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Archive for January, 2011

I managed to get to the end of “C” without anyone asking me what it’s about.

Which is just as well because it’s not a question that lends itself to a short answer.

The answer to that question is usually a précis of the story and/or the high concept theme of the book.

But “C” doesn’t have a “story” as such. Nor does it readily lend itself to the “ideas that you can hold in your hand“, 25 word concept definition much beloved of Steven Spielberg.

Tom McCarthy is clearly no Michael Crichton in that respect.

(And he’d probably be very happy to agree with that).

“C” is less about what happens, and more about how it makes you feel.

I quickly discovered that it is no book for a few pages before bedtime. I read it in stints of at least one hour – on trains, planes and waiting in (stationary) automobiles to chauffeur my daughters home from various social events. I found that I needed that time to acclimatise to, and enjoy, the sweep and cadence of the language.

And how best to describe that cadence? I’ve wrestled with, and slept on, this. And the best I can come up with is that it’s the literary equivalent of tilt-shift photography.

Image borrowed from baldheretic.

This is a photographic technique that renders real life scenes as if you’re looking at a miniature model.

And Tom McCarthy’s writing has a similar effect. Whether it’s a garden pageant in rural England, the battlefields of WW1, a drug-fuelled party in the East End of London, or an archeological dig in Egypt, the camera of your mind views the scenes from odd angles, in slow motion, and with a smear of petroleum jelly across its lens. For instance, there’s a passage when an Allied howitzer shell appears alongside the rickety biplane from which the book’s main character is observing the German trenches. The shell is travelling at the same height, at the same speed and in the same direction as the aeroplane…

At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction – one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It’s so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable – and besides, if they’re travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the plane are interchangeable – and that the shell and he are interchangeable…

Serge is Serge Carrefax. Inside the book’s front cover he, and his role in the book, are described thus…

C follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who – as his name suggests – surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.

Here, having reached the back cover, I’m not much the wiser when it comes to Serge Carrefax. If I were a method actor preparing myself to play his part in the film, and seeking to understand “What’s my motivation?”, I wouldn’t get much joy from the book. He is very much the miniaturised, tilt-shift character in terms of what he feels and wants. And he drifts through each page with an air of detachment as the book is narrated around him.

He appears to place little value on his own life, bordering on a death wish. But we don’t know why.

There is the time when, despite the screamed imploring of his pilot, he elects not to fire back at the German plane that is about to shoot them down. And he experiences a feeling of ecstasy when about to be executed by firing squad, only to be saved by the end of the war.

Telling you that he gets his (death) wish in the end shouldn’t spoil this book for you.

And, tilt-shifted to the end, it’s entirely fitting than he meets his maker in fevered, hallucinatory and solitary fashion.

In his fever Serge hears…

…a word, or non-word, that itself eventually mutates, changing its provenance and status until it finally resolves itself..

And that is a pretty accurate description of the writing style throughout this book.

I’m glad that I read “C”.

But I’m equally glad that a blog post is the only time that I’ve had to attempt to explain it.

P.S. Lots of things in, and themes of, the book begin with “C”.

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One could be excused one’s WTF? reaction to a Betfair Poker tweet taken in isolation.

And Richard Bloch, International PR Manager at Betfair, has had to handle a few awkward, WTF? conversations with senior colleagues since the brand embarked on its zany Twitter adventure.

That at least one of these awkward conversations was with his CEO, and that the zany adventure continued thereafter, speaks volumes about a corporate culture that allows someone like Richard to experiment with an “off the wall project that I’ve been allowed to run with.”

It was the unusually off the wall tone for a branded/corporate Twitter account that piqued my interest in @Betfairpoker. (My interest, and that of several hundred other media/digital/advertising/social media junkie/groupies). And I was lucky enough to know someone who knows Richard and thus give that piqued interest an outlet.

Richard very kindly gave of his time for a telephone interview in which he gave me chapter and verse, the straight dope, on the method behind the apparent madness.

This, by the way, is the method (and the madness) that made @Betfairpoker the UK’s second most Follow Friday recommended Twitter profile the week before Richard and I spoke. Rio Ferdinand was number one, and there wasn’t another corporate or branded profile in the top fifty.

The Madness In Front Of The Method

It was only when Betfair decided to get serious about Twitter that they decided to get daft with @Betfairpoker.

They observed that the the most followed and the most highly engaged Twitter profiles were personality led. So their role models were people like MC Hammer and brands like Compare The Market (Aleksandr Orlov).

