Everyone needs to think about what they’re doing and saying

Were all in it together. Click image for source.

We're all in it together. Click image for source.

I’ve just listened to a piece on the radio 4 Today programme about the swine flu rapidly spreading across continents. The speaker is a professor with a kindly, reassuring delivery. He sounds like my local postman. But he’s just coined the phrase ‘Armageddon virus’ while considering the impact a combination of swine flu and the HN51 H5N1 (thanks Steve, numbers were never my strong point) virus might have in Asia.

The presenter, Ed Stourton, repeated this a couple of times. He must have been rubbing his hands with glee. It could sit alongside Frankenstein foods as a phrase for our times, and it originated on Today. It could spread, much like the virus itself (and unlike the Today ‘viral’).

Armageddon outta here

However, if I were in any way associated with that professor in a PR capacity I would right now be burying my head in my hands and weeping. It didn’t seem to register with the professor in any way that he shouldn’t have said what he did. I just wonder whether the phrase will be picked up, and what effect it will have on an already slightly nervous public.

Frankenstein foods

He isn’t the first to be ever so slightly irresponsible in his delivery. I’ve already mentioned Frankenstein foods, the label used in the UK to describe GM crops. I’ve tried finding who was ‘patient zero’ for that particular phrase and cannot. However the Frankenstein foods hysteria has been credited with seriously damaging the UK biotech industry.

Curried eggs

Then, again in the UK, there was the junior health minister Edwina Currie who, in 1988, declared that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with salmonella. Egg sales plummeted. She tried to make amends in 1990 with the National Egg Awareness campaign but no one remembers that so it can’t have been too impactful. I remember waiting for someone to coin the phrase ‘Curried eggs’ at the time, but no one did.

Idiots

Finally, this time across the pond, we have a truly breathtaking example of someone not saying, but doing something without thinking of the media consequences. I refer to the idiotic, cretinous, moronic decision to fly Airforce 1 on a long, low flightpath across Manhattan, causing panic among its citizens. What were they thinking? I mean, really?

The job of a copywriter is to put oneself into the audience’s minds, to think like they do, and tell them a story in the way they want to hear it. We think about the effect our words will have on people. I totally understand that a live radio situation can be stressful and people might say the wrong thing, but it only makes it more imperative that those people receive decent media training, to stop them saying or doing daft things that might cause panic.

Because the Armageddon virus may never happen. Curried eggs never killed any one. But the Manhattan flyby – I can only imagine the very genuine fear it provoked.

Should the BBC link more, or think more?

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So the BBC has quoted me. If you think I’m blowing my own trumpet here, you’re right.

The BBC is a big target for PR. If you get a client mention on the BBC, it’s a high point. I worked with the people behind The Box, and while I wasn’t present at the sell-in, it must have been an incredibly exciting time. So I’m slightly excited now. Bear with me, please. I’m just a bit excitable generally.

I didn’t realise the BBC had quoted me until a day later, and in fact I only found out when, on looking for the link address to my post about their viral video, I just typed it quickly into Google instead of browsing to my own blog.

Normally if someone mentions me, I know about it, because it appears on the Feedback section to the left of this page, or I’ll get a notification through the WordPress dashboard. Or, if it’s from a big site, I’ll get a spike in my viewings. If I’d been receiving traffic from the BBC I would expect my page views to go through the roof.

But none of this had happened, which is why it almost passed me by. This puzzled me. Until I realised: whereas they’d quoted me, they hadn’t linked to me.

This is notionally bad netiquette. You really should pass traffic on to people you quote. I try to do that whenever I can. It’s just way you do things. I don’t think this is written down anywhere, but it’s just what you… do.

Was this down to the BBC’s link policy, I wondered? Well I’ve done some searching and it looks like there is a lot of debate over how the BBC uses external links. I guess this is because a link is an endorsement, and the corporation needs to retain its impartiality. Editorial integrity is paramount at the Beeb, to the extent that it refused to show the  recent Gaza appeal, even before Sky News made the same decision.

So while, on the one hand, netiquette kind of sort of maybe implies they should link, on the other, by protecting its independence, the BBC protects its integrity and therefore, value as a media organisation. So it’s an interesting situation: while I would dearly love them to have linked to me, in so doing they may lessen the value of having quoted me.

There is, however, one aspect of all this that I do believe it has overlooked: consistency. If a link is endorsement, so is a quote, and I’m not sure the BBC has been consistent in this. At the top of the article there is mention of David Naylor of Search Marketing – that is, blogger name and company name. Further down the page it quotes Ciaran Norris, of Altogether Digital and below that, mentions Emily Bell, director of digital content for the Guardian. A fellow blogger, Rob Brown, contributor to PR Media Blog, is not referred to as ‘of Staniforth‘, for example.

Is this fair? Why should some companies benefit from the exposure, if not the links, while others do not? Link policy good, editorial policy, slightly shaky maybe?

Measurement Camp, the BBC, and The Next Big Thing

So last Wednesday I was at Measurement Camp, this time in the swanky offices of Dare Digital.

