Marketeers without a clue

About a week ago, Complete Tosh drew my attention to Real‘s ill-conceived Freedom of Music Choice blog. Intended to make Real’s RealNetwork online music shop look good by slagging off Apple’s iPod, iTunes and their proprietary music format, it includes such gems as:

Consumers are getting a raw deal with the status quo in digital music, which limits healthy, open competition that drives down prices and encourages innovation. Stand up for your right to Freedom of Music Choice!


RealNetworks has launched the “Freedom of Music Choice” campaign to help consumers break the chains that tie their music devices to proprietary music downloads. We’re here to inform AND motivate.

Unsurprisingly, Freedom of Music Choice rapidly fell foul of Real’s own customers’ long memories. As Neil McIntosh says:

Someone should have told Real – hell, they should have known: pick a fight with Apple, and hoards of Mac lovers will pile in to support the company. All the harder if your own company has an utterly shitty record when it comes to looking after its own customers.

Well, now it seems that Warner Brothers Records have succumbed of the same brand of idiotic thinking that holds sway at Real.

According to the New York Times, earlier this month “Warners became the first major record label to ask MP3 blogs to play its music” when it emailed an MP3 by new band The Secret Machines out to a select group of around eight bloggers.

Initially, one might think that was a savvy move on Warners’ part. Get the bloggers on side, easily reach online audiences and give out the message that Warners understand the value of downloading.

Of course, it didn’t work out like that. The bloggers were understandably suspicious and wary of being seen as a publicity conduit for a major label, so in the end only one blog, Music For Robots, posted the MP3. That’s when it went from an idea that could go either way to a Rather Bad Idea (TM).

Comments. Some say that blogs should not have comments, but without comments we wouldn’t get to enjoy the fawning stupidity of Warners staff pretending to be punters (punctuation/spelling as per original):

This track is amazing!! Thanks for letting us listen to it!! I never heard these guys before, but theyre awesome. I went to their website and you can listen to a lot of ther other stuff, very cool andvery good!

Of course, no one would have known that the comments weren’t from real punters if a) they hadn’t been so out of step with the rest of the comments and b) they hadn’t posted from the Warners IP address, identifiable as the same one from which the original email was sent.

Ah, IP addresses will always let the unwary spoofer down.

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall until the nasty voices stop. Really, guys, it’s so very, very simple. But here are a few pointers for the terminally hard of thinking:

  1. Bloggers are independent people (usually). That means they think for themselves and don’t like being put on a lead. You can send a press release to a blogger, but you can’t make him blog.
  2. Blogs are authentic (usually). That means that bloggers won’t post something because you asked them to, it has to be something they believe in. In order to get a blogger to blog, you have to give them something worth blogging about.
  3. Bloggers are individuals (usually). On the whole, bloggers don’t do things en masse. Send a press release to a N bloggers, particularly bloggers with similar genre blogs, and you can expect to find that N-1 (or maybe N) won’t post it.
  4. Bloggers are awkward buggers (usually). If you want to get on the right side of the blogosphere, treat bloggers with respect. Build relationships up over time. Earn your trust.
  5. Don’t try to manipulate us. I don’t care how many meetings you sit in each week or how many besuited minions you control, you don’t control us. Not only will we fact check your ass, we will check your IP address too, and any other scraps of information that might give you away.

To paraphrase Mark Willett of Music for Robots, this is the blogosphere, not an AOL chat room.

Feeding the beast

Remember Tamagotchi? The little keyfob-dwelling virtual pet that you had to feed and care for in order for it to ‘survive’?

Blogs are Tamagotchi. If you don’t feed them, they die. If you don’t clear up their crap – comment spam, for example – they die. They’re more fun when there are other bloggers to play with, just like the new IR connected Tamagotchi are allegedly more fun because your little virtual pet can now interact with other little virtual pets.

But, like Tamagotchi, if your blog pet dies, nothing really bad happens. There’s no body to dispose of, no crying children to whom you have to explain that little Ginger went away and isn’t coming back, no real repercussions at all. And, like Tamagotchi, even if your blog does starve to death, it’s easily enough resurrected.

Let’s face it, a business blog could die and it probably wouldn’t have a fatal impact on the business. It wouldn’t be good PR, but I doubt that you’d be there six months later explaining to the receivers how failing to post to your blog destroyed your customer base.

Like a Tamagotchi, keeping a blog healthy requires time and effort. The question is, how much?