They also observed that writing for personality in 140 character bursts (and doing it well) is a skill, a skill that they didn’t feel they had in house. So, in much the same way that they bring in outsourced expertise to provide betting opinion, insight and analysis on their betting.betfair.com website, they took the decision to use outsourced expertise to create their Twitter persona.

So they have retained four “expert” Twitter writers – a combination of authors and comedians, all of whom have significant Twitter followings in their own right.

One of the interesting aspects of this project is that none of these people was previously monetising their Twitter activities. Betfair has given them a opportunity to do so. Richard gave me a ballpark figure for what each of these writers is being paid but I don’t think it’s fair to reveal that here. Suffice to say that, given the buzz being generated at the moment, this is a cost-effective profile building exercise.

Betfair has refused to reveal the identities of its writing team, but occasionally teases its followers with statements like not being able to confirm or deny that Audley Harrison is behind the tweets.

The result of all this is beautifully bonkers.

The @Betfairpoker Twitter stream is a barmy cocktail of cod-motivational philosophy, and what appear to be the random tweetings of a rogue Betfair employee. Richard chuckles at the idea of a zany character who has taken over the Twitter account, dishing the office dirt. Indeed in the early days of the new approach there were some at Betfair who genuinely believed the account had been hacked.

Such early disbelief/disdain has mostly (the odd CEO excepted) given way to a warm embrace. These days Richard is the regular recipient of email suggestions for tweet content. The Twitter profile is proving to be not just a pretty social media face. It is also a catalyst for internal communication, an effect which is amplified by the fact that all the alleged (twalleged) shenanigans of daily life at Betfair – as fabricated by @Betfairpoker – do actually feature real Betfair characters. There is a queue of people waiting to be lampooned.

The Method Behind The Madness

@Betfairpoker is but one of a wide portfolio of Betfair Twitter profiles.

As well as @Betfairpoker this includes @BetfairNews and @BetfairFootball, plus over 40 country-specific Twitter  profiles.

Richard talks about some things that were done well in the early days, such as the brand protection exercise that registered all these profiles before Betfair had given any thought to what it was actually going to do with them.

(Unfortunately, despite these early moves, they still missed out on the @Betfair profile which is currently being squatted by some geezer called Martin.)

He also talks about the mistakes and the lessons learned when various Betfair toes were being dipped in the Twitter water – doing too little with not enough resource and with little internal encouragement attaching to a channel that wasn’t generating any revenue.

“You have to have an opinion and talk like a real person. Ask questions. There’s no point just posting. You have to comment and engage with people, particularly influential people in your sphere.”

@Betfairpoker had between 2,000 and 3,000 followers when the decision was taken to step things up and adopt the current personality led approach. This decision was based on a confident, positive assessment of Twitter as a channel frequented by poker enthusiasts and professionals.

“Poker players travel the world. They have mascots. They spend lots of time with headphones plugged into iPhones and Blackberries. They’re tech-ed up. We knew it [Twitter] was a good market. The pros are on it all the time.”

In addition Betfair ran various quizzes through @Betfairpoker last summer, when it had around 4,000 followers, and the insight gleaned from this exercise confirmed that there was a real poker following – not necessarily high-stakes players but a significant number of beginners and enthusiasts. And a softly softly, high personality approach to engaging with these people on Twitter was felt to be the best approach to building relationships, at the same time as affording the best way to boost the brand’s profile.

Now I have to say that it was my impression that the personality-powered @Betfairpoker was an overnight success.

Within the space of a few days its tweets were peppering my Tweetdeck columns as several friends retweeted its random and rousing posts.

But the truth, as is often the case with Twitter, is that this apparently sudden arrival on the scene was actually the result of a serendipitous event, or rather several related serendipitous events in quick succession.

And, in fact, these serendipitous events happened several months after the team of writers behind @Betfairpoker began doing their thing.

The profile became a talking point in the diary pages of The Independent.

And it was compared to @shitmydadsays on Techcrunch.

And the rest, according to the Twittercounter chart below, is history.

And there’s a similar pattern relating to Follow Friday mentions.

This palpable buzz around the account has raised interest levels even further within “Betfair Towers“, and has hopefully reduced the number of awkward conversations.

Meanwhile, Richard and his team are planning the next phases of their Twitter strategy.

They are slowly but surely introducing more poker and betting content into the Twitter stream…

… but in their own inimitable style.

One of the writers is posting introductory poker tips aimed at the beginner audience that makes up the lion’s share of the Twitter audience, linking to the betting.betfair website. Again in the style of.

And, in the not too distant future, there are plans to buy one of the writers into a major poker tournament. Cue random live tweeting and poker face twitpics.

