Beyoncé Changed the Game…Because She’s Beyoncé

The game of being being a fabulous superstar is rough, but Beyoncé plays it like a champion. In fact, as 2013 came to a close, she showed us how it’s done. The first step is to spend a decade defining yourself as the most fabulous superstar of all. Then, once the haters begin to question your otherworldly fabulousness by comparing your sales numbers to the latest round of pop stars, you create an entirely new level to the game. queen

Boom! You release an album with no pre-promotion whatsoever. Wham! This album is not designed to be spoon-fed to the iTunes-trained masses that pick and choose the songs they like (it must instead be initially purchased as a full collection of 14 tracks and 17 videos). Blam! Despite it’s non-iTunes flavor, you initially make it only available on iTunes–and when mega-retailers like Amazon and Target refuse to carry your album because they’re all butt-hurt over the iTunes exclusive? Kabam! You don’t care, because you’re Beyoncé.

“I’ve never done anything so brave in my life,” she told ABC News. “I really wanted to surprise people and didn’t want it to be all about the hype and promotion.”

You can’t fool me, Beyoncé, this whole exercise was about stirring up hype and promotion–but, more importantly, it was about doing so in a way that only a towering queen of pop culture can do it–and this, in my opinion, was the whole point. Beyoncé was not simply releasing new music. After a decade at the top of the music world, she was throwing down a fabulous gauntlet. There are pop stars who play the pop star game, but Beyoncé is beyond compare because Beyoncé is the only Beyoncé there is.

Seriously. Let Katy Perry and Rihanna and Lady Gaga scramble for high-profile TV appearances and iHeart Radio concerts slots. You think Beyoncé needs to share a stage at a radio show with the Miley Cyruses of the world? The intensity of her fabulousness would melt such posers into little twerking puddles of prepackaged whatever.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 11.10.25 AMHell no, with the release of her fifth album, Beyoncé sought to change the conversation entirely. Nobody was talking about her pre-orders or her chart position, they were instead talking about how only someone like Beyoncé would try such a thing. She distanced herself from everyone else and, for a minute, it was as if sales figures didn’t matter anymore. Beyoncé just strutted out of nowhere and dropped 14 songs and 17 videos into our lap. She cemented her brand as an unstoppable musical force that does whatever she wants, whenever she wants.

It was as if Beyoncé was saying, “All you other girls can put out songs for radio to play, and you can do all that pre-promotion on the Today show…but Beyonce is just gonna open up the sky so Beyoncé’s music can rain down…because that’s how Beyoncé likes it now.”

(We love the idea of Beyoncé referring to herself in the third person)

I can’t think of any other iconic pop star who has ever come close to something like this. Think of poor Michael Jackson. In his day, he had to continue to slog out albums, just like the rest of the world. Once the glow of Thriller (and, arguably, Bad) wore off, he was just another superstar trying to move product. He kept on playing the same game, along with everyone else. Dubbing himself the “King of Pop” was just hype and promotion.

And then there’s Beyoncé. Her last album (2011’s  4), was not a game-changing release. It did well, but was a definite step down from I Am…Sasha Fierce in terms of sales and media attention. It looked as if the Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s of the world had started to encroach on her territory as the she-juggernaut of the music charts.lounge

But you don’t mess with Beyoncé. Even if this new album did not hit the jackpot in terms of sales, it was a new hallmark in what it means to be a fabulous superstar. Her surprise move made everyone else on the chart look old-fashioned. So 2012. Of course, since we’re talking about Beyoncé, the album did ride the wave of awestruck press, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, moving 617,000 units in the United States in its first week. That’s almost twice as much as 4 did when it made its initial bow in 2011.

Don’t call it a comeback. Call it “knowing how to define yourself” and how to shift the game in your favor by changing the rules at will…because, at the end of the day, you’re Beyoncé. And that’s exactly the point.

Humans Are Still Valuable

Computers are awesome and they can do awesome things…but I’m still a fan of “Team Human.”

