Marketing and the English Language

Last week we had our first team meeting of the year. Each of us shared two ambitions for the department. One thing we think we should do more; one thing we think we should do less.

We talked a lot about the need for more inspiration. We all recognised the value of getting outside, literally and metaphorically, and acknowledged how hard that can be in the face of deadlines, meetings and our desk-bound habits. I’ve written a lot before about why I think this is important and it’s great to work with people who want to find ways to carve out the time and space for this to happen.

But one person called out something different. It was a striking ‘less of’ in the midst of a great deal of ‘more of’. He wanted to see us resort less often to what he called ‘wank words’.

We all know wank words. They’re everywhere. Working at a digital agency means you’re particularly susceptible to them, placed as we are at the intersection of marketing-ese, digital innovation, business bullshit and office life. Each of those four realms brings its own unique flavour of nonsense. If you’re not careful they can become your core diet.

We all hate wank words but find we can’t help using them. They’re infectious. Quarantine is almost impossible.

There are different categories of wank, of course. I enjoy a humorous digitally-derived portmanteau as much as the next twerson, but even I draw the line at phygital. What makes monstrosities like this truly horrifying is knowing that soon we will have become used to it. In fact it will become indispensable. We hate wank words until the very moment we come to rely on them. Can you remember how the word advertorial made you feel slightly ill when you first heard it? Doesn’t stop you using it now. In fact, there’s no better, snappier way of describing… well, an advertorial.

Imagine if that happened with phygital? Doesn’t bear thinking about.

But it might come to pass. And we’d only have ourselves to blame. When it comes to allowing wank words across the acceptability threshold marketing doesn’t just have form, it’s a serial offender. We’re willing victims, happily inviting the vampire into our home. Once bitten, twice well what did you expect?

But the most obvious examples are not even the most pernicious. In our world we’re past masters Not content with inventing words like engagement and aspirational, we then over- and mis-use them until they are entirely drained of value or meaning. At least we know what advertorial means. Engagement is not so much a word as a vessel for whatever we want it to convey.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Now we have words like agile and lean. In their original technological context, the place from which advertising stole them, these words have very concrete meanings. Now they’re just connotation carriers, emblematic of the anti-advertising brigade that works in advertising.

And, well, growth hacker? Hmmmmm.

I think this is important. This is the stuff that surrounds us. Language is elemental. We need to make sure that it isn’t doing us harm.

Fish don’t see water, but it still needs cleaning now and again.

This isn’t all our fault, of course. It’s been happening for decades. Towards the end of last year I finally read an essay I should have read years ago – Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. It is witty, angry, incisive writing. It is writing about writing, a critique of the general laziness that Orwell saw setting in to the way people used language.

The second paragraph contains this:

An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Slovenly writing, Orwell says, has two major characteristics:

The first is staleness: the other is lack of precision. The writer has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no-one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house.

We’ve all seen emails and presentations like that.

Hell, we’ve all written emails and presentations like that. Replace politics with marketing and you realise just how entrenched our bad linguistic habits are.

Orwell then lists a “catalogue of swindles and perversions… the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged”:

Dying metaphors: “worn-out metaphors which have lost all their evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”

Operators, or verbal false limbs: “the elimination of simple verbs [with] some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render… Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of…”

Pretentious diction: “it is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.”

Meaningless words: “Words like romantic, plastics, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless. When one critic writes of a work’s ‘living quality’, while another writes of ‘its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.”

What does all this have to do with us?

Orwell is talking about the political use of language. He is interrogating “language as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought.” As client-facing strategists, this is also what we do. We recruit clients to our cause. We use language to define the ideas we believe in. We want them to believe in those ideas, so we require clear, precise language to convey our zeal and give shape to our vision of the future.

We think on behalf of our clients. We must think clearly. Therefore we must express ourselves clearly as well.

See if you recognise your own habits in this final passage. I know I did. The creeping sense of shame I felt when I first read it is something I try and hold on to. It might force me to change.

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists of gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this writing is that it is easy. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonius.

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

I think my colleague is right. Wank words are terrible., and Orwell shows us why. Our ideas are our currency. We owe it to ourselves not to allow meaningless phrases to construct our thoughts. It means they wield too much power. It means we’re not in control of what we want to say.

And that’s definitely something we want to see less of.

What should go on your CV?