One important aspect is how your business blog fits in with the rest of your work. If your blog is a priority, then that makes it easier to judge how much of your time should be spent working on it. If your is just tacked on to other responsibilities then you are forced to blog shorter posts because you simply don’t have time for anything else.

Another influence on time spent blogging is what sort of blog you are keeping, and what you are intending to achieve with it. A basic linklog takes a lot less time to maintain than a collection of informed posts, but in terms of communicating your key messages it’s not going to be as effective because all you are doing is pointing to other people’s work rather than explaining your own stance to your readers. Conversely, blog of long essay-like posts which explore wider themes and crystallise out original thoughts is bound to take more time than a linklog but will communicate something of your experience and opinions to your audience, thus telling them something valuable about you and your business.

Also to be considered are the simple mechanics of writing. It is easy to underestimate the amount of time that writing can take. The actual putting of fingertips to keyboard is just end of a process that can involve a lot of reading, research and thinking. That last step, the thinking, can be a particularly thorny when working in a world where ‘work’ is expected to be an externalised, visible process.

Often thinking requires quietude, physical exercise or doing some non-cerebral task. The shower, for example, is a great place for a good think, but opportunities to take a quick shower in the workplace are, well, limited. This is one of the problems that arises when the creative clashes with the corporate – the way that the creative mind functions is often at odds with the work ethic, not to mention environment, of many companies.

Then comes probably the most important factor – the personality of the blogger and their perception of their blog. Some people are naturally more verbose, but if they are seen as spending too much time on their blog, conflict will ensue. Equally, if the bloggers sees the blog as something that deserves their best work, that will also result in more time spent blogging. After all, who wants to put their worst work on display?

Tamagotchi die when neglected, but you can’t get away with just randomly feeding your virtual pet and hoping for the best. It takes care. You have to learn when your Tamagotchi needs food, when it needs to sleep, when it wakes up.

Blogs are the same, you have to figure out the boundaries of your comfort zone – how often to post, what to post, what style, how that fits in with your job and the rest of your life. Failing to find out where you’re comfortable will almost certainly result in a decreased desire to post, neglect of your blog and ultimately, its untimely death.

And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Shop by RSS with Woot!

Woot! is a webshop which specialises in “buying stuff cheap”, usually electronic gadgets, and then selling it online at a heavy discount. Each day Woot! makes one new product available on the site which stays there for 24 hours, or until they sell out. If you fancy the gadget and like the price, you have one day to buy it, then its gone forever.

Today’s gadget, for example, is a Archos Ondio 128MB MP3 Player/Ripper with FM Radio which is selling for $60, against a usual price of ~$150.

The really cool thing about Woot! is that you can get an RSS feed and shop via your aggregator. Now, that really is a bargain.

(Via A Penny For…)

Blurring the lines

The line between business and personal blogs is not always a clear one. In Lumpers and Splitters I discussed five types of business blog, but I deliberately didn’t discuss blogs which are both business-related and personal.

Partly this is because they didn’t fit neatly into my categorisation, but mainly it’s because I am grappling with the implications of moving from blogging-as-a-hobby to blogging-as-a-job myself.

The last two months has seen blogging go from something I do for a laugh to something that, amongst other things, I do for a living. Whilst Strange Attractor is an important part of my professional life, Corante is complemented by two other clients for whom blogging is a key tool of their trade.

This aspect of blogging poses no problem – I know what is appropriate content for Strange Attractor the same way that I know how my clients view blogging and what they are looking to get out of it. The issue lies not with being employed to blog, (although that does have its own pitfalls), or advise about blogging, but with what has happened to Chocolate and Vodka because I am now employed to blog.

A year ago I would never have considered that I might wind up working as a professional blogger, or that I would end up having my very own metablog. I posted whatever I liked to Chocolate and Vodka because it didn’t matter. No one was really reading it anyway, and anyone who was reading it could take or leave my posts as they saw fit.

Then my business effectively closed and I had to move from being an entrepreneur to being a freelance again. I’ve been working as a freelance writer and web designer for some seven years, so whilst it was an unpleasant experience to watch my 18 month old business slip through my hands, I knew that at least I had useful skills to fall back on.

This is when the nature of Chocolate and Vodka began to change. I started to use my personal blog, in conjunction with IRC and a portfolio site, to get work. Whenever I met a potential client, I pointed them at my portfolio site and thence on to my blog. And it worked. I have three main clients, and all of them either found me online or were influenced by my blog.

When I was touting myself around, looking for work, I didn’t really consider the impact that this would have in the eventuality that I was successful at locating new clients. I continued to blog as per normal.

