Monday, April 20, 2009

Social Media in the Dark Ages

My family and I were driving through Kanata yesterday, and as we passed a building where an old client of mine used to be, I had a huge flashback.

Let me bring you to ten years ago. The High Tech bubble in Ottawa was just about to pop. At that time, much of the local ad industry's time and energy was applied to the problem of recruiting massive numbers of engineers and technologists from an inadequate labour pool.

I was at another agency, The Bytown Group, at the time. One of our biggest clients was DY 4 Systems, the manufacturer of single board computers for military applications. It was a real challenge getting people into the defence industry at that relatively peaceful time, but DY 4 had a lot of strength in its small size and fairly progressive corporate culture. The key was to let the people who worked there do the recruiting for us.

Today, you approach this kind of challenge with a social media plan. In 1999, we had to make it work with Web 1.0. But when I think of the plan we came up with, I am simultaneously amazed at its innovation and painfully aware that it was tragically ahead of its time.

That year, Cisco systems was operating a "buddy program" where potential recruits could interact with an employee in a similar position. This was a real breakthrough at the time, and everyone wanted to break down the walls between prospects and internal brand champions. We hired an Internet hotshot (whose name I have completely forgotten, sorry) to work with us to integrate new and traditional media in an effort to bring potential hired around the world "inside DY 4" for a look into their culture.

Basically, what the client had to offer was a relatively flat structure, the opportunity to work on something cool (taking commercial computer technology and making it virtually indestructible), and employees who genuinely liked each other.

The first order of business was to find a new place on the Web to drive people to. The corporate site was an intimidating beast meant to appeal to military-industrial-complex types. So we created a "workatdy4" microsite, where the content and imagery was all about the work, culture and career paths from an employee's perspective. We put up "talking head" videos of employees describing why they liked their work there in unscripted form (such a pain to host in pre-YouTube days) and developed a moderated discussion board where people could "ask an employee" anything, live during certain periods.

It was all very ambitious, and we needed to get people using it fast. So we applied traditional media, doing a local print and radio campaign based on corporate culture to drive competitors' employees and recent grads to the site.

At the same time, we purchased a weekly column in Ottawa's local paper as an "advertorial" space, but one which featured a weekly column from DY 4 talking about what the latest buzz in high tech HR was. Basically, it reported on what were new and hot topics at the workatdy4 discussion boards, linking people back to the site (manually, since it was print). It was moderately successful.

What we really needed to do was to generate some PR. So for the next phase of the campaign we turned a small staff dinner celebrating DY 4's 20th anniversary into a web spectacle. Based on looking into the past, present and future of their industry, we developed a "time machine" format that did a funny send up on 70s and 80s computer technology. But the main event was a talk by Frank Ogden, AKA "Doctor Tomorrow", a renowned futurist and personality. We invested a fair chunk of our budget in his speaker's fee, so we planned and advertised a live webcast of his performance through the recruitment microsite. With the IP tracking of the day, we were able to see that we got lots of hits from the immediate area, as well as random ones from as far away as Australia.

This campaign was judged a success, based on DY 4 getting adequate new resumes and inquiries as a direct result of our efforts. But did it work? Ten years later, we could have done much more with a blog, a Facebook page, YouTube videos, Twitter and more, all hooked directly into a dynamic microsite. But for the time, pushing Web technology and trends as far as we thought they could go, we at least prepared ourselves for the Internet's next iteration.

The other thing I got out of it was romantic win. When we were pitching the plan to DY 4, senior management was so nervous about all of our untried tactics, they made us present the plan three times to different groups of decision-makers within the company. I was more formal then (due to the professional insecurity of youth) so that was three times I came home from work dressed in a nice suit and tie. My next-door neighbour, a teacher, was off for the summer so she always greeted me as I passed. I guess she was impressed by my appearance— I looked like more of a hotshot adman than I really am. But we still got married three years later.


  1. Cast my memory back there...
    I learned HTML because of that campaign. And promptly forgot it! ;)

  2. She loved the suit, Tom. The SUIT.

  3. Dude .... She never told you the full story, did she? :-)

    You'll have to ask her about it.

    -- Her partner in crime