The moral of this story

It’s one thing to talk about the potential of social media for marketing communication and brand engagement.

It’s another thing entirely to be prepared, both personally and corporately, to take the calculated risks necessary to realise that potential.

And @Betfairpoker is a calculated risk that appears to be paying off.

How apt is that for a poker brand?

And long may it continue.

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F*ck, sh*t, p*ss, c*nt.

People are overly coy with their use of vowels in four letter words on Twitter.

To avoid the risk of upsetting people, and (woe of woes) becoming the victim of a mass unfollowing, they replace said vowels with an *, or a £, or a $. Or even a %.

All this actually does is draw more attention to the word. Instead of going with the flow of a sentence, your brain has to stop, reverse a bit and fill in the blank represented by *, £, $, or %. What was an almost subconscious process suddenly becomes very conscious – “Oh right, he means ‘fuck’.” More often than not you’ll then say “fuck” to yourself several times before reading on.

I don’t get it. Unlike Facebook we’re all adults on Twitter aren’t we? My followers certainly are.

And I’m not aware of anyone losing half of their followers as a result of some judicious swearing. Are you?

The only long term viable approach to Twitter is to be yourself. If your natural “voice” includes the occasional use of a a four letter word for literary effect, that’s cool. And the people who follow you should be cool with it too.

If they’re not cool with it, you’re probably better off without them.

F*ck ’em, the c*nts.

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“Foster’s for breakfast”, in my student days, was shorthand for a certain type of holiday. A type of holiday whose opening ceremony would be a few early morning pints of the Amber Nectar in the airport lounge. The breakfast of champions.

Well Foster’s has replaced the early morning pints with Mid Morning Moments, a series of webisodes starring Steve Coogan as waning (waned?) radio presenter, Alan Partridge.

The first webisode has enjoyed over half a million views on YouTube at the time of writing, but the viewing figures have gradually fallen away for the subsequent clips – down to 220,000 for episode 6.

That’s still pretty respectable and the content, written by Armando Iannucci and brilliantly performed as ever, is good. Partridge’s star has fallen even further from when we last saw him. He’s now presenting for North Norfolk Digital Radio.

Today we’re talking condiments…

And there’s one priceless moment in the first episode when he mistakenly reads from a confidential internal memo, thinking it’s a promotional message for the station.

Sustaining and maintaining our core listenership in an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

So the content is good, great in places, and this online-only video campaign integrates with the Foster’s sponsorship of original comedy on Channel 4. But I can’t help that there’s more in this for Steve Coogan than there is for Foster’s. The films were produced by his Baby Cow production company, which holds the rights for later television broadcast. And, whilst Heineken UK (owner of the Foster’s brand in the UK) apparently has a share of the “back end” of any such TV deal, there’s something in my water telling me that this isn’t going to “work” for Fosters.

Brands generally want one of (or both of) two things from a sponsorship/ad-funded relationship like this: awareness and kudos.

Now Foster’s doesn’t have an awareness problem. It could perhaps do with being more front of mind but I suspect that this activity is more about “emotional connection with the brand”, moving people up the consideration ladder or some such thing. Kudos basically.

But kudos is getting harder to come by for brands which pay to be associated with stuff that somebody else has done or made.

Witness the top ranking comment under Episode 1 on YouTube…

Which shows again that great content is the second most important thing a brand can have if it’s looking to make a splash online; the second most important thing behind a great product.

By contrast with Foster’s, Steve Coogan’s mate Rob Brydon is involved in a campaign that almost certainly will work.

Brydon plays the producer, the tea lady and the star (Bruce Bowls) of a spoof breakfast TV show in a newish ad campaign for Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

Bruce Bowls is a “crunchy nut”, in that he’s nuts about Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

Many agencies and clients would walk past and away from such simple and well branded idea in search of something more intellectually satisfying. Kudos to this lot (Kellogg’s and Leo Burnett) for not looking this particular gift-horse in the mouth.

And Brydon’s nut, complete with Dale-Winton-esque orange skin tone, is very nicely done. It’s a performance that has the hyperbole needed in a 30 second commercial, but also some nuance and subtlety. His camp programme producer is very funny too.

There’s an adaptation of the ad running on radio which also works very well.

Crunchy Nut Cornflakes is one of those “oh yeah” brands.

“Oh yeah, haven’t had that for a while. Must remember to pick one up next time I’m down the shops.”

“Oh yeah” brands respond well to advertising. They don’t need several hundred thousand fans on Facebook, and they don’t need a bunch of clever digital bells and whistles (heresy I know).

