3 Brands and IMC: Wendy’s, Playstation, and Southwest Airlines

A few weeks ago I talked about three different brands’ blogs and why I thought they were successful based on content, features, design, how they were integrated with other channels, and so on. This week I’m going to do something a little similar and discuss three brands who are active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and Youtube, and how they’re using IMC. Let’s start with…

Southwest Airlines

I’m going to start with the brand at the end of the list because as far as social media presence goes, frankly, it’s one of my favorite brands, and I think it sets an example to follow.

SW Air collage
Images from Southwest Airlines’s Facebook (left), Google+ (top right), and Instagram (bottom right), featuring the heart of its company–employees, customers, and their families.

The first two things I notice about Southwest Airlines’s social media presence is consistency, consistency, consistency…oh, and content galore. Southwest Air wastes no time letting consumers know it’s personable. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, or Youtube, the brand highlights the real, everyday people who give its company life–namely, its customers, its employees, and their families. Instagram is particularly abound with photos of the company’s planes, passengers, baggage handlers, flight attendants, pilots, and Facebook and Google+ even feature duplicated content highlighting celebrity fliers like Middleman Burr and Barenaked Ladies. If you don’t know of the latter, yes, the link is SFW.

SW twitter
#WineWednesday

You’ll find some of the same imagery across this brand’s channels, particularly photos and videos linked by hashtags like #Disneyland60, and the new, big one, #SouthWestHeart. However, the consistency isn’t cookie-cutter. Every channel does have unique content, such as a more spontaneous #WineWednesday post on Twitter. I think this balance between consistent and unique content is a great way to both link the company channels as well as drive consumers between them both ways.

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The new Southwest Airlines tri-color heart, featured online, and now, onboard! (Photo and mention w/ permission).

That Southwest heart logo, before I forget, is a new, tri-color version of Southwest’s familiar, older one. It’s clearly central to their current look, as it appears on all of their media channels. The company has even begun to feature the logo onboard their planes, literally giving their machines a heart, as real-life Southwest Air flight attendant (and personal friend) Simple Flores demonstrated in her recent Instagram post (also pictured above/left).

Although Southwest Airlines’s Youtube and Google+ channels aren’t as frequently updated as their other sites but they do stay fresh, and the two do come together nicely to support the company’s video content, which is fantastic. Southwest Air uploads everything from company-wide service updates to more candid, on-the-ground employee and customer stories (see their “A Day In the Life” series), and customers contribute their own experiences such as entertaining vignettes like the one below:

SW listen team
The Southwest Airlines social media team (image source).

Before I move on, it’s also worth mentioning that there is an entire team dedicated to listening in on what consumers are saying about Southwest Air across all social media channels. This team doesn’t just watch, however, it’s tasked to providing as much real-time feedback to its audience as possible. Read more about it here on Southwest’s blog.

Let’s keep it weird, and continue moving through the list backwards, with…

Playstation

Playstation is one of the most prolific brands I can think of when it comes to social media and IMC. You can find the videogame giant just about everywhere. What strikes me about Playstation’s channels is the large amount of content. The company really loves to post images and videos–it makes up most of their overall content. In fact, their Google+ page, which is linked to Youtube, features so many video posts, it’s hard to tell apart from their Instagram.

Playstation collage
Playstation’s Google+ (left), Facebook (top right), and Instagram (bottom right) are all highly visual channels.

Like any brand with good IMC, Playstation is consistent. Its Twitter and Facebook pages are buddied up. They tend to stay updated with new, similar content such as release dates, previews, Playstation Network (PSN) coupons and offers, and the like. Meanwhile, it’s Google+ and Youtube channels tend to prioritize video sneak peaks and announcements. On Instagram, you’ll find more niche photos, such as Playstation products being showcased at big conventions like E3, or snapshots of product anniversaries and awards.

Playstation doesn’t seem to use as many hashtags as Southwest Air and other brands that I’ve seen. Perhaps the need is diminished by the company’s already-overwhelming presence in the gaming-focused corners of the social media world, or because Playstation’s content and posts contain a great variety of already highly-visible subjects whose tags are bringing in consumers as it is. High-profile, or “triple A”, titles like Star Wars Battlefront (see the preview trailer PS posted below) often already have followings so massive that extra effort just creates more meta tag clutter than anything.

Playstation complaintsMy one criticism of Playstation’s IMC isn’t that it’s not well-connected, or that it lacks content or cross-channel push and pull. The issue I see is that unlike other brands like Southwest Air, Shutterstock, Nike, or Starbucks, Playstation isn’t ranked among the “greats” of social media feedback and customer service. The company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are informative and fresh, but they tend to be ridden with unanswered comments and complaints. As popular as its products are, Playstation ought to invest some more effort in “being human” rather than risk applying old-fashioned “top-down” tactics to new media.

Wendy’s

Here’s a brand we all know, and one that I began paying more attention to while writing my blog post on Snapchat–Wendy’s.

Wendy's collage
Snippets from Wendy’s Google+ (left), Youtube (top right), and Instagram (bottom right).
Wendy's side by side
Wendy’s DTFA Coupon Books simultaneously posted on Twitter and Facebook, and check out that brand feedback! 

The way Wendy’s approaches its IMC is similar to the other two brands I’ve talked about in some topical ways. Consistency? Check. Content? Check. Hashtags and common videos and photos? Check. Wendy’s has the crucial basics, but I like some other things the brand throws into the spotlight. One is style. As you’d expect, the company’s Facebook and Twitter are content-sharing pals, as are its Google+ and Youtube accounts. I think we’ve established that as a popular big-brand tactic. And why not? It works well, and generates some push and pull. However, if you visit the Wendy’s Instagram you get something different…

Wendy's fries n frosty
Dipping fries in a Frosty–it’s like they know us.