Then I started Strange Attractor and my more serious posts had found a new home, leaving Chocolate and Vodka to become my personal blog. Yet my clients still read it. So what is it? Is it a personal blog? Is it a professional blog? Certainly it’s a blog by a professional, but that doesn’t make it a professional blog.

My problems does not centre around talking about my clients on my blog, because I have a very keen sense for conflicts of interest and what is and isn’t appropriate. It’s not even about whether or not my clients read my blog. Instead, the issue is around what I feel comfortable confessing.

The event that brought this to the forefront of my mind happened last weekend. Whilst out on the town, something happened which I would normally have blogged about, (you’ll have to wait until I blog it on Chocolate and Vodka to find out what it is! If I blog it, that is…), but I suddenly fell prey to a moment of self-censorship: “Oh! I can’t blog that!”.

I have always had a confessional personality. Take me to the pub, ply me with a vodka or two, and I will tell you my life story, whether you like it or not. Stand-up comedy was, for a while, the arena in which I confessed. Then it was fiction. Now it is blogging.

The best sort of confession is, as the Catholics figured out, anonymous. Nothing on the web is anonymous, not even anonymous blogs. There is always the risk of being outed, always the risk that someone who is savvier than you can figure you out. And I’m crap at keeping my own secrets, so anonymous blogging never was an option.

Being a small, z-list blog is very much like being anonymous, though. The temptation to assume that no one is paying attention lulls you into a false sense of security which draws from you confessions that perhaps might be best left unsaid. Of course, nothing I’ve blogged has been as salacious as that last sentence implies, but people do get caught out, and fired.

I can ignore, though, the fact that I’m getting traffic. That’s easy. Until people mention blog posts in conversation. (The fact that people read me is something that never ceases to genuinely surprise me.) Finally I am getting to grips with the fact that my personal little scratchpad is no long so little, and no longer so personal.

I am not the only person to deal with the fact that, at some point, your personal blog ceases to appear personal and starts to appear professional. At the beginning of the year Michael O’Connor Clarke went through the same thought process that I am going through now. Journalist David Akin has more recently felt the need to explain who pays for his blog.

I think, upon reflection, that I have come to the same conclusion that Michael came to – my clients saw my blog before they hired me, they have been fully informed as to the sort of person that I am and anyone who doesn’t like my blog is not someone that I would want to be employed by. Thus self-censorship is essentially unnecessary.

Chocolate and Vodka is not a professional blog, it’s a professional’s blog. Big difference.

This is a hard line to draw in the sand because I have used my blog for professional purposes – getting work. But it is still not a business blog, not a professional blog. So if I choose to blog about cute guys in skirts, that really doesn’t matter. It’ll just make for some interesting chat the next time I’m in the office.

Social networking bingo

It’s a bit silly, but silly is good for the kind of Monday I’ve had today. First one to a full house shouts ‘foaf’.

Actually, I caught myself using foaf as real word in spoken conversation the other day, as in ‘Oh, he’s a foaf of mine’. I’m not sure, but I think that makes me very afraid. I bet it’ll be in the Oxford English Dictionary as a real word within the next two years…

88 blog entries = 1 book

Not knocking. It’s a bad habit I have. But to be honest I think it’s a learned behaviour. It’s so consistently led to excitement and drama that I have to admit I’m probably intending to do it on some subconscious level. Bedroom locks were made for girls like me.

At first, as my eyes adjusted to the light, I thought Lilith was meditating. My last roommate was into yoga. But Lilith was on her knees, rather than cross-legged. And she was surrounded by candles, a thick circle of dozens and dozens of wax stubs. The window was open; it was cold in there, the light spastic.

So starts Roommate From Hell, a new blog by novelist Jim Munroe, who explains on his site:

When Kate discovers that her roommate identifies as a demoness, she figures it’s too sacrilicious a secret to keep to herself: she tells all on her blog,

This is the basic gist of my new book, An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, a tale of the urban occult told entirely through Kate’s entries. Starting today, I’ll be posting one a day to the faux blog until all 88 entries (the whole book) are up.

I love the idea of using blog to distribute creative works. Giving away stuff for free in order to allow people the opportunity to enjoy it, and then maybe buy it if they like it, appeals to me immensely. And if you’ve got the creative chops, it works too – both Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig have simultaneously published books free online and in print which have sold out, going into additional print runs.

