Category Archives: Digital Strategy

Why I’m still pro KONY2012

I don’t know enough about African politics to know how great an evil Joseph Kony is.
I don’t know enough about charity financials to critique Invisible Children’s accounts.
But I do believe the KONY2012 campaign was an important moment, and indeed a force for good.

We are supposed to live in a democracy, for the most part. That doesn’t just mean we get to put a ballot in a box once every few years. It means that we, as the people, get to contribute to the way our society operates. And an important part of any democracy is the people understanding the mechanism through which they can exercise that power, and believing that power is real.

Once, we believed that we truly exercised that power through voting. In its purest form democracy is driven by the popular vote and our elected officials. And that still plays an important role. But last century many lost faith in government and we saw the emergence of protest movements. A new generation found power through new means – the march, the sit-in, the hunger strike… the tools of the protest generation.

The anti-war protests during the Howard years were a clear demonstration that the protest era – the time of ‘people power’ in that sense – was past. Social movements that wished to contest the actions of their government had to find new ways to do so. When groups of citizens decide to act on their beliefs and try and change things for the better, they draw on a ‘repertoire of contention’ – a set of tools and techniques for bringing about change. This repertoire is constantly evolving – we see new types of organisations, and new ways of contesting power. The protest march was an 19th century European innovation in response to particular situations that then diffused around the world to be deployed by many groups in many contexts.

I believe the KONY2012 campaign is significant not because of the impact it had around a particular issue, but because of the way it expanded the repertoire of contention. It showed us how affordable, accessible skills can be more successfully deployed to engage people and work toward change. It pulled aside the arcane black curtain of marketing a little, to democratise some of the techniques and strategy previously reserved for corporate advertisers.

The largest impact of KONY2012 will not be the swelling of Invisible Children’s coffers. It won’t be the additional international pressure on Joseph Kony. It won’t even be the dramatic increase in engaged popular discourse around Uganda, and Africa more broadly. The largest impact of the campaign will be the way it influences the next Amnesty campaign. The elements that find their way into the next World Vision campaign. The communications thinking that starts to inform the work of local action groups and special interest lobbies.

You might not agree with what all these groups are working to achieve, but their ability to draw on tools that provide access to power is what breathes life into democracy. In a time when people are increasingly disaffected with party politics, as we explore new ways of shaping tomorrow, we are best served the broadest repertoire of contention possible .

Who knows, you may need it one day too.

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Life of George: LEGO + iPhone App = a weekend’s worth of geeky fun

This weekend I spent an undisclosed number of hours playing Life of George, LEGO’s foray into iPhone-enhanced gaming. The premise is simple: buy the boxed set of 144 coloured bricks, then download a free app that presents objects which you build out of bricks within the allotted time. Fast, accurate construction is rewarded with points that are calculated when you use the iPhone to capture an image of your work.

The game is pleasingly distracting – on the difficult setting it kept me engaged long enough to complete the twelve levels. The context is straightfroward – George is a a typical office worker (think Dilber but better travelled), who takes photos to chronicle his adventures. Each page of his photo album constitutes a level, and challenges you to construct ten LEGO objects from George’s photographs. Complete each level and unlock the next (or play two player, taking turns to build as quickly as you can).

Life of George demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to ‘close the loop’ with physical toys, games and equipment. Having the device set the tasks and assess the performance while the blocks provide the means of actual ‘play’ uses both parts of the system to their best advantage, creating a seamess hybrid real/virtual experience. Having said that, where the game falls down is in the broader ‘gameplay’ – the premise of building George’s photos is simple, but not particularly engaging. The gameplay does not actually advance George’s life at all – the player has no impact on the ‘story’. To make matters worse, after twelve levels the heroic adventurer is rewarded with a screen that simply says ‘more levels coming soon’. In the age of Donkey Kong that would have been acceptable, we expect a little more narrative resolution these days.

