For the past couple of years I’ve been asked to contribute to year-end round-ups of the year in media, curated by transmedia producer and blogger Simon Staffans. I’ll post the link to the 2014 edition in a subsequent post, but for now, here’s a version of his questions and my answers. Feedback in the comments thread much appreciated.
What were the best parts of 2014, media-wise, for you? You were, last year, looking forward to seeing how the new generation of transformologists were going to put their mark on the world – have you seen anything that impressed you?
I think it’s time for the “transmedia movement” to declare victory and move on. I’m not seeing much evidence that either audiences or those with budgetary or investment clout have much interest in a thing call “transmedia,” per se. Rather, what we have seen, in part because of the efforts by our movement, a gradual incorporation of characteristics and features we felt were powerful cornerstones of transmedia into almost every major media product, even if only as a marketing extension. Preeminent among these characteristics is what I’ve dubbed “Fan-centric Media,” a recognition that fans are almost a part of the media property, not just its consumer. Building fan-engagement sites and using UGC platforms are de rigueur for anyone trying to find an audience for a media brand or property.
That said, major media brands continue to use social platforms and multi-platform story formats as they do other marketing tools, rather than as elements of a truly transformational story format. There is less appetite (and budget) for innovation and experimentation as the number of fan-centric platforms continue to proliferate beyond Facebook, which is still dominant.
The brands where these trends are most evident are those focused on the so-called “Comic-Con” audience – largely genre titles in film, TV and games. It has become critical for these marketers to generate early fan buzz as part of the broader experience of a story world.
All of this makes sense when you realize just how extreme the stratification of the film industry has become – we had the announcement of superhero movies for ten years out from Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner, and they aren’t financing much else. At the other end, indie film producers are struggling mightily just to get their primary product finished, distributed, and noticed. The indie film world hasn’t moved in to fill the void to create much transmedia content, with a few exceptions of those companies who have tried to make that a core goal – like Submarine in Amsterdam, though not for every one of their titles.
Last year you talked about practitioners of transmedia starting to want to see a financial return on their efforts. Do you believe it has come to pass?
Overall, there has been a general deflation in the market for multi-platform original product, even as overall spending by agencies and brands goes up for bespoke, but derivative multimedia marketing sites and branded content. I spoke with a colleague who runs a leading transmedia production house with a track record of successful international multi-platform projects and campaigns. His company has come up short in pitching its original intellectual property, even though he make a compelling case that a sequential structure that moves the content from one monetizeable platform to another is a better way to create a profitable franchise than to launch the whole thing at once. Most of his revenue is coming from commissioned work by brands or associated with the release of mainstream titles. In other words, work-for-hire without the upside of ownership in original IP.
I have great admiration for Bernie Su and his team at Pemberley Digital, which has taken a very pragmatic approach to the evolution of what amounts to a very tightly defined format. What began as a great experiment with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, has evolved through Welcome to Sanditon, Emma Approved, and now the Frankenstein update in conjunction with PBS Digital. In all cases, the base-line product is an engaging video series aimed at a clear and definable demographic of young women. A constellation of logical ancillary platforms is deployed for that segment of the fanbase who wants to dive deeper. Bernie is working to monetize as many of those as possible. He also has done a superb job of recruiting sponsors for brand integration, without offending fans. And he has a bounty-based fashion system in place that moves goods and generates another revenue stream. Did I forget the aggregated video via DVD and the books?
What Bernie is doing as a business guy is trying to mimic the successful components of a major studio franchise operation – creating multiple revenue streams that manage to harvest revenues from a very strong fan base, and then to sell that traffic in as many ways as possible. Pretty amazing, given the small size of his team and the MCN he partners with.
The key has been an understanding of fan-management dynamics. His audiences keep building, in large part because the team, especially the writers, speak in the voice of characters across the Internet, and really create a feeling of involvement for the fans. Old media companies have a hard time understanding the different between conversation-based engagement and old-fashioned selling-focused marketing. We found this to be true with The Chatsfield, a very inventive multi-platform story world from Harlequin romance publishers, which I helped launch. There wasn’t much money or human energy available for the actual fan engagement piece after the launch. Digital media is not the place to hope that by building it, they will come. You have to go out to many places and entice them to find your field of dreams.
The real experimentation is happening by original content creators on YouTube – they are the new indies, and it’s because of the audience engagement piece, clearly. I admit, it is rare when an artist in this world really speaks to me, but they speak to millions of fans other than me. I’m an old guy in a narrow demographic, but the YouTube and original online video space overall (Vimeo, AOL, Yahoo, Hulu) is the place to watch.
Speaking of multi-channel networks, let’s not forget that this was the year that the entire business model of the MCN overlay atop YouTube was validated by major media. Disney buying Maker is the standout, of course, but there were many others. We are seeing many permutations of effective business models by YouTube creatives who have built an audience on the video sharing platform, and then worked to monetize that fan base with additional efforts outside of YouTube, including a small number with successful migrations to television.
I have been pretty impressed by “Serial,” the podcast spinoff of This American Life. Here is a compelling storytelling in one of the oldest web formats, though podcasting seems to be experiencing a renaissance this year. “Serial” has gotten a lot of buzz, in part because of its origins, but also because it is damned good.
This has been the year of a broadening of successful programming on the over-the-top networks beyond Netflix. Amazon and Hulu are both investing heavily, with some great results. Transparent on Amazon was amazing, and I predict will win major awards. What I’ve found (and written about) that is odd is that the web-distributed video-on-demand content has even less “ancillary” or digital or audience-engagement content than regular TV or films. When you go to Netflix or Amazon, you might as well be buying a DVD, except that it streams. There isn’t much in the way of “extras”, much less links to fan sites or anything else. I find that odd.
Kickstarter and IndieGogo continue to provide a key revenue mechanism for the original content creator. However, what was once a simple add-on to a team’s central content effort is now a major activity. We all have crowd-funding fatigue, so it’s harder to win without a truly inspired campaign – which often takes as much work as the IP a team is promoting. The real value, we have seen, is the shift in thinking required by creators as they begin to find and communicate with their audience before, during and after the completion of a project.
We haven’t yet seen the much-anticipated explosion of equity crowd-funding in the US anyway because of a stalled rulemaking for the JOBS Act, but surely next year this will come to pass. There are a host of new entities established to leverage this opportunity. But I would expect only the most commercially oriented projects will benefit, since investors will be expecting a return, unlike Kickstarter, through which one simply gives a gift (generally in exchange for a reward of some sort).
What would you predict for 2015? What are the major challenges and the major possibilities?
-- Continued mainstreaming of YouTube stars into movies and TV, not to the exclusion of the original platform, but as a way for incumbent distributors to tap the energy of that platform and its incredible creativity (and audiences).
-- Increased budgets overall for “brand marketing,” by which we would include the range of projects commissioned by product and media companies which have an independent life on digital native platforms. There are a lot of brands trying to be the next Red Bull Media.
-- Original content funded on social media platforms, especially Facebook and Tumblr.
Nick DeMartino is a Los Angeles media consultant, specializing in digital distribution and production strategy for start-ups, nonprofits, and corporations. Find him on Twitter @nickdemartino and on his website and blog at http://www.nickdemartino.net