Category Media

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Great Media: Chevy Volt Journey

In the category of amazing media buys, here’s an offering from Chevy for the Volt. It’s called “Chevy Volt Journey” and it takes fairly simple (if old-school and frequently shitty) digital implementations – frames and expandable banners – and turns them on their head.

NB: I pitched this internally at a previous job and was vigorously shot down by the media department. That was a big bummer. “NB” ≠ not bitter. Anyway.

Click the banners and you get something you’re probably interested in. Amazing.

The nuts and bolts of it are as follows:

  1. Chevy has purchased media and development across the network of Federated Media (FM) sites
  2. For their dollars, they get to put FM content into a branded, expandable frame that doesn’t send you to a Chevy Volt microsite or configurator, but rather to something else you’re likely to be interested in
  3. If you expand the frame-banner-jobby, you get a set of sliders that allow you to customize the content that appears in the the frame, thus personalizing your “Journey”
  4. The sliders relate to key attributes of the Volt, and you can’t turn all of them on at the same time. Because that’s not the way content works:
    • Environmental
    • Tech
    • Mobile
    • Design
    • Volt (of course)
  5. And because FM has so many awesome sites for the somewhat affluent, interested-in-design-and-digital-and-the-environment types, you’re highly likely to click into something excellent

They even did it with the rich media. Interestingly enough, you can’t click from these banners to a Chevy-owned domain. Because that doesn’t matter whatsoever.

Why? If people want a Volt, they know where to go to find information. They don’t need a banner to tell them where to go. But if StumbleUpon, Percolate and Google Currents are any indicator – and I think they are – people do need advice on places to find content they’re likely to enjoy.

Go here to see it live.

Two lessons: first, make your media dollars do something for your target audience, not just for you; second, look to inspiration from currently successful digital things when you design your own.

Nice work, Chevy media people, wherever you are.

Goodbye Action

I love a thoughtful interface.

So many sites do a crap job of activating at every possible moment.

This is Twitter’s sign-out screen, and it’s a great example of giving customers/users/whatevers a goodbye action:

It’s a decent space for a branded integration, too. Here’s a thing we did with OkCupid and DonQ a little while back.

Just a reminder to consider every space when you’re designing an experience.

Size Does Matter: our Web 2.0 Expo Talk

Size Does Matter – Click to view on Slideshare

Alex and I were fortunate enough to be able to present something at Web 2.0 on Thursday of last week, and I’m happy to report that it went off without a hitch. We spoke about a topic that we’ve both been passionate about for quite some time: that a focus on smallness is the way when it comes to developing and understanding marketing ideas.

In the talk we step through nine connected examples from a variety of industries, sciences and arts, all supporting the idea that conceptual smallness is a defining factor for success in today’s economy. It starts with the idea of differentiation, which at least for us is a constant driver to create incredibly specific things. The way we see it, if people have millions of things to visit, look at, and purchase, whatever we make has to be f*cking awesome if it’ll get any attention. Not groundbreaking at all, I know, but we continually see examples of products and marketing things designed for massive, anonymous audiences. So at least some people aren’t getting the picture.

The nine stories go something like this:

