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Archive for July, 2011

Looking ahead

I was on the phone last Thursday with a woman who lives in Australia.  Near the end of the call, I said, “Ok, we’ll take a look at it and I’ll give you a call either tomorrow or Monday.  Oh, I guess it’s already tomorrow there.”  “Yes,” she said, “It’s a little after 8am on Friday.”  “So I’m talking to someone…from the future?” I asked.  She found that funnier than I anticipated, which is always a plus.  While that wasn’t technically an interaction with the future in the way we traditionally think about it, I do believe I’ve glimpsed the future of business and advertising, and I gotta say I’m a big fan.

I’ve had an Amazon Kindle for probably about three years now, and I like it quite a bit.  I love how quickly I can get almost any book I want, that books are less money than if I bought them new, that these new books don’t take up any room on a shelf, and that I can just bring that one device with me on a trip instead of however many books I may want to read while I’m away.  There are really only two things I don’t like about it.  First, I can’t share books I like without letting someone borrow the whole thing.  Second, with real books, I sometimes flip back several chapters to re-read certain interactions or descriptions that didn’t seem important at the time.  I can’t really do that with the Kindle, but it’s definitely a net positive for me.

My version of the Kindle is their first one, and they’ve made a lot of strides since then.  When I got an Amazon gift card for my birthday, I thought about maybe getting a new one and letting my lovely wife have my existing one.  I looked it up on Amazon and first noticed how much cooler it looks now.  That’s not too important, but they just really streamlined the thing and seemed to have learned what people’s favorite and least favorite aspects of the original were.  Then I saw something that really caught my eye: the 3G and Wi-Fi one I was looking at cost $189…or you can choose the one with “Special Offers” for $139.

What does that mean?  It says: “Special offers and sponsored screensavers display on the Kindle screensaver and on the bottom of the home screen—they don’t interrupt reading.”  So just by allowing them to have ads on the screen when I’m not reading, I get to spend $50 less?  That sounded like a great deal to me, especially since my screen saver has probably only come on once or twice since I’ve owned my current one.  I wanted to learn more though, and the people at Amazon obliged by telling me what some of the past “special offers” have been.

  • $10 for $20 Amazon.com Gift Card
  • Save up to $500 off Amazon’s already low prices on select HDTVs
  • $1 for a Kindle book, choose from thousands of books
  • Spend $10 on Kindle books and get a free $10 Amazon.com Gift Card

I’m not buying a new TV anytime soon, but the other three are offers that could really come in handy.  In other words, they’re offers that I’d actually want to read.  Hell, I’d be fine with male enhancement ads on my screensaver or other typical spam-type offers if my purchase price is significantly lowered.  That got me thinking about this whole “special offers” thing and how it might be expanded in the world of consumer products in the future.

The invention of the DVR has made it more difficult for advertisers to get the number of eyeballs to which they’d grown accustomed.  That’s resulted in more blatant product placement in TV shows and movies (as mind-blowingly illustrated here and here), but I’m sure they’re still looking for additional ways to grab our attention.  The cynical part of me just expected these brands to make deals with companies like Amazon and we’d just have to put up with it.  I never expected them to lower the price for the privilege of pitching us their products.  After all, movie theaters show commercials before previews.  Nobody asked us if we wanted to see them, and they certainly didn’t lower ticket prices.  I sadly thought that was the future of advertising, but apparently there’s another option that is as win-win as I can imagine for this type of advertising.

So what’s next?  Right now, if Amazon is only pitching Amazon products/deals, it’s all self-contained and they don’t have to worry about the economics of bringing in partners.  But I have faith that they’ll figure that out, so let’s look ahead.  Let’s say that you’re interested in an HDTV that normally costs $1,200.  Would you be willing to let them have ads on the bottom of the channel guide and on the screen saver if it cost less?  Lowering it around the same percentage as my Kindle deal, that TV would sell for $888.  I can’t imagine it would be that extreme a drop-off, but what if it were $1,000 instead.  I don’t know why I wouldn’t do that.  It doesn’t interfere with my actual TV watching, and if the offers are even remotely in line with my interests, then it could actually help me save money in the future.

Let’s look farther into this future for a second.  The TV costs $2,000, but they have a “special offers” one for $1,200.  Here’s the deal with this one: every time you turn on your TV, there’s a 30-second commercial that you can’t fast-forward or skip.  Would you take that deal?  I’m pretty sure I would, because it would only be a matter of days before I altered my TV-watching routine.  I would turn on the set and then go grab a cup of water or take a leak or something before settling down on the couch.  It’s more invasive than the Kindle offers for sure, but not unavoidable and a significant enough savings to be attractive.

How do you all feel about this?  I like this new wave of advertising quite a bit.  I know people have to pay the bills and companies need to get their message out there.  I listen to a lot of Adam Carolla’s podcasts, and he starts with a live read for Legal Zoom or GoToMyPC, and I’m fine with that.  The podcast is free, so if he wants to talk about his sponsors for less than a minute before getting to the meat of it, it’s an understandable price to pay.  (And it apparently works, as I can easily rattle off a few more of his sponsors.)  I get that process; it makes sense.  But paying less for a device or service if I allow companies to pitch me their products in a fairly unobtrusive manner?  That also makes total sense to me, and I hope the “special offers” version of the Kindle does exceedingly well so that others follow suit.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  (Or we could always call Australia and just ask them how it turned out.)

