Rob Hinchcliffe podcast interview: community management & transmedia storytelling

Rob Hinchcliffe

In Episode 10 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Rob Hinchcliffe about community management, transmedia storytelling, and content strategy.

Check out Rob’s websitehis upcoming talk at Confab Londonand follow him on twitter @hinchcliffe.

Listen to the podcast

Download MP3 file or subscribe in iTunes.

Read the transcript

Jonathan Kahn: I’m talking to Rob Hinchcliffe who is a community strategist for TH_NK which is a digital agency based in London. Rob, thank you so much for talking the time to join me today.

Rob Hinchcliffe: That’s no problem. Thank you for having me.

Jonathan: First of all, can you just introduce yourself to people. You founded Londonist in 2004. You were editor at Yahoo! News UK in 2006. You actually helped bring the review sit Qype to the UK in 2007. Can you just give as an intro to that part of your life?

Rob: That part of my life, those chapters in my life. You make me sound really old now. I am a journalist by trade. I used to work in B to B publishing, pre, pre proper Internet days. While I was doing a very boring job working for B to B publishers I started a blog called “The Big Smoker.” I was looking at the sites they have in the States. Sites out of New York and Chicago and places like that which felt very vibrant and interesting to me and driven from the ground up by the people who actually live in those cities who have an interest in what was going on there. Then I would look at things like “This is London” run by the Evening Standard and cry into my lunch at my desk. Me and a friend had some web space that we wanted to do something with so we set up a little experiment.

I started this blog about London. In the first couple of months it won an award from The Guardian, which is the blog awards that they used to have. There wasn’t a lot of competition around in those days to be honest. It took off and it become Londonist. Became part of that network like Gothamist in the States.

I ended up editing that, still part-time. That let to me getting the job at Yahoo! Where I was editor of Yahoo! News. That was interesting because those were the days when you couldn’t really comment on a news story as an internet user. You couldn’t go in there and leave our own opinion, that was just unheard of. There was still a lot of old-school journalists, if you like, running Yahoo! News, and they were getting rid of that old guard and bring in annoying youngsters like me to work out how we could make it a bit more a vibrant and two-way thing.

I spent a couple of years there, and then at Yahoo!, which is very interesting. I got to work with people like Simon Wilison. Well, not work with them, but have lunch with them. Simon Willison, and Tom Coates, and people like that, and Lloyd Shepherd, who works at The Guardian Unlimited. I think it was called Guardian Unlimited.

That was really exciting for me. I spent two years there, and then went to a start-up environment, Qype. That’s how I fell into community management, is very much moving from that journalistic role to shifting people around and shifting content around, I guess. Yes, I spent three years building Qype in the UK because it was a German start-up. They wanted to launch it in the UK. It started off as a team of two and grew across Europe, so by the end of that, I was managing, I needed to manage across about seven countries across Europe when I left.

I’m now at an agency. Yes, so I work at a digital agency with the ridiculous job title of “community strategist,” which doesn’t really mean much, but we work with clients like Warner Brothers, Channel 4, the BBC, Nandos, Asos. Quite a wide variety of different clients, helping them do digital stuff. That’s been the past ten years or so, I reckon, in a nutshell.

Jonathan: Just asking you about the Qype thing, you were saying that’s when you moved from just thinking of yourself as a content person to more of a community manager.

Rob: Yeah, I mean I did a little bit of stuff at Yahoo! After we’d finished resigning the new site, I moved on to some other some products that they were launching and looking at all the strategies and community strategies. When you’ve got Flickr in your stable of products, at a company, and you’re looking at what they’re doing or what they were doing, and what they…You know around community management at that time. Then it’s quite inspiring. That was where I really wanted to go at that time. We were, and then obviously went to Qype and it was very much starting off incredibly small and very hyperlocal before that was a term, I think, in London and trying to get people involved in contributing to a site. Why would they do it? That was the big question, why would anybody come to this place and spend their time writing about a restaurant, or a bar or whatever.

