Readers of Dig Content will know that I’m a big fan of ‘useful content’. The internet is a noisy place, and I have a feeling that people are tiring of all the flashy bells and whistles that brands throw money at. I believe the most worthwhile work in this industry occurs when brands take a step back, facilitating great content rather than demanding to be the subject of it. So I was pleased when an opportunity arose recently to interview Matt Hutchinson, the communications director at Spareroom.co.uk and a fellow believer in creating branded content that can make a difference, rather than just fill the time.
Matt had recently put the finishing touches to Spareroom’s ‘Housing Election’ campaign, a series of videos that saw young renters pitch questions to representatives of the major political parties in the run-up to the 2015 general election. ‘It was about putting people at the heart of it,’ he explained. ‘We’re talking about issues, rather than our brand or our company.’ Here’s how it all came about.
How did the idea for the election campaign come about?
One of the things that I’ve always felt really strongly about, working for a tech company, is that there’s always a barrier between you and your users, because you experience them from the other side of a screen. Every single one of the 4.8 million Spareroom users is a person who has a housing need, who has a story, who has whatever stresses and situations they’ve got going on. So one of the things we were really keen to do with this election campaign was to point out that 4.8 million – mostly young renters – is a big chunk of people. It’s not about Spareroom or our importance, or our brand. It’s about representing a lot of people who aren’t necessarily getting a great deal out of politics at the moment.
That’s some ambition! How do you even get started with that?
Well, it’s one of the reasons we wanted to use real faces and real people putting the questions to the politicians. We did a secondary set of interviews with them so that we could go into things in a bit more depth, but the point is, there are millions of people out there struggling to buy a property, rent a property, find a property, and we wanted those voices to come out, and to give people some genuine information with which to make a decision when they vote.
Clearly, housing is always going to be a big issue.
It is a big issue, but policies about renting often get squashed right down the pile because we’re such an aspirational, home-owning nation. Most of the reports on TV and in the papers are about buying a house, and for many people that’s not even an option at the moment. Renting is such a fast-growing way of life that it felt really important to us. We’ve been operating in this market for nearly 11 years now, and to do something useful – not just to be a money-making business, but to genuinely try and get involved and maybe start some conversations – that’s important to us.
Was that natural to you, or – without wanting to sound too cynical – did you read up on marketing techniques and decide that the company needed to have a political heart; something to ‘believe in’?
Actually, I think it’s much easier not to get involved in the world of politics. It’s a bit of a minefield. We could happily carry on as a business without having to do any of that, by giving people a good service, a good product, a good experience on the site, but people have been raising concerns with this throughout the years we’ve been dealing with them, and we have an obligation to see what we can do about it. As I say, in many ways would be easier not to. You have to get your numbers right, your figures right – you need to know what you’re talking about. The amount of time you have to spend reading up on the history of housing policy! You can do a project and say, ‘look at us, aren’t we clever’, but actually, the thing is to do the job properly and know what you’re talking about – to get involved, and to have the difficult conversations. So it has taken a lot of time, and it has been a big learning curve for us, but it has been great to be involved because it feels like we’re really connected [to these issues].
Logistically, how do you go about pulling together a campaign like this? Did you employ a creative agency?
Nope. The project was conceived and planned entirely in-house, up to the point that we got some time in with a political consultant, just to give us some sense of how we should approach the parties and talk to them, and what they might respond to. Once the project was pretty much planned out, we employed a specialist digital content production company – a guy called Tom Chown, who came with a long history of political journalism – and he came in with so many great ideas on how we could tweak it and improve it. He really reinforced the idea that we were talking about issues, rather than our brand and our company – that it’s about putting people at the heart of it. And then we sourced all of the questions from genuine Spareroom users and renters, and the films we made are based on the things that cropped up most often.
When did the idea start to germinate?
Around October or November. We’d done the Raise the Roof campaign, and that pushed us more into the political space, making sure we understand the wider picture rather than just the private rental sector. And it kind of happened the way all of these things happen, where we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get the main political parties to come and tell us about what their policies are for renters’. As always, the first thoughts were… ‘brilliant, amazing, this’ll be fantastic!’ And then you sit down and go through the detail, and it’s, ‘we’re never going to make this happen. How on earth are we going to do this?’ So you go through that period of despondency. And gradually you chip away and whittle away at it, and solve the problems one by one. I didn’t genuinely relax and know that we’d achieved it until we got them all filmed and it was all in the can. Even on the day, we got phone calls from one of the parties saying, ‘we can’t come today. Can we come another day?’ We had to say, no you can’t. The film crew is here! There’s no additional budget, no additional days – if you don’t come, we’ll film without you! It was a very enjoyable struggle.
In terms of getting the word out on this content, has it been an easy sell?
It has been an interesting one. A lot of the media outlets have been interested in the fact that we’re doing it not just because it speaks a lot about housing as an issue, but also how politicians are having to learn to re-engage at a time when it’s not just two parties; at a time when they’re having to court young voters and renters, and having to do that in other ways. One of the big things was actually getting the politicians to come to us, so that it didn’t look like a dusty, Westminster party political broadcast. It felt like they were stepping into the space of a modern tech company to talk to people who were engaged with that. One of the reasons we wanted to do it was because of that constant perceived stand-off: that politics doesn’t understand young people and young people don’t care about politics. So it has been interesting getting the messaging out there without being too worthy, and too much like, ‘here’s your homework – here are things that we know that you should know’. It’s more about enabling people to hear something that is genuinely interesting to them.
Are there any other London tech companies that you’ve seen doing content of this nature that you’ve been impressed by?
I think, very often, tech companies tend to focus on the experience of using their products, and what they do for you. And, for all the reasons I said before, they avoid getting involved in this kind of thing because it does mean committing quite a bit of resource, which means eating into profit. And, often, tech companies have venture capital backing and an exit strategy in place when they set up. There are all those considerations. At Spareroom, we don’t have any backers, we don’t have any shareholders – we get to choose what we do, which means that doing things like this is sometimes a bit easier. We don’t have to justify it to anyone else. If we think it’s a good idea, we’ll do it.