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Category Archives: Communications

Look at all the lovely things a link spammer says

When a notification arrives in my inbox to approve a comment, it’s often just a link spammer.[If this practice is unknown to you, people do it purely in the hope that (a) someone might read the comment and click the link to their profile / direct to their blog, leading them to whatever sorry sack of crap they’re peddling and/or (b) in the hope it helps their search rankings. Meh.]

Anyway, the latest is a joy as this particular brain-dead moron seems to have pasted every single one of their comments into one post. Obviously they keep them all in a text file and then cut and paste as needed. So, in case you’re stuck for a comment on someone’s blog, just choose from those below and you’re good to go.

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WTF is wrong with agencies?

[This post was first published on Imperica here]

So, you walk into a room full of the brightest and best that agencyland has to offer, a collection of the digitally-enthused and passionately adept, charged out by their agencies for hundreds, even thousands of pounds a day, all in a room to share knowledge and swap best practices.

And then you realise that there’s a surprising common factor – a lot of them appear to be dumb.

The clue comes from the presentations; one is essentially a series of links, as if a bunch of digital heads don’t have any other way of sharing such things, as if Twitter, Stumbleupon, Reddit and, y’know, email groups never existed. Another presentation lays out the revelation that stories have – I kid you not – a beginning, middle and end. This revelation causes much scribbling of notes, swiping of iPads and, yes, even tweeting. I look around me and think: is this it? A stone’s throw from “Silicon Roundabout”, the much-vaunted (by politicians, anyway) digital tech hub of London, where all the cool smartarses should be and it’s just… not San Francisco.

This is only one of a number of occasions recently when I’ve looked at agency staff doing, y’know, stuff and thought “Why do you exist?”

Account team to the rescue

Why do clients hire agencies anyway? Why, if you run a business and employ staff, do you need to bring in an external company to do bits of your business? The answer is that agencies are supposed to be better at certain things than you are. You hire in specialists to do work that can’t be completed internally to the same standards. Simple, right?

At least, that’s how it should be. Digital has been like this for a while – once the preserve of unemployable nerds, later the territory of the whizzkids and geniuses, but always an area where clients were lacking in knowledge and / or experience. Why? Well, often, it was an age thing. Marketing directors and other senior stakeholders were of an age where they hadn’t grown up with the internet and weren’t enthused about it. 10 years ago, people were still debating whether or not they should even have a webpage (mind you, a couple of weeks ago, a large client of mine was still debating whether or not to have a Facebook page. Sometimes things don’t change). Agencies who needed to sell these services found the employable geeks and snapped them up on far better wages than yet-to-be-convinced-of-the-value-of-digital clients. They gave the unknowledgeable the option to buy a service with a set of deliverables attached; if you don’t understand what the work is really about, having a checklist of documents to be produced and webpages to be constructed allowed you to tick things off one by one, and assume you’d done your job.

And then people started to make money out of the web, and things changed again.

Suddenly, this stuff was deemed measurable in metrics normal non-digital people could understand. Did we make a return on our investment? Are we selling things through our website? The demands on agencies changed – and agencies changed to meet those demands. Instead of “digital strategy” meaning “what colour should our website be?” it became “does our web stuff help meet our business objectives?” and so new kinds of planners and strategists were needed, ones that understood the workings of businesses more than just the workings of marketing.

At this point, the advertising agencies who had successfully sold in the notion that the web was just another billboard, somewhere to extend the “above the line” creative, a place to put pretty pictures from the real world in front of consumers (just in smaller boxes)… they began to look, well, a bit shit.

Digital engagement is not like advertising – there is very little value in engagement alone. Whilst you may get a bit of all the above-mentioned metrics, if you don’t give an end user something to do you’re missing an opportunity – that might be the opportunity to engage in conversation (two way communication breeds better engagement than just getting people to watch a film or an animation or read some text), or it might be to drive people to a web or social media page with a stronger call to action, to sign up, to contribute, to purchase. But it’s not just that it’s an “opportunity” – it’s that these are things people want to do online. Passive viewing and sucking up marketing doesn’t cut it. And this kind of activity is more measurable than “how many eyes walked past our poster.” Analytics will tell you exactly what response something got.

And then there’s the user. Digital requires more understanding of individual users’ needs because people do more things in digital than, say, when they’re walking past a poster or watching the telly. They search, they research, they talk with friends about things they like, they shout at brands they hate, they create and distribute, influence and are influenced. And they often do it by themselves in a room with a screen. Advertising & PR have to talk “one to many” – so advertising a product on TV to millions in the hope you hit 2 or 3 target markets means finding messaging that works across all targets; digital has an element of the same but often requires a more individual approach, understanding that it’s just you and the user communicating, albeit in a context of more people / friends / followers etc.

"Yeah, sorry, gotta dash, got a client meeting in 20 minutes, gonna sell them some elephants."

This puts the ball in the court of the strategists. Where great advertising planners of the past were often a mixture of creative instinct, sharp minds and bucketloads of experience, digital planners and strategists need a mix of those things plus one all important element: evidence. That means that you can prove what you say; charm and a few lunches might sell something in to the client, but it won’t sell it into the punter. Smart agencies now buy into psychology, anthropology, data and research. And strategists & planners need to be able to help turn all of that into yer actual real stuff on the other end.

