Make an exhibition of yourself

Regular readers of my blog – last time I checked Google Analytics there were about a dozen of you – may have noticed that I’m now displaying Ploggle updates as well as Twitter updates at the top of each page. Some of you may have wondered what Ploggle is. This post has been written to answer that very question, for you and anybody else who cares to wonder.

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WHAT IS PLOGGLE?
Some time in 2002 my good friend Tom Percival and I started playing around with camera-phones, after I managed to get hold of a camera attachment for my Sony Ericsson T68i. It was a ridiculous little appendage, and took incredibly poor quality photographs, but that wasn’t really the point. We were spellbound by the idea of being able to post photos and video from your mobile phone direct to the web. So, Tommy being Tommy, he developed a web app enabling us to do exactly that.

Around the same time we got talking to a friend of a friend, Alec Hendry, who was working at MTV at the time, and had written some fairly unusual video codecs. He agreed to let us use them, and pretty soon we were posting mobile video clips as well as pictures, converted into dinky little flash movies. I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure we were using flash to serve user-generated video years before Youtube started doing it.

It’s worth making the point right now that we weren’t trying to create a bulk video-hosting site like Youtube, or a digital photo-hosting site like Flickr. Our focus right from the start was enabling people to post lightweight pics and clips straight to the web using email and picture messaging. This oriented it towards a rapidly growing audience of camera-phone users wanting to post on the move, and made it unsuitable for anybody wanting to post hundred of hi-res digital camera pics or huge 5-minute video clips.

We favoured this approach for several reasons:

1. The slightly pretentious reason
The arts graduate in me was fascinated by the day-in-the-life aspect of camera-phone photos, as opposed to the too-good-to-be-true pictures people tend to take with normal digital cameras. Camera-phones tend to be used more spontaneously, in situations where people wouldn’t think to have a normal camera handy. Even now when Sony Ericsson are offering 3.2 mega pixels of detail you can still see the difference, and for me that lack of ‘quality’ adds a precious measure of realism and narrative.

2. The eminently practical reason
We were very fortunate to have a friend in Barney Sowood, who was able to host the site for us, but we were conscious from the start that there would be restrictions on how much data we could host and serve. We didn’t want to position this as somewhere for anybody to store loads of high resolution photos, requiring terabytes of bandwidth and server space. We’ve both since questioned whether we were right to be so conservative, or if we should have gone for broke and solved these problems by monetising usage. Answers on a postcard pls.

3. The real reason
It was more fun.

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DESIGN & BUILD
Once we’d agreed on what we were doing, we needed a name. We’d be touting names about from the start – ‘Snapbook’ was an early favourite, but the domain wasn’t available. In the end we settled on Ploggle. It seemed natural to us that a blog driven by pictures instead of words should be called a plog. The name also alludes to Google, which we considered to be the ultimate example of commercial success driven by good programming and usability.

In terms of how the logo evolved, the font currently doing the rounds in the studio we were both working in was VAG Rounded, which had a nice soft, playful simplicity to it, so we used that. We knew from the start that we wanted the logo and the site as a whole to use blues and greys off a white background, primarily coming off the back of having just designed a site for a friend of ours with an antiques business. The similarities between the two should be blindingly obvious; I like to think of both as being good examples of early graphics-light, information-rich web 2.0 design.

We divided labour along pretty simple lines; I focused on design, layout and usability, and Tommy made it work. Occasionally we’d plan the development of some major new component, but most of the time there was just a rolling list of features we wanted to add and experiment with. We spent two years stealing evenings and weekends for Ploggle, off the back of working together full-time. Our long-suffering other halves probably only put up with it because they thought that one day it would make us all rich.

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MONETISING PLOGGLE. OR NOT.
The question of Ploggle’s business model was debated long and hard. The main streams we had to consider were:

Advertising
This forms part of the revenue portfolio of most commercial consumer-facing websites, but sites achieving profit through advertising alone are few and far between, especially good ones. We were very conscious that we didn’t want thumping great adverts sitting on our own personal plogs, and were pretty certain that our users would feel the same way, so we decided to ban advertising entirely.

White labelling
For the uninitiated, white labelling is when you re-brand and redeploy a web app as an integrated part of another site’s offering. The problem with white labelling is that you have to be able to show that you’re going to add genuine value, and its very hard to make it happen without being available in office hours. We took the view that this was something we’d get into to once we’d strengthened our proposition by proving another revenue stream and going full time.

Subscription
This is the basket we ended up putting all our eggs in. We decided to allow anyone to post up to 100 pics or clips in up to three different plogs, after which you were required to pay a one-off upgrade fee. We felt that this gave anybody ample opportunity to try Ploggle out, and to decide for themselves whether it was worth paying for. Unfortunately in the huge majority of cases the answer was apparently ‘no’.

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THINGS WE MIGHT HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
Ploggle currently has 2,800 registered users, based in over 100 different countries. About 650 of those users have seen the upgrade screen at one time or another, resulting in 13 making the decision to subscribe, generating a total revenue of £120 and €18. In strictly commercial terms, by anybody’s standards, Ploggle has failed. Quite spectacularly.