Humans have the ability to move and inspire other humans in ways that machines can’t do on their own. Computers might be smart and sexy, but they can’t illicit emotional responses. As Kip explained, while serenading his new bride at the conclusion of Napoleon Dynamite, “Sure the World Wide Web is great, but you, you make me salivate.”kip

That’s what I’m talking about.

Human connection is where the magic happens. Computers can spew out inconceivable amounts of data, but–for the time being–humans are the ones who can most effectively curate data into bite-sized chunks of experiential content. Once processed, this curated data can illicit emotional responses, resulting in laughing, crying, salivating and the like.

Take music, for example, among the most emotionally-charged content in the known human universe. Computers can spit out infinite musical playlists based on genre, era, even beats per minute. Many humans are amazed by this. Tickled even. But once the Pandora-like algorithms have demonstrated their stuff, true music fans are often wanting more. They want deeper experiences, emotional context, and something they can feel an attachment to. Most of all, they don’t want to be bored.

Musical algorithms are essentially sequences of finely-tuned rules and, unlike computers, humans have the ability  to break such rules and create the unexpected. I’ll give you an example. Back in the last millennium, I worked in broadcast radio at an “alternative rock” station that was known for breaking formatic rules on a regular basis. We would surprise people by dropping Ozzy Osbourne or James Brown in the middle of the expected mix of Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. By breaking our own algorithm, we broke through the clutter.

This wasn’t a random exercise, though, as we curated these experiences by introducing non-formatic songs that actually inspired the artists that were churning out the current Alternative hits (and, not for nothing, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” sounds pretty awesome next to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). When prompted, listeners would say that they loved these musical u-turns because they were “fun.” Perhaps more importantly,  they also felt that we were acknowledging their excellent musical taste and their ability to accept the unexpected. It’s as if we were patting them on the back while simultaneously providing them with a great listening experience.

Humans love the feeling of being patted on the back and being acknowledged for their intelligence. Computers don’t do that.

Fast forward to this millennium, where I lead the content-development efforts at Slacker. Sure, we’ve got some fancy algorithms up our sleeves, but our focus is on creating content experiences that are highly curated by human beings who have unnatural levels of expertise in their given type of music. We’reimages all about creating content that pushes envelopes while also staying true to the core aesthetics of each genre.

We recently launched a countdown of the 101 Greatest Songs in Classic Rock History, for example, and we started with the idea that “Stairway to Heaven” could not top the list. We disrupted the accepted Classic Rock pattern and knocked “Stairway” to #4! As a result, we have music fans deriding and applauding our choices, but the main point? They’re not bored. In fact, they are engaged and wearing their passion on their sleeves.

And it didn’t hurt that we added interview segments from the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. Sorry, Siri, but you’re clearly not ready to have a deep musical conversation with Jimmy page.

At the end of the day, at Slacker we’re devoting a lot of time and resources to create true emotional bonds with our audience. We feel that this is the only way to encourage actionable brand loyalty and consumer evangelism–and we know that our human curators are far more effective at doing this than any fancy algorithm.

Almost 30 years ago, Electronic Arts famously ran a print ad asking “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” As far as I’m concerned, the answer is no. It’s the human beings behind the digital content that creates the type of emotional responses that matter.

Humans rule.

The Cult of Apple

I received an email from Apple this morning, inviting me to order the iPhone 5. And I thought, “Wait, does Apple seriously think that I wasn’t aware of this week’s arrival of the greatest thing ever created by anyone ever?”

Oh, Apple, you’re so silly…but thanks so much for being one of my best friends.

This got me thinking, not so much about Apple, but about the flurry of commercials I’ve seen recently for Samsung’s Galaxy X III. You’ve seen them too. They show crowds gathering outside a (wink wink, nudge nudge) Apple store, awaiting the arrival of the greatest thing every created by anyone ever. Then, a bunch of arrogant folks show up and tap their big-screened Galaxy X’s together to share videos, haughtily proving to the earbud-wearing drones in line that they are superior beings because “the next big thing is already here” and they have it.

