Summer of Love

Summer of Love Ice CreamWe’ve recently been helping out on the digital component of the Virgin Summer of Love – a pilot promotion attempting to shine a light on a  variety of fun summer promotions happening around the group, and to get in touch with Virgin staff across the group. While there of course have been plenty of real world activities, including an Ice Cream Van that is still touring around the UK, it has been interesting to note the way that different digital channels have been used.

First up, we put together a page on that could be used to link off to other articles. This was interesting structurally as it was one of the first tests of a new content type we’re moving most of the site on to as we rework the (fairly crufty) CMS from the inside. This was probably the least important single element of the digital campaign, but did importantly give the team running the promotion a place to refer people to in the early days. Initial communications about the events (primarily internally to the many people around the group) went in the internal Virgin magazine, Roger, and included a short link on the URL shortener we run,, which could then be modified as needed.

The next stage was to try and test various ways of engaging with Virgin Group people online, so a new Facebook page was setup for the Virgin staff magazine, and the short-URL repointed to there. We made use of the Wildfire competition tool to run an initial promotion, which functioned smoothly and effectively, but was somewhat limited on the ability to control the visual display of the competitions.

The idea behind the competition required submitting photos, and this proved to be quite a barrier to entry. Facebook rules are strongly against using any built in Facebook features for prize draws, so we couldn’t use tagged regular Facebook photos. Users had to upload photos directly to the Wildfire app – something it supported out of the box – but it was still an extra step for people entering. There also wasn’t a great solution for mobile – neither of the major platforms (Android and IOS) allows capturing the camera and uploading from the web browser, so there wasn’t a great way to upload content without a native app – which we didn’t really have time to get involved with.

The like gate aspect did seem to work well, but even that has proved to have limitations, as the most engaged fans on the page become harder to reach as they cannot be setup to see the default landing page automatically – which requires more engaging and effective use of wall updates.

Recently, we’ve been assisting with experimenting in other media. Our new digital designer, Ben, has been editing video and creating animations to support other internal messages and compeitions, which have been delivered primarily via pages and display advertising on, though particularly for the video content the users have been directed to them from Facebook and Twitter rather than being expected to find them naturally. Email has also been a useful tool – it’s reach for our internal communications is still much higher than either Facebook or Twitter, particularly when considering companies around the world – but again it’s used to push people to the web or Facebook to actually engage with the promotion.

It’ll be interesting to see, once the dust settles, how the different channels and media compare to and support each other, and what the impact of real world events has on the whole process, but it’s certainly been fun to experiment so far!

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What Tool Is Your PHP Framework?

We recently posted up a job ad for a PHP developer here at Virgin, and had a comment on the Facebook post, describing Zend Framework (which we use internally) as a “a big fat sledgehammer” (thanks James Chalmers!). We found this quite amusing (and apt, as ZF is a big beast that you use to knock down big problems), and on discussing it with some of the fine people at the PHP London user group last night, a few more were suggested, which also proved amusing:

Codeigniter – Saw.

It’s kind of old, but it’s simple, and if you just need something cut in half it’ll get the job done.

Symfony – Socket Set.

Huge number of different bits, but if you know what you’re doing it lets you put together a car.

Silex – Jewelers Screwdriver

Very precise, but not really suited for the big jobs.

Kohana – Leatherman Multitool.

Very helpful to have around, looks cool, can be a bit fiddly.

Cake – Literally, some cake.

This was not a charitable suggestion I’ll warrant.

Anyone got any better ideas for Cake? Is Agavi a German precision tool that shuts off if you’re not precisely following the safety instructions?  Is Yii a craft knife or a machete?

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Festival proves it’s best(ival) to test(ival)

Excuse the awful title. I was over covering the phenomenal Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona last week. While it was pretty much wall-to-wall brilliance, there was one thing that got nearly every gig-goer rather riled.

The festival decided to introduce an innovative new Portal through which drinks could be bought via smartphones, extra special set tickets could be reserved, and all manner of other clever stuff could be done in advance of the event. Best of all, it would remove the need to queue at the bar, solving one of festival land’s biggest problems – do you get another beer or watch another band?

What a cool, inventive idea. Sadly, it didn’t work. They system clearly hadn’t been tested properly, it seemed to all be running off a few iPads, and the staff weren’t eqipped to cope when it all broke down. Cue even bigger queues of angry punters who couldn’t get their money back and – worst of all – were left thirsty while the music was playing.

Which goes to show, being forward thinking and groundbreaking is a fantastic goal everyone shold strive for. Just make sure you test, test, test to ensure your festival/website/app/new hairdo is really going to work how people expect it to.

Luckily for Primavera they got the Portal working by Day 2, and got Pulp to do the above, so all is forgiven.

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Gone Dutch

I’m currently in the Netherlands at the Dutch PHP Conference, where some interesting talks have already occurred, particularly in a talk about using IPv6, the version of the basic Internet Protocol that deals with the fact that the current version only has a small number of addresses (which are in the process of rapidly running out, and have already done at some levels).

Supporting IPV6 is one of those changes that has a huge amount of impact, to operations, security, code and many other areas, a great deal of which hasn’t got the practical experience that many people bring to traditional IPv4 networks.

Security itself has been on our minds too, and the minds of many after the PSN and Qrosity hacks Sony proved vulnerable to recently. Securing data, particularly financial data, is vital, but it’s also hard, and can be very subtle. Though it’s more of a end-user problem, clever techniques like this clever right to left unicode spoofing mean there’s always someone trying something new to get it

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Brand journalism

Once upon a time marketing was a concept strictly for marketers. In this hazy old era, customer service was a realm inhabited by customer service experts who dealt with customer service. Meanwhile, newsrooms were busy with their news, in their separate rooms. Then social media came along, wearing a meme hat and talking in hashtags.

For some, keeping these areas segmented works, but in most cases it makes far more sense for everybody to work together. Social media can be marketing. Customer service can social media engagement. Marketing can service customers.

One way this is seen in action is in brand journalism. Albert Pusch, head of marketing at FACT-Finder, writes on The Wall that “the marketing department of today is tomorrow’s social media newsroom”. Spreading brand news in an engaging way can help to hit the nail on the head for marketing purposes, social media aims and customer service goals.

Have a look at The Wall for some tips on how to get brand journalism right, from working in real time to engaging with customers, encouraging communities to aggregating.

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A self confessed social gaming addict

I pulled together a presentation a few weeks back on social gaming and I have to say I was astounded by the meteoric growth in the past 6 months.  Here’s a few facts: Cityville had 84.2m active users 1 month after launch .  17.5m people in the UK now play some form of social game. 40% of time spent on facebook is done so gaming. What’s also interesting is that the heartland of social gamers isn’t teenagers, no, it’s women in their late thirties.  It’s clear that social gaming is part of the mass culture but have brands cottoned on to this?

Brands have already been engaging from McDonalds through to Citibank  and I suspect we’ll see many more in the next few months.  Interestingly, it’s not just brands.  Lady Gaga made a recent donation to the Tsunami through Zynga’s fund and is now in talks with Zynga about a potential collaboration…I think Gagaville would be a little too obvious

Games such as Cityville (I’m a self confessed addict) are clever because of their inherent sociability and the strong compulsion loops which encourage repeat play. Smart brands that understand the interplay between these mechanics will reap the rewards in this space. Indeed, Citibank has done well to integrate its own rewards scheme into Farmville.  Members of Citibanks Citi Thank You scheme can now redeem points for in game rewards on the Zynga platform.

The challenge for any marketer is to justify the spend in this space as it’s not a simple case of calculating reach and frequency,  it’s about understanding the value of a brand interaction within a social game.  I would also argue that it’s not about acquiring new customers but about engaging existing customers in a space where brands are welcomed (well they’re welcome at the moment anyway).