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything here. I think after writing JukeboxDiary for the first half of the year and then starting in a new role I think blogging has taken a back seat.

But I’ve missed it, and I hope to write more this year. To kick things off I thought I’d share two stories I heard right at the end of last year.

Actually it’s the same story, told twice.

One story was something my wife heard on the radio. It was about a woman who is very keen on Christmas decorations. She put them up all over the house, including outside. Bright, flashing, no doubt pretty garish, Christmas lights.  The sort of Christmas lights that might possibly create a safety hazard to passing aircraft.

I can’t think the neighbours were too keen. Neither was the woman’s husband, apparently.

Just before Christmas, the woman received a letter from the nearby airport. One in the Midlands, I can’t quite remember where. The letter made the polite but official request that she take her Christmas lights down.

They were creating a safety hazard to passing aircraft.

The second story was told to me by someone in my team. She is funny and smart. She writes funny and smart content for brands that we work with. When she was young she desperately wanted a TV for her bedroom. Her Mum wouldn’t let her. My colleague didn’t like that answer and so she did some research. She looked into what benefits there were to children watching TV.

The internet, as is its way, gave her what she needed. TV can be good for education, expanding horizons, social currency, the need for mental downtime… all sorts of things my colleague felt pretty sure wouldn’t convince her Mum.

So rather than try to persuade her Mum, she wrote a letter. But she didn’t write it as herself. She pretended she was a child psychologist. In this letter the child psychologist advised her Mum of the benefits of TV to children. He recommended that, if she had any, she should probably think about letting them have a TV in the room.

It didn’t work. Her Mum saw straight through it.

But the woman with the Christmas lights didn’t.

Because it wasn’t the airport that sent her the letter. It was her husband.

One story, told twice. Both instances are fantastic instances of creativity.

The woman’s husband and my colleague were in the same position. Their point of view was being ignored. They tried to overcome indifference to their message with an imaginative leap, executed with smarts and humour. They each made sure the message came from someone their audience was more likely to earn their attention than they were themselves.

That’s creativity.

How many of us would thought of it? How many would have dared go through with it?

I don’t know what the woman’s husband does for a living. But I’m willing to bet he doesn’t put the Christmas lights story on his CV.

But anyone who could come up with an idea like the child psychologist’s letter should do just that. They will always have a place in advertising.

Materials and the message

My wife brought home a card the other day. It was for us to send to some friends who live overseas.

It was a postcard made of wood.

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That it was made of wood made it more daunting, somehow. What we wanted to say was important to us, of course, but then it would have been even if the card had been made of paper.

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Somehow, committing words to a material significantly thicker than paper got me thinking for significantly longer.

I drafted some words in a notebook.

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Then I drafted some more.

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With each version the sentiments expanded, as tends to happen. As they did the capacity of a piece of wood seemed to shrink even further in comparison. Through re-writes the words eventually compacted until they existed at a scale the canvas could accommodate. I had my final draft.

But still the permanence of the wood caused me to pause. I wrote first in pencil.

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Then I wrote over the pencil line in thick pen, the one I use for sketching and note-taking at work. It usually captures thoughts as they emerge, recording them for later when they can (hopefully) coalesce into something more tangible. This time the pen worked in the opposite way, formalising something I’d wrestled with already.

Here’s the final version.

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My handwriting is still terrible, which is a source of some regret. But I found it interesting how much more considered I was about the content when faced with a different kind of material to capture it. I was far less automatic, far more concerned with posterity. Not for myself but for the message.

No bad thing, I think.

 

The power of patience

Distractions are everywhere. They pop up on my screens, they appear at my shoulder. Distractions stop me from doing that thing I thought would be a great idea because… wait, what was I doing again?

This is not just a work thing, it’s a tempo-of-life thing. I imagine most of us wish we were more resilient in the face of distractions. As the recent post by Matt Steel highlights, enforced slowness can be an effective technique, not to mention a life- and career-saving antidote to the constant sense of obligation to say yes.

But the quality of our work suffers too. If you’re perpetually distracted you spend all your time at surface level. It can be difficult to penetrate the problem with any depth. Depth yields insight, and insight is what differentiates your solution from that of anyone else.

Matt says the output of his design studio was beginning to look the same as the pressure of too many projects and too much responsibility invaded and occupied the mental territory where creativity lives. That will resonate with anyone who’s job it is to solve problems in powerfully new ways. How do you carve out the time it takes to see things differently?

