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RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: The New Essentials of Digital Series

Posted By Meghan de Boer, Monday, June 8, 2015

YouTube personality Tyler Oakley
These are exciting times for content creators and storytellers. There are more avenues for distribution than ever before, and the content is startlingly diverse as creators are able to target niche audiences and cater to their personal investment in characters and stories. As technology continues to manifest itself in ever-creative and useful vessels for consumption, creators are not only telling their stories but packaging their products into full interactive and immersive experiences. There’s no ceiling on the opportunities for creativity and invention.

In this playground of digital, producers are encouraged and challenged to innovate and find new ways of reaching and engaging their viewers in these niche markets. In this landscape, the measure of success is not necessarily which series has the most views but which series resonates the loudest with the community that identifies with the content.

"The views report the views; that’s one thing,” says Bernie Su, PGA member and Emmy Award-winning creator and showrunner of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. "But when you have conversation in the threads, now you’ve actually resonated with your audience. Now they’re discussing it, or debating it, or loving it, or hating it. Now you have this emotional reaction to the content that you’ve created, and to me that’s the measure of success. Does anybody care?”

On the executive side, Chief Content and Technology Strategist for Endemol Beyond USA David Williams agrees with that sentiment. "People tend to look at views and subscribers, but the truth is, what’s much more important is what is underneath those numbers.”  

David’s essential barometer for success? Total watch times. If the audience is connecting with the content, that measure of success will be reflected in the length of time they are watching.

Viewers today are hungry for programming, none more so than millennials (18–34), who consume more online content than previous generations. For the content to resonate with these viewers and elicit a share, a comment or a like, it must connect with them on a personal level.  
Sarah Malkin, Vice President of Programming at Maker Studios, describes it as "content that feels authentic to its creator(s)–meaning it reveals something personal or shares a truthful perspective on the world; content that is interactive or social by nature—asking the viewers to participate and share their own feelings across platforms; and content that sets up a promise that it delivers on consistently (e.g., a fun format that is always followed; a strictly adhered to publishing schedule).”

For a case in point, look no further than This American Life and its new series Videos 4 U. Their episode "I Love You,” about a young couple who have been dating for eight years but have never said "I love you,” has garnered a ton of buzz, conversation and press, amassed more than 1 million views across platforms and just won a 2015 Webby Award. It’s easy to see why, given the story’s approach to a universal rite-of-passage through a unique, personal and deeply authentic point-of-view.  

YouTube personality Grace Helbig

Likewise, YouTube personalities like Tyler Oakley and Grace Helbig have found tremendous success by just being themselves on camera. Tyler’s unabashed "fan-girling” has endeared him to a broad millennial audience, while Grace’s winningly awkward comic delivery has helped her secure a place as a YouTube everywoman.  

Anyone curious to get inside the mind of this generation and understand why they are drawn to this type of content should stream "Teens React to Grace Helbig” on TheFineBros YouTube channel. Young people aren’t shy about what they like. YouTube is full of free focus groups, if you know where to look. (TheFineBros, Tyler Oakley and Grace Helbig have 12.1 million, 6.8 million and 2.2 million YouTube subscribers, respectively.)

Misconceptions of Producing Digital Content

Since the online market is so different from linear television—from the attitude of the consumer to the multi-directional interaction with the content—there isn’t a one-size-fits-all mentality that can be helpfully applied to producing in both media. As producers from mainstream television begin to move into digital territories, they find that different rules apply.  

Producer Bernie Su (left) works on-set with cast and crew.
Bernie Su thinks one of the biggest misconceptions about digital content is that "If it’s shot well, it will do well. A lot of people overvalue the production value of the show and undervalue the writing or the acting,” he says. "It may look great, but if the heart of the character and the story isn’t there, you won’t get that personal connection with it.”  

"It’s become a little bit of a trope to say that,” David Williams agrees, "but I think there’s still a big disconnect between what people associate with high production and success with audiences.”

This seems to be the natural inclination of the rising generation, bucking against the highly produced concepts in favor of authenticity. They value story lines or characters that speak to them above all else. 

Of course, if you can have both a high production value and a story with heart, you have a winning combination. But a story that deeply connects with its audience—even despite a low production value—isn’t something to sniff at these days. As long as it can resonate within its niche, it can persevere.  

Sarah Malkin says another misconception is "It’s easier or takes less effort to pro-
duce because it’s meant for a digital platform. Producers know that making content is always a challenge, whether it’s made for $100 or $1 millon. Digital producers put a huge amount of planning, preparation and perfectionism into their work, with the added stressors of lightning-fast turnaround times and the expectation to pivot based on audience feedback.”

Budget and turnaround times for a digital production can be vastly different than a series for broadcast. Digital producers have to be adept at wearing multiple hats and crewing their shows efficiently. If you can’t afford to put 100 people on your crew, you have to prioritize and determine what you can do without.  

Chris Thomes, Vice President, Digital Media Studio at ABC, observes, "The viewer appetite for video programming has really evolved with the proliferation of different viewing devices, platforms and content formats. Their expectations around look and feel for content are more flexible than ever before, so production values can follow. Like a Silicon Valley startup, where you may have employees wearing multiple hats to get a new company or product off the ground, digital productions can leverage smaller teams, with each crew member being expert in more than one skill. The key is having a great line producer who is savvy at budgeting and crewing a production in a compressed way.” 

