Sunday, October 3rd, 2004
A couple of years ago I remember coming across the Traffic street teams site and thinking that if I had more time, it’d be a cool thing to do. In short, Traffic puts together teams of people who are fans of bands willing to help promote that band in return for ’swag’ - gig tickets, merchandise and other desirable stuff. It’s a cheap, easy and appears to be effective.
As it happened, I didn’t have time and the swag on offer was not sufficiently valuable to me that I wanted to spend hours doing the tasks required to earn it. That’s no great surprise - street teams are set up appeal to students and rabid fans, not businesswomen with a new internet start-up to look after.
A few days ago, I was feeding my rabid obsession with Shaun of the Dead when I came across Shaun Squad, a street team site for fans to promote the film in America, where is has just got a limited theatrical release.
Having a look round Shaun Squad, I was somewhat surprised that a site as new as this hasn’t taken any notice of the lessons learnt by social networking sites, which is a shame because it means that the site is nowhere near as effective as it could be.
Compare and contrast
Before I start pointing out what Shaun Squad could have been, I think it’s worth looking at how it works, and how it differs from Traffic.
On Shaun Squad, you have to register before you get full access to the site. You can then do certain tasks which earn you ‘pints’ that you can swap for goodies. The various tasks include inviting a friend to the site, IMing your friends, posting a link on a relevant messageboard or website, creating banners and icons, and various offline tasks such as taking photos of yourself in front of a theatre showing Shaun of the Dead. The site also collects feedback on ads, trailers and other official promotional activity.
If you earn enough pints, you can swap them for goodies such as a signed copy of the script, signed posters, t-shirts and the soundtrack CD. Pretty good incentives, but when a signed script costs you 18,000 pints and the tasks start at 50 pints for the online stuff, going up to 700 pints for an opening weekend photo, that’s a lot of effort to go to.
(Actually, if these prizes were available for UK residents I might be tempted into it by the thought of getting hold of a script, signed or not, but it’s only for Americans, sadly.)
On Traffic, teams are expected to do work offline - they are supplied with “materials (which could include stickers, leaflets, posters, CDs, promotional items, vouchers, tickets, competition prizes, etc.)”, and then have to complete simple tasks and submit an online report form prior to a deadline.
Traffic describe their perks thusly:
In addition to the satisfaction that you will get from promoting your favourite bands, you will receive all kinds of perks depending on what the bands, record companies/other clients provide us with on your behalf. You will receive things like pre-release copies of new records, free merchandise, gig tickets and promo items for completing your assigned tasks. There will, on occasion, be competitions and opportunities to meet the bands. There are also potential rewards and job possibilities for the most committed team members.
The key difference is that Traffic deals with ongoing promotions - a band will have single releases, album releases, tours, festival appearances, in-shop appearances and all sort of other stuff going on almost year round. Traffic creates teams of individuals to work a given band or project, and once a team is full it accepts no further members. They have time to build a team, and for that team to create a presence for the band.
Shaun Squad deals with one event - the release of a film in the States. And it’s a limited release at that, showing in only 607 theatres. They don’t have time to waste, they need a quick hit now. Shaun Squad doesn’t create teams, instead encouraging individuals to compete for prizes.
With Traffic, the social side of their activities is limited online to forums. Considering the slow burn nature of their activities, I guess this is just about adequate. More social interaction would create stronger teams, but without actually being able to take part in a team it’s hard to see precisely how well it works as is.
Shaun Squad uses forums and chat to promote social interactivity amongst members, but you must be registered before you can do that, or access most of the rest of the site. Whilst I can see why forum/chat moderators prefer users to register, it is beyond me why you would hide the majority of a promotional site behind registration.
Getting more bang for your buck
The whole point of Shaun Squad is to promote Shaun of the Dead. It has no other purpose. Once Shaun of the Dead is no longer showing in cinemas in the States, it has no function. Shaun Squad has a limited lifespan so they really want to be getting as much bang for their buck as possible, and they’re not: Currently the site has only 5300 members, a number I find to be surprisingly small.