For a while, digital people looked pretty smart, then. The explosion of social media brought a new generation of socially-minded people who got lumped together under the “digital” banner and then… Well, I’m not sure the two are wholly related but there seems some correlation, if not causation. Social media seems much more sexy than “trad” digital because, hey! Everyone’s got a Facebook page and – bejasus! Some people have even tried that Twittering thing and it looks fun and so can’t we have one of those? Can we make it sell our widgets? … and so forth.

The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to be strategic. One of the stupidest mistakes of people in positions of “authoritah” is to assume that any job they’ve never done themselves is actually easy. Now they had a Facebook page, they were social media experts, right? Which is a bit like saying you read a paper every day so you know how to be a journalist. Marketing directors would start looking at social as a way of delivering campaign tactics – short term, marketing objective-driven executions; and the new generation of social media agencies have got fat off the proceeds. It was the Wild West all over again, and without much in the way of competition the fees were high and the audience easier to reach. There’s gold in them thar hills, and all that.

Now, things are different: everyone’s doing it. It’s harder to win. Real social engagement means a sustained presence; listening and responding goes further than just communicating – consumers expect companies to change when they demand it, and in the age of social CRM, they do. Marks & Spencer are brilliant at this and they run most of their social engagement from a small in-house team who know what they are doing. Who the hell needs an agency, when you’re the most-engaged UK brand on Facebook and you’re driving sales?

Proper strategy means knowing what businesses need as well as consumers – and over time, not just in the short term. Relationships mature, they aren’t always created in an instant. Knowing the whizziest of whizzy gadgets and gimmicks is not the whole game any more – but it is a part of it. If you stop learning every day, technology-based disciplines will always pass you by. This is the technological imperative at work – just because you know something about Twitter today does not mean you can answer business challenges tomorrow.

All this “smart, experienced people” schtick flew in the face of standard agency hiring practices. Agencies weren’t where a lot of smart people went, not outside of planning departments anyway. If you had a modicum of charm were good looking and had a nice haircut, wore the right clothes and kissed the right sphincter, you could get a pretty decent job. Smart people went into planning and strategy and were locked away in dark rooms. At this point, I expect a lot of agency types to be fuming, but, frankly, if they read this far they aren’t the targets (reading seems to be anathema to a certain type of agency person, long copy a distant dream). Anyway, the needs of the digital market brought in smarter people. Agencies who had never considered such things as, y’know, how a business actually works, started to employ business analysts and consultants, whole departments sprang up that dealt with data and research. Anthropology, sociology and psychology became important.

So, what’s with all the agency dumb?

My theory: money breeds complacency. And complacency breeds poor hiring practices. The lack of competitive pressure which has allowed a whole slew of agencies to gain cashflow on the back of average work. So they keep hiring the same people they always have. They forget – or don’t know how – to look into social and digital expertise. In the ’90s you used to have to check that someone had “Microsoft Office” in their skillset; now kids learn that stuff in school. Just because someone has a Pinterest account it doesn’t follow that they know how to use it for business (and for an explanation of why social media consulting is almost dead for the same reason, see here). And if you don’t use it yourself, you sure as hell can’t check whether someone else is any good at it.

I keep wondering what it would be like if you got into a car for your first driving lesson and the instructor had a book open on his lap. “I don’t drive myself,” he says, “but I have an excellent book here written by some of the best drivers in the world. Now…. If you can…” [reads from book] “depress the clutch with your left foot…”

You would be out of that car in a second.

"Where to guvnor? Can you just put me 'and on the satnav? Cheers."

So why do agencies think it’s alright to charge people for the services of people who are reading from the approved text?

The trouble is, they all follow a similar trajectory. That complacency allows their competitors to nip in and point out that they could deliver the same work (a) considerably better and (b) considerably cheaper. Non-experienced people take longer to do the same work and they’re learning as they go – inevitably costs go up as quality suffers.

Agencies that want to prosper with digital and social offerings need to get their heads out of their collective backsides. Compete with Silicon Valley?

You. Are. Fucking. Joking.

 

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Why The Entertainment Industry Is Wrong About Everything Pt. 2: Sports Broadcasters

OK, I say “sports,” but I’m going to stick to the area I know best which is football (or “soccer,” if you swing that way). I think the issues are pretty much the same for all sports, mind.

Sometimes the Swiss aren't so neutral.

In some ways, I think there are easier issues to deal with here than music or film. Sporting events have the greatest audiences on the day the events are taking place – either live or highlights; only important matches or ones with extraordinary outcomes tend to make much impact in, say, DVD sales. Clubs can monetise the audience over the longer term through season tickets, merchandise and the like, whilst broadcasters tend to rely on subscription fees and the odd one-off payment for special events. And in this episode, I reckon there’s an answer to that whole interweb “problem.”

Now then. 20 years ago I was one of the first people I knew with a Sky box. For about £18 a month I could get The Simpsons, the footy (in every division and country in the world just about), “movies” (or “films,” as they used to be known) piped right into the house.

