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February 12th, 2009

Where does the Costa Brava start?

Where does the Costa Brava start?

The Costa Brava Girona tourism board was this week caught using photos of the Bahamas to illustrate adverts for the Costa Brava. Under the unintentionally funny headline “Where does the Costa Brava start?”, the board used stock photos taken in the Bahamas because, director Dolors Batallé says, they couldn’t find good enough photos of their own beaches. Journalists are also questioning where a photo used to advertise the Pyrenees was taken.

I almost felt sorry for the marketing team at the tourist board as I imagined them going home and asking “Mummy, where do photographs really come from?” (Clue: the answer doesn’t have to be Getty Images). But then I read the quote in Metro where Batallé was unapologetic: “The important thing is not whether [the photo was taken] in the Pyrenees, but rather that it represents them.”

Actually, no – the important thing is that your marketing is honest. Advertising will always be about presenting a company in its best light, but there has to be a core of truth there. Otherwise you’re damaging your customer relationship before it’s even begun.

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December 15th, 2008

The 12 Toons of Christmas

The 12 Toons of Christmas

If you already subscribe to Prompt’s weekly email newsletter, you’ll know that the team here works together with a professional cartoonist to create cartoons inspired by technology trends, marketing and the IT industry.

Our Tech Toons blog (also available as an RSS feed) is this month hosting the 12 Toons of Christmas. These are archive cartoons that we created for the December issues of the Prompt newsletter in previous years.

Since this content is licensed under a creative commons licence (as are all the Tech Toons), you can feel free to use these cartoons on your blog, website or anywhere else. (Full rules here, but basically you need to link back to the Tech Toons blog, and cannot modify the toons or use them for commercial purposes, without asking first).

Check out the cartoons and feel free to leave us your comments, or a festive ho ho ho!

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November 20th, 2008

Sweet Child Online

Sweet Child Online

It’s taken 17 years to make, but the new Guns N’Roses album is available now. It’s a measure of how the media has changed in that time that the first place you can hear it (legally) is on MySpace, where the band is streaming the whole thing. When the last studio album was released (1991’s twin LP-set “Use Your Illusion”), the only way to hear it was to buy the album or visit a friend who had already done so. Now you can play new release “Chinese Democracy” whenever you want, wherever you can get a web connection. The new album’s in the shops Sunday/Monday (depending on whether you’re in the US or UK).

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July 23rd, 2008

Dear Esquire Magazine: The environment is not a gimmick

Dear Esquire Magazine: The environment is not a gimmick

Esquire magazine in the US is going to have a battery-powered display on some copies of its September issue, according to an article in The Times. The display will flash the words ‘The 21st Century Begins Now’ and will use technology similar to that used in Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader.

An un-named publishing expert quoted by The Times dismissed the idea as a gimmick, which seems like a fair cop since the flashing display will only appear on 13% of the issues distributed.

What’s most disturbing about this move is the complete disregard for the environment. Magazines are relatively easy to recycle, perhaps our least harmful luxury product. Adding in electronic components will either make it much harder to separate the rest of the materials for recycling, or will result in the collected paper stock being polluted with electronic trash.

We all know that batteries should ideally be rechargeable, and should be avoided on short life cycle items like birthday cards altogether. Esquire is a stylish magazine, with one eye on the ’21st Century Beginning Now’. I would have hoped for a cooler and more environmentally sustainable gimmick.

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May 14th, 2008

Silly season starts here

Silly season starts here

The moment the sun comes out, there are all sorts of silly maths-related stories in the press. You know the kind of thing: some boffin’s worked out the formula for health (a lot of algebra which breaks down into eat well, exercise more) or someone’s calculated how many crisps you’ll eat in your lifetime (and what percentage of those are paprika flavoured).

Well, this one I thought was hilarious (your mileage may vary): According to Leicester University, text messages are a more expensive communications channel than the Hubble space telescope. When you work out the cost per megabyte (assuming 5p per text of 160 characters), it costs you £374.49 per megabyte to send texts. And Nasa gets data from the space telescope for £8.85 per megabyte.

“Hubble is by no means a cheap mission,” says Dr Nigel Bannister, a space scientist at the University of Leicester. “But mobile phone text costs are astronomical.”

Ba-doom-tch!

