Top Lists of 2015

The 2015 Top List of Top Lists

As we wind down the last week of 2015 and writers across the globe struggle to tie it all together, readers have two choices: look back and rank order the things that happened last year or look forward and make some guesses on what’s going to happen in 2016. This is the first of those… a look back—perhaps with a sprinkling of the latter.

As I’ve indicated a few times here, I have a lot of disparate interests. This is one of the few posts that attempts to tie them all together. We’ll see how it goes. And now, without further ado, here’s my list of top lists for 2015.

Biggest Business Deals of the Year

In case you hadn’t heard, 2015 broke the record for M&A deals (not adjusted for inflation). With the fed moving to increase interest rates, a solid looking economy, and companies struggling to grow organically, mergers hit a frenetic pace this year.  (click graphic for corresponding article at WSJ)

Most of the top deals were made in High-Tech and Healthcare extending recent trends. Big winners? Investment Banks and SMBs looking to expand into the space left by firms more focused on growth than innovation or service.

Music

There is never a shortage of year end ranking of best albums. I could list five of them here off the top of my head. Rather, there’s this fantastic list that takes all the other lists and weighs them to come up with a sort of master list. Here’s where you find that.

http://www.albumoftheyear.org/list/summary/2015/

It would appear that the consensus runaway hit of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a ButterflyI wish I were a fan. I’m sure it’s amazing. Total respect, just not my thing.

I must say I’m surprised by Sufjan’s placement in slot 2. A good album that I largely overlooked this year (bad release timing for me), as beautiful as anything he’s released, but not something I expected to place so highly.

Three of my personal favs from the year round out the top 6: Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (4), Grimes’s Art Angels (5), and Jamie xx’s In Colour (6).

Other surprises are Carly Rae Jepson, New Order, and Florence + The Machine placing anywhere on the list, and the continued love for Adele who still has an amazing voice yet delivered what I feel is one of the most boring records of the year.

I’m still disappointed that Bully and The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die were left off most lists and that Eternal Summers continues to be overlooked.

My personal #1 of the year? Grimes’s Art Angels. I just can’t get enough.

Digital Retail

2015 was the year when everyone finally started taking mobile seriously. I say finally because some of us have been waving frantically about this trend for years. For many brands, the tipping point was 2015 when more than half of their internet traffic consistently came from a smartphone or other portable. Apps started making money—proving that most of the time a native experience beats one compromised for everything if you actually bother to take advantage of the device’s features.

An omnichannel approach became commonplace with more brands taking a more holistic approach to customer experience throughout their retail ecosystem. BOPUS and other bridging tactics broke down walls between inventory stashes.  More retail associates began walking the floors with digital devices and thus faster access to customer or product data. Location based services gave retailers more information and customers better deals.

Social Media became a sales channel. While the ramifications of this are still on the horizon, buy buttons on facebook, twitter, instagram, and pinterest followed wanelo into the clear monetization realm.

EMV confused a lot of people and maybe made in-store transactions safer. The only thing we know for sure is that it made a lot of money for the POS terminal companies.

Big Data and experience personalization got closer to being legitimate game changers. While this can be creepy if done wrong, retailers are inching forward with intelligent systems that add points to conversion rates, bump average order sizes by a few dollars, and build brand loyalty.

Forbes put together their list of the 10 biggest stories in retail for the year. The biggest one in my book was REI’s treatment of black friday and the general yawn that escaped from the public on that once hallowed day in retail. Cyber Monday and Black Friday were clearly huge online with big gains across the board, but in the physical world, it stepped back. Is this a trend? Will we see more companies go the way of REI since digital is clearly a more efficient channel for deals anyway?

I have a lot of thoughts on this looking forward and will put something together soon.

The Indie/Millennial Lifestyle

Paste magazine was once a real print magazine. Its editorial focus was on entertainment with a distinctly indie bent. Think Entertainment Weekly released once a month with better writing, focused on independent movies, music, TV, video games, and the like. I still have a CD booklet full of mix discs from them. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, like many print publications, the medium couldn’t be justified by the readership so they moved online.

