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Q&A with Clark Dever


A mover and shaker from Buffalo, New York, Clark Dever was a scheduled panelist in SB3’s Chicago business roundtable. Unfortunately, a family emergency made him unable to attend. In response to this missed opportunity, we prepared the following Q&A with Dever to learn about his intrepid “Twelve Hours in a City” project and show some images from his trips.

 


All images in this article © Clark Dever

 

ASMP: You describe yourself as a rogue technologist. How (and when) did you come up with this moniker and what do you feel is the most important characteristic you bring to this title?

 

CD: I started using Rogue Technologist as my title in 2008. It’s the only title I’ve ever received cold calls about when people randomly see one of my business cards. I came of age together with the World Wide Web. For my generation, technology is a part of our DNA — an extension of ourselves and an intricate piece of our personas. I’ve been collaborating with creatives from various parts of the world since the age of 12 or 13. I’ve always used technology to push my personal boundaries and to manipulate systems. It’s a public acknowledgement of my Hacker Ethic.

 

 

ASMP: Please describe your project “Twelve Hours in a City,” organized in response to JetBlue’s “All You Can Jet” promotion. In addition to yourself, how many people were involved and in what capacities?

 

CD: Twelve Hours in a City was a spur of the moment idea. JetBlue had announced a promotion that for $599 you could fly as much as you wanted for 31 days during the month of September. The offer inspired the concept: We would visit as many cities in 31 days as we could, documenting and publishing as we went. We chose the title “Twelve Hours in a City” because it explained the project in a sound bite and was short enough for a domain name. The trip involved myself and three others who flew with me. I shot all the stills, Joe DiNardo wrote some of the blog posts, edited some of the video and he was also the other media-facing team member. The other two guys were mostly along for the ride, although they were big contributors to the “culture” of the trip. We had another three or four volunteers at home who helped with the graphic design, maintaining the Web site and juggling technical or logistical issues.

 

 

ASMP: How many cities did you visit during this project and which were most interesting or rewarding from the perspective of generating social media interest? What was the shortest amount of time you spent in a destination?

 

CD: We visited 30 cities in 31 days. Honestly, the longest running social media success has come from Seattle. We filmed a quick interview with a street kid as she gave one of our team members a backrub. It’s become one of the highest rated movies for the search term “back rub” on YouTube. With 40,000-plus views, we’ve had over 150 comments. I’ve learned the girl’s entire life story from the comment feed. She even posted a video response herself to some of the commenter’s accusations. I think the shortest time we spent in a city was Salt Lake City (somewhere around six hours), which turned out to be a mistake. We met the folks who work at JetBlue’s Call Center and had a great time with them. We considered rescheduling to a flight the next day but the domino effect on our logistics was too catastrophic. Getting four people onto connecting flights was a difficult task. We literally scheduled hundreds of individual legs.

 

 

ASMP: Please talk about the content created while pursuing this project. Can you estimate relative percentages for different types of content, i.e., still photographs, audio, video, written texts via twitter, blogs and any other types of content?

 

CD: I shot a few thousand still images, captured around 40 hours of video, logged 43 blog posts and made countless Twitter and Facebook updates. At the time, I was really focused on still imagery and I didn’t have much experience with video so I stuck to my strengths. I shot mostly standard travel stuff with one exception — I traded a night’s stay in a luxurious condo in Miami’s financial district for a quick headshot.

 

 

ASMP: During this project did you employ any types of business documents such as model releases or usage agreements to address permissions and clarify rights to the content you were creating? If so, please elaborate.

 

CD: Honestly, no. I was new to the business and that was probably the biggest mistake we made. I think most of the work would be considered editorial in nature, so I wasn’t too worried at the time. We had so many logistical concerns already, a few hundred model and property releases were something that we decided to go without. If I was to do it again, I’d probably bring an iPad with a release app on it and do it all digitally. As far as usage goes, none of the news agencies would pay for image use because it was for news content. We needed the coverage to keep the trip rolling, so I signed the releases they gave me. We failed to directly monetize the trip, but we wouldn’t have been able to make the journey we did without the continuous news coverage. It was a trade-off.

 

 

ASMP: How many and what types of social networking channels did you use for disseminating information about this project? Please list the most important channels and comment briefly about the use value of each of them.

 

CD: Twitter and Facebook were the most important channels. Twitter is what got us the news coverage — the media had just learned of the platform’s existence and just saying the word ‘Twitter’ could get your story bumped to the front page. Facebook was the most important vector for aggregating and communicating with our fan base, since it has the highest adoption rate. We used both sites to locate hosts in the cities we traveled to and crowdsource intelligence about where we were visiting. I used Flickr to host all our images from the trip, so I didn’t have to worry about bandwidth usage from people hotlinking. Our blog was the home base that tied everything together into a neat little package for reporters and fans. It educated people about the project and featured links to all of our other resources.

