Posts Tagged ‘technology’
18th March 15
Posted in sxsw
Authors; a crack team of roving reporters, on the ground in Austin, Tx
SXSW isn’t just about tacos, BBQ and Shiner and to ensure that the lucky BBHers who were out there knew that, we asked them to send us a quick note about the best thing they saw and heard in Austin. These are those brief, barely edited, dispatches from SXSW 2015.
So one of my favourite things about SXSW so far was not a talk, it was a dog. A St. Bernard in fact. When your phone battery was on its last legs, which let’s face it was all the f**king time, you could tweet the Saint Bernard and he would come find you. Damn, he didn’t bring brandy. Sad face. Instead, he brought a selection of phone chargers, adorably strapped around his neck. While your phone charged, you were fully licensed to pet his face off. Amazing.
Marc Rayson, Creative
I went to this great talk yesterday from a guy who has created Mogees, a new instrument lets users make music out of any object. He had the idea from thinking about how musicians have always ‘hacked’ their instruments. Think ‘scratching’ vinyls on turntables and using distortion through electric guitars – these things were never meant to be a function of the instrument but have become synonymous with dj-ng and made rock n roll.
So he created an instrument without any defined user experience so that the user could make up how they would like to play it, like a blank canvas. Watch some of the videos on his site of ways different people have used it. The kid ‘playing his stove’ is brilliant.
Samuel Bowden, Producer
Last night I saw a film called Hot Sugar’s Cold World which was a music doc about a guy called Hot Sugar who obsessively records every sound around him (even recording the silence at a funeral) and then makes them into sick tunes – he also talks about musical instruments becoming defunct and instead uses the outside world and his synth to make music.
Vaia Ikonomou, Assistant Producer
Four amazing men. Four poor life choices (by their own admission). Four stories about turning your life around. They all share one thing in common, which is that they have spent the majority of their early adult lives in prison. In the US there is little support for people in their position when they come out. The world had moved on, especially the world of technology that we take for granted. These men didn’t let that stop them becoming leaders of their community, businessmen, writers and mentors. Hearing how they motivated themselves to change and to teach others how to avoid their situation was one of the most moving moments of SXSW.
Search #Cut50 for more
Mark Whiteside, Global Operations Lead
I’ve just listened to Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama’s former Senior Advisor discuss the White House’s comms strategy with legendary news anchor Dan Rather. They both predicted that in 10 years time Snapchat will still be going strong but the nightly news will cease to exist.
The proliferation of media means the president today has to work harder than ever to reach his audience, and it’s only going to get more difficult.
The next presidential campaign is forecast to cost $4 billion and it will look very different to before. There’s always a new technology that rules every election. In 2008 it was Facebook, 2012 was Twitter, and in 2016 there’s a good chance it will be Meerkat!
Isobel Barnes, Team Director
From Marc Goodman I learned that as technology gets better and better it becomes more invasive in our lives. But this means that criminals have more and more ways to commit crimes, and bigger crimes too. Crimes used to be one on one acts, committed in a dark alley. Now it’s one on one million, committed in dark parts of the web. So as technology becomes ever more part of our lives we need to remember that means our lives are ever more accessible to criminals. Technology can also become party to a crime. In the future we’re going to have ‘Siri & Clyde’ as technology is asked questions it doesn’t have the conscience not to give an answer to, like ‘where do I bury a body’. So we need someone to step up and make security a more accessible, user friendly system to navigate. We need a Jonny Ives of security.
Sara Watson, Creative
The Unseen describe themselves as ‘an exploration collective’ who combine science with art, design and performance. Their talk was hosted by the collective’s founder, an English woman called Lauren Bowker, who believes that technology is magic and strives to create a world of seamlessly captivating science through exquisite couture and luxury products.
The most awe-inspiring product she shared with us was ‘Air’ (above) - a series of colour-changing hand crafted leather garments that change colour in response to environmental changes such as touch and wind.
