message to send. Anytime a business comments on a difficult current event, they’re wading into choppy waters fraught with hazards (of their own making). Most times I’d advise a business just to leave the subject alone unless something needed to be said. Ironically, the purpose of the “abundance of caution” emails is indeed to share useful information such as a temporary change in policy to accommodate the current environment. But you have to wade through a screen full of treacly language to find anything meaningful, and when everyone uses the same words, my eyes gloss over the emails completely. Sorry. That’s human nature.
Now, I quibbled with a few word choices here and there. B&N was laying it on a bit thick with the “friends and family” language. The “Your stories are our stories” sentence had me wondering if there was going to be a call to action for some sort of writing contest, but nonetheless it’s an interesting sentence that suggests the power of story and community during turbulent times without overexplaining. And it is reasonable to position B&N stores as neighbors in their communities, thriving from great stories by merchandizing them for B&N customers.
Maybe B&N got lucky with me because they zigged when everyone else was zagging. Maybe I’m overthinking a one-paragraph note. But here I am, writing about it. Why did the email work for me? Because Barnes & Noble stayed in its emotional lane. They didn’t overstep their boundaries and try to be something they are not. Barnes & Noble cares first and foremost about selling books to me. Do they really care about my health and safety? Only to the extent that my health and safety make it possible for me to buy books at Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble must keep its stores safe to keep me as a customer, period. In its email, the company does not pretend otherwise.
Good email, B&N. Less is more. Staying in your emotional lane makes you more credible.
When U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won a Winter Olympics gold medal in the giant slalom race February 15, she also achieved a victory for virtual reality.
She is among the members of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team who have used a virtual reality (VR) training regime from STRIVR Labs to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, according to the team.
Improved heart monitoring. The Apple Watch already performs basic heart-monitoring with Cardiogram (In fact, according to Williams, the Apple Watch is the most-used heart rate monitor in the world.) But with watchOS 4 (available September 19), Apple Watch will also report resting heart rate and recovery heart rate (the latter metric tells you how quickly your heart rate drops after a workout). As Williams said, a lower resting heart rate and a quicker recovery rate can be signs of improved fitness.
Alerts on elevated resting heart rates. Williams noted that many Apple customers wrote to Apple about how their Apple Watches helped them detect unusually high heart rates at unexpected times. So the Apple Watch now notifies owners when the device detects an elevated heart rate and the owner does not appear to be active — thus alerting the watch owner about potential heart problems.
Better support for your workout. For example through the GymKit technology platform, watch OS 4 will make it possible for people to sync fitness data between their Apple Watches and cardio machines they use at the gym, thus delivering more accurate fitness information such as calories burned or distance traveled during your workout. The sync feature will only work with newer pieces of gym equipment — so that functionality might be limited.
Apple also announced that the company is working with Stanford Medical Center to determine whether the Apple Watch can accurately detect abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. As noted by Jessica Conditt of Engadget, Apple would like for the Apple Watch to be able to detect common – but often undiagnosed — heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. According to a study done by Cardiogram and the University of California, San Francisco, the Apple Watch already detects the most common type of heart arrhythmia with a 97 percent accuracy rate. With the Apple Heart Study, Apple will manage its own research with Stanford Medical Center.
“In our Initial studies, Apple Watch has been effective at surfacing irregular rhythms,” Williams said. He noted that the Apple Heart Study “will use data from Apple Watch and Continue reading →
Case in point: today SIM Partners, a location marketing technology platform provider (and one of my clients) announced that the company has made it possible for brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from restaurants to retailers to add a “Ride There with Uber” button to their location pages.
