Monday, October 24, 2011

Guest post: Transmedia - Lessons learned

The following is a guest post by Lucas J.W. Johnson from Silverstring Media in Vancouver. It's about trying to launch a project, realizing when to pull the plug, and using the experience to try anew. It resonates with me and some of the stuff I've worked on over the years; key is to fail, and fail often - and learn from your mistakes. With that, I'll leave the floor to Lucas:

Azrael's Stop

Back in January, I decided I wanted to start a transmedia project, something that I could get out there and start building a following. By then the call to “stop talking and start doing” had already begun, and I was eager to do it. And I wanted something that would be easy to start up and easy to maintain while I worked on other projects. In February, the beginning of Azrael’s Stop was released on the world.

A few months later, I found that the project just wasn’t where I wanted it to be. It didn’t have much of a following, I’d found a lot of problems with how I’d set it up, and I was starting to feel like I was producing sub-par content just to have content. So I pulled the plug and Azrael’s Stop went on hiatus.

I knew that I wanted to bring it back, though. Once I figured out how to fix all the problems -- which might either involve a previously nonexistent budget, or a lot of work. But slowly I’ve been building up those resources and preparing for a return -- a return which is now happening, next week, on November 1st.

The process has been an interesting one, and I think makes for a good case study in planning and execution for transmedia or digital media properties.

The Plan

The original plan for Azrael’s Stop hinged on a few key ideas. I wanted it to be something I could (1) start quickly and (2) upkeep easily, with (3) little budget but (4) the potential to make money.

(1) and (2) led me to the idea of Twitter fiction. Daily self-contained stories that fit within a tweet. Each would be about the same characters over time so they built up a world, but would be self-contained enough that you could theoretically jump in any time. I could write 140 characters a day, and do it for free. Twitter would also make it easy to share, easy to measure followers, and free to use. I also felt it was important that I wasn’t asking a lot of my audience -- I wasn’t asking them to give me hours of their time, just about 20 words of reading a day. I also wasn’t asking for money up front.

This stream of fiction would then be augmented by occasional bonus content. This might be a full short story, or a piece of in-world music, or maybe a video or little game. These would add to the story but not be necessary to it, but would provide deeper engagement for those who wanted it. And I would sell them for, say, 99 cents a pop -- to pay for their production, and ideally make a little money.

It’s the typical indie transmedia business plan -- free first level to bring in an audience, with deeper engagement at a price. The theory was all there.

I came up with a cool story -- the setting is a bar called Azrael’s Stop, where people are mystically led when they’re ready to die. The bartender is a 17-year-old kid who’s seen a lot of death and is struggling to deal with it. the story is about him and the people who come to the Stop.

I figured I was set.

The Result

The promise of using social media as a way to distribute or promote content is the potential for it to go viral and reach a large audience, and that was something I was subconsciously counting on. Because for any of my plans to really work, I needed an audience -- the common statistic for freemium business models is that 1-20% of your audience will be willing to pay for things. To quote Jayne from Firefly, ten percent of nothing is, let me do the math here, nothing into nothing, carry the nothing...

I was counting on the adage “build it and they will come.” And frankly, that’s just not true. They still have to hear about it, and my first mistake was assuming that my available networks -- Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth -- would be enough to get the seed audience to let it take off. But beyond talking about it a bit, I did no real marketing or publicizing.

Mistake number two, as Dr. Christy Dena points out in her video “7 Things”, is that your peers are not necessarily your audience. They’re all working on their own stuff, and while they might offer an RT here or there, they’re less likely to be your huge fans -- the huge fans that will pay for content and spread your project far and wide.

But even were I to find some audience and get some eyes -- and I did, to some extent; I had about 50 followers on Twitter when I pulled the plug, which isn’t nobody (how many were bots? don’t know) -- there were underlying structural problems that actively worked against audience expansion and retention.

The first was a problem with the premise -- if I’m only providing tiny pieces of content so you don’t have to spend a lot of time with my project, then you’re not spending a lot of time with my project. You might read a piece in the fleeting stream of tweets and immediately forget about it. Even if you wanted more, there was precious little to engage you.

Pieces of fiction that short have other limitations -- no room to describe people, for instance. So it was very hard to visualize the storyworld.

Twitter itself became a barrier to entry -- individual tweets could get lost in the stream easily, and as much as we digital types might love it, a whole lot of people still don’t use it or understand it. “You just have to go to the profile page and scroll down!” fell on deaf ears. After two months, I finally added Facebook to deliver the same content, something I should have done from the start, but it never garnered that much interest either. It was too hard to figure out what was going on; it was too hard to care.