Raphael Bitner, Strategist
14th September 14
Illustration for Griffin Farley’s Beautiful Minds, by Kate Moross, Breed.
Recently I’ve been perplexed why a debate still rages in the marketing ether around whether code can truly be creative, so I’m going to try to put a simple point of view down here and see how it goes.
Clue: if you’re already convinced the answer is yes, you can stop reading now.
One of the reasons I work in a creative agency is our shared ambition to, well, create. That word is loaded with meaning: to give birth to, to produce, to make, to originate something new. How that gets done inevitably changes over time, as tools and methods rise and fall. But mankind has been drawing pictures, writing and making music for millennia, and, it’s fair to say, we’ve got pretty damn good at doing all of the above. What’s more, art, copy and audio are so highly valued we don’t question them: all are taught in schools, with music, art and books sold in galleries, shops and gigs the world over.
In purely creative terms, of course code is in its infancy by comparison. And with the notable exception of gaming, what we’ve been able to create for mass consumption with code has lent itself first to utility: for example, allowing us to invent new forms of message transmission, news sharing sites and, indeed, provided us with new ways to distribute all that delightful art, copy and sound.
Yet I’m certain that the best new expressions of creativity are born of art, copy, sound and code, together.
Why? Because at the root of all creativity is a burning desire to create something original, to offer something better than the thing that came before. With code added to the creative canvas, we can achieve this in ways we have never experienced before. In other words, the opportunities to be original and different have exploded, whether you’re in film, fashion or fmcg.
So you may be reading this and thinking, ‘ah yes, more opportunities for originality, sure, but will it be any good?’. Can code move people to feel something, to make them laugh or cry, or suddenly to see a situation differently? Or is code still just about new ways to distribute the photography, writing, music and film we know and love?
I was a member of the Cannes Lions Cyber jury this summer where, sure enough, some of the best work showed a strong grasp of how to use digital to drive performance (where the definition of performance goes beyond ‘effectiveness’ to the pro-active planning, deployment and optimisation of brand activity – all enabled by technology).
By way of illustration, Volvo Trucks’ “Live Test Series” understood that YouTube’s algorithm rewards ‘total watched time with a channel’ and this helped the brand build a relationship with its audience over time. ‘Epic Split’ was a phenomenal piece of film content, but it was also the sixth in a series. Millions had watched other live tests and clicked to watch more, creating a virtuous circle where the brand earned the right to show up in more related videos. As Matt Locke puts it so succinctly some years ago now: “design for circulation, not distribution”.
However, the very best interactive work won this year because of something else in addition to well-drilled performance.
The likes of 24hoursofhappy.com for Pharrell, ‘Sound of Honda/Ayrton Senna 1989’ ‘Scarecrow’ for Chipotle and BBH New York’s own ‘Greatness’ for Playstation are simply great ideas, crafted with immaculate and loving care. Other examples include the creation of a credible, artificial child (‘Sweetie’) by Terre des Hommes Netherlands as part of its campaign to track down webcam paedophiles, and ‘Killing Kennedy’ for The National Geographic Channel which interweaves the stories of both Kennedy and his killer as one seamless and immersive online piece.
All break new ground in technological terms, all are ideas where code plays an essential part. But, above all, they evoke a powerful emotional reaction which creates a relationship with the brand. That, I would wager, is the very definition of creativity.
Three more examples of this in action if you’re looking for inspiration:
1. Digital Revolution exhibition @ Barbican in London, 3 July – 14 September 2o14
Includes astonishing displays like Umbrellium’s interactive 3D laser light field, ‘The Treachery of Sanctity’ by Chris Milk, as well as DevArt which incorporates four brand new installations commissioned by Google and Barbican to explore creative uses of code. If you’re in London, go see it before it closes in September.