Everyone remembers that episode, right?

And it was ace. I found friends that would magically appear on a Sunday for the treble bill of football, The Bill omnibus and The Simpsons – popularity guaranteed for under 20 spons a month. Not bad.

Flip forward 20 years and surely things have got even better, right? I mean, that’s what progress does, doesn’t it, make things better? Nope. As a consumer, things are rubbish. Let’s say I want to be able to watch all the games for my chosen team – I only care about club football these days and I don’t have time to watch everything. First, I search for things like “Club X TV fixtures” or “When are Club X on TV?” and a number of related searches. The results are perplexing – smart keyword buyers have managed to associate everything from blogs to football kits and boots to website forums and comment pieces. Finding a list of fixtures and what channel they are on is not something natural search does well. So, we go to the club website and trawl through their own TV channel listings and other sundry items before finally finding a list of matches and TV channels. But wait – something’s missing:

That’s right – listings only go up to a couple of months in advance – TV channels don’t want to have to bet in advance on which teams will be doing well / playing attractive football “for the neutral” so far upfront, so the televised games are selected later in the season.* This is fundamentally troubling – after all, there is a choice between ESPN & Sky for coverage. Maybe I can only afford one – what offers best value for money? Well, I choose my subscription by the year, not month, so I could choose Sky now only to find that ESPN have all the good games later. So, I have the functionality available to bet on a match in January 2012 (which is always highlighted by the fixture), but I can’t tell what channel it’s going to be on? This situation suits the broadcasters, but not the fan. Moreover, I follow my club for the whole season, not just some of the games. I don’t like going to pubs and being forced to endure the commentary by fellow “fans” who parrot what they heard on phone-ins that morning as “opinion.” I want it in my house. And that’s going to cost.

In fact, when it comes to package selection, there is just too much choice, it’s way over-complex, and the price is unbelievable. OK, so the latter might just be me being a miserable old git, pining for the days when I could have all the channels and still have enough change from a £20 note for fish and chips and a can of Coke, but it seems like there is very little change from £100 a month.

"Sky or ESPN.... Sky or ESPN... or how about those nice chaps from Setanta... they still make football, right?"

Bear in mind this is 2011 and we have HD tellies so who wants non-HD? (I’d throw 3D into the mix but – ha- that viewing experience is just rubbish for football, so I’ll leave it out for now), but even with a deal on installation etc as a new customer, Sky plus ESPN plus a basic channel package in HD plus the ability to watch it in more than one room (honestly, the chutzpah!) comes  in at around £80 per month. The club I support has season tickets which cost around £725 a year for an adult and £300 for a child (cheap for a Premier League club). A year’s worth of telly – which is never going to be the same as going to the game – comes in at around the same price. Telly was always regarded as what you did because you couldn’t afford to go to the game – now it is priced on a par with the real thing. And that seems wrong. Sure, I get a whole load of crappy channels thrown in and that has some value, but it’s not what I want. I am a consumer – I have demands and they are not being met. My money stays in my pocket.

And so we turn to where my demands are being met. For about the last five years, I have been able – pretty much wherever I am – to switch on my PC and watch my club. At this point, someone screams “piracy!” whilst the crowd look horrified, policemen prime their truncheons and delicate ladies faint in swoons of shock. Aren’t I taking something for free? Aren’t I stealing? I wouldn’t download a car, would I?

You wouldn't download a car. Unless you were playing, say, Gran Turismo. Then you probably would.

It is a measure of the sheer genius and efficacy of entertainment lawyers, PR peoples and lobbyists that this mindset has come to pass. Sadly, it has nothing to do with reality. Firstly, “free” is not free. Secondly, stealing a car deprives someone of that object – nothing I do deprives anyone of anything physical – I don’t stop the same thing being sold to anyone else. Thirdly, I am sat here with a sum of money that would be spent on football with whichever provider decided to comply with the laws of supply & demand. I have written more about the myths surrounding “piracy” here.

Firstly, then, watching without paying is not mere “freeloading.” Setting aside the nominal licence fee (a tenner or so a month) I have Freeview. All of those 70+ channels are not merely sharing my tenner are they? Mostly it goes on the BBC and, frankly, when compared to the price of satellite / cable, I see the licence fee as a bargain for news, documentaries, Match of The Day and various radio stations alone. But those other “free” channels are surviving somehow, right? Yes. It’s called “a-d-v-e-r-t-i-s-i-n-g.” You may have heard of it. You may also be aware that different channels charge different rates for their advertising – the more viewers they have, the more the ads cost. Amazing! So when I watch, say, a Champions League match on ITV (a free channel) am I thieving my footy? I am not.

And don’t forget sponsorship. The exact amounts involved are hard to discern, but three top sponsors pay in the region of £135m for a 3 year deal.  It’s worth that much because of the numbers that will be watching the games, of course. Those numbers are partially on subscription channels, partly from pubs and, yes, partly from “free” viewers. It is the total number that is important and it is made up of significant chunks of each – no one audience is sufficient by itself. That huge audience is, then, rather valuable – which is why so many broadcasters want it.

