The Flackenhacks: darn it, I didn’t win.

So, this is the first blog post about the Flackenhacks 2008.

I would love to have won the ‘Wank 2.0: User-generated twat’ award but sadly had to give way to Richard Bailey who wasn’t present to collect his. I had my speech ready and everything (can’t repeat it here – remember what happened to Russell Brand).

In Richard’s defence, I do have to say that I admire his forward-thinking approach to teaching students about PR. Having met one of Porter Novelli’s excellent graduates tonight, I think we need high-calibre people open to all forms of communication and he’s one of the people trying to make that happen.

Anyway, the night started off promisingly: I couldn’t find the club, but fortunately a fellow Flackenhacker was equally lost and we found the (cut-off due to roadworks) street together.

After that it was plain sailing. At the front desk we had all the stickers arranged in alphabetical order, but we quickly found out it’s difficult finding people alphabetically when the stickers are across two tables. I managed to mask my hopeless ineptitude at locating stickers by pretending to ‘do a shuffle’ until/unless someone else managed to find them for me.

From then on the evening progressed well: awards were announced, prizes were given. As I say, I was prepared to accept the – I repeat – ‘Wank 2.0: User-generated twat’ award but obviously I wasn’t twatty enough to have done so. Must try harder.

Highlights for me were meeting:

  • Really great people staffing the front desk. Say what you like about PR, it does employ people who can damn well sort things out.
  • Other people who found themselves astonished to be affiliated to PR (myself included – I mean, what is it all about? I mean, really?), and yet had incredibly important things to offer.*
  • Great people who are pointing towards where PR should be, such as Tiger Two Tiger.*
  • Stephen Waddington, a fellow PR blogger, with whom I agreed.
  • Some journalists.

* Today, I read/saw on Shel Holz’s blog, an excellent video on The Most Dangerous Idea in PR. Part of it discusses how PR will soon start subsuming advertising, creative and digital. My take on this, having been initially employed as a copywriter and then social media thingy within PR: yes, but you’ve got to start making space for them.

So, all in all a fantastic evening, thank you to Peter who made sure everything ran smoothly. See you next year!

The Greatest Viral Ever – and other assorted examples

What makes a great viral?

Firstly, let’s be clear: viral is an effect. I’ve been asked to ‘do something viral’ in the past, and in explaining this I’ve had to say that really, anything and everything we do should be viral. That is, it should be a powerful enough message that impels sufficient people to spread it.

Problem is, you’re at the mercy of opposing dynamics: on the one hand people will only forward something that is important enough to them or their immediate contacts to do so; while on the other you need to hit enough buttons for the thing to pick up critical mass. In other words, you need to satisfy most of the people most of the time.

However, it is possible to identify certain characteristics of material that tends to ‘go viral’. It’s usually short enough for people to enjoy without getting bored. It’s usually video. It’s usually something they can build on then pass along (making it truly viral in that it changes). But these are all ‘usually’, and there are exceptions.

In the past I’ve said that viral is (usually) interactive, funny, useful, controversial, clever or cool. I would love to be able to turn this into a snappy acronym but all I get is ifuccc which is simple to remember but I would never say in front of clients.

Of course, all of these categories are subjective – as I said earlier, that’s the problem with viral. What is controversial for me might not be for you. What makes you laugh might pass me by. I would also say that often viral is only effective when it isn’t harnessed to some big brand. People like to be ‘in on the secret’ and a secret is rarely web-wide.

I’m fairly confident that most of you will agree that the Obama CNNBC video is the greatest viral ever. It ticks all the boxes I’m about to list, and then some. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back after the event and class this as a viral that actually helped Obama to win.

(I can’t actually embed this video on my WordPress.com-hosted blog – which is perhaps its only viral failing – so just click below to see it. And if you think I’m being a bit narcissistic showcasing the version with my own name in it, then, when you’ve watched it, simply edit it to put yours in. It’s so cool.):

The Greatest Viral Of All Time, Ever

The Greatest Viral Of All Time, Ever (click to see it)

Way to go Obama.

Here are some more examples that I think fit these categories. Some might span multiple categories, and others, I fully accept, aren’t really designed to push a message at all, they’re just things that have gone viral – but that still means we can learn something off them, right?