There’s a noticeable interest in artistic depiction of Wendy’s food–not something you may expect from a place that serves up fast food, but hey, maybe I went in expecting too little. The photos are a cool mix of interesting, bird’s-eye-view shots of Wendy’s menu items and the hands of consumers holding and eating them. There are also some close-ups of employee uniforms and some homages to Dave Thomas. It’s a nice change-up, and it helps establish the brand’s Instagram as distinct from the others, rather than a “we-couldn’t-decide-exactly-what-to-put-here,” tag-along channel.

Wendy's twitter DTFA
Wendy’s tweets about their new cups supporting the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

Something else I think works well for Wendy’s is that it doesn’t make excessive use of traditional hashtags in the headlines of tweets, or Facebook or Instagram posts. I think the company does well to use other key words and phrases to link its content together. Take Twitter, where it mentions @DTFA, or the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in tweets that feature stories of adopted children. These stories can also be found on a special Wendy’s Youtube playlist, “Adoption Stories – My First Family Memory“. The series uses multiple social channels to connect its audience animated short stories of real adoptees’ first family memories, such as the one below.

Well there you have it! What brands do you think are making the most of IMC? Visit the comments below and share your thoughts!

Social Channel Spotlight: Snapchat

What is Snapchat?

snapchat ghost
The Snapchat icon is actually named “Ghostface Chillah” after “Ghostface Killah” of the Wu-Tang Clan (image and source).

Functionally speaking, it’s a pretty easy question to answer. Snapchat is a mobile app that first launched in 2011. Its design and purpose are simple: it allows users to take photos or videos, edit them with text and freehand doodles, and send them to friends and followers. What makes Snapchat unique is that it provides a solution to the social media problem of “what you post is forever”, meaning, photos and videos sent via Snapchat have a short lifespan. Once they’re viewed for the maximum time specified by the sender, they vanish for good. Users have the option to send their photos and videos to contacts they specifically choose, or they can add photos and videos to their “Story (aka My Story)” which is a collection of media shared over the course of 24 hours. Media in the “Story” gradually vanishes as the 24-hour viewing limit runs out. Snapchat also includes a chat feature. Users can chat one-on-one in a thread and continue to send text messages or “snapbacks” in response to one another.

In 2014, Snapchat launched Snapcash, a feature supported by Square that allows users to send money to one another by entering a chat and typing an amount preceded by “$”, i.e. “$5.00” (Neistat).

Snapchat qualifies as a social media channel and thrives as a mobile app. Though it’s all about imagery and video, it can’t truly be classified as a content community by virtue of its distinguishing “self destruct” feature, or, in other words, because its content is not permanently accessible. Its users don’t necessarily have to know one another personally, but many users do tend to know one another to some degree, as one of the main ways to contact another user via Snapchat is by phone number. Other means of establishing contact with another Snapchat user include searching for a particular username manually or using a Snapcode to find them quickly.

A Little History…

Snapchat’s entire life story is one as steeped in founder tension and legal drama as competitor Facebook’s. It all starts with three main players–Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown–and goes something like this:

Evan_Spiegel_at_TechCrunch_2
Evan Spiegel (image and source).

The original roles were fairly defined: Murphy as CTO, Brown as chief marketing officer, Spiegel as CEO, honing the idea as part of a design class he was taking. The first iteration was a clunky website that required users to upload a photo and set a timer before sending. The eureka moment only came when the idea migrated to mobile. “At some point it was like, ‘Hey, there’s a camera on your phone,’” Spiegel says. “‘Wouldn’t that be easier?’”
–Colao, (2014, January 20). Forbes.com

Pretty soon after its birth, Snapchat and Spiegel drew the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, who had devised a similar app, called “Poke”, which he intended to use to empower Facebook and eliminate Snapchat as competition. Poke initially rose to the top of the iPhone app store at launch in December, 2012, but Snapchat pulled ahead once again within three days (Colao).

The app’s value, reach, and user base has grown ever since, despite the fact that the app itself is free, and, until more recently, advertisers and big influencers weren’t catered to by features such as “Discover”, which highlights large, Snapchat editorial teams that users may be interested in following.

To the surpise and scrutiny of many, when Mark Zuckerberg offered $3 billion cash for the app in fall 2013, Spiegel turned down the offer (Colao, et al).

Audience, Numbers, and Growth

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Snapchat usage by age (image and source).

So who uses Snapchat? According to press reports, the majority of Snapchat users are female between the ages of 13 to 25, and two-fifths of 18-year-olds in the U.S. use Snapchat daily. It’s also estimated that more than 760 million snaps are sent every day and about 1 billion stories are viewed (Ballve). As of January 2014, Forbes estimated that 50 million people use the app (Colao), but, more recently, others estimate a user base closer to 100 million (Talbot).

Snapchat’s growth and future are somewhat difficult to measure and predict. Some analysts remark that the app’s young, fickle, teen audience may or may not continue to use the app as time passes. On the other hand, even though interest in Snapchat has experienced alternating surges and slumps in the U.S., internationally, it has seen increasing popularity, for example in the U.K. and France (Taylor).

Integration and How It Works

kt-zoolander-snapchat
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson took it a step further and reprised their Zoolander roles as Derek Zoolander and Hansel for a runway walk-off. They even had a “Blue Steel” geofilter at the fashion show (image and source).

Integrating Snapchat with other channels may have been much trickier before users began taking screenshots of snaps and stories. After all, when a platform is designed to destroy its content, how can you be sure your message is reaching anyone or whether it makes a lasting impression?

Even without the ability to capture a screenshot, Snapchat has still proven to be an interesting and effective marketing tool. The app allows an opportunity to create “exclusive” content, and provide real-time or behind-the-scenes looks at a brand or celebrity. In that regard, it takes advantage of consumers’ interest in getting a “sneak peek” of a new product or a company process. Many companies have also employed a “guess” tactic–sending a snap and having users guess what the photo is of or about, and prompting them to tweet their guesses with special hashtags (Ceira). In addition, like Instagram, Snapchat is a great platform for partnering with big influencers (Talbot).