SIM Partners clients that use the company’s Velocity platform to add the Uber button to their pages will provide an easy way for anyone to order an Uber to their location. The button will appear along with the usual content, such as store hours and addresses, which you find on a brand’s location page when you use your smart phone to conduct a search for things to do and places to go nearby. So, for example, a shopper interested in checking out a sale at a shoe store can order an Uber right off the store’s location page, as shown in this image:
Velocity manages location pages for businesses with multiple brick-and-mortar locations. So for a brand with thousands of location pages, the addition of a “Ride There with Uber” button can convert searches to in-store business at scale. As SIM Partners noted in a press release, 76 percent of people who conduct a local search on their smartphone visit a business within 24 hours, and 28 percent of those searches result in a purchase. SIM Partners aims to help its clients capture their share of those searches by nudging searchers one step closer to the store.
The announcement comes at a time when the addition of buy buttons on sites such as Pinterest has amplified the role that digital plays in the growth of an on-demand economy in which consumers can get what they want faster than ever before. Indeed, according to an August 2016 Harvard Business Review article, online businesses account for the largest category of on-demand spending. Brick-and-mortar businesses are responding by developing on-demand services that rely on a mix of digital and offline delivery tools. Brands such as Domino’s Pizza, Nordstrom, and Walmart are creating partnerships with business such as Uber, and developing integrations with technologies such as Amazon Echo, which promise shoppers faster delivery of goods and services from brick-and-mortar stores. Others, such as Shoe Carnival have succeeded by providing mobile wallet offers that lure shoppers to stores in order to enjoy time- and place-sensitive deals.
Uber is the engine of the on-demand economy, both online and offline. According to Business Insider (and reported by SIM Partners in its press release), Uber completed 62 million in July, a 15 percent increase over the previous month. As I have noted previously, Uber ushered in the on-demand economy by tapping into unmet consumer needs and offering services that have disrupted industries ranging from retail to healthcare. SIM Partners clients span multiple industries in which brick-and-mortar locations are at the center of the customer experience. It makes perfect sense for SIM Partners to add Uber functionality for its clients’ customers.
Technology becomes pervasive when it permeates multiple industries and when everyday people use it, which is the key to the success of brands such as Apple. Uber enjoys that kind of success. Anyone with a smartphone can order an Uber. Integrations with companies such as Foursquare and SIM Partners make Uber more pervasive for businesses, too — and make it even easier for people to use Uber to get what they want on their own terms. It helps that Uber makes its API available to businesses. Uber simplifies life for both consumers and businesses. Simplicity is the key to the on-demand economy, which is attracting 22 million consumers annually — and investments from some of the world’s most valuable brands. As the services being developed by the bellwether companies such as Walmart take hold, look for brick-and-mortar businesses to grab an even bigger share of the on-demand economy, with location being the battleground.
The news about Uber rolling out self-driving cars later in August underscores the reason why Uber has become a multi-billion dollar brand within seven years: Uber’s core competence is not ride-sharing — it’s disruption.
Uber has consistently developed and modified its business model to either drive or participate in disruption. Consider these examples:
In 2009, Uber initially upended the auto transportation industry by launching a ride-sharing service that liberated consumers from the tyranny of taxicabs that dictated terms and pick-up schedules to passengers. The launch of Uber was the big bang, which ushered in an era of on-demand, peer-to-peer services in multiple industries.
Uber set its sights on home delivery with the launch of UberRUSH in 2015 and UberEATS in 2016. UberRUSH delivers goods for retailers ranging from Nordstrom to boutique florists. UberEATS focuses on food delivery for restaurants. The service is moving its way across the United States by forming relationships with dining establishments in major cities such as Philadelphia, where more than 100 restaurants partnered with UberEATS on the first day of its launch.
The deployment of self-driving automobiles is part of a broader disruption of the automotive industry, which has involved an interesting partnership between automakers such as Ford and Silicon Valley titans such as Google, as car manufacturers seek to change their own industry with autonomous vehicles before someone else does. Self-driving vehicles, following their initial use in Pittsburgh, will permeate both transportation and delivery, potentially outmuscling the use of drones that other businesses are adopting.
