Hypercube post-mortem

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As promised. First, you may wish to read my post-contest malediction, which also usefully includes links to the most relevant pages regarding the contest and my efforts to win a Nissan Cube. Done?

The best marketer-side analysis is by Jesse Hirsh, and in particular his post-awards note explains that (quite sensibly) Nissan and its marketers saw Tuesday night as the beginning of their campaign, not the culmination.

My essay here is mostly contestant-side, and I'll explain what I did and why, what I think I should have done, and how I felt about the contest. Note of course that you're getting a perspective that is personal, possibly naïve, and that of a loser, not a winner.

I think the contest was fairly run, and I was excited to participate. I think many elements were imperfect, but if I had to participate again I would, only I would do a better job so I would win. Also, I would bet heavily on the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup.

I'm not bitter towards Nissan or the marketers or contest-runners or winners or judges at all. I wish them well and it was a (minor) honor just to be nominated. But with that said, here's my thoughts.

The process of applying to be a finalist was pretty simple, and I did it mostly on a lark. Basically you filled out a short survey and told them how creative and connected you are. Then they picked some finalists. The effort needed was minimal, and the payoff of being a finalist was reasonably high.

I think the organizers claimed "thousands" of applicants for the contestants, but I don't know how many thousands. I'd guess very low thousands. Correction: more than 7000 applicants. That's pretty impressive considering the non-trivial sign-up process.

How I failed

Having made the finals, I did some calculations. A naive calculation of Expected Value said my position was worth $2000, assuming a car worth $20,000 (which is about right, and notes from the winners indicated that Nissan has taken care of relevant taxes and acquisition fees; contest winnings are also not taxable income in Canada, unlike the occassionally gruesome situation in the US where winners of large non-cash prizes frequently have to sell the prize to pay off the tax liability). I was a bit more conservative than that, since I couldn't actually afford to spend $2000 cash on my entry, and because I would only get one shot at winning (decent poker players, who sensibly make similar bets all the time, do so happily because they have the bankroll to afford a single loss and they're likely to take a similar chance many, many times in the future, thus recruiting the law of large numbers in their favor).

Nonetheless, I put effort into the contest on the assumption that spending $1000 worth of my personal time would not be madness, and I did spend a small amount of actual money on the contest, mainly in the form of $100 worth of low-power FM transmitter for the Drive-In project.

I came up with some ideas. I jokingly said that my plan was that I didn't have to be first, only 50th. That was a sensible goal, but I missed.

I figured my strength in this contest was my ability to do playful things with computers and join bits of code with scripts. I was inspired to start what, ultimately, was my "real" entry into the contest (cubelog), by bits of hardware I found around my house, and by available open-source projects. My theory was that while I could never be a top photographer, videographer, or social networking whore (yeah, I went there, and I totally mean Cube Man), I might be able to be the most creative nerd in the contest.

I'll leave it to others to judge whether, had I executed this idea well, I might have won. I think I executed it very poorly.

I had two other ideas that I pursued during the contest, and while I didn't do a great job with either of them, and I kinda-sorta abandoned them, they deserve some attention:

Drive-In Everywhere was my expression of the idea that with a few pieces of cheap (or easily-borrowed) hardware, you could create a portable "Drive-in movie theatre" anywhere you had space to park some cars and a blank white wall. The only secret sauce involved is easy access to a good digital projector and knowledge of the existence of $100 FM transmitters good out to 100+ metres of range. In practice, me and my co-conspirators executed poorly on this, and by the way, if you don't have the power issues figured out and your location scouted ahead of time, you'll fail. That said, I do have all the gear and the knowledge now, so coming soon to a neighbourhood near you...

Cube Pro Quo was partly inspired by something my friend Robert said to me at the start of this project, which was roughly that real "art" would consist of wanting the car less than the art, and so I should give the car away. This inspired me to swap use of the car away in bits and pieces to my friends and acquaintances, on the principle that they would in some way contribute to my victory, and I would in exchange offer them favors related to use of the car when I won. This came very close to being high concept, in that I (for example) traded my entire bike club use of the car as a support vehicle for a year in exchange for their help in voting and promoting my bid.

