Previous month:
August 2012
Next month:
October 2012

Google Firestarters 6: Digital Storytelling And Video - The Event

Google firestarters 6
Wednesday saw the great and the good of UK planning gather for our sixth (gosh, six events already) Google Firestarters event at Google HQ. We'd themed the event around digital storytelling and video, an increasingly important subject given the growth in content marketing, the abundance of new digital tools and ways to tell stories, and the runaway momentum of online video. We had three very different, but very insightful perspectives.

First up was Ajaz Ahmed, founder of AKQA (which he launched aged 21, and that went on to become the largest independent digital agency in the world until WPP bought it in June) and co-author of Velocity (The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital). Ajaz began by talking about how companies and brands that have endured have a never ending story. He's said before that his mission with AKQA was “to put multimediocrity out of its misery and use technology to celebrate the spirit of our clients”, and that captures the theme of his talk very well. Digital offers an extraordinarily rich canvas for storytelling, he believes, but it requires approaches that are about creating compelling stories by using the inherent properties of digital to create things that can't be done in another media, something they have done extraordinarily well in their work with Nike. For the cost of a 30 second ad you can create a piece of work that created 100 million minutes of deep engagement and something that enables people to take the brand with them.

So it's critical that the audience get something out of the work - it has to be useful, inspiring or delightful - but this is not necessarily about adding layers of complexity. He made the point that every time digital disrupts, it tends to do so by making something simpler. So whether an idea is big or small doesn't matter - the only thing that matters is whether a story or an idea is compelling enough for people to want to share it. This is not always the easiest option for agencies, but if they are to truly return to their genesis as ideas companies, and not become factories for 30-second spots, they need to move away from trying to fit old formats into digital and accept that covenience is often the enemy of right. To use one of my favourite quotes from him: “What’s important is that agencies respect audiences and be artful. The magic is in the product, the values, and the spirit of the brand, so it must seek to amplify these truths in an interesting, consistent voice across all customer touchpoints.”.

Jesse owens
A fantastic quote from Jesse Owens used by Ajaz in his talk

Matt Locke used his experience as a multimedia commissioner at Channel 4 (and before that at the BBC), and from his current work at Storythings, to build on these broad themes by focusing on storytelling in the context of audience, behaviour and circulation.  For audience, he talked about how obsessed we are with attention, which has always been an important factor in storytelling - it is the feedback loop for stories, the connection through which you can understand how the audience is responding and how artists learn and refine their craft. Dominant measures of attention (and we are coming to the end of the era where single metrics are used to measure success in media) can affect the kind of art that people produce, the businesses that accrue around media and attention, and the ways of cheating the measure we're using. Multiple measures free us to be more flexible with our approaches in using different formats and media to tell stories in different, less linear ways (what if the online game came before the broadcast show rather than just during and after it?).

Matt went on to describe how spikes of attention can change behaviours, and used the progression of audience behaviours that have have become prominent in digital and the web to explain this. Which led him to talk about how we're moving from the age of distribution to the age of circulation. Whereas once ideas and stories were distributed (through mass media), they are now circulated between people, which compels brands to design for shareability and what he called 'transgression' ("design for two people, not for one"). He used a fascinating piece of analysis on what makes a successful YouTube channel (go read his blog post about it) using two different metrics comparing the channels with the most views, with those that have the most subscribers. The ratio bewteen the number of views to the amount of content reveals how hard some people (notably many traditional broadcasters) are having to work to get subscribers, but also reveals the different strategies involved ranging from talent-led (often music based, few uploads, views driven by organic search), to broadcast-led (linked to existing TV shows/channels, lots of uploads, views largely driven by organic search, but few subscribers), and Youtube-native channels (lots of subscribers, lots of uploads, most traffic driven by links within the Youtube platform). What's important out of all of this is that we have to design in a different way - for new attention patterns, new behaviours and for circulation rather than distribution. 

Google firestarters 1

Matt Heimann of Diagonal View, the largest independent producer of online video content, followed up with a talk that focused on the fascinating approach they have for producing content. Expanding on Matt Locke's point about how attention is the feedback loop, Matt H used the analogy of the audience being the fire to which it's important to stay close to in order to keep warm. What that means for them is using a constant stream of user data and realtime feedback to inform what content they produce in extremely agile ways. Some of the YouTube channels they produce have audiences larger than broadcast properties, with members of the community often becoming content producers, but their focus is in matching data to content to become far more responsive in how content is produced and stories told. James Caig has captured well in his write up of the event how Matt used the example of comedian Milton Berle, who would adapt his set based on how the audience reacted to his first five jokes. Matt H's suggestion was that in order to balance story structure with adaptability there should be two plans - a structured one that identifies your key direction and what will gain you attention, and a more responsive one that is able to capitalise on feedback and attention patterns.