ITV, then, who paid c. £160m for three years’ worth of rights, clearly believe they will make that money back because of the value of ad sales. A cheeky enquiry to a colleague in a media-buying agency (the people who buy ad space on behalf of their clients) tells us that the cost of a 30 second slot for a regular Champions League game is c. £45,000 for ITV as opposed to c.£15,000 for Sky. For the final it’s more like £40,000 on Sky and £105,000 on ITV. Do you see that? The audience for “free” viewing is bigger and thus the ads cost more. Oh, and let’s not forget all the ads on players’ shirts and advertising hoardings around the ground. Someone paid money for those in the hope someone is watching. And they’re happy if more people are watching, too.

In other words, when I watch something for free on a channel that sells advertising, I am not a freeloader – I am a crucial part of the channels’ & sponsors’ business plans.

So, why do people host pirated football? Because – guess what? – there are people that will pay them money for hosting adverts whilst they show unlicensed sports. But surely this will be ads for dodgy porn, malware-infested fakes and all manner of under-the-table tomfoolery?

Well here’s the fun part: UK companies are already using these illegal channels for advertising. And not small outfits, either. Big ones. The biggest. Vodafone, Disney, big pharma, the lot. It’s not a few odd cases, it’s everywhere and it’s everyone.

This weekend, I saw UK adverts for washing powders, coffee and mobile phones. And let’s be clear: these weren’t European or Chinese versions of the ads that have somehow found their way onto my machine.

The European Commission, Vodafone, more pharma, Airwick. And there's plenty more where they came from. And I mean *plenty*.

These were the same ads I see on TV, with .co.uk URLs and British accents. And these were not just video trails (which tend to be served whilst streams load) but banner and other display ads, including interactive ones. In other words, the same advertising you would see on official channels. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that most media buyers probably don’t realise that this is going on as this would be wrapped up in the lower end of the inventory they purchase – probably listed as “miscellaneous websites: reaches 100,000 people, costs £X” – and is a very minor amount in comparison to the total, so it isn’t likely to be something that gets much attention. But for their clients, unless anyone flags it, why complain? You want to advertise to a certain audience, you go where they are – and if they’re watching pirated football, who cares? They’re still consumers.

Oh look: Disney, Bonjela, gambling and more

Next, I feel obliged to point out that downloading something for free is not the same as stealing something physically. ITV & Sky can continue to sell their services to other people, I am not stopping them. It is a complete fallacy to equate downloading something from one source as somehow depriving them of a sale. They simply don’t have what I want in a format I want a price I can afford, so they are “losing” precisely nothing. I was not going to spend that money with them, so how can they have “lost” it? Perhaps, instead of wringing hands about “lost sales,” the better answer would be to examine the pricing, format and availability of the product? Because, in fact, the rights-holders (clubs, leagues, official bodies) – as well as broadcasters – are all losing out on potential revenue by not servicing demand adequately.

Which brings us neatly to the third point – that supply and demand (aka everyone’s first lesson in economics) tells broadcasters exactly what they should be doing. At the moment, my personal demand is supplied by crappy streams. Why?

  • I can see whatever match I want
  • It is a reasonable stream
  • I can choose which broadcaster I want to view it with (including which commentary)
  • I can follow just my team, I don’t need a package of things I don’t want in order to do so
  • The price is right

The downside:

  • I have to search around a bit which is a bit annoying (although I usually find it quicker to track down a stream than, say, track down figures for what sponsors paid for Champions League rights)
  • The quality is occasionally poor
  • I may have to switch streams mid-match
  • I probably miss, on average, 10-15 minutes of the match through any / all of the above.

Various broadcasting friends wanted me to add that I also risk malware, viruses, penury and lupus too, but I like to think that my level of tech expertise avoids this. However, for many people this will be true enough. If you download the necessary software for viewing from official sites, no problem; but many streaming sites have links to software that is filled with malware, frankly. That’s because they are in control of how they get money from you; it’s not regulated or licensed so they do whatever makes cash and adding spyware means someone somewhere is paying them to do so.

Even so, ultimately, when faced with a choice of all the above, it’s streams every time. Had I the simple choice of being able to follow all my team’s matches for, say, £20 a month, nothing else included with them, I’d pay it. And so would hundreds of thousands / millions of other people.

But that requires something we are not used to in commercial models: non-exclusivity. If UK broadcasters pay £400m for TV rights, it’s because they know they become the only show in town. Once other people can show those games, their rights are worth less. If Tommy Streamer can show the game on his blog page then why is anyone going to watch ITV or Sky? Exclusivity guarantees the broadcaster they will have a monopoly on showing a game; that means they are guaranteed a certain minimum audience to watch the game and that means a minimum amount of income.

But the market supports multiple types of demand. At the prices they are charging, broadcasters only service a certain percentage of the potential audience – the rest of us would be happy with less quality for less money, either as paid-for or ad-supported streams. But the only people smart enough to tap this market are the “pirates” and the advertisers who serve ads on their networks. If I was a broadcaster I would offer those networks  a license to show streams at a maximum quality of, say, 50% of the HD streams I can offer and take a percentage of the advertising revenue.

