Jennifer Wilson, the Director of The Project Factory, commands a wealth of information about multi-platform and transmedia success. In a workshop at this year’s Australian International Documentary Conference called Getting Started with Digital Storytelling, she shared as much as she could in an hour, all of it useful for documentarians wanting to embrace these elements in their work.
The first thing to understand is the difference between the two. While the terms are often used interchangeably, Wilson drew distinctions. Multi-platform, for her, typically involves a deeper exploration of the subject, which tends to be factual in nature (not narrative). It provides additional material and an immersive experience on platforms that are independent (that is, they don’t connect) for a person who usually engages with it on their own.
Transmedia involves stories told on at least three platforms. It is more about a story unfolding or developing (so narrative, not factual), with hidden content that is revealed through engagement that might be gamelike. The multiple platforms are interlinked (so if you find a jewel while playing on your iPhone app, that jewel is there if you go back to the web site). The transmedia experience might be solo, like multi-platform, or shared with others. Wilson emphasised that it is hard to make money in transmedia outside of games.
Wilson also talked about figuring out what the multi-platform “bits” might be in a project. You need to ask what can be played with, explored, or investigated. It might be a game, or a quiz that puts the viewer in the position of being viewed. What might surprise and delight? How can the experience be personalised so each person can discover it in their own way? Did you have to take something out of the edited show? If so, that element might provide the basis of what people might do when they come to your property online.
As an example, Wilson pointed to the web site for the show Making Australia Happy. Eighteen months after the show aired, the web site still gets thousands of visits a month. Personalisation includes people taking the happiness test, and having their data become part of the overall dataset. Surprise and delight was provided by unexpected Flash animations. The site included lots to explore around the themes of happiness, and specific actions that people could take that would nudge them toward a happiness goal.
The site’s longevity is important. It is a different way to understand, or perhaps measure, the show’s success. A show like that only airs a small number of times, usually counted on one hand. But it lives on in its web site with a significantly engaged audience. The value the show and its site provide the producer and broadcaster extends well beyond the narrow confines of whatever ratings it might have garnered.
If you go down the digital storytelling path, you will have to work with developers, and Wilson had tips there, too. For one, understand that they specialise. Just as you may do a great documentary, but a lousy feature drama, so too they might do a great app, but a lousy online interactive world.
Wilson encouraged people to speak with developers honestly and early about budgets. Everything costs something. And a developer will give you a better, more predictable result if they know your expectations and what they have to work with.
Wilson also said to think of design as an iterative process. You should expect to see designs often, and you should test the software often and early. The sooner you can spot aspects that need changing, the cheaper it will be to do so. Something that looks like a small change to you (like moving elements around) might be a big deal for the developer to implement. So try to keep the feedback loops tight.
How much should you allow for a project? If you are serious about it, you should think in terms of 10-15% of the total budget. Wilson said it is sometimes thought of as the “14th episode”.
Also, you need to hold back some of your budget for changes that need to happen after you go live. Anything (and possibly everything) may need to change once users are actually interacting with it. The jewel you cleverly hid may prove impossible to find, so you might have to tweak the experience. There will always be costs associated with running, maintaining, and updating the project. So budget for that.
How do you make money? There are really only two options: from the audience, or from the “non-audience” (that is, the people who want your audience).
In the audience model, people pay for content either by transaction or by subscription. Examples of transactions include paying for a download, buying an app, upgrading something within a game, or gaining membership to a social element. Subscriptions, on the other hand might be for access to content or upgrades, for the ability to watch a series of episodes, for ongoing access to games (think World of Warcraft), or ongoing access to a social element.
Non-audience models for income come from sponsors, advertisers, or affiliates (where you get a clip of sales made from links from your platform). These, too, vary depending on whether you are dealing with online, mobile, social or games.
Wilson also talked about tablets (and at the moment, that really translates as iPads). These are increasingly important, and are worth considering as you plan your digital experience. The size makes them immersive, the touch interface makes them intimate, and they are always on and connected. Wilson cited research that said 70% of people use their “internet connected device” in front of the TV, and 57% used them in bed. It is a whole new world.
This means that apps provide a new and growing opportunity to engage (more than you can with a DVD, for example), and provide content that is beyond the limited confines of your documentary. Apps allow for exploration, repeated engagement, and live links to external information.
Other very important advice from Wilson had to do with rights. First, make sure clear you content for digital rights right at the beginning. Don’t think you will go back to the rights holder and clear it later. It will be a pain, and it will be expensive.
Second, hold on to your digital rights. Don’t trade them off like beans to your broadcaster, for example, in hopes of a better broadcast deal. They know they are magic beans.
Put differently, think of your digital rights as your future. Remember the Making Australia Happy experience? Eighteen months later, the digital presence was still going strong. You want to own that longevity. And it will be you, as the producer, who will have the greatest interest in making sure those rights are properly exploited.