The failure of Cube Pro Quo amounted to lower participation than I expected, and less publicity than I hoped for. It just never quite caught on, despite some very generous efforts by friends like Amber who baked me a cube-shaped cake. This might have been clever had I focused on it more, but it smacked too much of the sort of social networking gimmickry where I already knew I was out-gunned. I never really promoted this idea except with my bike club, and I provided most of the key ideas for trades that actually happened. Once I ran out of ideas (yeah yeah...), I didn't really get much in the way of creative offers, Tobin's request to use the Cube for manure-hauling notwithstanding (or, frankly, counting).

Cubelog was possibly my strongest idea, in that it would have taken (will take? I still want to do it) relatively little effort to put together in a crude way, and a serious but doable effort to create properly. My estimate was that had I actually followed through and created a working prototype of this idea that actually generated results and data, I would have been a credible candidate. I think it would have been the kind of high-concept creative-nerdy idea that could have had legs, especially had I publicized it in the kinds of places (digg, Slashdot) where it might have gotten real attention. Like I say, I still think it's a good idea.

And in fantasyland, I did all that. In real-land, I put it off, procrastinated it, and in the end did nothing except promise to do it if Nissan gave me a car.

To compare to a winner, Rannie Turingan said he would take a bunch of panoramas of Toronto, and then he did just that. Now Rannie is a great photographer (he took the best photo of me that has ever been taken), and his idea was a great concept, but he executed his project using an iPhone app and some effort.

That's it. Rannie won a car by taking pictures with a smartphone.

He also publicized it with diligence. And he knocked this contest out of the park. That's the difference between idea and execution. Have I mentioned I'm seriously considering some drug-seeking behavior for Ritalin? I doubt you're surprised.

Attention deficiencies notwithstanding, I think I left a lot of proverbial money on the table. Quite a few of the winning entrants managed to participate in news stories, be it on local TV or in the local papers, and I just never got off my ass and wrote any press releases. That was dumb.

On the other hand, I had a big hairy set of excuses too. For one thing, I was in the fourth or fifth month of a new, high-responsibility, high-attention position at work. I wasn't supermotivated to come home and spend another four or five hours being clever and diligent every evening. Even more importantly, I had a long-scheduled trip to Greece that cleanly interrupted the contest around the halfway point. Not only was I not going to put much effort into the project in the last two weeks (owing to being, you know, in Greece, not to mention well away from network access), the week or two before that was substantially filled up by pre-vacation activities large and small. The execution of my contest projects (especially cubelog) was pushed aside and pushed aside until it fell on the floor and was left there while I went off to Greece and the contest deadline closed.

And for all that, I regret nothing. The vacation was great. If I had to do this affair over again, I would definitely not cancel my trip. I needed the sanity and relaxation more than I needed a car.

I don't know that I have a lot of opinions about my fellow contestants. I half-heartedly collaborated with a few (and made at least one new friend in the shape of fellow Cube-loser Maria Petersen (and her husband Chad)), and I chatted with some others I already knew like Rannie, but I was mostly head-down and ignored other networking efforts and didn't spend much time surfing canvases. This was based on the fact that this affair was ultimately a zero-sum game, and that I figured I'd just drive myself crazy if I continually surfed competing canvases looking for competitive intelligence. The 50 winning canvases are currently featured at the Hypercube site, so go take a look and pick out the one you think, reasonably, I did better than, and thus was robbed by.

Bonus Schadenfreude: the guy who got the most votes didn't win a car. I have no idea why.

How Nissan Failed and Succeeded

Nissan (and their publicists) probably didn't fail. Unlike me, I'm pretty sure they got what they wanted (so far; ask me what they think when random Cube winner #38 gets arrested for DUI or some other infamous behavior, and I'll bet they have that scenario game-planned, too). I don't hate them, and they didn't even give me a car, so that's pretty good. But there were several things about the contest that amused me, annoyed me, or were at least worth noting.

The audition process was centred around a Flash-based "canvas" that was, more or less, the World's Worst Webpage Construction Interface. Here's a picture of what I saw:


This crude Flash-based UI was sloppy, buggy, offered limited (and horrid) fonts, and tended to crash and inopportune times, which made me swear. Editing text was hit-or-miss, literally: I never figured out if there was a reason why sometimes I could edit previously created text boxes, and sometimes I couldn't. I think almost every serious contestant did what I (very late in the game) finally did: treated the canvas as a blank page, uploaded a correctly-sized picture of the design I wanted onto the canvas, and left "holes" in the design to slap the occasional piece of media or (text-based) hyperlink. There were tools to upload entire Flash (.swf) files onto this canvas, but I have no experience with Flash, and never even tried that. Perhaps the Flash artists liked this format more. I hated it, and effectively tried to avoid using it as an updatable page as much as possible.

(The final design, as seen above and as archived at the Hypercube site, was almost entirely done by my clever friend Keith Lim, and I am in his debt for the generous efforts he made. He made my entry look far more credible than I did.)

There was also a moderation process involved: after you got your canvas looking like you wanted and saved it to the system and got lucky enough that it didn't crash, you hit the publish button (look carefully at the graphic above) and...waited. For an indeterminate time most typically measured in hours, especially since I was on the West Coast and the moderators were apparently on Toronto time. Add to that some teething problems during the startup phase of canvas creation, and I'm pretty sick of the idea of Flash-based content creation sandboxes. And by sick, I mean KILL IT WITH FIRE!

The judging process was, both during and after the contest, a bit opaque. That's fair enough, and they did give us the basic criteria, but ultimately, as one of my fellow contestants put it, we were in the judges hands. They had their opinions, and it must always be thus. If I'm not complaining about the results or examining them carefully, it's because it cannot possibly be a rigorous, repeatable process. Deciding between the "worst winners" and the "best losers" there on the bubble was probably both hard and a substantial crapshoot. I don't object.

Having finally run through the contest, the organizers then proceeded to drive the contestants completely bonkers. They did so by announcing, on May 29, that judging had been completed, and the winners chosen. And that the winners would be announced on June 23rd.

Aaaah! So we basically, as a group, had this long period of useless anticipation. But hey, on the 23rd they were going to throw us parties in the Big Three cities, so yay.

It pains me to say this, but I have decided to be honest rather than polite: the Vancouver party was kinda shitty. Some of this was forced by the desire to have it overlap, time-wise, with the Toronto and Montreal parties, so it ran from 6-9 (theirs were 8-11). The venue itself was Gossip nightclub in the Plaza of Nations. With about 30-odd people showing up (contestants and guests) plus a dozen or so more contest reps, the party space came off as a characterless and mostly empty big box. Everyone got a drink ticket and the only food was a "candy bar" which was a cute idea, inasmuch as the catering consisted of a nice and abundant selection of candies like gummy worms, swedish berries, licorice, and such, plus a variety of potato chips and other salty snacks.

And that was it. Now, I did arrive an hour late (owing partly to my suburban location, and partly due to getting stupidly stuck by traffic and bad navigation and a football game), but the party didn't look like it had been any more exciting at the start. I'll have to confirm that with Maria later. The Vancouver party was also the smallest, as it inevitably would be, and there didn't seem to be many contestants there (even a few of the winners weren't present, and assuming there should have been 100+ contestants in the Vancouver party's catchment area, I estimate that at least half (if not much more) gave the party a miss. Some of those no-shows would be, for example, from Saskatchewan or Alberta or Kamloops, but at least a few locals just didn't bother.

My bitch here isn't so much that they catered badly. And certainly they treated the winners well enough. But those of us in the loser category, despite the poor attendance, surely outnumbered the winners, and almost all of us losers had put in a reasonable effort to play along in Nissan's contest. For our trouble we were invited to a crap party to find out we didn't quite win a new car, and sent home with bags of candy. One doesn't wish to seem ungrateful (and despite all this petty whining, I seriously don't care), but I think it would have taken little effort (and not much money) to make the losers feel like valued parts of Nissan's little community of ambassadors, too. From the organizers' perspective, I suppose at this point the goal is to cut the deadweight loose, focus on the 50 winners, and get a good year of PR out of them. Perhaps, but check out this excellent impression the event left on FierceKitty, bff of Cube-loser (and taker of this photo) Kris Krüg:

I got a similar shot of myself, because I too am a sore loser.

