Monday, April 07, 2008

Youtube Views

In the three years since its launch, Youtube has
cemented itself as a pillar of UK culture. From TV highlights to music promos to weird and wonderful amateur clips, Youtube is our default source of bitesize, on-demand video content.

Advertisers and their agencies are still trying to figure out how to exploit this uber-platform; how to grasp - and realise - its potential as a vehicle for brand communication. We've uploaded our ads. We've experimented with risque films and longer forms. Some have 'gone viral', some haven't.

Beyond that, we've thrown making-ofs, out-takes and other video assets into the mix. We've linked episodes and built series. We've urged Diginatives to respond with videos of their own. But no-one has uncovered the magic formula - the formula that guarantees 10m views rather than 10,000. (Let's leave the quality of those views to one side for now - important question as it is).

There is, of course, no magic formula. Even 'be novel with your content' fails as a rule of thumb when parody, remixing and reference litter the most-viewed lists.

That's not to say that Youtube can't be gamed; that there aren't tactics and ploys for success. Two recent news stories might inspire fresh thinking on how to craft a Youtube hit. These stories suggest that novel approaches to the Youtube platform - as opposed to novel Youtube content - can generate the extreme viral effects that advertisers crave.

First up, the
mystery surrounding Clauras Bartel's amateur music video for the CSS track Music is My Hot Hot Sex. After its initial upload last year, this relatively uninspiring video garnered a staggering 120m views before being taken down by Youtube moderators (mirror version here). Theories abound, with Bartel himself suggesting that salacious tags and and titles may have contributed to the film's unprecedented view count. Whether or not he's right, the notion that meta data - not merely optimised, but used creatively - can strongly influence a Youtube film's findability and exposure should give advertising people food for thought. With the Youtube Insight audience analysis tool on its way, naive video uploads could soon be a thing of the past.

Less mysterious, but equally inspiring, is the so-called 'Rick Rolling' craze, which has delivered
9m Youtube views for a grainy Rick Astley music promo. Rick Rolling is a playfully subversive meme spread by bloggers and forum users who disguise hyperlinks to the Astley video as links to juicy gossip stories. By thus spurning web e-tiquette, Rick Rollers have delighted their audiences and massively amplified the view count of an otherwise unremarkable video. Rebel brands seeking online engagement should take heed - their Youtube behaviour may look a little square by comparison.

To reiterate, neither of these examples offers a magic formula, or a simple prescription for advertisers. In a media environment where attention is earned, not bought, there can be no certainties of effect. (Translation: we'll still be wrestling with Youtube alchemy in another three years time.)

But what we might learn from Clauras Bartel, the Rick Rollers and other Youtube deviants, is a determination to challenge and repurpose new digital platforms. That's an 'engagement zag', in BBH speak, and it'll get us to fresher, more famous work.

A note of caution: as brand stewards we must be careful not to confuse harmless play and harmful spam. When a video marketer described his cynical ploys for blue-chip clients on TechCrunch, the blog's readers responded angrily.

For me, the acid test is simple. If a brand's tactics are part of the story and part of the fun, then they are fair game - and good game.

First and foremost, Diginatives want to be entertained. Somewhere between straight-laced behaviour and exploitative acts, there's an interesting space where brands can deliver that entertainent.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Techno-politico ponderings

Facebook has been coming in for a fair bit of stick recently. But writing in The Guardian's G2 supplement on Monday, Tom Hodgkinson advanced a case for the prosecution that transcends the usual complaints about privacy and walled gardens.

Hodgkinson outlined a grand conspiracy theory which posits Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as neo-con puppet in chief, and his string-pulling fellow board members as hawkish ideologues, hell-bent on pursuing a warped, capitalist-libertarian utopia.

Bizarre but fascinating stuff. And an awkward reminder for principled Diginatives that the tech world ain't as apolitical as they might like to believe.

Another case in point: Intel's (allegedly) despicable behaviour as partner - now former partner - in Nicholas Negroponte's laudable OLPC scheme. Whether the claims of duplicitous dealings are true or not, it's sad to see a technology firm's involvement in a charitable venture descend into self-interested, tragi-comic farce.

These two stories convey a simple truth: in the era of uber-transparency, the corporations behind and beside our favourite technologies will be held to account like never before. That can only be a good thing, I think, for what use is tech if it doesn't make the world a better place?

Any individual or group seeking to obstruct that goal for selfish ends will fully deserve their flaming in the blogosphere's cauldron of free speech - a self-righting mechanism we Diginatives should hold dear.

Let's not even get started on Google and their 'don't be evil' mantra...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Whose park is your ball in?

Facebook says to developers: 'Bring your ball to our park. We want to be the only park in town.'

Google says to developers: 'Bring your ball to our park. And take it to our friends' parks too. The more parks and balls people have to choose from, the better.'