Interactive. Games are interactive, and games across social networks are particularly so. Scrabulous is (or was) probably your object lesson in an interactive viral that simply spread across Facebook like wildfire. It’s also a case study in how not to handle intellectual copyright infringement. Mattel and Hasbro threatened the makers of Scrabulous with Chinese burns and deadlegs if they failed to cease and desist – that is, to extinguish a MASSIVE userbase that it could quite easily have worked with instead – and released its own version that by some accounts was, well, crap. Meanwhile the makers of Scrabulous have simply released a version that is different enough from Scrabble to remain legal, and which is doing very nicely thank you.

Funny. I still think Beardyman is one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. If only someone could harness that talent and use it to help a brand.

The closest you could probably come to this is ‘Will it blend?‘, the series put together for Blendtec. Wikipedia tells the Blendtec story well. Suffice to say, the company never looked back and continues to blend. ‘Will It Blend?’ is all over YouTube but here is my favourite – with the iPod.

Useful. We all like to ‘discover’ tools, utilities and widgets. For some time I really liked the ‘How much is your blog worth’ page, and I’m sure the ‘blogworth’ page has done Dane Carlson absolutely no harm whatsoever in terms of his web visibility. It’s debateable how useful my PR Friendly Index is – I certainly haven’t had time to update it for a while anyway – but it has been by far my most successful post series, and I think this is perhaps because people find it useful to have this repository of PR blogs.

Clever. Was Cheddarvision clever? At first I wasn’t sure. It didn’t quite seem to make sense just to stream a video of cheese maturing online. But the more I thought about it, the cleverer I thought it was. Also, the more I thought about it, the higher the viewing numbers went. By late March 2007 Cheddarvision viewing figures were over half a million. It ended with over 1.5 million views. At the time I said, “It’s a brilliant, brilliant PR move. This isn’t just cheese, it is now Famous Cheese, and everyone will want a bite. They’ll do for West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers what Wallace and Gromit did for Wensleydale”, and it inspired me to dream up my own viral equivalent which, of course, never saw light of day. Cheddarvision eventually won that year’s PR Week award for best consumer marketing communications campaign. Here you can see a  time-lapse of it maturing over 12 months:

Controversial. I have to admit that, for this category, I did have to do some searching because I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head that I’d seen. The first hit for ‘controversial viral campaign’ is Virgin Media’s Mangina movie. Doesn’t look so controversial to me:

Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that simply by labelling something ‘controversial’, you get attention. I also find it strange that it no longer appears on the originator’s site. Is this part of the controversy? Whatever, I know that controversial works because I tried it myself when I posted about ghost blogging. I also know that you need to be careful because it can damage your brand. In many ways, I wished I hadn’t written the ghostblogging post even though it did get a lot of attention. And I’m sure Quechup wished they hadn’t confused viral with spam.

Cool. The coolest thing I’ve seen for quite some time has been, and continues to be, Photosynth. I’m convinced this is an absolutely prime candidate for someone to use in a cool way to promote a product. The drawback is, I guess, that you need to download client software.

You certainly didn’t for the Experience Wii advert I saw on YouTube recently. It was a jaw-droppingly cool idea and one I definitely forwarded to a number of people. The idea was that the screen actually shook and disintegrated before your eyes, and slotted beautifully into the Wii ‘experience’ concept. So it’s incredibly frustrating to me that it no longer seems to be online. Why do people do this? Why do they remove things that could continue to get them great publicity simply by leaving them online? Why? The Experience Wii page did exist – really it did. I’m sure I didn’t dream it.

I also really like the Connected Ventures Flagpole Sitta video. It’s the greatest promotional video ever, and not just because amandalynferri is cute. The story goes that they just threw this together in an idle moment, it leaked onto the web, and now they have talent knocking at the door to be let in. I’m not so sure of the truth behind the provenance here, but I can certainly believe the result. When I saw the video, I wanted to work there. Come to think of it, I still do:

Holy Roman Empire Batman! It’s the Flackenhacks! Call the cops!

There is an event of unprecented importance coming our way. It is certainly of national significance, global even, and could quite possibly change your life forever. The credit crunch pales by comparison.

None of this applies to the Flackenhacks however, which is just an excuse for a rag-tag assortment of miscreants from the seedy worlds of journalism and PR to drink to excess and insult each other personally.

Watch the video from the last debacle to see what I mean:

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some people actually blag to get in for free. I’m one of them. I’m helping at the front desk for an hour or so, then they let me off the leash and I run around biting people.