Closer to home and mentioned before on this blog, Google’s ‘series of experiments to reimagine advertising’ including Burberry Kisses and most recently Nike Phenomenal Shot. The initiative’s inspiration comes from the creative revolution of the 1960s when art directors and copy writers were paired up together, having previously sat on separate floors of the print agencies where they worked. As they put it: “Today, we’re in the midst of a second creative revolution, driven by technology. Code is being added to the core creative process.”
3. New Revolutionaries (Decoded & BBH London event)
In late June this year we co-hosted with the good folks at Decoded an evening event at BBH London that we hope to repeat in future. It was designed to bring together and celebrate the polymaths and collaborators who are transforming their industries through creative uses of technology and vice versa; featuring installations and talks from the likes of Brooke Roberts, Yuri Suzuki, Framestore, Onedotzero and more.
Jeremy Langmead (newly appointed Chief Content Officer at Christie’s, ex-Mr Porter) opened the evening in conversation with Wired UK Publisher, Rupert Turnbull. Jeremy spoke openly about category naivety allowing you to break new ground, noting that any new leader has to be able to invite people with radically different skillsets into a room and to have the flair to multiply technical and creative skills together.
Framestore’s Mike McGee then told the backstories to their work on Gravity and Audrey Hepburn for Galaxy chocolate (the fact actors can now be essentially re-created led him to muse how it may become the norm in future to ‘licence’ their image for films created long after they’re dead…), as well as their astonishing ‘Ascend the Wall‘ work for Oculus Rift for Game of Thrones.
Above all, both speakers were interesting and interested. Whether you’re a creative-tech polymath or a collaborator capable of pulling different skills together, in many ways, it struck me, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that.
Jeremy Langmead (Christie’s) & Rupert Turnbull (Wired UK) in conversation at New Revolutionaries
Mike McGee talking through the creative technology involved in creating ‘Gravity’
27th July 14
Another in our occasional repostings of our monthly tech column written for Marketing Magazine. This one on wearables and why Nike’s decision to ditch development of Fuelband is a course correction, not a category bail-out. The original article appeared here on 02.06.14.
The news in April that Nike may be discontinuing their wearable personal fitness tracker Nike+ Fuelband was met with a mixed wave of reaction spanning shock to schadenfreude. As more and more marketers consider offering utility and added-value services it seems worth giving a few minutes’ consideration here to its rise and purported fall.
Launched at South By South West in 2012 amongst much neon-lit fanfare, Fuelband felt like an inexorable, natural next step for Nike+. The nerdish joy of being an early adopter made the fact mine needed replacing three times in the subsequent year easier to bear.
Taking a step back for a moment, I’m reminded of a phrase that comfortingly comes up occasionally when you’re a new parent: ‘everything is just a phase…this too shall pass’. Indeed, take a look at Gartner’s 2013 edition of their Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies and, sure enough, wearable user interfaces are placed at that most infamous of positions, the Peak Of Inflated Expectations. This is where cracks start to appear before a technology descends into the Trough of Disillusionment.
So is this just a stage? Or a sign of something else? Certainly in Fuelband’s case, its competitor Fitbit simply has had more traction and success, capturing 67% of the market in 2013, though not without a recent furore over a product recall.
The specific issues with wearables currently seem to centre around maintaining user engagement. To illustrate this, research by Endeavour Partners found that one third of American consumers who owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months.
Strong technologies with decent long term prospects habitually haul themselves out of the trough and go on to be successful. It strikes me for wearables to resolve the engagement issue and do the same in the months and years to come, two things need to happen:
1. Device consolidation
Fuelband’s minimal data collection and feedback loop already seems quaint. Nor does any smartwatch on the market offer a fully integrated solution. Instead we should expect a single, beautifully designed wearable device, capable of doing everything a smartphone already does and more – including capturing and reporting full body data – without draining battery life or weighing a ton. An Apple-led eco-system inevitably gets cited as the answer here, which does seem most likely when you add up the stories of a sophisticated Healthbook app and an iWatch on the near horizon, together with patents granted for earbud and/or headphone sensors. Nike pulling back from a hardware battle it can’t win makes more sense when a partner like Apple looks set to move centre stage.