 

 

ASMP: If you had to name one, what was the single most valuable media placement you received as a result of promoting this project through social media? What made it most valuable to you?

 

CD: We were the travel section lede on CNN.com the day that “All You Can Jet” launched; that was definitely the tipping point for the project. Most of our other media placements were derived from that. CNN pushed us into the international spotlight, and then it was just a matter of announcing ourselves to local channels in advance of our arrival. I did close to 70 interviews during that month. The Associated Press covered us, but the article came out after the project was over. That article spread the farthest; we literally kept refreshing our search results when it hit the wire and watched in amazement as the number of editions spiraled into the thousands.

 

 

ASMP: In each location visited, you and your partner did really interesting stuff to keep yourselves in the news. How did you come up with the ideas for this stuff and what kind of planning did making arrangements for these entail?

 

CD: We knew our audience — we could look at our Facebook page and see the demographics. For the most part it was guys and girls like us, twenty-somethings working desk jobs. We realized that many of our fans were living vicariously through us, so we sought out adventure. We also crowdsourced our hosts and our activities. We posted on Twitter using the hashtag (keyword) for the city we’d be visiting next and asked for help. People would read about us and offer to take us in or comp our experience at their business in exchange for the publicity. We made it clear that we had media coverage and that was a large part of our appeal to business owners. Many people thought it was a fun project and wanted to be a part of it. Also, I would sometimes call ahead as our producer using a pseudonym. I quickly found that I had more luck in negotiations as “our producer,” than I did as just a dude flying around the country asking for free stuff. The value proposition was the same, but the way it was presented made a huge difference in the outcome. This was one big “take-away” from the trip.

 

 

ASMP: You mention that your project created over 120 million impressions for JetBlue. How did you arrive at that statistic?

 

CD: After the trip, we were asked to speak at the JetBlue executive summit in West Point, New York. While I was speaking with one of their executives at the reception, he leaked that number in conversation. I assume they received it from their PR agency or media clipping service.

 

 

ASMP: Given the large amount of travel you logged during this project what kind of, if any, delays or issues did you encounter related to the airline? Do you have any tips or advice for others to help minimize issues during air travel?

 

CD: We had traveler’s luck on our side throughout the trip. We only had one flight delay. However, we did have a few close calls due to time zone and ground transportation issues. Honestly, the best advice I have is to travel light. We only used carry-on and I doubt we would have made it through our itinerary without losing checked bags. I had a Pelican 1550 for my production gear and a backpack for my clothes and personal effects. I kept it simple, the only exception was my data, which I kept redundant and in different packs. I forgot a pair of shoes on one flight and a Nintendo DS on another but never lost any production gear.

 

 

ASMP: Can you share any details about whether/how your project influenced others to take advantage of the Jet Blue promotion, or to fly Jet Blue after the promotion had ended?

 

CD: I’m sure that JetBlue made money based on our trip. It was a month-long commercial for their airline, which showed how fun travel can be. I don’t have any figures but the ad value of that many impressions is obviously a large number. We had more than 50,000 unique visitors to our site in that month alone. More than a year later we still receive 150 uniques a month. There were also a ton of copycats during JetBlue’s All You Can Jet campaign the following year. JetBlue also asked me to be featured in one of the “TrueBlue” campaign videos — the black and white clips that they play before take-off. When I inquired about compensation they said it was “voluntary.” So I declined the opportunity. I still haven’t decided if that was the right choice. I was tired of being exploited as an artist, but the value of being in front of that many passengers for months is hard to calculate. It could have landed a paid gig or a role at a big company. It was a tough call to make.

 

 

ASMP: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you’d change or do differently if and when doing a project such as this again?

 

CD: I would have brought in a seasoned video production crew. After the trip, I tried to pitch the project to a couple agencies as a reality show, but I didn’t have enough footage for a cohesive pilot. Without the footage they weren’t willing to commit to the project. The project went from concept to completion in about seven weeks with a shoestring budget, so we didn’t have the resources to staff or even plan thoroughly. It was as real as reality programming gets. We actually censored a ton of the action from our blog readers. We tried to keep all of our published content to a PG-13 standard, since we knew our core audience was reading at work.

 

 

ASMP: On return to Buffalo, you started heavily promoting your photography business to the few thousand unique fans acquired through your project. What kinds of referrals, clients or prospective clients did this fan base generate?