So, if you fancy being bitten you could do worse than book your tickets now, then turn up at The Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3PQ at 7pm, Wednesday 29 October 2008. You can even take a hack of your very own, a bit like a pet, albeit a slightly scabby one that you never really liked anyway.

Audio here, there, but not quite everywhere

I’m a big fan of online streaming audio. I loved Pandora before it became US-only. I quite like Last.FM. Musicovery has a lovely approach in its interface and mood-based approach. Now – at last – we have Spotify, and another great utility I came across this week, Simplify Media.

I’ve covered Spotify before. I saw a pre-beta version and was very impressed with the immediacy of Spotify’s streaming. Then it went to invite-only beta so I was delighted to receive an invite last week and I’ve been playing around with it since. It has good technical points but I think it’s missing a big marketing trick.

Just to round up the current offerings, with my take on each:

  • Pandora uses the Music Genome Project in which musicologists analyse a song using many parameters, starting from the basic – tempo, style and so on – and then really dig down to whether it’s guitar-based, solo, male/female vocals etc. It’s not very community-based – that is, it doesn’t become more sophisticated through referrals and relies on the possibly subjective analysis of a small community – but I loved the results. Type in Nick Drake and you could spend a wonderful afternoon with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley et al. It just… worked. Unfortunately its business model didn’t and so it had to batten down the hatches in the face of prohibitive licensing costs and is no longer available outside the US. You can try IP-rerouting to trick it, but with limited success.
  • Last.FM is the leader and adopts a pureplay referral system. In the same way you see references on, say, Amazon telling you what other people have bought that is similar to the product you’re looking at, Last.FM infers that, because you like song A, you’ll like song B, because other people with similar tastes liked them too. It’s a great theory and it works well with, say, electrical goods or DVDs, but I’m not so sure the algorithm works as well for music. You can stream by artist or by tag and of the two, tag works best. If I listen by artist I’m often dismayed that Last.FM will give me American soft rock when I want to listen to music that is ‘similar’ to Beck, for example, simply because other people’s tastes straddle the two. But you can specify a tag – eg jazz – and have a reasonably consistent listening experience.
  • Musicovery’s great insight is that you tend to be in a certain mood when listening to music, or want to specify music to reflect your mood or change it. So you can specify whether to listen to light-hearted music, or something a bit darker, and the tempo, choose across many genres, even specify the decade of the music, and be up and running with a very pretty Flash-based interface. It can throw up interesting results – I did not know there was a jazz version of OK Computer, for example – and I like it for that. It truly is music discovery.

So Spotify needs to find its niche within these established players. On first glance it looks very much like a greyscale version of iTunes but is initially blank, which I found quite offputting at first. I just wanted to see at least some initial offerings to choose from.

But type in your artist and it immediately springs to life. And how. It’s incredibly responsive. Click a track and it almost instantaneously starts to stream. It’s very easy to create or share playlists. And you can choose to listen to ‘stations’ made up of genres and, like Musicovery, timelines. 1960s Heavy Metal digs up Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, while 1950s Reggae gives… interesting results.

What we have here is essentially an iTunes interface to an online streaming music database. It’s designed from the ground up to live online. And this is where I don’t get part of Spotify’s proposition. As far as I can tell it’s a completely self-contained system. I doesn’t seem to offer any capability to integrate with other systems. For example, you can’t scrobble audio with Last.FM. And, more importantly, there are no widgets, for example for Facebook.

Isn’t this missing a trick? If you’re web-based then isn’t this something you would immediately implement? I can only imagine this is part of the plan, to be rolled out post-beta (assuming it’s not a permanent beta like so many web apps nowadays), or maybe there are licensing restrictions.

I also think another challenge for Spotify – as with all the other systems mentioned so far – is the sound quality. It’s ok on my low-end DigiTheatre surround-sound system in the lounge because that’s not a hi-fi. But when I listen to it on my studio monitors, the limitations of the sample rate become immediately apparent. It’s compressed, there are artefacts, and a like-for-like comparison with my own music library shows how locally-stored MP3s are far superior. Hmmmm.

POST EDIT: Following comments from Daniel at Spotify, I looked at (and listened to)  this more closely and the differences are not as clear as I first thought. Please see my reply on this subject.