How does the company continue to ride waves of disruption, even challenging the very service it launched in 2009? Three factors play a role:
A knack for wedding technology with an understanding of human behavior. Uber initially succeeded not because it provided a cool app but because the company understood that people ordering taxicabs require responsiveness, ease of use, and transparency in pricing — needs that were unmet by the status quo. The Uber app filled the void by making it ridiculously easy to order a ride when you want it and where you want it. No longer was it necessary to navigate clunky phone trees to request a cab and then wait around wondering when your ride was going to show up.
Creation of partnerships with like-minded brands. Uber doesn’t go it alone. For ride-sharing services, Uber has created relationships with businesses such as Foursquare to make it even easier to order an Uber. The success of UberRUSH and UberEATS relies on Uber’s ability to partner with retailers and restaurants. It’s no accident that one of UberRUSH’s delivery partners is Nordstrom — a company known for its innovations in customer service. (I expect Uber will expand its relationship to go beyond delivery and offer customer service options akin to a Nordstrom town car, shuttling loyal customers around for a day of shopping and in-car entertainment as an exclusive service.) Similarly, Uber is partnering with Volvo with self-driving cars.Uber finds not just any partner, but the right fit for Uber.
A willingness to adapt. UberEATS initially rolled out in 2014 as a feature on the Uber ride-sharing app. But the experience was wonky. Uber realized that people are in two different frames of mind when we order rides and food: when we want a ride, we want to get from point A to point B. We don’t want to bother with ordering food delivery. So Uber decoupled the feature as a standalone app. Uber has also constantly changed its ride-sharing app, introducing greater levels of information transparency. Now Uber is revised its business model with a driverless service. Uber also recently introduced UberPOOL, which encourages passengers to share rides and split their transportation costs. UberPOOL could cut down on congestion and pollution by combining multiple rides in one car. UberPOOL has reportedly taken 7.9 million miles off the roads and 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air in Los Angeles within its first eight months of use.
What’s next for Uber? What industries might the company upend? Here are some candidates:
Entertainment. Uber can become an entertainment brand in a number of ways. Live Nation and Uber already have a basic ride service partnership for people to order rides to events, but I think Uber is capable of much more, especially by bundling entertainment with ticketing and transportation. Uber is big enough to offer the entertainment itself through partnerships with artists. Uber already hosts private concerts for customers. Uber may also capitalize on the car itself as a source of entertainment. The company already offers ad-free streaming via apps such as Pandora, which just hints at the kind of in-car entertainment options Uber could provide, ranging from music to streaming movies for longer rides. Cars provide much more than transportation. They’re already mobile content machines.
Healthcare, by bringing medical providers to patients (and vice versa) and by managing the delivery of pharmaceutical products. Companies such as Pager exist already to bring physicians to patients’ locations on demand. But Uber has the scale to pull off on-demand medical care nationwide. Already Uber has a relationship with Relatient to offer transportation services to patients. More to come here.
Uber could also expand payment, customer loyalty, and advertising services through partnerships with other companies, becoming an all-purpose customer acquisition and service platform based on the data the company collects on its customers.
Uber will also go beyond the app interface if it needs to do so. If the economics make sense, Uber could penetrate wearables to provide even more frictionless, on-demand services.
Vine came along at the right time. The app was officially launched in January 2013 amid the rise of video storytelling. Brands, always looking for fresh content sharing platforms, latched on to Vine as a fresh alternative to YouTube. Vine’s format for sharing 6-second video stories seemed like a natural fit for a multi-tasking world with a shrinking attention span — and, crucially, Vine was (and remains) an easy-to-use mobile-first app at a time of rapid mobile adoption. Its user base grew rapidly, and Vine was hailed as a YouTube disruptor. Brands eager to extend their presence into mobile content, began adopting the app and bringing with them more users. By fall of 2013, Dunkin’ Donuts and Trident Gum were launching the first-ever TV spots using Vine.
