Up till now, people who wanted to learn about our group buying platform had to make do with the rather scanty information provided on the VendAsta corporate site. A while back we decided that Daily Deal Platform 3S deserved its own website.
It took us forever to come up with an illustration for the main page. A few weeks ago I sat down with Liz and her sketchbook and we tossed some brilliant ideas back and forth:
(These and all the other drawings on this page are by Liz Syrnick, by the way.) After some discussion, this is what we settled on:
Everyone claimed to like the drawing, but they were confused. “Why bunnies?” they asked.
“Well, it’s a group buying site, so, you know…bunnies in a shopping cart.”
Tavis and Jeff tried to be tactful. “We really like the bunnies,” Tavis explained, “but we’re worried that people won’t take us seriously if the main image is so…”
“Cute,” said Jeff.
“Yeah. We need people to understand that we’re serious players in this field.”
“But that we’re still fun to hang around with,” Jeff added.
So the shopping cart bunnies, and all the additional bunnies that Liz had drawn for the interior pages of the site, had to be thrown out. I hate to see them left homeless, so I’m putting them up here.
Undaunted, Liz retired to her sketchbook, and a few days later she and Marie-Louise emerged with some tiny construction workers assembling a website. Behold, the new home of VendAsta’s group buying platform!
I don’t know much about New Zealand. What little I know comes from Flight of the Conchords and the early movies of Peter Jackson, so my appreciation of Kiwi culture leans heavily toward novelty songs and zombie babies.
Last week I got the opportunity to learn a little more. We have a new partner for our group buying platform:
Cartoon seem familiar? One of the perks partners receive when they sign up with VendAsta’s Daily Deal Platform 3S is their very own branded, customized, and colour-coordinated video. We’re such sticklers for detail that we even determined to give the voiceover an authentic New Zealand accent.
At first we thought we could get Scott, our Australian-in-residence, to supply the voice. But it turns out there’s a difference between the Aussie drawl and the Kiwi twang, which Scott illustrated by playing us this video:
…Of which we understood not a word.
So we had to find a real New Zealander. But as you might expect, the supply of Kiwi voice actors in Saskatoon is pretty limited. After soliciting help on Twitter we got word of a recent immigrant named Chris who, it was rumoured, had done a little acting back in his high school days in Whakatane.
(Incidentally, in words derived from the Maori language the “wh” is pronounced as “f”. That was an interesting conversation:
ME: So, whereabouts in New Zealand did you grow up?
ME: Fock-a-what? How do you spell that?
Everyone’s pretty pleased with how the voiceover turned out. We got word from our partner that Chris has “a great Kiwi accent…not too rural, but not too soft either.”
But he’s not just a pretty voice. Chris also helped us revise our script. In the North American version we say:
If the target isn’t reached by the end of the day, the deal is cancelled, and no-one pays a dime.
It seems that in New Zealand they don’t call them “dimes” – they’re just called “ten cent pieces”. So Chris changed the line to “no-one pays a cent”. We paid for an actor and got a copy editor for free!
Anyway, if you’re looking for great bargains in New Zealand, check out Whlocking…sorry, Flocking Good Deals, coming soon to Auckland and other towns.
Recently I created an animated ad for a local group-buying website. My company built the website in partnership with a local yellow page publisher.
As I finished the rough draft of the animation, I didn’t worry too much about the soundtrack. I figured our partners would want to make some changes to the voiceover copy. I went through my iTunes library, popping various jazz tunes into the background, and settled on a 1944 instrumental version by the King Cole Trio of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love”:
I put the ad up on YouTube and sent the link to our partners for feedback. We heard back that they liked it just as it was. They instructed us to make the video publicly available on the website.
Now I had a conundrum. Because this version of the ad wasn’t really intended for public consumption, I hadn’t bothered to purchase the rights to the song. In order to fix the situation, I had to figure out how to license this piece of music.
You’d think that, with all these little companies (like us) churning out low-budget ads for YouTube, there would be lots of how-to guides available online to explain the process for licensing music. There are a few, but none of them answer the two most obvious questions:
How much is this going to cost me, and how long is it going to take?
First, some terminology. If you want to use a recording of a song in an online ad, you need to acquire two separate kinds of rights.
A couple weeks ago, Jordan proposed that we all skip work one Friday afternoon and take in a showing of The Social Network. VendAsta bought our tickets and popcorn and we all had a lot of fun.
Yesterday, Jordan initiated a less wholesome group excursion:
Scott and I are gonna go to KFC to try the new Double Down. If anyone feels like clogging their arteries and fighting for the bathroom after consuming, they are more than welcome to tag along!
