The Michelin Guide: an early example of content marketing


In 1889 a cyclist arrived at a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France, with a damaged tyre.

This caught the interest of the two brothers that ran the factory as the tyre was pneumatic – still a novelty then. It was not an easy job, as the tyre was glued directly to the rim of the wheel. Removing and repairing it took hours, and it then had to be left overnight to dry.

Sensing an opportunity, Édouard and André Michelin decided to make something better. Just two years later they were awarded a patent for the world’s first removable pneumatic tyre.

And this is where the story changes from one of technological ingenuity to one of marketing genius. The Michelin brothers knew they had a product that was perfect for the motor car. There was just one problem: hardly anyone owned one.

In fact, in 1900, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in all of France. And so that year the brothers came up with a brilliant way to encourage people to discover the joy of the open road – and increase vehicle sales and demand for tyres in the process. They called it the Michelin Guide. It’s one of the earliest and best examples of content marketing.

The first edition contained maps, the locations of garages, and of course some useful tips about how to change a tyre. By 1911 there were Michelin Guides for much of Europe, including the British Isles.

The Guide remained free until 1920, when André Michelin reportedly noticed a stack were being used to hold up a workbench at a garage. Being of the opinion that, “man only truly respects what he pays for,” a cover price was duly added.

To differentiate Michelin from a growing number of lower priced competitors, the Guide started to focus on the most discerning customers. They hired a team of undercover inspectors to visit the restaurants featured in the Guide, and to award stars to the very best.

Today, 117 years after its launch, the Michelin Guide is probably the most prestigious restaurant guide in the world. And Michelin tyres are some of the most premium. And that is no coincidence.

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The Michelin Guide: an early example of content marketing

Digital Lancaster launches


Last week saw the launch of Digital Lancaster, a collaborative effort between people and organisations in the region with an interest in supporting growth in this vital sector, and a spin off from Digital Lancashire, of which Hotfoot is a founding member.

Michael Gibson, chair of Digital Lancashire, estimates at least 600 people are employed at over 35 digital companies in Lancaster city centre – from web design agencies to product, software and ecommerce businesses – not to mention all the freelancers that support us, from photographers and filmmakers to illustrators and animators.

And it is a sector that is growing fast. These days companies need digital expertise just as they need legal and financial services.

Although Digital Lancaster is naturally made up of quite a few direct competitors, there is a genuine spirit of cooperation, and I left the launch with several meetings lined up with companies offering services complementary to our own.

And there are areas of common interest even competitors can support.

One is to ensure Lancaster is perceived as a place of excellence for digital services, just as the Highlands of Scotland are known for great whisky. It is about time, after all, that Lancaster was known for more than a big castle, fine furniture, and linoleum.

To achieve that we need to get the infrastructure right. While there are some really great places for small companies, like the beautiful Storey building, where we have an office, there is a shortage of quality space for larger businesses to grow.

I would also love to see more co-working spaces for startups to set up shop. All they need is fast wifi, strong coffee and space to collaborate and create. There are too many people taking up tables in cafés, or going stir crazy at home. Perhaps one or both of the universities can play a role here?

Attracting and retaining skills matters too. We cannot compete with the lure of the Northern Quarter or Shoreditch (although our coffee and craft beer is right up there with the best). But with the Lakes and the Forest of Bowland on our doorstep, and London a brisk two and a bit hours away by train, we are well situated to welcome people once they have got the big city life out of their system.

At least that is how I ended up back here. And it is one of the best decisions I ever made.

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Digital Lancaster launches

How startups hack their way to growth


In Silicon Valley little matters more to startups than their ability to quickly grow.

Demonstrating you can get people to sign-up to your product or service in large numbers, and at an accelerating rate, is a way to attract attention and investment, and is an early sign that your business has potential to become something truly significant.

But making that happen is not easy, especially when traditional forms of marketing are too expensive or simply not effective.

And so it is fascinating to see the innovative, experimental, and crafty low cost techniques – known as growth hacks – that entrepreneurs have used to increase their customer base in the early stages of what have become very successful businesses.