Another post I read this week hit a similar note. It is by art historian Jennifer Roberts. She teaches at Harvard and writes eloquently of the need to help her students ‘decelerate’. If they are to learn effectively, they need to be equipped with ‘temporal discipline’.

“In the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences. When will students work quickly? When slowly? When will they be expected to offer spontaneous responses, and when will they be expected to spend time in deeper contemplation?”

One task she gives her students is to spend exactly three hours looking at the artwork they’re going to write about. Three hours, in a gallery, looking only at one painting. It sounds absurd but this is the kind of discipline that reveals something that others don’t see.

Ultimately this is not about about resistance. Nor is it merely a palliative or pastoral concern. It is about empowerment. The imperative to taking back control is about how effective you want to be.

“Where patience once indicated a lack of control, now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment—perhaps now patience is power.”

I urge you to watch the video or read Jennifer Roberts’ write up of her video here.

But don’t worry if you don’t have the time. I know you’re busy.

TwitterxTV

I went to a Twitter event last night called #TwitterxTV. This is the write-up I posted on our agency group’s intranet. 

 

​Last night Twitter revealed to UK agencies and advertisers new opportunities that will significantly enhance how brands can use the platform to engage with users.

Tracking technology and new advertising platforms have been combined to make the most of the way audiences interact with TV. Twitter freely admits this development took them by surprise, but they’ve more than cottoned on now and it is clearly where they see the opportunity for revenue growth.

The network’s proposition is that Twitter and TV together offer a multiplier effect that offers not only new targeting opportunities for brands, but also, according to Deb Roy, a new kind of creative platform for storytelling.

Deb Roy is Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist, over from the states for the event. Deb is a MIT Media Lab guy and co-founder of Blue Fin, the technology company founded in 2008 and subsequently bought by Twitter, which  developed analytics technology I guess Twitter use to power the new platforms shared yesterday.

 

Twitter and TV working together

Twitter sees itself an entirely new form of communication. It is public, conversational and live. And, of course, it does all of this at an increasing scale. User growth and increasing volume of tweets means traffic is 25% up this year.

Perhaps this explains why Twitter is now a mainstream an accompaniment to watching TV. The X Factor is the obvious example, and this year 75% of traffic during the season’s first live show came from mobile devices. ITV have responded and have their own Twitter wheel within the show, capturing the commentary as it happens.

The phenomenon is more widespread and more habitual than ever. The synchronous experience of TV is now amplified by this social platform – viewers virtually interacting with the show and with each other as the experience unfolds.

We heard that 40% of Twitter traffic coincides with peak-time TV. 60% of users use Twitter while they’re watching TV. Over 90% of public conversations online about TV happen on Twitter. In the US Nielsen have developed Twitter and TV ratings to track the combined reach that campaigns can achieve.

And tracking technology can now reveal how that traffic works. Twitter can see when users refresh their timelines and are exposed to tweets about the TV programmes in question. These secondary Twitter impressions – views on tweets by other users about certain subjects – show patterns that underline the live nature of the relationship between Twitter and TV. The majority of secondary impressions still occur within the timeframe of the programme itself – though with something like The X Factor there’s a residual effect until about two hours after the programme finishes.

Deb Roy likened this new interactive layer of TV viewing to the way soundtracks developed with cinema: a proposition that seemed distracting, eventually an enhancement of the visuals and ultimately an integral part of the experience.

 

The innovations

So, what are Twitter doing?

The first product is an ad targeting platform that tracks TV spots as they air and tracks tweets about the shows in which those spots appear. The platform assumes the spot has been seen and complements this with a targeted message into the viewer’s timeline. This offers a great chance to communicate a secondary or follow-up message, or extend the story, or more accurately reflect the real-time context in which the original ad was seen.

This product has already launched in the US. No commitment to a date for launch in other markets yet but it looks certain to go live at some point.

The second product is Amplify, currently being trialled in the US by the broadcaster ESPN in association with the broadcast sponsor Verizon. Amplify extends reach through technology that tracks real Twitter impressions. It tracks who is exposed to the tweets sent by people who are tweeting about ESPN content. It then sends those recipients a tweet that contains some content from the original show itself – an NFL touchdown, perhaps, or a late winner in a basketball game.