2. Currency systems like NikeFuel need to have real world relevance and meaning.
Most likely to be brought about by stronger connections to product, tangible goals and other services. Certainly in Nike’s case their commitment looks to be to the software, not the hardware, with the launch of Fuel Labs in San Francisco, which will, they claim, “continue to leverage partnerships to expand our ecosystem of digital products and services, using NikeFuel as the universal currency for measuring, motivating and improving.” Make no mistake, for Nike, stepping back from Fuelband represents a course correction, not a category bale-out.
And the tech and activity industries as a whole will continue to run with wearables regardless. Witness the fact Facebook are buying things again, with their purchase of the activity app, Moves. The app doesn’t require another external device to work: it runs in the background, sensing motion and making assumptions on your activity and calories burned. And Google is working on wearables too, with the announcement of Android Wear, an OS for wearable tech.
Fuelband and its detractors, we may come to realise, represent just the baby steps down a long road for wearables.
24th June 14
Tonight we’re co-hosting an event with Decoded to celebrate the “New Revolutionaries”, the people transforming their industries through creativity and technology in glorious combination.
Kathryn Parsons, Lindsay Nuttall and I are lucky enough to be hosting a night of inspiring showcases and talks celebrating the people driving that creative revolution.
We’ve got two tickets to give away if you fancy it: please just tweet us @bbhlabs or @bbhlondon or leave us a comment below.
Alternatively, we’ll be live streaming the event via Twitter thanks to our friends at Streaming Tank and we’ll write up the event for this blog when we’re out the other side..
11th April 14
Author: Ben Shaw, Social Strategy Lead, BBH London
Last month, BBH London sent 11 lucky people to Austin to discover the latest innovations that tech, film and music had to offer. Amongst the BBQ, beer and banter, they managed to find a bunch of insights about the advancement of the human race. Topics like this may only truly be delivered under a desert sky with smoked meat and a pale ale, but in an effort to distribute our learnings to a wider audience we’ve tried to distil them down into some slides (below). We looked at three topics that we think are vital to our future – as an agency and as human beings. Enjoy.TECHNOLOGYCREATIVITYPEOPLE
17th February 14
We’ve enjoyed our friend Carol Ong’s digital digest out of BBH China for a good while now and it feels long overdue to share it. She has kindly agreed to cross-publish a monthly round-up of the best digital and technology stories coming out of China and Asia Pacific that she gathers at her blog. More on some broader implications to follow next month. For now, the February edition.
Author: Carol Ong, Associate Creative Director, BBH China (@cbongga)Hi everyone,
I started a Digital Digest email group last year to curate some cool stuff I find in the digital space, particularly in China and Asia. A personal project originally intended for colleagues and clients, it got good feedback, and when other people asked to be in the mailing list…. I decided to post the newer Digital Digest to a more public space, on my personal blog (warning, lots of baby pictures!).
Mel also asked me to do a “Best of Digital Digest” on a monthly basis for BBH Labs. So here it is for this month. Happy Chinese New Year!
Just tap this link to go directly to the Digital Digests.
Last year, upcoming Chinese mobile XiaoMi made the global tech geeks sit up and notice when Android star Hugo Barra joined them. He made a presentation in Paris on the amazing potential of China. Such as: disposable income triples in the last 8 years. 122+ billionaires and lots of them in the their 40s and 50s. Ecommerce, mcommerce, mobile social media and China’s version of Pay Pal are much bigger and better than their US counterparts.