I wrote about this yonks ago when I worked for a company that became EMC (and whose blogs have been similarly assimilated) as an idea for content distribution, the principle being that nobody should care who shows the content as long as they take the ads? Reward people for doing it too – even if it’s a small share of the proceeds it incentivises them for finding an audience and your revenue goes up with the growth in total audience size. I called this “microdistribution.” It has a lot in common with the Long Tail in that it recognises that a myriad of tiny niches may add up to something huge, a la Google Adwords etc.

And there’s another reason why this might improve the delivery of football. At the moment, I am stuck watching, say, Match of The Day on the Beeb or Sky’s full match programmes. MOTD is the last resort of the desperate fan – matches reduced to highlights which are ridiculously short to squeeze in every game. Here’s the build-up play, here’s the shot, here’s the goal. The replay is rarely anything more than the final ball and shot. But what makes a goal amazing is often the quality of the build-up, the passing, the bypassing of the defence through tactical executions. All of this is lost – and the result is the barf-inducing banality of football phone-ins which consist of people making comments about matches based on the few minutes they saw on MOTD and the commentary they heard. In other words, you are listening to opinions about opinions. As a result this promotes a shallowness in the way many people engage with the game. Tactics are reduced to quick soundbites – talk about a pressing game, playing two up front or one in the hole behind the striker – but tactics go much deeper than that.

In the 1990s, before we all agreed he was a bit of a twat, Andy Gray used to do a tactics session in the hour or two before a big game – full on tiddlywink counters and pushing them around, examining why certain managers chose different formations and so forth. It was a big part of my deeper understanding of the game; what had been based solely on a love of playing, mixed with the tribalism of being a fan, developed into something more. The various tactics sections on football shows of all sorts are now lamentable. A favourite piece of utter crap was Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck on ITV – like so many ex-footballers, a nice chap just repeats the obvious, draws some circles around defenders who have lost their man and that’s it.

But this is because TV is broadcast to such a big audience – it’s not possible to cater to all the different tastes fans might have. I know not everyone’s a tactics nerd, but I’d liketo watch a real tactics nerd doing their thing. Allowing the little guy to broadcast would allow the niche interests to blossom – tactics, Alan Hansen-a-likes who only see the defensive errors, students of the cultured pass, the different chants, partisan commentaries which barely mention a single opposition player’s name except to berate them (which, in fairness, is what it’s like watching any footy on a club’s own channel). All these would be possible.

All of this and more. I get better insights from the cat.

This creates a “long tail” of football consumption. And in the long run, it’s better for the game because everything is catered for.  Again, it’s fair to say that specialist broadcasters do make an effort to vary the programming – there’s the Saturday morning “variety show,” or the highlights reels or the fan-led shenanigans. But consumers are way more varied in type than a broadcaster alone can deal with at times. Niche interests are often what keep subjects interesting to a wider audience; I can’t see anyone likely to broadcast, say, a programme just for referees or coaches. But I bet there’d be some people who’d like it. Search the net for football blogs and you’ll find women tacticians as well as “I love Thierry Henry’s thighs”; Villa fans who only want to discuss the 1970s, others who only ever discuss one player at their club. The “tail” may be lengthening but it’s just not long enough.

Broadcaster and event owners aren’t  going to give in easily – the one thing about selling exclusivity is that you get a big lump of cash if you’re the event owner and the chance to earn a big lump of cash if you’re the broadcaster – it’s a high stakes game with big rewards (unless you’re Setanta and screw up the maths / sales).

And that’s why chasing pirates seems like a better bet – who’s going to say “Yes, this year we shall forgo our £100m income for £25m with the potential to earn an extra £150m”? You’d take the lump sum every time. I get it, but it’s clearly short-sighted.

Free market exponents will consistently tell you that free market means more choice for the consumer. And yet, here we are, us disenfranchised punters, we buy our replica kits, matchday tickets, programmes, consume advertising on hoardings round the pitch, idents and ad-breaks, we’re happy to consume and maybe even pay you some money… but all we are is “thieves.”

Meantime, I’ll just leave this here…

*EDIT : I showed this piece to a number of friends who work in sports broadcasting – amongst the points they wanted to add were that “…the TV fixtures situation is not the great TV carve-up as many people would believe. There are great number of factors why [they] can’t set the fixtures for the entire season in advance: clubs, local authorities, transport providers, and the police influence dates/kick-off times. There is the performance of the clubs in the cup competitions to consider and the sheer logistical weight of organising the fixture list. Hence it is split into 3-4 phases. [Sports broadcasters] attempt to even out each club’s number of appearances on [TV] throughout the season.” Only fair to include that. It can’t all be hyperbole and invective.

 

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What can the games industry learn from the demise of myspace?


Remember myspace? It was huge, once. Just like the music industry, it had a good few years to work out how to monetise phenomenal demand for its products & services on the web and, despite a head start that should have seen it luxuriating in cash and ivory back-scratchers, it failed. myspace will probably get another shot under new ownership but is now back in 18th place on the starting grid, with Facebook,  Soundcloud, Last FM, Spotify, Bandcamp & others now way ahead. Like Friends Reunited before it, it has somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. How the hell did that happen?