Hotmail is a good example. When they launched their free web-based email service in 1996 the company attracted just a few thousand users until the founders came up with an idea.

They added a simple line to the end of all outgoing messages: “Get Your Free Email at Hotmail” with a link to the signup page. Within six months the business had grown to 1 million users, and within a year it was acquired by Microsoft.

Founded just ten years ago, Dropbox now has over 500 million registered users for their cloud-based file storage. One way they achieved this incredible growth was to incentivise customer referrals.

Inviting friends to the service instantly unlocked additional free storage for both the current user and their recipient when they signed-up.

Airbnb took a different approach and grew by piggybacking on the success of another company, specifically Craigslist, which in the States had become the dominant place for classified listings.

Airbnb figured out how to send a message (known less politely as spam) to landlords on Craigslist inviting them to create an ad for both sites in one go, thereby populating Airbnb with properties while reaching the huge existing audience on Craigslist.

It worked brilliantly, and helped Airbnb get to where they are now, with over 2 million listings in 191 countries.

YouTube also rode on the coattails of websites with an existing large audience by making it easy for people to embed their videos on any page.

Soon YouTube videos were everywhere, and less than two years after starting the company it was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion.

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How startups hack their way to growth

Copyright traps (and putting Agloe on the map)


Cartography is an expensive business. Mapmakers must invest huge resources into surveying the land and meticulously marking anything that might be useful to their audience.

Today satellite imaging is used, before that aerial photography, and before that rain-soaked men and women stood in fields with tripods, compasses, telescopes and other cumbersome tools.

Only after undertaking this mammoth task, and publishing the results, can a mapmaker hope to recoup their investment.

So it is understandable they have always sought to protect their efforts from competitors who might publish the work as their own.

One method mapmakers use is quite ingenious: they add small deliberate errors, known as copyright traps.

There are said to be around 100 “trap streets” in the current London A-Z. This includes a walkway called Bartlett Place – named after Kieran Bartlett, a sales manager at the publisher.

This is thought to be the explanation for why a place named Argleton appeared on Google Maps and Google Earth in an empty field off the A59 in West Lancashire.

After being spotted by a local in 2008, and featured by BBC News, Argleton vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared.

But my favourite story about copyright traps comes courtesy of the brilliant podcast, 99% Invisible.

They recently told of how the General Drafting Company published a map in the 1930s with a fake town in upstate New York named Agloe, created by jumbling the initials of two people at the company, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers.

A few years went by and then another map of New York State was published by a rival company named Rand McNally. And there on the new map was Agloe, in exactly the same location.

The General Drafting Company were certain they had caught a copycat red-handed, and prepared to take their competitor to court, but Rand McNally insisted the accusations were false.

To settle matters employees from both companies drove up to the location. And there they found a road, a couple of houses, and the Agloe General Store.

It turns out people had decided to settle there and looked up the name on a map.

Read the original article here.


Copyright traps (and putting Agloe on the map)

From Mixtapes to The OA


The funny thing about a convention is that it often takes something to break it before we even notice it is there.

The OA, a recent TV series produced by Netflix, is a case in point.

Rather than follow a standard length for each installment, the eight episodes of The OA vary in running time from 30 to 70 minutes.

This would have been unthinkable when programmes were made to fit into rigid broadcast schedules used by TV networks around the world.

But The OA is available to stream directly by viewers, at the time and place of their choosing, so there is no specific allotment of time to fill.

The OA has discarded other conventions too. The creators of the series know viewers often binge-watch several episodes in one go on Netflix. And so there is no need to provide a recap of what has previously taken place at the start of each episode.

The makers of the show can just focus on telling the story.

We have been here before.

Vinyl LPs, which dominated the music industry in the 60s and 70s, played for around 45 minutes in total, and so albums typically came with 12 songs lasting three and half minutes each on average.

I grew up in the cassette era, and made hundreds of 90 minute TDK mixtapes using a twin cassette deck – with high-speed dubbing and Dolby B no less!