They still have the same editorial focus though extended into food, drink, design, and books. Following another trend (the listification of everything) they now seem to organize every article as an ordered list of things. Irritating, yes, but for the purpose of my list of lists, perfect.

Here is their list of their top lists in every category they cover for the year.  It’s pretty darn comprehensive.

They even have a list of the top 20 most memorable soccer quotes of the year.

The Atlantic probably doesn’t consider itself an indie publication but it caters to the same ethnographic audience. They have a pretty killer best of 2015’s best of lists. My fav from the list?  76 Viral Photos from 2015 that were totally fake. You’re welcome.

Clearly not indie, but yet another list of lists from Rolling Stone. From states ranked by their official foods to presidential candidates ranked by their followers’ grammar, a little something for everyone.

Web Design/Development

While a lot of the web looks just like it did in 2014, a lot actually changed in 2015, albeit mostly under the hood.

One of the big surprises for me was the adoption rate of React by so many frameworks and developers. It’s pretty rare to see something new(ish) like this be adopted so quickly. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the fact that this came out of team Facebook is a bit shocking to me. Somehow I had it in my head that with their php starting point most of the technology they developed to prop up their systems and enhance performance was too specialized to be abstracted for usefulness outside of their system. Boy was I wrong. Even Flux is getting some love these days.

In August, the excellent training website Treehouse wrote a list of their big web dev trends for 2015.

On the design side of the house, the homogenization of websites continued in 2015. A website really only has two or three starting points now, and the end result is only subtly different from the rest of the web. Because so many sites rely on large, heavily branded lifestyle imagery or video on the homepage, there feels like a huge difference, but we seem to have settled on a design pattern that makes sense for 80% of the world. Content site? Use UI pattern 1. Ecommerce? UI pattern 2. Corporate marketing? UI pattern 3. The UX can change dramatically based on color, typography, transitions, image choices, and detail work, but overall the underlying patterns remain.

Coming from someone who started his career in the design world in the mid 90s, this all feels a little lazy. I don’t think the problem has been solved for every case yet. The proliferation of responsive websites designed around built-in framework UI patterns is largely to blame. Let’s face it, they look pretty good out of the box. And the client likes it. Why push for better?

The continued love of calligraphic typefaces is starting to chip away at the dominance of “flat” design popularized by Apple in the release of iOS 7. Textures, lighting, and naturalism all harmonize well with calligraphy and will likely get pushed further over the next year.

99 designs put out a pretty decent roundup of style trends and common tactics that work well within the new world order of standardized UI. Some interesting ways to break out of the same/same with nested interactions that don’t break the world order at the highest level.

Look for more hand drawn or otherwise illustrated yumminess as designers struggle to tell a unique story in a standard box.

Surprises

I was going to write something about each of these, but it feels like they’re pretty self explanatory. I can honestly say I saw none of these coming—at least not in the way that they actually did.

  • Ashley Madison
  • Volkswagen
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Price of Oil
  • ISIS
  • Donald Trump
  • Bill Cosby
  • Brian Williams

Gadgets

I’m a gear geek on top of everything else though it’s really more of a byproduct than an obsession. I love music, so I look for the best sound and features from headphones, digital players, turntables, amps, speakers, etc. I love movies, so getting a home theater setup with great sound and video quality has been an ongoing (as yet unachieved) goal. I’ve been a photographer for as long as I can remember, so we have film and digital cameras for both still and video in a variety of form factors. As a designer/developer for the web and apps, we have lots of hard drives, monitors, computers and digital devices around for testing, creation, and content consumption. Woodworking? Mountain Biking?  Running? Lots of gear. This year we dabbled  with electronics prototyping… So, yeah, gear.

That said, I don’t tend to buy lots of each item. I can’t tell you how my Grado SR80s compare to anything other than my Harmon Kardon NC cans, my Symphonized GLXY ear buds, or my Jaybird BlueBudsX wireless running earbuds.  For the record, they’re the best sounding of the bunch, but I wouldn’t use them in any of the situations in which I use the other ones. And vice versa.

