Damp thinking from The Waterfront.

Picture it. The Waterfront (a local music venue) management team are meeting and the subject of marketing comes up. They need to get the current website sorted and someone comes up with the idea that they could launch a competition that in exchange for designing and building their new website the winner will get a year’s pass to all gigs and nightclub nights.

“Genius!” the room crys. But is it? Is it really that clever? Giving it ponder and listening to others I’m tending to think it’s probably the worst idea I’ve ever heard and this is why.

The prize:

The prize is a year’s entry to 2 venues covering all bands (150) and all club nights (100) and movie screenings (50) so that’s 380 events. Assuming I wanted to go to all I’d need to go to 1 a day for a year, 2 some days. Only it’s not quite that simple as it’s 2 venues so that means that there will be clashing. Lets say that only 15% of dates clash that leaves us with 323.

Now you can’t please all the people all the time and so you can’t expect a lover of music to attend all 100% events just because he/she can. Remember this is still assuming that he/she has no other prior commitments (other than building their website of course). I’d say that at best you’d probably like 50% of the acts and movies and club nights well you can take them or leave them really but 75% tops. So we’re down to 150 events which is still roughly 3 events per week.

In monetary terms that’s about £1200. To be honest the value is irrelevant but I wanted to do the maths anyway. The fact is in real terms it costs the venue nothing.

The requirements:

They are asking for a professional website solution covering things like robust and easily editable content management system, event calendar system, photo gallery system, be DDS compliant, mailing list facility and should be be eye catching, attractive and interesting. That’s design and programming.

The spec says “This list is not complete, but gives you an idea of what we’re looking for!” So you’re looking for everything for nothing and you know what you get don’t you? You get what you pay for.

The winner

Anyone who’s got their head screwed on will know that an individual can’t be good at everything. The only trouble is an agency (or collaboration team) can’t share a season ticket to a music venue. An agency has bills to pay and mouths to feed. It provides a professional service in exchange for a fair rate of pay.

In addition to this experienced staff will have more strategic musical tastes. Its’ unlikely they will like even as much as 50% of the acts I’d say it’s probably less than 10% and are unlikely to be interested in the club nights either. So the prize is even more unattractive.

So they are looking at a student or rookie. He/she maybe good at design or he/she maybe able to hack into the pentagon but they are unlikely to have any real commercial experience and they are very unlikely to know what DDA is and even care about it. They probably wont know a whole lot about marketing, engagement, accessibility or usability. But hey, they aren’t important are they?

He/she probably will probably have a full time job and will do this ‘on the side’. They are unlikely to be able to attend client meetings to understand the client and their target audience. They will be able to reply to facebook messages though so that’s cool (but not in class time of course)!

The chance to work with a big Norwich brand is slightly flawed as most agencies are working with similar or bigger sized brands anyway. I can see the attractiveness for a freelancer but then we’re in this loop of what can be delivered by an individual.

The damp thinking

You’re a business just like any other business. You’re a business with a well known brand. A brand that needs marketing correctly and effectively. And your best idea is to put this in the hands of a) erks to do trendy designs and then b) your own internal team decide which is the best design? Your own internal team that a) designed the current site which is a dogs dinner (in flash) and they are the ones that came up with this crazy idea.

Of course with no real incentive other than the ticket there’s really nothing to lose for the participant. They can give up half way through with no recompense to them and Waterfront are ship wrecked. In fact using there are a number of things that can go wrong when you think about it….if you think about it that is.

So what would I of done differently? Engage, Engage, Engage.

Well having heard a small sniff that maybe something wasn’t right with the competition i.e. a string of negative comments I might of thought ‘Hang on , maybe we got this wrong. We need to go away and think this through’ instead of saying ‘yeah you guys [many good and respected Norwich web agency folk] are right, a pass to every gig and every club night at the UEA and Waterfront for an entire year as well as the chance of being involved in a website that gets thousands of visits every months is rubbish, silly us.’

Yes that’s really what they said, on facebook, to the world. As a side the venue might want to review their social media policy when dealing with conflict.

A competition is a great idea, just not this way. There’s over 8000 fans on the facebook page. Why not ask them what they think should be on the website and perhaps offer them a year ticket for the best idea to improve the website?

Then hire a local professional firm to deliver a website solution that will work, be effective in what it’s supposed to do and deliver all the requirements + of course a pro agency would be able to advise on other other ideas, better ways to do things and so on. They’ll be around all day to contact too.

OK it’s cost you a few bob and I know money is tight right now but it has to be seen as an investment into the future of the venue. One could say that desperate times call for desperate measures. Is it desperate times for The Waterfront?

So in conclusion there is a way that  the fans are kept happy and are part of the process, the management are happy and hopefully the brand will grow and the bank accounts will stay happy. I would love to eat my words on this but if the competition continues then I’m not so sure that the above will be the case.