Other than that, it was a pretty well-run contest. I think from Nissan's perspective, the proof of their pudding will be over the next 12 months, when they find out whether the experiment to spend somewhere around a million bucks or two on social/viral marketing will pay off better than spending whatever they would have on a more conventional ad buy. They shall see; I won't have a very good idea of how that turns out.

In ConclusionThere is no moral here. Congratulations to the winners. Thanks to the organizers. Special love to TLO: she had to live with me and care for me while I spent a month or two as a delusional, sleep-deprived lunatic, and she contributed to the entry in ways large and small.

Now to go find a new project. Any ideas?

Update: another loser's perspective.


Great picture. :o)

I'm the wife of the "other loser" whose perspective you linked and I was also a contestant. I placed 12th in the ranking, he placed 14th and if there was a Hypercube "clique" on Twitter, we were certainly two of the main players. It hurt, more than I ever expected it to, to be at the event (which was equally shitty in the exact same way as the Vancouver one) and see almost every single person in our little Twitter clique win a car except for us. Even after the winners were done getting their pictures taken and things died down a little, my husband sought out Angie Kramer, the infamous Hypercube on Twitter and she said she didn't understand how neither of us won either. Hmmm, I say.

Anyway, I just wanted to leave a comment to say, 'yes I read this and yes I share your thoughts' and to also pimp my new project, which has yet to officially launch, which is a new blog @ www.cubeless.com As a blogger by trade, there will be a wall of text from me, oh yes, there will be.

The campaign cost 25% the

The campaign cost 25% the cost of a regular campaign, and there was no food, just candy and one lousy drink at the party. Unbelievable. And note. For all the vaunted COMMUNITY and 'creative class' stuff, they structured the event NOT in a way so we would actually meet-- I wanted to meet tons of people-- but so we would stand, cheer, be photgenic, do the Price is Right thing.... they got their photo ops. Which of course is what this was all about from the beginning. No surprise.

Good analysis. And I look forward to Sunny's new project !

not niceties

I have to say a few things. Once the contest closed there was definitely something "up".

Odd that if they knew who was winning it would have been a classy thing to do by sending out an email (being that this whole contest was online) or some offical notification at the end of the party as to whom won. It took me two days to find out who actually won and I only found out by asking a cube winner who sent me a link to a site that listed the winners (aka not the hypercube.ca website).

I sent a letter to the webmaster as a suggestion that THANKING the 450 other people who are cubeless would appreciate a THANK YOU for participating in their contest that these are the winners and it has taken all of you to make this a success (hell I even got a thank you from the organizers of MJ memorial and they had 1,700,000 people to notify and that was put together in less than a week!)

I found it ridiculous that they didn't have a party in Winnipeg. It happens to be the center of Canada and smack dab between Saskatchewan and Alberta. They could have even had the party at a bar like the Palomino. As a contestant who participated ONLINE that I would need to spend 6 hours to drive+hotel $750 or fly $400 to the Vancouver party to find out if I won. Huh? I thought this was an online contest? Perhaps an official letter to everyone sent out ON the ACTUAL hypercube.ca website would have been a wonderful thing to do. I had to pester the webmaster to find out what the link was for the live streaming site. (odd that THAT wasn't on the site as well)

I may not know much but I do know this. It is good etiquette to say thank you to your customers. Obviously they have eliminated 450 people by not saying thank you for our participation, keeping us involved in their brand...

As a person who deals with the public and having my customers ask whether I have won.. and explaining to them the contest decisions and who won (many deserved it and some not) .. that equals 1 hour of conversation time x 200 people and those that they know.. hmmm interesting that social networking can also be word of mouth

I hope that any other online contest such as this is handled with more care as this reflects badly on the brand and not the people who put it together and those who won unfairly.

Rather sad that this was handled badly and hope that people who refer to this contest as a success should ask 450 people how they would feel about participating and did they feel that it was a totally fair contest?