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Plan bee

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One day way back in high school, I was talking with fellow blogger MC Squared during the lunch break.  I don’t remember the topic, but it was probably stupid and immature, because that was the manner in which we rolled.  What I do remember, however, is saying the sentence, “You have to be a stud like me.”  I recall that because the line hilariously coincided with me trying to dodge a nearby bee with a look of sheer terror on my face.  The juxtaposition of my words and my body language was something we laughed about for a long ass time, and rightfully so I believe.  I’ve never claimed to be tough, and while I’m sure I was saying that line in jest, my self-contradiction was at a spectacular level.

I thought about that story this past weekend because I witnessed something very far removed from how I react.  We were visiting my cousins in Santa Barbara when one of them pointed out a dead bee on the ground in the backyard.  A second later, and she was expertly picking it up off the ground by a wing (carefully avoiding the stinger) and dropping it in a flower bed nearby.  I would never dream of intentionally touching a bee with my hand.  I don’t have an irrational fear of them, but my survival instincts tell me that touching them is a bad idea.  I’d sweep it up with a piece of paper or something, but that’s as close as my hand would get.  Here’s the best part: that cousin of mine turns four years old in September.  Yep, my lack of bravery in the face of insects was clearly illustrated by a child 30 years younger than me.  That’s ok; I’m still better than she is at using the potty by myself, so I’ve got that going for me.

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Total recall

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They say that smell is the sense most tied to memory, and I tend not to argue with “they.”  However, I have very specific memories associated with sounds that could hardly be stronger.  More specifically, I’m talking about songs and what they conjure up in my crowded mind.

Whenever I hear Sloan’s song called “The N.S.” (which has the great rhyme of, “But if you think that it’s cold when you’re swimming in the ocean/It’s hard to believe you’re a Nova Scotian”), I automatically picture the road on UCSB’s campus that took me from my office parking lot to the freeway.  It’s the first song on the cd and that was the first time I popped it in my car and gave it a listen, so that mental image stuck.  Another song on that album always makes me picture the driveway of the house I lived in at the time (specifically me backing out of it).  If anything from The Postal Service’s album “Give Up” starts playing, various visions of Sacramento and the surrounding area come up (depending on the song).  “El Amor Despues Del Amor” by Argentine singer Fito Paez immediately gives me visions of me lying on my bed in my dorm room in early ’96, listening on a now-archaic Sony Discman.  And when I hear the opening drums of “The Best of What’s Around” by Dave Matthews Band, I usually space out a bit because I’m remembering an entire evening of fun from a while back.

It was the summer of 1995, and my friends and I had just graduated high school.  As a final large group activity, many members of our drama class went with our teacher to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival.  We drove up in a caravan of four or five cars, toured the theaters, saw six plays that ranged from awesome to awesomely bizarre, met a concierge who totally deserves his own post, and generally had a hell of a time.  One thing that Ashland didn’t seem to have was much of a nightlife…at least for 16-18 year-olds.  We’d gone to Lithia Park on one of the earlier nights of the trip to hang out (since it was the only place we knew), but cops showed up not too long after to kick us out.  A night or two later, fellow blogger MC Squared and I asked where we could go get a bite to eat.   “At this time…I think the only thing open is Cafe 24,” said the hotel staffer.  It was probably 10pm, and at home, we would’ve gone to Denny’s or somewhere like that to share appetizers and desserts, but that wasn’t an option in this town.

On the way to his car, we ran into a few other people from our group who decided to join us.  We got to his sporty two-door Mazda and realized that we suddenly had a group of seven people.  “It’s close by. We can fit,” he said, and so we all piled in.  Three people (including me) crammed into the back seat with a fourth person on a couple of our laps at once.  Two smaller females shared the front passenger seat, and once we were all in as best as we could manage, he started the car.  Like that, song number one from DMB’s “Under the Table and Dreaming” album came on.  First the drums, and then the words that caused all of us to instinctively sing along.  Partway through the song, I had one of those rare in-the-moment times when I realized, “Hey, this is an iconic moment of this part of my life.”  I think what did it for me was the line, “Turns out not where but who you’re with that really matters.”  Though I had elbows and shoulders jabbing me from all angles, I knew this would be one of those times that I’d look back on fondly.

We got to Cafe 24 and un-gracefully spilled out of the car.  In case the car ride with friends and timely music wasn’t enough for me to remember that night forever, we had a fantastic waiter who made it a certainty.  He must have been stoned; there’s really no other explanation.  In a slow and disinterested tone, he asked us what we’d like to order.  He went around the table and then got to MC Squared, who was having trouble making up his mind.  “I can’t decide between the hamburger and the french toast.  I realize they’re very different, but those are the only two things that really caught my eye.”  A lesser waiter (or maybe a sober one) would’ve paused to consider the differences between those two options and maybe even comment on them.  Instead, our waiter said in a very serious tone, “I say you go with the burger.  Because, when you think about it, french toast is really…just bread, man.  The burger is so much more than that.”  “Wow!” said MC Squared, “That was very convincing!  You totally just swayed me.  I’ll have the hamburger!”

I don’t remember anything about the rest of the meal or the ride back to the hotel.  In fact, I can’t remember any other meals at all from the entire trip (unless you count the Arby’s we stopped at in Lodi on the long drive home).  But every single time I hear the beginning of that song, I’m at least temporarily stuffed in the back seat of a black sports car, traveling in another state, en route to a philosophical lesson about the existential insignificance of french toast.  Top that, smell.

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