Monday, August 24, 2009

Lovely, dark and deep

Snot all that bad, missus.

I’ll tell you exactly when we got lost. It was that moment in the woods, somewhere around Burkittsville, when that stupid Michael Williams kicked the stupid map into the river. Up until then we were all humming along just fine. Day followed night and post followed pre and all was good. Then in July of ’99 Artisan released a lo-tech, DIY home movie called The Blair Witch Project. Biggest box office sales-to-production cost in American filmmaking history.

They threw away the map.

The internet was there already, of course, in an increasing number of workday lives. It wasn’t quite the chattering, listening, helpful, I-hear-you place of consumer gratification that it is now but that didn’t stop the producers of The Blair Witch Project from realising what a mighty opportunity it gave them. They invented a myth about an Irish witch in Maryland, they peddled it for gospel in a documentary that they’d made for potential investors, and when it got people talking they shot that ‘new truth’ directly into the bloodstream of young Americans with this fabulous internet thing before they ever released a print. Ker-ching. The fact that they’d spent two years inventing a centuries-old myth and then turned it into the biggest no-budget marketing success ever via the web was a delicious whammy that none of us even copped until the dust settled and the numbers were in.

That was then. Internetland has changed dramatically since. It’s not a place where you just observe any more. Engagement is key now. You contribute. Snakes on a Plane? This is a basic that hasn’t been grasped by a lot of Irish marketers yet. Since 2005, YouTube has allowed anyone to upload their content, and anyone else to watch it. It’s incredibly user friendly. No strings of code or fancy algorithms necessary. If you’ve got some rubber bands, a toilet roll tube and a magnifying glass you can probably do it. And if you’ve got something that others want to watch, they will. And if you’d invented simple, straightforward cut-and-paste YouTube, how pleased would you have been when Google came knocking a year and a half later, waving a cheque for $1.65 billion? If Google want what you do, you can bet that you’re doing something that has a future.

There are stacks of success stories that made it because of engagement on social sites. People like Lauren Luke. An ordinary girl from Newcastle with an instantly homey appeal, she’s built a business from telling girls all over the globe what eye make-up will suit them, and how to put it on. Tens of millions of views of her practical demos on YouTube. It’s not my particular thing, believe it or not, but it neatly demonstrates the two-way nature of new media. The people who watch will comment, tell her publicly what it means for them and will viral that all-important word of mouth. Lauren’s rise has been stellar. She’s the definition of commercial success in a new reality. It’s even allowed her to start a column in the olde worlde media too, via The Guardian's Saturday Weekend mag. How quaint!

The essence of the change in consumer internet use since the dotcom bomb of 2000 relates to its unmistakably human conversational nature. People watch, but they also shoot and record and write and post so that others may watch them. They interact. They join chat forums relating to every conceivable topic, because they want to and they can. They take part, they blog, they post photos and silly comments on their friends’ snaps. They’re on Facebook (half a million Irish accounts) (Update! Almost a million now!) and Bebo (over a million there, kids) and Flickr,, Vimeo, Twitter and a slew of other places where news, good and bad, is shared instantly. They form interest groups that can bring causes to wider attention. They rate hotels, schools, cars and restaurants. They write poetry. They have Kawasaki motorcycle clubs, recipe-swopping sites and autism awareness groups for those affected by it. They have instant access to everything. They’re Web 2.0, and if you aren’t, well frankly my dear who gives a Steve Silvermint?

Access to new markets via social media is as democratic as it gets, and the impact of these new two-way platforms on traditional lines of message dissemination is hard to overstate. I mean really, really hard. It’s a massive warning to companies who see the web as something that doesn’t directly affect them. It directly affects everyone.

Everything has changed, yet ironically many people in offline communications, be it advertising, PR or entertainment, are failing to see how they’re marginalising their own power by not getting to grips with this conversation. They now absolutely need to talk to consumers and potential customers on behalf of their clients, and show that they are capable communicators in this new landscape, yet they have apparently no idea how to engage.

Coming from a very traditional marketing background, as an advertising copywriter now working online, I see this shortfall in understanding from agencies all the time. I’m puzzled as to whether it’s denial, fear or outright complacency, but it’s certainly there. One of the major issues is, naturally, money. Advertisers, accustomed to making a statement and having it pushed out there on sexy, big TV without much fear of contradiction, have no idea how to make money from new social media. They don’t often seem to understand the essential shift in communications platforms. They express their thinking in terms of making this new web thing retro-fit the old matrix. But putting a press execution or a 48-sheet onto a website as a banner ad does not represent an understanding of the model. ‘We’ll get it out there as a viral’ does not mean putting a tv ad online and commanding everyone to look at it. That does not work.

The rewards for agencies have been good up until recently. On the other hand the payback from blogging, tweeting, networking online, building microsites, going truly viral and harvesting as much information as possible about your consumers is hard work, especially compared to a one-off €750,000 shoot. But how many of them are happening in 2009/2010?

The R word is a given. Production is not going to rebound in the near future, and never again to the levels we’ve enjoyed until recently. Consolidation will remain a fancy term for eviscerating the marketing budget. I’d prefer to accentuate positivity instead, particularly since an understanding of the new models of marketing is essential if we’re to see any helpful or meaningful growth in the short to medium term. There are incredible new outlets for creativity. The tools are in everybody’s hands and those who prove themselves adept at getting out there will reap the rewards. Brands will still have to protect and project themselves in the digital sphere, and if PR and advertising agencies don’t learn how to do it, new entities will come along and do it for them. Several are already there, doing excellent work on much smaller budgets, and delivering measureability to clients that traditional agencies don’t even dream about. While the old schoolers are dropping the Nielsen ratings on their foot, the new kids are telling clients what their customers are eating for breakfast right now.

Advertisers and agencies have to watch their flanks as well as their rears, because the search engines and the technology are continually gaining ground and converging. Internet protocol tv is just a heartbeat away. Google is already a huge online ad agency with its AdWords, and it’s as near as dammit to being able to target readers with Minority Report-like precision. Phillip K. Dick thought that wouldn’t be around until 2054. Heh.

Even if you are utterly lost in the woods and freaking out right now, take comfort from the fact that you’re not the only one. And producers of quality content, both words and pictures, now have more channels than ever before to distribute their work. Illustrators, animators, actors, writers, directors, musicians, production teams and anyone else with creativity to offer will find streams to push their wares along. Cream will still have the joyously endearing habit of rising. And unlike the Blair Witch trio ten years ago, we’ve got Google Maps. Let’s go.

This post is an edited version of an article written for Film Ireland's July/August issue. Big thanks to a mighty digital media advocate, Cathal Gaffney at Brown Bag Films.

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