FinancialGuy Writes!

Thursday 15th March is the awards ceremony for the 2012 video challenge launched by the European Economic and Social Committee. At the time of writing, I don’t know who the winner is, but there were some very good entries (my favourites are here).

Your author acts as an occasional consultant to EU affairs organisations and was involved in the planning and promotion of this contest via EU-Turn, who did a great job on this I thought. As such, now seems like a good time to offer a few thoughts on the coming wave of EU related video competitions.

Firstly, EU policy isn’t always easy to communicate to the outside world. We all know this. In fact, the simple parts can be mind-numbingly complicated. So reaching out to young people is even harder. They are often less politically savvy and motivated, are yet to see the relevance of their place in it all and are – hopefully – too busy having fun. In other words, they are possibly the hardest audience to communicate politics and policy to. Which is why a video competition can seem like such a good idea.

There are, however, a number of potential pitfalls that follow. The obvious question is just how many competitions can be held per year? There are so many EU organisations that if they all run a contest, there could be dozens annually. Each organisation would be trying to be “innovative” by doing the same thing that everyone else is…

It would seem reasonable to presume that in a couple of years time, there will only be a few competitions annually, organised by an institution, with a big following. Or, heaven help us, there will be dozens of me-too contests – all struggling to get any sort of audience.

A breakthrough
In planning their competition, Anna Maria Darmanin, the EESC’s Vice President had a realisation that helped to make the competition the success it was. The realisation was a simple but important one. The hurdle for entries to clear is high enough that this was unlikely to be a “communication” or a “PR” challenge. Instead, it was a marketing challenge. Semantics perhaps, but there is a clear difference.

As an example, a friend of mine entered the competition with some friends. Obviously they spent time preparing their video and the props they needed. Then four people spent a full day in snowy Brussels meeting people and filming. After that, there was the editing which I can easily imagine took another two days of time. Before you know it, this was an eight or more day project. I would suggest that finding people willing and able to make such a commitment isn’t easy. To put that into perspective, I’d guess that it is comparable to asking someone to spend between $799 and $999 on an online purchase.

Considering all this, Ms Darmanin came to ask my advice – someone with some policy but much more media and marketing experience.

My breakthroughs
For my part, I think that there are a couple of elements that are also vital to running a successful competition. Firstly, any economist ought to mention “incentives”. When we look back at the amount of effort that was put into winning the three prizes, it certainly could not be bought for four or five times the prize pool. This is a phenomenon that Peter Diamandis (founder of the X Prize Foundation) often describes. He reckons that for his first X Prize, sub-orbital space flight, over US$100 million was spent between the teams to win a prize of US$10 million.

I think too many of us in EU circles presume that people will do things for “the good of Europe” and some certainly will. But realistically, a lot more people will be interested in money or some cool toys. There is almost certainly a correlation between the quality of the prizes and the quantity and quality of the entries. Don’t be cheap.

Back in my days in EU affairs employment (this was in 2009), I was involved in running a similar competition for my employer. We required written entries, so the hurdle to clear was much lower. Still it was a struggle to generate those entries. As I recall, the websites involved displayed over 4 million advert impressions to generate 60 entries and bear in mind that an entry could have been – and some were – just one sentence long. The prizes were, well, crap – there isn’t a good way to describe them. We were cheap and it made the contest much worse for it.

Next, of course, comes the marketing part. Since I hope to do this sort of work again I am not sure it is in my best interests to describe the breakthrough I made on this front. But suffice to say that our best guess is that we managed to get the message about the competition in front of (and in the facebook and twitter age that can mean many things) over 500,000 people. It is hard to know for sure, but we had a very good attempt and are pretty pleased with the results.

The results
The harsh reality is that when you are trying to reach a population of over 400 million people, any number looks small. If we had received 10,000 entries, it could be argued that it was a failure compared to the number of people available. However, being a little more realistic, the 67 entries we received showed a wide array of talent and creativity and was a manageable number. This was then followed up by over 7,000 votes on the videos entered by the public. Someone somewhere took part.

Over the past six months there have been three other similar competitions running as far as I can see. Looking at the official pages I would guess that two of them have under ten entries each and the other generated perhaps twenty to thirty.

It is not obvious that running a video competition about EU policy will be a success and I warn you against doing so unless you are certain you can make it into a winner. The usual management approach of allocating no time, money or resources to something like this and presuming that everything will turn out well has the potential to create a very public failure.

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