During the Vancouver Web Fest the Independent Production Fund (IPF) presented a panel discussion giving some insider advice on how to make and launch a successful web series.
The IPF has invested $7 million into 70 web series over the past five years. The web series industry is evolving quickly; projects funded five years ago would not be funded today. Yet the evolution continues as we are still pioneering; what might work content and business wise today may not work tomorrow.
Here’s what we learned from the discussion.
DON’T OVER TELL THE STORY
You need to grab your audience straight away, so don’t fall into the trap of giving too much back story to set everything up. Your world will come through in your writing if you do it well. Many second episodes are better than the first because creators finally rock the characters and dialogue in the second episode. Unfortunately the first episode has killed it for the audience. Trust your audience!
IDENTIFY YOUR AUDIENCE
Who are you writing for? Is your audience female or male, what’s their age group, and where are they hanging out; YouTube or all platforms? How will you target your audience on each of the different platforms? (Snapchat, Vine, Facebook etc).
FIND YOUR NICHE AUDIENCE AND CATER FOR THEM
Don’t be tempted to think everyone is going to love your series. Know your content, identify your market. Put your energy into getting the right eyeballs and these people will become your advocates and spread the story for you.
But make sure your niche is a large enough audience. Remember, online audiences are generally younger – there aren’t many popular senior web series because those audiences watch traditional TV.
RELEASING ON A SCHEDULE VERSUS IN A BATCH
Most audiences won’t wait a week for short episodes of three minutes and under.
If you only have a set number of episodes then you might want to release them in a batch so audiences can binge watch.
Release scripted series with longer episodes weekly or on some other schedule to enhance the ‘water cooler’ effect and give people time to fall in love with the characters. Your audience gets accustomed to what you have taught them so they will tune in to your release schedule.
If people want to binge watch they can wait until all the episodes are released. A scheduled release gives you an opportunity to promote the series and it can also help with the production schedule.
UTILISING FACEBOOK VIDEOS
Facebook users tend to allow the default setting of auto play for videos in their news feed; so the first three to five seconds of your series will auto play with no audio. Think about how you can grab and engage your audience as they scroll through their feed and see your video with no audio. (If you have an intro and a voice over you’ve lost them.)
Then think about how you can then bring them back to your website or YouTube channel (because Facebook views aren’t monetised!)
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLATFORM
Study the different platforms – including the new platforms from Twitter and Facebook – Daily Motion, Vimeo, Vessel, even your own website. There are lots of options to consider before you slap your series online.
LENGTH OF EPISODES?
Some creators are making scripted web series that are a minute and a half long; and they’re on Season 12, Episode 50 – so there are no boundaries.
More episodes gives you more of an evergreen series as opposed to a brief window of release. You can continue to tell your story and build your community.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
To build a sustainable audience you have to follow up with more content; you can’t produce a series and just leave it to languish.
Get as much content up as quickly as you can.
By your twentieth web series you’ve probably found your voice and have got the ability to make shows, and found a community that supports low budget ventures.
If you’re making your first or even your tenth web series you’re probably not experienced enough to make a lot of money doing it.
EXCLUSIVITY OR ALL THE PLATFORMS?
As a new creator, trying to get a show out there to prove you can do it, do everything possible to get as many eyeballs as possible during your first years making web series, so be everywhere.
When you begin to think about making money, you have to think about exclusivity.
Some platforms (like Daily Motion) may want a couple of days window of exclusivity; leverage what you can out of each platform.
WINDOWS OF RELEASE
How you utilise each platform plays into the structure of your window of release; it’s not as simple as releasing onto all the platforms and waiting for the views to count up. You have to hustle to gain those views, and build your audience and community.
Get more bang for your buck (and for your time) by using a windowing concept from the feature film world when releasing your show. Use your limited amount of resources and focus on each scheduled window of release, until you’re eventually on every platform. You then get a chance to launch each time like it’s an exciting new show.
MAXIMISE YOUR AUDIENCE
Help people discover your content – consider keyword optimisation and thumbnail optimisation. Understand who is engaging with your content, understand when is the best time to upload your content to attract the most viewers, and learn which territories are consuming your content.