 

CD: Enough to be profitable during my first year in business. I was able to mobilize my fan base to win “Best of Buffalo” for the photography category in our local art magazine. That led to a few commercial gigs and helped to promote my business in the local market. The project also gave me a track record of success to highlight when talking about Web strategy with potential clients. I had been active in Web marketing and e-commerce since high school, but without a breakaway project it was a harder sell. The project also lead to several gigs on the business side, including a project for Delta at New York’s Kennedy airport, where my team built an iPad based menu application that allows travelers to order food in the terminal.

 

 

ASMP: In 2010 you began consulting for photographers on social media strategy. What, if any, are the most common issues you’ve noted as lacking or underutilized among the individuals you’ve worked with?

 

CD: Among the ASMP community, I’d say that the most underutilized social network is LinkedIn. There are a ton of photographers with long work histories, dozens of former clients and co-workers who aren’t effectively utilizing their existing network. It’s much easier to sell to someone who has already been a customer, so why not reconnect with all your old clients and ask past creative directors for referrals? The other thing that people get wrong with social media is failing to realize that it’s a marketing tool, not a sales tool. It raises awareness about your current work and your brand, but to close the deal you still have to schedule the meeting and shake that person’s hand. Rarely, if ever, will you close a deal with a tweet.

 

 

ASMP: As you’ve worked to diversify your income streams in the past couple of years what, if any, challenges have you encountered and how have you addressed/overcome them?

 

CD: Prioritizing, that’s the hardest part. The choice between funding the cash cow or funding what you’re currently in love with. I try to base all my decisions off analytics — I let the data guide me. That said, I also reserve part of my budget for exploration. This allows me to avoid getting stuck in a rut by playing in new marketplaces.

 

 

ASMP: You now have a full time position as social media manager for the company Vuzix. Do you find there to be any distinctions between managing social media for a corporate entity as opposed to for an individual or small business owner?

 

CD: I tell my small business clients that social media is all about being timely, remarkable and responsive. I believe all those things hold true in the corporate environment, but it’s much harder to be timely. I plan campaigns and tweets months in advance to coincide with product releases, that’s something you don’t have to deal with as an individual. One advantage of being a corporation is you seem to have legitimacy by default. As an individual you have to prove yourself to your audience.

 

 

ASMP: What is the most significant thing you’ve learned in your new position?

 

CD: f/8 and be there. Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The most important contacts I’ve made for Vuzix have happened in person. Go to conferences, go to expos, go to lunch with people you meet. Until you have a conversation in person, there isn’t the impetus to help one another. Human beings are social creatures and face time is invaluable.

 

 

ASMP: Considering your work as an image maker independently from other aspects of your career, please talk about the current status of these efforts. How do you envision your work and interests in photography as evolving or changing in the future?

 

CD: I’m still very early in my career and I’m constantly evolving as an artist and changing my focus. When I took the job at Vuzix I was able to segment my art from my income; it gave me the ability to explore again. I’m using that to my advantage and taking a “big risk.” I recently sold all my DSLR gear and I’m spending the next 12 months shooting with only compact manual control digital cameras and cheap lights. In other words, I bought a G12 and went DIY. After spending three months lugging 40 lbs of DSLR gear on the road during the past two years I’d had enough. I decided that I wanted my whole kit to fit in one bag and weigh less than my Canon 5DmkII with a mounted 24-105 lens. I’ve gotten pretty close to that ideal. It’s made shooting fun, and I now carry my camera everywhere I go. The only downside so far has been the look models give me when I pull out the G12 during a studio session.

 

 

ASMP: I understand you recently launched a new community on Facebook. Please talk about the background of this initiative and how you see it evolving in the future? Is this an invitation-only entity or can interested parties join this group directly?

 

CD: I was recently appointed Vice President for ASMP WNY, and one of my personal goals is to build a stronger photography community in our area. There is a perception among non-members that ASMP is elitist, so I wanted to dispel that myth. The tactic I chose was to reach out to a few photographers that I knew (both members and non-members) and put them in the same room. I created a group on Facebook called ASMP WNY Photo Chat and seeded it with some informational materials; then I wrote a post asking everyone to introduce themselves and invite any of their photographer friends. This group grew from 10 to 230 members within a week and it’s become a thriving informational community. The chapter uses it as a soft-sell recruitment tool and we allow any photographer to join the chat. Chat members use it to ask the group both technical and business questions, share expertise and network with peers. We’ve recruited several new members from the chat and it has definitely grown interest in our chapter. Lastly, it’s given us a free channel to advertise the events we sponsor to our target market.