Of course, Doctorow’s and Lessig’s successes don’t guarantee that Munroe will sell a thing – that entirely depends on the quality of his work. But having the guts to put your stuff out there demands respect, particularly as he uses an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons licence so people can take his work and mash it up however they like.

The only thing that I would quibble about is his use of the word ‘faux’ in relationship to the blog. Looks like a blog, smells like a blog, is a blog. I don’t think it matters that the blog is pre-planned and fictional, that doesn’t make it a faux blog to me, it makes it a fictional blog. Does the fictional/factual nature of a book change whether or not it is a book?

Again with the format/form/story debate.

(Via Kevin on email, via BoingBoing)

Audioblogging experiment

I’ve started a little audioblogging experiment over on Chocolate and Vodka wherein I forsake the written word in favour of recording audio posts. I’m using as my tool of choice and I am hoping to do nothing but blog verbally for the next week or so, although posting may be interrupted by a trip up to London.

My main reason for cutting out written blogging completely, except for excerpts, on Choclate and Vodka for this period is to force me to use the audioblog tool and to see whether I can get used to talking instead of typing. On the one hand, I currently feel terribly self-conscious recording myself whittering on, but on the other I fear that if I do get used to it the posts may end up as epic soliloquies that the blogging world may actually be better off without. Knowing how much I usually talk, this risk cannot be ignored.

Anyway, take a look at… I mean, listen to the experiment and feel free to leave comments. I’d love to know what you think of the audioblog experience – not necessarily the content, but the actual listening instead of reading part of it.

Wall Street Journal loves up the blogosphere

According to the Online Journalism Review, news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal have started courting bloggers, sending out press releases and encouraging them to link to free news content.

“Many traditional journalists have come to see blogging as an either-or proposition — you’re either a blogger or you’re a conventional reporter or columnist,” [Bill Grueskin, managing editor of] told me via e-mail. “I see blogging as a nascent phenomenon that is a threat to journalism only to editors who treat it as such. I think the key is finding ways in which we can each do what we’re best at, and look for ways to cooperate. Truth is, bloggers depend a great deal on traditional media. But, I’m coming to find, we can depend on them.”

Marvellous! At last, we’re moving into more productive territory where bloggers and journalists (and some bloggers who are journalists) can benefit from each other’s strengths instead of attempting to draw lines in the sand.

Form, format and story

When I started writing my first feature film script in July last year, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I knew the story I wanted to tell, having lived with it lurking in my mind for over two years, but I didn’t know how I should tell it. What I did was just to start writing. I could make some guesses about how I should structure the document and what it should look like, but I was really just groping about in the dark.

A few weeks later I found Zoetrope, a website run by France Ford Coppola for aspiring film makers. On Zoetrope I met other writers, both experienced and newbies like myself, whom I could ask for advice about how to write my script. I rapidly came to realise that this was a topic that caused a lot of people quite a bit of grief, primarily because there was a lot of confusion about the difference between form and format.

Screenplays – particularly spec screenplays which are written on the off chance that they will be bought rather than to a commission – are subject to a strict set of formatting guidelines. These rules govern the width of the margins, the font style and size, the indentations for dialogue, the way that sluglines (the text telling you where a scene is taking place) are composed, everything down to the size, type and number of brads used to hold the script together when printed out. Although there is some leeway in terms of exactly how many millimetres wide your margins should be, for example, if you stray too far from the accepted conventions, your script is seen as amateurish.

Some people, however, would regularly rail against these rules, hating the way that anyone could possibly have the nerve to tell them what to do and how to do it. There would be huge discussions about precisely which version of Courier was the best, exactly how far from the edge of the page your dialogue should be indented, and whether all this was just another form of film industry idiocy.

Many of these discussions failed to grasp a basic, but important, point: Format has no impact on story. It governs only how that script looks, not what the script says. In terms of the film that would be made from the script, format is inconsequential. In terms of the act of typing in your script, it’s even more inconsequential because you can get good software that does it all for you.

On the other hand, the form of the script has huge consequences for the resulting film. Form, not format, was what many of these people should have been discussing, but often they mistook form for format, confusing structure with typography.

Form, when it comes to screenplays, is about structure. A film, like a play, is usually divided into acts. You can have as few as two or as many as five, but the usual number is three. There should be turning points in the plot, escalation of risk, and expectation gaps (the character does something, expects a given result, but ends up with a different outcome).

