Putting Words in Your Mouth

15 May

side by sideThese two pictures have a lot in common: both were taken at airports, both are retail displays, both display the same type of product. And yet, there’s something critically different. The left photo describes KIND Bars as “sweet treats,” while the right describes Clif Bars as “healthy snacks.”

Fundamentally, these are similar products. They’re both essentially trail mix bars, with ingredients like nuts, fruits and chocolate. Both manufacturers market their bars as healthy snacks, touting functional ingredients that add protein, antioxidants, etc. But when they’re given such explicit descriptions, suddenly the bars seem to serve different roles. KIND bars become an indulgence, while Clif Bars maintain a healthy halo.

These displays weren’t actually side-by-side; I happened to notice them a few days apart in San Francisco and Cleveland. But, let’s pretend they were next to each other. If I was trying to find a healthy snack in the sea of airport junk food, would I grab from the left, or the right? You can imagine the scenario where someone is making an impulse buy, and sees the two products with their respective signs. Let’s assume they know very little about either brand, and the signage helps them navigate their decision. Clif Bars would seem like a healthy choice, while KIND Bars would seem like a sweet pick-me-up. People buying the Clif Bar may pat themselves on the back for a “good” choice, while the KIND Bar buyers probably still pat themselves on the back for buying the KIND Bar instead of a candy bar.

health.pngThese displays are effectively positioning the products. They’re telling us how to categorize the options in our heads. They’re overruling whatever is written on the actual packaging, by framing the bars for us before we even go to pick them up. Take a look at how KIND describes its bars on the brand’s website. A far cry from indulgence, right? I’m sure the brand wouldn’t be happy to find its bars labeled as a sweet treat at the Cleveland airport.

When we shop, the retail environment is full of visual cues intended to influence what we buy. But while most grocery stores label their aisles with straightforward category names (deli, canned goods, etc.), these airport retailers have taken it a step further, classifying products by their perceived role. It’s a tad unfair to the product manufacturers, to be sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to consumers, because we should be making our own choices before we buy, regardless of what signs or packaging tell us. But if I were the KIND account manager responsible for airport retail – I’d reach out to that Cleveland store and fix this display situation, ASAP.

The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr

Via YPulse

According to marketing agency YPulse, 50% of 18-33 year-olds say that getting a “like” on Facebook gives them a rush. This number goes down for younger audiences- but YPulse suspects it’s actually because “likes” are second-nature for them. They’ve grown up in a world of likes and retweets, so it’s possible that social media “affirmation” registers as a given. If you’re a teenager, you may not know life without social media. But for the rest of us, let’s think back to the days before we posted our lives and thoughts online. In a given day, we may have gotten compliments on our outfits, caught up with friends, or gotten into debates on heavy topics. But we didn’t have such a centralized, public platform to tell people about our lives. And so we didn’t have such instant access to affirmation- or lack thereof.

I believe that social media is net positive. On a given day, I may chat with a friend in France, pick up recipes from a friend in Los Angeles, learn about Chinese culture from a friend in Shanghai. I get to see baby pictures from friends who live far away, learn about events to attend, feel a sense of community with others living in San Francisco. Sometimes I worry I spend too much time online, sometimes I wonder about posting our lives as content– but overall, I think social media adds good to my world.


Facebook briefly tested a tool that summed up likes for you. I joked about it- but also kind of liked it…


And if YPulse had surveyed me, I too would have answered “yes” to the question about getting a rush from likes. I love getting likes on social media and on my blogs. I like getting compliments in real life too. Who doesn’t? It feels good. When I post things on social media and nobody interacts with them, I definitely wonder why. It doesn’t impact my self-perception in any way, but I do catch myself analyzing what drove the lack of interaction. Was it simply that Facebook’s algorithm didn’t show my post to enough people? Was it the topic I wrote about? Was it the time of day when I posted?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the quantified self: using technology to record data about how we live, in the hopes of self-improvement. You can track every step you take, every minute of sleep. I understand how this can help us improve. But I hope we don’t also enter a phase of quantified self-worth. I hope that, despite the rush we get from people affirming us online, we remember that our value doesn’t depend on likes or retweets or shares. I hope we can reap the benefits of social media, without letting the potential downsides soak in. I hope we can continue to separate social media content from real life. I hope that in a time of “influencer strategy,” we remember that we’re more than our likes.