Working out how that was going to happen, and how we were going to build a genuine community of people and answering that question. Which it was really interesting to me, that you know, how do you go about persuading people to do that? Incentivize people to do that, and how do you get them to make it feel like a genuine community. Which in my very sloppy definition is, they get out more than they put into it. What’s the best formula for creating that environment?

It was a nice playground. We had nothing to lose because there was nobody using it when we started in the UK. We spent two or three years trying different things and building and building and building it. Towards the end, I was managing six or seven community managers across Europe who were mainly all based in London. We had them based in an office in London. They were managing communities in places like Brazil and Poland and France, and Spain, and Germany.

It became a bit of a cookie-cutter approach. This worked for us, so you should do it here. That’s nowhere near as interesting, when you get to that stage it’s time to move on. [laughs] It’s like, “Here’ s what I did. Copy that.” You can’t experiment and evolve much anymore, so that’s when I got out. Answering that question kept me going for quite a long time, I think. Still does to a certain extent.

Jonathan: Oh I see, yeah, answering the question of, “How do we get people to…?” What was the answer to that question, “How do we get people to contribute?”

Rob: There’s no one answer. It depends on what you’re trying to build in your products, your objectives. For us, initially it was very much get people in a room together in real life and get people in a room above a pub, give them a few drinks, talk to them about what excites them. Get to know people and get them to know you. That’s the very grassroots bit of it all. We had the luxury of doing that which is fantastic. We got the time and we had the money to spend on actually getting to know our grassroots community, and there were lots of surprise and delight stuff, sending people a T-shirt or some sweets in the post out of the blue for saying thanks for your awesome review and talking to businesses, which is really interesting as well because we didn’t just talk to the people who were reviewing these places, we talked to people who owned and manned these places.

That was incredibly rewarding in terms of going out and talking to them about how they could use this stuff to make their business better and more successful, and how they could…and some of the best things we did was the events that we ran with our users and our businesses and the partnerships and the promotions that we were able to…and still to this day it boggles my mind that some people, small, medium enterprises don’t take advantage of those tools and those environments and those connections that they can make online.

Because there are a lot of businesses now doing it, especially now Twitter’s freed up over the past five, six years, their ability, people are more familiar with that tool. But I guess working on both sides of the fence, as it were, where the businesses and the users over a few years to try and get them to get to know each other and get the best out of each other was the best way of doing it.

Jonathan: Yeah, and it’s interesting that you talk about this in real life, especially in London, having these real meet-ups where you actually talk to people and let them build connections between each other and all that stuff. Because I think just think thinking of how we think of organizations today, they are petrified of that…they just would find that to be risky or too far outside their comfort zone, I would think…

Rob: Yeah, it’s weird. I’m sorry, go on.

Jonathan: Well, I’m just think if you think about what…before there was Michelin Guide or something like that, which was published thing where you had centralized publishing, where people decide…experts wrote about stuff. Then you’re saying well, what’s the modern of version of that? Now we have the web, and it’s actually this community based platform where the company’s trying to encourage a community to build around it and to contribute content. The fact that then that transition requires you to basically stop being that publisher and start being this community organizer, I just think, would scare the crap out of so many companies.

Rob: Yeah, it’s very strange. I guess I come from quite a…I’ve gotten lucky in that I’ve worked with this stuff. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it work. Trying to convince people, I guess, from a theoretical standpoint that this stuff works and is good for their business is really, really difficult unless they can see it in action. Also people tend to…I don’t want to tar all businesses and brands and organizations with the same brush, but especially people high up who’ve got their hand on the check book or whatever will always go well, can’t we just bribe them and pay them? Isn’t that easier? Because that seems the shortest distance between where they are and the objectives that they want to get to.

Jonathan: Right, because we have money. We’re a company, and we have money, so why don’t we just give some money, and then that should provide a business?