Let’s do some maths. According to IMDb, Shaun of the Dead took $3,330,781 in its first weekend. At an average cost of $9.50 per ticket, that works out to be around 350,000 people. Even if every single member of Shaun Squad went to the movies once, that would only be an extra $50,000 (and this is not taking into account the fact that many of the members of Shaun Squad are in fact in the UK).
So, if its remit is to promote Shaun of the Dead and get more bums on seats, then Shaun Squad isn’t really doing so well. The question has to be why?
I know that the company behind Shaun Squad, FanPimp, has heard of at least one social tool, because they have a news blog which includes posts by Edgar Wright, the director. Sadly, they are totally underusing this tool - it lacks standard blog furniture, is hard to navigate and is hidden behind registration. What does this mean? I means you can’t start a meme with it.
The Shaun Squad site of itself is not a meme, and never could be a meme, because it is inherently unlinkable. An open, public official Shaun of the Dead blog could, however, produce a meme which could spread through the film blogosphere rapidly - precisely the behaviour that’s required for the promotion of a cult film.
Posts by Wright, Pegg or Frost would create enough interest in the fans that they would post about it, and these posts would reach pre-fans (people who aren’t yet fans, but might turn into one given the chance). And it’s the pre-fans you want to get because these are the people who are going to go to the cinema and cough up their 9 bucks and thence (hopefully) turn into fans who will continue the word-of-mouth promotion of the film.
Ultimately, you can’t force a meme - they just happen. But you can create conditions suitable for meme growth: by posting strong material you can increase the chances that meme-spawning will occur. Hide your blog and you ensure memelessness.
Far worse than stifling memes, hiding the blog very effectively prevents healthy traffic. Look at Zach Braff’s Garden State blog and you start to get a feel for how popular film blogs can be. Zach has left comments open on his blog and he gets anywhere from 1500 to 3000 on each post. Compare this to the 40 to 50 comments per entry on the Shaun Squad blog.
Now, some more maths, although maths that is admittedly based on a terrible assumption. Think of it more as a thought experiment than actual maths.
I get around 40,000 unique visitors a month on Chocolate and Vodka. I get around 80 comments a month, so for every comment I get 500 visitors. By that reckoning, Zach Braf must be getting around 1.5 million visitors to each post. OK, my logic may well be faulty here, but either which way you cut it, this blog’s popular and it’s doing its job - it’s promoting Garden State.
Hiding the Shaun Squad blog is possibly the stupidest thing that FanPimp could have done. It achieves absolutely nothing. If anything it is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted - you need to be a committed fan in order to be bothered enough to register for the access to the site which will then allow you to read the blog.
The site should, however, be trying to convert pre-fans into fans and to do that you need to do two things: 1) reach your pre-fans and 2) persuade your pre-fans to go see the film. A blog can potentially do both of these things, something that FanPimp seem not to have realised.
In an ideal world
Any site that relies on word of mouth and networking to raise its profile needs to be thinking much harder about which social tools they can use, and how best to use them. Unfortunately, most aren’t. Whilst the fans are doing a pretty good job of promoting Shaun of the Dead themselves, it would be so much more effective if there had been a central hub which pulled all of that effort together.
If you couldn’t code a dedicated Shaun of the Dead Aggregator to pull in blog posts and spew them out again as a single RSS feed, then an official PubSub feed and/or TopicExchange channel would allow fans to find content more easily. A wiki would allow fans to collate trivia, a task currently performed by my very unofficial OpenZombie. And an open, official blog would be the perfect way for fans to find these resources.
But instead, and as usual, Shaun Squad tries to own the conversation, as well as the means of conversation. In pinning it all down, they kill it and the whole thing fails to achieve its potential.
I’ve no doubt that Shaun of the Dead will become a cult classic - it’s got the depth, the style, the laughs to succeed with or without Shaun Squad. But it would have been so nice to see it utilising social software to facilitate proper online support too.