I’ll still get a rush if people like this post. And I’ll be excited if anyone chooses to message me about it, whether they agree or not. But I’m personally trying to see social media engagement as a potential conversation, and not a game or popularity contest. If nobody likes this blog post- so be it. There’s always next time.


On The Other Side of Town

21 Apr 20160413_102725

Last week, I took a vacation to the other side of San Francisco. I rented an Airbnb in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, a little under 7 miles from my own apartment.

I realize you may find this odd- and I do understand. With so many compelling places to travel, staying close to home may sound like a missed opportunity. But I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of different “versions” of a city. Even if you and I live in the same city, our experience will be markedly different depending on our neighborhoods. Living in a different part of the city shifts your daily “center of gravity.” It’s what you see, where you go, who you meet. It’s the lens that defines how you experience the city, and how you interpret the city’s culture. Living on the western edge of San Francisco vs. the eastern edge literally means seeing everything from a different point of view. Your relation to the city’s landmarks shifts, and your conception of the city’s heartbeat shifts, too.

When I travel I love to wander, trying to uncover the threads of that city’s life. I do a pretty good job wandering San Francisco, too, but I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live across the city. I’ve wondered what it’d be like to have an distinct center of San Francisco gravity.


Looking toward Sutro Tower

And so, I embarked on vacation to the other side of town. I picked the Outer Sunset because its character and composition are very distinct from where I live. The area has always intrigued me, for some reason, and I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live there. It’s close to the ocean, and has a bit of a surfer-like, laid-back feel. I live in the midst of city congestion, near a street full of bars, and narrow streets. I love my neighborhood, but I certainly wouldn’t call it relaxing.


Headed to the ocean

My boyfriend and I spent a few days wandering the area’s nooks and crannies, letting ourselves unwind. It turned out to be the perfect getaway for what I needed, in that moment. The right dose of change, and the right level of inspiration. We crossed off several things on my San Francisco “to do list” that I’d just never made it to before. We spent time at coffee shops, my boyfriend working and me writing. We went to neighborhoods I’d never seen before. We walked along the ocean, looking toward the same San Francisco landmarks we usually see, but from a new perspective. We got a taste of what it’d be like to have a different San Francisco life.

I’d love to do this over and over, trying out the myriad areas of San Francisco that interest me. In reality, I know my next vacation will take me further away, because there are just so many places I want to explore. Still, I hope this can become an annual tradition- stepping out just far enough beyond my own slice of the city, to shift my center just a little, to change my point of view just enough to reflect on the many shades of San Francisco.

When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong

3 Apr

What do Cheez-It crackers and eyeliner have in common?


From a friend’s Amazon shopping page

Very little, you’d think. And yet, a friend recently posted this picture to Facebook. As she tried to buy eyeliner on Amazon, the “frequently bought together” algorithm suggested she add Cheez-Its to her cart. All for the excellent price of $6.77!

Made you laugh, right? Because these two products are so unrelated, this “suggestion” seems totally off-base. But if you think about your in-store shopping habits and translate that to the internet- it starts to make more sense.

Physical retailers often merchandise associated items near each other. A classic case of this “adjacency” strategy is putting peanut butter and jelly on the same shelf. Next-level adjacency strategy is used to “suggest” items you might want to add into your cart more spontaneously. For example, Trader Joe’s sells packaged olives next to its wine display, because they want you to trigger your interest in buying olives to go with your drinks. Another adjacency strategy comes via promotional displays: for example, a s’mores bundle promotion I wrote about a few years ago.