The perspectives from the speakers were without exception fascinating, and some great questions and discussion afterwards from the audience added to the richness of the talks, making it an absorbing event. As always, my thanks to the speakers, to all those who came, and to Google for hosting. I've created a Storify of the event which is worth a look, and Phil Adams has also done a great write up. The talented scribes at Scriberia also did a great job of visualising the talks, and you can see a larger version of that visual here. We'll be doing one more Firestarters event pre-christmas (probably in late November) so watch out for that.

Firestarters 6 visual
Thanks also to Graeme and Olivier for the use of their photos

How Movements Happen

Rosa parks

There's a really interesting chapter of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit (Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change) analysing the habits of societies and how social movements happen. Duhigg uses the example of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid 1950s which was sparked by Rosa Parks being arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

There were of-course many factors surrounding and leading up to the incident which contributed to it becoming a spark for the much wider movement that became the Montgomery Bus Boycott and an early catalyst for the civil rights movement. But Duhigg makes the point that similar incidents had happened before but it was only this one that became a catalyst for a something much bigger. This, he believes, is because it completed three stages that are critical to a social movement. Societal movements, he says, "rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants' sense of self". In other words, it helped that Rosa Parks was connected and well respected in both the black and white communities and her action triggered a series of social habits amongst these 'strong ties'. The movement then grew through the 'weak ties' between the members of the community, herding and peer pressure. And it endured because the Reverend Martin Luther King lead the boycott (bringing him into the national spotlight at the time) and he preached new habits that fed the desire for belief in the possibility of change, a feeling of new identity and ownership, and resulted in new patterns of behaviour.

Fascinating, and lots to take from that I think.

Startups And Growth


I've always been a fan of Tim O'Reilly's view about the importance of 'creating more value than you capture'. It was good to be reminded of it reading Chad Dickerson's (Etsy CEO) post last week talking about the future of his company and how it forms the basis for how they work. I think this mantra becomes particularly powerful with companies that grow rapidly through network effects, like Etsy has. The business has of-course seen some pretty phenomenal (but also sustainable) growth, as Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures (who are long-term investors in Etsy and whose 'investment thesis' is: "large networks of engaged users, differentiated through user experience, and defensible through network effects") reminds us

Fred links to Paul Graham's excellent latest essay on the subject of startups and growth. Graham's essay is rich with insight (go read it all). He describes how growth is the single most defining characteristic of a startup, and how the rate of growth is often what distinguishes a 'startup' from any other new business. For a startup, growth often provides a compass by which to base all decisions ("focusing on hitting a growth rate reduces the otherwise bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem"). But what's also really interesting is how Graham frames this. This is not simply growth for growth's sake, but growth as a forceful evolutionary pressure:

"Most fairly good ideas are adjacent to even better ones...If you start out with some initial plan and modify it as necessary to keep hitting, say, 10% weekly growth, you may end up with a quite different company than you meant to start. But anything that grows consistently at 10% a week is almost certainly a better idea than you started with."

Nicely put.

Concurrent Production

I've talked before about how Product Management is becoming an increasingly pivotal function in many digitally facing organisations. Reading this Quora answer about some 'best-in-class' product management processes led me to Marty Cagan's thought about 'Product Discovery Teams' which he explains in the short video above.

In essence, the Product Discovery Team are the core team working on product development, and comprise the product manager (responsible for functionality), the lead interaction designer (looking after usability) and the lead developer (focused on feasability). Having each of these present when vision is elaborated and new products designed ensures that the right minds are there from the beginning and reduces the risk of work being started on features that can't work.

This reminded me of a point made by Steven Johnson in his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From about how Apple work - using a process they call concurrent or parallel production. Traditional models of development see designers passing an initial look and feature set to the engineers (who find ways to make it actually work), and then on to manufacturing (who work out how to produce it), and then sales and marketing (who decide how to sell it). As Johnson says, the ubiquity of this model comes from the fact that it works very well in situations where efficiency is the most important consideration but it kills creativity since original ideas get chipped away at at every stage.

In contrast, Apple's development model involves all the groups (design, engineering, manufacturing, sales) meeting continuously throughout the process in an approach that is "messier and more chaotic at the beginning", but which avoids great ideas being slowly hollowed out and becoming ghosts of themselves: "The process is noisy and involves far more open-ended and contentious meetings than traditional production cycles— and far more dialogue between people versed in different disciplines, with all the translation difficulties that creates".