The following are a few Snapchat campaign success stories. See these and more at Slideshare.net and Fastcocreate.com:

  1. Heineken’s “SnapWho?” campaign. At Coachella 2014, Heineken sent users cropped snaps that provided clues about secret shows that would be held during the music festival. Correct guesses about a mystery artist or band were rewarded with early-access info about shows that would take place at the Heineken House (the sponsor’s stage). This was a successful implementation of “exclusive content” and sparked a snap conversation among users and “HeinekenSnapWho”.
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  2. Taco Bell’s Snapchat mini-movie. Taco Bell launched its Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos with one of the first Snapchat stories—a six-minute mini-movie directed by Jason Zada that included a scene on the red carpet of the MTV Movie Awards, and was filmed and posted in less than 24 hours. This move highlighted and pushed the boundaries of what could be done on Snapchat while targeting an audience using a great combination–MTV, Taco Bell, and Doritos.
  3. World Wildlife Fund’s “Last Selfie” campaign. Making a clever connection to Snapchat’s signature disappearing content, the World Wildlife Fund began the #LastSelfie campaign to create awareness about disappearing and endangered species. In a week, 40,000 tweets with the hashtag reached 120 million Twitter timelines and in 6 different languages. As a result, 50% of all active Twitter users were exposed to the campaign.
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For more interesting facts and info about Snapchat, check out this Prezi presentation!

References

Ballve, Marcelo. (2014, August 15). Businessinsider.com – “Snapchat’s Explosive Growth Among Teens and Millenials Means It’s Emerging As A Powerful Brand Platform”

Beer, Jeff. (2014, August 12). Fastcocreate.com – “How 12 Brands Used Snapchat”

Ceira, Rochelle. (2015). Jeffbullas.com – “5 Ways to Integrate Snapchat Into Your Marketing Strategy”

Colao, J.J. (2014, January 6). Forbes.com – “The Inside Story of Snapchat: The World’s Hottest App or a $3 Billion Disappearing Act?”

Misener, Jessica. (2014, July 2). Buzzfeed.com – “13 Cool Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Snapchat”

Neistat, Casey. (2015). Pocket-lint.com – “What’s the point of Snapchat, and how does it work?”

Simplify360. (2015, February 1). Slideshare.net – “5 Brilliant Snapchat Campaigns That You Need to See”

Talbot, Kate. (2015, July 28). Socialmediaexaminer.com – “5 Ways to Use Snapchat for Business”

Taylor, Everette. (2015). Growthhackers.com – “Snapchat – How Did Snapchat Reach a Multi-Billion Dollar Valuation?”

Images

Heineken “SnapWho?” — http://chcdigital.com/5-brands-that-use-snapchat/

WWF “Last Selfie” — http://www.clickz.com/clickz/news/2340740/wwf-s-lastselfie-reaches-millennials-underscores-snapchat-constraints

3 Blogs: Spotify, Engadget, and Anthony Bourdain

For this week’s post I’ll be highlighting and talking a little about three blogs that I recently discovered–the music app Spotify’s news blog, the collaborative tech news blog Engadget, and Anthony Bourdain’s travel blog on Tumblr. Without any further ado, let’s jump right in with…

Spotify

Spotify blog
A news feed post announces the arrival of Spotify Running on Android.

Spotify’s blog is a hybrid in purpose. It serves primarily to keep Spotify users up-to-date on the goings-on at Spotify, the music and artists the app hosts, and updates to the app itself as well as its services. On some level, it’s a niche news blog, but the blog team also posts about the Spotify community (“Life at Spotify”), music previews, artist interviews, marketing, contests and so on, so it’s mainly a professional blog representing the company, its employees, and product.

Spotify blog follow user
The White House has its own official playlists, and you can follow them on the app or right here on the blog.

What makes Spotify’s blog unique in some regard is that it also serves as a host for the downloadable app that the blog is all about. So, if someone who doesn’t use a music and radio app searches for any such service, should they come across Spotify’s blog, they don’t have to go to its main website to get the app. On that note, Spotify’s shareable blog posts (the blog is connected to Facebook and Twitter) make it easy for potential news users to discover Spotify on social media and to find the downloadable app right as they follow a link and land on the blog. Additionally, the blog provides instant Spotify follow buttons on posts featuring a real user’s playlist, such as the “White House” playlist, put together by President Obama himself.

skullcandy-logo
Skullcandy is the brand partner I would want to see. The logo even agrees with Spotify’s aesthetic, which favors black, white, and green. (Image source)

Spotify pops up pretty high in Google search results, along with comparably popular apps such as Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Jango. As I mentioned before, it’s also well integrated with Facebook and Twitter. Its posts are made more alluring by interesting photos of musicians and artists, the Spotify team, and screenshots of shiny, new app features. There isn’t any real advertising on the blog–after all, it’s really Spotify advertising Spotify–but if there were third-party ads, I’d expect the obvious. Skullcandy earbuds, Beats headphones, or maybe (strong emphasis on maybe) a concert ticket vendor like Ticketfly would make appropriate placements. Any kind of hip tech or related service that supports popular music would do, but I can’t say whether Spotify needs or wants to go that route. The lack of ads also strengthens the brand’s identity online. After all, ad-free music is the number one feature of the “Spotify Premium” upgrade.

Overall, I’d say Spotify’s blog is successful. It’s updated often, there’s plenty of original content, the brand embraces IMC, and it’s easy to connect to and follow. The visual design is a little plain, in my opinion. I’m used to seeing the cool layout of Spotify’s desktop app, and it makes the blog layout a little boring in comparison.

Engadget

Engadget homepage
On the homepage you’ll see share buttons galore, and large, attractive images that link to full articles.