Deb shared fascinating data visualisations that brought Amplify powerfully to life, and the product serves as an important reminder of the power of propagation. Twitter – and social in general – offers value to advertisers not just from the people brands can reach, but the secondary audience that those people can help you reach in turn. Amplify allows brands to complete the circle of that relationship by showing secondary audiences what is getting the primary so worked up in the first place.

 

Beyond TV?

It’s interesting that Twitter are so closely aligning themselves with TV. It’s clearly where the advertising money is, but the real take-out for me was the point about live experiences. It’s no coincidence that time-shifted viewing sees a massive drop in programme related Twitter activity – Deb shared data showing that Netflix’s House Of Cards, despite being critically well received, attracted nowhere near as much conversation as something similar scheduled in the traditional manner.

Remove the live from Twitter, it seems, and you’re left with something far less powerful. People don’t share when they can’t be sure others are doing the same thing as them.

Agencies will inevitably start thinking about smart, connected ways to communicate messages that start in TV and finish online. But perhaps we should also think about other forms of live, synchronous events and the place they might have in the stories brands want to tell. The more connected people become, the more TV-like moments (that is, experienced at the same moment by separate people in lots of different places) moments there may be when events happen in the real world.

What are the public, conversational and live moments your brands can be associated with, and how can this powerful social medium amplify them for the better?

The Science of Social

What do people mean when they talk about the value of a fan?

It’s likely that when you hear this question, the phrase ‘ROI’ will follow soon after. Clients naturally want to know that a fan is worth the money they paid to acquire them, and it’s equally natural that as an industry we want to prove a fan will become a more valuable customer.

It’s important we do this. Social is changing marketing at a pace that sometimes masks our ability to demonstrate its value. A bubble made of “euphoria meets anecdote” (in Helen Edwards’ memorable phrase) bursts easily, and we must be tougher on ourselves. There’s an imperative to building the business case, evidencing the impact social can have on our clients’ business.

There are many ways to quantify value, and not all of them are transactional. What if the value of a fan lay not with the fan themselves, but with who the fan might influence?

Social networks are peer-to-peer echo chambers that magnify ‘social proof’, a phenomenon whereby people are unconsciously affected by the behaviour of others.

At Aegis we think this offers brands value. But it’s important to cut through the guesswork to understand what that value might really be.

For Social Media Week, a team of social and behavioural experts from across our agencies have been working with statisticians from University of Cambridge to empirically test our hypothesis.

Our experiment provides new evidence of the impact fans can have on the future behaviour of other people.

We invented a new brand, and told a story about its entry to a new market. Under the cover of market research, participants were shown different versions of this non-existent brand’s Facebook page. The pages were identical in every way, apart from the number of Likes each had.

We wanted to see whether perceived popularity — in the guise of how many fans the brand had — would effect how they perceived this brand on first contact.

We asked people what they thought of the brand. How likely would they be to purchase? How trustworthy was it? Would they say positive things about it? Would they encourage friends to buy too?

We then analysed people’s responses to see what difference there was.

So what did we learn?

1. Facebook Likes matter. The number of fans a branded page has does influence how people feel about a brand. The more fans were claimed, the more likely on average people were to consider purchasing the brand, and the more likely they were to say they could see themselves becoming loyal. Perceived popularity, it seems, does count.

2. More isn’t always better, however. The data suggested that fans deliver diminishing returns. A community of millions was no more likely than a community of a few hundred thousand to improve people’s responses to our questions.

3. More active users were more positively affected. Heavy Facebook users, the study suggests, are more likely to be influenced by high numbers of fans.

Social proof clearly has a role to play in changing perceptions, and our experiment is one first step in understanding this better. This was a pilot study; we’ll be looking to construct wider field studies in the near future.

But interesting implications arise. Does social proof differ from belonging? At what point in the growth of a fan page can people become disconnected from the group? If frequent users are more susceptible to higher numbers of fans, what does that mean for ongoing engagement with a community? And can be it as simple as there being an optimum level of fans?

This study barely scratches the surface. And, of course, it only dealt with Facebook. We’ve probably generated more questions that answers, but that’s how a scientific approach works. We’ve established the relationship we thought might be there and now we need to experiment further.

We hope you’ll join us on this journey. And we hope you’ll join us when we share and discuss our findings in more detail at Social Media Week.

This post was originally written for the Social Media Week blog. You can find out more about the experiment and register for the Aegis SMW session here

Real-world spin-offs

I wrote the other week about the two-way relationship between new technology and changes to people’s behaviour.