Rob: If we get them to sign a contract, they can’t say bad things because we’ve paid them. How would they? They don’t understand the value exchange and I guess the social exchange, which is way, way more valuable and goes far further. The ROI on it in those terms is far greater for a brand if they make a genuine relationship. But then that creating a genuine relationship also…when I say that to somebody in an organization, all they hear is loads and loads of hard work and time consuming, and they could go wrong, and they might…

Jonathan: Yeah, well, it’s…

Rob: When you got to a social media presentation, you always see that bit. I never do this, and it drives me mental when people do do it because it makes my job harder. You always see the social media nightmares bit of a presentation. It’s like please stop showing that stuff because it is few and far between, and can you not just show the social media that lovely unicorn dreams section, [laughs] where everything goes right for once, because that’s what brands fixate on it. It can be a bit wearing. Sorry, I interrupted you.

Jonathan: No, you’re fine, it’s good. Yeah, I mean, I just find that super interesting because you’re talking about…You said the first thing they’ll say is it’s too much work, but then you said that the second thing you said was that they don’t know if it’s going to work. I think that’s the cultural thing that interests me because we have these industrial cultures where your aim is to not be blamed for things going wrong and maybe to be…basically for your boss not to be cross for what happened. Basically if you’re working in that culture, you would never try to do social media properly because if you’re doing it properly, it could go very, very wrong.

Rob: Yes.

Jonathan: When you do that, the meet-up in London, it’s possible that nobody will come.

Rob: Yes, exactly. Life sucks sometimes, shocker. But yeah, working at Qype, we said to businesses over and over and over again, if someone leaves…The first question to any business was, “What happens if someone leaves me a bad review?” Well, A, you know about it, which before you wouldn’t do. B, you know who this person is. C, you have a way of contacting them. These are all amazing opportunities for you as a business, because you know there’s a problem, you know who’s raised it, you can get in touch with them. You can fix it.

Then that person can then can then tell you’ve fixed it to millions of people. That’s it going wrong. If that’s what happens when something goes wrong, then for a business, there are so many ways they can deal with that. When before, it would just happen, they would tell all their mates about it, they would have never known about it, and they wouldn’t have a way of putting it right or turning around and making it a positive.

That, to me, the small businesses, never mind large organizations, they don’t get that, and they’re scared of that, is the biggest failure in a lot of businesses comms strategies, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just because I work in this area, it’s just something which…If you’re not listening, then you’re not going to be part of the conversation. If you’re not a part of the conversation, then you’re screwed. [laughs]

People are scared and I understand that. It’s just that when it’s my job and other people’s job to show them, I guess demonstrate why they shouldn’t be scared, and what going wrong really means. What’s the worst that possibly could happen? You know, Ratners, or something let’s take that and then…That was the guy who ran the company calling out his own products.

Jonathan: Oh, Ratners, yeah, the thing he said is products were crap or something like that, didn’t he?

Rob: Yeah, exactly, on a stage in front of…That was pre-Twitter. [laughs] That was pre-social media. I think his profits went up…I’m making it up, but I think his business did better after he said it than before because you know…and I think, so if having those opportunities and those tools and the infrastructure is what I talk about all the time, is if you’ve got that infrastructure in-house to deal with that stuff, then it’s never…it’s very, very rarely irreparable or damaging. But it’s getting over that initial fear is a massive hurdle for a lot of people, yeah.

Jonathan: You talking about that just made me think of…I’ve noticed, we both live in London. I’ve noticed that there are a load of new types of restaurants in London, and just immediately coming to mind is Wahaca and Byron, where I have this theory, and I have no evidence, but you may have some evidence that there’s something about social media that is allowing these really good restaurants, like Busaba as well I feel as well is in the same set, where the food is better, it’s cheap, and there’s just this expectation that it’s worth doing a proper job. In the old London, you just didn’t get that. Like five or ten years ago, I don’t think we had the same type of restaurants.