The format is still evolving under the laid-back yet effective stewardship of Will McInnes (check out his survey, it’s hilarious), so this time we had a couple of presentations from past projects, then some quicker breakouts in which we focussed on individual problems.

Obviously I cannot reveal the details of any of the cases we discussed but here are my overall impressions:

  • QDOS was mentioned as a measurement tool. I had seen it before and thought ‘meh’, but Beth Granter pointed out how it could be used, and backed this up with bullet points explaining exactly what they do measure, and how. I like this creative approach, finding innovative new ways of using existing tools. The same went for Twitter Grader where she made it plain that it could be a very useful metric (and in fact I am already using it).
  • Facebook Ads seemed to loom quite large in several conversations. There was no denying the sharp increase in fanbase as a reaction to ads – I’ve seen it happen myself – but I would like to see how this continues. As with my post on the BBC so-called viral (which has, I just noticed, been quoted on the BBC site but without a link back – nice one, guys) I’d like to see whether ads – and let’s face it, these are adverts, not PR or word-of-mouth – create a long-lasting effect. But then again clients love to see numbers and charts going upward, so where’s the harm? Perhaps you really do need both.
  • While we were being debriefed by Will – a uniquely pleasurable experience – I was standing up (it’s easier that way), and had a quick look around. I noticed that the usual PR demographics were completely reversed, so we had mostly guys, a lot fewer girls. I think this is unfortunate. I’ve said before that, as a slightly geeky guy (I’m not really that geeky, I do have social skills) I wonder whether someone like me is best placed to evangelise about social media. People think that you need to be technical to ‘get it’. You don’t. I mean, what’s technical about typing a web address into a browser and having a quick look at what’s being said? Hopefully this will change, but for now it does seem that social media measurement at least is still quite butch.

Finally, towards the end I had one of those funny little insights that crawl up the inside of my trouser leg and give me a tickle in a private little boy’s place. Someone mentioned Second Life – remember that? – and how, just because it’s dropped off the radar recently, this might not always be the case.

It got me to thinking how brilliant a fully immersive online game could be, with no installs, downloads or upgrades, especially if we could in some way measure activity within it. And that made me wonder whether The Next Big Thing is going to be multimedia apps delivered over the web.

My reasoning? We’re just getting to the stage whereby the web is fast, big and reliable enough to deliver applications as well as data, and this is essentially what cloud computing is about. But the applications themselves are fairly limited. Google Docs does not make anyone’s jaw drop. So, when I cast my mind back to my Salford Uni days, the parallel is that we had computers with word processors, spreadsheets etc crunching the data in a very boring, decidely non-multimedia kind of way. Then multimedia-capable machines came along, and everything changed.

So, it seems reasonable to suggest that, now we have applications running online, the next logical step will be multimedia applications running online. We’re talking graphics, video and audio here. Someone, somewhere, build me a thin-end Cubase client that I can run in the cloud, and I’ll buy that for a dollar.

The Radio Today video is nice – but is it truly viral?

Have these men infected you?

Have these men infected you?

So during my commute this morning I heard something on my mobile phone’s radio something about the ‘viral’ thing Radio 4′s Today programme has done, and how it’s being picked up. Then I went into a tunnel, and only heard the tail end of the conversation where they mentioned John Humphrys’s pink thong.

I was intrigued, not least by the thong reference, but mainly by the viral reference. I’ve heard people say they’ve ‘done something viral’ before, and it’s usually involved sending out a mass email. To my mind, that’s not viral because it’s just been sent out, and pretty much ended there. People haven’t passed it on, and they haven’t attached any of themselves to it, by including a comment for example.

I’ve said before that viral is an effect, not a strategy, and certainly not an objective. So, simply because I’m blogging about it now, as has PR Media Blog, and Tweeted about it a bit, and included it below, you could say it’s viral.

But I’m not sure.

The way I see this, a virus slowly picks up momentum because people feel they’ve ‘found’ something which they want to pass on to other people. There’s something about the content that ‘infects’ them and then they pass that on in a sort of e-sneeze. So it’s a fairly slow-burn start, but for that same reason it tends to stick around. It was passed on because people found it and liked it, and people will continue to find it and like it.

So does something follow this pattern if it’s broadcast by radio? Am I talking about this because I’ve ‘discovered’ it? Will I continue to talk about it, or come across it, in a few months’ time? Or put it another way: can you ‘infect’ a mass of people simultaneously, and have this effect continue? And am I using ‘quote marks’ too much in this post?

In the short term, if lots of people are talking about it, it’s viral, right? But in the longer term I’d like to know whether it remains so – or whether, because it popped into the public consciousness because it was broadcast to millions of people throughout the country, it’ll pop back out again before long, just like ‘normal’ news. More quotes. Damn.

I should add that almost everyone I discuss viral with has a different viewpoint from me so I’d really appreciate insights here. I could be wrong. I’m wrong, right? Tell me I’m wrong.

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: