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
  • 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.

    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…

    The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

    In March I’ll be chairing this event:

    The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

    Thursday 26th March 2009
    9.30am-1.00pm (lunch included)
    The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, London W1

    Interested? Then ponder these things in your heart: “Are you responsible for directing your institution’s student recruitment strategy? Are you looking to make the most of web 2.0 to boost your admissions?”

    Have you answered yes? The next step is obvious: “join us in London for this FREE half-day seminar.”

    Here’s what will happen if you do:

    “Delegates will learn from HEIs and experts on the following topics:

    * effective mobile campaigns;
    * beyond the banner—examples on how to fully engage with potential students on UGC sites;
    * tips on successful SEO;
    * the latest 2009 research from The Student Room’s users (including the users’ insights on what sort of online campaigns work!); and
    * a Q&A panel including representatives from HEIs, Blyk and The Student Room.”

    No doubt you’re sold on it by now and will immediately want to ‘book online here‘.

    I look forward to seeing you there.

    It sounds great and I would probably have gone even if I wasn’t chairing it. I got quite excited about The Athenaeum as a venue – thinking it was the club in Pall Mall, and that I’d be rubbing shoulders with the shades of Ormskirk statue-man D’Israeli and other luminaries, as well as those of clubland heroes from the works of Sapper, Dornford Yates and John Buchan (assuming that fictional characters can have shades.) However this Athenaeum is a hotel in Piccadilly – which looks perfectly acceptable. (Update – it is in fact in the club – early information was misleading. I’m sure participants will get full instructions but do please niote it ISN’T in the hotel.)

    A colleague Twittered that he looked forward to ‘seeing me in action’ – and I’m trying to think how action-packed my chairing can possibly be. Thinking back to my clubland fantasy, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay was certainly a man of action. Perhaps I should model my performance on his improvised political speech in The 39 Steps, depicted here (7’13” onwards).

    I’ll buy a tweed suit with a hint of digital about it forthwith.

    Corrupted by blogging

    Last week I was asked to write a short piece for E42, the new Edge Hill magazine – basically to fill a gap in a spread about the University’s Short Story Prize. Despite my protestations that my collection of Warhammer 40k novels and extensive reading of paperback westerns of the 1970s haven’t equipped me to be a literary critic, I gave it a go – with deadlines looming and better-qualified staff on leave, it seemed the only option. After all, I had read the books and attended the event, so writing 400 words in an hour seemed like the least I could do. (And my western-writing buddies could knock out a novel in three weeks, so I’d be a wimp no to start hitting the keyboard.)

    Along the way I got Jennie ‘CLTR Nexus‘ Barnsley to proofread. This process was interesting. Based on Jennie’s input I
    – stripped out vast amounts of hyperbole (‘shellshocked and reeling’ became ‘exhausted’; a ‘horrendous’ task became ‘difficult’)
    – deGothicised the title (‘Icepicks in the Brain’ became ‘Involving Glimpses’)
    – removed a bunch of Americanisms and some non-PC terminology (for which I could have been had up on a summons)
    – made it slightly more about the topic and less about me me me.

    Mike Nolan talks about people avoiding blogging because they aren’t ‘used to writing like a blogger’. I think I have the opposite problem – I’ve forgotten to write any other way.

    Although a blog can be written in any style on any topic, I think there are some ‘genre conventions’ that one can fall into. These include
    – attention-getting headings, with a degree of unexpectedness
    – personal viewpoint and style
    – the conventions of online communication – all those acronyms and terms that have been around since the days of the Well and other prehistoric parts of the internet.

    Is there a blogging detox camp that Mister Roy can go to?

    The Web: a Powerful Recruitment and Communication Tool

    This was the title of a one-day CASE seminar earlier this week, which brought together HE marketing and web people. I think this has been a community waiting to exist, judging by the level of interest. Alison Wildish was introduced as being the ‘presiding mind’ for the day, and the sessions she had pulled together, and her introductory overview, were excellent. It could have been called ‘beyond the website’ as so much of the interesting stuff has little to do with static web pages – social networks, social bookmarking, tagged content, channels of user-generated stuff. I came away with a lot to digest having had rewarding chats with contacts old and new – so a very worthwhile day.