Arriving around the same time as Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, Life of George starts to show us how mainstream the ‘real virtuality’ of play will become – particularly when we leverage existing play platforms like LEGO and well established digital platforms like the iPhone. In the near future will see a lot more of this, specifically I think that we can soon expect…

  • Something for the kids. George is targetted at… well guys like George (which I am guessing is how LEGO understand their older geek audience). It’s 14+ not for difficulty but because seven years olds might not see the relevance of building a martini from the office party, or a copy of Munch’s Scream.
  • The Life of Citizen Cane. Even if the gameplay is limited, we should be able to be more immersed in a story. The Final Fantasy franchise has finely honed the craft of gluing very limited gameplay together with long, meaningful cut-scenes – surely LEGO can learn a little from that.
  • Making a real difference. The really exciting part will be when the play activity (building objects with bricks) actually integrates with the storyline in a meaningful way. You want to get over to the other side of the river? Biuld a bridge. You want to woo the beautiful maiden? Build a rose. As our actions become more meaningful within a narrative, and as that narrative becomes one that we feel we have a stake in… well, I know I’ll be rushing out to by the next installment.

Creativity, domain specificity, and sandpaper

Some time ago, I bought a copy of Hoopla, a wonderful book produced by Crispin, Porter + Bogutsky – arguably one of the most creative agencies on the planet. When it arrived I was delighted and disgusted to find it sleeved in fine grained sand paper. This made handling the book an unsettling experience, and resulted in an awareness and engagement I have seen with few books before or since. I think that most people whohave encountered the book will probably have enjoyed similarly strong reactions, and probably discussed it with others. Consensus is that it is another creative idea from CP+B.

I was then, a little surprised to read in Kale Lasn's equally stunning tome Design Anarchy, that "[Guy] Debord had his book Memoires bound in heavy sandpaper so that when it was placed on the shelves of libraries, it woudl destroy other books." My initial reaction was a mixture of delight in Debord's somewhat twisted plan, and disappointment that perhaps CP+B had not been as creative as I thought. Which got me to thinking…

We value originality as a key part of creativity, but is 'domain originality' sufficient for creativity? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creativity is "any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain". Based on this, as long as we believe that Debord's work (a critical theory tract) and CP+B (an ad industry coffee table book) reside in different domains, then CP+B are 'being creative', even if they do so by transplanting an idea from another domain. in truth, it is through this cross-pollination of ideas across domain boundaries that much interesting creative work is done – but always with the question of 'real originality' hanging over it.

What makes creativity and originality in the end, and are the two the same? Is creativity an observed consequence, in the eye of the beholder, or is it an absolute on which creatives can be judged?

PS. It should be pointed out that since Hoopla is effectively a 'memoir' of the first few years of CP+B's work (which has been a collection of what can only be described as 'spectacle'), and as such borrowing a technique from a work by the author of 'Society of the Spectacle' constitutes a very obscure form of inter-textual reference. Does this make CP+B less guilty of 'idea theft', if such a concept is even relevant? Can they have their high-brow cake and eat it too? Yet again, the bastards demonstrate truly deviously creative depth, damn them!

Harnessing social media flash-fads

Kate @ Stickywood recently invited me to write a guest post for her blog, talking about branded content. Unable to resist any soapbox opportunity (thanks Kate ;), I thought it might be fun to think about the opportunity that transitory digital 'micro-fads' present to brands…

Alright, who's old enough to remember 'All Your Base Are Belong to Us'? Back in 2001, AYBABTU was one of the first 'internet memes', fads based on creating, sharing and remixing content around a specific idea or theme. Since then we've seen everything from dancing hamsters and leet-speaking cats to Diet Coke+Mentos cocktails and the comeback of the most exciting and dynamic musical genius of recent times.
Digital media and the internet have provided us with easy means to make our own digital content and remix content from other sources. The advent of online communities and social networks has dramatically increased the ease with which we can share this material.