  1. People think they’re really special. And not necessarily with good reason.
    We found an article by Christopher Hitchens a while back that talked about the “narcissism of the small difference,” an idea that in places of great conflict, the belligerents tend to share a very tiny differentiating factor that’s caused the hostility between the groups. Without getting into that here, it points to an important human truth: that we think we’re really special, and really different from other people, even though we’re all pretty much the same when we get down to it.
    Which gets us to a design problem.
  2. Specific, localized design wins.
    Based on an article that we found in The Economist, Panasonic was in a pickle last year, posting a ¥52BN loss in the second quarter. Remarkably, they decided to take their design department and spread them around the world – from 98% designed-in-Japan in 2009 to 15% in 2010 – with incredible results. By designing electronics that took into account local needs (energy efficient A/C units in India, where it’s hot, and fancy-looking ones in China, where they’re a status symbol), their emerging-market sales led them to an ¥82BN profit gain in Q2 2010. It’s easier than ever, and less expensive, to design things that are particular to an individual environment.
    Which takes us to rodents.
  3. When competition increases, organisms tend to get smaller.
    These two chaps, Lomolino and Perault, studied patterns among rodents in temperate rainforests. They found that as the habitats for shrews shrank over time, the body size among the sample shrank as well. Which makes sense, right? If the habitat is smaller, food supply goes down, and those animals with a smaller “caloric budget” are better able to survive. Our interpretation: habitats for ideas and products are shrinking in response to competition. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing…it just means that it’s okay for there to be a Foursquare, a Gowalla, a MyTown and a Facebook Places in the marketplace. It also means that we shouldn’t expect $100M valuations for products that are easily imitated and tweaked for an audience or a space.
    Which takes us to Fiji.
  4. Small doesn’t have to mean unsuccessful.
    Alex found this crazy study by a fellow called Godfrey Baldacchino (from whom you can get a Masters of Arts in Island Studies) that talks about the relative success and failure of innovation and business on island nations. Apparently most islands are hamstrung by a lack of resources, a dependence on trade agreements, and isolation from other thought leaders. But the study holds up Fiji as an example of how to get by: steal thought leaders from other places, luring them with your island charms; create deeper relationships with customers by not only telling them that your coconut soap is excellent, but by showing them where it’s produced and introducing them to the folks that make it; and reframe value propositions in terms of rarity and distinction from competitors (see Fiji water). Our message here: be like an island nation. Embrace your constraints (in fact, add new ones if you’re a huge company and can do whatever you want) and use them to create smaller, more focused things than you would have otherwise. Because a constraint-free environment is an environment that fosters inaction.
    Which brings us to a core human failure.
  5. In all things – politics and poverty included – we tend to be awed by the big picture.
    When people look at income stratification around the world, they tend to see things in continental terms, or even more broadly in terms of Worlds (First, Second, Third), Groups (Developed, Developing, Under-Developed) and Divisions (North/South, Rich/Poor). Obviously the segmentation is much more detailed than that – see Gapminder – and it’s my contention that a great deal of the failed development projects around the world are a result of “big” thinking: applying something that worked in one country to the problems of another, without seeing the little reasons why the problems differ. Without going off on a rant, it’s important that we avoid the Mashable-promoted population-based thinking to substantiate our clients’ “need” to get onto a new platform. It’s great that Facebook has half a billion people, or that Foursquare had a whole shitload of checkins last night, but that’s not really what’s valuable. It is valuable to find the small groups within these platforms that exhibit similar behaviors. For instance, the 450 people checking into schools every morning might be exceptionally valuable to a company that makes digital research tools. And so on. Unfortunately, most big organizations aren’t set up to talk to very small groups of people, stemming usually from some inability to measure the impact of those people on their bottom line.
    Which brings us to microfinance.
  6. Microfinance uses highly specific objectives and payment terms to enable smooth flows of capital from one person to another.
    I think we can all agree here that Microfinance is a big, positive development made possible by digital tools. But in our view, it’s the mental models they use/support that lead to their success and the comfort people have in the use of the system. Donors feel good because their contribution tends to be small and the terms of the use of their money are made very clear. Further, the results are clearly communicated back to the donor/sponsor, completing a feel-good feedback loop that’s absent from most “big” charity. This is a model worth adopting. It’s not that big charity is bad, it’s just that it’s almost always unclear where a donor’s dollars are going, how they’ll be used, and the specific returns they’re creating.
    Which brings us to the real reason why banner ads suck.
  7. We all know banner ads suck. But they mostly suck because they’re in big, anonymous places.
    We found an old study on banner ads that attempted to qualify what makes them work and/or not work. And while it was from 2003, it points to an important truism: adding interactivity, animation, emotional appeal, and incentives didn’t bolster an ineffective ad; however, better targeting did have a measurable impact. On the whole, among the 10,000 ads studied, the B2B-focused ads tended to be in more targeted, smaller locations. And they did way better than the B2C ads, which showed up on big sites, trying to garner the attention of the masses.
    Which brings us to the failure and success of Joshua Bell.
  8. No matter how good your product is, if you put it in front of a big, lame audience, it’ll fail.
    This one’s pretty simple, and I think is explained particularly well in Alex’s slides. So I’ll keep this brief: when Joshua Bell performs in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall, he sells out the place at an average ticket price of $100; when he played as a busker in a D.C. metro station, he made $32. Don’t try to be all things to all people, and don’t try to get an uninterested, anonymous audience interested in your shit.
    Which brings us to the rise of focused, premium content.
  9. When it comes to media and entertainment – things people want to watch, read and hear – the more focused, the better.
    This one started when I heard Jimmy Wales speak at the New Museum a few months ago, where he brought up the idea that if media is used as a performance metric, people are getting smarter every year. Turns out this is the thesis of Steven Berlin Johnson, who uses the evolution of popular culture (viewed through the lens of TV) to show that people today desire media that is complex and intellectually challenging…even if not in the traditional sense. And I can dig that. I Love Lucy reruns, for me, are unwatchable and feel generic, while Seinfeld, Curb, Arrested Development, the British version of The Office and even It’s Always Sunny continue to be fascinating. To me (and I’ve not read Johnson all the way through), it’s focus that makes them great. All the aforementioned watchables are intently focused on the needs of a particular audience… in the same way that NPR and The Economist (and even Monocle, in its own special way) continue to deliver a consistent and unique experience year after year. And financially… it seems to make sense. In the midst of a continuing crisis for the media industry, NPR has doubled its market share and The Economist made $92M on a circulation of 1.4M. They’ve clearly got it going on.