Contrary to popular belief, some producers thrive on quick turnaround times, incorporating feedback based on the fans’ comments. Best of all, the fans feel listened to, which fuels their engagement even further.

"There’s also a misconception that if you just plug in an influencer,” Su believes, "you’ll get views.” In digital media parlance, these "influencers” are the stars of social media—personalities with millions of subscribers on their YouTube Channels and/or massive followings on Twitter, Vine, Snapchat or any other social platform.  

If only we could recall the name of this YouTube star...

PewDiePie is a YouTube personality who posts videos of himself playing video games while commenting and reacting. While it may not be high art, it does speak to a certain audience—and that certain audience happens to be huge. PewDiePie’s YouTube channel has more than 36 million subscribers.  

The comedy channel, Smosh, has more than 20 million, and vlogger Jenna Marbles is just shy of 15 million subscribers. 

Influencers aren’t always the shortcut to wide exposure that they seem to be. "There’s a lot more to it than that,” continues Su. "You can’t just plug in someone who has a million Twitter followers into something and expect that million Twitter followers to all come to it. It has to be on brand with them, it has to be on brand with you.”

"Sometimes people overestimate the power of influencers to move the needle on audiences,” adds Williams. "It’s not automatic, and the content itself has to be highly tuned to a community’s interests if it’s going to work. If you can tune the content with the community, then the influencer is actually tremendously helpful in establishing a brand voice and communicating a brand promise.”

In short, there’s a lot to be said about the social reach and the marketing potential of including an influencer, but it’s not necessarily a box on the checklist for "Make Show A Hit.” 

"A lot of people obsess about runtimes—that it has to be short. I don’t think that’s true. If the audience loves the content, they will share the content with their peers, regardless of how long it is,” says Su.  

"If you have an existing, passionate fanbase, longer content will work and will work well.” says Williams. "However if your goal is to acquire new audiences, shorter content is likely to serve you better as you build,” says Williams.  

Vlogger and YouTube personality Jenna Marbles
Creating Content & Engaging with Your Audience

"Now the larger companies are competing in this Darwinian ecosystem for consumer engagement, so the big challenge—from my perspective—is how to create digital series that are appealing to advertisers and brand marketers, while at the same time being appealing to audiences. Especially when you consider a lot of the successful formats online are these highly efficient, inexpensive programs. But it’s also a big challenge because they are not necessarily appealing to brand marketers who want to associate with more aspirational content. So the challenge is: How do we leverage our resources and our operations to create programming that can do both?” asks Williams.

In Bernie Su’s development process, he always asks himself, "What makes the content fresh? If you have your television on, [the network] shows you what they show you, and you decide whether you consume it or not. But online, you have this massive choice of things, and it’s search-based or feed-based. We’re not trying to fill inventory; we’re trying to actually spur discussion and reaction.”  

Ultimately his target is content that is buzzworthy and that invites the fans to talk about the "world” within the show. 

So as a content creator for digital series, how does a producer stoke the fire and fuel fan engagement? For Bernie Su, the key is accessibility. He gauges his audiences’ passion by their user-generated content, such as fan-art or music videos using cuts from the show.  "It shows that the [series] has hit these viewers at a different level than just the casual viewer” says Su. "It’s a measure of success.” 

To keep the fans engaged with the content, he honors requests for logos, key art or stills. "Give your audiences the tools. Make them feel like they are welcome and valuable and part of the whole experience of the show, and I think they’ll be more passionate as well.”  

Malkin adds, "Creators who communicate regularly with their fans and ask for their responses inspire great loyalty. It’s largely about establishing and maintaining a connection. Also, demonstrating appreciation for serious fans by providing extra access or exclusive offerings goes a long way. Creators will find ways to reward their most devoted followers with special bonus content available only on certain platforms, in-person meetups at the fan events, etc. By doing this, they’re creating a real community for their fans to interact and share with each other, in addition to expressing themselves to the creator.” 

The Future is Digital

A new survey was just released from Deloitte, in which they found 53% of U.S. households stream TV shows on a monthly basis, compared to 45% of U.S. households that still watch traditional live TV each month. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings also recently has discussed his stance, as published in Business Insider. 

"Linear TV has been on an amazing 50-year run. Internet TV is starting to grow. Clearly over the next 20 years, internet TV is going to replace linear TV. So I think everyone is scrambling to figure out how do they do great apps. That will just keep getting built up, and so it’s a transition into figuring out the internet.”

"This is the most exciting time to be in this industry,” says Williams. "We’ve all been waiting for the moment the market begins to flip, in terms of classic media leading digital, and we are at that moment where that changeover is occurring in tangible ways. The amount of excitement and opportunity that that brings is immeasurable.”

During this exciting shift in the market, content creators win. The world is their oyster, as they say. Without the confines of a finite amount of programming opportunities and the constraints of needing huge budgets, content creators can explore new types of programming, new platforms, new ways of marketing and niche audiences.  

With an abundance of creative outlets for storytellers, digital media has provided an opportunity not only to serve the mainstream—but for the smaller, niche, more authentic markets to have a voice and, frankly, to matter. After all, every market matters. Every audience deserves creative voices speaking to and with them. 

Digital media didn’t create those audiences, but it’s given storytellers an unprecedented moment to find and connect with them. That moment is here. Don’t miss it.

-Written by Meghan de Boer

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