Sometimes it can be hard to unpick and identify the real human motivations behind what’s happening. And, sometimes, as with a couple of things I’ve seen recently, it’s easier to spot the real-world response to new digital habits.

Last week I read news of an Instagram hotel. It offers free accommodation to people with more than a thousand Instagram followers. This followed the announcement of a similar initiative trying to appeal to Twitter users.

This is an explicit acknowledgement of what most brands’ social media strategy is predicated on: that influence is currency.

Except that where normally a brand might attempt to earn recommendation through what it invests in, here a business wants simply to buy the influence that others have earned.

Klout For Business has a similar ambition, of course. Its algorithm can be a useful asset to businesses that want to identify – and treat accordingly – those who might be more supposedly ‘valuable’ customers, with value determined by the strength of their influence.

I’m still undecided as to whether this trend heralds a newly democratic approach to customer service or whether it’s simply a new kind of elitism. Imagine an airline upgrades a passenger according to their influence rather than their income – does that a premium service more or less accessible?

Either way, these are new user experiences caused by new online activites.

The other example that caught my eye this week was in response to teen behaviour on Snapchat.

Itself a response to the flaws teenagers have found with the Facebook experience, this is a platform that allows users to exert more control over how they share what they want to share.

Except that the ability to set the duration for which a user’s image can be seen is already being circumvented by recipients’ ability to amend their phone’s screen capture settings.

Images are shared, re-posted and permanently available – precisely the opposite of what the user intended. And, of course, new apps are being produced that explicitly reflect this behaviour.

Unlike the Instagram hotel, there’s no illusion of consumer control here – quite the opposite. But in each case this is a new consumer experience defined by (also new) peer-to-peer tools.

Both Instagram and Snapchat started out as intimate, private platforms. Their influence is turning out to be anything but.

Is the web shaping us, or are we shaping the web?

I’m a planner at a digital agency, and I find myself thinking about this an awful lot. Admittedly, it’s not a question I ever get asked directly, but I do think it’s the question behind a lot of the questions I have to address.

Because when we build digital products and services — and, if we must, advertising — we base a lot of our decisions on the patterns of behaviour we can observe online. Identifying and understanding those patterns is one of the things I find most interesting about my job.They exist at the crossroads of human impulse and technological innovation. Each is the result of an intricate and unique set of factors, the unpicking of which helps me understand a little more each time about the social web and, perhaps, what’s happening to us.

A symbiotic relationship exists between the urges we experience and what technology allows us to do. They grow together.

Yes, we feel some sort of fundamental call to do the things that social platforms allow us to do. We have always wanted to connect, to share our stories, to find common interests and seek belonging in new places.

These urges are not new, the argument goes. They are just newly possible in faster, easier, further-reaching ways.

And yet this seems to miss something. Certainly it always leaves something niggling at the back of my mind.

On one hand we accept the notion that digital has changed everything. On the other, we agree that it hasn’t at all.

The truth, I expect, is somewhere in between. We enjoy new capabilities that help us fulfill ancient human needs. But we enable those capabilities using technology that in turn creates new expectations.

As digital people we’re supposed to look into the future. But sometimes it’s helpful to look back, to work out what we used before we could do what we now take for granted.

This week I posted on Instagram a photo of my son on his first day of Junior school. Thirty years ago, when I was his age, this particular milestone, had it been captured as a photograph, would have remained contained within a photo album — y’know, the physical kind — likely to be browsed by immediate family only, or perhaps shown to girlfriends twenty years into the future.

In fact, if in 1983 that album had been shown to anyone else outside the family, its owners would have been considered bores, or a bit weird.

While the technology existed to make photography more accessible, no technology yet existed to make sharing those photos any easier. So it just looked like you were trying too hard. Or were too interested in yourself.

In the last season of Mad Men there’s a scene where Megan insists on showing her neighbours photographs of the Drapers’ recent trip to Hawaii. She uses a carousel, the like of which her husband pitched so beautifully when he was married first time round.

In 1968 sharing your photos — at least, a certain type of photo — was perhaps still a cool thing to do. Was this because ‘sharing’ was more of a thing in the 1960s?

I don’t think so.

Or was it because the technology that enabled it (the travel, the processing, the projecting) was still relatively rare, and therefore held a certain cache?