We’ll keep watching this space with interest and will update you very shortly.

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Sad Cloud

The big news right now is the rather massive outage at Amazon’s US-EAST-1 datacenter, which has taken down Quora, FourSquare, Reddit,, Wildfire and a bunch of other notable sites that built on AWS infrastructure. While it’s being worked on at the moment, this is not a great confidence builder for those using Amazon’s kit.

On a related note, when chatting with Erik, our ops point man at Dedipower (where is hosted, amongst other things), he pointed me towards a blog post he wrote last year which discussed that as much as we worry about the reliability and performance of our infrastructure, it’s all for nothing if we don’t pay as much attention to developers and development. As he puts it:

Without having made a science out of it, I can confidently say that at the very least 95% of the downtime I see on a daily basis is due to faulty code in the applications running on our servers.

Finally, DHH of Rails and being outspoken fame, make some pertinent comments about how the startup world is a bit ‘swing for the fences’ – in other words that they are all about long shots that have a slim chance, but if they do get that chance will become massive. He prefers a more sustainable, reliable growth model, and more reasoned risk taking – a good point to remember in the currently bubbling climate.

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Social marathon








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Intentionally blank

20110415-092228.jpgThe VGD team (and a large chunk of VML) were out at a charity pub quiz for the runners at Sunday’s Virgin London Marathon last night, but we’re also in preparation for Monday’s Social Media Marathon, which should be an interesting experiment!

On the experimental front, Shed Simove has posted an amusing breakdown of how he got into the Amazon bestsellers list with a blank book. What is really interesting about the story is how he could, pretty easily, self publish and promote a book, but that how to get the mainstream media coverage he still needed to rely on a traditional PR agency.

Dave Winer has a brief post outlining how much faster he found Rackspace Cloud Servers than Amazon EC2 – interesting stuff for anyone looking to take advantage of elastic resources. It seems pretty clear that smart setups will start to look more and more like the configurations people like The Guardian and Channel 4 have employed, with some dedicated servers that are augmented by scaling out onto elastic services, but I suspect the scale out will flexibly move between whichever provider is the cheapest at the time.

Finally, Automattic, the company behind (where this blog lives, no less), had their servers broken in to earlier this week. While they’re cagey on what was compromised, there was certainly no financial information, and it looks like the hack was basically exploratory, just poking around. It does reinforce how much more difficult it is to be the defender than the attacker though – there are always going to be more people trying to break in to an interesting site than there will be defending it.

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Next Generation Networking

The be-suited bloggers Virgin Media Business posted recently on how they’ve helped Nottingham Building Society with an IP-VPN solution. IP-VPN is an interesting tech, as part of the general trend to Next Generation Networks. For some time telecoms companies have transported phone, internet, and most other types of data over the same networks, using the same kind of communication protocols – particular IP (the Internet Protocol, natch). However, users still consume them differently, buying in phone lines, and data lines to different places, which is all a bit inefficient.

The next generation network idea is that there is this single network that can handle all sorts of different information, and be smart about it. For example, you’ll want your phone service to always take priority over someones file download. You could always do this on your own network in your own office, with Quality of Service setups, but the underlying protocols that tend to be used with next generation networks (IP and MPLS) allow that to be spread out to the wider network.

The VPN part of IP-VPN stands for Virtual Private Network – which is exactly what it sounds like, a way of having various remote resources seem like they are part of the same network, which is useful for connecting multiple offices. Because this goes via the underlying next generation network it’s usually cheaper than leasing a connection between the two offices directly, which is the older way of doing such things.

I’d say that the overall impact of all this kind of thing on most businesses is that their connectivity gets cheaper, more flexible, and easier to control, which makes things that require that connection easier to use, and hence to justify. That’s good news for people offering SaaS apps (and Cityville), as more day-to-day business can be done online reliably and confidently.

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