Details of the competition can be found here


I love: Norfolk | Food | Cooking | Community | Speaking | Marketing | My Wife x | Great customer service & engagement | Running a business (or 2) | Humour

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  1. I think there are two key issues – and discussion points – here.

    The first is the constant assumption by companies, usually small-to-medium sized, that seem to believe that good web development and design should cost nothing.

    The number of times I’ve heard ‘we can’t pay you, but having our site on your portfolio will be really good for you…’ and so on. I’m not sure why this only seems to happen in the web development industry, either. If I were to go to a brand new car manufacturer and say “I can’t buy one of your cars but if you give me one for free, I’ll tell everyone you made it” they would laugh me out of the building.

    Perhaps a bad example. But the theory is there, and you’re completely right when you say *you get what you pay for*. Absolutely. If you want a site that’s professionally designed, brings in good quality traffic, gets visitors to where you want them to be (or buy what you want them to buy), then pay for an agency/freelancer with a good reputation and a sound portfolio and so on.

    If you want a site that looks like someone’s put various zoo animals into a blender, then ask someone to do it for free. The only people you’ll actually have apply (and I’m hoping they prove me wrong – but I doubt it) will have no or very little experience of what works commercially. I know I’ve said ‘free’ and technically it’s not free, but a ‘potential prize’ is basically the same as ‘not paying anything’.

    The second point is about engagement and whilst the comment they made on Facebook was appalling and counter-productive, it wasn’t really surprising. Whoever runs the Waterfront Facebook account obviously has no idea how to properly interact with users, which is all too common in small businesses.

    The key is that you can remain friendly and professional *at the same time*. Innocent, Firebox et al get this right and are excellent examples of good communication balance – it’s no wonder companies are terrified by social media as a new channel, because people get it wrong time and time again, which produces horror story after horror story.

    The Waterfront still have time and opportunity to set things right, but something tells me they won’t. Good luck to them.

    • “we can’t pay you, but having our site on your portfolio will be really good for you…”

      That happens in the illustration industry too… again, its (in some people’s eyes) something that should cost nothing.

  2. I think you are completely selling students short here. At a reputable university like the UEA there will be a few really good, designers who can code just as well if not better than half of the second rate agency employees in Norwich. I would argue most of the raw talent out there is between the ages of 18 and 26 (ish) and while they may be lacking in commercial awareness, they are will be working on a site which is actually aimed at their demographic to an extent.

    Although the competition and thought behind it may be flawed this is a great way for an unknown / upcoming, talented designer (and let’s be honest, most designers can now code, even if only WordPress) to have a ‘big’ local brand on there portfolio.

    With the right management this is actually a stroke of genius, the people who have jumped on the bandwagon to knock it are probably all agency folk who would have liked the work! We should use projects like this to help support the upcoming designers who will take the industry to the next level.

    P.s the prize is gash…

  3. Good post and comments.

    Personally, I think the competence of the supplier, whether student or agency, is not the point. If the Waterfront feel that a student can meet their needs – and as Stuart says, it’s possible – then a student can be their supplier.

    We can’t even really criticise the terms of the deal. If two sides agree to an arrangement and a price (in money or gigs), then that’s a deal. Personally, I think it is exploitative, but a market is a market.

    On a moral level, however, I think this approach isn’t very community-minded. Imagine if everyone did this – web development prices would fall through the floor, companies would go bust and our local economy and reputation would suffer. In the end you wouldn’t be able to get a decent website built in Norfolk even if you wanted to – all the talented devs would have upped sticks for London or Brighton. And what’s the point of having a great cv if no-one can afford to employ you?

    For me, the real point here is the nature of the deal and the incentives it sets up. It just doesn’t make good business sense. The supplier, whoever they are, is not motivated to explore and refine the brief, suggest useful additions to it or raise difficult but important questions. During the build, they’re incentivised to cut corners and ‘just do it’ rather than taking the time to build something really elegant and functional. If they have great ideas that would add value, it’s not in their interest to share them. Their one and only aim will be to get a superficially attractive project on their cv – not serve the client or build a relationship with them. That’s the flip-side of the Waterfront’s manipulative ‘enhance your cv’ carrot.

    In the end, as Gary says, the Waterfront brand will not be well served by the exercise. (Arguably, it’s already been tarnished by their approach to procurement.) Look at the big brands today – Apple, Nike, whoever. Why do they spend so much on branding, on creative, on development, on user experience? Have they just got more money than sense? Are they, perhaps, just a bit stupid?

    No. The reason is that you should always spend as much on your brand as you can afford. It’s like buying a suit. Cutting costs completely misses the point. Branding isn’t a race to the bottom, but an attempt to reach the top. Or it should be. And I really hope the designers and developers of tomorrow understand that – even if they feel they have to take this deal.