It seems to me that the sharing impulse may be less of a defining factor in people’s behaviour than the technology which enables it.

Or,to put it more accurately, less of a factor than the collectively held perception of the technology that enabled it.

Somewhere between 1968 and 1983 foisting your personal snaps on people became passe. Somewhere between 1983 and now it became the norm again.

This is fashion, not fundamentals. Perhaps the ebb and flow of technological uptake — now new, now commonplace — can both dampen and encourage our natural impulses, depending on the role the technology plays in our lives.

Can our preparedness to share aspects of our lives with others really be innately tied to technological capability? Or perhaps it’s that the social signals we want to send can be manifested in the way we choose to use technology.

Sometimes we want to fit in, at others we want to set ourselves apart.

Which makes it about fundamentals after all.

There aren’t any easy, consistent answers. But then, that’s what to me is endlessly fascinating. As I said earlier, each pattern of behaviour we observe contains its own logic. It’s up to us as planners to decode these patterns. To unpack the fundamental from the newly possible; the crowd impulse from individual story.

This week I read John Lanchester’s essay on the London Underground, part of a series of books published to celebrate the Underground’s 150th anniversary last year.

A passage on the Tube’s relationship to the growth of London struck me as a highly appropriate analogy. The rapid growth of both are connected, much like the emergence of new behaviours is closely related to spread of web technologies .

The Underground is what gave the city its geographical spread, its population growth,its clusters of spaces and places. The new Underground stations became the places around which the city grew: they were the first gravitational mass, like the clusters of debris in the nascent solar system, which agglomerated and grew and thickened and became the planets. The Underground stations in the early years of the network were these initial clusters of mass.

Lanchester then describes a photo of Golders Green station in 1907, before the suburb itself really existed, sealing the point.

The growth of the city created the need for a new transport network; and the growth of that network became fundamental to the growth of the city. London created the Underground, and the Underground created London.

I see my job as spotting and understanding those clusters of spaces and places, at the crossroads of human impulse and technological advancement.

Whether first gravitational mass or agglomerated planet, these clusters can always tell us as much about people as they tell us about the web.

Lessons from real-life

On Monday I posted for the first time in a while.
It was about a small weekend news item – Benedict Cumberbatch and his paparazzi stunt.
It had an amazing effect: by 11 the blog had received 4x the traffic it normally gets in a week, and by 2 this was 10x.
Things are back to normal now, but the post accounts for more than 10% of the blog’s total lifetime traffic (about 3 years).
Anomalies like this are interesting, and useful for a strategist working in digital and social communications.
I love real-life examples that provide useful lessons, and when it happens to you directly, it feels very real-life indeed.I rarely write stuff that taps into topical news.
But brands can and should if they want to find their place in culture.
Mentioning my experience on social media, someone asked me what I’d learned. It seemed only appropriate to turn it into a quick turnaround blog post.
  1. Be prepared for an audience you don’t expect. This wasn’t the usual marketing crowd. This was Cumberbatch fans and devotees who must pick up on anything that moves in Cumberbatch-world. Perhaps build-it-they-will-come can work sometimes after all, with the right community and the right content.
  2. It’s not always the most thought-out (or best-written) stuff that takes off. Some stuff I write can take weeks. This I wrote in about 15 minutes. Salience (that unique mix of timeliness and relevance) was the determining factor here. Being well-written might mean they’ll finish it, but it’s not going to be the thing that makes people share it.
  3. Monday morning is a good time to capitalise on a weekend event, it seems. This was a Sunday news item. People are back to work on Monday and -perhaps – talking about what went on at the weekend. Or they’re bored at work and trawling the places they usually like to waste their time. Whether it’s proximity or just the right context, there’s usually an optimum time for most content.
  4. Provide a different point of view – don’t merely report what others have said. All I did was see in a real-world event something that validated some things I believe about marketing, and have already written about before. But it was a fresh example and I enjoyed developing a lateral take I didn’t think many others would bother with. Brands should respond to culture like this. It doesn’t have to be a mention of the brand that kicks off a conversation. Nor does it have to be a drowned-out royal baby thing nice months in the making. Just tune in and spot the moments that bring your brand to life, rather than associate with things merely because they’re topical.
  5. Tap into narrow but deep passions. Popular topics might get you broadcast relevance, but they can be shallow and short-lived (that there royal baby again). Cumberbatch, because to many he’s essentially Sherlock Holmes, or he’s a Star Trek villain, or simply pale and interesting, isn’t exactly Brad Pitt but boy do people LOVE HIM. They’re on the look-out for stuff that helps them manifest their love. Giving them something that basically let’s them say ‘look at this, therefore look at me’ lets them feel king of the hill for five seconds.
  6. Be nice, but take sides. Everyone provided positive recommendations when they linked to the post. I presume because it was felt the article was on ‘their’ side. I wasn’t taking down their hero. I was taking down the people they presume their hero thinks of as the enemy. If I’d been more balanced and made it a dry discussion of the rights and wrongs of what happened I don’t think it would have had the same traction.
  7. Don’t under-estimate people’s passion. This is something we say a lot, but it sure resonates when you see lots of people, in quick succession, with online identities apparently dedicated to someone they’ve never met. These are people intent on tracking and curating a man’s life. I’m not passing judgement, but it’s overwhelming when all you did was see someone as a potential metaphor for ideas you’ve trotted out many times before. SOme fandom is life-consuming.
  8. Stuff travels everywhere. Communities spring up wherever they please. Again, we know this, but planning for it is difficult. I published the post, and tweeted the link once. This is what I always do. Within a couple of hours I was linked to from Twitter, Facebook, IMDB forums, and various Tumblrs. If I was a brand I’d be asking myself how to make the most of these new contacts. They’re not relationships yet.
  9. It’s possible to linkbait unintentionally. I got a couple of joking accusations in the office. Only then did I realise what it might look like. As the traffic spike itself showed, what you’re being seen to be doing may be different from you intend to be doing, so be careful. I’m not going to be overdoing it – topicality can look cheap unless what you’re talking about is inherent to you.