EMBRACE THE CONCEPT OF CLICK BAIT
Viewers probably aren’t going to watch a video called The Gift episode 15; if they haven’t seen episode one you’ve lost them. Don’t create titles with an episode number; instead create individual titles for each episode.
Create bright flashy thumbnails in Photoshop and write the title of the episode in big bold letters on the thumbnail.
While not artistically satisfying, the goal is to get people to watch it – so you have to do those ‘tricks’ that the internet likes.
Do include episode numbers on your website though; so when audiences google for the next episode they can find it on your website – where you might be able to attract them to engage more with you.
ENGAGE WITH YOUR AUDIENCE
Web series like Out With Dad have crowdsourced ideas from their audience, giving the audience more ownership of the series. The producer also crowdsourced sub-titles from his fan base for other territories like France, Spain and Germany, giving him traction in other markets.
Develop a community around your characters – create fake Twitter accounts of the characters. Have the actors in your series tweet every time there’s a new episode.
Engage with each platform. Don’t just release on different platforms to see how many views you’ll get. Actively engage with audiences on each platform (YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion etc).
FINANCING AND REVENUE MODELS
From day one it is important to know what budget is required to give you enough production value in order to make your show sustainable.
Crowdfunding is still your best bet for financing – as currently it’s difficult for investors to recoup their money.
You don’t necessarily have to have a big budget and make something of super high quality. The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, makes short form content on a very low budget but she’s built her subscriber base to over 200,000 subscribers which has led to a book and movie deal.
There are content creators that are now making a living off producing their content online but it took them years to build that audience; it didn’t happen overnight.
BRANDS AND SPONSORS
Brands only work with creators once they’ve reached a certain level of traction, as they’re also looking to reach an audience. But even then, brands tend to be very conservative.
Lifestyle series are a little easier to bring in brands, rather than drama, but you still need to have the reach. It’s difficult for a drama to go viral on an ad based platform (like YouTube) that’s not pushing the show for you.
If you are determined to get a sponsor for a drama you need another hook besides the story, and besides even a track record – like an actor signed on that the brand wants to be associated with.
Consider sponsors that Google Adwords will not sell advertising for; and go after these companies for sponsorship if it fits your show (eg alcoholic beverages, adult products).
SMARTER BUSINESS MODELS
Rather than try and get funding for your passion project, your creative web series, use your experience as a filmmaker – who can tell a story – to gain a commercial deal with a brand. Inflate your budget for the brand and use the difference from the actual costs to invest in the web series that you really want to make.
SUBSCRIPTION PLATFORMS NEED CONTENT
Consider the growing number of subscription platforms around the world that will pay for exclusive content.
You might look at multiple platforms (until they consolidate in the future) with a few tiers; the gigantic ones, then the next tier, and finally the more speciality ones.
PITCHING TO PLATFORMS
Platforms like Daily Motion need proof that a show has a track record and an existing audience.
An example is High Maintenance; for its first season it was free to watch. Then Vimeo picked it up as their flag show. They didn’t commission a brand new series, it was an existing series that was proven with a built in audience.
KEEPING BUDGETS DOWN
College Humour finds crew who are hungry, excited and very talented but who haven’t had the opportunity to showcase their talent. Sometimes they are willing to work for very low money in exchange for an elevated job description.
While you can get away with having lower production quality on the internet – you must spend money on sound.
Audiences will watch an iPhone movie, but if they can’t hear people talking they’re not going to watch.
Create a web series with a strong story that can be told in a way that’s fairly compact; an idea that is easily contained with not many locations.
Then you can spend money on two or three things that really matter, like polished performances.
YouTubers build their audiences by collaborating with other creators that already have a large subscriber base and they leverage each others subscribers.
How can you cross collaborate with other channels and with other platforms; is there a way you can work with people, or produce content with people, that already have a track record or already have an engaged audience.
MAKE A PILOT
Pilots help creators get the show down and help to figure out who or what you need to drop.
Rather than rushing in; take a step back and get the creative process right with a pilot.
Even the most amazing shows don’t get views if they don’t spend money on marketing, or have a star to attract audiences.
Why spend your money on locations? No one ever says; hey check out the cool location on this web series.
Spend your money wisely so you have more to put towards your marketing and promotion.
For the full video on the panel discussion visit: