This is the end…

I started this blog around two years ago, as ‘a sort of experiment in writing – to see if it’s possible to write a blog that:
– conforms to the requirements of the genre
– is entertaining enough for me to want to write and some people to want to read
– is personal enough to be authentic whilst being work-related enough to justify doing on the Edge Hill site
– doesn’t make me sound like a corporate shill, pretend Californian teenager or simple babbling loon.’


It has been fun – a way of holding forth and getting an audience that doesn’t involve standing up in front of a crowd thinking ‘I probably should have worn a tie’ – but I think it’s time to evaluate my success and to decide whether to continue doing it.

I believe it ‘conforms to the requirements of the genre’, such as they are, except in one crucial respect – regularity. I simply don’t have the time to write small essays any more. I can just about manage 140 character tweets.

Maybe it ‘is entertaining enough for … some people to want to read’, and it has certainly been gratifying to meet people who say they read it. And learning my blogging chops here led me to doing my walking project, which has in turn led me to do more creative writing, which is all good.

I also think it ‘is personal enough to be authentic whilst being work-related enough to justify doing on the Edge Hill site’ – it’s a question of balance that is quite difficult. There is a certain exposure in writing as oneself – but then it’s a kind of performance really, a work-blogging role alongside the other roles I play.

As for whether it ‘doesn’t make me sound like a corporate shill, pretend Californian teenager or simple babbling loon’ – I think it does make me sound like those things, albeit not usually all at once. ‘Corporate shill’ is what it says on my business card and the other bits are those ‘requirements of the genre’ I was seeking to fulfil.

So it has been an interesting exercise but it’s time to move on. My picture on the header seems to have disappeared already so I guess the writing was on the wall. A truly corporate blog may have a role but a work-based personal one has had its day.

Thanks for reading.

Five phrases to outlaw in…

Reading this blog post by Alison Gow, ‘Exec Editor, digital, for the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post’, had me literally jumping out my chair and punching the air in ecstatic agreement.

Five phrases to outlaw in newsrooms‘ is about the need for newspaper staff to engage with online and social media more wholeheartedly, playfully, routinely and naturally. Go on, read it – here’s another link.

I don’t work in a newspaper so why should I care? Well, my job and those of my team involve having good conversations with a multitide of audiences, and online is where a lot of these conversations can and should happen. Video clips, tweets and blog posts need to be as fluently, frequently and fluidly produced as chats in the corridor, emails and handshakes. So at least four of the five ‘Alison’ phrases should be outlawed in my area too. (Get tweeting, folks! And expect a Flip camera in your in tray.)

Perhaps no surprise that a journalism article should resonate with PR (the Good Witch is after all related to the Wicked ones.) I’m sure the issue of people not ‘getting’ online is important in other areas too – send smoke signals if you agree…

Saddle Up for Tarnished Marketing

I’m no expert on book marketing, though I did receive some attention when I ventured some opinions a while ago – maybe the spectator sees more of the game. I have recently observed an interesting marketing phenomenon in the book world and feel moved to write on the subject again, as I think there are lessons for us all, out there on the prairie…

The western is a niche genre, at least in book form, with limited opportunities for exposure to the public. Few bookshops actually stock them for instance. In the UK, long-established publisher Robert Hale is pretty much the only game in town, publishing several Black Horse Westerns (BHWs) a month in hardback form, the vast majority of which go to public libraries. Like academic books, these are priced highly and built to last. Libraries treat them as a generic commodity, not bothering to shelve them in alpha order. Taking all this into account – no high-street distribution, high prices, many titles produced, publisher with a tiny marketing budget, indifferent distribution network – it is difficult for an individual title to stand out and start notching up retail sales.

The Tarnished Star, as by Jack Martin is an exception. As I write it is at the top of Amazon’s western chart, having also topped their pre-order list. According to the publisher, ‘More than one thousand copies of Gary’s title were pre-ordered while five other BHWs scheduled for simultaneous June publication were virtually ignored.’ The book has been bought, reviewed, and talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. Why has this happened? I suggest that diligent and creative use of the internet, particularly its social media side, has made the difference.

The author, real name Gary Dobbs, is active on a number of forums and mailing lists where the specialist interest in western fiction is pursued. His blog, The Tainted Archive, is updated every day and has an extensive following. Gary initiated ‘Wild West Monday’, a bit of consumer activism involving fans of this particular form or escapist fiction questioning bookshops and libraries about their failure to deliver the goods. This in turn has created publicity in the traditional print and broadcast media…

It is a good case study of how online media in themselves don’t have magic powers – it’s not enough just to have, say, web pages and Facebook presence, you need to work them continuously, like a poacher baiting his traps. This is what Gary has done. The man himself (being typically generous with his time) emailed a comment for this post:

I started the Tainted Archive, thinking it would help me publicise my book and I make no excuse for that – I’m a writer and want people to read my work. An unread book is merely wasted paper. But I didn’t expect it to do so well – I think that I have a level of self belief that is above the average and that comes across when I talk about my work. When Tarnished Star was accepted I had achieved a life long ambition and I got excited and somehow, I’m not sure how, I transferred that excitement into my blog. I’m still excited – don’t forget Arkansas Smith next March. [Note deftly inserted plug! – R.] First and foremost though I work bloody hard on the blog and the books.

Some of this ‘bloody hard’ work generates a cluster of communication surrounding the book itself. In effect the ‘product’ of the book is enhanced by an expanding cloud of online messages, including for example this blog post. This creates interest, goodwill, and (pardon the overused term) viral marketing, like word of mouth but with keyboards and pixels instead of mouths.

Of course, the book itself has to be good or else the ‘cloud’ would be nothing more than vapour. It is good, and, importantly from a marketing perspective, has what Gary calls a ‘major selling point’,1 that it ‘could have come from the 50’s and 60’s
That simple idea is ideally suited to the meme-fuelled world of online social marketing; when the idea encounters people with a latent desire (ie folks who think ‘hmm yes, it would be nice to read a good old fashioned western’) it latches on to them like a benign virus and hey presto, Gary gets another Amazon sale. A bit of an oversimplification, but you see what I mean…

Although this won’t make Gary into the next J.K.Rowling, there are parallels between the mini-phenomenon of The Tarnished Star and the macro-franchise-superstorm of Harry Potter. Marketing thinker John Grant elaborates a ‘brand molecule’ of Harry Potter, which as well as the books and films includes things like the J.K. Rowling ‘rags to riches’ story, stunts like the midnight releases, and the press stories about the Potter books getting kids to read. One could construct a similar molecule around Gary’s book, with things like the Wild West Mondays campaign, Gary’s personal story (he’s an actor who has been in Doctor Who and Larkrise; he drives a cab), his websites, the wider world of westerns and so on.

Theorist of online culture Nicholas Negroponte suggested back in 1998 that ‘All things digital get bigger and smaller at the same time…We’ll see a rise in huge corporations, airplanes, hotels and newspaper chains in parallel with growth in mom-and-pop companies, private planes, homespun inns, and newsletters written about interests most of did not even know humans have’. I guess the Tarnished Star marketing story shows how, at the ‘small is beautiful’ end of the spectrum, possibilities exist for individuals and small companies to carve out niches for themselves, if they are skilful in operating in social media world.

Does this have any relevance to the wider world of marketing, or is it just an interesting occurrence in the margins (and another one of Roy’s unexpected hobbies)? I’d argue that it does, as any organisation that markets itself can usefully pay attention to
– vigorously using all channels to communicate
– being interesting and having a personality
– communicating simple propositions that are easy to remember and pass on
– communicating what it stands for.

Much more importantly, organisations are made up of individuals, each of whom can be empowered to do ‘Dobbsian’ marketing, even if only for self-interested promotion of themselves or their own patch. For instance, my team’s job is marketing our university, and we do what we can. But if a handful of people in departments across the University were willing and able to undertake the kind of vigorous, relentless micromarketing that The Tarnished Star has had – playing all the angles on a daily basis, taking opportunities for guerilla marketing as they occur – we would be doing even better than we are.

Perhaps the secret is not so much having theories and policies about social marketing (like the 20-page Twitter policy produced recently by a Government department) as simply having a go, and getting our hands dirty – ‘tarnished marketing’ on the new frontier.


In a draft of this piece, I lazily referred to this as a ‘unique selling point’,
making thoughtless use of an overused marketing term. Respected Western author Chap O’Keefe rightly pulled me up on this, pointing out that Black Horse ‘titles now run into thousands and with few exceptions most of them have had this same allegedly “unique selling point”‘, which is absolutely correct. I think this illustrates my point – Tarnished Star has achieved disproportionate attention despite not being unique. Back to Post
  • Ideals in Industry

    The first suit I ever bought, back in 1986 as I prepared for my first suit-wearing job, was from a branch of Burtons. It took me 23 years to buy another one. My repeat purchase came about because I happened to watch an episode of British Style Genius on BBC2, in which there was talk of a new ‘heritage’ range of Burton suits based on old 1960s designs, using English cloth. These sounded like fun, and I looked in the Ormskirk shop a few times hoping to see them – but all they had were the usual young lager-drinkers’ leisure outfits and first-time-offender-court-appearance suits. (No offence intended to anyone who shops there 😉 ) Eventually I cracked and looked on the website, which did indeed have the ‘heritage’ stuff, but only as end-of-lines being sold off for small heritage-style amounts of money, £20 for a jacket and £10 for trousers. I took the risk of buying one, and luckily it fits reasonably well – a least as well as the suit sported by the patriarch of the PG Tips chimp family, in their Wall Street inspired yuppie-themed period in the 80s. It is a nice suit and I can’t imagine why they failed to sell them for the original price. It’s a curious hybrid of new and old, with handy extra iPhone size pockets, and an array of buttons inside the trousers to which braces might be attached, such as would have been familiar to men being demobbed from either World War.

    Having become a Burton fan, I couldn’t not buy Ideals in Industry: being the impressions of social students and visitors to the Montague Burton workshops (3rd ed, 1936) when I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Halesowen. The book, published by Burton themselves, is a highly self-congratulatory corporate history. This particular volume, number 20068, was presented to one P.B. Jenkins, a salesman at ‘branch 339’, as an ‘efficiency award’ in 1948.

    He would have read about the triumphs of his company, capitalism at its most benign: the ‘20,000 employees on payroll’ mentioned on the letterhead seem to have enjoyed light and airy canteens, social programmes and support provided by a company that believed ‘that a great business may have a heart as well as a counting house’.

    One of the ‘social students’ mentioned in the title, ‘Martha Steinitz, an eminent Student of Political Economy, a well known Labour Leader and Social Reformer’, observed that

    Everything seemed to work so smoothly that one almost imagines the whole place is swinging fluently to the perfect rhythm of some popular tune: a picture of the most varied activity, a serious and yet bright spectacle, rhymthically arranged like a swaying dance, at the same time. ingenious and creating wealth like nature…

    I’m not sure whether ‘wealth like nature’ flows into the counting house of the modern Burtons. I would however seuggest that, if they provided the kind of service they did back when Ideals in Industry was produced, they could be on to a winner. The formula used to be that fittings for tailor-made suits were taken in the branches, and the actual suits made in the ‘swinging’ environment of their giant workshops. This could appeal to a number of modern marketing concerns:
    – customisation (everyone gets an individualised product)
    – ease and speed of purchase (compared with going to real tailors)
    – reduced miles (if they carried on making clothes in England from English cloth)
    – concern for worker’s welfare; a Fair Trade vibe (if the factories and shops were paragons of health as depicted in Ideals, with ‘a course of sun-ray treatment for two shillings’)
    I’d be first in line anyway – hoping for a loyalty bonus for buying three things from them in a quarter of a century, and as a downside becoming (even more) one of the people who, in the words of Joe Strummer, ‘wear Burton suits/turning rebellion into money’.

    As a piece of corporate communication, the Ideals book seems naive and old-fashioned on the surface. But it has a lot of the same ingredients as its modern equivalents, such as Annual Reports: claims to a higher purpose and appeals to ethical and moral values (‘Less than forty years ago the old traditions prevailed and tailoring was a ‘sweated’ industry. Our satisfaction is to have broken with these traditions. The night has passed and the morning has come’); peacock-like showcasing of buildings and facilities; endorsements from third parties (in this case, visting royals and those ‘social students’); heritage (‘founded 1900’); scale of resources (‘£11000,000 CAPITAL’); claims to uniqueness; and an air of optimism in endless progress.

    Maybe our next publication will remind readers that ‘efficiency may wear a smile and not a frown’.

    Puritan cold spots

    As my weekend walking down the length of the country approached the Edge Hill battleground, I did a little light research on the English Civil War. This included reading The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill, where I found an intriguing mention of plans for an expansion of higher education: ‘During the Revolution a new university was started in Durham, and others were proposed for London, York, Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man…’

    This brought to mind the consideration being given by DiUS to setting up new ‘higher education centres’, ‘to bring the benefits of local higher education provision to bear across the country’, in so-called ‘cold spots‘. Most to the places on the Puritan list are well universitied up already, but there are a few exceptions. The list of modern cold spots includes Shropshire, suggesting that the University mooted by the Puritans is still needed.

    Edge Hill has around 500 students on programmes taught in Shrewsbury, so perhaps we are belatedly realising the Puritan vision – like some New Model Army of HE…

    Apparently it was also proposed that ‘Undergraduates should work their way through the university, earning their living in some useful calling part of the day or every other day’ (p300, referring to Several Sermons and Discourses by Wiliam Dell). This bit at least has come true, in that most students do paid work while studying. Hopefully this practice achieves Dell’s objectives, that ‘Youth be delivered from that Ease and Idleness, which fills the hearts of University-Students with many Corruptions, and noisome Lusts, whilst they fill their Heads only with empty Knowledge and foolish Notions’ (p646).

    Customise your chest

    A lot is written about the way online/social media enable people to create identities for themselves. However some of the oldest, most analog and physical media also offer possibilities for individuals to tailor the ways they present themselves to the world.

    Promotional clothing such as t-shirts and hoodies is an example. Digital printing and embroidering techniques mean personalised kit is easy to come by. One effect of this is to make apparently official gear, eg with university logos, accessible to anyone who wants it, and therefore effectively outside the control of the logo police. (In other words don’t complain to me – they could have come from anywhere!)

    Customised clothes have become the norm, eg gear with crests and logos on the chest, and things like teams, dorm names, and nicknames on the back. At Edge Hill there is a fashion for adding a name directly underneath an embroidered logo. This area was planned to be where, say, a Faculty or campus would be mentioned – for instance I have one with ‘Corporate Marketing’ embroidered beneath the logo. So far, so corporate. However I’ve seen all kinds of things: ‘Foxy Chick‘ has a certain postfeminist panache, but wasn’t what we had in mind when we wrote the visual identity handbook…

    Hockey Slags’ – as a team name proudly emblazoned on the back of some hoodies – seems to be of a different order. ‘Cool – it reclaims an offensive term and thereby robs it of its power!’ cries my inner media boffin, enthused by the layers of irony. Nevertheless I doubt that Miss Hale (the first Principal, whose stern picture adorns Sages Restaurant) would have approved. Maybe I shouldn’t either.

    Android II: converging identities, proliferating channels

    Having expended a post talking mainly about the venue for ‘Digital Landscapes…’, here are some thoughts on the actual subject matter (using online media to recruit students) – harvested from the event itself, a meeting afterwards (with Suraj from Chameleon) and a meeting before the event that I didn’t realise I was having…

    Reaching people
    We are beginning to get solid figures on some of the ways young people use devices and media channels. I was particularly interested in the demographics of mobile usage, as put across by the Blyk guys. This is a step forward, as until recently it often seemed that we were winding up some new toys and letting them run off randomly in a darkened nursery.

    Where we’re at as marketing people
    Judging by the reactions of assorted Marketing Directors, Managers and Officers, we’re still at different stages with all this crazy online Web 2.0 stuff. (By the way, why is it assumed that it will progress from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0? When do we get Web 2.1, Web 2.2.5 etc., and who decides?) One person might say something like ‘Twitter is b********’, while another is choosing between marketing apps to develop for iPhones. We’re not all in the same place. Does that mean the switched-on places are more competitive?

    Who does the actual work?
    New channels proliferate, but our teams don’t get any bigger. Whose job is it to load pictures on to Flickr, or to engage students with Twitter? When are they going to do it? Stuff that didn’t exist three years ago is unlikely to be in anyone’s job description. It’s a real problem for small teams – not just a matter of capacity (how many hours in a day) but of culture, roles, professional identities. Both marketing and web people are content-creators and channel-managers, and there’s no set formula for configuring roles for best effect. Making effective use of online/social media is a necessary development, but lots of other stuff (analog, embodied, physical) has to happen too. I suppose that’s why partners, agencies and suppliers have an important role, if they can demonstrate that they add value.
    I have heard a tale told about a university sacking its boring traditional marketing department and hiring a shiny new digitally-led team. (I imagine the Cylons marching across Caprica.) This could be seen as a brave move, but surely also as a failure of management and development. There are plenty of ways to use the strengths of people whose professional starting-point isn’t digital, as marketing becomes more online.

    Fit for purpose
    I have a new Android phone that does many things. It is particularly good at being on the internet all the time. But I also have a PDA (better at documents), older phone (simpler for calls), iPod (better for music), camera (better at taking pictures), notebook and pen (better for making notes) and so on. (Coming soon – executive wheelbarrow to shunt it all around.) There is convergence – devices doing more things – but it hasn’t happened to the extent that any kind of communication can be seen on any device, or through any channel.

    Boundaries blur…
    Boundaries between professional roles, technologies, and media are all dissolving. For instance, where does ‘marketing’ stop and ‘web’ begin? I think boundaries between individual roles and identities are becoming more fluid too. (There has been some interesting discussion about learner and teacher identies on Edge Hill blogs recently, eg here and here.) This is exciting but the ride can be bumpy. For instance, last week, I became seriously peeved when what I saw as ‘work stuff’ was being communicated via my Facebook page, late one evening. I suppose I felt that I didn’t want to boot up my ‘work’ identity, all problem-solving and accountability, when I was in ‘play’ mode looking for random banter on Facebook. However, while I was writing passive-aggressive status updates, one colleague had simply resolved the issue by logging on from home and fixing it, and another had tried to do the same but was too late…. so each of us had different views, at that moment, of what was appropriate.
    From a marketing point of view, we need to consider the identities that our audiences will bring with them as they move towards our institutions. What is going to work for them, what will feel dissonant…

    Digital landscape gardening
    The metaphor of a ‘digital landscape’ is interesting. In a way it means a landscape made of numbers or, surreally, fingers. But it’s a metaphor I like. If we’re thinking about marketing online, it might make more sense to think of all of us exploring and inhabiting a landscape than, say, marketers using a set of ‘tools’ to communicate with audiences.

    So the night before I went to a pub…
    Introverted misanthrope that I am, I didn’t actually talk to anyone – at least anyone who was physically there – but I did mention it on Twitter (which led to some online discussion on Facebook). And the next day, I had a message from a guy who had also been physically there at the same time, and had also twittered about it… So, retrospectively, it was quite a convivial evening, in the digital landscape at least. This made me think – where exactly are our potential students? They live and study in real places that we try to ‘target’, and at the same time they play, communicate and seek information digital places too.

    I have an inkling that understanding virtual environments and identities on their own isn’t enough – that the interplay of the digital with real-world places, activities and behaviour are where it’s at. But that’s enough typing into the aether – an Open Day is happening and I have 1,100 real-time embodied people to encounter…

    Android in the Athenaeum

    Yesterday I was in London, chairing the Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009 event and playing with my new Android phone.

    One of the Android’s features is its Googlemapping, GPS and compass features, which proved useful in finding the venue. The Athenauem is sign-free on the outside, apart from some Greek letters set into the doorstep – a bit like the fraternity houses I’ve seen in American films. Inside, any resemblance to such things ceases, as one is confronted by statues, wood panelling and the magnificent sweeping staircase where (as I learned) Dickens once had a famous reconciliation with Thackeray.