But even as Vine was ascending, a multitude of forces were converging to disrupt Vine’s success. Just six months after Vine launched, Instagram rolled out its own video feature, with superior editing capabilities, Facebook would also beef up its video-sharing capability. Snapchat, which had existed longer, added more functions, exploded in popularity, and, in 2014, introduced advertising (while Vine did not). Facebook could wield its scale and targeted advertising effectively against Vine, and Snapchat had coolness in its favor. Meantime, YouTube kept evolving as a premier source of online entertainment for brands and YouTube stars such as PewDiePie.
Adweek‘s hottest digital gadget of 2015 is also one of the most controversial. The Apple Watch has been called both a flop and a behavior-changing device. I believe that the Apple Watch is a flawed first-generation product that will ultimately take hold for these reasons:
The Apple Watch makes use of a natural gesture, the swiping of the wrist, to accomplish everyday tasks.
Businesses ranging from Target to Starwood have built a large Apple Watch ecosystem via the development of apps that support tasks ranging from shopping to checking into hotel rooms.
My new CMO.com byline discusses why any business that depends on mobile consumers needs to find a place for the Apple Watch in its customer acquisition and retention strategy. Waiting around for the Apple Watch to become mainstream will cause you to lose ground to the businesses that are already getting exploring the branding potential of the Apple Watch. Check out my new column and let me know your opinion of the future of the Apple Watch.
Mobile consumers have an immediate intent to purchase: according to a recently released report by Google, I Want-to-Go Moments: From Search to Store, half of consumers who conduct a local search on their smartphones visit a store within 24 hours. Nearly half of consumers trying to decide on a restaurant do their local search within an hour of actually going.
In I-Want-to-Go Moments: From Search to Store, Google noted that the number of “near me” searches (searches conducted for goods and services nearby) conducted by consumers have grown by 34 times since 2011; and 80 percent of those searches are conducted on mobile devices.
“With a world of information at their fingertips, consumers have heightened expectations for immediacy and relevance,” wrote the report’s author, Matt Lawson. “They want what they want when they want it. They’re confident they can make well-informed choices whenever needs arise. It’s essential that brands be there in these moments that matter — when people are actively looking to learn, discover, and, or buy.”
You can sense the wheels spinning at Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter, where consumers and brands share the same space: if consumers are collapsing the journey from awareness to purchase on their mobile devices, why not remove the friction of sending them offline to buy something? Why not use buy buttons seal the deal the moment when initial research and consideration occur on mobile devices?
Bob Dylan has always defied expectations. He famously went electric when folk was acoustic and released the austere John Wesley Harding when electric psychedelia was in vogue (among many other career twists). With the release of his 36th album, Shadows in the Night, the 73-year-old music legend once again shows that he refuses to pander to anyone. The release of Shadows in the Night also raises an intriguing question: how important is cultural relevancy to artists such as Bob Dylan who challenge the cultural zeitgeist instead of reflecting it?
Dylan’s history of shaping popular tastes, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, is well documented by writers far better than I am. The most recent phase of his career, in which he has entered the digital age, is also absorbing but for different reasons. Starting with the 1997 release of Time out of Mind, Dylan has enjoyed an artistic renaissance lasting longer than the entire careers of most fly-by-night pop acts. His songwriting during this period has explored themes ranging from vengeance to mortality, and he has melded musical idioms ranging from rockabilly to swing. Albums such as Love and Theft have earned him his strongest reviews since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.
But 14 years into his final act, the world around him has changed. Albums, especially those released in compact-disc format, are archaic. Oh, hip musicians release them, but really only as a collection of random songs to support tours and merchandising — not as conceptual statements that succeed on their own merits. Instead, singles rule the day as they did, ironically, when Dylan arrived on the music scene decades ago. Being a successful artist means finding the “Gangnam Style” moment that will turn you into a fleeting Internet meme until a “Harlem Shake” comes along. Or becoming a celebrity by delivering over-the-top, fist-pumping moments on American Idol without really recording anything at all. Meantime, Dylan’s core audience, and the critics who anointed him into the halls of music royalty, are growing older. His fans and the music journalism elite, seeking a way to define him in a way that makes sense to their tastes, have cast him in the persona of the wise but frayed old minstrel, grinning while he spins truths and contemplates his own demise.