As you’ve no doubt already heard from late-night talk show hosts and outraged public health advocates, the Double Down is a novelty sandwich consisting of two strips of bacon and two slices of processed cheese pressed between two fried chicken breasts. It’s been available in the States for months but only just showed up here in Canada.
You have to tip your hat to KFC’s marketing acumen. KFC is selling a ton of these sandwiches, not in spite of their obvious disgustingness, but because of it. They’ve successfully branded the Double Down not as a food item but as an experience. The subtext for the marketing campaign is, “Look at this freaky thing we’re selling. Can you believe how freaky it is?”
Even the Google results wink at the sandwich’s unappetizingness:
From the marketer’s point of view, the great thing about this product is that it’s impervious to ridicule. Usually if you’re advertising a food item you don’t want to hear feedback like “clogging arteries” and “fighting for the bathroom”. Yet every time someone cracks a joke about how revolting the Double Down is, they reinforce KFC’s selling message. Every time some earnest nerd from the Sodium Working Group unzips her hemp anorak to declare that the Double Down represents a “worrisome trend”, KFC cash registers jingle.
Unfortunately, the “so bad it’s good” marketing message only works for a limited subset of products. I think here at VendAsta we’ll stick to making good software and selling it on its merits. But godspeed, KFC, for showing us that there is another path.
As you may have heard, VendAsta has developed a group buying platform. (I’ve talked about it quite a bit over on the corporate blog.) The premise behind group buying sites is that when consumers combine their buying power, they can get substantial discounts from local businesses.
Having watched the video, I’m sure you’re wondering two things:
Where do I sign up? and,
Why are the people in the cartoon so squiggly?
Let me address the latter question. This video is the product of a collaborative effort which we’ll call “group rotoscoping”. (I considered “grotoscoping”, but it sounds too much like an invasive medical procedure.)
To make your own group rotoscoping video, just follow these easy steps:
1. Round up your co-workers and film them carrying ceiling tiles around the abandoned offices on the second floor.
2. Convert this video to a frame rate of 12 frames per second, number the frames, and get all 990 of them printed off at your local copy centre.
3. Scramble the order of the frames and, on a Friday afternoon, distribute them to your team of highly-paid software developers. (If software developers are unavailable, any large group of nimble-fingered geniuses will suffice.)
4. Instruct your galley slaves to trace the frames with black Sharpies onto transparency film. This will require some careful definition of exactly which details need to be traced and which need to be left out.
5. Assuming you’ve got 15 people tracing at an average rate of 3 minutes per frame, you should get done in about three and a half hours. (It took us longer because some of my galley slaves jumped ship while I wasn’t looking.)
6. Gather up the transparencies and shuffle them back into the correct order. Scan them and import them into your animation program of choice.
7. Assign an eager young person to go through each of the frames, correcting the more egregious deformities, like three-eyed Blair.
8. Press play and watch your cartoon creations squiggle to life.
Apart from being an interesting experiment in its own right – just to see how a roomful of distinct tracing styles would average out into a coherent moving image – this cartoon actually has some thematic relevance, which is more than I can say for any other video I’ve made in my advertising career. It illustrates how you can save – money or time – by getting a crowd of people working together.
If I’d traced those frames on my own it might’ve taken me weeks, if I didn’t saw off my tracing hand first. With the help of the team, the tracing got done in about a day, and the whole video was completed in under two weeks.
Hooo-ah. Just got back from bushwhacking through the far-right fringes of online conspiracy-theorizing.
It all started with StepRep. A while back, as part of our Great Dog Food Experiment, I “adopted” a used bookstore called the Book Bin, in Salem, Oregon. I created an account for the Book Bin and started monitoring their reputation using StepRep. Why? To get a feel for how everyday users interact with the product. To catch bugs. To come up with ideas for how it can be improved.
This week in my top keywords list I noticed something strange.
Goodgame’s thesis is that “militant Islam has been a card played by the global elites of the dominant Anglo-American establishment to achieve the long-term goal of a world government.” If you’re wondering whether the Freemasons, the British royal family, and the Bilderberg Group have a part in this plot, rest assured – they do. But how is Salem’s favourite used bookstore tangled up in the conspiracy?
With the help of Ctrl+F, I found the following passage:
However, bin Laden’s time in London has since been confirmed by Saudi-based journalist Adam Robinson in his book Bin Laden – Behind the Mask of the Terrorist.
[I]n 1973 the Islamic Council of Europe was created with headquarters in London. The Council’s long-time Secretary General was a prominent Muslim Brother by the name of Salem Azzam …
So there you go. The name of the business, plus the name of the city where it’s located, appearing together on a single page. For a small business without a lot of online mentions, that’s enough to make it into this week’s top keywords list.