This is where Simplify Media could offer an alternative. It enables music sharing across IP, and integrates with iTunes and Winamp. Download the client – at a hefty 14MB it’s not exactly light – set up an account, and share your music. Get up to 30 friends to do the same and suddenly you have access to many thousands of tracks.

Last night, for example, I listened to the Bob Dylan tracks on my friend Paul Borge‘s MacBook Pro, in my lounge. Quite apart from the mind-blowing technical feat here – from his machine, across his wireless network, across the web, through my wireless network and onto my machine – the sound came through with, as far as I could tell, original quality. It sparkled (inasmuch as one could describe Bob Dylan’s whine as ‘sparkling’).

Again Simplify Media doesn’t integrate with Last.FM scrobbling or Apple’s new Genius playlist feature, but you can kind of forgive this. It’s strictly a music sharing system, as opposed to fileshare, and I like it a lot.

What I’d really like to see is a system that enables the ‘DNA’ of the music to be tagged like Pandora, in a sort of ultra-high resolution folksonomy, not just broad categories such as genre; the community dynamics of Last.FM; the clever interface of Musicovery; the agility of Spotify; the quality of Simplify Media; and full integration with widgets across the most popular social networks.

Maybe each of these systems is addressing a different way of listening to music. But, in the same way as we’re getting aggregators of aggregators in Friendfeed, or blog editors that interface across many platforms such as Live Writer, I’m wondering whether someone, somewhere, is going to come up with a system that has all the advantages of each of these approaches, and none of the drawbacks.

Me? I’d have been quite happy with Pandora to be honest. Maybe I should move stateside.

Hello Communications Director!

About a month ago I was contacted for some details about this blog because it might feature in Communications Director.

And today – it’s in! Thanks to an eagle-eyed client spotting it this morning and scanning it for me.

I don’t think you can access it online but if anyone can point me in the right direction to get a link, that would be great.

Meanwhile you can see Communications Director’s contents online and while they do mention the word ‘cooper’, it’s in the context of ‘cooperation’. Perhaps I should adopt that as my own personal active verb? If Scoble ‘izes’, then perhaps I can ‘ate’. Maybe I am the Cooperator to his Scobleizer.

Who’d have thought it, eh? Cripes.

And I think I should also take the opportunity to say that Feedburner is up the duff again. Last night my subscriptions were well over 300, so either I’ve said something sufficiently offensive to cause a third of my subscribers to abandon me, or Feedburner’s gone bad. Given past Feedburner issues, I’d say the latter. Problem is, the Feedburner blog seems to have ground to a halt in May and I can’t find their online status anywhere. So, any pointers in that direction would be really useful too. Not that I can do anything about it…

Top tip: put your keywords in your title

PR is most definitely a keyword. If you work in it, you should mention it.

I’ve come across Matthew Watson’s list of PR Blogs before. It’s another approach to ‘measuring’ blogs, by simply peeling out those from the Ad Age Power150 which mention the word ‘PR’ in the title.

You could argue that it’s a fair enough approach: if it’s good enough for the Ad Age Power150, it’s good enough for Matthew. But already I can see he’s getting some requests for addition, mainly from bloggers who haven’t actually stated ‘PR’ in their blog titles!

If you think it’s a bit, well, daft not to include PR in your title, think again: two of the ‘wannabees’ are David Fleet (Exploring the intersection of communications, marketing and social media’) and Kami Huyse (‘Communication Overtones’). They are decidedly not your rank amateurs at this game, and even though it’s ‘another list’ (guilty m’lud), they want in.

In an attempt to find out what the ‘strong’ keywords are for PR, a while ago I analysed the keywords (actually, the Technorati tags) used by the bloggers in my PR Friendly Index. If you take a look at the resulting diagram, you’ll see that ‘PR’ and ‘Social Media’ loomed large. These are popular keywords for this space. So it follows that if you put those tags into your blog in some way, you become part of it.

But wait. One of the major ongoing themes is the blurring of traditional boundaries between communications disciplines. You can sum up the difference between, say, PR and advertising in many ways (for example advertising’s “I’m good in bed” vs PR’s “I hear you’re good in bed”) but increasingly they’re coming together.

As I say in my ‘About’ page, “… the Sony Bravia adverts were filmed publicly so that people could see them in production and talk about them. Then they were broadcast. Does that make them adverts, or PR? And would this possibly have happened if it weren’t for social media’s intervention?”

So I can sort of understand why some ostensibly PR blogs don’t actually say PR, because PR is becoming so much more.

