Many creatives all across the country are running to the interwebs and online video to get their work seen and heard, and YouTube, the world’s largest video distribution platform, uploads 100 hours of video content every minute. Have a short film that didn’t get distribution? YouTube. Have a feature length documentary that has run the festival circuit but didn’t find a home? YouTube. Have a TV series pilot that didn’t land on a network? YouTube. While all of these types of content are uploaded to digital distribution platforms daily, they are not necessarily ideal forms of content for the digital sphere. Vlogging, info-tainment, and web series have their own culture, best practices and nuance. Internet TV or web series, as it were, are not TV light.
So, what if you are coming to the digital sphere with original content, but yet are not quite sure how to play in this new sandbox? Having consulted on over 60+ web series and worked on retainer with some of the best in the "digital series" business, I’ve noticed key ingredients that are critical for success in the digital realm.
1. Who is your audience?
Simple? Yes. Redundant? Perhaps. Tantamount to the success of your series? Absolutely.
In developing any good series, a creative vision must give itself structure to set itself free. Creating a strong intention for whom the intended audience is for your series can save you a massive headache down the line. Obviously, asking oneself this question is not new to the storytelling process — theater, film and TV practitioners ask themselves this at every turn. Having a clear vision of who your targeted audience is helps alleviate any stress down the line when it comes time to promote the series (something you, as the creator, will most likely be spearheading), as you’ll have an organic list of blogs, news outlets, etc. who are already ripe for your series.
A great example of targetting a specific audience would be Tello Films, who actively creates content for an underserved demographic: 25-42 year old lesbians. Digital entertainment is about "super-serving" your niche, and you have to be clear about what niche you are serving before moving forward down the creative path.
2. Is it your calling card or is it for "the fans"?
One thing people who work on the web tend to underestimate is their personal and professional goals with the show. Where do they want it to wind up? Is industry exposure, and perhaps a new agent, enough? Or are they really looking "long term" at building up a community and audience on YouTube or another platform? One must consider that digital success may not necessarily translate to another medium, at least not right away. So the clearer the intention, the better.
Are you making this with mainly industry consideration in mind or are you planning on making your creative home in the digital realm? One good example of someone who has had consistent growth due to his diehard fan base is Greg Benson of the YouTube channel Mediocre Films. He has foregone much of the traditional Hollywood route, going all in on his YouTube channel — where, over the past eight years, he has racked up over 1.3 million subscribers and 315+ million views.
3. Cast not only actors who are right for the role, but also ones who move markets
At this stage in the game of online video, there are known and trusted "stars" or weblebrities who have loyal fans and fan bases. Many of them, are looking for new ways to increase their brand, build their audience and express themselves creatively. While many YouTubers are not trained actors (and/or they don’t consider themselves actors at all), there are several that are. And they can move markets and can singlehandedly take your series to the next level — especially if your series is right for their audience and fan base.
One brilliant series that moved from a vlog to scripted series is "Sexy Nerd Girl"/"Versus Valerie." When the series shifted to a more heavy scripted format in Versus Valerie, each episode featured a well-known YouTube personality in a pivotal acting role. Casting the right personality can make THE difference in the success of your series, and can act as the cornerstone of your marketing efforts in this sandbox.
4. Create Ancillary Content
Remember, "Web TV is NOT TV light." Just like cable is not TV, and TV was not film, and film was not radio, YouTube, Vimeo and other digital video platforms come with their own culture, best practices and rules that should be heeded if you intend to make your show a success. Disassociating this type of content with words like "Web TV" or "Internet TV" does it a disservice, as there is a confining homage to the other platform — and the way these two mediums are consumed and interacted with are intrinsically different. The more interactive, engaging and friendly digital content can be, the more successful it will be.
To that aim, the independent content creator must consider giving their audience the whole process. This includes not just creating episodes, but mini-sodes, Q&A videos, behind-the-scenes peeks, blogs and now even Vines, to give Super Fans more content to dive into AND sustain the length of the series.
A pitch perfect series that demonstrates this is the award-winning "Squaresville" — the actors (Kylie Sparks and Mary Kate Wiles) break the fourth wall at the end of every episode, a practice that is not only common, but necessary. Audiences expect the "story-behind-the-story," and when they don’t see it, they have less reason to connect. Millennials, in particular, want to connect not only with the character, but the actor behind the character. Thus, creating engaging, interactive and relevant ancillary content can make or break your series.
5. Plan for the Series, Not Just the Season
After you’ve thought about the WHY, it behooves the storyteller to think about the length of the story. Is your story told in five seasons or more? Or is the concept done after only six episodes? Whatever it is, make sure you think both short term AND long term, before investing thousands of dollars into equipment and locations and craft service. An amazing artsy anthology series out of New York that just got funded for a second season, due to its stellar first season performance, is "High Maintenance." Check out the Season 1 episodes that got them deficit financing from Vimeo for Season 2.
6. Allot for a Marketing Budget
Many industry professionals don’t know when a block-buster movie comes out, that 33% of the ENTIRE budget of the film is spent in PR/Marketing! If "Gone Girl" is spending 33% on their entire budget on PR and Marketing and it has huge stars in it with followings already, why don’t most independents think they don’t need to spend time and money on this part of the process? I assert that most creative people don’t simply think about it and it gets lost in the shuffle. This step is CRITICAL in getting your work seen and having the project do for you what you intended it to do for you and your career. Even if your budget is under $5k, it is well worth your time to allot $1,500 or more towards the promotion of your series. Don’t skip this…instead, work with someone, learn from the process, apply it to your current series, and then use those skills on all of your future projects. Don’t just think of it as an investment in the series, look at it as an investment in your career. With over 1,000,000 views between YouTube and Funny or Die, Rory Uphold’s series “Only in HelLA” is a certified hit and she worked with PR firm Go Team Entertainment to get her series to that level.
7. Make your series "web friendly" by doing your research
When preparing to work with YouTube star/actress Shanna Malcolm, my client Mike Diamond realized how critical research was in securing their collaboration. Mike studied all of Shanna’s videos before he met with her and also scoured the web for other examples of video examples in that genre. He discovered for himself what works and what doesn’t on the web, learning from others’ mistakes. And by the end of the shoot, one collab video with Shanna had turned into twenty. The internet is all about freedom, but remember, "Structure sets you free," so educate yourself on the best practices of digital video production and immerse yourself in its community, culture, and rhythm.
Once you find the heart of the rhythm in the digital ecosphere, and engage these seven important principles, you will most likely discover your own.
Brian Rodda has worked passionately in digital media and online video since 2007, and has consulted with over 60 content creators to promote and create thriving communities for their properties.
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