I'll leave it up to you to decide which invitation Diginatives will take up. But in today's interweb world where content-fluidity and consumer-empowerment are the new touchstones, and prosocial brands rule the zeitgeist, I know who's got my vote.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You can't tag a teen

Now I'm all for a bit of geo-tagging. Stuff that not only has its place in the world, but let's you know precisely what that place is, seems pretty cool.

The geo-tagged photos on Flickr and the geo-tagged twitterings on Twitter - accessible to developers through open APIs - have given rise to the brilliantly pointless Flickrvision and Twittervision, which present a Web 2.0 version of watching the world go by.

Geo-tagging is also new-best-friends with mobile. The latest smartphones, and everything (calls, SMS, other data) that comes out of them, is, or can be, geo-tagged. (Strictly speaking, this isn't a new thing - complicated calculations based on triangulation or something have long enabled the location of mobile users, but the addition of GPS functionality makes it all much simpler and more accurate).

It seems that not a week goes by without some self-styled marketing industry prophet (not me, honest) forecasting mass demand for location-based mobile services. Apparently, uber-consumers - the sort who regularly suffer a price / existential crisis in the chilled dairy aisle at Milton Keynes Tesco Extra - will soon be demanding geo-specific recommendations and price comparisons, so that they can walk half a mile across town to save 4p on a Yakult multipack.

All well and good.

But the purveyors of geo-tagging technology and geo-tagged goods have a tendancy to get a little over-zealous in their apparent pursuit of a 100% geo-tagged panacea. (Imagine a world where hide-and-seek ceases to require traditional seeking skills).

Can't forsee a geo-armageddon? Then read this.

Seriously, what teenager is going to agree to leave the house wearing a $300 geo-tagged coat? I've written previously about how kids' neurobiology can be altered by their early experience of digital media, but it will take one hell of a video game to indoctrinate them into the cult of parental surveillance.

I can only assume that some entrepreneurial type observed the willingness of Diginative teens to accept parent-bought mobile phones and the obligation to call home every 2 hours in exchange for increased liberty and a pocket full of gadget, and concluded that geo-tagged clothing would be likewise welcomed by Western youth. Unfortunately this reasoning fails to consider the possibility that said kids are only happy to accept said offer because it represents de facto permission to do whatever the hell they want, whilst keeping to a strict lying schedule.

Escaping the parental radar is a fundamental part of growing-up. Excessive attempts to monitor and control teen behaviour promote what scientist call reactance, otherwise known as doing-the-opposite-of-what-you're-told-to.

So those parents who purchase geo-tagged coats can expect their kids to refuse to wear the coat; to leave it at a friend's house whilst they roam the streets; to hack the GPS system; to do anything other than give big-mother the opportunity to watch over their every move.

I guess it comes down to this: successful applications of any technology - those which find mass adoption - tend to augment natural human behaviour and pervasive lifestyle choices, not battle against them. This is especially the case with teens, as evidenced by a recent global study of digital youth, commissioned by MTV.

Rant over.

I'll get my (non-geo-tagged) coat.

Monday, October 15, 2007

APR is cool

Radiohead are the coolest thing in the world right now. Well, at least in my world (excuse the cod-relativism) and the worlds of several million other music / technology fans.

The cause of this cool spike is, of course, their decision to let each individual choose the price that he or she wishes to pay to download In Rainbows, the band’s latest album. (Note that in these digital times the concept of an album has been eroded so as to mean little more than an ordered collection of tracks. If you want an album in the traditional, material sense – plus a bunch of limited edition goodies – you can mail order it for £40 and await a December delivery date).

But I’m not too interested in discussing the merits or otherwise of Radiohead’s pick-a-price venture. Not directly, anyway. These music-industry-rattled-by-new-media-innovation stories tend to attract a glut of identikit reportage, which I’d really like to refrain from adding to in this case.

What I am interested in is the nature of that venture, the music-buying public’s reaction to it, and what that reaction says about the macro-zeitgeist – if such a thing exists.

The nature of the venture I will come on to. The music-buying public’s reaction I will take to be something along the lines of ‘very cool’. But what could that reaction possibly say about the macro-zeitgeist?

Well, sometimes, when an extreme cultural event such as the In Rainbows release comes along, it can shine a light on current usage of apparently banal terms – terms like ‘cool’. In other words, the supreme coolness of Radiohead’s honesty-box ploy allows us to take a peek inside the concept of cool and confront its bare semantics.

So what are those bare semantics? Put bluntly: what is the current meaning of cool? I would argue that it’s something like authentic prosocial rebellion (APR).

Now before I say any more on the matter, it’s worth noting that this meaning may actually be one of several current meanings of cool. As Mark Penn would no doubt quip, the current climate of conflicting microtrends demands that whatever is cool for 30% or 80% or even 99% of the population will likely be cultural anathema for 1% – the awkward, unswerving niche. And if the coolness of some thing can be wildly subjective, then it seems possible that the very notion of cool can mean different things to different people, too. Meaning is pretty malleable stuff, after all.

