Saturday, October 11, 2008

Eureka! The Web, Fresh Direct, Virgina Heffernan, the Campaign and Me

This morning I was indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading the Sunday Times Magazine on Saturday while my kids were watching tv, when I stopped at Virginia Heffernan's column about media. This week, she talks about Fresh Direct and it starts with the old chestnut of an anecdote, "I was on a panel and I didn't have anything to say."

Don't you just love the anti-elite honesty of a flumoxed Times columnist? I do. I fall for it all the time. Only this time, as I read on, I was like, "Huh, she really didn't know anything about it."

Heffernan's story revolved around her big idea (plainly put during the panel, of course) that web sites/advertisers that sell one thing on line should really sell other stuff, too. Her case in point: Fresh Direct. Fresh Direct, New York City's online grocer, not only has groceries, it has recipes, tips, videos, you name they got it. See! Heffernan tells us, she was right! A web site has to sell stuff other than what it's selling to keep people there!

Back in the day, I edited web sites. Mostly, I worked on new sites and those being overhauled. I even did some web consulting. And can I just say? In every single meeting about every single would-be web site or redesign, every single person had a different nifty idea about what we could do. Forget about bells and whistles, there could be Thises and Thats and the Other Things! They'd make the site sticky! They'd keep those eyeballs interested! And everyone would come back because there'd be so much to see!

Sometimes I feel like I personally sunk the very first web site I worked on with all my attention to the Thises and Thats (about the history food) and scant attention to what should have been its core editorial function: Menus. Granted, my narcissism on this point could be eclipsed by the collapse of the Asian stock market in the late 90s, but still. In any case, here's my point. A web site, like any business, has to do one thing before it can do everything else. Remember when amazon just sold books? Granted,as Heffernan points out, sometimes selling other stuff is important. At concerts merchandising makes money for the band and ticket sales pay everyone else. But grocery shopping is not the same concert going. Now that I've got to this point, I feel emotionally redeemed, but it's not all that interesting, is it?

So now, instead of wrapping up or talking about how much I don't like Fresh Direct there's something else I want to say: Selling groceries the way you sell concert stuff is kind of like presenting politicians the way you sell movies. Instead of focusing on substance, the advertising emphasizes feeling. Instead of discussing the complexity of the issues, the appeal hovers on our basest response to a smile, raised eyebrow--or fist, as the case may be. It's not new to talk about the devolution of our political discourse, but it may be worth noting, again, how people who sell things get excited about selling more! and in different ways! instead of focusing on the most basic stuff. And people who sell politicians do the same thing. In trying to make this very analogy, I'm contributing to the problem, because we shouldn't make our political choices the way we make our commercial ones, even though in reality, we kind of pretty much do. This also is not new. But Heffernan defended her personal revelation as something new, and her editors didn't stop her. And I guess now there are no editors to stop me, either.

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