Engadget is quite different. It’s an online magazine that operates like a news blog. Engadget focuses on technology news–everything from smartphones and videogames to light pollution and “robo-babies”. Its posts come from a number of contributors and its news feed updates pretty frequently. In fact, several fresh stories have popped up since I last checked the site just a few hours ago. The content is also diverse and interesting. It’s not fair to call Engadget “primarily a mobile device blog” or “mostly a videogame blog”. These writers talk about anything tech. I think that’s the first thing I liked about Engadget, and what lends it uniqueness. Something else worth mentioning is that not only does the magazine / blog have a high follower count on Facebook and Twitter, it offers the same content in multiple languages (check out its Spanish Facebook page and Japanese Twitter account).

Engadget from mobile
Here’s the view on mobile: a smooth, simple stream of recent article titles and their featured images.

I think it’s appropriate that Engadget’s logo incorporate’s the universal wifi / wireless communications symbol (left), because the blog itself is structured with its target audience in mind. The first thing you see when you land on Engadget’s homepage is a ton of links (videos first), followed by clickable news articles, and share buttons abound. The magazine is all about tech, and their blog makes well-rounded use of social apps and engaging links. This design philosophy suits the brand image and facilitates the news consumption habits of readers, who, no doubt, are visiting via smartphone, tablet, and other such gadgets–you know, the ones that put the “gadget” in “Engadget”.

I noticed a conservative amount of ads on the blog. The most prominent was a large banner ad for Qualcomm (a 3G and next-gen mobile technology company). There were also a few credit related ads for Citi and Equifax, as well as an ad for Marriott. This tells me the blog likely targets readers no younger than about 24 or 25 years old, and appeals to professionals who may be on-the-go or may have to travel on business.

Engadget spanish facebook
Engadget’s Facebook page for Spanish-speaking readers.

Overall, I’d say this is the most successful blog on the list. Its IMC approach is clearly well-devised. I’m especially impressed that it integrates with channels that cater to foreign language audiences. Its content is interesting and fresh, and its contributors make it easy to connect with them on Twitter. I’ve tried to find a weakness, but I don’t honestly think any additions or subtractions from the current design are necessary. The blog offers just enough without overwhelming.

Anthony Bourdain

anthony-bourdain-no-reservations
The No Reservations title shot (image source).

If you’ve ever watched the TV series No Reservations, Parts Unknown, or The Layover, you already know who Anthony Bourdain is, and it’s easy to guess what his Tumblr blog is about–travel, and all the food, culture, and political context that entails. However, Bourdain’s blog isn’t really just a travel blog. I’m considering it to be a professional blog not only because Bourdain, by profession, is a traveling writer / journalist (and chef), but also because, 1) Anthony Bourdain is essentially his own brand, and 2) Bourdain’s blog is, to some degree, an extension of his television shows. This is to say that the quality of his blogging meets an obviously (much) higher-than-recreational standard, and is affiliated with companies, Scripps Networks Interactive and Cox Communications, but most directly,  the Travel Channel.

Bourdain blog home
Sometimes, less truly is more.

This blog is the least cluttered of the three I’ve featured; in fact, there’s zero clutter. The page is nothing more than Bourdain’s neatly arranged travel pieces, associated photos, contact and social media links in the right margin, and a simple profile picture crowning an “about this blog” style quote. It’s clean, straightforward, and journalistic. No nonsense. It suits the brand  (Bourdain’s persona) and almost reminds me of a design philosophy I’d see in a single-page piece in National Geographic, only simpler. It may not appeal to some bloggers, but I like it, and here’s why:

  1. It doesn’t try to do the job of other channels. In Bourdain’s case, his Tumblr blog is probably not the first place you’ve seen him. The Travel Channel (television) is the medium that’s doing all the pushing. Bourdain’s blog is more of an outlet to receive the pulled crowd. It’s a neatly organized source of information for anyone looking to see some “behind-the-scenes” material, Bourdain’s books, or “Spare Parts Unknown” (a music blog that pairs with the shows).
  2. All the IMC connections are there, and easy to use. Want to follow Anthony Bourdain on Facebook or Twitter? Every link you need is tucked up in the top right corner. The blog is already being hosted on Tumblr, so sharing on that platform is built right in.
  3. It showcases a brand / public figure’s persona without undermining the artist. In other words, the blog makes it clear that it’s affiliated with the shows you already know and love, but there are no advertisements, a pretty unique quality. This is a case where what’s missing, at first glance, probably doesn’t need to be there anyway. I’m glad I didn’t see palm-tree-and-azure-sky-filled images bearing the Travel Channel logo all over the margins. The blog stays true to its goals and brand while keeping what doesn’t really need to be there at arm’s length. TV, Facebook, Twitter, and Bourdain’s Instagram are all doing a fine job of pushing, but there does need to be one channel that can catch the curious fans away from all the noise.

So, what do you think? Visit the comments below and let me know what other great blogs I should be following or featuring in the future. Oh, and there’s a fun poll below. Take some time to go click on it!

 

 

In Case You Missed It: AJC Decatur Book Festival 2015

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Bookzilla and the parade pass by my booth at Decatur Book Fest 2015.

The first time I attended the Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, Georgia, was on Labor Day weekend in 2010. At the time, I was an indie author of about nine months and I had a single publication to my name, a novel I’d dreamed up as a 17-year-old and rewritten as a sophomore in college, A Pirate’s Charm. By September 2010, I hadn’t much experience as a marketer or salesperson–these are two of many, many roles you’re obligated to fill if your independent title is going to reach any bookshelf other than your own. I’d done a few signings in my hometown and in the town I went to college, and felt pretty good about myself, but local celebrity is not that hard to achieve in small places. The first time I exhibited at Decatur, I realized that I shared a dream with quite a few other writers–hundreds more, just at that festival–and for the first time I felt truly connected to the larger reading and writing world.

Agnes-Scott-College-Main-Hall
Agnes Scott College (above) and the Art Institute of Atlanta-Decatur are a short walk away.

