I’ve always been fascinated by AI. Ask me what my favourite film or TV show is, and some form of robot will likely appear somewhere: Black Mirror, Ex Machina, Westworld, you name it.
So, when I found out that the University of Sussex has 20-odd robots including NAOs, Peppers, and robot dogs (ROBOT DOGS!), I considered it my duty to raise their profile on our social feeds.
We began by featuring them in quick-turnaround content for trending topics, such as this…
But, I knew we could take it further. So, when we were asked to pitch ideas for a Clearing campaign on a shoestring budget, using the robots seemed like a plan.
Fast forward a few weeks and my colleague and I were pitching a five-part short-form video series, following the journey of two robots, who break out of our labs at the University of Sussex to explore Brighton and campus, falling in love with our city and uni – and each other – along the way!
To support the series, we pitched loads of other robot campaign ideas, from a Facebook Messenger chatbot in the voice of our robots to answer queries and offer Clearing places, to competitions where we’d hide robots for people to find to win prizes and register for Clearing alerts.
After a team vote, the robots campaign was announced victorious! But could we pull it off? We had a couple of months and a pretty tight budget to try. Here’s what happened…
Innovative video content
Despite the difficulties of working with robots (I’ll get onto that later!), we somehow managed to produce our five-part video series, which we developed, wrote and directed ourselves, and used most of our budget to shoot and edit. You can check them out on our website. These formed the centrepiece of our campaign, and served to get people talking and raise awareness of the university.
Our new brand film was also being developed and produced alongside this campaign, and so we ensured they tied together, through their use of robots, our brand palette and, if you look closely, you might just spot which scene appears in both.
Our students and Digital Media Gurus Edd and Rebecca also presented and produced a series of breaking news reports, featuring sightings of the robots.
These helped to suggest that our robots had genuinely (or rather, tongue-in-cheek genuinely) escaped, and that we needed people’s help to find them – by visiting our webpage or using the #spotthebot hashtag.
Utilising both physical and digital spaces
As well as featuring our (missing cat style) missing robots posters in our video series and social posts, we also put them up in locations around Brighton and our campus for the duration of our campaign, to help increase the reach and presence of our campaign, and generate some curiosity. (Which sadly killed the cat – it wasn’t missing, after all.)
Competitions and Giveaways
We held several competitions as part of this campaign, some within the real world, and some within the digital, some to win prizes, and others just for fun.
For one competition, we hid 30 real mini robots around Brighton and campus for people to find and share their pictures on social media. The robots had tags around their necks informing people they were on an adventure and to help share their story by posting their picture online and planting them somewhere else to continue their travels.
Around half the robots were found and had their pictures posted on social, including this little critter.
The incentive to take part: winning an Amazon Echo Dot or a mini robot dog.
For our digital version of this competition, we hid robot graphics within our virtual tour, to encourage people to explore our campus digitally, and sign up for Clearing updates upon clicking on a robot. We had over a hundred people find the robots in our tour, with many going on to explore our Clearing pages and sign up for email updates. The prize for finding the robots: a pair of headphones.
As a final competition, and just for lols, we posted a picture of the robots on our Instagram story and asked our followers to screengrab the image and help disguise our robots. To our surprise, loads of people got involved, tagging us in their stories showcasing their disguises. Here are some of their creations.
Our robots appeared everywhere. And we mean everywhere. Not only did we publish stories, selfies, videos, photos, bloopers, memes, gifs – you name it – all showcasing their adventures, and helping to promote Clearing, we also hid the robots in our social banners and avatars, we had robot Snapchat geofilters live all over Brighton and campus.
They even made an appearance at Pride Brighton. Werk it, robots!
Personalised Robot Replies
On A Level Results Day when people were posting on social to say they’d got a place at Sussex, we replied with personalised robot videos like this…
…and gifs like this to congratulate them.
And when we saw some lovely reactions online to the robot content we were producing, we couldn’t resist but reply with a loving message from the robots!
Difficulty number 1: One of the major barriers to getting this campaign off the ground could have been sign off. Is the idea mad? Not clear or corporate enough? Will senior management go for it? Luckily, they did. Shout out to Dave Penney, Michelle Gordon, Katy Hiles and Alex Fulton!
Difficulty number 2: Staffing and resources. With a limited budget and only 1 full time member on our social media team (hello!), creating such an ambitious social and digital campaign was always going to be a struggle! Luckily, with the backing of senior management, loads of lovely colleagues from our Marketing and Digital and Creative Media teams offered to get involved to help produce the content. Go team! And a limited budget just meant we had to be more creative and realistic. So no chatbots or post-outs. But we could still make a five-part video series where actual robots go clubbing, shopping, and have their food stolen by (inflatable) seagulls. As they say: creativity loves boundaries.
Difficulty number 3: Working with robots! Turns out they’re not the easiest contributors to direct for numerous reasons.
- They don’t always do what you want.
- Their batteries only last an hour and need a power point to charge (making shooting on locations like beaches a tad tricky!)
- They can do tai chi at the push of a button, but programming them to wave their hand can take an hour.
- Making two robots walk simultaneously requires approximately 1000 takes.
- They stop working when they’re too hot. (Though I’m sure we can all relate to that.)
What we learned
Fail to plan, plan to fail! As one example of this, we carefully storyboarded (and re-boarded and re-storyboarded) our script in advance of shooting, and shot-listed our scenes out of sequence in order to save time on the shoot and cut down on costs. Shooting out of sequence meant we could shoot everything in three days instead of five, cutting the filming costs by almost half. Bam. We just had to be super organised to avoid continuity errors – especially with whether the robots were dressed!
ALWAYS have a Plan B. We anticipated the robots might not always work as we hoped, so we had a plan B for their movements in every scene, so we could still shoot everything, even if they stopped working. (The stop motion walk in Chapter 3 wasn’t Plan A, for instance, one of the robots just refused to walk at the time. I think it was tired.)
Have fun – and don’t be scared to be silly! The robots raving and getting attacked on the beach by an inflatable seagull were some of our favourites scenes to film.
All ideas are good ideas. Better to think big and rein back, than to go in shy, I say. No matter the restrictions. (You should have read our initial script. It had as many twists and turns as an EastEnders Christmas special.)
Never work with kids, animals… or robots! Just kidding. We love them really.