Thursday, 17 May 2012

Thoughts on social media event coverage - National Flash Fiction Day

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of taking part in an innovative fiction project for National Flash Fiction Day. Myself, along with the other members of the writing group Flashtag, spent the day running across the streets of Manchester in celebration of the short story form, reading out pieces of our fiction in some of Manchester’s most iconic venues, including Manchester Museum and The Contact Gallery.

Naturally, given the nature of the event, we wanted to spread the news of what we were doing online. I saw this as a nice opportunity to promote the work of the writing group and, having successfully used social media to cover live events for clients in my day job, it seemed like the perfect chance to put those skills into practice for this particular event. The aim of this one-day campaign would be to get as much coverage for our activity, while also raising the brand awareness of the writing group as a whole.

I decided that we’d have several different elements to the social media content which would be produced as the day progressed. These were:

  • Twitter coverage - sharing general news, performance times and being the main distribution channel for all content
  • A YouTube account - sharing videos of the performances around Manchester
  • An Audioboo account - sharing audio files of the performances
  • The Flashtag blog

You can read the coverage of the day on the Flashtag blog, but I wanted to post some more general thoughts on here about using social media for event coverage and the best techniques I’ve found to keep content rolling out as easily as possible.


I wanted to get as much online coverage for the event as possible. During the planning stages, I selected performance locations which had a strong Twitter presence. We were lucky in that a number of the preferred locations had a really good grasp of social media but, while we primarily focused on performing in amazing venues, we favoured places which had a larger online influence; if we were lucky enough to get a venue sharing news and content, I wanted to reach as large an audience as possible.

Another thought about prep; if you’re planning on contacting a number of accounts on the go during the day, create a file of Twitter usernames on your phone beforehand. It’s a lot easier to copy and paste the relevant handles, rather than try and remember the account name when you’re composing a tweet on the move. I use the official Twitter app and its autocomplete feature can be a bit flaky at times, so pasting in the Twitter names of the venue for a message seemed like the easiest way to avoid hunting around the internet.

Battery life

The iPhone is a marvellous bit of kit. Its battery is not. And if you’re going to be using your phone for any sort of out-the-office campaign, you’re going to need to give your handset the occasional jolt of power. While I’ve covered exhibitions before - dashing back to a power socket every few hours to recharge the phone - the nature of our day didn’t really allow for this sort of behavior. There wasn’t time to wait for the battery to compose itself and I didn’t want to miss out on any potential content by sitting out other performances. I considered bringing my laptop along, but it would have taken a while to transfer the content across and I wasn’t convinced I wouldn’t drop it and watch it crumble into a million pieces on Oxford Road. An on-the-go solution was necessary.

In this instance, I plumped for the TeckNet iEP190; a portable battery which plugs into the socket at the bottom of your iPhone. The battery contains around 60 per cent of an iPhone 4 at full charge and, during the day, it proved crucial in keeping the phone running. Given the extent of the content being produced, it wasn’t surprising that the TeckNet finally ran out of juice at around 2pm (having been in use since 10.30am) but there was more than enough left in the iPhone’s tank to keep the content rolling out until 5pm. I’d definitely recommend it.

Automate your content

Automation is your best friend here. If you’re producing any sort of rich media content, you’ll want to host it on a different site other than Twitter (Twitter is ace for getting the message out there, but if you’re after legacy - people being able to find your content via search afterwards, plus the ability to embed material later - then it’s not your pal).

Automate everything you can. When a video gets uploaded to YouTube, get it automatically pushed out to Twitter/whatever channel you're using to distribute content. The same goes for Audioboo and Posterous. Here’s why:

  • Uploading content takes time. A three minute video takes around eight minutes on a 3G connection. The iPhone will do this in the background while you get on with making more content, but you don’t want to go back on yourself just to get the content out there.
  • Similarly, you want to minimise the hassle. It’s incredibly laborious to find a link to a YouTube clip, copy it and then paste it into a tweet. Save time and have the site push it out for you.
  • In this sort of situation, it’s difficult to keep a track of what you’ve tweeted and what you haven’t. Produce the content and forget about it.

Top tip: If you want Twitter coverage to be at its most effective, stick some usernames in the titles of the videos/Audioboo clips. Automation normally just uses the title of the content for your tweet. As a result, the relevant users will all get notifications once the content is pushed out onto your Twitter feed, making it much more likely for them to spot it and give it a share.

Keeping in the public eye

If you’re doing something quite cool and interesting (and are successful in getting the news out there), you’ll see Twitter go nuts. Shares and mentions will rocket and if you’re lucky, you’ll see your account name spread far and wide. But, news gets old fast and you’ll find that this chatter gradually dies off as Twitter gets saturated with RTs. The trick here is to keep buzz going through staged targeting and fresh content.