Yeah. You know it.

There are lots of reasons, but I’d like to look at it from the point of view of communications. What myspace did brilliantly at the beginning was connect fans to bands. That may sound simple, but think how things happened before – you could buy a band’s music, you could see them at a gig (and maybe grab a quick autograph), you could read an interview with them in a mag or paper. If you joined a mailing list or fanclub then, once a quarter you might receive a badge, a limited edition EP, a “letter” (written by a press officer) and that was about it. That was as close as you could get.

And then came the digital age. And communications needed to be quicker and there needed to be more to fill the ever-increasing spaces available. Whilst some bands need to retain an air of mystique (some bands would certainly not benefit from the fans knowing too much about what kind of people they really are), others rely on emotional and personal connections with their fanbase. Along came Artic Monkeys, who seemed to just be natural communicators, and suddenly “myspace made them famous.” This was just a myth perpetuated by people who didn’t really understand what was going on. They were just a great band with a penchant for communications. it’s just a medium. If you have good content, it works; if you don’t, it doesn’t.

But then the music industry saw what was happening and all the people who stood to lose from direct communications between bands and fans stepped in; suddenly, it was de rigeur to have your press officer running your myspace page. You could tell because everything they posted had lots of exclamation marks!!!! At the end of everything!!!!!!!! Cos, like, that makes a 35 year old PR seem down with the kids, right?!?!?!?!

Gone were the real connections between human beings, and back into the land of the glorified press release we sailed. Churnalism of the worst kind, dressed up as humanity. A certain kind of fan wants a certain kind of connection – and this opportunity was lost, frankly. Now, watch those Twitter accounts for more of the same.

What does this have to do with gaming? An awful lot. The games industry is structured not dissimilarly from the music industry: first, there are the artists who actually develop the games; These artists are then often signed to a larger publisher who, in turn, are signed to a global distributor that is responsible for getting games into the shops all over the world and the multi-million dollar marketing budgets that support it. But then there comes a problem. Those giant distributors are used to controlling the communications – they want consistent PR and marketing messaging and they (often) want it globally. That’s too simplistic a view, in my opinion. The way the US market views first person shooters may be rather different from how the Japanese see it. But with the interwebs being, y’know, global, any discussion / comment / sneak preview / beta material is going to end up in every market in minutes. That doesn’t suit the old-fashioned “command and control” mentality.

Think, then, about games consumers. They range from the “buys a couple of games a year” Call Of Duty guy (this century’s equivalent of Mondeo man) to the hardcore FPS / RPG devotee who needs to be the first to get 100% completion, write a walkthrough and post it on IRC. Like any market, the needs of each segment are rather different. The latter has no real interest in what the likes of EA, PlayStation or Activision have to say, just like your average indie-consuming Camdenite doesn’t care much what Universal Music have to say. The kind of communications controlled by the big boys is what ends up in mainstream magazines and newspapers. They talk the language of the consumer-at-large, the mainstream thinkers. And that’s fine. But when they try and communicate with the hardcore, they almost always get it wrong – they just speak different languages.

Media like Twitter have opened up new possibilities but they require a different language – one spoken by the “artist,” who is closer to the market in mentality than a corporate communicator can ever be. Take recent EA release “Bulletstorm.” It’s a decent enough game, but one of the gameplay features makes a traditional multiplayer “deathmatch” mode impossible. To your mainstream COD player, this is what multiplayer is all about, and it was a likely barrier to purchase. And early on (I’ve been following this one since the beginning) fans were expressing concern about the lack of a deathmatch mode. After all, what is more satisfying than killing complete strangers? I’ve been hugely impressed by the way Polish development team People Can Fly and their direct publishers Epic have communicated over the last 18 months or so. Sure, there’ve been the stunts, the E3 stage and all manner of mass comms. But underneath it all Adrian Chmielarz (PCF) and Cliff Bleszinski and others from Epic were talking direct to the fans on Twitter and through their various blogs all along. At every stage of development, you got the feeling that they were listening and that it was affecting the way the game was being developed. By keeping the core happy, the buzz on the game was far more positive than if it had been left to a mainstream communicator – this was not a straightforward title and it was treated accordingly. Expectations that took a year to form ahead of release were well-managed.

Meantime, look what happened with Blizzard, who make Starcraft & World Of Warcraft, two of the hugest games in the universe. Last year – seemingly out of nowhere – they announced an end to anonymity on forums and games. People would have to post under their own names or not at all. No doubt some would think this is a good idea, but you could talk to any gamer in any forum in the galaxy and know that people cherish anonymity – gaming is (partly) about escapism; we’ve all been the kind of heroes on screen we could never hope to be in real life. And so, their asses got handed to them on a plate. Aside from a mass scream of alarm, various Anonymous hacks led to Blizzard board members seeing their home addresses (and more) posted online as an example as to just why anonymity is a cherished thing. Big fail. But if they’d floated the idea properly amongst their market first, they would have known that it was preposterous and it never would have happened.

