This is my article that was originally posted at Culture Hacker earlier this week.
Why do some web producers release their webisodes weekly when they have evergreen content? That is, if their series of web videos are not tied to current events, why not release them all at once?
One answer might be that the release schedule is tied to the production schedule – episodes are being produced one week and released the next. But why not release them two weeks apart or wait until enough episodes have been produced to release all at once or daily? Why not four hours apart or on demand?
My point is only that there should be some reasoning behind the scheduling and not just because TV has scheduled weekly content.
You see, if TV has taught us one thing about audiences, it’s that they don’t like to be kept waiting. They don’t like to wait while the commercial plays, they don’t like to wait while the episode downloads and they don’t like to wait week-to-week. Many people record several episodes of a series before the viewing or they’ll buy the complete series on DVD. But of course audiences come to TV and the web with different expectations so why copy the TV model online if you don’t have to?
Re-thinking your web series
This blog post looks at how you might optimize the release schedule for your webisodes. Core to my approach is understanding how you want the audience to engage with your story and then designing an integrated experience that consequently determines how the video will be released. There is no initial assumption that the schedule should be weekly or any other time period.
There is, I suppose, an assumption that most web series will have more than just the videos: there’s usually a website, a blog, a forum, a mailing list, a Facebook page or some other mechanism that represents an opportunity to inform the audience of a new release and provide them with a backchannel. These additional non-video platforms are what makes your web series “an experience” rather than a series of videos. Even a single YouTube channel with the comments and likes enabled creates a participatory experience. Whatever the implementation, it is the experience that builds, empowers and engages your audience – it multiplies the draw of the video.
Here’s a short list of considerations for determining the time interval between episodes with the key objective being to maintain engagement between episodes (i.e. you want audiences to watch the next episode):
- production limitations & opportunities
- distribution limitations & opportunities
- business model limitations & opportunities
- strength of story episode to episode (the narrative hook)
- length of each episode (longer webisodes might benefit from longer periods between episodes to avoid overload)
- audience expectations and headroom (giving too much to consume between releases may lead to abandoned subscriptions).
Mind The Gap: Is the Narrative Strong Enough to Bridge the Delay?
Figure 1 illustrates how we’d like audience to move from episode to episode. In this example there’s enough interest or engagement to have them come back for more.
Figure 1: Audience follows episode to episode
Unfortunately there are a number of failure scenarios if the period between each release is wrong. In Figure 2, the audience abandons the web series because the content isn’t strong enough to have them come back – there’s not enough pull to bridge the gap.
In Figure 3, the audience is asked to work too hard to keep up and soon they find they’re overwhelmed with content for the given schedule.
Figure 2: Abandons
Figure 3: Overload
In both these failure scenarios one solution is to adjusted or fine-tune the schedule – if that’s possible. As I mentioned earlier, there may be reasons why you’re stuck with the schedule.
Figure 4: Release schedule adjusted
Using Transmedia Storytelling to Maintain Engagement
Web series can be expensive to produce and the number of episodes is as likely to be determined by budget as anything else. This could mean you don’t have enough webisodes to span the schedule you’d like or you need to maintain engagement between webisodes because the schedule is fixed.
Figure 5 shows how narrative spread to secondary, less expensive, media can be used to stitch together the web series – providing a mid-episode fix of story for those eager for more. The trick here is in the storytelling: to have the webisode and secondary media satisfying in their own right and hence consuming all media is optional which hence alleviates the chance of overload. Implied in the notion of “secondary media” is that it may indeed not stand alone and should be consumed as additional exploratory content (e.g. another optional layer).
Figure 5: Transmedia Storytelling applied to web video series
Figure 6 in contrast shows two equal media platforms both scheduled for episodic release but appealing to different audience sub-segments or consumption habits: e.g. media 1 is consumed while at work and media 2 consumed on the commute.
Here, each media has its own (intervening?) release schedule with additional narrative hooks and branches to take the audience to the next episode in the same media or to alternative media.
Figure 6: Native Episodic Transmedia Storytelling
Finally of course, additional secondary media might be added to two primary media platforms – as shown in Figure 7
Figure 7: Multi-layered Transmedia Story.
Allow Audience to Go with the Flow
So far I’ve assumed that all audience members are to be treated equally. But why not reward engaged followers with either additional content or early “pre-release” content? And if you do, does it matter that they might share with others ahead of the “proper” release?
I believe that when you have someone that’s engaged you should allow them to ride the engagement out and see where it takes them. This means allowing them to request additional content on demand ahead of the release schedule which I further believe has the potential to turn engaged audiences to advocates – hence recruiting more audience.
YouTube’s “Unlisted” video option is perfect for this: casual viewers won’t see or find the video before it’s made public but engaged audiences can be sent the link.
My Lowlifes project has three primary media: novella, webisodes and blog. I determined that it should be scheduled to be released two days apart over a period of 15 days or so. I felt that daily would lead to content overload and at three days the whole release would drag on too long.
One approach would have been to alternate the media – novella chapter on day 1, video on day 2, blog on day 3 and so on. But this would have incorrectly implied a sequence or priority to the media platforms that I was keen to avoid.
Consequently, at the same time content is made public, subscribers receive an email with links to the three media episodes plus the ability to request additional content from anywhere within the series. This would allow someone who was really into the videos, for example, to watch them all in one sitting by simply requesting them.
It’s not a problem for me if someone grabs all the videos and posts them all on their own blog because my objective is to get them seen. It’s evergreen content and within 3 weeks it would all be available in any case.
For Lowlifes, the scheduling and on-demand requests for content is made possible by a service called Conducttr -a pervasive entertainment platform from my company tstoryteller.com and will soon be available for all members of our Community.
In summary then, if you assume that the audience always has something better to do with their time and money, it will absolutely focus your mind on maintaining engagement between webisodes and this will:
- determine the optimum release schedule where you have the flexibility to choose it
- highlight the need for a transmedia experience around an inflexible release schedule
- provoke a discussion about whether you should allow content on demand for the most engaged audience members.
What is Pervasive Entertainment?
How to optimize the release schedule of your webisodes using transmedia