But I do think they’re missing a very simple trick. Simply put: state your trade.

My birthday, and me

So, as of tomorrow, I will no longer be thirtysomething. It’s the big four-zero with, I think, the accent on the zero.*

As every blogger knows, events are good things to hang blog posts off (or ‘off of’ if you’re American – although, as an ex-copywriter, I really shouldn’t end any sentence with a preposition, let alone two).

I’ve just been watching a slightly feeble programme featuring James May of Top Gear marvelling at a robot being able to recognise a chair. It reminded me of how I once seriously considered studying artificial intelligence for my degree, and then I got to thinking about the tech timeline of my life up to now.

So, as tomorrow is going to be a special day for a special boy (according to my mum), I thought I’d detail the things that have made me go ‘wow’ over the past few (comparatively) years I’ve been on this beautiful blue-green planet:

Digital watches. Douglas Adams pretty much summed it up. I remember reading the first few pages of Hitchhikers when I was too young really to understand what it was trying to say, and I remember taking issue with them. “But digital watches really are cool”, I thought. “Especially the ones that glow in the dark.” Eventually I got one that played a tune, and we all thought it was so cool that you could swing it around your head really fast and get a phasing effect. My best friend had one that played Scotland the Brave. Wave it around, and it sounded like bagpipes. Outstanding.

Calculators. How did they do that? No matter what you threw at them, they calculated it perfectly, every time. I loved that you could type 07734 into it, turn it upside down, and spell ‘HELLO’ – the precursor, albeit inverted, of leetspeak. I graduated from 07734 to 58008.

ZX81. It all started here. I still think that computer science students should be given one, just to understand how to code incredibly efficiently given scarce resources. I loved the feeling that my brain was programming another brain. I’m still unclear as to which was the more intelligent or capacious.

ZX Spectrum. Colour! High res! Sound! (ok, buzzing). This is where I lay claim to having discovered some basic tenets of computing that wouldn’t be around for a while. I developed a modular system to help me with maths: you loaded them up independently and they would pass data between them. So, my equation interpreter would convert human-readable equations into machine-readable, such that x2 would be turned into x*x, etc. In turn that could be fed into a chart module, all separated apart from messages between them. I developed a flowchart designer program and tried to turn that into an interpreter – a theoretical precursor to Computer Aided Software Engineering which I was to be exposed to in the IT degree at Salford University some years later. I also had in mind a scheme to connect my Speccie to a friend’s down the road by physically hooking them up through the line in/out sockets, and having a programme that allowed simple messages to be ‘saved’ down the line, while my friend’s ‘loaded’ it, and vice versa. I was even going to introduce encryption based on key sharing. We never got around to it: we figured it was only possible by stringing cables along the telephone wires, and that the council might have a thing or two to say about it.

Hard drives. I still remember my father coming home from DuPont telling me about how they’d installed a 20MB hard drive. 20 entire megabytes. It was an inconceivable amount of storage. Today I listened to a song on my iPod which is over 21MB in size.

The Salford University IT course. My first exposure to IBM PCs. 640K, CGA graphics, cannot remember the size of the hard drive. Actually, this was a bit of a low point. It was when we didn’t really push any envelopes, we learned how to do things ‘properly’, and so I tended not to go wow very much. On looking back I did, however, develop my own version of tagging after a fashion: I used Dataease, a 4GL database system, to help me write my dissertation. I typed in the titles of every (printed) source I had available to me, and tagged each one thematically. Then, when I wanted to know which one to draw on for a particular section, I typed in the themes, and got a list of relevant articles. I got a Desmond – a 2:2. The drinking man’s degree. Still, I did after all spend most of my time making a fool of myself on stage in the drama society, including at the Edinburgh Fringe, so I did spend my time profitably away from the degree.

VideoLogic/Imagination Technologies. This began as a fairly small company churning out graphics and sound cards, and I wrote the documentation for them. By the time I left it had won the Sega Dreamcast account and hasn’t looked back since. It is now part of the tech group that produces the Pure Digital range of digital radios, and my understanding is that its technology could theoretically be incorporated into every mobile phone in the world, if it isn’t already. I should qualify this statement by saying I don’t know whether or not it is. But it could/should be.