Have you tried hailing cabs in China and none would stop even if they’re all empty? Taxi booking apps exploded in 2013. People started “bidding” for cabs, by guaranteeing tips. The biggest ones, Kuaide and Didi, are backed by Alibaba and Tencent respectively. In 2014, you can now use WeChat to book, bid, and pay Didi!With the rise of mobile came the rise of GIFs. But it’s so hard to search for the right GIFs, isn’t it? Not anymore. Enter frame Giphy (pronounced as Jiffy). It’s the search engine for GIFs. Try it, search “puppies”. You’re welcome.Very good tips for online films and TVCs.Wechat evolves faster than a newborn baby! I believe this is the Chinese social platform with the most potential to become global (not Sina Weibo). Wechat’s reached 270million active users last November 2013, and 600 registered users. It’s the new marketing favorite and the uses seems endless. Here are some interesting ways brands used Wechat.
See all public Digital Digests: http://trevorxfiles.com/
That’s all folks! See you next month!Carol
14th November 13
Posted in strategy
Authors: Jim Carroll, Chairman & Nick Fell, Strategy Director, BBH London
The Marketing World is in awe of tech brands.
It has visited the Valley, gathered at the Googleplex. It has listened to their leadership and consumed their case studies. It has invited them in for partnerships, hangouts and huddles. It has adopted their products, processes, principles and patter. It has acquired their interior design, appropriated their casual clobber.
But has the Marketing World learned how to talk like a tech brand? Is there an underlying assumption that tech brands can teach us how to behave, but not how to communicate? An ongoing suspicion that the engineer-led cultures of tech brands don’t quite ‘get’ communication?
We suspect the Marketing World has a long held, deep rooted belief that tech brands obsess too much about their own product and experiences; that they’re introverted.
Tech brands may make cool products, but they’re not so hot on insights and benefits, emotions and humanity. They don’t understand empathy. And whilst tech brands revel in the complex, coded and arcane, they’re not schooled in single-mindedness and sacrifice. They don’t know how to drill down or ladder up. They may get big data, but they don’t get big ideas.
So for all their many virtues, there’s not much the Tech World can teach the Marketing World about communication. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
But conventional wisdom may actually be an albatross around our necks. This same wisdom tends to create a convergent mush of mood board marketing, a farrago of facile insights and shallow lifestyle posturing. Modern brands from all sectors would do well to look properly, not just at how tech brands behave, but at how they communicate.
Let’s consider a few themes.
1. Pride in product
Tech brands spend the vast majority of their time and energy in the pursuit of innovation; creating astounding products is their main obsession. There is always something new to say, whether it’s a big breakthrough or a modest upgrade. Which is why their communications are so firmly rooted in product truth.
This might be considered old-fashioned in a world of purpose-led brand building. But it provides a refreshing break from the pseudo-insights, hyperbole and overly-elaborate ideas which fill much of today’s communications landscape.
2. UX meets advertising
User experience has been defined as “the totality of an end-users’ perceptions as they interact with a product or service” (Kuniavsky, 2010).
Tech brands employ user experience design to create products which we love to use, but the influence of UX is also clear to see in how tech brands talk.
Thinking in terms of “end-users”, not audiences, means the usability of the communication is given primary importance. The result is often a visual language which is clean, precise and with plenty of white space (more on the rise of “flat design” in Adam’s post here). Tech brands also use as few words as possible to meaningfully make the point. This type of communication is disruptive precisely because it respects our desire for space and time.
3. Narrative through product
Tech brands cannot rely exclusively on the elegant delivery of product truth to succeed.
As in all other categories, communications which evoke an emotional response help brands to create affinity and preference. However, tech brands do not treat emotional and rational approaches to communications as mutually-exclusive, like oil and water. Instead they intimately combine the two; using the product as a medium to weave rich and emotionally-engaging narratives.
For example, telling the story of a teenager building a media empire through interactions on a web browser in BBH’s Google Chrome campaign or showing a dramatic rescue through a GoPro camera attached to a fireman’s helmet.
4. Cultural collaboration
Conventionally, brands employ celebrities as a means to gain attention and credibility. These are often one-dimensional, transactional relationships.