And that’s it! All the examples, we feel, provide useful fodder for the argument that a sense of conceptual smallness is the way of the future. Hope you fine folks at Web 2.0 enjoyed the talk.


For further reading on this topic, check out these awesome Planningness decks.

The first is from Mike Monello (Campfire) and Griffin Farley (BBH) on Propagation Planning.

Thinking not about the people you’re reaching, but about the people they reach: that’s what we’re trying to get to. Totally dig.

To that end, here’s a redesigned version of a couple of their charts.

The second is from the smart fellows at Made By Many:

I rather like the idea of a Minimum Desirable Product. It’s almost exactly what we’re arguing for in our talk.

Apple’s Display Ads: Cooler? Yes. Better? No.

New Ad Spaces from Clay Parker Jones on Vimeo.

I saw these ads yesterday on Slate and ESPN.

I noticed some things that are worth noting.

  • These look to be executed by PointRoll, who likely helped Apple’s web peeps make the ads mess with the stuff in the browser.
  • Note that the dropdown menus that are being “manipulated” by the ad are still available when the ad is running. There’s a slight delay, but at least the ads don’t absolutely prevent you from using the site as you usually do.
  • After the first run of the iPod Touch ad, I made an attempt to go check out the landing page. No dice. Not sure what happened there, but I hope for everyone’s job security that this was isolated to my computer.
  • The banners are somewhere around 200ish pixels high and 900ish pixels wide. That’s somewhere between 180,000 and 225,000 pixels of creative breathing room.

You might expect that I have some thoughts on these. Here they are.

  • Just like most things Apple touches lately, these are exceptionally executed. The production quality is stellar, and while my burdened MacBook had a few troubles recording the video and playing the Flash movie at the same time, they ran quite quickly after the page loaded. And if you don’t turn the sound on, they still work just fine from a marketing perspective.
  • They’re full of fun things to look at. I don’t need to note them all for you, but I particularly like the extensions outside the banner in the ad for the 17″ MacBook Pro. They’re modest, and they’re clever.
  • Apple seems to be leading all of us when it comes to creating display ads that actually engage. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of the engagement is due to the fact that I know it’s Apple, and since I love Apple, I want to see whatever they’ve done.
  • Unfortunately, I don’t think many other brands can claim that advantage. If you look at most of the other examples of this (for instance, the Ford F-150 takeover when the new launched), they’re roundly hated by people who like the internet.
  • Apparently there’s a movement afoot to standardize this ad size across the internet. I’m more than a little concerned that publishers are reacting to the economic downturn by selling every available pixel onscreen, at the cost of making the content ever harder to get at.
  • It’s definitely cool to play with the navigation elements–seems like magic to most users–but as with the Yahoo! iPod ad below, I don’t think it works. I’m not going to to be entertained by Apple’s web wizardry, I’m going there to get some sports info. If they’re going to keep this up, I’ll start going elsewhere. And when people start going where the ads aren’t, everyone’s revenue suffers.