    I was billed as talking about ‘the modern approach’, and various other sessions were about ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’, so I riffed on the idea of postmodern being a better way of thinking about these things, as
    – The web can be seen as a postmodern phenomenon (eclectic, virtual, centre-less, ephemeral, interconnected, non-hierarchical etc.)
    – therefore if (to some extent) we live in a postmodern world then the web is highly fit for purpose in engaging with it.

    Other stuff I touched on included
    – The iGeneration (digital natives) have new expectations that we should meet, such as easy access to information, interactivity, access to information through their channel and device of choice, but
    – at the same time we have traditional audiences to satisfy.
    – Building relationships with potential students through genuine interactivity is a good thing to focus on.

    To illustrate this last point I talked about our Hi site which excited a lot of interest. Dolt that I am, I forgot to mention that it has won an award (of which more later…)

    Alison has created a Ning community for the event, where the discussions continue:

    Against entanglement

    I’ve been ‘against’ a few things in my time. In 1978, I was one of 80,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to a park in East London for a Rock Against Racism carnival. Apparently this was the largest protest of its kind since the 1930s, and a new generation of people are keeping the momentum going in things like Love Music, Hate Racism. By comparison, the ‘Students Against Crap Teaching’ (SACT) group on Facebook is a minor affair – 21 members, and no posts for nearly a year. Nevertheless, the THE found the fact that we are mentioned on it momentous enough to ask for a comment, which appears in the current THE (Threads that twist and tangle, THE, 28 February 2008.) I get to say some brainy things about social networking (hooray for me), but my disparagement of the SACT itself (pointless and dormant) was omitted.
    This goes to show how the permanent, searchable nature of social networks differentiate them from word of mouth. If someone had made a mild comment about teaching at Edge Hill a year ago in a pub somewhere, it’s unlikely that a national journalist would be emailing us for a response twelve months later. But the words (and pictures) that populate the Web 2.0 sphere are always there to be examined, like the fossil record or those layers of broken pottery they find on Time Team (‘So, what kind of household would have lived on this site, Phil?’ ‘Well Tony, these pots were imported from the Mediterranean, so they would have been quite a high status family…’)

    But does it matter? In the SACT example, one person expressed a negative opinion on one occasion – big deal. Obviously, sustained attacks suck as ‘**** UEL’ or ‘[a named individual at another university] is ****’ (check out the THE for the full potty-mouthed version) are more worrying, but generally speaking positive comments outweigh the negative and it’s all part of the free exchange of opinion that makes a healthy society.

    The THE point out that ‘Edge Hill University already monitors web activity relating to the university’, which could imply that we have a room full of gimlet-eyed analysts monitoring screens all day, perhaps in a darkened room like the headquarters in ’24’, or the curiously-understaffed MI5 in ‘Spooks’. In fact it’s a much more low-key affair, involving judicious use of RSS feeds, common sense, and little time. We are following the threads, but not becoming entangled in them.

    Advertising on Web 2.0

    The ‘Empire Strikes back’ post on Web Services links to a great movie about traditional advertising not cutting it in the Web 2.0 world.

    When it comes to ‘advertising’ a university, the movie below is hard to beat. Watch it, it’s worth it – if you go to YouTube and see the views (1m+) and favourites (4000+) you’ll see at a glance how really interesting non-advertising content can raise the profile of a university.

    And here I am, giving it yet another viral push…

    Emperor Ning

    Having heard it described at the CASE Europe Conference as the ‘rule changer’, ie a next big thing in social networking, I thought I’d give Ning a try. Offering the opportunity to ‘Create Your Own Social Network for Anything’, it lets you set up a website with features such as forum, blogs, photos, groups and more all in a few minutes. It’s also a platform for developers to create their own features. It can accept feeds, links to Flickr, probably makes tea. The network you set up doesn’t have to have Ning branding on it, and ads can be removed for a small sub. Basically it’s really easy to set up lots of things very quickly.

    My initial view is that this would be a good tool to service groups with an existing connection, eg clubs, students on a course, niche interests. But who knows – people will customise it to do whatever they fancy. Or ignore it. We’ll see.

    Just in case it turns out to be useful, I’ve blagged to stop it going to one of the other Edge Hills, or (say) a student drinking club…

    Come and see what its like to join an existing Ning network and discuss Ning (or anything else) at

    Or just go to and start your own…