My first self-build PC. This was only about eight years ago so there is quite a gap there I guess. Thing is, I spent time living in Madrid then had to get back into the world of tech quite slowly, and I didn’t have much cash to splash so I bought a Time PC when I could afford one, but then broke it. I have this combination of curiosity and incompetence which is a fairly bad mix. Not to be discouraged, I realised that if I could break a pre-built PC, perhaps I could build my own. Which I did. And in fact, that’s the one I’m typing at right now. Part of me hates the fact that occasionally I have to get on my hands and knees and re-plug the case fan, or swap hard drives when one fails (yes, they fail). Part of me loves it. Apple users will never know such guilty pleasures of the silicon.

Computer-based music. “Give me a day in a studio,” I used to say, “And I’ll be happy.” I realised quite quickly that my Time PC was capable of recording audio, and one Creative SoundBlaster and Cubasis later, I put together my first composition. My self-built PC took me even further (well, it had to, I broke the Time PC didn’t I?), and eventually I got published twice in the Computer Music magazine, among literally thousands of entries. Am I boasting? A bit. Maybe. You can still hear what I got up to on Last.FM (click the button top left of this blog).

Sharepages. I still say that the first two years I spent in this dotcom start-up were, professionally, the best. There was a tangible feeling that we were doing something special, and anything seemed possible. We were so naive. We thought we would become millionaires without a business plan. Sharepages begat KTS, KTS exists still but under the aegis of Archontech, and our flagship product, MarketTerminal, as far as I can tell, exists no more. It was a great product, but too soon. We never crossed the chasm. Isn’t that often the way?

Social media. Not the web. The web didn’t do much for me at the time because it seemed so one-way and slow. I wanted a system whereby I could type, and publish instantly, and all the links would be looked after automatically. I envisioned a brain online, even an interface of a brain, with a ‘left hemisphere stuff (science, raionality) and right-hemisphere (arts, intuition)’ graphic so you could dive into different bits. Perhaps I still should do that. But social media – and blogging especially for me – seemed to change everything. I remember making my list two Christmasses ago – to learn about RSS, Google Reader and blogging – and that brings me to where I am now.

So, if anyone asks, now you know how to cook a Brendan Cooper. You need to start with someone who has a facility for arts, but an interest more in the things he can’t do – maths and science – and an irrational curiosity that he only realises much later on was probably significant in some way. Then you wind him up and set him off, and he follows a slighly strange path that veers between creativity – computer-based music, writing – and technology. I mean, you only have to look at the A Levels that I took – English, History and Maths – to realise that I’m a bit of an oddball.

Where next? Well I do think I’ve found my niche in PR and social media. It seems that the skills I’ve developed, coupled with a fairly deep knowledge of tech, desire to understand ‘issues’ and my general frustration with the current world and desire to look forward to how things could or should be, has found a place here. In fact, I do believe that my job didn’t – and couldn’t – have existed more than two or three years ago. Perhaps the geek really will inherit the earth.

I’m not even going to start giving predictions about the future. As I’ve said, I often only realise that things I thought in the past were of any relevance when they came to be. Technology-wise it’s probably safe to say that things will go faster and have more capacity. Behaviour-wise, who knows how people will use this? I mean, who could have predicted that Brits would love texting so?

But to get back to where I really started out, it’s the configuration that counts. Brains are not circuits. They’re analogue, and therein lies their infinite capacity to confound and delight us.

So never forget: however complex the world seems; however many websites there are in cyberspace (remember that term?), or however quickly the blogosphere (when will that become quaint?) expands; however many stars you see in sky tonight; your brain contains many more possible connections. There are many more possibilities in your head. You can comprehend it all. You just have to realise it.

Right. I just finished that Guinness I was drinking, and I have one more cigarette left. Tomorrow, I turn 40, and I stop smoking. I don’t know what I’m doing for my birthday – all I do know is that it involves a train. And not smoking.

So, I realise this has been a rather mega-post, but it is after all a rather significant age for me. I’ll be back in the blogosphere next week, and I’ll be tweeting and bookmarking and writing new business pitches and engaging in blogosphere outreach and figuring out new ways to use Yahoo Pipes. I think I’ll also try to grow up a little. Sooner or later I know I’m going to have to stop liking films that involve CGI (ooh, forgot to mention that – my jaw dropped at Jurassic Park) and space (Star Wars before it became crap, and Star Trek – a bit).

