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The sounds of success

Thames Clipper

This post is based on a ten minute conversation I held recently with Kate Arkless Gray about the BBC’s Save Our Sounds campaign. Appropriately enough, we recorded our chat in the most irritatingly noisy place we could find – a Thames Clipper riverboat. You’ll find the audio below together with a transcript.

Save Our Sounds collected the Radio Academy award for Best Cross Media Promotion or Campaign towards the tail end of last year. Kate and I were lucky enough to work on the project with the support of commissioning editor Tony Phillips and our director Richard Sambrook who is no stranger to social media.

Kate led the social media side of things and I edited the overall campaign. This was also my last big promotional project before moving into a new career so you’ll understand why I’m pleased it came together so effectively.

Below the text of our conversation you’ll see I’ve also embedded the written competition entry. I think it sums-up the main achievements of the initiative fairly well. And it won. Hurrah!

[audio:|titles=”Kate Arkless Gray on Save Our Sounds”]


Kate Arkless Gray and BBC web producer Colin Babb

KATE:  Save Our Sounds was originally inspired by two documentaries that were going out on the World Service all about acoustic ecology, which is the practice of saving the world through sounds, looking at soundscapes and preserving endangered sounds.

You might think “what is an endangered sound?” In fact that is a question I asked quite early on in the project. It can be anything from an entire soundscape in a village that might be being knocked down to make way for a service station or a mall, to something as simple as the 56k modem. You know, an everyday sound and we used to hear it all the time but we’re all hyper-fast with broadband now, you don’t hear that kind of “whirr-Click-Vtzzz-Beee”. I’ll stop that now. You don’t hear that sound any more.

So we were trying to encourage people to go out and record sounds for us and post them on to this lovely interactive map that we had on the website, which I believe is still there. People could use all sorts of technology to record a sound and upload it directly to the map, tell us a little bit about what their sound was, and it would actually place it exactly where you recorded it. It will put a little flag there, which was lovely.

You could travel all the way around the world listening to different sounds that people had sent in. And we also teamed-up with AudioBoo which originally was a free iPhone app that lets you record sound. It has now moved on to Android and I think they are bringing it out on other platforms.

You could record a sound and tag it in the same way you might tag a photograph on Flickr. If you tagged with BBC_SOS it would use the geo-location data on the iPhone to place it on the map for us. Beautiful.

STEPHEN: How do you measure the success of a campaign like that?

KATE: Well for us I guess part of it was the number of sounds that we got sent in, I mean it was literally hundreds, coming up to 1,000 I reckon by the time I left, but also the kind of interaction that we had. We got mentioned on over 50 blogs all around the world.

I’m still getting Google Alerts saying “Save Our Sounds has been mentioned here, there or everywhere” and we had an amazing interactive group of people on Twitter who were sending in stuff and asking questions and, you know, replying to the sort of features we were running.

STEPHEN: Your role on this project was quite special wasn’t it. What was your title?

KATE: I was “Microblogger in Residence and Project Catalyst”. Yeah that’s quite a mouthful actually.

STEPHEN: But it meant that you were quite active on Twitter and on other social media platforms throughout the duration of the campaign.

KATE: Absolutely, I mean my role basically was to get the word out there, reach out to listeners.. well not really listeners in fact, people who weren’t necessarily familiar with the World Service and to engage them with this campaign that we thought was pretty special, kind of interesting. It was wonderful because you start speaking to people and everybody has a story about a sound, everybody has a memory attached to a sound, and as you ask them just wonderful stories came out. Lovely things.

STEPHEN: Now Save Our Sounds was in essence a promotional campaign. It was there to raise awareness, as you say, of these programs about acoustic ecology. A lot of people listening to this will be involved in promotional work on their radio station and may be thinking about using social media. What lessons did you learn from Save Our Sounds that you think would be worth passing on to other radio stations?

KATE: Well I think the main thing people have to realise is that people are out there, they’e using these tools, they’re having these conversations, maybe even about your brand, your station, whatever it is, they’re doing it already. You need to really get out and engage with them.

But remember it is a conversation, you can’t just barge in and say “come here and listen to my radio station, we’re doing this”. You’ve got to engage with people and, you know, just like I am talking to you, we’re having a conversation that.. well it’s a bit of to and fro-ing going on. You have to do the same with things like Twitter and offer them things and get them involved in stuff.

