How the Human Brochure project won over sceptics like me

Human Brochure logoAt the weekend, Cathie McGinn was a guest of  The Human Brochure, an initiative by ACT Tourism and The Works which saw hundreds of guests visit the capital as part of an exercise in social media and PR.

I confess to having felt a degree of scepticism about the Human Brochure project when it launched, based on having previously been to Canberra.

The other small voice of snark kept reminding me that junkets are often a badly organised, frantic affair in which PRs are often reduced to plying their guests with booze to cheer them up as they wait around in mediocre hotel lobbies. The idea of inviting people to clutter up social media with compliments about the free stuff they were getting received quite a bit of negative press in mainstream media and Twitter alike.

I, like 31,406 other Australians, had applied for the trip to visit the nation’s capital some while ago. Five hundred people were selected to attend one of two weekend events along with a guest, chosen by their use of social media platforms. By anyone’s standards, that’s a logistical nightmare; the fact that it followed recent media stoushes about the role and responsibility of bloggers being paid by brands made for ominous predictions.

Often, campaigns designed to work across multiple channels fall down – and fall hard – in at least one part of the execution, even for big brands. It’s usually in the digital arena that the failure comes. The Bonds website outage let down an otherwise great idea; the failed paid search component of the Share a Coke campaign meant hundreds of people ended up on Mumbrella instead of a campaign site, for instance.

The process leading up to the weekend itself was, frankly, a tad disorganised. For example, flights to Canberra were only provided for those travelling interstate, which, it transpired fairly late in the piece, excluded Sydney. So it was with fairly low expectations that I trudged onto a bus on Friday night. But from that point onwards, it began to look like the plan was coming together.

The whole campaign has been underpinned by meticulous digital planning. The website was originally for registrations, then became a destination for information, morphed into a showcase of the people attending, and finally ended up as a repository for all the tagged content created by the “humans.”

The website aggregated live content from the social media feeds of the attendees – with a filter for swear words, but otherwise unmoderated. That fact alone would have given me a slow motion panic attack for the entire weekend if I’d been on the campaign team. It demonstrated an admirable commitment to transparency, but I think what made it work was in part the fact that the site was perfectly optimised for mobile so guests could see the site evolving with their live posts while they were at events, which drew on the human tendency towards compliance with peer behaviour to encourage self-moderation.

Human Brochure

a snapshot of posts from the site

The creation of a Facebook page for attendees also provided guests with a closed group in which to vent spleen away from the public gaze; an example of smart community management and media planning.

And small details – repeated references to the hashtag, mini competitions within the event, the provision of free wifi wherever possible – created a feedback loop that drove all conversations back online.  As the #humanbrochure hashtag remained one of the top trending topics in Australia over the weekend, I was impressed to see the explanatory tweet from the Human Brochure account had been sponsored, to ensure anyone curious about the trending hashtag would immediately find a answer at the top of the stream.

There was criticism about the transparency of the process, or paying for endorsement, which I think was genuinely unfounded. The simple fact is that had the experience felt fake, or had anything gone awry, the assorted bloggers and online ‘influencers’ would not have been shy of saying so. And most critically, the fact every content piece was tagged means there was full disclosure about what had prompted the content.

As the weekend progressed, there seemed to be a turnaround in mainstream media sentiment, from the initially sceptical –  “Canberra: the city paying people to like it” and the angry review on RiotACT – to positive coverage on the front page of the Canberra Times and the ‘social media frenzy’ piece on today’s SMH, and any negative online sentiment was rapidly swamped by the positive.

The content created at the event was multi-faceted. From the slightly irksome experience of being filmed continuously, like a well-fed lab rat, to the coverage the project picked up in the mainstream media, it seemed all channels were covered.

By Saturday afternoon, there were 2000 photographs on Instagram tagged #HumanBrochure, thousands of Twitter conversations and Facebook mentions. All of which is content created with a built-in distribution plan and a ready-made engaged audience: most crucially, that audience is more likely to trust the reviews offered by the bloggers and Twitterers than advertising messages.

Of course spending the weekend being shuttled around, wined and dined and put up in style left little to complain about but I think the key point is that the four different ‘activity streams’ – food and wine, family, art and culture, and adventure – allowed people to share a different view of the state capital. I for one was previously  unaware there was such a thing as the Canberra Wine Region. My previous visits had been for work, and the project certainly revealed another side to the ACT.

It’s well understood in user experience circles that your best advocates are often those who helped you create the new experience: ready-made fans who feel very invested in the success of the project. Another clever play was to invite the curator of the Canberra Centenary Festival, Robyn Archer, to talk through the upcoming events, building on this process of cathexis and ensuring that by being included in the thinking behind not only the Human Brochure campaign but also the ongoing centenary celebrations, they would be more likely to champion the cause to their networks in the future.

As for the value, the project’s price tag of a million dollars seems to me to be well spent. The interactions struck up by opportunistic Canberra businesses on Twitter offered them a chance to associate themselves with the experience in a way that will last far beyond that weekend; there’s a treasure trove of user generated content, at least 60 hours of footage of people having a lovely time to be used in advertising or showreels for the capital, as well as positive sentiment and a gang of influencers who will be recommending aspects of their trip to their social networks, on and offline, for some time to come.

And that’s the sort of coverage you can’t buy.


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