This Crunchy Nut campaign will work, however “working” is defined.

Whilst Foster’s might once have been the breakfast of champions, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes is definitely the champion of breakfast show based brand campaigns.

How’s that for kudos?

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I saw Bruce Springsteen play Wembley Stadium (the old one) in nineteen eighty something.

(In fact it was July 1985 and I think I’ve found – and borrowed – an image from that very concert.)

I was there.

And I saw The Rolling Stones play Wembley Stadium in nineteen ninety something.

Two big brands. Same platform. Both with access to an engaged community of 70 odd thousand fans. Two very different approaches. And two very different outcomes.

The Rolling Stones acted like a typical advertiser.

The production values were high. The content was slick and well rehearsed. And they “broadcast” said content to a captive audience that was kept at arm’s length.

It wasn’t a concert to write home about. It certainly wasn’t a concert that I talked excitedly about on the Monday morning. And I’ve never talked about it since in any “best gigs I’ve ever been to” conversation.

Engaged community + advertising mindset = zero word of mouth

The Springsteen experience couldn’t have been more different. He played for over three hours, during which time he made this stadium concert feel like a sweaty club gig.

He didn’t just go through the motions in terms of engaging with the audience. For the last hour or so he and the E-Street band were taking requests from the crowd. And not just for his stuff. They played Elvis Presley and pretty much anything else that we chucked at them.

We weren’t watching a broadcast. We were participating. We personalised the gig through the unique set of requests that we asked him to play for us.

And I’ve talked about this gig ever since.

(On and off).

Engaged community + participation + personalisation = 25 years of word of mouth

Here endeth the lesson.

Bruce Springsteen.

Boss.

And community manager extraordinaire.

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I pointedly haven’t read any of the recent posts predicting the death of RSS.

And I’m pointedly not linking to any of them here.

Because, whatever those posts say, they’re talking bollocks.

Google Reader is my favourite piece of social technology. The probability of it delivering something that I’ll find interesting and/or useful is much higher than that for Twitter for instance.

RSS subscriptions and Twitter follows are both opt-in approaches to accessing content.

But, whereas a Twitter follow is a casual opt-in,  an RSS subscription represents commitment.

That’s a commitment to check out and read on a regular basis. It’s also a commitment to comment and therefore “commune”. At least it is for me. The only digital-specific resolution that I’ve made for 2011 is to find time to comment more on other people’s work. It is always rewarding for both parties. And, in my eyes, it makes RSS the highest form of “social”.

In Meet The Parents, the obsessive, ex-CIA father-in-law played by Robert de Niro has his immediate family over-protected inside “the circle of trust”.

I view the contents of my RSS feed in much the same way.

If you haven’t already, you really should read this excellent presentation by Paul Adams of Google on how social networks work in real life. It looks long at 224 slides but it’s an easy read, helped by the fact that Paul has added explanatory notes at the base of each one.

Even aiming off for the fact that it’s in Google’s interest to take a side-swipe at Facebook, this is a thought-provoking analysis of why online social networks are blunt instruments in comparison to the way that humans organise their connections in real life.

The most pertinent slide for the purposes of this post is that shown below, which highlights that the amorphous group that Facebook calls friends is actually segmented not just by lifestage, geography and interests, but also by the strength of connection with individuals.

RSS is a “strong tie” channel. And that’s why, for me at least, it would be the last social technology out of the balloon basket, not the first as other people seem to be suggesting.

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This blog is not immune to turn-of-year introspective reflection.

And if collating your favourite posts of the year is good enough for BBH Labs, then it’s good enough for me.

But I thought I’d do it with a bit of a twist.

The Labs guys curated the ten posts that they felt encapsulated the most important and most often recurring strategic themes of 2010.

This is a little different. I offer below my top 5 post headlines and my top 5 opening lines of 2010. Both lists are in no particular order.

HEADLINES.

OPENING LINES

None of these are necessarily my “best” posts of 2010. Indeed the two most highly read (by a mile) posts of the year are not represented here.

In my own tin-pot way I try to write, on this blog at least, like a journalist. Headlines should be engaging, yes, but primarily an accurate description of the story beneath. I don’t like cryptically “clever” headlines. Although ironically the headline for this post flirts with that territory more than I’d usually allow. And, rather than adopting a beginning/middle/end structure to blog post storytelling, I try, and sometimes succeed, to summarise the entire post in the first few lines. And I do like to start with a bang.

I’ve just flicked back through the year in posts and, if I say so myself, I think that whilst practice is certainly not making perfect it is making better. I hope I’m allowed to say something like that once a year.

 

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