Rob: Yeah, and I think, Wahaca is one of those businesses that we did events with quite when it first launched, and I remember they approached us. They go and said can we get 30 people down here to test out our winter menu for us before we put it on. Give us feedback about it, and then you guys blog about it and write about it, and we’ll get some PR out of it. They got free PR. But they also got a free taste by all these free bloggers going down. They’re going woo-woo brilliant, because she won Master Chef quite recently. That shows great foresight by whoever made that decision to invite a bunch of people down, taste their food, review it all, and then actually make…and that’s the big thing there, properly, ahead of their time in this respect, is take notice of what those people were saying and then react to it, because that to me is, getting that…

Because there’s a lot of businesses we worked with or wanted to work with us or…who go oh, yeah, we’ll invite people own, and we’ll do this, and we’ll give them this free stuff. Then what will you do for us? You’re like, actually, it’s these people.

You’ve got to invest in this relationship with these customers just like you would if they came through the door wanting to buy something off you. Then they’ll give you something back in return. It’s not bribery. It’s not…and getting over that mindset of I have to give you something in order to…

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s transactional. That’s a transactional mindset of this is a very short term thing with no commitment and no relationship. I think that’s…

Rob: It’s what I was saying about social exchange.

Jonathan: Which is a relationship, which is open ended. I think organizations as we know them don’t do relationships. They just do transactions, and that’s why I’m saying they’re scared because they are very, very scared of the idea of an open-ended relationship that could go wrong. It exposes them.

Rob: It struck me last night, actually. I’m addicted to TV Club, which is the AV Club. The people who do part of the Onion network, the TV Club is their TV reviewing. It’s like a TV site. They review all the major TV programs that are on in the states and stuff. Their comments section is just fantastic. It’s just a really healthy, working comments section with a great discussion going on in it, which is very rare really still these days. It’s also a pleasure to read. I’m a TV nut, so I enjoy reading it.

I was reading something last night about one, and I was reading the actual review of the TV show. In the third paragraph it just said as one of you said in the comments last week, blah, blah, blah, and I just…I just had to stop for 10 minutes because you just…all right, they’re not a newspaper, but they’re a pretty big, decent online media organization, and for someone to say that in the middle of a review or TV show, “As one of you said in the comments last week,” blah, blah, blah, and then wrote a paragraph responding to that, I just thought, “You don’t see that.”

You do not see, even on a week to week column, that I read what you said, I digested it, I thought about it, and now I’m replying to it. All these other people are having to read it as if they were just sitting and watching us have a conversation. It just weirded me out because you just don’t see that. You don’t see that, “Oh, I know you’re there,” even with very quite progressive net savvy organizations like The Guardian.

You just don’t get that…you just find them complaining about the comments section, whereas the best way of fixing that is by responding to them and putting it out there and putting them front and center and having that social exchange in the daylight. I think that’s what people are A, scared of, but B, what also makes it far more…what makes it work is that if you drag stuff into the daylight and put it out in front of everybody, then everybody goes, “Oh actually, this is…we will react, and it will make it better.” It’s when you start hiding things and paying people off not to leave bad reviews or pretending they don’t exist, or…

Jonathan: It makes those comments as part of the community, part of the publication.

Rob: Yeah, and it’s a tiny, tiny little gesture. It’s not even…I don’t even this TV club article was even…I’m sure that wasn’t planned. I’m sure it’s done it before and they do it all the time, it’s just I noticed it for the first time, and I was just like ah, you do not see that enough. It’s such a…people remember that without even knowing they’re remembering it and will digest that stuff and will just note that there is some…that they might get mentioned next time or the person is reading their comments, and it just makes it such a much more valuable experience for the person who’s commenting or reading the article.

Jonathan: Yeah, fantastic. Let’s move on a little bit to what you’re doing now. You’re working at TH_NK, and I looked on…I think I might have looked on your actual home page, the company’s home page, and it says… there’s your face, and there’s a quote from…

Rob: There’s my face?

Jonathan: There’s your face twice, actually. Then you’re saying this, that you’re working with Channel Four on a drama called Utopia, and it says at the same time as the drama hits our television screens, the Utopia inquiry will hit our computer, tablet, and mobile screens, creating a digital experience that is totally in sync with the story and chilling bridge between fact and fiction.

Rob: I did not write that, I would just like to say.

Jonathan: Well, it was next to your face.

Rob: [laughs] Yeah, it was next to my face. That doesn’t mean I wrote it. Don’t believe everything that you read on the Internet, Jonathan.

Jonathan: True. Thank you for that lesson. Tell me about the project.

Rob: The project is…well, it’s Channel…part of it is true. It is Channel Four’s, which some people might have seen. It’s the fifth episode, I think, tonight. It’s a six part drama written by a guy called Dennis Kelly who wrote “Pulling” and also wrote some of “Spooks,” and he also wrote “Matilda” for the stage with Tim Minchin. He’s got quite a varied CV. He’s written this quite hard-hitting, darkly comic thriller for Channel Four, which is a brand new thing for them. They came to us about a year ago now, and we pitched for the multiplatform, transmedia, whatever you want to call, digital accompaniment to the series.

If you’ve watched the show, you’ll know that it’s got…the center of it is a comic book and a bunch of conspiracy theories. That’s not spoiling it for anybody who wants to catch up on FourOD. They didn’t want us to do the big let’s go out and big ARG approach to this, because they knew that the people who were into conspiracy theories and comic books were going to come to this program anyway.

Jonathan: Can you just define ARG for us?

Rob: Sorry, an alternate reality gaming experience. Like they do a lot of stuff for the Batman franchise dressed up as the Joker and go out and find the clues in real life. Or they did it…so there’s it’s very much like not…it didn’t need to be immersive and I’m going to say it, “nerdy.” [laughs] It needed to be mainstream and bring people who’ve been watching this program, be entertained by it, and then switch over and watch the news or whatever, or watch question time, how would they bring those people to the digital experience and get them more immersed in what we were doing? That was really appealing to me as a brief because there’s a ton of stuff in the scripts that we had at the time which was very real.

There was a lot of stuff in the scripts like the locations, the issues, the themes. There were people getting shot and comic book conspiracy theories and things like that. There’s a lot of fantastical elements, but there’s also a lot of genuinely real elements. Those appealed to us as a team about thinking about how we were going to bring this online.

What we did is we thought we would try to heighten that element of realness and because there’s a lot of stuff about surveillance and digital privacy and a lot of stuff about who controls us and who has power over us in our daily lives and what sacrifices and what exchanges are we making in our daily lives in order for our lives to be more comfortable. There’s also a giant issue which I can’t…well, I probably can talk about depending on when this podcast comes out, because the episode’s on tonight where this all gets revealed. There’s a big quite global important issue in the show as well, which gets revealed towards the end.

We weren’t going to really bring that forward, so what we’ve done is we’ve built this thing which makes…puts you…asks you a bunch of questions and asks you about your life and shows you how exposed you are in terms of your privacy and your data. Because when we went to Channel Four, and talked about 192.com and some of them just…and we told them which gigs they’d been to last week and where they lived, just enough to…and when you’ve got like media savvy people in the middle of London going, “Really, you know what my address…?”

You think wow, we could really play this up [laughs] and show people just how…some of this information’s out there, so that’s what we did, which is really interesting to me because TV and digital experiences around fiction and film and those things very much tend to focus on back-story and characters, which sounds obvious [laughs] and sounds like that’s what it should be, but it’s always seemed to me a bit of a waste. That’s what we tried to move away from a little bit.

Jonathan: That reminds me of a story somebody told about the New York Times where they created a new…they were creating a new section or it was a special or something like that, and they put a huge amount of work into creating this print publication first, and all the content decisions and the layout decisions were for this print format. Then they gave the digital team like a week or something, very short period of time, to just magically translate this into a website. It’s that idea of the main thing is the thing I’m used to and then the thing that we are made to do by outside forces, it’s just an afterthought. We just pass it to the young people who just do what they can with our real stuff.