Wired has a list of their top electronics money can buy. I don’t agree with them all, but it’s a decent, if broad, list.

WSJ has a much better list of the gadgets I’d have fun with. Though I’m somewhat disappointed that they felt it necessary to include a selfie stick.

Rounding out the best lists, CNN compiled some interesting things in theirs—like the Theta-S and Wove—though it’s a bit heavy on phones and watches.

Not a lot of new gadgetry on the market, though some solid improvements all around.

Et. Cetera

I didn’t go to town on books because it felt like a weak year in fiction, at least so far as what I read. I openly admit to being a year or two behind the curve in this category though. I’m just now getting to David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks which was released over a year ago. Next year I’ll discover how awesome the Nightingale, the Rocks, or Fates and Furies is, but this year the best books I read were Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I also thoroughly enjoyed Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a great novel. Fun story yes. I read and was disappointed by The Girl on the Train (apparently I’m the only one) The Fold by Peter Clines, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web. You can safely skip the last two.

Here’s a great tool over at NPR that lets you pick something you may like from the 2015 heap of new published words.

I’d cover TV, but I didn’t watch enough of it to have a real opinion. Same with movies. I see most of them a year after they come out. Except Star Wars. Because, Star Wars.

What did I miss?  What did I get wrong? What does your 2016 look like?

Creating Urgency

The Urgent Trap

Creating Urgency

The concept of the playoff game makes sense, in a way.  You have a league that’s far too big for every team to play each other on equal footing over the course of a season, so you take the top teams from what we call a regular season and have them play a series of games that decide who the top team is overall.

Not all sports force this convention though.  Most notably, in soccer, the English Premiere League (EPL) treats the entire season as a tournament of the 20 best teams with each team playing every other team once at home and away.  At the end, the team with the best record is the winner.

The EPL system is arguably the model for soccer the world over.  Understandably—in the world of sports, there are few leagues with more money, more rabid fans, more game day excitement.  So why is it so different here in the USA?

Let’s look at MLS (Major League Soccer, the premiere league in the USA) since they’re the newest kids on the block.  Currently there are 19 teams competing in MLS split into two conferences: east and west.  If each team played every other team twice over the year, once at home and once away, that would make for 36 matches.  The 2012 schedule has 34, a mere 2 shy of that goal. Regardless, MLS still crowns the top team with the “Supporter’s Shield,” what’s largely seen as a token trophy for the team that came out on top over the course of the entire grueling 8 month season.

Then they take the top five teams from each division and have playoffs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we learn that who wins MLS Cup—the prize positioned as the ultimate goal for every team over the course of the season.

So, in the US model, we have 34 matches which are fought over the course of 8 months all to identify 10 teams (out of 19) who will compete for the championship in a mere 4 weeks.  In the EPL model we have everyone play 38 matches with the winner, well, winning.

In the EPL model, every match is critical. You can count on your team to fight for every touch of every moment in every match.  If they end up in the last 3 spots in the table, they get relegated to the 2nd division creating even more urgency.

In the US model, teams are programmed to peak at the end of the season for the playoffs since more than half the teams are going to make the tournament anyway. There’s not a lot of urgency in early season matches or in the summer doldrums, and it shows in how teams play and the number of fans tuning in or showing up.

Urgency, it seems, is a big driver of eyeballs and as a result, revenue in sports.  MLS has focused on the American attention span of, say, 4 weeks, where the EPL manages to create even tension and interest over 10 months.

Buy NOW!

With so many things competing for our attention, is it any wonder that everyone is playing the urgency card?

Moreover, have we as retailers played it so many times that it’s lost its usefulness?

There are a number of websites whose entire business model is a hack on our seeming inability to make a decision unless our hand is forced with artificial (or very real) urgency.

Woot! Has been around roughly 8 years and one of the pioneers in the daily deal market. Woot! Started by selling overstock or refurbished electronics to web geeks (like me) at incredibly discounted prices.  The catch was you have to return to the site every day to see what’s being sold and you have at most 24 hours to make the purchase unless the product sells out.  This is something that frequently happens with really great deals.