Yahoo Pipes: you’ve got to go there to come back

If anyone’s been following my Twitter feed recently they’ll know that I’ve been getting to grips with Yahoo Pipes. I think it’s an amazing tool and offers the tantalising possibility of creating a wholly modular monitoring system, effectively through programming-like routines which, through a neat graphical interface, largely remove the need for knowing how to program.

This post isn’t going to explain how to put Pipes together – you can find that out for yourself. ;) Although I am considering putting together a few short, sharp tutorials on the basics, without giving away too much (I’m using this system to complement our monitoring programme at Fleishman-Hillard and while we’re nice here, we’re not that nice).

What it is going to describe is some of the pitfalls of the system, and a pointer towards what I’ve put together.

Tell us something we don’t already know

The ability to bring together RSS feeds is nothing new. You’ve been able to create feeds with Google Reader since it came out. Simply bundle feeds together under a folder (or tag – Google is a bit fast and loose with its terminology), and make it public. Voila – one feed comes out from the many that came in.

But that’s where it ends. You can’t get at the contents of feeds and do smart stuff with them, such as change details within feeds or cross-reference them with others. With Yahoo Pipes, you can.

Remember the fun you had with Lego?

Let’s start with the second first: how to create a modular system.

First, take a look at the social media firehose. It’s a beast (a firehose beast). I advise you to keep calm while looking at it, and slowly take it apart piece by piece to understand what’s going on. If I tell you that all it’s doing is taking keywords, building RSS queries across certain RSS-enabled search engines and bringing them together in one feed, it should start to make sense.

But I can tell you now that you in fact can take it apart and put it together in various smart ways such that it is entirely modular. That is, you can store keywords and search engines separately.

Let’s say you want to do a search for Hewlett Packard (not a client) in the UK. You can specify keywords in one pipe – for example HP, with “Harry Potter” as an exclusion (as I know from bitter experience), and UK as an inclusion. In a search engine this query would look something like HP -“Harry Potter” +UK.

Now imagine you want to search just through blogs and microblogs. So, create a pipe to go through blog search engines such as Technorati and Twingly, and another to go through Summize.

Now create a new pipe, bringing your keywords pipe in as the source, plugging that into your blog pipe and your microblog pipe.

As I’ve already said, you could create something similar in Google Reader for example. But consider what happens if you want to change your keywords. Putting a good keyword list together isn’t an exact science. You’ll need several attempts before you get the results you want, mainly because you’ll have to filter out weird stuff – “HP sauce” springs to mind. So you would have to rebuild every feed with that new keyword in.

And say you discover that a blog search doesn’t quite work properly. Or say a new microblog platform comes along – one that works better that Twitter and starts to attract significant users (it might happen). To make sure you’re monitoring properly, you’d have to build this new search into all your previous searches.

Not with modular pipes. Change the keywords once, and all your searches pick it up. Change the blog or microblog pipe once, and all your searches now go through them. It’s very cool.

So, your future searches will always be using the latest keywords and search engines. It also means you can prototype much more quickly, and that means a lot less hassle when putting together monitoring systems.

It reminds me of Lego, just putting together the bits you need in interesting new ways. Or perhaps the electrical circuits analogy is better. Or maybe it’s like upgrading a PC – just take out the old component and shove in the new.

Am I going to tell you how to do this?

No. As I said, I think I’ve spent enough time going through this to consider my systems proprietary knowledge. And I’m sure other people have figured out their own ways to do this, and that you can too.

What I will tell you about is some of the problems you might encounter along the way. Story is, Yahoo Pipes isn’t absolutely stable, and RSS is a right old pain to work with sometimes.

This time, let’s talk about the first, first.

Yahoo Pipes has some teething troubles

First (again), the interface, while immediately attractive, can break. After a slightly prolonged editing session you’ll find that modules won’t connect, so you have to save the pipe, get out, and go back in again.

On the other hand, very quick edits might not activate the ‘Save’ button, so you’ll have to do something more radical – break a link and re-link it – to activate the button so you can save it.

If you edit a pipe within another pipe, then go back to the original pipe, you have to re-link it.

And there’s no ‘undo’ command.*

Also, pipe management is non-existent. You can’t put pipes into folders, and they’re sorted by date last edited. I’m currently standing at six pages of pipes so if I want to edit a pipe I haven’t looked at for a while, I potentially have to page through six times to find it. This is surely a very easy thing for Yahoo to fix. Add to that the fact that your pipe list often doesn’t automatically refresh, and you can get quite frustrated. I know I do.