I have a few problems with this. First of all, they’re making the Cult of Apple (iCult?) look like brainless morons. Second, they show no less than eight people randomly hanging around the faux Apple Store with their Galaxies–as if this would ever happen in real life (I’ve never seen a flock of Galaxy users anywhere). Third, and most importantly, whether or not you believe that the iPhone 5 is the greatest thing ever created by anyone ever, you can’t argue with the fact that it is the next big thing.

Samsung’s ad misses the mark because it paints the Cult of Apple as something that is fueled by the desire to obtain the next Apple product. No! The Cult of Apple is not about mere gadgets. The Cult of Apple is about Apple.

For years now, the Apple branding strategy has focused on emotions rather than products. They are all about innovation, passion, and freedom. They make our complex lives easier, and they inspire and move us and, when we happen to have one of those Apple products in our hands, we are part of something special. In fact we are special. We are one with Samuel L. Jackson and Zoey Deschanel and (years ago) the guy who identified himself as “a Mac.”

Samsung pitches products. Apple sells us a belief in a better life.

It’s all about feelings with Apple. They want to inspire people to be different, to think differently, and to make gazpacho. Well, okay, Apple really does want us to buy their products, but they start by telling us why they make these products in the first place.

Simon Sinek explains this beautifully in his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. He points out that, unlike their competitors, Apple does not simply come out and announce that they have awesome phones and we should all buy one. Instead, they start with “In everything we do, we believe in thinking differently and  challenging the status quo…so, since you believe what we believe, join us in this pursuit.”

Sounds like a cult to you? Me too…and I can’t wait to get my new iPhone.

Oh Google, How Could You?

Dear Google,

I thought we had a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. You would service all my search needs, and I would occasionally click on those clean, unobtrusive ads on the left hand margin of the results. In return, I would usually find what I was looking for, and you would become one of the most powerful companies on earth.

Meanwhile, your homepage–our homepage–would remain clean and pure and white, signifying a fresh new start upon each visit. Every once in a while, you might throw in one of those clever little logo doodles, so I would know that it was Jim Henson’s Birthday or I might learn who Consuelo Velasquez or Luigi Pirandello were.

We had a good thing going, Google. Why’d you have to go and screw it up?

This week, you broke our covenant. You put an animated banner ad on your homepage. Sure, this “covenant” was unspoken, as you never officially promised that the homepage would remain forever pure and white and clean. But I thought we understood each other.

I thought I knew you.

The fact that this animated ad was for one of your own products doesn’t make this any easer to take. I’m sure the Nexus 7 tablet is fantastic and I hope you sell a ton of them. I’m also aware of the fact that this is not the first time you have placed an ad on our clean, white homepage…but the one for the Nexus One phone in 2010 was just text. I didn’t like that one either, but I forgave you. Everyone makes mistakes.

I tried to forgive you this time too. After all, I thought, I increasingly bypass the homepage in favor of the search bar on my browser. Maybe (I thought) everyone else was doing the same thing, and you felt that the homepage was being taken for granted. Then I Googled how many users still visit. A billion uniques a year? Dang, Google.

Here’s the thing. I still love you. I have no interest in getting to know Bing, and I would feel downright silly using Yahoo. I even use you as a VERB (see preceding paragraph). You have built a powerful image for yourself, and now you’re using it to push a product on me.

Sigh.

I expected more from you. I knew that you were worth $200 billion, and I totally respected the fact that you managed to reach that dizzying height without defiling our magical white space. Your willpower was remarkable. It made you seem like more than just another company.

I will still Google, but I don’t want to be your girlfriend anymore.

#NBCFail: The People of the Internet Are Mean

Poor NBC.

They spent $1.3-billion for the TV rights to the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the People of the Internet are being insanely snippy and bitchy about the coverage. NBC is actually offering 5,535 total hours of this coverage and viewers can see almost everything live and in high-definition by turning to their Olympic website. Yes, there are ads on said site. Sure, the video occasionally glitches. But why such an intense online backlash?

Because the People of the Internet, by their very nature, are mean.