When you’re shopping online, physical merchandising and browsing are replaced by dropdown menus, filters and algorithms. These algorithms try to connect your current behaviors, past behaviors, and what other people “like you” are doing. Algorithms are supposed to be helpful, but they can’t always distinguish between patterns, and purpose. When the algorithm notices a trend, it takes advantage of that information. And so, while the Amazon algorithm “knows” that a lot of people apparently buy eyeliner and crackers at the same time, it doesn’t know why. The connection it’s making isn’t completely logical, and the product it suggested to my friend  didn’t make sense within the context of her shopping purpose. She was shopping for makeup- not food. So seeing food pop up on the side felt nonsensical and out of place.

But wait: there’s one more physical shopping “truth” we need to consider. You may think about makeup as a discrete category, but you’re also very likely to buy it while shopping for other things. Think back to your last physical trip to a big box retailer like Target- what ended up in your cart? I always marvel at the seeming “randomness” of what goes into my cart at places like that, everything from flour to soap to greeting cards. But unless you’re on a very mission-driven shopping trip, or at a specialty store, you’re likely shopping for more than 1 thing at a time. And once you walk out of Target, your cart may very well contain the seemingly unlikely duo of makeup and food.

So what we’re seeing here is a clash between our physical shopping behaviors, and our online shopping behaviors. When we shop online, we’re often in “research mode,” looking for helpful information. We expect websites to know our frame of mind, and cultivate a relevant experience for us. We expect to see helpful reviews and product information about the category we’re focused on, not a different category we may start shopping for later.

Annies SaltinesWhen I tried to replicate my friend’s experience on my own account, I saw a lot of makeup suggestions- and then a suggestion for Annie’s Saltines. Which likely means that people do use online shopping to “stock up” on their essentials across category. And yet, from a merchandising perspective, we expect more from our online retailers. If they have our data, we want them to use it well. For these websites to properly influence our behavior, they need to take into account differences in our mindset as we go through the ecommerce journey- and not just suggest that “eyeliner + Cheez-Its = the perfect assortment”.

Whatever Happened to Predictability?

19 Mar

If you want a giggle, go Yelp the “Full House” house. It currently sits at 3.5 Yelp stars- not so good for a “local flavor” entry.

fulllllI don’t remember how I ended up on this Yelp page. Like all good internet rabbit holes, I must have searched something, then just kept clicking away. I tend to get sucked into things like forums, because they provide such interesting insight into human behavior. I see Yelp as a sort of a social experiment where we can learn about people’s biases, preferences, and perceptions.

fullhouse_house_01The “Full House” house, or FHH as I am going to call it, is featured in the opening credits to the original “Full House” show. It’s where we’re told the main characters of the show “lived” throughout the show’s run. It’s not actually where the show was shot, of course, because that’s just how TV works. But it’s become closely tied to our memories of the show, and many a San Francisco tourist sets out to find it. The show’s opening also includes shots of Alamo Square, a park nearby that host beautiful Victorian homes known as the “Painted Ladies.” So a lot of people think the FHH is IN Alamo Square, which it isn’t- it’s a 20 minute walk away. Many Yelp reviews point this out so that future inspired tourists don’t make the same mistake of going to Alamo Square to see the FHH.

As I scanned through the FHH Yelp reviews, I saw 2 key perspectives:

  1. You owe your childhood self a trip to see the FHH. It is a must-do if you’re in SF.
  2. It’s too disappointing to visit the FHH because it doesn’t look like it did on the show. Plus, its location away from the Painted Ladies is a disappointment in itself.

Now, let’s unpack that a bit. First off: you “owe” yourself a trip to see this house, because nostalgia is a powerful thing. We all know the Full House characters aren’t real people, and that nobody we’d recognize has ever lived in this home. Yet, nostalgia for seeing this house within a specific media context is enough to make it relevant. This is why pop culture-themed tours thrive: Sex and the City themed tours in NYC, Lord of the Rings tours in New Zealand. Even though we know movies and shows aren’t “real,” they feel real to us. So we seek out experiences that remind us of the emotion and joy we feel. Visiting the FHH is supposed to give us pleasure, let us reminisce, and make us feel happy about a childhood icon.