Tech brands, on the other hand, enter into genuine partnerships with individual and institutional players in culture with the aim of creating something fresh and interesting for the world to explore. Google and Arcade Fire, Samsung and David Bailey and Intel and Vice are all examples of this.
In these relationships, both parties have a part to play; the cultural collaborator is the “cool kid” to the tech brand’s “geek” persona, bringing creativity and humanity to code and hardware.
When the most innovative tech brands work with the foremost tastemakers, the result can be an irresistible combination of science and art, left brain and right brain, intelligence and magic.
5. Built-in marketing
With the previous themes, we have considered the unique way in which tech brands talk in their marketing communications.
But tech brands are also highly skilled at building marketing directly into their products. When we use Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and SnapChat, we also promote them. For example, to access my friend’s pictures on WhatsApp, I have to download the app. This built-in network effect means that WhatsApp has grown to over 350m unique monthly users, with 400m photos being shared every day. All of this without any significant marketing investment.
So, let’s not just admire the Tech World’s innovative culture, agile processes and beautiful products. Let’s embrace their very particular perspective on communication. It’s a perspective that could perhaps lead us out of some of the cul de sacs of contemporary marketing. Whatever business we’re working with, in whatever sector, shouldn’t we all consider talking like a tech brand?
16th January 13
This post was originally published as an article, ‘The Year Ahead For Technology‘, which appeared in Campaign magazine’s first edition of the year last week, 10.01.13.
We may have spent the past few years fretting and fetishising about the time we spend online vs offline, but here’s the good news: 2013 is going to be the year we relax a little. We’ll get over the novelty of social sharing online and just accept it, distracted instead by the utility and magic revealed when ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds start to merge. The physical world becomes properly programmable. The physical web comes into its own.
If there has been a meta creative goal of technology over the past decade or so, I’d wager it is to create online experiences that inch closer to feeling viscerally real; to strive for a ‘real world standard’, if you will. Cast your mind back to Second Life ten years ago, all the way through to the interactive 3D graphics made possible by Web GL today and the steady advances in virtual reality gaming, now being applied to healthcare. Within multiple industries fuelled by technology, there’s a fascination with mirror worlds and visceral experiences. And disappointment when they don’t quite measure up to the hype (goodbye then, Second Life).
But what if we flip things for a moment: think about putting the web into the physical world, rather than trying to mimic the physical world online?There are a collection of reasons why the physical web’s time has come. Forget QR codes. Witness the leap Augmented Reality made with the announcement of Google’s heads up glasses, which justifiably caused a stir in 2012. Then add the emergence of the Internet of Things and Quantified Self into mainstream tech culture, as two sides to the same digital coin:
1. Quantified Self looks at the physical web through a human lens.
An expression coined by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf five years ago, it’s about self-tracking your performance – often via wearable, digital tools that collect and report how well you’re doing – with applications for health & fitness, finance, productivity, education, mobility and more.
2. The Internet of Things looks at the physical web through the lens of objects.
Coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, it refers to connected sensors embedded in objects making them machine-readable and artificially intelligent – with giant consequences for everything from stock taking to security, architecture to art. A year ago Cisco calculated there were already more devices connected to the Internet than there are people on the planet.
And we’re seeing brands back up the promise of both, with self-tracking services like Fitbitand Nike’s Fuelband breaking into the mainstream, whilst IoT services are emerging, likeLockitron, which remotely locks or opens your front door (never worry about losing your keys again) and Growerbot, which uses sensors to monitor moisture, light and temperature in your garden and water when needed.
Solid broadband and smartphone penetration, super-fast mobile broadband, an expanding free WiFi network in the UK and the emergence of services like the ones above are together creating perfect conditions for the emergence of what might be called a ‘real world web’. Even Search is transforming, as Google puts it, to “things, not eporner porno strings.” Their Knowledge Graph, introduced in May this year, aims “to understand real world entities and their relationships to one another” and already contains close to 600 million. “Search now understands that the Taj Mahal is a building, but also a music band, a casino and a bunch of restaurants.” Then there’s Apple’s Siri and now Google Now for Android; essentially predictive, personalised search on the move, although that barely does it justice.