Remove the profit motive, and it’s a different story. The ancillary benefits of having developed Ploggle are manifest; for our f
riendship, which has grown through all the late nights and long weekends at the coalface; for our skillset, which has also grown, making Tommy a better developer and me a better marketer; for family members and friends, who have been able to watch my daughter Lola grow from a bump into a beautiful bubbly young girl. In strictly non-commercial terms, Ploggle has been all about growth and development.

Whichever way you choose to see it, there are some things we might have done differently. Lots of things, in fact, but these are some of the more important or interesting ones:

Develop the community
For a site with so many great features, it’s criminal that so little of it is orientated towards letting people share their photos with each other. We have a Friends list allowing users to associate themselves with each other, but no easy overview of what all your friends have been posting recently. Everything was oriented around the plogs, not the people. It’s easy to say it retrospectively, but if Ploggle had been more of a mobile multimedia Twitter-style app, it might have flown off the shelves.

Carry advertising
It was naïve and unrealistic to rule out advertising outright in the way that we did. What we should have done is to run some banner advertising in the plog and account management screens. By targeting users of Ploggle on pages generating a large number of impressions we could have identified a clear opportunity for mobile phone manufacturers and networks. Instead, when we did finally dip out toes into advertising, we ran Google Adwords across the top of each plog. The plogs were tarnished, most of the ads ended up being irrelevant, and the click-through rates were insignificant. It was the worst of all worlds, and lasted about six weeks.

Speak with our own voice
As two guys in two bedrooms, we focused on trying to create a site that looked like an established – table – online brand. It was like a Porcupinefish, inflated to ten times its actual size. Unfortunately the analogy goes further than I’d like, insofar as I think we ended up scaring people away as much as gaining their trust. If we’d spoken to our early adopters with natural tone of voice, telling the story behind Ploggle as it was unfolding, we could have given them a greater sense of belonging, and found some valuable advocates and ambassadors in the process.

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TAKING A BREAK
After about two years of development it had become clear that we wouldn’t be able to get Ploggle off the ground commercially simply by developing it as an application. It needed marketing and business development, and we didn’t have the money or the raw will-power to make that happen. I think it’s fair to say that we were pretty burnt out at this point, and that we both retreated into making more of a success of our day jobs.

All around us Web 2.0 brands were bursting onto the scene, and we learnt something from each of them. Youtube, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook et al; each of them has shown us where the value was in Ploggle, and where else it might have been.

Meanwhile the site itself has just ticked over, attracting new users from here and there, and quietly passing the milestone of 100,000 pics and clips posted. We’ve noticed that it’s proving particularly popular with parents, leading to talk of some sort of Sproggle spin-off. And, as with my own little one and her plog, we’ve gone on using Ploggle, even if we aren’t still developing it. With that in mind, here are a few of my own favourite plogs:

LightJunior

This is the plog that makes it all worthwhile. We set up LightJunior the day before Lola arrived, and there were pics of her posted within about an hour of her arrival into this world. Since then its been one long rollercoaster ride, brought to courtesy of the girl with a thousand (well, three hundred at least) faces.
http://lightjunior.ploggle.com

TravelLight

Subtitled ‘the continuing global adventures of the family Light’, TravelLight currently documents trips to Morocco, Croatia and Thailand. Travel Light is a true plog as well, the vast majority of the pictures having been posted minutes after being taken. In the case of the Morocco trip I piggy-backed on a local network offering GPRS and ended up receiving a colossal mobile phone bill. Worth every penny.
http://travellight.ploggle.com

JoePlogs

My plogging alter ego since day one, Joe plogs anything that piques his interest. Joe even managed to plog his Sony Ericsson T610 – the camera-phone of camera-phones in its day – moments before he lost it in the underbelly of some dubious Parisian nightspot.
http://joeplogs.ploggle.com

Underground

I started Underground as a way to test that Ploggle was working every morning, and have ended up with hundreds of posts telling the story of life as a subterranean commuter in London town. Full of buskers, advertising and stolen moments, posted as soon as I get back above ground.
http://underground.ploggle.com

Sticky

Another plog I set up just to experiment with the form, this came into its own when I started walking into work. You see a fair amount of everything decorating walls and lamp-posts between Hackney and Soho, especially around
the old street area, the pick of which are plogged here.
http://sticky.ploggle.com

Soho

This was a pet ‘phoetry’ project lasting a week or so. I went out at lunchtime and walked around Soho, making it up as I went along. Judging by the comment on the last picture, at least one person liked it.
http://soho.ploggle.com

These are the plogs you’ll most often see me posting to in the photo feed I’ve added to my blog, along with a few others I’ve set up recently. Adding the feed has already sparked a mini-renaissance in my thinking as regards Ploggle’s future, typified by my decision to draw this line under the story so far, and exacerbated by some of the conclusions I’ve reached in the course of writing it.

One such conclusion is that it’s high time we published the second edition of Unplogged, our (exceptionally) occasional newsletter (we published Unplogged 01 in November 2004). Another is that we’ll need a good reason to do so. Fortunately we’ll have one, in that Tommy and I yesterday agreed to ditch the subscription model, and to give all our users, new or existing, unlimited use of Ploggle.

Maybe this is a last significant act, maybe it’s the start of a second wind. Whatever the case, I’ll keep you posted.

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