Rob: Yes. It’s really strange because TV, I think all the industries, they’re just all…TV, movies, everyone, is realizing this now. Our industries work at very different paces. TV, I mean, I’ve never worked in a TV production company before this project, and it’s very…because we were like, one of the first meetings we had with the guys who made Utopia was, one of the questions was the look and feel of this digital thing. Can we…we’re going to design this, “Can we take our cues from your credit sequence?” and et cetera, et cetera, and they just laughed at us for about 30 seconds. We’re like, “Well, what’s so funny?” They were like, “Well, we’re probably going to do the credit sequence about two weeks before it goes on air.”

We’re like, “Oh, right, OK.” [laughs] You can’t…you have to get in sync, and a lot of these things, a lot of these multiplatform projects previously have been done very much like you’ve just described that New York Times anecdote, which is last couple of weeks, “Oh, we need something digital quick go.”

To give an example of why that doesn’t work, we…it was a Post-It note that we wanted to get into the background of one of the scenes in “Utopia,” and for us to get that Post-It note into the background of the scene and for it to work, we had to speak to A, the writer, the executive producer, the producer, the set designer, the script editor, the editor, the director, the camera man, and I’ve probably left some off.

Then you have to make sure if it does get filmed, if it does get into the shot, it is on set, it gets into the shot, someone films it, that it doesn’t get edited out, and that it’s in focus when it hits the TV screen. If it takes three months to get a Post-It note into the back of a shot, then you can’t do something worthwhile and engaging and immersive in the last couple of months of something being…you have to be brought in right at the start. I think it’s still possible to do that and not cost a huge amount of money, and be ridiculous, as long as you work cleverly…

Jonathan: It’s got to be something that the people who are in charge of the project think is part of the project, as opposed to being an add-on at the end. That’s the crucial thing, isn’t it?

Rob: Yes, exactly. We’re looking at Channel four have got a multi-platform producer in Hilary Perkins, who has done this stuff before and is very good at it, and worked with us right from the beginning to make sure we were there all the way along. At the same time, it comes back to that idea of having the infrastructure and the readiness to respond to what people want. Because the thing I railed against is probably a bit strong, but objected to in the Wired thing that I wrote for the website about ARGs and transmedia stuff, is that a lot of the times people would create these multi-platform experiences and they spent a year doing them. They’re like OK, here’s step one we want people to go on. Here’s step two we want people to go on, here’s step three. Once you get to step three, they have to find this thing, and then if they find that thing, they get to step four. If they don’t, they can’t carry on. You’re like, “Oh, God.” As a user, that’s a terrible experience. That on-rails experience is dreadful.

Jonathan: That isn’t how computer games work, is it? The computer games are all about this whole universe of discovery where there’s a thousand different…

Rob: Exactly, a sandbox. Yeah, sandbox approach, the open world approach to computer games is far more prevalent now, because people they realize, that people want to play around and will spend hours exploring. Same similarly with TV shows, you’ve got no idea what your community is going and your audience are going to respond to. If they love…in “Utopia,” the color yellow is a big motif. There’s also…it’s going to sound weird if you haven’t watched the TV runs, also chocolate raisins which feature heavily in the show. But anyway, if you look at Tumblr the day after it’s been on air, and you’ll see everyone, and on Twitter, it’s #chocolateraisins.

You’re like…if you haven’t got a setup which allows you the flexibility and the nimbleness to respond to that even though you spent X thousand pounds doing this over here, but you need to go, “Oh, actually, we’re going to need to respond to that here,” then you are doing yourself a massive disservice.

At the same time, yes, you need to be there from right at the very beginning, but you also have to build in the ability to respond to people at a moment’s notice and go OK, we’re going to ditch that. We’re going to go over here with this. You need those two things happening at the same time, because I guess there’s that surface layer of, “Oh, that’s awesome, that’s a surprise and delight. Oh, did you see that?”

There was a phone number in the third episode of “Utopia” which, if you rang it, there was a recorded message. It was just a phone number in the background for about a second. We didn’t put it on Twitter. We didn’t put it on Facebook. People just found it. We didn’t do anything with it. We just put it there to see if anybody would notice, and they did.