    I had stressed about the dress code, checking repeatedly that I had a tie with me with the paranoia of someone about to emigrate checking their passport. Judging by the assorted jeans, open-necked shirts and jacket-free torsos around the place I needn’t have worried – shorts and the ‘Vive l’anarchie’ t-shirt I had slept in would have done at a pinch…

    Our morning exploring the digital landscape was very fruitful. From a mixture of agency presentations and university case studies I learned useful stuff about mobile marketing, the relationship between search and online display ads, uses of student ambassadors in forums… all practical things to take away. I am glad sessions like this have progressed beyond the ‘here’s what social networking is – we need to think about whether to engage with it’ stage.

    And I recommend the club claret.

    Premium crafted punk beer

    I tried a new beer at the Liverpool Twestival a couple of weeks ago: Punk IPA by Brewdog. Without reading glasses in a dark venue, I couldn’t read the label (in fact at first I wondered why ‘Pink IPA’ was packaged with a blue label). Yesterday I bought another bottle from Tesco (hardly the 100 Club or CBGBs of retail, but apparently the nation’s punk ale stockist) and now, in the controlled surroundings of home with artificial viewing aids aplenty, I have been able to give the packaging some proper attention.

    This is not a lowest common denominator beer.
    This is an aggressive beer.
    We don’t care if you don’t like it.

    says the copywriter working for Brewdog, maker of ‘Beer for Punks’, a company that is ‘about breaking rules, taking risks, upsetting trends and unsettling institutions but first and foremost great tasting beer’ including this ‘post modern classic pale ale’.

    And it is very nice. But is it punk?

    Back in 1977, cans of Holsten Pils were the drink of choice of the pogoing set as I recall. In the days of Party Fours and Watneys Red Barrel, Pils seemed fresh and new, with a strength capable of inducing ‘total derangement of all the senses’ in a short space of time. As with Punk IPA, the no-nonsense ingredients had a kind of three-chord purity to them.

    However, in the punk era things that actually advertised themselves as ‘punk’ were usually some kind of commentary or cheap cash-in. All the good people disavowed the label or moved on to other things. I think people wandering around with bottles of ‘punk beer’ would have come across as the kind of ‘Part-Time Punks’ lampooned in the song by The Television Personalities, the ones who buy coloured vinyl and ‘pogo in the bedroom/In front of the mirror/But only when their mum’s gone out’.

    But it isn’t 1977. It isn’t even 2007 – it’s 2009 and ‘punk’ has some other meanings. Golf Punk magazine, for instance, isn’t aimed at the few golfers with Vaseline-spiked hair and bondage trousers. In this context, ‘punk’ is drafted in to bring resonances of rawness and independent subversive spirit. I guess this is what Brewdog want to channel into their packaging – which really stands out among the traditional liveries of most brands.

    The confrontational rhetoric of the label struck me as being the inverse of the cutesy stuff written on the cartons and bottles of Innocent drinks. Whereas Innocent try and be unfeasibly friendly, with their invitations to ‘Just pop in To Fruit Towers’ and ‘join the family at’, Brewdog are comically unfriendly, insulting the purchaser of their ‘rebellious little beer’ as being unlikely to have ‘the taste or sophistication to appreciate the quality of this premium craft brewed’ beverage.

    It will be interesting to see if this approach catches on. Innocent-speak has become quite widepread, not just in the drinks market: some prospectuses, for instance, ape the amiable, immaculately quirky nouveau-hippy tone of the smoothie-millionaires. Maybe more of us will go down the Brewdog route and start metaphorically gobbing at our audiences, with some ‘rebellious’, ‘aggressive’ copy showing our authentic individualism…

    But hang on a sec. Reading the Punk IPA label again, it’s actually quite elitist. ‘Not a lowest common denominator beer’, ‘premium crafted’, the opposite of ‘cheaply made watered down lager’ – maybe it’s more about Emerson Lake and Palmer-style virtuosity than DIY punkiness. Perhaps there’s some ‘post modern’ irony in there alongside the ‘barley, hops, yeast, water’.

    Whatever – let me say again how nice the beer was – I hope to try their others sometime…