These technological facilities have fuelled our passion for participative fads. Driven by the desire to share rituals, to have a sense of belonging and purpose (however transitory and apparently superficial), we seek out new social content and forms of social play. The speed with which we can discover and exploit novelty has increased with each new form of social technology, compressing the adoption curve until we now move from inception through cool to lame in a matter of weeks if not days.

The integration of creative facility with social connection in digital platforms like facebook, MySpace and flickr allows anyone to spark a social fad that might be picked up and spread to social circles far beyond their own. Some time back it became all the rage to tag inanimate objects as your friends in facebook. More recently flickr and facebook have become home to a plethora of fake album covers created based on a simple random process. If you feel the urge to share a little something of yourself, you might alternately like to upload a photo of the books you keep beside the bed.

The important thing about each of these flash-fads is that not only are they interesting to participate in passively (are people actually still reading Nicholas Negroponte, at bedtime no less?), they are almost as easy to participate in actively. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to identify those things that have not yet climbed to the dizzying heights of fad-dom, and predict which have the qualities that will capture the imaginations of thousands of followers. In a recent glimpse into a facebook profile (hi Greer!), I stumbled across a remixed Mr Men graphic where you can tag each character as one of your friends… I'd never seen it before, but watch this space.

These faddish spaces provide a rich, fertile territory that is reminiscent of Barthes' notion of a ‘writerly text’, constantly open to interpretation and engagement. It is little wonder, then, that they are so appealing to communications professionals looking for vectors through which to deliver brand meaning. Those who remember cherishing their Coke yoyo will appreciate how powerful a tool these trend-based vectors can be. But what role can (and should) a brand play, in this environment? Where are brands welcome (and even invited), and where will their involvement be perceived as intrusive and unwanted?

There are perhaps three different points that a brand can become involved in a flash-fad, determined by what point the fad is at when the brand engages. Asking which point a brand should become involved is an important question, as different brands have different appetites for innovation. As Grant McCracken discusses in ’Flock and Flow’, some brands thrive on the cutting edge of trends, others are more at home with the mass consumption of the late majority. Misunderstanding the nature of a brand, or leaping onto a flash-fad at the wrong point can be detrimental to the image of the brand and its relationship with consumers.

For most brands, the most obvious approach with flash-fads is 'jumping on the bandwagon', getting aboard a fad-in-progress, and riding the wave to mass popularity. The challenge here is timing and brand fit – if you can locate a suitable trend, the window of opportunity is often narrower than marketing departments need to deploy a campaign. More ambitious is creating your own fad, wading into the murky social waters and sparking your own outrageously successful participative trend. History does not record the many (many) failures, but examples like Burger King's Simpsonize Me show that it can be done.

An interestingly post-modern twist is the option of critically re-interpreting (or remixing) a trend that has already moved through the innovation cycle. Public imagination was captured by Improv Everywhere's mass performance happening Frozen Grand Central. The act was clearly the inspiration for the less-than-inspiring promotional stunt for the launch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in Australia. That effort felt derivative, and in every way 'less' than the original. A much more engaging spin was T-Mobile's tongue-in-cheek dance commercial which remixed and responded to the original in an innovative and imaginative way.

With the creative and connective power of digital technology only likely to increase, it seems inevitable that flash-fads will become more common, faster, and more highly refined. The rewards for brand successfully engaging with these trends are real, but they are limited by the difficulty of meshing with unpredictable social mass behaviour, and ultimately by the speed with which such fads will fade from social consciousness.

How Much to Pay for Digital, Where to Spend it and Who to Get for the Job

I can'te believe it – I was in Marketing magazine last month and I didn't pick up a copy. My mother is going to be mortified! Interesting article with some interesting opinions – very broad overview of the digital agency space.

Here's an excerpt from the article, by Kylie Flavell (Marketing, March 2009, p.26)

Kylie Flavell: What types of things should a marketer be wary about and question from a digital agency?