I think that layer of just putting stuff in there for people to respond to quickly as well as here’s six weeks of an iterative platform which responds to what’s happening in the show and asks you a bunch of questions and gives you a…I think you need to have those layers of engagement and layers of involvement with any multiplatform thing because some people are just going to come along and play and some people just want to…and other people are going to really go for it. I think I like playing those two levels off. I think that’s what’s interesting about this stuff.

Jonathan: Yeah, so it is actually…it’s actually game design in the sense that you’re…the writing isn’t just about a performance. It’s also about this interaction which is more like a game where there’s different levels of…

Rob: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t want to use the term gamification because everyone will hate me, and I will hate myself, but I guess it’s like game design where you get to design the game as you’re going along to a certain extent. You want 85 percent of the game done and in the box, and then the other 15 percent is going to make itself up as you go along. I think the making itself as you go along is the exciting bit. But it’s also the really dangerous, scary bit for certain people because they’re like, “Oh, hang on. We want to know everything that’s going to happen three months ahead of time otherwise I’m not spending any money on it. But I think the response…We were responding to people on Facebook and on Twitter and talking to them about…

They would have been tracked down because they were… we knew they were at the Eurostar terminal last Sunday because we were looking at their Foursquare accounts because it ties in with happens in the show if you’ll be tracked down using CCTV and stuff. People went ballistic for those kinds of responses. But unless you build in the ability to respond and you have to plan to be off the cuff, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Jonathan: Yeah, so you’ve got plan for flexibility and responsiveness and improvisation and uncertainty.

Rob: Yeah, and have the trust of your client for them to want you to do that, as well. That’s why Russell talks about Old Spice. That’s why everyone was talking about Oreo at the Super Bowl. They had a bunch of execs in the room. They had a bunch of creative’s in the room. They had a load of tech in the room. They had a response to the blackout during the Super Bowl on Twitter within ten minutes which got more eyeballs than the million pound, million dollar adverts that were on the tele. Because they had the trust, they had the ability to be flexible and spontaneous when they needed to be and they just got huge ROI off the back of that. We talk to Branson organizations a lot about that, about the ability to do that.

Not everything can be planned for and some of the best things…I can reel them off. You’ve got the Oreo stuff. You’ve got the raisin bread, sorry, the giraffe bread thing that Sainsbury’s did. That response, Lego are masters at this response to the kid who lost his ninja toys.

Those kinds of ability to respond to serendipitous moments which not only strengthen your brand and your engagement with your customers, but also just create awesome moments, things to riff off, that’s where brands seem to be right now and it’s really scary and really difficult for them but also quite fun.

Jonathan: We’ve been talking about taking risks with communities and letting go of control and allowing things to shift. We’ve also been talking about getting away from the thing we know and the thing we’re good at and try to figure out what are the next things we need to do. Along those lines, I want to ask you about the talk you’re going to give in just a few weeks at Confab London which is the content strategy conference. Your talk is going to be called, “Created by everyone, published everywhere. How communities can shape your content.” It’s the kind of title that would probably sound quite terrifying to someone who likes to think of themselves as someone who owns content and looks after content. Can you explain what you’re going to be talking about?

Rob: Yeah, I’ve been talking about content strategy and community strategy/management for a few years now and I’ve seen this thought evolve. Every time I come to it I have to, obviously, refresh it. [laughs] The stuff is shifting all the time. We’ve gone from the user generated content era which I guess we started off talking about at the start of this call and how that’s shaped the way organizations interact with their audiences or their customers or whatever you want to call them and the way they’ve reacted to that. How they’ve surfaced and re-purposed that relationship and that content for their own needs and to make that relationship stronger. How that social interaction then evolves and gets better and better over time, and I’ve learned a lot about that. Over the past 12-18 months I’ve really started thinking about how this content…how you react to what.