You see, at its core, StepRep is pretty simple. It collects data through queries to Google, Bing, and all the other major search engines. If you didn’t mind submitting multiple queries to multiple search engines all day long every single day, and sorting through all the hits to eliminate duplicates, you could get the same results StepRep does.
After the results are gathered, StepRep does some data analysis to determine sentiment and relevancy. But as the Bin Laden example illustrates, it’s not foolproof. The problem is that StepRep isn’t smart enough (yet) to figure out from context that the phrase “his book Bin Laden” has nothing to do with a store called the Book Bin.
Is that a damaging confession for me to make? Well, how would you do it? …How would you design a search algorithm clever enough to screen out bad results like “his book Bin Laden” without also screening out good results like “His Book Bin excursion was a success…” or “The Book Bin, laden with rare finds…” Bear in mind, this algorithm also has to work for every other business name in the English-speaking world.
If you’ve got a solution, you should definitely get in touch with us, because we’re looking for smart people to help us improve the relevancy of our searches. I thought this story was worth sharing because it illustrates just how difficult it is to achieve perfect accuracy. StepRep is getting stronger and stronger, but (unlike the Bilderberg Group) it’s not all-powerful…yet…
A few days ago Jason Kottke linked to this list of The Best Magazine Articles Ever, a whole month’s supply of first-class procrastination material. It’s an excellent resource, though predictably heavy on stuff from the last twenty years or so: the late David Foster Wallace gets six (well-deserved) entries, while Tom Wolfe gets only two, and Joan Didion doesn’t even make an appearance.
Yesterday I found myself reading Shipping Out, Wallace’s 1996 Harper’s article about his adventures on a seven-day luxury cruise of the Caribbean. He describes an “odd little essaymercial” by the author Frank Conroy that appears in the cruise line’s promotional brochure. The essay is “graceful and lapidary and persuasive”, but “also completely insidious and bad”:
In the case of Frank Conroy’s “essay,” Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
This upsets me, because my great respect for Wallace makes me fear there’s something to his argument, which I would otherwise wave off as the predictable anti-consumerism of the Adbusters crowd.
Here’s my view. We’re all in agreement that King Lear is a work of art and that the latest Mountain Dew ad isn’t. In between, things get fuzzy. Is an indie film like The Kids Are All Right art? What about the current number one movie in North America, Inception? What about Spike Jonze’s 30-minute short film I’m Here, sponsored by Absolut Vodka? What about those Old Spice The Man Your Man Could Smell Like clips that went viral not long ago?
Wallace’s comments imply that there’s a straightforward heuristic one can use to differentiate art from non-art. I don’t think there is one. I think there are elements of art, craft, and commerce in all the works mentioned above.
Having experience in both advertising and art-for-art’s-sake, I can identify only one real difference between them: advertising is way harder. When you’re making art you have to please yourself and your audience – and if you don’t mind being a starving artist, you can settle for just pleasing yourself. But when you’re making an ad, in addition to pleasing your audience, you have to sell them something.
It’s tough. You have to think about every word and every image from two totally different perspectives. It’s tempting to compromise on one side or the other – weaken the pitch to make the ad more entertaining, or toss out the entertainment and focus on the selling message. But there can be no compromise. If your ad isn’t pleasing, your sales pitch will flop. But if your ad is pleasing and your sales pitch still flops, that’s it. You’ve flopped.
That’s why most advertising is so terrible. It’s not because marketers are hacks. It’s because it requires exceptional talent to make a good ad. I haven’t made one yet. I keep on trying, because it’s a challenge, but also (let’s face it) because I have to – marketing is the only career where a semi-talented writer like me can make a decent living. If I decided to join the righteous ranks of the artists, I’d be living in a cardboard box within a year.
From the excerpts Wallace supplies, I’d say Frank Conroy’s “graceful and lapidary and persuasive” Caribbean cruise essay is an unusually good ad. Did Conroy get any satisfaction from the assignment? In a footnote, Wallace reports that he got in touch with the author to ask him how he got into the “essaymercial” biz. The reply: “I prostituted myself.”
What would happen if all the talented writers in the advertising biz quit prostituting themselves and became artists? There would be a whole lot more mediocre novels sitting unread in people’s desk drawers. There would be a whole lot more undernourished authors living in their parents’ attics. And there would be just as many ads – only they’d be that much worse than they are already.
I wish David Foster Wallace were still alive to have this disagreement with.