Brett Rolfe: Everything. It’s sad, but the complex nature of the technology combined with the occasionally cowboy nature of the industry has meant that many clients feel they can’t be expected to understand what the agency is doing, and fear they will look foolish for asking and challenging. If that is the atmosphere an agency has created, you are working with the wrong agency. If you are struggling with an agency, bring in someone you trust – internal or external – to sense check what the agency is saying, to act as a digital translator. Sometimes the problem will simply be that many smaller digital agencies may not have the skills to explain things in marketing-centric language. Other times, the lack of communication may be more malicious.

KF: Marketers are faced with the option of going in-house, using boutique agencies, larger creative agencies, or even some 17-year-old freelancer who works from their bedroom. Are any of these options better or riskier than others?

BR: The difficulty is that it is often the niche agencies and 17-year-olds who can deliver the most innovative and surprising work. For that reason, many clients are exploring the idea of using agencies that can own the strategy and the big idea, but then bring in the best skills to fit any particular problem.

KF: In 2008 Online spend did not match eyeballs in the space – where do you see things heading in 2009?

BR: Eyeballs is a misleading term – it suggests that digital is a big broadcast channel just waiting for us to shove advertising into it. Eyeballs reading their emails, eyeballs playing video games, eyeballs reading their friends’ Facebook status – these aren’t the same as eyeballs sitting in front of primetime TV. One of the things holding back digital marketing is our insistence on viewing it through the lens of media that has gone before it, as Marshall McLuhan warned. Things are heading into ever-stranger territory – from social media and collaborative creativity to augmented reality and mobile gaming. Understanding how these technologies can be harnessed will require marketers and agencies to bring together diverse technical and cultural insight with sound communication strategy – but then, that’s the way it’s always been, really. 
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A three channel model for digital communication

Ironically, one of the real barriers to innovative marketing is the whole existence of ‘digital’ as a category. The idea of ‘digital’ makes little or no sense from the perspective or either consumers or a marketers. The messy amalgam of technologies that we call ‘digital’ has been lumped together simply because they are a set of communication touch-points that share common technical infrastructure, often require similar executional skill-sets and have emerged at roughly the same time. Given this, it’s no surprise that there is considerable confusion and disappointment when media planners and marketers get excited about ‘the digital channel’.

Many of the more progressive marketers out there have realised that digital is a nonsensical category, and have drilled down to talk in much greater detail. They talk about podcasting, iPhone applications, twitter feeds and streaming pre-rolls. By pointing out that ‘digital is not one channel, but thousands’, we are suddenly in a complex, technically specific environment that makes it almost impossible to build clear, integrated strategies.

I believe that by finding a middle ground between these two extremes, we can create a notion of ‘digital channels’ that is more consumer-centric that the monolithic view, but also more strategically useful that the fragmented view. For simplicity, we might think about digital in terms of three channels; mobile, online, and digital out of home (DOOH). This is a useful model as each of the three channels creates a different sort of engagement with the consumer, providing different opportunities for marketers.

The mobile channel consists of all of those touch-points that are delivered through devices we carry around with us – mobile phones, personal media players, portable gaming consoles and so on. The channel incorporates touch-points as diverse as SMS messaging, mobile in-game advertising, and video-blogging. These can often provide connection with consumers regardless of time and location, but these devices are highly personal and marketers need to understand the value exchange involved in getting this close. The online channel is what most marketers think of when they talk about ‘digital’. Online describes all those activities we conduct while ‘in front of a computer’ – whether that be at home, at work, or somewhere else. The ‘digital out of home’ channel (DOOH) is a fascinating space that is emerging as more and more of the devices around us become digital, networked and interactive. From digital billboards and in-store screens to kiosks and transit media, DOOH presents an increasing array of places to engage the consumer in varying types of public space.