This isn’t to say that Decatur, Georgia is a giant. It’s not, and mostly because it lives in the shadow of nearby Atlanta, one of the busiest and largest hubs of business, culture, entertainment, and the arts in the Southeast. To put it in perspective, as of 2013, Decatur’s population was a little over 20,000 according to the city’s own estimate. It’s small, but it packs a lot of unique identity and personality. Additionally, the town boasts several higher learning institutions and a highly educated populace (currently, around 35.5% of residents hold Master’s degrees), so it’s as smart as it is charming.

Its town square, my favorite area, is where the Decatur Book Festival takes place every year, and is swiftly becoming the hotspot for foodies and other big-reach bloggers from Atlanta. Consequently, two notable Atlanta chefs made an appearance this year:

Hugh Acheson is the chef-owner of restaurants in Athens, Atlanta and Savannah, including the Atlanta showplace Empire State South. He is the author of “The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits.” He will team up with Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union and author of “Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons.” Satterfield’s book offers 174 vegetable recipes (for “omnivores”).
–Bo Emerson, AJC.com (August 28, 2015)

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Mac McGee Irish Pub (above) and Brick Store are two of my favorite places to eat.

Nothing complements culture and education like good food and good books. Perhaps this is why the Decatur Book Festival is one of the best literary events in the Southeast (and already claims to be the largest independent book festival in the United States).

The crowd of readers that pours into Decatur, Georgia every Labor Day weekend consistently outnumbers the population that lives there year-round (many times over). Scores of thousands flock to the festival, some coming to take a peek after attending DragonCon, which occurs every year at the same time. Children, teens, parents, grandparents, college students–every demographic is catered to, and diversity shines. This year, the event featured several world-class guests, including feminist writers Erica Jong and Roxane Gay, who participated in author panels.

The festival kicked off on Friday night with a sold-out Keynote event at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey gave a recitation of “Meditation at Decatur Square,” a poem examining how, after personal tragedy, the city has been redeemed for her through the festival.
Decatur Metro (September 9, 2015)

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I was visited by the Decatur Book Fest haiku team.

In 2014, attendance capped at around 90,000 visitors (Decaturish.com). Attendance at this year’s event was as big as it’s ever been, and according to Executive Director and Co-Founder Daren Wang, the event is becoming “a significant part of the nationwide landscape” (Sawicki), and I believe it. I was there. The Decatur Book Festival sees the kind of community involvement, attendance, culture, literature, and social engagement that any great festival should strive for. It’s why I keep coming back, it’s why readers keep coming back, and it’s why, for at least one weekend every year, Decatur is the biggest little town in Georgia.

Ref.

Decatur Metro. (2015, September 9). Decaturmetro.com – “Decatur Book Festival: ‘Easily Most Successful Festival’ Ever”

Emerson, Bo. (2015, August 28). Artsculture.blog.ajc.com – “AJC Decatur Book Fest highlights: get ready to book it”

Sawicki, Beth. (2015). 11Alive.com – “2015 AJC Decatur Book Festival-The Country’s Largest Independent Book Festival Returns With World-Class Authors and All-New Programming”

Whisenhunt, Dan. (2014, September 4). Decaturish.com – “Book Festival reports record attendance”

Images

Agnes Scott College – www.college-locator.com

Revisiting Steam: A Look At Push and Pull Marketing

Last week, I posted an article about Steam, the social gaming platform by Valve Corporation. In this week’s post, I’m going to delve a bit deeper into Steam’s website, its downloadable gaming platform, and mobile app, and talk about the push and pull tactics leveraged by these channels and others.

Steam home page ads
Steampowered.com’s homepage looks exactly the same whether you’re viewing it in-browser or on your desktop.

First, I should mention that Steam’s homepage and its desktop app’s homepage are identical twins. The website and its downloadable counterpart, the latter of which supports access to games in case the user is offline (or has no Internet connection), both feature the same headlining sales, deals, and updates. These notifications refresh daily and weekly, and are arranged into various categories–the big sales are centered on the page, the weekly or weekend deals are usually arranged in the top right corner, daily deals are normally just below those, and so on. In other words, there are a variety of easily-located sections right on the home page that are frequently updated, and on different (but regular) schedules.

Surprisingly, for a consumer who’s never heard of Steam, it’s probably not easy to find the service through a standard search engine query, and this means Steam isn’t generating a lot of pull via online searches. Results for “digital games”, “online gaming”, and other search terms tend to result in ads directed at GameStop, BestBuy, and other brick-and-mortar retailers. However, as I mentioned in last week’s post, Steam has found an interesting workaround, and I’ll get to that soon. Where Steam really begins to succeed in its pull strategy is within its own platform. It’s difficult to think of every feature that helps achieve this, so I’ll stick to the highlights.

Here are some of Steam’s best and most unique pull strategies:

  1. Customized home page and purchase recommendations. Once a customer begins buying games on Steam (which requires a quick and free membership sign-up) Steam begins tracking tags associated with
    Steam website recommendations
    Steam quickly learns what users like and changes its homepage to suit the user’s preferences once they’re signed in. It makes the user feel “at home”–a good pull technique.

    purchases, store browsing trends, and other user behavior. When that user is signed in, the homepage changes to display games and sales of interest to that particular user, and explains why it made those recommendations. Additionally, it tracks what a user’s friends are buying and playing, and makes suggestions based on other users’ recommendations and reviews. It goes even further still, letting a user know which of their friends has bought or also wants a game the user is viewing in the storefront. But that’s not all. Steam also recommends search tags you should use in the future, based on your interests. Steam’s homepage becomes your homepage. It greets you as if it’s the cliche bartender who has your drink ready before you even pull up a seat.

