Teach Yourself Revolution: Good Intentions

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A lot of us sign up for online courses – online education is becoming more and more dynamic and accepted. People do it for enrichment, self-betterment, refreshing skills, dipping our toe into something totally new, for diversionary purposes, for actual university-level degrees. I have signed up so many times for these MOOCs (massive open online courses) and never really participated in a single one until now.

Not surprised, then, when I visited my current course’s webpage to read: “If you have got this far and completed the first test, you are amongst the 45 percent left who started the course.” Three weeks in (one-third of the length of the class), fewer than half are still in the course. According to UK Times Higher Ed online (2013), only about seven percent (!) of MOOC students complete the courses they start. Remarkable.

Then again, it is not surprising – there is nothing holding you accountable. The learning with MOOCs, if you learn or engage at all, is passive at best.

While not nearly as passive (collaboration/group work and interaction is required), I have nearly completed an MA degree completely online but have not finished the last little bit – but I found that even with the level of self-discipline I have (I work mostly at home), finding the time and discipline to keep up on readings and lectures was really tough. If school/studying is not the priority or does not have some immediacy in my daily life (that is, the Coursera class I am taking now is quite relevant to my daily work while my MA had very little to do with my life or career), I am not going to be nearly as motivated to make it a priority.

But every time I sign up, I have high hopes and, even more, the best of intentions.

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!)

Made Up Make-Up? Innovation and Shifting Trends

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Every place you go today, someone is opening their mouth too much and too enthusiastically about “innovation” and setting an “innovative mindset”. While I am all for shifting the way of doing things to reach unheard-of, unthought-of conclusions, innovation – as those who really work with it know – is the end product – sometime after it is in the market or being used. Usually a person or team does not come up with an innovation by sitting in a workshop talking about what would be innovative. It comes from a lot of different places, angles and factors and can only be called “innovation” – or true innovation – after the fact when its results are known.

I would never have imagined, for example – and this is a point that lies at the heart of “innovation” – something happens that no one imagined, knew was needed or possible that changes the game somehow – either an entire market, a market segment or even whole industries and cultures – that we needed or would see some kind of major innovation in the area of consumer cosmetics and access to them. But the tech-news circuit is abuzz this week with the story of Grace Choi, a Harvard Business School grad, who realized that she could use cutting-edge 3D printing technology to print her own cosmetics.

Recently I started refreshing my basics of marketing knowledge by taking an online course via Coursera/Wharton. One of the cases the professor made was the changing face of consumer interaction with cosmetics. It used to be, if one were not going to the drugstore or big box store (e.g. Wal-mart, Target, etc.), the consumer had to ask for help from a salesperson, all the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter and each brand had its own area/station – meaning that there was not a lot of opportunity for testing and comparing things right next to each other or without having to interact on some meaningful level with another person. This perhaps created a more upscale, customer-oriented experience but for some it was inconvenient and intimidating. And completely out of the customers’ hands. The marketing model and the ways in which the brands were marketed to consumers started to change, though, when online shopping became the mainstream and when the retail experience changed by introducing stores like Sephora. Sephora is an emporium full of all kinds of different cosmetic brands, offering some staff to help out but mostly putting the testing and trying experience into the customers’ hands. To some degree, shopping online changed the process of buying cosmetics as well – but makeup is still such a trial-and-error thing – the expense of it makes one really want to test things out before committing to buying, which led to the very logical but very different retail experience in the form of a Sephora experience.

Now, thanks to some clever innovation, technology and someone simply saying, “Why not?”, we can see the next incarnation of this developing trend of putting the power (whether it is cosmetic creation or something entirely different) in consumers’ hands.

But now with her Mink printer, Choi has used 3D printer technology to remove the middle man (and its often exorbitant mark-up and lack of choice) from the equation, creating a whole new groundbreaking platform to think about. A consumer is at home and can select, print and try just about anything they want in the convenience of their home, the privacy of home, without breaking the bank. This has major implications, of course, for the multibillion dollar global cosmetics industry, especially as this innovation becomes mainstream and is perfected for consumer use. It’s early days – and maybe right now really will only appeal to Choi’s target audience (teen and young-adult women) but like everything that revolutionizes daily life, our purchasing habits – we will start to think about these things in a different way. Today we think about going to Sephora and testing out lots of colors, brands and styles. Yesterday we thought we’d go to the Chanel counter and have to ask for help at the local department store. And tomorrow we can print anything we want.

I exchanged a couple of surface-level Tweets with thinkspace (thinkspace) (after reTweeting their initial Tweet about the Mink printer) and they posed the question, “Would you buy the printer?” And the truth is, probably not now. With most things, I am not an early adopter – and I am not the target audience for this product in any case. I like to wait for things to be perfected and to offer a few more choices and options before I jump in and buy. But as someone who is always thinking about where innovation is born and how it unfolds in unexpected ways, this struck me as a game changer – even if people don’t start printing their own make-up en masse – it may shift the dynamic in terms of how cosmetics companies reach out to consumers, in the choices they offer – and that is just the beginning.

And it really could not come at a better time. In a 2012 McCann WorldGroup study, women expect brands to do more than they currently do “to help guide the process of discovery, choice, purchase and application of products, as beauty regimes become more complex”. If this is the feedback cosmetics companies are getting and they don’t respond, then I assume it’s about time that some other solution come along and deliver what people are asking for.

When I drink I don’t panic…

Do not play fast and loose with my heart…

Almost Lover – Soon Will Be Making Another Run?

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I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when I shouldn’t – and I keep trying to learn that lesson. But I am human and never do. It is just that I try to see the good in people, be compassionate – and then that gets pushed too far, I guess. But at least usually when I close the door, it’s closed – and I don’t regret it. Or the time or the things I have done with/for those people. But just as I cannot control it, I also know when I cannot continue it.

Fuck You It’s Over” – Glasvegas

I have realized that almost all people are completely out of control and indecisive – and I have to be the decisive one – or as America’s best-ever president (hahaha) Geo W Bush said, “I am the decider“. Haha. And I need to be the adult, the caretaker – not all people are always going to like that, but regardless of their role, at least the issue is fucking decided and it’s back to the drawing board. No wishy washy BS for weeks, months, years that prevent all parties involved from moving forward and taking responsibility for the things in their lives. That is what making decisions – even incremental ones – enables.

Almost Lover” – A Fine Frenzy

Goodbye my almost lover/goodbye my hopeless dream/I’m trying not to think about you/can’t you just let me be?/So long my luckless romance/my back is turned on you/shoulda known you’d bring me heartache/almost lovers always do…

The same actually applies in business. Not that I want to equate the misery of indecision in romantic entanglements with unclear business strategy – but when am I not talking shop? I recently decided to follow an online “basics of marketing” course as kind of a refresher since I work in marketing but was never a marketing student. One of the fundamental points made in creating a strategy is: you can’t do everything, you can’t cater to everyone. Right – this is why we segment and target. But the same principle applies in creating a general business strategy. You can’t really set seven major goals and expect all of them to be met. Choices need to be made and a focus decided. I see this lacking – a lot of talk about strategy and endless meetings about and revisions of strategy but nothing real and tangible that one can bite down on, take a chunk and work toward meaningfully.

At least in a relationship, you can bite down, take a chunk and work toward something if you really want to. But that is a matter of making the choice and focusing too. That’s my conclusion in my old age, sage wisdom and experience – not unlike the great wise, leadership of Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. Hahaha.