While it’s reasonably straightforward deciding what technologies and tactics sit within each channel, there are obviously grey areas. As mobile phones become more ‘computer-like’ and laptops become more ‘hyper-portable’, the categories blur. As we begin to be able to communicate between our mobile phone and a digital billboard, the categories interact. For the most part however, the three channel model provides a clear first step toward strategically planning communication activity that looks beyond the desire to ‘do something digital’, and identifies the basic nature of the roles to be played by digital within a broader communication strategy.

(cross-posted at the Naked blog)

@brettrolfe isn’t sure yet

So, after years of holding out, I finally succumbed to opening a Twitter account last week (you win, @KateRichardson). I’ve always felt that I was missing the point, and so eventually realised that the only way to change that was to give it a go. I’m giving it two weeks – if I still can’t see the point, at least I can say I tried.

The most interesting thing so far has been trying so hard not to sound like a noob. Twitter is such a public forum, and given that I flatter myself that some people credit me with a modicum of digital savvy, I find myself terribly paranoid of posting ‘those tweets’. You know, the ones where you post a tweet about not knowing what you should tweet about. The one were you post about the collision of personal and celebrity identities in the same channel. The tweet where you ask everyone what the best iPhone app for tweeting is (ok, I caved and posted that one – and thanks Aaron for your advice).

Out of interest, my two favourite ‘people I am following’ (damn, need to find out the Twitter-ese for that) are @darthvader and @Odd_World – which is odd, given that twitter is all about authentic real people.

Matching Luggage… I don’t get it!

For those not familiar with the term, ‘matching luggage’ refers to advertising campaigns where the same concept is used in a number of different channels. For example, an image from the TV commercial may become the billboard, one of the characters from the commercial may voice the radio spot… and so on. It’s generally used as be a pejorative term, but occasionally I have to stifle a smirk when a client earnestly requests some matching luggage as part of an integrated brief.

There are two simple reasons that advertisers like matching luggage. Firstly, it’s often easier, cheaper and faster to execute one concept and then repurpose parts of it for use in different channels. Secondly, there is an obvious appeal to the notion that seeing the same thing in different places will ‘reinforce’ the messaging.

There is a slightly more complicated reason that more progressive marketers often don’t like matching lugga  ge.  As media channels become more diverse and functionally distinct (think of the difference between a broadcast TV commercial and an interactive website), it makes sense to do different things in each channel, playing to their individual strengths. That may mean that one concept will live well in broadcast audio-visual channels, but a very different concept will be more effective in interactive text-based channels like SMS. In response to anguished cries from old school creatives about single-minded messaging, the new school tell us that as long as the core idea that lies behind the concepts remains true, consumers don’t need their luggage to be matching.

But I digress… I've got a more basic beef with matching luggage. I don't get it.

Every day I see ads… on the street, in magazines, online. And I don’t get them. Not (I like to think) because I am particularly stupid. Simply because I don’t watch enough TV.

The catch with matching luggage is that almost invariably the TV commercial is the core of the campaign. It tells the story from which frames, characters, or lines are snatched and shoehorned into other less ‘exciting/powerful/creative-friendly’ media – from bus sides to banner ads. So if you don’t see the TV commercial… you just don’t get it.

I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve seen lots of ads for Tivo recently, as the time-shifting revolution creeps up on us Aussies. I’m pretty sure Foxtel IQ is going to put a dent in the amount of TV ads people actually see. DVD sales and online downloads (legal and illegal) of TV series continue to climb as we learn to hoard and binge rather than relying on scheduled programming. And at the end of the day, many of us (teens and young males in particular) seem to have better things to do that watch telly.

For more and more Australians, in a fragmented, technology-empowered media landscape, those beautifully crafted little thirty second stories are becoming an anachronism. That’s not so bad – there are still plenty of places to get a message to us unsuspecting consumers. But if advertisers continue to rely on us having seen their thirty second spot, then when we read that print ad, glance at that billboard, or open that direct mail… we just won’t get it.

(cross-posted from the Naked Communications blog)