These structural points, this form, often strays over into the domain of story, but where story is specific, form is universal. When I talk about form I can say that by page 30 in a 120 page script should come the first turning point, where the heroine must irrevocably commit to a course of action. That is a point of form, or structure but it doesn’t tell you anything about the heroine, what her course is, what her commitment is. It has an impact on the story, but it isn’t the story.

There are those who think that too much emphasis on form, on structure, is detrimental – by sticking to the classic three act form wherein I can predict key scenes around pages 30 (end of the first act), 60 (mid point in the second act) and 90 (end of the second act), I create a formulaic and weak script. These people will point to all sorts of films that do not follow the standard three act form and claim that this just goes to show.

These people too are mistaken. Form provides a skeleton upon which the creative writer can hang her best writing. These forms have evolved over a century of film making, and they work. The reason they work is because humans have been telling stories for as long as we have walked the earth. We are all born storytellers. Almost instinctively we know a turning point when we see one because these are reflections of our real lives, not in the detail, but in the general.

When Will Turner throws in his lot with Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, we know that his life has changed irrevocably. We don’t need to be told that this is an important scene, we just know it. Whilst the detail of Will’s decision are unique to that character in that screenplay, we are more than capable of recognising the importance of that sort of life-changing decision from our own experiences: The job offer you accepted or the first time you asked your partner out on a date.

Form is not story, no more than format is. There’s overlap, yes, but it’s not the same. Format and form are meaningless constructs without story, without the writer’s expertise, skill and craft. The most beautifully formatted script is no better than toilet paper if the words on it are worthless. The most perfectly formed screenplay is no better than junk mail if the story doesn’t work.

(It not until this final aspect of story that we get to talk about issues such as genre. Genre – the ‘sort’ of film it is: thriller, comedy or action-adventure – is not the same as form, instead being entirely down to the story itself, the settings, the characters, the plot.)

At the end of the day, to be successful you need all three aspects of format, form and story. You need to be a skilled writer not just in your ability to turn a phrase, or create a character, but also in your ability to use form to your own advantage, to ensure that your script does not become some trite, formulaic waste of a dead tree.

The film industry has had some hundred years to develop. The blogosphere is but a three day old chick in comparison, yet we are grappling with the same issues.

We’ve all seen discussions over format – what makes a blog a blog? We can say that a blog should have permalinks, comments, trackbacks, be in reverse chronological order, have a blogroll, have archives, and all the other aspects that we instinctively recognise as being ‘bloggish’. But then, is a blog without permalinks still a blog? Is a blog without comments still a blog? How many of these attributes can be removed before a blog ceases to be a blog?

Like scripts, though, software is available to remove worries over format. Most blog software imbues the end result with a blog format purely by virtue of its use. The tool creates the format. The user doesn’t have to worry – and probably didn’t worry in the first place anyway – about format and whether what they are writing is a blog or not. It is only after the fact, or to other people, that the question of ‘what format does a blog have’ becomes important.

Blog form is about the structure of the content – is it a linklog, a diary, quoted or original content, essays or short posts, a moblog, a videoblog, a mixture of everything together? Just like scripts, the form of a blog has an impact on the content (the story) of the blog, but they are not the same thing.

(Indeed, it is not until we look at content, in this parallel set of parentheses, that we can talk about the genre of a blog. From klogs to warblogs to personal diaries, genre comes out of story, out of content, and is not imposed upon it by form or format.)

The success of a blog depends almost entirely, not on format or form, but on content. How well written is it? How interesting? How funny? How captivating? The successful blogs all have something we want – news, opinions or a good laugh. And just like scripts, good blogs are the product of the hard work of creative people.

Like screenwriters, bloggers must learn their art, they must learn about format and form and story in order to make the best of their blog. Unlike screenwriting, there are few books to tell you how to blog – the vast majority of bloggers learn through trial and error, through reading other people’s blogs and just writing and seeing how their audience (even if that audience is just them themselves) react to what they have done. We’re making it up as we go along, just like film makers a century ago.

Luckily for most bloggers, though, the object of their enterprise is not to make money by selling the resulting blog to the film industry. That, at the very least, makes life for bloggers much easier than for screenwriters: A blog post has achieved its aim when it has been published. It is a completed thing at that point.

A script is nothing but a blueprint for a film, requiring much more work (and not a little luck) before it reaches its full potential, if it ever does. A script isn’t finished until the film has been made, edited, released, re-edited for the director’s cut DVD, re-mastered for the Collectors Edition… You get the point.

But whether you blog for yourself and a small circle of friends, or for an audience of thousands, it is important to remember that form and format should always play second fiddle to story.