I made other mistakes. In an attempt to harvest an email list of fans, I made it so you’d have to sign up to access the archives on my blog, which was just creating a barrier to entry for people to check out the story. I tried running a contest to engage the audience and attract more fans, but that still requires an audience to start (I promised the top 10 entries a prize; I got five entries -- which, interestingly, hit the 10% of my followers rule). I gave away a song as the prize, which meant that the only people who might have been willing to pay for it already had it (“It’s creative commons, people will share and remix and it will spread!”). And by month four, I felt I was being too rushed, just trying to keep up with content no one was reading and monthly bonus content no one was paying for. The project was getting away from me. So I pulled the plug.

The Redo

But I wasn’t giving up. I needed time, I needed to figure a lot out and do a lot of work, but I knew I wanted to bring Azrael’s Stop back. But first I had to fix it.

Step 1: Twitter wasn’t good enough. I needed a dedicated blog/website with an RSS feed, and without the slightly-too-constraining 140 character limit; somewhere people could land and consume content and find out more. I also wanted to be as many places as possible -- to not be losing audience just because they’re not on Twitter. So I got a website designer to collaborate with and put up; the content will also be available daily on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, and monthly archives on a host of other sites like Wattpad and Scribd.

Step 2: I also needed enough content from the start to draw people in, something that would set up the world and story before being restricted to microfiction. So I wrote an introductory story, a prologue that introduced the characters and setting and hopefully make you care for them. I also collaborated with a couple of artists to have some more artwork associated with the project, to help bring it to life for the audience.

Step 3: Plan. Edit. Raise the quality of the project. Keeping it as something I could do quickly and easily must not stand in the way of quality.

Planning out the entirety of the rest of the project also allows me to know what’s coming when something might require extra production time. And it lets me say that the project will come to an end after one year -- I’m not asking my audience for some unspecified time commitment. And if it’s successful, I can still do spin-offs or future “seasons”. (The storyworld is certainly rich enough for it, as I’m planning to use it for future projects anyway.)

Step 4: Make it as easy as possible for the audience. Any time you put a tiny barrier in, you lose audience. The website will feature a little teaser video, an explanation of what the project is, and a breakdown of where to start -- either full archives where you can easily get all the available content, or a quick summary of the story so far so you can just jump right in if you want instead. I’m trying to make all information and content as easy to find and access as possible.

I’m also removing the paywall completely -- even the bonus content will be available to everyone for free. What does this mean for the business plan, though? Well, I’m a little less concerned about making money than experimenting with the form and finding an audience. But at the end of the project, I will create and (probably self-)publish a collection of all the content (with a bit extra), which I will then sell. An e-book, and album, and maybe some more stuff I have up my sleeve.

Step 5: Market. Get the project out there more. Get it in front of people. Talk it up in guest posts. ^_^

* * *

You can’t count on social media to do your work for you. You can’t rush into something and assume it will work.

Look at it from an audience perspective. Imagine all of your possible audience members. Build it for them.

Make a quality product, and spread it widely.

And always keep re-evaluating the project. Fix it if it’s broken. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back here in four months, with new lessons learned.

Azrael’s Stop will re-launch on November 1st at

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Disciplines merging in transmedia

One of the most interesting and at the same time most challenging aspects of transmedia is getting everything to gel flawlessly. It was pretty hard back in the days of interactive television (try telling an MHP programmer that the interactive set-top-box-game he was programming would need to a) look like the rest of the graphics on the show and feel like a natural part of the show, b) be confined to a certain part of the screen abd a certain size to accommodate for video feed on rest of the screen and c) take the show into consideration, not just work on its’ own…phew!) and it’s still a pretty daunting proposition.

It’s extremely important to identify which platforms make sense to use when developing a transmedia project. This in and of itself will give you some minor headaches. Why not use all of them? You really should build an app, or should you? It is a process that needs to be done, and done thoroughly. Will you be launcing and ARG of some kind? Will you have live events? Are you looking at drama webisodes, or do you need television or newspapers or even billboards to cut through to your audience? How about social media, e-mail and so on? The better you know your story (and your target audience!), the better you can choose platforms. The better and quicker you choose platforms, the easier you will have to find the right people to partner with, another crucial part of any transmedia project.

In a post called The Transmedia Manifest the so called High Flyers group, appointed by the Frankfurt Book Fair, took a look at how stories will be taught in the future. It’s a good manifest, encompassing most of the features that make transmedia methods so effective to use in a disrupted media landscape. The 11th thesis of the manifest reads:

Collaborative work
The story-universe is developed in collaboration by a versatile and interdisciplinary team, whose range of skills can meet the demands of experience-based storytelling.