NBC is not covering the games live on TV, opting to instead showcase pre-taped footage during primetime in a move that should surprise no one on planet Earth. Still, this packaging–and the inevitable spoilers that seep through every online nook and cranny–has led to a massive outcry from the Twitterverse via #NBCFail and @NBCDelayed.

Even Mia Farrow, beloved star of stage and screen, tweeted: “NBC failing to deliver comprehensive Olympic coverage on both TV & internet #nbcfail.”

Mia, you were awesome in Rosemary’s Baby but, really, sit down. Let’s all take a breath, admit that none of us really need to see the synchronized swimming showdown between Russia and Japan live, and shift our attention to the three major things that this Olympic-sized backlash teaches us:

Major Thing #1: A Lot Can Change in Four Years

When the 2008 Olympics unfolded in Beijing, Twitter was a few years old and boasted two million users. Facebook, meanwhile, had already racked up 100 million users, but the demographics skewed way low. Today, Twitter has 500 million users. Facebook has just under a billion.

As a result, things have really changed since 2008. The People of the Internet now expect to get what they want, when they want it, dammit it’s our right as People of the Internet.

NBC opted to focus on prime-time execution because that’s where most of the ad dollars are currently spent. This strategy smacks of a soon-to-be-completely-outdated business model, though, and the forward-thinking People of the Internet don’t like that at all. Meanwhile NBC’s Olympic ratings are smashing records all over the place. What a dilemma…recouping $1.3-billion or pleasing everyone with a Twitter account.

Major Thing #2: Things Will Continue to Change

In 2012, the games being in Rio will make time delays less of an issue. Still, who knows what crazy new digital tools the People of the Internet will be using? Who knows what expectations will need to be met? NBC needs to know. More importantly, they need to figure out a way to please both the masses who are perfectly happy waiting for prime-time, and…well….the millions of Mia Farrows out there who are waiting for their next chance to be insanely snippy and bitchy.

Major Thing #3: The People of the Internet Really Are Insanely Snippy & Bitchy

The social web is full of pundits, pontificators and know-it-alls. I am one of them and so are you.  We thrive on reading and writing pithy comments (for example, many of you may have already snickered at my use of the term “social web” at the beginning of this very paragraph).

The People of the Internet also like to be outraged, and one thing that really outrages us is when the dynamics of our fascinating digital world are not properly acknowledged. Not only do we expect our information to be delivered at warp speed, we also like to control its flow, thank you very much. Who is NBC to dictate to us? You, me and Mia Farrow would like the fascist network programmers to stop curating on our behalf, as we are magnificent curators in our own right.

The important takeaway from this whole exercise is not whether NBC has #failed or not. Nope. It’s actually much more urgent for us to remember how insanely snippy and bitchy the People of the Internet are. They (we) are just waiting for the next outrageous thing that will make our collective eyes roll so we can bestow it with a clever and insulting hashtag.

The People of the Internet are #mean. Plan accordingly.

Why Jerry Seinfeld Should Be Cut in Half

Last week, the biggest TV star of the nineties launched his own web series, causing American network executives to collectively sigh and say “what the hell?”

The TV star in question, Jerry Seinfeld, could probably get any network to agree to any ridiculous show idea (kind of like the painfully pointless Marriage Ref program that he unloaded on NBC a few years back) but he opted for venturing into the short-form expanse of online, on-demand video instead.

You can see it now, on Sony’s Crackle.com. Each episode will feature Seinfeld picking up a fellow-comedian in a vintage car and driving to get coffee while a camera on the dashboard captures their unscripted conversation. It’s called (drum roll please) Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Last week’s premiere featured Jerry and his Seinfeld co-conspirator Larry David in a beautiful azure blue 1952 Volkswagon Bug. They talked about random things like cigars and underwear. Future guests will include Alec Baldwin, Ricky Gervais, and more Seinfeld cast members.

Did I mention that it’s 13 minutes long? Well, it is. And it shouldn’t be.