But- it can also be disappointing to chase this nostalgia. As many reviewers have noted, the house doesn’t look like it did in those opening credits many years ago. The current owners have repainted it. Plus, they’ve put up trees that sort of block the view. So when you’re trying to peep on the house, it’s harder than you’d expect- and it doesn’t look “right” anyway.

The Yelp reviews span a range of tones. Some reviewers are totally self-aware that they’re dissing someone’s private home for not matching their own hopes. Others seem genuinely upset that the owners have changed the house. And some are just annoyed at the house’s location on a “boring” street rather than in the iconic Alamo Square.

What is this, exactly? Is it entitlement? Or just sadness that memories don’t sync with reality? This happens a lot with nostalgia. You have these built-up memories of how something used to be/taste/feel, and you treasure those memories with passion. So when you re-encounter those memories years later, if it doesn’t match what you thought you’d feel- you feel let down. We’re seeing lots of reboots and sequels these days- but many of them flop, when they don’t match expectations for what they should look like, based on pop culture memories.

In reality, the current FHH owners don’t owe our nostalgia anything. They must have realized what they were getting themselves into when they bought this house- and hey, maybe they painted it gray to deter people from wanting to bother. I’m sure they were the least happy campers when the “Fuller House” series was announced! But at the end of the day, we don’t have a right to be mad at them. The people writing these negative Yelp reviews are simply encountering what happens when reality doesn’t match memory.

So as the Full House theme song alludes- predictability isn’t always a given. And when we latch on too hard to “how things were,” we get a bit flustered by how things are today. And while the FHH has a measly 3.5 stars, the Mrs. Doubtfire House has 5- because it still looks “as it did in the movie.”

Food Is Not Content (and neither is your life)

13 Mar

From People.com

Remember those crazy complicated, towering milkshakes that made the Internet rounds earlier this year? Available in flavors like Cotton Candy, they included so many add-ins and add-ons that they literally rose above their glasses, in a seeming feat of structural engineering. They blew up on sites like Buzzfeed and were shared all over social media as people ogled the wonder that is a super tall, super crazy milkshake. Lines formed outside their source, NYC’s Black Tap, as people clamored for their chance to try one of these milkshakes themselves.

And, of course, to get a picture doing so.

This same story has played out dozens of times. Whether it’s croissant/muffin hybrids dubbed “cruffins” or croissant/donut hybrids dubbed “cronuts”- we keep seeing food-focused media frenzies. The word gets out, lines form, people get their hands on the treasured treat- and then the onslaught of social media posts begins.

city bakery

An example of a time I chased down a certain bakery and it lived up to the hype. And yes, this picture got lots of likes. (City Bakery, NYC)

Of course, my post title isn’t entirely true. Food CAN be content. I personally have a baking blog, so clearly I think food is worthy of clicks and discussion. And I am totally one to chase the latest food trends, even if it means going out of my way to find a renowned bakery or restaurant. But, when foods become trendy, you tend to see photos glorifying the creations for their structure, their combination of flavors, their sheer creativity. You don’t see many posts talking about the food itself, though. That isn’t super hard for me to believe: I’ve been to the home of the aforementioned Cruffin and seen people spend more time photographing their food than eating it. But after the milkshake frenzy, I got curious what people had to say about the milkshakes themselves. So I Yelped the restaurant. Some rave reviews, but many posters conceded that the milkshakes looked better than they tasted. Once you got past how cool it looked, you realized it was actually pretty hard to eat and perhaps too complicated to taste great. It was more about the “WOW” picture than the “WOW!” flavor. But while their Yelp reviews told the truth, I’d bet you their Facebook shots simply said the “WOW!” part without the fine print on taste.