In my book, all the other points of the manifest are dependant on this one. There will be no intriguing multiplatform story, if you can’t get the right people in to produce, program and create for the different platforms. There will be no ”taking advantage of the strenghts of a medium” if you or someone else your team does not fully understand and master the different media that are to be used.

Nick DeMartino wrote an interesting article the other day, looking at transmedia through the goggles of classic media scolar Marshall McLuhan. His pronouncement that ”the medium is the message” is one that media students all around the world have been indoctrinated with for decades, and in many a way it’s still an apt description of where we are today. That makes it even more crucial to create partnerships around the development of a transmedia project, to fully understand the media involved and thereby be able to convey the message, the story.

To wrap up this short post, I’ll readily acknowledge that things are not as bad as they were some 5-6 years ago, when my role as a creator and producer to a large extent meant acting as a translator between writers/directors and programmers. Today most writers and directors (at least those who have been working with multiplatform content development) understand the importance of knowing the possibilities and limitations of other media platforms outside their own main field of interest. Vice versa, most programmers can look at examples and best practices from previous campaigns and see how the tech and the software can bring about a much more engaging and immersive experience if integrated with the story from the beginning, taking into account all the demands and the possibilities the story and the mythology brings with them to the table.

And to finally conclude; if I could wish for one little thing, it’d be something like the collaborative film community at Wreckamovie, only for transmedia projects. Anyone?

Friday, October 07, 2011

MIPCOM 2011 roundup

Packing my bags, ready to leave MIPCOM behind for yet another year. Cannes surprised us all with a weather more like mid-July than early October, although as I look out to sea now, some sort of autumn storm is churning up waves and whipping the palms around quite mercilessly.

I don’t know if it was the weather or something else, but this market lacked a lot of the doom and gloom that had been prevalent at most of the MIPs since 2008. Back then we were heading into the unknown of a recession and everyone had their wallets in a tight grip; this year people were a lot more upbeat, seeing possibilities and doling out money in a steady flow. Which is a bit strange, as we’re heading into yet another recession… but on the other hand, TV viewing figures are up, brands are obviously spending, it wasn’t as bad as feared last time around, so psychologically speaking it makes sense, I guess.

To highlight some of the stuff over the week I managed to catch over the week – and we had so many meetings over the week that I missed most of the sessions, (un?)fortunately – the most obvious one is that the term ’2nd screen’ is exciting to most people. It is quite possible that the fact that people are on a mobile device of some sort – be it smartphone, tablet or laptop – while watching tv, is a fact that has finally penetrated the mind of most people in the business. Perhaps they’ve watched their own kids while they watch tv? The only thing I know is, ’2nd screen’ was the buzzword of MIPCOM 2011.

To this I might add that our lab did studies on interactivity during a tv show – we did the first interactive quiz show in Finland, with set top box interactivity and Javabased interactivity for smartphones, back in 2004 – studies that clearly showed that people felt more engaged with a tv show if they were interactive via a set top box. They felt more personal, but also more detached, if they did the exact same interaction on a smartphone. That says something for connected TVs, I guess, but at the same time you need to factor in the value of having a personal experience in a group, like a family.

I saw some funky stuff being presented by Ex Machina, the people behind PlayToTV, for interaction via iPhone / iPad etc. They use HTML5 which helps it run on anything (and I think HTML5 is going to change the game plan for many companies over the next year or so. Imagine creating something that doesn’t need to be ported to 1000 different devices, something that just works, the way you intended it? Nice.). I spoke to a company from Wales, Little Lamb, who are doing tv shows paired with watermarked iPad apps for 3-5 year olds, for them to interact with a tv show on iPads together with their parents. It’s all going more and more 2nd screen, more and more interactive…. And let’s not forget ’social’!

The talks at MIP showed that more and more people ’get it’; where ’it’ is the fact that most of our audiences have already moved into a very social space. We – and most importantly our content, what we’re offering – need to find out logical and natural place in the same social space. Not intruding, as you wouldn’t like someone bursting into your house while your there with your friends, promoting some tv series that’ll premiere in a week. Just being there might be enough, so that the step to engage or interact is as short as possible for any possible member of the audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to create word-of-mouth for your stuff; it’s only a matter of doing in the right way. Here, again, honesty is key. Tell what you can tell. Be open with what you can not tell. And have a plan for how to harness the audience you do engage.

Got to run to the airport now, try to fly home in the storm that’s apparently racking the whole of Europe. Until MIP in the spring, or somewhere else!