Personally, I love the concept. It’s simple and ironic. It can be fully produced within a matter of hours. It’s funny without really trying to be funny, but it’s only nine minutes shorter than the average TV sitcom. It feels as if Seinfeld and Sony thought it would be really “now” to do a web series, but then they wussed out on totally embracing the short-form concept, as if their combined might could not be contained within, say, six minutes.

Trust me, though, it could.

By comparison, X-Men director Bryan Singer will not be wussing out when he unveils his own web series on August 8th. Dubbed H+, the big-budgeted futuristic adventure serial will unfold on YouTube at a few minutes a pop. “As opposed to a (traditional) series where you might get lost, here they’re in short, three- to six-minute bursts,” he told The New York Times, “So each episode becomes kind of a cliffhanger or a piece in the greater puzzle that takes shape.”

Singer’s “burst” technique fits in nicely with the current realities of internet-based video usage, as ComScore reports that the average length of an online video now hovers around 6 and a half minutes. That number, however, is growing. The average online video in 2011 ran a little over 5 minutes–but the most likely cause is the growing popularity and availability of full-length TV shows and movies. In fact, Ooyala (a video management company) recently reported to USA Today that full-length TV shows and movies now actually account for nearly 40% of all smartphone video viewing.

I’m not convinced that bigger is better, though. While the Hulus and Netflixes of the world might be nurturing our taste for long-form videos on digital devices, they’re doing it for the most part with content that was produced for traditional spaces. Thus, the convenience of using a phone to catch up on the latest episode of Breaking Bad does not necessarily mean that an average Joe is going to spend 13 minutes watching Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David debate the benefits of boxers to briefs on the same device.

Oh, and here’s another thing. When I explained the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee concept to a media expert that I happen to respect a lot, he said, “That will only work because Jerry Seinfeld is in it.”

What a doofus. The concept can work as long as it (a) catches the attention of an audience, and (b) runs merrily along and ends before the user gets bored and decides to jump to another video. Sure, having Seinfeld as the star will surely catch the attention of an audience…but that doesn’t mean that said audience is still going to be there after, say, 6 and a half minutes.

Bacon Can Make You Beautiful

This blog has nothing to do with bacon. I used it as a “headline lure” because studies have shown that, on average, eight out of ten people will read a headline but only two will bother with the first paragraph. And here you are. One of the two.

By the way, before going with bacon, I also considered:

Kardashian Flesh-Eating Disease Scare

Cute Kitten Lights Vampires on Fire

Free Vodka for Everyone

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that I can’t continually use “headline lures” and expect to get anybody to pay attention to me for any extended period of time (and I’m putting the term “headline lures” in quotation marks, by the way, because I totally just made it up…and also because quotation marks have been found to catch people’s attention, much like “headline lures”).

Trickery, all of it. But this is what the internet has done to us. Readers have nothing invested in content anymore, so it means nothing to turn it on and off. I mean, you didn’t buy this blog at a news stand or anything. Nonchalantly clicking away from even the most intricately crafted content is something all of us do hundreds of times per day. As a result, our attention span has become the most valuable commodity on earth.

“Experts” in the digital field (crap, quotation marks are my new crutch) have known this for quite some time, and they’ve done all sorts of studies to figure out how the average user scans the internet for information. Did you know that eye-tracking experiments have been done which show that visitors scan websites in an F-Shaped pattern? This means that they read the top of the page, then they move down to check out the density of the copy, and then they scroll down the left side of the page.

Thanks, Maker Studios

“F” that. With the onset of social media, content is being sliced into bite-sized chunks (with no concern for page layout) and shared like crazy. The discovery process has totally changed, and figuring out the mechanics of an actual web page seems totally 2008.

So where does this lead content developers in their quest to attract your increasingly valuable attention? They should focus on what you actually want instead of how to get an extra page view. They should create meaningful content experiences by getting to know you. For real. Content people need to create emotional involvement and “digital intimacy” and, good grief, I apologize for all the quotation marks, I really do.

Tricks are for kids–even those that involve quotation marks.

Or bacon.