  2. Tradeable and sellable digital items. This one’s pretty interesting. Steam continually creates digital items that are collectible and available to users who frequently use the platform. The type I specifically want to mention are Steam Trading Cards. Players can earn digital trading cards by playing
    Steam Community Market
    The Community Market allows users to make spendable cash by selling items they earn just by playing the games they buy.

    games they own (if the game supports the feature). Complete sets of trading cards can be “exchanged” for special upgrades to a user’s account or profile, i.e. access to special characters in the chat window, special buttons or stickers to display on the user’s profile page, bragging-rights style achievements, and so on. It’s a decent pull strategy that reinforces engagement. However, what’s more enticing, in my opinion, is the option to put unwanted items up for sale in the Community Market. Some users don’t care about account upgrades, and can instead sell their collectibles for spendable cash that deposits straight into their Steam Wallet. This makes it possible for users who are active enough to get more games at an added discount or even free. Building up free funds promotes exclusively shopping with Steam and engaging more with the platform. This feature alone, as Nelson Xalavier at Gamasutra puts it, creates a kind of addicting game in and of itself, and “[if you] look into the depths of Steam Trading, [you’ll] find a brilliant ecosystem formed around the unique quirks of the Steam platform.”

  3. Visibility in competitors’ storefronts. I mentioned this in last week’s post, so I’ll keep this brief. Steam’s biggest competitors (BestBuy, Gamestop, Walmart, and Target) have struggled to keep up with a consumer shift in favor of the sale of digital games as opposed to physical. Consequently, they’ve attempted to boost sales by selling Steam Wallet Codes in their brick-and-mortar stores. So, although Steam isn’t winning the Google search race, it’s made itself discoverable within its competitors’ stores, and is ready to be seen by a consumer base that, more and more, is developing a preference for digital gaming, but may not know its options.

Now let’s examine some of Steam’s best push strategies:

  1. Direct notifications. Steam makes use of a popular, effective, and well known strategy–simply, sending email and mobile alerts that keep registered users up-to-date on the latest daily and weekly sales, news, holiday specials, and other announcements. Users also receive alerts when products they’ve followed, liked, or put on a wishlist go on sale or receive a price drop, and when their friends send them gifts or a request to trade special items.
  2. The Steam mobile app and desktop app. Steam not only has a website that caters to each individual’s needs and preferences, and provides a social platform for gamers, it duplicated that service and encourages users to install it on their mobile device and PC or laptop.
    Steam mobile notification
    This mobile notification actually came in as I was writing this post.

    Steam makes itself accessible no matter where the consumer is, and continues to
    actively alert and update the user. The
    desktop app even has its own special news update pop-up that appears when users first sign in to Steam from their desktop; it provides a slideshow of the top five updates of the day, typically the biggest sales or announcements of the most anticipated upcoming games (which Steam makes available for pre-order).

  3. Steam Greenlight. I saved the most interesting for last. In recent years, there has been a surge of new and independent videogame developers and studios. As in book publishing or the film industry, it can be difficult to get “indie” projects off the ground and into the hands of big distributors. Steam answered with its Greenlight feature. Greenlight hosts the works-in-progress of indie artists who want to garner support for their games from consumers and a distributor at the same time. Greenlight allows indie developers a cSteam Greenlighthance to showcase the work they’ve done and talk to the community about what their plans are for their projects. In that regard, it mimics crowdfunding (think Kickstarter or GoFundMe), but without the financial endorsement feature. If a project gets enough positive Steam community response and the devs “donate $100 to a charity” (Hendricks), Steam will distribute and sell the finished product. I consider this a unique push strategy rather than a pull, because Greenlight actively petitions for community participation in deciding which new indie games to bring to Steam. The imagery on Greenlight’s page works as a good call-to-action (“Vote!”) and aids the push. The game development process isn’t often something consumers get to participate in meaningfully, and it’s a free feature that encourages users to engage with the industry beyond purchasing its product or sharing reviews.
Steam share buttons
Steam does include share buttons, focusing on its cross-platform engagement (Facebook, Twitter, and reddit), but, like offsite SEO, these seem to take a backseat to Steam’s focus on in-app push-and-pull.

Steam’s website, desktop app, and mobile app are littered with features designed to keep customers coming back, and those same channels do a great job of keeping the push and pull cycle going. If the brand could improve anywhere, it’s in two distinct areas. One of these I spoke about in last week’s post. There does exit a Steam Support team (here’s their Twitter), but its track record is nothing to be proud of. Valve has recently begun to answer for this failing and is making changes to Steam’s services that will hopefully correct this, such as modifying their returns policy. For now, users have to wait and see how much effect these changes have. The second weakness is the lack of pull marketing outside of Steam’s own website and apps, and its borrowed space in its competitors’ stores. It’s not a bad way to pull offline, but that tactic needs some basic online reinforcement–some good SEO would be the best place to start.

Ref.

Hendricks, Dustin. (2015, August 26). Gamasutra.com – “Launching Steam Greenlight & KickStarter: One week in, top 25, and 50% funded”

Nelson, Xalavier. (2015, August 31). Gamasutra.com – “Endless Steam–How I Found Valve’s Greatest Game”

SocialBook: The Coolest Reading Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

It’s arguable that “social reading” has always been around. People read, and some talk about what they read, but social reading has never been envisioned in as productive, accessible, and pervasive a medium than the digital. Personal devices such as the Kindle and the NOOK exist for the purpose of reading electronic texts and even sharing them, but there is still no strong, digital community that promotes social reading in the most progressive and innovative sense.

girl-reading-book
We often imagine the traditional reader as “tuned out”, “curled up”, or shut away in a study (Image from DailyGenius).

According to Bob Stein, founder of The Voyager Company and The Criterion Collection, not even Apple iBooks has really changed the book as we know it. iBooks and its competitors, namely Kindle and NOOK, are designed to facilitate the consumption of books and the sale of books in the quickly-evolving mobile and digitally driven world, but have done little to meaningfully transform the book, or the act of reading. E-books and other digital publications remain the same islands of text that print publications have always been. Where is the Social Media Age bridge between readers, writers, editors, publishers, and scholars? Where is the Facebook of fiction, the Pinterest of poetry?