That’s what we’ve taken to calling the little faceless creatures who currently dwell on the main page of StepRep:
The Weebles have been there ever since the site was redesigned back in February. Given the many permutations the main page has gone through since StepRep launched back in January 2009, the Weebles have demonstrated surprising staying power. We’ve often talked about how we’d like to replace them, but we haven’t gotten around to it yet. We want to make sure that whatever illustration we put in the Weebles’ place, we’ll be happy with it for a good long time.
To this end I’ve been trading ideas with our graphic designer, Marie-Louise. A couple weeks ago I enlisted our office manager Tiffany to stick a rolled-up paper tube in her ear and pose for me. (Tiffany has lately taken on the role of StepRep social media coordinator, so she was the logical choice to model.) Here she is monitoring the online chatter:
Maybe Marie-Louise will find a way to refine that image so it fits the style of the website, or maybe the idea will be tossed onto the junkheap along with our earlier failed attempts. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any suggestions for how we can communicate the benefits of reputation intelligence in a single illustration, please send them along. We’ve got some other design changes coming to the site in the coming weeks, so now’s the time to send the Weebles wobbling on their way.
When visitors find out that we follow the Agile software development process here at VendAsta, they invariably ask, “What would the 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke think of Agile?”
When this question comes up, we laugh and quickly change the subject to David Hume, with whom we feel on firmer ground. But I’ve been reading Burke lately and may finally be able to answer this pressing question.
First some background. The Agile Manifesto spells out the principles of Agile design, which favours:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.
Agile is usually contrasted with the so-called “waterfall” method, whereby a plan is conceived by the bigwigs at the top of the org chart, then tumbles down to the folks on level two, who add their contribution before sending it down to the peons on level three, who pass it on to the schnooks on level four, and so on, until it arrives at the bottommost level, by which time the bigwigs have all been fired and their replacements have started work on an entirely different plan.
In an Agile environment, the bigwigs work alongside the peons on cross-functional teams that plan, design, and implement one or two small improvements at a time, in a series of short intervals called sprints, lasting a week or two. At the end of every sprint, a working piece of software is released, and the team pauses to consider the results and to set objectives for the following sprint.
Edmund Burke was a parliamentarian, pamphleteer, and the foremost English critic of the French Revolution. He’s sometimes smeared as a reactionary, but in fact he was a gradualist, who favoured measured change within a constitutional framework over all-encompassing plans dreamed up in a philosopher’s salon.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France he spells out the superiority of the gradualist approach:
[I]n my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. By a slow but well-maintained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first, gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see, that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise. One advantage is as little as possible sacrificed to another. We compensate, we reconcile, we balance…. From hence arises, not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition.
Of course, by its very name, Agile would seem to be in conflict with the precepts of gradualism. The whole point of Agile is to allow for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.
But that apparent conflict is an illusion, as Burke’s history teaches us. The French Revolution was the quintessential waterfall project, in which a small group of visionaries, untroubled by any practical concern for how governments and economies function, arbitrarily rewrote the entire body of their nation’s laws. Their plan, so elegant in the abstract, fell apart at its first collision with the reality of human behaviour. The inalienable Rights of Man gave way to factiousness, bloodshed, and tyranny. Almost a century passed before a stable French republic emerged.
In software terms, the French Revolution was a flashy new release that was so buggy and unpopular that it bankrupted the company.
Meanwhile the British, by an Agile process of small fixes and improvements, continued their “slow but well-maintained progress” toward universal democracy. Even now the Brits don’t have a written constitution, and they seem generally untroubled by the deficiency. You could say they favour “responding to change over following a plan”.
It might seem like a paradox, but Agile is a gradualist approach. Edmund Burke, it turns out, would approve.
Before Christmas I started working on this idea for a MashedIn ad. I wasn’t trying to be tasteless. I’d recently read an article that talked about dogs’ amazing sense of smell – possibly this review in the New York Times of Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know – and I started thinking how dogs have an advantage over humans in their ability to detect common acquaintances. When I meet a stranger on the street I have no way of knowing that he works in the same office as my friend Barry. If I were a dog, I’d be able to smell Barry when the stranger approached.Being clever humans, we’ve developed technology to bring us up to speed with the lower animals. Speech was the first such “technology” (if you can call it that) – one caveman could ask another one, “Hey, do you know Barry over in Cave 93?” Later on someone developed written communication, making it possible to attach labels to your friends for instant identification. This worked all right in small farming communities where no-one knew more than ten or twelve people, but when people moved into big cities, labels became impractical. Whenever two Babylonians met they’d have to spend a half hour circling each other, looking for common friends.
Then came the printing press, the telephone, the internet, social media, and at last we’ve reached the apex of technological achievement – MashedIn, which allows people to identify common friends and interests across multiple social networks.