We’ve given ourselves the ability now to watch what people want on an almost real time basis and respond to that and then allow people to…and go OK, and instead of saying, “OK, people want this, let’s give them that,” it’s more, “OK, we’ve seen people want this. Now let’s give them the tools that they can make that for themselves.” Do you see what I mean?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Rob: It’s that transparency of their relationship and I guess the democratization of that relationship that has really come in, that we’re seeing loads of people starting to pick up on now, or a few people do it well. I guess I wanted to talk about that and why people shouldn’t be scared of it and how you can experiment with that a little bit and not have someone come up to your cubicle and go, what the hell are you doing talking to a person on Twitter? Now I think it’s really replacing this model of…because I’ve got a real I guess bug bear about the old social media agency model of farms of community managers basically writing Facebook posts or Twitter updates based on style sheets that was given to them by a brand manager six months ago, and that’s it. They leave because they’re bored or someone else comes in that is the voice of that brand online.

I think what brands are realizing now and organizations are realizing now is people are in charge of… creatives, and producers of content, are much more aware of what they can get out of these relationship, and I think that’s incredibly exciting. But a lot of people just get tangled up and scared in the risks and what could possibly go wrong. I think I want to talk a little bit about how people might think about approaching that and what the values of it can be, because I think that’s, like I said earlier, it’s very difficult to theoretically show someone what they can get from this because a lot of people are like, “Yeah, it’s great. We’ll have a lot of Twitter followers, and…?”

That’s a common response. I think coming back to what I said right at the start, it’s just you’ve got a…and I think the word community scares the crap out of a lot of people. [laughs] It’s like what are we going to do with this community? Who are they? Why would we want them? It’s like they’re just the people who are talking about what you do.

That’s all this. As soon as you start talking…if they come together, if they’re getting more out of it than they’re putting in, and if they are to some extent working for you in a certain way and helping to strengthen what you do, and you’ve got that…it’s a self-sustaining relationship and it starts generating its own power after a little bit.

You know when a community’s working or an online audience is working when they start generating their own stuff and you can step away almost and go OK, it’s running now. I don’t have to worry about it anymore. You get to that point and brands do get to that point then it’s a brilliant thing.

It’s worth more, worth millions and millions of pounds, but getting there is the challenge. I just want to talk about the value of it and maybe how people can start to show off your case studies a little bit and talk about why it’s a fun, interesting environment to work in and why people shouldn’t be scared of it.

Jonathan: That sounds fantastic. I’m really, really excited to hear that. The things you’ve learned in your… what I would call pioneering work, like you’ve been doing this before many other people have been doing it– are so relevant to the challenges that people face in content strategy, organizations, web communications where you are trying to control something that cannot be controlled and everyone is terrified. How do you bring people together in a way saying that we can work together, we can figure this out, we can try and learn and we can let go of control and see what happens?

Rob: When you start putting it in those terms that’s when people go, “Whoa, it sounds like anarchy,” and limit it to a sign of anarchy. I’ve seen case studies were this went horribly wrong, only because you tried to control it and put in huge amounts of barriers around it and that’s when things go wrong. If you could set an environment that isn’t as, and I’m getting to what this talk’s going to be, so I’ll shut up.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Rob: If you can set something up which is, “OK, what should we do?” That’s what brands don’t do. It’s like go out there and ask people what they’d like to see. That’s what Lego did 15 years ago and why they saved themselves from bankruptcy they’re doing such an amazing job at their stuff now. It’s because they went out and just went out there, had a beer with people, and went, “What do you think we should do?” “Oh, OK? You want to buy a $500 Death Star?” “OK, we’ll make that for you.” Just going out discovering what people want, and a lot of brands are just afraid to turn around and actually open the door and start talking to people. That’s the first step a lot of the time.

But I mean, I’ve sat in rooms with the boards of certain organizations and we’ve talked about maybe you should just invite people along to HQ to talk about this stuff, and they just go white, [laughs] so I guess stopping that reaction and explaining why this is a good thing and not a bad thing, I guess, is my mission in life at the moment. [laughs]

Jonathan: Well, that sounds great. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Rob . This has been a really fantastic podcast, and I think people are going to get a lot of out it.

Rob: Thank you. I hope it has been useful, and thanks for having me. Again, it’s been fun to talk about this stuff.