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March 26th, 2008

Social media storm brews up with Billy Bragg

Social media storm brews up with Billy Bragg

Singer/songwriter Billy Bragg has kicked up a storm with a contribution to the New York Times calling on social networking sites to pay musicians for the content they provide. Writing after AOL acquired Bebo for $850 million, Bragg argues that the artists who posted music on the site for free are entitled to a payday now too, alongside the investors and techies who built the site. Mike Masnick, writing at Techdirt, argues that the musicians traded the use of their content for the exposure the sites gave them, and that you can’t change the terms of a deal retrospectively.

Bragg does have a point. While social networking sites no longer pay musicians, at least one has in the past. MP3.com, the biggest site for independent artists around the year 2000, paid artists for each song visitors downloaded for free. Artists generating serious traffic to the site got a reasonable cheque at the end of the month. MP3.com is under new management now, and this idea hasn’t been taken up by the new owners or by similar communities like MySpace.

But there are costs associated with running a social networking site too: traffic is not evenly distributed, with many artists consuming storage space without bringing a significant number of visitors. Those who do bring in the ears and eyeballs, help to underwrite those who don’t.

The issue won’t be resolved any time soon. You could argue that supply outstrips consumer demand for new music, pushing its market price to virtually zero. But if there is to be a new generation of professional musicians while music sales continue to fall, one business model might be to once more give musicians a share of the revenue their work generates at social networking sites.

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February 20th, 2008

Don't misquote me!

Don't misquote me!

No amount of media training can stop you being misquoted, but the FT has some tips to minimise the likelihood of being misrepresented. In a story that rounds up famous examples of people apparently saying things they didn’t intend to, the FT advises interviewees to end with a conclusion that provides an accurate soundbite, to look out for ways your opponents can lift your words out of context, and to keep a native speaker to hand to stop you getting into trouble if you’re speaking a foreign language. The whole story is well worth a read.

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February 7th, 2008

Ebay to ban negative feedback against buyers

Ebay to ban negative feedback against buyers

Ebay has announced plans to stop sellers from leaving negative or neutral feedback on their buyers, according to the BBC. Under the new system, the only way sellers will be able to warn other sellers about dodgy buyers will be to leave feedback tagged as positive but containing negative comments.

Ebay owes its success in part to the feedback mechanism where both parties in a transaction can leave public comments about each other when it concludes. Feedback can be scored as positive, neutral or negative. All Ebay members have a feedback rating calculated by totalling the number of positives and subtracting the negatives and that score is used as an indicator of standing in the Ebay community. You wouldn’t buy a Wii from someone with a feedback rating of zero, for example.

The problem is that sellers use the threat of negative feedback to coerce buyers into leaving favourable feedback for them, even if the buyer paid on time and got a load of rubbish in return. It’s interesting to note that on Amazon marketplace (where buyers have no feedback rating at stake), sellers tend to have lower feedback ratings than on Ebay.

Banning sellers from leaving negative feedback would shift the balance of power in the community towards buyers, and would undermine the spirit of equality that pervades transactions. It would also make it harder for newcomers to gain the trust of the community. Under the present system, members can shop on Ebay to build up their rating before attempting to sell something. That won’t carry much weight if the only option was positive feedback and the number of transactions without feedback isn’t reported.

As someone who’s both bought and sold on Ebay and who has a feedback rating of over 200, I can see something needs to be done but I’m not convinced this is the right solution.

Ebay has recently introduced detailed feedback scores for sellers, which covers things like how accurate the description was and how reasonable the P&P; charges were. As well as leaving the ‘positive/neutral/negative’ score which is publically attributed to them, buyers can leave anonymous detailed feedback. The scores are averaged and only the average is disclosed to the public (and then, only after ten people have left a rating). Perhaps a similar approach could be used across the whole site, so that it’s harder to see who’s left negative feedback. That would cut the risk of retaliation and encourage both buyers and sellers to be honest in their ratings. The downside is that buyers and sellers would effectively lose the right to reply, which enables them to explain what went wrong in response to any negative feedback. The average would also tend to smooth out any negative feedback, when it’s important for the community to know if 10% of parcels never get posted.

Anyone else got any ideas? I’m sure Ebay would appreciate the feedback.

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January 8th, 2008

Virgin Atlantic: A virgin in email marketing too, by the look of it

Virgin Atlantic: A virgin in email marketing too, by the look of it

Just got an email from Virgin Atlantic telling me that they’ve managed to resolve their dispute with their cabin staff and the strike has been called off. Great! Only, I haven’t flown with Virgin for over a year and haven’t got any future flights booked with them. I wasn’t previously aware of any staffing problems either, so the regular strike updates have only alerted me to problems at the airline which I would otherwise never have noticed.