The rise of the networked brand
What about brands in this context? All this powering up in technological terms and blurring between real & virtual worlds simply underlines why brands in any category need to grasp the value of operating in a network.
A few things worth considering now:
- If your physical product had a digital layer, what would it be?
- What physical, live or exclusive experience can you give to your network to share?
- Are you thinking about ‘views’ or subscribers? If you’re serious about content marketing to connected users, it’s the latter.
- As users flip between devices on the fly, they’ll expect a seamless experience: are you designing responsively?
What happens next?
Beyond this year, we will need common protocols enabled by an open web for this to work at scale. Businesses to watch in the meantime: Smartthings, Place Me (a “persistent ambient sensing” mobile app that collects all the sensory data imaginable) and Esri (formerly Geoloqi, a next gen location app). In short, our ‘phones will pick up so much real world, ambient data we won’t need to look further. To paraphrase Esri’s Amber Case: “Think what SMS did for telephones”…
Welcome to the Real World Web.
26th March 12
Posted in sxsw
When we started planning for SXSW, we could not have anticipated that our idea for a four-day philanthropic project to update the street newspaper model would spark such a widespread debate. The volume of the response to this program has reinforced our ongoing commitment to this issue, and the feedback has helped us explore the ways in which we can draw attention to it, support it, and effect change.
Homeless Hotspots has connected us with representatives of some of the nation’s leading advocacy groups and street newspaper organizations with whom we are beginning to have conversations about the challenges facing the current street newspaper model and ideas for overcoming these challenges with technology and innovation. In many ways, we owe these connections and the future of this program to those at front lines of this issue, like Mitchell Gibbs at Front Steps in Austin, Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, and writer Becky Blanton who spoke at TED about her time being homeless.
Where we go from here is directly tied to how we wrestle with some complicated issues that any street newspaper attempting to deploy change will have to answer for themselves – issues we’ve come to sharply appreciate amidst all the debate. Our aim is to partner closely with these groups to utilize the lessons and best practices learned from this experience. Based on conversations to date, our shared goal is a sustainable model that continues to bring homeless people entrepreneurial opportunities that challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society.
While street newspapers are facing the same challenges as many other traditional media outlets, there are a number of more complicated issues that need to be addressed. We’ve outlined the salient ones below.
1. Quantifying an acceptable level of provocation in the name of the cause. One of the big discussion points from Homeless Hotspots was the line “I’m a hotspot” on the t-shirts, a line we too debated internally before and during the program. The goal of the t-shirt was to create a marketing material that was provocative enough to get message-bombarded festival attendees to actually stop and speak with a homeless person – to spark a human connection and a conversation with a person who is often treated as invisible. Thus, the humanity of the project lived in the actual conversation between the Hotspot Manager and their customer. But what about the potentially negative reaction to that message by some that didn’t stop (or who simply weighed in from afar via the web)? It was many in this group that created a wave of negative sentiment online. While the participants in the program saw the shirts as an ideal social lubricant on the streets, the message took on new meaning when it spread online.
Any entrepreneurial sales venture for the homeless must be carefully designed. The newspaper organization basically works like a franchisor responsible for distributing materials to franchisees, but it must also work like a social service. This balance varies widely from organization to organization and is a complicated role for social enterprise. You want to help homeless participants (i.e., the franchisees), but you don’t want to do so at the expense of the cause itself.