SocialBook2
SocialBook’s landing page is simple but intriguing.

Stein and his colleagues are attempting to provide an answer in the form of a prototype social reading community by the name of SocialBook. Like Apple iBooks’s author app, or Kindle Direct Publishing, SocialBook allows the editor(s) and/or author(s) of a text to upload the work to a social network of readers, who may engage with the text on a digital platform. However, unlike current trending platforms, SocialBook allows readers to contribute their marginalia to an ever-expanding discussion that encompasses the text, and is accessible by all readers of that text. Users may open tabs, located along the sides of the text, and view reader commentary as well as author, editor and publisher commentary. They can also contribute to an ever-growing, public conversation about the books they read. Stein talks more about social reading here, on the Institute for the Future of the Book’s “If:Book” blog, and in this video from 2011:

SocialBook
The Commons displays an assortment of currently available titles.

The possibilities of such a platform are great, and many have yet to be tested at length in a real market. All of SocialBook’s currently uploaded titles are also public domain, and therefore can be accessed by anyone. However, Stein explained, when he spoke at a digital forum at the University of Florida in 2012, in the future, the community will likely accommodate copyright protected material. Like any DRM-protected e-book, any works not in the public domain will have to be purchased. Upon purchasing access to a copyright protected book, the reader will unlock the socially engaging features SocialBook already offers for works in the public domain.

teleread2
The social reader is not only engaged with a book but tuned in to the greater public discourse surrounding the text (Image from blog.social2b.com).

Going forward, this technology raises many questions and concerns regarding our definitions of “publisher”, “editor”, and “author”. It is unknown for now but reasonable to guess that this process may diminish the need for the traditional publisher as we know it (or perhaps change the role of the publisher) and will allow editors and authors greater publishing freedoms. For the first time as well, it will be feasible for authors and editors to have round-the-clock, open-ended, and public dialogues with readers, critics, and scholars.

SocialBook3
Users talking about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.

With the “Groups” feature, there is incredible potential for SocialBook within classrooms. With a platform like SocialBook, students can not only experience textbook learning as a fully socialized practice, they can also interact with the text by contributing public thoughts and notes to the margins. Their peers–in the classroom, at home, or on the go–can access and respond to those posts, add their own thoughts to the conversation, answer instructor-prompted questions, and pose questions of their own to other readers. Teachers and professors can guide or moderate frequently updated discussions, and even connect to other classroom group discussions anywhere in the world. Ten…one hundred…one thousand or more people–there’s no limit–can read the same copy of the same book at the same time, building an engaging, public, social, shareable, “super conversation” that’s organically curated for readers by readers.

When Bob Stein spoke at a digital forum at UF, he asked the attendees to imagine if Romeo and Juliet, the theory of relativity, or any other great work had originally been published on SocialBook. What if everyone had access to Shakespeare’s or Einstein’s personal annotations? What if great thinkers could speak to us about their ideas across time, and what if we, the readers, could keep the conversation going?

Images & Related Articles

Girl reading a book: DailyGenius – “10 Questions You Should Ask Yourself While Reading”

Social reading illustration: Blog.Social2b.com – “Social Reading and the Future of Publishing”

Brand Media Showcase: Steam, by Valve Corporation

Steam-logoFor this week’s blog post, I’ve decided to spotlight a brand that I think has done a keen job of targeting its consumer base not only by integrating the channels through which it communicates with its audience but by integrating its product with the touchpoints consumers use to access it. Sounds strange, right? What kind of product can literally be integrated with the touchpoints its brand uses to market it? The answer is software, and the software I’m specifically referring to is called Steam. For those unfamiliar with the developer Valve and its social gaming platform, here is Wikipedia’s breakdown:

Steam is an Internet-based digital distribution platform developed by Valve Corporation offering digital rights management (DRM), multiplayer, and social networking. Steam provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games on multiple computers, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud saving, and in-game voice and chat functionality. The software provides a freely available application programming interface (API) called Steamworks, which developers can use to integrate many of Steam’s functions into their products, including networking and matchmaking, in-game achievements, micro-transactions, and support for user-created content through Steam Workshop.
–Wikipedia.org (2015, September 8).

Steam workshop
Some fan-made Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim mods in the Steam Workshop

To summarize, Steam is a social platform for gamers, whether it be consumer or developer, and it’s positioned itself as the “everything platform” for gaming. You can buy games, play games, , chat in real-time or in forums; if you’re a developer you can sell your own game(s) through Steam and Steam will facilitate your game’s playability. Those with the know-how can even create “mods” for popular games and share them easily across the Steam Workshop–the capabilities of the software seem to grow more and more limitless each day. The best part, to many, is that new and popular games are much more affordable on Steam, sometimes as low as $20, $10, or even $5 during special holiday or seasonal sales. It’s a great deal, considering physical copies of most new games go for $60, and many take a long time to drop below $30.

Steam facebook
Steam’s product page on Facebook has almost 4 million “likes”

Like any savvy brand, Steam is integrated with a number of other major social networking platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, where it has a whopping 3.9+ million and 3.2+ million followers respectively. As you’d expect, its social channels are well synchronized, informing followers of the latest daily and weekly deals, flash sales, software developments, and upcoming new releases. If you’re a Steam user with a Steam wishlist, you’ll even receive email notices when items specifically catered to your interest go on sale, when another Steam user wants to trade a community item to you, or when someone sends you a gift.

Though it’s a “bit like the whale of the social networking world”, huge but growing much more slowly than most other networks (Murphy), it has attracted new followings on two other social giants, Tumblr and Pinterest, as recently as 2014. But here’s why Steam’s slow rate of territorial expansion is negligible: it’s already deeply rooted where it needs to be. Steam lives where gamers live. The platform has its own client, the new SteamOS, but has already established itself as the preferred gaming platform on the majority of its competitors’ operating systems, including Windows, OS X, and Linux. In fact, according to a 2013 gaming survey by Big Fish, “53.5% of gamers play games on Windows via Steam.”