Companies need to be much smarter: Virgin know when I’m flying with them, and whether any flights I’ve booked will be affected by strike action. They don’t need to spam everyone who’s ever stepped on one of their planes to tell them this kind of thing.

I don’t have unlimited time to keep up with all the activities of all the companies I’ve ever engaged with. I just need to know what I need to know. Businesses would do well to remember that they can only contact their customers with their consent, and if they want to keep the channel open, they must ensure all their messages are relevant.

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September 11th, 2007

The price of fame

The price of fame

Bands are free from the shackles of the record industry and can now find fans online, cutting out the middle man. So the theory goes, in any case. Back in 1999 when I was writing a column about this sort of stuff for Making Music magazine, I noted that despite the vast number of independent music websites and the spread of peer-to-peer file sharing, we still hadn’t seen a major hit originate online.

Now we have, of course. Arctic Monkeys and Nizlopi are among the acts that built up a following online and turned it into music industry success.

But how easy is that model to replicate? Rhodri Marsden, who plays keyboards with Scritti Politti, set out to find out. He cut a single, made a video and put it on Youtube. Here’s his song:

Marsden reports that his film was at one stage the most watched video on Youtube and it reached an audience of over 250,000 viewers. How many sales did that translate into? 58. Which means he made one sale for every 4310 people who watched the film. (Leaving aside the probability that there were multiple views included there, because we have no way to measure them and they’re unlikely to significantly distort the figures).

In terms of record sales, the experiment failed. It used to be that the video was there to promote the single, but now people are happy to just consume the video. Any time they want to hear that song again, they can just go back to youtube and replay it. Many people can as easily rip the song from youtube as buy it from iTunes, if they want to play it on other devices.

However, in terms of web promotion, the experiment has been a massive success. The video only cost £870 to make, £300 of which was the fee for using the location in the video. That means it cost a third of a penny per viewer. It’s hard to imagine any other way someone could find a quarter of a million viewers for a song they recorded in their bedroom. Anyone who’s ever written a song would love to have even a fraction of that audience.

The internet does enable bands to shortcut the music business. But this experiment suggests it might also mean giving up on the ‘business’ side of that and being content to focus on the ‘music’. The price of fame is cheap, but online fame is fleeting and unlikely to lead to commercial success.

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August 9th, 2007

Photos to be obsolete in a snap?

Photos to be obsolete in a snap?

The BBC reports that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are developing a software that can automatically remove unwanted elements from photographs and replace them. The example given is a photo of a bay, shot from behind a mountain. The software removes the meddlesome rock and replaces with a clear shot of the sea from an image library.

In the same way that professional comedians don’t steal each other’s jokes, there’s an ethic that professional photographers should not copy each other’s angles. Taking a photo is about composition and being in the right place, as much as it is about using a camera. And, like the secret of great comedy, the secret of a great photo is timing. So what’s left when you take away the need to be in the right place at the right time? Stock photography. Photos edited like this won’t be faithful souvenirs of what the photographer saw, so what’s the point of taking them?

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August 3rd, 2007

Why is Microsoft releasing an ad-supported word processor and spreadsheet package?

Why is Microsoft releasing an ad-supported word processor and spreadsheet package?

Microsoft doesn’t quite understand free software, does it? Its biggest threat comes from open source (even if that’s probably not a very big threat at the moment), but free software isn’t just about price competition. It’s also about how good the software is.

That’s why I’m stunned at Microsoft’s announcement that it will release an ad-supported version of its Works suite. Works includes a word processor and spreadsheet, both pretty basic last time I saw them although that was many versions ago now. In the US, it sells for £20. So the question is whether you would rather have adverts flickering away on screen all day while you’re trying to concentrate on your work, or whether you would prefer to stump up the £20. It’s a no-brainer.

If they were releasing the full Microsoft Office Suite for free, it might be different. You might reasonably think it’s worth tolerating adverts all day instead of forking out the price of a short holiday for the software. That might be a particularly good deal if you can’t afford to buy the software and really do need its additional features. You can probably stick a post-it note over the advert anyway.

I can’t see the release of an ad-supported version of Works being anything but a failed experiment if the goal is to get people to opt for the ad-supported software. There’s not enough value on offer in exchange for people tolerating the adverts. Although, given that most people receive Works pre-installed, perhaps this is just an opportunity for Microsoft to build in another revenue stream and bug customers into buying an upgrade sooner.

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