But what I’ve found really irritating – and what PR Week picked up in my rant – is that you can sometimes just be locked out of the system altogether, or you’ll get an annoying message like “Oops, error parsing response.” You can only pray that your changes were saved. On occasion, mine haven’t.

And I recently found myself unable to access any of my pipes over an entire weekend when I had a neat solution to a problem in my head, but just couldn’t get into the system to see if I was right. I wasn’t, but that’s neither here nor there.

RSS is a bit annoying to work with too

There seems to be a delay effect when using pipes. This could be another Yahoo Pipes problem, but I suspect it’s part and parcel of caching in RSS. So you can make changes to your pipe that do not reflect in the output. You can wait several minutes before they show, by which time you’ve lost that zen-like flow of concentration.

Not how to do it, but how not to do it

So I’m feeling bad now that I’m not telling you how to do things with pipes. Just to give you a little more help along the way, here’s a prescription for working with then:

  • Keywords – as I say, it’s not an exact science. The matrix approach I helped develop at Porter Novelli (and yes, I did try to link to the PN blog but page 2 onwards don’t seem be loading right now) goes some way towards identifying them but you’ll need to tweak them to get useful results. In the same way you can have too few keywords, you can also have too many. Think about how best to arrange them to get good search results.
  • Yahoo Pipes – edit in short sessions, and make sure you save regularly. Give your pipes meaningful names to get around the lack of management. Keep breathing.
  • Debugging – if your results don’t come out right, it’s usually your fault. Check your keywords, make sure you’re putting phrasal keywords in quotes, check your spelling, be canny with your inclusions and exclusions. If it’s not your fault then give it a few minutes – this could be an RSS caching issue. Sometimes it’s better just to let the pipe do its own thing for a few hours until the meaningful information starts to come through.
  • If you get too wound up, lift your arms in the air, waft them around your head lightly, and say in a calm voice “I am a tree.”

Can’t you just show us one pipe?

Oh, alright then. This is the schematic icon, increased by 400% (hence the blockiness), showing one of my modular pipes:

Or maybe a robot holding an egg?

Or maybe a robot holding an egg?

Interestingly, I think it actually looks like one of the hookah pipes proudly displayed (and used) in the many hostelries along one of my old stamping grounds, Queensway.

Any other suggestions?

* Am I alone in occasionally doing stupid things in real-life and thinking “CTRL-Z”?

Busy busy busy

So, I haven’t posted for ages. This is mainly because I’ve been so busy at Fleishman-Hillard, I really have had very little time for posting. This is obviously a good thing – certainly better than not having enough business coming in – but something always has to ‘give’, and in my case, it’s been the blog.

This was a recurrent theme in my ‘Friendly Chat’ series of blogger interviews a while back. After the initial enthusiasm for blogging, a lot of the bloggers I spoke to said they were finding less and less time to keep the momentum going.

I’m wondering whether there’s an interesting dynamic here. I’ve often thought that there’s a weird feedback loop going on in social media, in that prominent users of social media are only prominent because, well, they use social media.

I’m not sure what the analogy would be here, but I think the opposite thing is happening to bloggers. My experience has been that, having started my own blog and learned as much as I can about social media and its practical uses within PR, I’ve carved out my own niche enough actually to be employed in this capacity. As a result, I don’t have time to continue my blog or play around with social media!

Hence, we see both anecdotal evidence that blogging is declining – I won’t quote any here but you’ll be able to find plenty – together with figures such as my recent analysis of Technorati Authority within PR blogs in the PR Friendly Index. The bloggers are all too busy to blog!

I do believe that the best digital solutions come from a combination of practical, hands-on experience, with some forward-looking analysis. I certainly learn a lot from my Twitter community, my Fleishman-Hillard colleagues and serendipity, but I need to find a way to build in my own time to look forward at what could be on the horizon, and play around with what’s available now.

I also need to make time to blog. The less I post, the more it becomes apparent to me that it’s my number one asset. I was quoted in PR Week recently and it’s only because I spent time and effort on this blog that I’ve been able to establish my profile.

If I don’t maintain it, people will start to point and laugh and all those dreams I’ve had about my teeth falling out or suddenly realising I’m naked on the Tube saying to a lady “Don’t worry madam, this is just a recurrent nightmare in which I wake up when we get to Cockfosters” will come true.