But back to Radiohead. And back to APR (that's Authentic Prosocial Rebellion, in case you've forgotten already) – which I’m suggesting is at least a part of the story of contemporary cool.

Three questions: Why authentic? Why prosocial? Why rebellion?

First up, authenticity feels like an essential ingredient of contemporary cool, perhaps because so much of society is plagued by pretence, duplicity and charlatanism (sweeping generalisation ahoy). On this view, people and brands that give the impression of sincerity and integrity – whatever their domain of interest – should at least be candidates for that sparkling reverence we call ‘cool’.

But what about the layers of recursive irony that post-post-modern scenesters lavish upon their every act? Are those scenesters not utterly inauthentic, but also the epitome of cool? At risk of tying my brain in knots, I’d say that where a person’s tastes are truly ironic, and any pretence is paraded rather than concealed, then what you have is a complicated form of authenticity, but authenticity nonetheless. Think fancy-dressing with conviction. Think mock-voguing to Madonna hits. By revelling in the absurdity of such acts (rather than the acts themselves), the cool gang undermine any accusations of fakery, instead radiating a playful honesty.

When you combine authenticity with rebellion, you get to a definition of cool that has survived for generations. Whilst the rebel cool presented by 50s and 60s Hollywood was – by virtue of its presence on the silver screen – a skin-deep phenomenon, manifested in appearances, its conceptual successor drew from more substantial reserves. Rebel cool in the Punk era was tied to an authentic sense of anger and disillusionment. In the 1980s, Boy George and his Blitz Kid chums radiated authentic rebellion through their colourful pursuit of a gender-bending hedonism. And the Rave, Grunge and Britpop scenes all prized genuine rebel credentials, despite their idiosyncratic fashion and music aesthetics.

But whereas the Punks, Grungers and Britpoppers were famed for their oft-antisocial brand of rebellion, and the Blitz Kids and Ravers were locked in a drug-fuelled self-obsession masked by a smiley facade, an emergent strain of rebel cool – exemplified by the In Rainbows release – has overtly prosocial sentiment at its heart.

Prosocial rebellion is a touchstone of the digital age. Just look at Wikipedia and the wider open-source movement, which rebels against the old, oligarchic model of knowledge. The rebellion in question simply involves flinging open the doors, and inviting the public in to observe, contribute to, and self-police an emergent knowledge community. Then there’s the Web 2.0 phenomenon, so beloved of the tech and media press, which is essentially just one big media revolution, with mass sharing and participation as its goals. Interestingly, Diginatives growing up with prosocial rebellion are taking it offline, too, as evidenced by the DIO (Do It Ourselves) Underage scene, promoted and populated by a gang of like-minded and like-aged kids who don’t want to attend gigs with their clingy, babyboomer parents.

Working backwards through our three elements of contemporary cool, we can surely classify Radiohead as rebels. Yes, they are a big band with lots of money, but this one stunning act of subversion may just trigger a revolution in the way every other major (and minor) band markets, prices and distributes its music. You only have to look at Oasis circa 2007 to see what a big band with lots of money but no sense of rebellion (or direction, or talent) looks like.

The In Rainbows release, as I’ve already suggested, is an indisputably prosocial act. Prosocial because it promotes access, trust and autonomy (by leaving the pricing decision up to the individual) and because it actively enables the cross-platform fluidity and shareability of content (by omitting DRM restrictions) that music fans have previously been denied.

Finally, this prosocial act of rebellion is an authentic one, essentially because Radiohead have gambled a whole album’s worth of creative capital on its success. Not just any album, either. Critics have called it their best in a decade – a masterclass in musical pluralism – and the band themselves describe its creation as a torturous, multi-year process fraught with tension and dispute that nearly broke-up the band. To stick to your experimental guns both musically and en route to market, despite internal and external pressure, is surely the essence of authenticity.

So, then. Radiohead are cool right now, cool right now is authentic prosocial responsibility (APR), and – just in case classical logic doesn’t hold true for rock bands – Radiohead have been shown to emphatically meet the APR criteria.

Perhaps APR is just one part of contemporary cool. Make of it what you will. As a Diginative Radiohead fan, all I can do is share it unconditionally, invite you to choose its value and welcome any response.

Friday, September 14, 2007

(Near-) live blogging at Ogilvy Verge

I did a spot of liveblogging at Ogilvy's Verge event at the British Library yesterday.

Well, it wasn't quite live. I watched the presenters present, then wrote my posts in the lunch and tea breaks. (I know us Diginative are famed for our multi-tasking, but trying to simultaneously absorb, evaluate and respond to someone else's nervous mumblings really isn't much fun, and tends to result in sloppy "X said Y" reporting, as opposed to the cunning commentary I obviously aspire to.)

You can read my quasi-spontaneous reactions to Rory Sutherland's excellent keynote (here) and a throwaway comment from the BBC woman (here) if you've got nothing better to do on a sunny Friday afternoon.