2. Understanding the potential for partnership with a profit-driven company or brand. Because BBH is in the business of marketing and advertising, it was assumed early on that Homeless Hotspots was endorsed by a marketer. We fully funded the initiative and purchased the pocket-sized MiFi devices from Verizon just as any customer would, yet the reaction to the false reports of brand endorsement is an important one to explore. Many found the idea that a brand would employ homeless individuals to be offensive, while others said they’d support a brand initiative if it provided an employment opportunity. Of course, when people realized the partner was actually a local homeless shelter and that proceeds went directly to the individual Hotspot Manager, the sentiment was widely positive.
Before SXSW, we talked about how the long-term viability of a program like Homeless Hotspots would require bringing on a partner that could help financially support it. The costs of the technology and data usage for a program of this nature are significant, making the model difficult to scale beyond a short festival. A brand partner would have the resources to underwrite the costs of an ongoing effort, incentivized by the promotion of its technology; meanwhile, a social enterprise would have stronger public endorsement, but would be challenged to fund such a venture. The potential problem we saw was that when a social enterprise brings on a corporate partner, perceptions change. Emotionally, the social enterprise simply becomes enterprise for some. For others, the opposite is true. Street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurial efforts looking to share costs will have to decide where they fall on that spectrum and choose any partners wisely.
3. Determining the importance of content creation by participants. Where Homeless Hotspots differed most from an actual street paper is that the participants were not selling content they created (although it’s commonly misunderstood just how few of the homeless individuals that sell the papers actually create the content). Serving original content to a user upon log-in to a MiFi device is surprisingly complicated if you don’t manufacture the device yourself (thus we directed users to homelesshotspots.org for further information upon activating a connection).
There is an opportunity to create a more content-rich model for street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurs moving forward, especially as it relates to drawing attention to the causes of homelessness and prevailing stereotypes. For example, Hotspot Manager Jonathan is a talented musician, and there could be an opportunity to use the personal and web connectivity to draw attention to his talent, such as directing customers to a site promoting his music. The Hotspot Managers were also full of local expertise that could add more value to their conversations and connections (John Bird sees this as the future of street newspapers, which he invented when he founded The Big Issue). The absence of such content leaves a void.
The question remains whether or not consumers of the product value that content though. Looking at our own data (difficult to extrapolate from due to the extraordinarily large number of media impressions Homeless Hotspots received, which led to a disproportionate number of donations from non-users), it’s unclear how much the utility of the service vs. philanthropic impulse drove purchase. This is hard to come to terms with if you are a commercial enterprise. How can a business be a degree removed from its product? That sounds potentially negative, but we’ve left with mixed opinions on the matter. After all, the Hotspot Managers were still able to raise almost $4,000, even though the first 2 days of sales were extremely depressed by rain. If purchases were only about actual connectivity, the rain would have made Homeless Hotspots a financial failure for the participants.
What’s important is that the model moving forward must balance entrepreneurial opportunity, with supporting meaningful content and fostering personal interactions. Our data implies it was hearing an individual’s story (many times not even first-hand) that led to someone donating. This particular phenomenon in Underheard in NY already got us to rethink non-profits last year, and it’s especially important for social enterprise. Non-profits fighting homelessness don’t just want to help homeless populations, they want to stop homelessness altogether. But in many cases, customers of street newspapers seem solely focused on helping the individual in front of them. In a world where a homeless person sells a product without content, the one-on-one social interactions are their only opportunities for expression. Luckily, those conversations help overcome stereotypes (the 13 Homeless Hotspots participants had hundreds of conversations in just four days), but only if someone is provoked to stop and listen. Which brings us right back to issue #1.
We’ll keep everyone updated once we’ve identified which partner(s) we’ll be working with in future developments. We’re genuinely excited by the amount of interest from street papers around the world to collaborate on addressing the digitization of media. In the meantime, we can only hope the conversation around homelessness doesn’t step back into the darkness as the media circus winds down. You can certainly do your part by supporting organizations like our partner Front Steps. Even small donations can go a long way in helping them overcome their daily challenges long after conference attendees have left.
UPDATE (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined above. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.