ESA-Sales-Data-555x277
Digital sales are quickly overtaking physical sales (Labbe)

But Steam’s presence doesn’t end there. The gaming platform also sells its product in the stores of its brick-and-mortar retail competitors, including GameStop, BestBuy, Walmart, and Target. These stores sell Steam Gift Cards and Wallet Codes which make adding funds to users’ Steam Wallets or giving digital gifts to friends and family through Steam easier. These stores are also a great place for those who aren’t yet digitally inclined to meet and shake hands with Steam for the first time. This is crucial because a massive shift is already underway in favor of digital purchases and downloads, and to say this shift has adversely affected videogame sales in brick-and-mortar stores is an understatement. In fact, the “relative failure of [GameStop’s] push into online PC sales” has left it little choice but to allow Steam, a digital downloads giant, to set up shop within its own walls (Plunkett). Steam may have had little to no presence offline until just a few years ago, but as physical videogame sales plummet, Steam has positioned itself where its competitors used to shop and is actively offering a solution for their current and future consumption needs. A smart move, considering that as of 2014, “52 percent of games are sold via digital format,” according to the Entertainment Software Association (Labbe).

Steam seems to have its communications and marketing all figured out, but, until recently, the social gaming giant hasn’t been without one particular and grievous flaw. Its customer service history is riddled with complaints and, sometimes, even utter failure. Steam users historically love the platform’s features almost as much as they hate its customer service respond time and problem solving rate:

“Not too long ago, I stumbled across a curious fact: Valve, maker of the world’s biggest PC gaming service, was given an F by the Better Business Bureau. Othermajorgamingcompanies largely have A’s. The culprit? Poor customer service[…]According to the BBB’s page on Valve, people have filed 717 complaints about Valve and Valve-related products (Steam, games, etc), 502 of which they’ve failed to respond to. The majority of complaints stem from ‘problems with a product/service.’ More tellingly, the BBB says Valve has ‘has failed to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints.'”
–Nathan Grayson (2015, March 13)

Gabe Newell 3
Valve Corporation founder Gabe Newell

An interesting controversy reared its head recently while Valve publicly mulled over the idea of paid mods on Steam, with a particular emphasis on the wildly popular, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Basically, a price tag would be placed on users’ homemade mods, regardless of whether they had been free in the past, and the revenue from purchases would then be split between the modder, Valve, and the developer of the game being modded. The response from the Steam community was overwhelmingly negative. Most felt, in the words of Hayden Dingman (PCWorld), that “the 25 percent to modders/30 percent Valve/45 percent Bethesda [revenue] split Skyrim featured was exploitative and gross”, and that paying for mods acted greedily against the spirit of hobbyist modding.

Thankfully, and perhaps to the surprise of many, Valve actually listened, pulling the plug on the idea altogether. Following the uproar, Valve Corporation founder Gabe Newell even participated in a reddit AMA in order to address and quell consumer alarm publicly (LaBella). The controversy came with plenty of flack, and generated talk among users of the merits of Steam’s historically less-popular online competitors such as GOG (formerly Good Old Games), but Valve’s willingness to listen and subsequent efforts to improve customer service appear to mark a change for the better as far as Steam’s customer service goes. Despite some major issues, the platform is clearly doing something very well.

humblebundleOne last thing worth mentioning is what I believe is Steam’s most positive touchpoint. Steam is integrated with a number of other digital sellers / distributors such as Green Man Gaming, Uplay, and Origin, but most important (in my own opinion) is its connection with Humble Bundle. Formerly “Humble Indie Bundles”, Humble Bundle is a unique site that bundles digital copies of videogames and sells them at a price determined by the purchaser. The proceeds are then split however the purchaser wishes between Humble Bundle, the game developer(s), and a charity, such as Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Charity: Water, the American Red Cross, and many more (Wikipedia). Vouchers for games playable on Steam are available through Humble Bundle and other such sites. This not only allows Steam to integrate with other digital distributors’ consumer communities, but also provides expanded outlets for Steam to network and communicate with consumers who are interested in charities and other philanthropic causes or organizations.


Ref.

Dingman, Hayden. (2015, April 28). Pcworld.com – “Steam kills off controversial paid mods feature for Skyrim”

Galarneau, Lisa. (2014, August 1) Bigfishgames.com – “2013 Gamers Survey Results: Demographics, Platforms and Smartphone Use”

Grayson, Nathan. (2015, March 13). Steamed.kotaku.com – “Valve Is Not Psyched They Got an ‘F’ in Customer Service”

LaBella, Anthony. (2015, April 27). Gamerevolution.com – “Gabe Newell Discusses Paid Mods in Reddit AMA”

Labbe, Mark. (2015, April 15). Playstationlifestyle.net – “ESA Report Shows Digital Games Being Purchased More Than Physical Ones”

Murphy, David. (2014, November 27). Pcmag.com – “Watch Out Facebook: Tumblr, Pinterest Pick Up Steam”

Plunkett, Luke. (2012, May 10). Kotaku.com – “GameStop Admits Defeat, Starts Selling Steam Vouchers”

Wikipedia. (2015, August 20). “Humble Bundle” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humble_Bundle

Wikipedia. (2015, September 8). “Steam (software)” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_(software)

Images

Steam logo: http://tf2freakshow.wikia.com/wiki/File:Steam-logo.png

Gabe Newell: http://venturebeat.com/2013/02/07/valves-gabe-newell-argues-for-pc-gaming-in-the-living-room-but-apple-is-scary/

Humble Bundle logo: http://www.jimmyv.org/partners/corporatepartners/humble-bundle/