None of this is universal or definitive, but it’s reminded me of the value of experiencing these things for yourself.

Getting stuck in, I think, helps you become a better practitioner

I know bloggers from other agencies have experienced similar spikes when they’ve done something similar.

I’d be interested to hear what people have learned from what happened to them.

Thanks to Jeremy Hill for forcing me to think a bit about this. 

On Benedict Cumberbatch and hiding in plain sight

I love this picture.

Cumberbatch

I like Benedict Cumberbatch, in that way you can like someone you’ve never met purely through assumptions you’ve made based on their public appearances.

And I hate the paparazzi who took it, in the way you can hate someone you’ve never met merely by their perpetually parasitic behaviour that is imperceptibly corroding much of what you hold dear about society in pursuit of another unnecessary and intrusive image.

I can get uncomfortable when celebrities show their support for issues, or endorse certain causes.

I know they’re using their influence for good, but it can also seem arrogant.

But saw this over the weekend, and I love it.

Because nothing about it says, ‘I’m a star and I’m doing this because I can’.

It says, ‘the fact that this picture exists is wrong’.

It uses the context of the photo and harnesses the energy of an moment that otherwise would have disappeared forever.

It got me thinking about whether other people in the public eye might start doing something similar.

Imagine if this started a trend of people calling out the paparazzi?

Imagine if they became embarrassed out of doing what they do?

I know it’s unlikely. If the death of Princess Diana and hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone can’t generate sufficient outrage to outweigh people’s desire to enjoy the sordid fruits of a free press then I’m not sure a few hand drawn messages can either.

But possibility is the energy of a great creative idea.

Because that’s what this is.

Cumberbatch has changed the conversation using a creative sidestep.

He is using the paparazzi’s intrusion and its reach and influence against it.

Rather than fight the prevailing situation he has used it to his advantage.

He’s harnessed latent energy to created a new canvas, a platform that didn’t really exist until he did it.

It’s a new precedent for others to follow, a chance for a new norm to be created.

He might even make people think differently, by implying a different, better scenario is possible.

He’s not just fighting for attention, he’s allowing people to think for themselves.

A message to one audience will be overheard by a far bigger audience. One they care far more about.

He hasn’t simply taken the opposition on.

He’s made them look stupid and unimportant.

Ideas like this are all around us, just like this one was.

(So much so I’m almost certain this has been done before, but familiarity is the other great characteristic of a great creative idea.)

They’re hiding in plain sight.

Big ideas don’t always need the step change clients and agencies assume they might do.

Sometimes they just need a creative sidestep.

Image courtesy of Buzzfeed

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