I think you’d be kind of crazy to ignore those conversations, especially now there are so many different outlets, so many different things that are going on out there that are probably breaking up your audience. Sometimes you have to go to where they now are to bring them back to what you have.

STEPHEN: Does it take the huge resource of the BBC to do something like this effectively?

KATE: No, not at all. What you need is somebody who understands these communities, somebody who can engage. In essence it is simple but I’ve seen so many people get it so horribly wrong.

Habitat is a wonderful example. If you are familiar with Twitter you will know about hashtags. Use a hashtag it allows you to tag content. We were tagging things with ‘SOS’ so people could follow that tag and they could see all of the things that were being sent in, even if they weren’t directly following the people that were saying them.

Around the time of the Iran elections a lot of news was coming out of there and people were tagging it ‘Iran Election’. Habitat realised lots of people were following the Iran Election hashtag and decided it would be an excellent idea for them to promote some kind of ‘% off sofas’ [using that hashtag] because they knew it would reach a big audience. Little did they realise, completely foolishly really, that this kind of ambushing of a very serious hashtag just got a huge backlash from the community.

STEPHEN: So there is an etiquette to social networking which perhaps differs from network to network?

KATE: I think it mainly comes down to common sense and personal skills. In the same way that if you walk into a room at a party, you take a bit of time to get to know people, and once you are a bit more confident you talk to more people, and then you start introducing other people and then you can hold a conversation and people will join you. You wouldn’t just walk in there and say “I’m here! Look at me!” and expect people to go anything other than “what, who the hell are you? Who do you think you are?”

STEPHEN: Often when you are working on a promotional campaign there will be a very tightly written marketing brief and there will be some objectives and there will be a message. Traditionally people working on promotional campaigns are expected to stick absolutely to the message, but what I have learnt partly through Save Our Sounds is you have got to be authentic, and sometimes that means going off message. How do you manage that?

KATE: I guess you have to have somebody looking after your social media that you trust, and that you trust can tell the difference between sort of going slightly off message and being personal and being real about it, and somebody who’.. you know, is just going to potentially ‘do a Habitat’ and mess things up for you. Yeah, it’ all about.. sometimes you don’t want the polished, shiny end product PR.. you know there is so much PR and so much shiny stuff out there.

I think what people love about things like Twitter is it’s real people talking to real people, and.. you know, if you make a mistake….

When we started out with Save Our Sounds the website occasionally would go down, we’d have a whole load of sounds come in and it just couldn’t quite cope. So instead of just ignoring it we would say “guys, we’e really sorry about this, but we are working on it”and just to let people know “look we do care about this and we are going to let you know how we get on with it” and I think people really appreciate that.

STEPHEN: And when you were working on Save Our Sounds were you aware at that stage that it had to the potential to be an award winner?

KATE: Ever since I heard the initial idea I just thought ‘I love it’. I mean my background is in radio production, radio journalism, and I think about sound all the time. When I joined the project I did an experiment. I took a notepad with me on my way to work and I noted every single sound I heard on the way to work and I realised there is so many things out there, and it really opened my eyes, and so I thought “hell this is fun”, and because I was engaged that meant I could go and spread the message and be really enthusiastic about it.

That rubbed off on other people. The first few people I spoke to just they got it, they loved it. “yeah I know I remember the sound of..”. For one guy it was the cowbells that used to wake him up every morning in Switzerland where he grew up, he really missed the sound of cowbells so we actually match-made him with that sound and he now he has it on his mobile phone. He wakes up to it in the mornings. I explained the project to somebody else and they just kind of paused for a moment and said, “It’s beautiful”.

STEPHEN: Well congratulations and thank you. We  know it wouldn’t have been so successful without you. It wouldn’t have happened at all without you is the truth, and perhaps now we’ll just take a few seconds to listen to “Thames Clipper Interior”.  Thank you.

KATE: Thank you. Ooh and don’t forget, you can always follow me on Twitter. @radiokate

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Photographs: Thames Clipper by Anders Lennver. Kate Arkless Gray and Colin Babb by BBC World Service. Used under licence. Transcription by Good-To-Go transcription of Richmond. Any views in this article are those of the contributors and are not endorsed by the BBC.