And this is the difference – where all communications used to be one way (“Here’s something amazing! It’s available over there! Go buy it!”), the two-way traffic engendered by digital communications & social media has changed everything, not just because of the change in direction but because of the speed of communication itself. It propagates like crazy. Today’s games consumers are not just purchasers, they’re market researchers, developers, ideas guys, marketing evangelists and players all rolled into one. They don’t “get” the game on the day of release, they got it a year before.

You only need to look at the film industry, which – for years – has used previews, film festivals and film-lover networks as a matter of course.

Where Sony hung onto crucial information whilst the PlayStation Network crumbled around them they missed a load of crucial opportunities: the chance to capitalise on the goodwill giving people a free online experience gets you; the ability to harness the power of the crowd in solving their problems; the chance, perhaps, to coax the  likes of Anonymous  to help track the culprits who brought down their gametime (instead of pointing the finger – again, nobody in their right mind would think this was an Anonymous thing). And now they’re stranded in a very leaky boat.

We used to talk about communications planning in a purely tactical way – “Here’s the new product, what we gonna say about it? And to whom?” But that doesn’t cut it any more. Communication networks for talking with the consumer should already be in place, so whatever new game comes along, the guys with the wallets at the ready are helping shape it from day one. Some games lend themselves to such communications by their very nature – Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series relies on globally-produced data from fan networks to make the game so realistic, so it’s no surprise that they communicate so effectively across everything from forums to Twitter and all points in between. Likewise Gabe Newell at Valve. You look at these guys and think “they’re one of us…” And, indeed, we are one of them.

So whilst myspace’s sun sets, unknowing if it will rise again for a new dawn, communicators in the games industry take heed: if you’re thinking in product lifecycles, you might well be the next dinosaur headed for extinction. Your fans are out there and they’re clamouring for attention – just don’t think that a press release alone will satisfy them.

 

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The Madness of Crowds: Twitter, 4Chan & Chaos Theory

We all know what chaos theory is, right? That whole schtick about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan followed by an Indonesian volcano erupting a few days later and so forth, yeah?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic and a bit misleading, as examples go. Chaos theory is all about how a tiny event can have seemingly unrelated consequences somewhere down the line – but those events are connected. Trying to imagine the series of events that causes a butterfly flapping to set off a volcanic eruption is a bit much. But if you imagine said butterfly flap causing a small bit of air to move, and in turn that movement triggers more movement and so on, until you get to a point where a tornado may or may not form… we’re getting closer.

Why is this relevant? Because Twitter, that’s why. (And Anonymous / 4Chan but we’ll get to that in a bit). This week the marvellous Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted (one of the greatest British comedies ever) and the nearly as brilliant IT Crowd, decided to have a bit of a laugh. As a comedy writer, this seems quite natural. So he tweeted the following:

Silly, really, but worth a chuckle. Reminded me of Chris Morris saying (live on Radio 1) that he “would let listeners know if there was any news of the death of Michael Heseltine” – but without specifically saying he was dead. Cue the predictable fawning followed by uproar. Marvelous fun.

But then it goes a bit mad. People often see what they want instead of reading something carefully. And then you get tweets like:

“So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions” tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

And

“If you’ve never seen The IT Crowd, please don’t let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It’s still great ” Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

And these little shifts in the story get carried by the wind. And the butterfly’s wing wafts them every further afield, until suddenly it’s a story that appears in the mainstream press and everyone goes a little bit meshugah. This kind of thing isn’t new – we used to call it “Chinese whispers” – but Twitter as a medium really enables this kind of spread. Once upon a time, this kind of thing spread from group of friends to group of friends via any number of method. A hundred years ago, it might have been people talking over the garden wall; more recently it would have been “down the pub,” and now it can be over Facebook or Twitter. I can remember when every year at Glastonbury there would be some huge rumour that would start in the camp sites in the morning – you’d wake up and hear people shouting “Thatcher’s dead!” and so forth, and the rumour would persist for the weekend ‘til you got home. That was until smartphones became ubiquitous and people could check the veracity of such claims in seconds. The only difference is the time it takes to spread – what once took weeks now takes seconds.

It’s like seeing Chaos Theory, which should take reams of data spread over vast stretches of time to identify, but happening all speeded-up like a Benny Hill sketch. Follow the path of any story and it takes on tiny embellishments, changes of meaning and people’s own interpretation of the original story; then people comment on someone else’s analysis of the original story until you’re so far from the original facts that you have no chance of really grasping them.

Take a football phone-in on the radio. You listen to an opinion that’s based on a commentary they’ve heard on the radio (which is, in turn, just the commentator’s opinion of what he / she is seeing). The host adds in their take, you react, spin your own interpretation of the point of view and then repeat it to your friends down the pub / on Twitter who then repeat it to someone else… but with all the authority of having been there in person and watched the game from the bench. See also: Match of The Day. If you have watched 8 minute long highlights of a 90 minute game, your opinion that “Lucas was shit and kept giving the ball away” may not actually be as close to the truth as you think.