So how does Dylan respond? He digs back into his past (and I mean, way back) and releases a set of 10 songs that were written decades ago by writers whose names, for the most part, are (unfortunately) lost in the white noise of the digital age, unless you’re a Baby Boomer, a music historian, or a seasoned critic. He rejects modern recording techniques and relies on a live band that features instruments such as a pedal steel guitar and an upright bass, adding to the feel of an album recorded many years in the past. The most famous American songwriter in the history of rock doesn’t even pen a single tune on Shadows in the Night, and a man famous for his gravelly voice selects songs suited to the more polished crooners of yesteryear. (In fact, Shadows of the Night is an homage to Frank Sinatra.)
To promote the album, Dylan gave his first interview in three years — not to Pitchfork, Stereogum, or any other hip music publication with its finger on the pulse of modern rock culture for the digital generation. He didn’t even interview a music publication at all. Instead he chose AARP The Magazine, the official publication of the American Association of Retired Persons. In addition, 50,000 AARP The Magazine subscribers received a free copy of the album via compact disc. Talking with AARP was his idea, which elicited more than one head-scratching response. As NPR asked, “To Promote A New Album, Bob Dylan Gave His Only Interview To … The AARP?” Ann Brenoff of The Huffington Post wondered, “But AARP The Magazine? Really?”
Really. The AARP interview and promotion seemed to signal that Dylan is not so much ignoring the digital generation as honoring the fans who are growing older with him and are old enough to recognize the Great American Songbook he sings about on his new album. (AARP delivered more than 35 million potential listeners to Dylan, too.) He certainly is not pandering to digital culture. He does none of the things that aging rockers are supposed to do in order to ensure cultural relevance in the digital age. There are no collaborations with a hot contemporary producer to translate his sound to younger listeners, no duets with Jimmy Fallon, no Reddit Ask Many Anythings, and no Twitter hashtags.
“These songs have been written by people who went out of fashion years ago,” he told AARP The Magazine. “Certainly, the people who first heard these songs, like my parents and people like that, they’re not with us anymore.” He made a similar point February 6 during his acceptance speech for the MusicCares Man of the Year award.
On his website, he also gave some insight into the recording of Shadows in the Night. He observed that he rejected contemporary recording styles and tools. In fact, the album was recorded live:
It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking, and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded. I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.
Days after its February 3 release, Shadows in the Night has garnered several positive reviews, adding up to a score of 82 (“universal acclaim”) on critic aggregator site Metacritic. The strongest reviews have come from the established rock press: publications as Rolling Stone, which caters to a more seasoned, older audience. Meanwhile, Pitchfork, one of the Bibles of the hip and young music scene, delivered an amusingly confused review full of passive aggression. After asking “Is Bob Dylan trolling us?” writer Stephen M. Deusner notes, “And what do you know, Dylan can actually sing. Without sounding overly reverent, he croons persuasively, especially on ‘Why Try to Change Me Now'” . . . only to conclude that “for the more casual, less obsessive listener, [the album] can be a bit of a snooze.”
But Bob Dylan is not writing for Pitchfork. He is doing something far more risky and yet rewarding: writing his own legacy. When you write your own legacy, sometimes you find yourself out of step with popular culture, as Dylan has found himself at times in his career. It might sound odd to say this about someone whose art has been dissected as Dylan’s has, but I don’t believe anyone will fully appreciate Dylan’s power to shape cultural tastes for many decades yet. As Dylan says, his music is like a mystery, and the impact of a great artist cannot be properly assessed in a real-time Twitter stream. Bob Dylan does not create to be culturally relevant. He creates for himself.