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Digital Gets Physical at the CLIOs with the ChalkBot

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[This post was contributed by Jen Mediano. Mediano is a freelance writer and veteran of top interactive agencies including Razorfish and R/GA.]

All marketing disciplines, including PR, are eying the growth of location-based platforms such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Bringing online messages to the offline world to actually elicit action is the ultimate for marketers. One interesting campaign that gave us an early look at connecting the web with people on the ground is the Nike Chalkbot during last year’s Tour de France.

The Chalkbot was a key element in Nike’s LIVESTRONG campaign for the 2009 Tour. Fans around the world texted inspirational messages for bicyclists that were printed in yellow chalk by the rolling bot on the roads during the three week race. Design firm Deeplocal and StandardRobot worked with Nike’s agency, W+K, to design and develop the pneumatic robot and software system.

The system included a text message interface, web based queue, camera and GPS capture system, Twitter integration, and all the hardware needed to spray the paint. Also built in was an approval system for tour officials, to block those with more naughty intentions.

Self-described Luddite and Deeplocal CEO Nathan Martin had the best stuff to say at the “Digital Gets Physical” panel discussion at the CLIO Conference this week. His work on Chalkbot reminded us that the physical world has different rules than the digital world. Technology has nothing to do with what makes a digital campaign successful. It needs emotion. It needs to be cool enough for you to tell your friends about it.

“If it’s just a machine painting stuff, who cares?”


And it took seven weeks from–from concept to pneumatic pumps–to execute it.

How did they get this to actually happen? Martin says it’s about trust. “A lot of what happened isn’t about technology, it’s about trust. Clients and agencies are used to making really up to the minute changes, but you don’t do that with physical hardware. There’s no iterative development. You can’t change it on the fly.”

Martin’s background is in fine arts, product design, and being in a hardcore band. He likes to build stuff. Working with agencies are new to him. He likes that barrier between him and the client.

Wieden & Kennedy picked up a gold CLIO this week for “Content and Contact,” while Martin spoke passionately about literally taking the concept to the streets.

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