The idea of concurrent working rather than departments (or indeed different types of agency) handing off projects and briefs to each other is a challenging one for agencies to think about. In this Google 'Agile Creativity' hangout (which also features Greg Anderson of BBH), John Boiler (founder of 72 and Sunny) talks about how they work to actively break down silos within the agency and how when a brief comes in, they discuss it as a large, multi-discplinary group ("not knowing necessarily where the centre of gravity for the solution will come from") and use a 'work wall' as the centrepiece for a process that takes account of the benefits of authorship and specialist expertise, but also enables them to work more concurrently and "get everyone around the problem" to work far more iteratively.

When I was researching the The Progression Of Agency Value report earlier this year, looking at how agencies were developing their use of technology and the structures, skills and behaviours around that, there were a few technology based agencies who I spoke to who seemed to be working in interesting ways. Teams that typically incorporated a key triumvirate of talent - business/strategy, creative/design, and technology - would work concurrently on developing solutions. It was a structure that allowed for consistency and commitment to long-term projects and clients, but also flexibility as talent was encouraged to contribute to other relevant work or even unrelated projects (perhaps in a Google-like 70, 20, 10 way). It makes a lot of sense to me that in response to such a rapidly changing communications environment we should consider not just the how the work is evolving, but more fundamental changes in how we produce that work.

HT Gerald Breatnach for the hangout link

The 70, 20, 10 Content Planning Model


Content marketing is exploding. People talk a lot about trends, but one of the most fundamental shifts taking place in marketing right now is the ever greater emphasis on touchpoints that are not only interactive and participative, but long-term and always-on. And always-on, content-hungry platforms need feeding. So content becomes the currency and brands are increasingly becoming publishers in their own right. 

Yet whilst we now have some great examples of smart content-based thinking (including from the likes of AMEX, Coca-Cola, Nike, Red Bull, P & G, Intel and ASOS amongst others) the challenge here of-course is that brands aren't set up to be publishers, and as Josh Sternberg once noted: "They don't necessarily understand the editorial process or have the stomach for the length of time it takes to build an audience". 

In order to act like a publisher you need to not only think like a publisher, but plan like publisher. I've talked before about the 70,20,10 model in reference to content strategy and as a route in to becoming more agile. It's a model that has applications in learning and development, and has been more famously applied by Google as a model for resourcing and innovation. More recently, Coca Cola have talked about applying a 70/20/10 investment principle to content creation:

  • 70% of the content should be low risk, bread and butter marketing
  • 20% should innovate off what works
  • 10% should be high risk ideas that will be tomorrow's 70% or 20%

I think the usefulness of this model does not stop at content strategy, but stretches further into content planning, and enables us to draw a parallel between the kind of content planning a brand increasingly requires, and the kind of approaches that are second nature to a publisher. Let me explain. The analogy I will use here is that of a magazine publisher (since that is also familiar to me) so with that comparison in mind, here's what a 70,20,10 content plan looks like for a brand:

  • 70% of the content should be 'core' content - the kind of bread and butter stuff that is central to what the brand is all about: it's positioning, proposition, reason to believe. For a brand community for example, this would equate to the purpose of that community, the reason people are there in the first place. Too many brands attempt to establish communities with no clear purpose to that community, or plan for what they're going to talk about not just over the next few weeks, but long-term. So they soon find that they can only talk about themselves for so long and they start to run out of interesting things to say. If we use our publishing analogy, this equates to the editorial franchises of our magazine, the key areas of our flatplan that are central to the editorial proposition and which comprise the bulk of the pagination in each issue. If it was a women's monthly fashion or lifestyle title, these franchises would relate to core subject areas such as fashion, food, travel, health, beauty, celebrity.
  • 20% should optimise and innovate off what is really working within the 70%. Part of this is about more responsively upweighting core subject areas to take account of events or seasonality (in the magazine this might be fashion in spring and autumn, Summer foods, Christmas, diets in January and June and so on). Whilst planned content around things such as product launches and campaigns might sit in your 70%, maximising the opportunity created by short-term peaks in activity focused around what already you're doing (reactively putting more resource into content that is proving particularly popular/engaging for example) is what the 20% is all about. With the 20%, there is always a link to the 70%.
  • 10% is completely new - the kind of stuff you can't possibly plan for but is driven either by a reactive desire to take advantage of a short-term situation (e.g. a news story or event) or a more pro-active desire to experiment and test. Either way it's new activity, not directly tied to the rest of what you're doing, but something from which you can develop learnings. As with the content strategy model, this 10% could well become tomorrow's 20% or 70%.

So there you have it. A simple content planning model based on solid publishing principles. Feedback, as always, welcome.

Image courtesy