Lunchtable TV Talk: Fleabag

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That quiet lull between the summer TV season and the standard, full-throttle autumn season gave me an opportunity to watch some stuff I might not have, such as the ITV production Victoria (don’t bother – it’s kind of crap except for Rufus Sewell, who is always good even when he is given crap material to work with; still, the series was renewed for a second season) and the dark comedy self-humiliation fest that is Fleabag. Let’s not get into the fact that I also dipped my toe (oh, who am I kidding? I jumped in the deep end) into the six seasons of Sex & the City, which I had so carefully avoided during its first incarnation. Despite there being no shortage of original summer programming that began and ended in almost staggered shifts, I still found myself, at times, with an empty queue (have watched most of what interests me so far on HBO Nordic and Amazon; can only access Swedish Netflix now so there are a lot of lovely films I cannot see in my old American queue. Kind of frustrating because I was not even trying to cheat the system: I pay for both an American and a Swedish subscription).

Maybe it’s this “empty queue” idea that also drives the nameless anti-heroine of Fleabag. She’s very funny, very awkward and a total mess – and she knows it. She breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the viewer quite often, and it works. I keep seeing lazy comparisons to Bridget Jones and Girls’s Hannah Horvath – but as I write, these are just that – lazy. Our nameless mess of a woman is so much more than both and completely confident in her lack of self-confidence. (Must be – even The Economist got in on the action of writing about Fleabag.)

It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty realistic, and in that way, it’s also heartbreaking. It somehow manages to be both the wound and the salt you pour into it yourself because you think you deserve to suffer, or like Canadian poet PK Page posits, because you believe that “suffering confers identity”. For the show’s lead, her “empty queue” is not a tv-watching list: it’s the emptiness of her life without her best friend, who has accidentally committed suicide; it’s the more distant but still fresh loss of her mother to cancer and the subsequent, if metaphorical, loss of her father to an uptight and horrible stepmother; it’s the tense but close relationship she shares with her sister. It’s mindlessly filling the emptiness with a queue of men and a, shall we say active, graphic and even rugged sex life? Sex queue as coping mechanism, and only through the six episodes do we see exactly how winding, dark and byzantine are the problems she is trying to fuck into oblivion or at least avoid.

Flea photo (c) 2014 Matt Brown.

Amazon alone: Clear cutting

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For the last couple of days, speculation has been rife that Amazon may dot the American landscape with cookie-cutter, brick-and-mortar stores, much like its weird flagship store in Seattle, Washington. True or not, it seems like a backwards move. (But there are a lot of these everything-old-is-new-again movements afoot; I was surprised to realize on the anniversary of the Challenger explosion that some things were more “modern” and future-oriented then, in 1986, than now – for example, we had an active space shuttle/space exploration program that people were vocal and excited about; we had the Concorde. Those things are considerably muted or non-existent now…).

The Amazon bookstore idea is stupid. I went to the Amazon flagship store in U Village in November soon after it opened (had just read an article about it before coming to town and imagined I would never go there – and why would I want to?). It seems ridiculous and contrary not just to trends and user habits but also to economic sense. In fact, Amazon came into being and thrived, in large part by driving all the Borders and Barnes & Noble stores out of business – and some indie stores too… Essentially, Amazon clear cut the competition, getting it completely out of the way. Then Amazon replants and springs back up as the only one kind of tree – the only tree – in the forest… shrewd but lame?

I hated the store – hated going in only to see the top-selling, most popular crap that would never have interested me anyway, and the “long-tail” stuff I would have searched for on Amazon, I could have done from the comfort of home, right? It still seems like a weird waste of money and space.

Online shopping, reality and speed – what is important in the customer experience?

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E-commerce opportunities have revolutionized modern life. We don’t have to go anywhere or actively search for anything, going from store to store seeking out the one needed, elusive item. And rarities? Forget it. You can find it online with a little bit of attentive searching. The time-consuming hunt, the trying to find something out-of-print or a song with just a lyric like we did in the old days – it’s nothing now. And maybe we lose that sense of accomplishment and the appreciation of having something simply because of the work we had to do to get it. (The same principles were at work in my early refusal to get email – I wanted my paper-and-pen penfriend world to remain the same… rare, personal and full of anticipation.)

And while online shopping has certainly made my life richer (as stupid as that sounds), I recognize that the in-person, “instant gratification” retail shopping experience also is not going away. People want to feel, see, taste, touch, hear everything and experience something tactile, particularly in trying on clothes and the like, but at the same time, online shopping means you’re no longer limited to what you can find in a local shop or the mall or something. And that’s why I love it – I hate shopping in person.

How are some of the biggest e-commerce giants tapping into massive troves of data on shoppers’ habits and preferences to tailor and curate in-store shopping experiences and in turn, at the same time, drive shoppers back to the e-commerce platform?

Amazon.com’s new flagship store experiment is a case study in doing exactly this. When I read the Vox article about this store I was as perplexed as the writer initially had been. Why would the entity that pretty much singlehandedly made e-commerce a thing move back to brick-and-mortar? I never in a million years imagined that I would see this dubious store for myself, and yet the very same day as I read the article, I ended up at University Village in Seattle and went in the store. Nothing impressive, nothing that would make me want to go back. And I don’t need in-person employees to offer to help me, only to tell me, “Well, you can buy that online… on Amazon.” DUH! It seems like a really expensive experience to create that can only benefit a limited number of people, if it really “benefits” anyone at all.

I recently watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom Master of None, and he lamented the horror of going online to try to replace a beloved pair of shoes only to find that they were out of stock – so he had to (insert exasperated tone here) actually go out to find and buy them in person. “Who has time for that?”

Precisely.

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)