Compare the above with the below, please.

Again, while this is absolutely a nifty trick, if I’m going to Yahoo! Games, I’m there to engage with a game, rather than sit back and watch something cool onscreen. The ad for the Wario Land – Shake It on YouTube makes a lot more sense to me, mostly because it’s in the perfect context: when people are cruising YouTube, they’re looking to be passively entertained. For me, Nintendo has used the medium appropriately, whereas the Apple stuff feels like old-world philosophies applied to a new space. Certainly, the larger stage affords Apple the opportunity to be much more engaging, but it’s still just interruptive advertising, shouting into a crowded room.

Cooler? Yes.

Better? No.

Thinking about banner ads and birth control

I made this after posting this on Twitter.

Early yesterday morning, on my weekly train ride up to Milwaukee, I was thinking about the state of online advertising, missed forecasts at Yahoo!, and what could be done about it.

In particular, the “industry average” click-through-rate on standard display advertising gets me pretty fired up. Combine that with banner blindness and I feel like, as an industry, there’s more that we can do.

We can do better at gaining awareness. For example, see the banners by MINI from last year, where the back end of the new, larger MINI breaks through onto the page. It’s funny and it fits with the personality of MINI, but it doesn’t irritate (at least, it doesn’t irritate me).

We can do better at using the space creatively. Look at Apple, who have done a phenomenal job extending their TV campaign onto the web, without making it feel like the creative team was upset to have to shoe-horn their work into 160×600, 728×90 and 300×250.

And we can do better at giving people things that are targeted toward their needs. I recently read in the FEED report that, among people that frequently use social networking tools online, contextually targeted ads are seen as acceptable, and in some cases even a happy sidebar to their desired content. Users seem to know and accept that this stuff is powered by advertising, but they don’t want it to get in the way.

People have spoken more eloquently about this than I can here (ya know, guys like Noah Brier and Jakob Nielsen). But I do feel like I captured my industry-wide frustration with banner ads with the graphic above. Birth control is effective 99% of the time, when used effectively correctly, at preventing pregnancy. And “standard” display ads average about a 1% click-through rate, if you’re feeling particularly generous about rounding.

Now, before you start trying to shoot holes in this argument, understand that I know that not all banners are designed to get someone to click. And certainly, if the ROI on a click is high enough, then a 1% click-through rate might make sense.

I just think we can do better. Don’t you think?

EDIT: Per my buddy Don’s recommendation, I changed “effectively” to “correctly”. Duh.

The 39 Second Single

39 Second Single

If you’ve not seen the 39 Second Single, you must immediately go to and watch the six available episodes. They’re brilliant. They’re short. They’re the future of TV, or rather, disposable entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean disposable as in inconsequential. I mean that these aren’t going to DVD anytime soon, at least not without a movie deal. The first episode is the best, which is obviously pretty important for an online series. But now I’m hooked and the subsequent episodes are like onlinevideocrack-hits. Feel free to quote me on “onlinevideocrack”.

But really, if there were more online video series of this quality, why would you need the network/cable junk? True, there are some gems out there in the 30-minute/hour sitcom/drama format, but by and large, it’s crap. Emeril, for all his success, would be much more tolerable in 2-5 minute bits. Existing ‘legacy’ media formats are dying. My dad is almost sixty, for crissakes, and ALL HE DOES IS READ BLOGS. It was the weirdest sensation when I was home a couple weeks back. There’s my dad, be-robed, sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee and the glow of his widescreen HP laptop. He knows every Windows shortcut, and I think the biggest problem in his life is that there’s no “minimize” keystroke.

On a related note, did you notice that both 24 and American Idol are planning 4-hour season premieres? That seems crazy to me. Weren’t attention spans supposed to be dwindling?

By the way, middle-fi blogs are still fun.