You many not think of ebay using this hack, but in reality an auction is a similar method of trying to maximize sales by creating urgency or excitement around the sale of a item with limited quantities and finite purchasing windows.

When I worked with Tory Burch on their web store, we developed a sister store which was opened and closed for private sales a few times a year.  By invitation only, of course.  Urgency combined with exclusivity and limited quantities at a discount?  Catnip!  To the Tory Burch team’s credit, they resisted the urge to make this a common occurrence as they knew it would change their positioning online.

Perhaps the most classic example of creating urgency is to reduce the price of an item for a short period of time or until the stock is gone.  It’s become so ubiquitous, there are some people who won’t buy products until they go on sale.

Coupons, of course, are yet another way to add urgency, though it’s typically positioned as price cutting. Customers see two things on a coupon: the savings and the expiration date.

Companies like groupon and living social have taken the coupon model to new extremes with daily deals on everything from pet massages to dinner for two.

In fact, at this point I spend a good amount of time skimming past urgent headlines in my email box from companies offering me amazing but limited deals that I need to act on immediately. They’re rarely read.

Urgency obviously works, but has it become such an expectation have we inadvertently created an entire generation of consumers who are completely unmotivated and who won’t make a purchase unless they’re getting a deal or limited edition item?

Rising Expectations

Here’s a personal example of how my behavior changed as a result of marketing and promotions from a retailer.

I’ve been an avid photographer since I was 10 or 11 years old. My mother had a darkroom in the basement of our home growing up and I was hooked. One of my summer jobs was working at a MotoPhoto and I studied photography in college. You could say that documenting my life and creating visual art through photography has become interwoven with my DNA.

Though I’ve finally thrown myself into the digital world, I do still tend to process many of my photographs as black and white images.  You’d be shocked to know how long it took me to find someone who could keep a gray image gray (not blue, not green, not pink, but gray) when printing a photo book.  When I finally found one, I stuck with them even though they cost a bit more than the competition.  Quality was more important to me than price: I was willing to pay $10-$15 more for a book of images that matched my creative intent color for color.

After about a year of using them exclusively for all of my book printing—both professionally and personally—they started sending me coupon codes. As a good little consumer, I reacted positively: I made a couple of books that I might not have otherwise made because 50% off is a really really good deal when you’re buying a $50 book.

The coupons started coming more frequently.  I started to try and time my projects around coupons.

The retailer reacted by limiting the coupons to higher priced items only, leaving out almost all the soft cover smaller editions which is what I used professionally. This kind of made me upset and feel like I wasn’t getting a deal anymore.

And that’s one way you can take a happy customer and drive them away.

I started looking at other options.  I chatted with other photographers on forums and a consensus seemed to form around a competing site.  I tried them out and found equal (if not higher) quality, better base pricing, more professional options, and a more consistent turn-around time.  I haven’t looked back since.

Is Urgent the New Normal?

I’ve watched more than one retailer depress their everyday sales by offering too-frequent free shipping offers.  I’ve heard customers complain that the daily deal they bought won’t ever get used and they’re starting to ignore the emails they get from Gilt, Rue la la, and Hautelook.

It really is starting to feel like urgent is the new normal.  So what’s the next tool we can pull from the bag?

How you position your brand in the eyes of your customer through pricing strategies, product selection, lifestyle associations, and customer experience has a lasting impact on your relationship.  Brands that go too far creating urgency but have a strong relationship with customers built on other branding criteria will have a much higher success rate when they pull back on those promotions. Those who’ve built their business on the cornerstone of urgency are faced with creating it every single day.

For companies like Woot! Or soccer leagues like the EPL who seem to have though that out from day one, it’s not proving to be a problem. For those who were late to the game or haven’t considered its context in a long-term strategy it’s a whole lot of work for relatively small payout.

Fortunately for retailers there are many many many ways to move the needle on sales volume and average order sizes.  For the MLS though, they’re faced with trying to get players, coaches, managers, and fans excited about the regular season by increasing the quality of play and the overall game day experience. It’s going to be hard until every match matters.