I remember trying to time the songs so not a second was wasted before the tape ran out on either side (because fast-forwarding was boring after all).

Meanwhile the CD imposed a new 74 minute time limit, which encouraged artists to reissue their back catalogues and add bonus tracks. In the early 1990s, this led me to spend a fortune on Japanese imports of my favourite band’s albums, plucked from Ear Ere Records on Penny Street in Lancaster.

Playlists on iTunes and later Spotify changed all that. These days I create “mixtapes” of what ever length feels right, and I tend to listen to them on shuffle rather than worrying about sequencing them in any particular order.

There is an argument for how constraints encourage creativity. But I prefer the freedom of breaking the old conventions. And the makers of The OA clearly agree.

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From Mixtapes to The OA

Bricks from the brink


News that Lego is now the world’s biggest toy company will not be a surprise to anyone who has ventured into a toy department recently.

Lego occupies more shelf space than ever, with 18 different product themes designed to appeal to just about everyone, from Duplo and Ninjago to Friends and Technic.

At home my two sons – aged 9 and 5 – seem to talk of little else. At Christmas they both asked for Lego sets, and when they are not building with Lego bricks they are flicking through Lego magazines or asking if they can play a Lego app or watch the trailer for the forthcoming Lego Batman film.

The place they would most like to visit again? Legoland.

It was all started by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter who had scraped a living making wooden toys in the tiny town of Billund during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

After naming his company Lego, from the Danish term “leg godt” – which means “play well” – Christiansen took a gamble after the Second World War and bought a plastic moulding machine. By 1949 he had started producing interlocking plastic bricks, and quickly realised he was on to something.

But it has not all been smooth sailing. Just 15 years ago things looked bleak for the company as it faced bankruptcy.

Problems had started in the 1990s when cheaper copycat toys with compatible bricks had started eating into Lego sales. As video consoles exploded in popularity it looked like Lego was about to be be packed away in a dusty attic alongside Meccano, Hornby and Dinky.

Lego fought back hard with a dizzying array of new launches, from clothing lines to theme parks, and licensing deals with blockbusters like Star Wars and Harry Potter, but the company was losing its identity and burning through cash in the process.

The turnaround came after the appointment of a new CEO in 2004, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, who sold off or closed the bits of the business that were a distraction, and inspired Lego employees to be creative again by focusing back on the brick, and building up from there.

Lego is still a family owned business. And with annual sales of over $5 billion that plastic moulding machine turns out to have been a pretty good investment.

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Bricks from the brink

On Autopilot

teslaIn 1914 the crowd at an aviation competition in Paris were amazed – and presumably slightly alarmed – when a man named Lawrence Sperry flew by with his hands off the controls of his aircraft.

Sperry was demonstrating the world’s first autopilot system. It was rudimentary and worked only to keep a plane flying level in a straight line, but it represented the start of a quest to automate tasks that would otherwise be undertaken by potentially tired and otherwise unreliable humans.

Autopilot is now considered one of the greatest safety features of modern aviation. But sometimes problems occur, and these problems require the attention of the crew.

In a study of 37 serious air accidents by the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States it was found that 31 were caused in part by inadequate monitoring. As the New Yorker magazine put it: “Nothing had failed; the crew had just neglected to properly monitor the controls.”

The air crews had been lulled into complacency and even boredom because automated systems do so much, so dependably, day in and day out. By the time they noticed something was wrong it was too late.

This issue is about to get much bigger with the rise of self-driving cars.

Tesla already fit their vehicles with a feature called Enhanced Autopilot, which can do everything from adjusting the speed and changing lanes to taking exits and parking.

One day it will almost certainly be the norm. But it seems inevitable there will be a period of painful adjustment as technology takes over while still requiring us to pay close attention – a potentially impossible ask.

In May last year the driver of a Tesla Model S died in a collision in Florida after a witness reported he had been watching a Harry Potter movie. The company said in a statement, “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Tesla went on to note, “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

And of course we should remain alert. But can we?

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On Autopilot