The idea germinated after a stroll past Speakers’ Corner last year. Omer Shaikh, former MD of Saatchi & Saatchi digital media agency Red Kite, saw that the place long associated with free speech was deserted. It occurred to him that the web had become a better place than Hyde Park for airing views.
Together with one-time Text 100 director Andy West, he set about launching online debate channel Friction.tv as a home for trenchant opinion on every subject under the sun. Users are encouraged to upload video a la YouTube, but with a focus on more serious, contentious issues.
Friction does not charge to upload content and it is positioned as delivering the opinions of genuine people in an unedited, uninhibited and challenging way. The 12 channels currently on Friction are: Politics, Education, Environment, Health, Society, Local Issues, Sport, My Life, Lord Tramp (an online columnist), Business, Entertainment and Technology.
Partnership with Five News
The site went live in February and after a series of refinements is now attracting over 100,000 unique visits per month. The plan is to increase this number tenfold by the end of the year.
That target may at first sound ambitious, but the entrepreneurs are working hard to raise Friction’s profile. Last week saw the announcement of a partnership deal with Five News, in which Friction is to be its first official TV news partner. Five News is expanding the Your News section of its 7pm bulletin with a new user-generated (UGC) feature called Your Views, using material posted to Friction.
In essence, Five gets content in return for which Friction (l) will gain exposure and a likely upsurge in traffic and uploads to its site. Negotiations over similar relationships with other UK media owners in print and radio are ongoing, as are discussions with prospective TV partners in the US.
‘Any organisation that is trying to raise the profile of an issue or cause can use Friction.tv as a platform,’ says West. ‘But it needs to be part of a wider online communication programme to get the views to make a difference. You need to understand how to viral that content and tap into peer-to-peer networks. We can only put a limited number of videos on our home page.’
Participation is beginning to build a momentum of its own, but Friction makes sure there is always interesting content being uploaded through ‘assisted UGC’. It reaches out to well- known polemicists – Tory MP Boris Johnson, for example – and in some instances sends its own film crew out to help organisations create footage for the site.
‘I was approached by Friction.tv and spoke about our ‘Feeding Kids Meat is Child Abuse’ poster campaign,’ says Anita Singh, special campaigns manager at animal rights charity Peta Europe.
‘This poster shows an obese child tucking into a hamburger. It has been viewed by a significant number of people and got them talking about our position that if a parent knowingly gives children meat – which is proven to be linked to heart disease, cancer and stroke – it is tantamount to abuse.’
In Singh’s opinion, Friction.tv is an excellent campaigning, debate and outreach medium. Jason Torrance, campaigns director at Transport 2000, was similarly approached by Friction and is enthusiastic because ‘the visual element of the site takes things to another level’. Among the content that Transport 2000 has uploaded is material related to its Sardine Man campaign to illustrate overcrowding on trains.
At launch, Friction used two PR agencies. Cohn & Wolfe had a wide-ranging consumer and stakeholder brief, while Golden Goose took on an arts, entertainment and popular culture remit. C&W has been dropped in the UK, although it continues to work with Friction in the US, and Golden Goose has assumed a broader role.
‘Not safe’ to voice opinion
Among the techniques Friction has used to heighten its profile is a recent YouGov survey of 2,000 adults. This revealed that, although Britain prides itself as a bastion of free speech, only one in five Britons feel they could safely voice their opinion on a sensitive issue.
Friction also recently signed a deal with mobile solutions provider Picsel Technologies, with a view to distributing content on mobile platforms. There is a lot going on, but given that it is free to upload videos and post comment on the site, how can Friction hope to make any money?
West says five revenue streams have been identified. Online advertising is the only one as yet active: Motorola, Samsung, Amazon and Vodafone have had a presence on the site.
Alternatives being explored for the future include channel or debate sponsorship and syndication fees for use of content by other media. The Intellectual Property Rights section of its terms and conditions states that all user submissions are owned by Friction, providing the potential to sell on material. For now, though, development strategy centres on growth in user numbers.
Certain groups have already realised the potential of Friction. At the local level, a group campaigning against the development of a new Sainsbury’s store in prosperous Barnes has already made good use of the online platform to vent its opposition to the scheme.
Clearly, Friction has the potential to be a rallying point for a variety of issues. Its tagline ‘spark the debate’ sums up what it stands for and its long-term success or failure will depend on its capacity to motivate those with opposing views to engage with each other online.