And so the strange movements and minute changes that, over time and space, become enormously significant once again look like our theoretically chaotic friend. Only unlike the sodding butterfly, this is an effect you can actually see.

And then there’s Anonymous. If you don’t know what Anonymous is, I don’t feel that keen to be explaining it as (a) it’s hard, (b) describing something that is the sum of millions of moving parts, all changing, breathing, reacting and crashing into each other is always going to be inaccurate and (c) I am scared of them. But I shall try. Anonymous was born out of the 4Chan message board. 4Chan is the ultimate in free speech – there are no rules and you don’t have to post under a name (most posts are from “Anonymous” although some people do choose a moniker). Posts range from discussions to Photoshopped images and range from the inane to the pant-wettingly  funny to plain creepy or shocking. Such is freedom – people can be total arseholes and they often are.

Anonymous as an “entity” (term loosely used) is when the hive mind decides to come together to pursue a common cause; it’s as if there is a tipping point (fuck off Gladwell fans, I don’t want to hear it) is reached where a point of view reaches critical mass and action is demanded. Whilst some have tried to portray Anonymous as a politically-minded entity, it is really nothing of the sort. That title indicates an agenda that is cast in stone, and as far as Anonymous is concerned the only underlying ethic that ever tied it all together was that they were “doing it for the lulz” (lulz = LOLs / laughs btw). In other words, they’re having a bit of a giggle. I first remember seeing Anonymous about 5 years ago when they started on the great Habbo Raids. This involved mass invasions of Habbo (an online kids’ virtual world kind of thing) and, shall we say, behaving somewhat inappropriately. Childish, but it made me laugh. Later came more serious matters: a white supremacist website Tom Cruise seen "shitting pants" with ragebelonging to Hal Turner got hit with a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS), costing him thousands in bandwidth charges; YouTube got hit with hundreds of porn uploads; any number of frankly silly, yet rather amusing, activities.

And then there was Project Chanology which was when the hive mind took on Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology bullshit was uploaded to YouTube, the Church Of Scientology claimed copyright infringement to get it taken down. And this is the kind of attack on free speech that really gets 4Channers / Anonymous types going. And there was a war. Likewise, when Blizzard (makers of World Of Warcraft) announced that posting on their forums would require people to post under their own names rather than behind a pseudonym, Anonymous types proceeded to demonstrate the value of anonymity on the internet by hacking & posting private details of Blizzard employees and their family members. Blizzard backed down.

The fact is, when a consensus arises within Anonymous, they act. But how they get to that point is fascinating (although difficult for the casual observer) to observe. In 1991, Loren Carpenter, a leading computer engineer set up an experiment to show what a hive mind can achieve. The results were fascinating. (Stop @ 11:28 if it doesn’t stop itself)

The fact that everyone doesn’t just indicate “up” or “down” is an amazing demonstration of the hive mind. And it doesn’t just work in “yes” or “no” decisions (although that is how the individual works) but there is a point where consensus is seen as representing the group desire and accepted by the whole. And that is kind of what happens with Anonymous.

Whilst some things they do seem predictable, others fly in the face of reason. Take the delightful Westboro Baptist Church, the “Christians” that like demonstrating at soldiers’ funerals and reminding people that their God hates fags. Anonymous had already taken aim when Pastor Fred Phelps sent a message to Anonymous that laid down a challenge, goading them that they wouldn’t be able to take WBC down. And a few attacks on the WBC, over and above what was already happening, did seem to take place. And then this happened.

When some anonymous (small ‘a’) hacker goes on a news programme and purports to represent the collective, there seems to be a debate that rages on the various forums, followed by an acceptance / rejection of the “spokesman” in question. More have been disavowed than accepted, for sure. And that person’s legitimacy and platform then falls away. Think about how this would have happened had it been a club or society or organisation. There would be meetings, agreed messages, votes, appeals, whatever – a lengthy process. But these Anonymous decisions seem to happen in almost real time.

But what gets me most is how unpredictable it is. I thought when I saw the WBC goading Anonymous “Woah, get the popcorn, this is going to be fun.” And then there was this outbreak of outstanding rationality which delivered a far more humiliating blow to Phelps and his mob than any DDOS attack. But it could have gone either way – and that’s the chaos stuff. I watch marketers dropping links / videos that are clearly (to me) marketing dressed up as community postings and think “pah.” But sometimes stuff gets through. The likes of Digg, Reddit & Stumble represent potential marketing gold because of the huge potential audience but gaming the system is almost impossible as you just can’t predict what exactly the community reaction will be. Can technique improve the chances your submission will get upvoted? Yes. Can it guarantee it? Nope.

All communities over a certain size are subject to this unpredictability because once you reach a certain size there can be no single defining characteristic that overrides all other personal concerns to keep people unified. That’s why you can see enough of a political party during an election campaign to vote for them, but a couple of years later when you’ve seen all their policies in action you realise you don’t agree with X% of their activity.

Chaos theory lives large in our lives in all kinds of ways; Twitter and other social media just lets us see it writ large. But the lesson is that you can’t always manipulate things to be the way you want them to be. Some things are just… unpredictable.

 

 

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