Now, I’m not trying to diss Black Tap: I haven’t been and can’t speak for its shakes myself. I’m simply using this as an example of a broader trend: accepting an experience as valuable because of what it shows others, rather than what it gives YOU. I’m noticing a trend toward thinking of our lives as “content.” When you start doing things to get the perfect photo for Facebook, and not because you really want to- that starts to cross a murky line. When you get excited to try a food trend so you can show everyone you had it- even though the food tasted terrible- you start to put real life enjoyment behind social media envy. When you tell your kid to smile, even though they’re crying, so you can get the right shot for Facebook- what does that mean about us as humankind?

It’s one thing to capture great moments or great meals or great friends. All things I love to do. It’s another thing entirely to put how your life looks, above how it feels. To plan your moments or meals around what you want others to see. I think we’re still learning how these mindsets shift our behaviors, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Whether we seek the perfect beach shot or the perfect milkshake, it’s easy to get caught up thinking our lives are content. And the more we think about how our life looks to others, we’re probably forgetting how our lives feel to ourselves.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking “oh this would look great on Facebook.” And I take a step back, put my camera away, and refuse to let myself post it. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s effective to knock myself back into the moment, and into judging whether I’m actually enjoying the experience- or caught up wanting to show others how awesome it “looks.”

Craving a City

14 Feb Chicago

Sometimes I wake up craving a city. I get out of bed, and imagine that when I walk out the door, I’ll find myself someplace other than San Francisco. Sometimes I’m in a Chicago mood. Other times it’s Madrid. Just last week, it was Arkansas.

I’m not entirely sure what drives these “cravings.” I’ve lived a good number of places by now, and each one does remind me of a particular stage of my life. I’ve also been a business traveler for so many years- and the first few years, I was on the road every week, headed to the same place for months at a time. So those places factor into my city cravings, too. They make it messier, in fact, since I never really lived there, but went there so often. I have no roots in those places, but I do have a bond. Sometimes I find it hard to grasp that my story ties to so many places, and that my life has been such a web of locations, projects, people. I suppose it’s common in today’s world, but at times I wonder what it’d be like to live in 1 place your entire life, and leave only for vacation.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought feeling like I should be in Chicago made a lot of sense. After all, I’d just spent a few years there, and I barely had any friends here yet. So I’d regularly miss Chicago, miss my friends, and feel like I was in the wrong place. I’d expect to walk outside my building and see the bricks of Lincoln Park, the curve of Lakeshore Drive, the grandeur of downtown Chicago. Instead I’d walk outside to light gray sidewalks, the ascent of the Fillmore hill, the elaborate Queen Anne homes. I’d get on the 45-Union to go to work, rather than the 134-Stockton/Lasalle Express. I’d walk up to a 4-story office building, rather than a skyscraper kissing the Chicago sky.

Nostalgia is a simple explanation for these “cravings.” And it can be triggered by people, moods, weather. Whenever the weather hits a specific shade of crisp, it takes me back to St. Louis, and to my first true “fall” season, the first fall I spent away from Southern California where the seasons blend together.

And yet- it’s more than nostalgia, I think. I can easily wish to be back on 2012’s vacation to Hawaii, but that’s longing, not a feeling of belonging. When I wake up with city cravings, I feel like I’m in the wrong place- that I was meant to be somewhere else that day. The Arkansas example is a good one. Back in 2010, I spent several months commuting to/from Bentonville, Arkansas every week for a consulting project. I certainly didn’t lay roots there- we stayed in a hotel each Monday to Thursday, and flew back home Thursday nights. And yet, thinking about Bentonville takes me to a specific mindset and feeling. When I woke up last week and imagined I’d be stepping into the lobby of the Aloft Bentonville rather than my San Francisco home- it surprised me a great deal. For some reason, I just felt like I was supposed to be in Arkansas that day.

Every city has its own rhythm and flavor. When you walk through its streets, you feel a certain way. The building blocks of a city combine to produce something excitingly distinct: the architecture, people, tastes, smells. The way the air feels. The way the people interact. And when you spend time in one of these places, it sticks with you. Something about that experience seeps into your soul, hooks into your psyche. And once it’s there, it’s there. To be uncovered someday, perhaps by a sign, a memory, a mood.

A look at some of the places I’ve called home:



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