During the first hours of the campaign, I politely asked relevant Twitter accounts (the venues we were playing at, cultural accounts, Manchester-based accounts and techie accounts) if they’d care helping to share the news of the day (in this instance, a blog post) with their followers. A proportion of these messages were all scheduled beforehand so that I didn’t have to spend time doing it during the day on my phone (fiddly), so that I didn’t clog up the Twitter feeds of mutual followers (spammy) and so that I could schedule the tweets to go out at different times (thereby getting a constant stream of RTs from influential accounts throughout the morning).

Because of this staged promotion, the Twitter account for Flashtag gradually collected new followers interested in seeing how the day was progressing (meaning that, as the day went on, more content was organically shared without having to directly appeal to other accounts).

Furthermore, the account mentioned each venue we were performing at several times. While we got RTs for these general mentions, the subsequent videos and photographs of each performance ensured that most of the places we popped into shared any rich media later published online.

Offline coverage

Each writer spent the day running around with two laminate signs pinned to their front and back. The signs featured the Twitter username and the preferred hashtag of the event. This not only helped in making us all look like idiots, but also produced a number of tweets from members of the public. The signs ensured that onlookers, should they be so inclined, could easily tweet about the performances, sharing the crucial information - account name and the hashtag - with their own followers, rather than just composing a generic message about the event which wouldn't have been so effective in increasing our online footprint.

Other tips

  • Without a personal WiFi connection, you're going to eat through data. I used Onavo to try and limit the amount of data being consumed. It's worth a look.
  • Think about letting some local journalists know about the campaign - we had a lovely article in the M.E.N purely because we included journalists in the initial batch of user targeting.
  • Film videos horizontally. It just looks nicer.
  • Be prepared to spend most of the day glued to your phone. There won't be much time for socialising.
  • Look up from the iPhone when crossing main roads.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Masters of the social media universe?

A trip to the cinema is a Faustian bargain.

You understand that you need to pay for a ticket; it’s the price you pay to see the film. You understand that you need to pay for popcorn; it's the price you pay for eating sweet chunks of cardboard. You take your seat, the room goes dark and you understand that you must sit through twenty minutes of advertising before the film begins. It’s the price you pay for seeing The Avengers on a screen larger than the first floor of your house.

In those twenty minutes, you’re an advertiser's Christmas Eve dream; a captive viewer. The worst advert ever commited to screen could be shown and you’d still watch it. It’s the price you pay.

The social media audience isn’t paying and I think we all forget that sometimes.* The social media audience isn’t coughing up money to watch The Hulk smash things with his CGI fists; there’s nothing keeping them glued to your brand’s latest status update. If they’re following your company on Twitter or Facebook, it’s because you’re offering them something they’re interested in. Competitions. Product news. Customer service. Jokes. Content that’s relevant and content that adds value to their online lives. I think we forget that sometimes.

Social media marketing is viable because it gives businesses the opportunity no other medium offers. As a social brand, you live in their online life, your company seamlessly mixing with conversations from friends and relatives. Your message is constant. But it’s not permanent.

Unlike a film, a television programme or a magazine article, there’s nothing keeping a fan or a follower in their metaphorical chair. There’s no final dramatic act, no last-minute goal, no life-affirming article. Your online audience is there because they choose to be. And if you stop being relevant, if you stop adding value, they will leave you without shedding a tear. It’s the nature of the beast. They’re fickle and there’s nothing we can do to control it.

But it’s not just our problem to fret over. It’s Twitter’s problem, Facebook’s problem, Google +’s problem and LinkedIn’s problem.

Our fates are all intertwined. It’s just as easy to close a Twitter account as it is to click unlike, unsubscribe or unfollow. The online audience is fickle, opening accounts on Pinterest, Quora (remember that?) and Foursquare and abandoning them just as quickly. Users jump around the internet with a pogo stick and, without a time machine, it’s impossible to predict if May’s social network will still be the flavour of the month in June.

But it’s the nature of the beast we’re dealing with. Social media is free and we can afford to be fickle with the things given to us without purchase. We get distracted by the new shiny thing and the old becomes disposable; graveyards of university photographs and melancholic status updates last written in 2007. While the concept of sharing online isn’t dying off anytime soon, the sites certainly are.

It’s why we, as an industry, are so concerned with statistics. The number of registrations, the number of daily visits, the number of minutes spent on a site. It’s a damn sight easier to justify a campaign on a specific platform when all the numbers add up. A website without consumers just doesn't deserve the ad spend**. But we can't control any of this.

As advertisers, all we can do is pay attention and keep adding value. Our fate isn't our own and I think it’s time we all realised that we’re not the masters of this particular universe. I think it’s time we made ourselves useful.

*Of course, your personal data is the price you pay for using social media. I'd argue that users value money to pay the rent much more than their personal data.

**Of course, there are exceptions and campaigns on niche sites for a specific audience can be tremendously effective. But that’s not we’re discussing here. Maybe another time.