Reflections on a Project in Progress

Four months ago I launched Silverstring Media’s first project, Azrael’s Stop. I largely envisioned Azrael’s Stop as an experimental project, a chance to test some theories of transmedia storytelling on a small scale, and to see what could come of it while I worked on other projects. Now that a significant amount of time has passed, it’s time to reflect on what the project has accomplished so far, what it has failed at, and where to go from here. I’d always hoped for this to be a learning experience for me; hopefully by putting these thoughts here in a production blog, I can share whatever I learn and help spark discussion.

The Goals: When I started Azrael’s Stop, I had some very specific goals.

The first was for it to be something easy for me to produce. It’s a twitter fiction project--all that’s generally required of me is to write about 20 words a day. Hardly a huge chunk of writing work. By this token, I could keep Azrael’s Stop going over the long term while focusing my energy on other projects.

The second, in a similar vein, was for it to be something easy for an audience to follow. I haven’t released a novel or a movie; I’m not asking for a lot of time from a potential audience to follow my story. I’m asking you to read a single tweet or two every day as part of your regular twitter or facebook feed. Yet over time, in theory, you’ll nonetheless get an appreciation for the larger story, the characters and their arcs, etc.

Finally, I hoped that the project would start to build a small potential audience for future projects, especially ones taking place in the same storyworld as Azrael’s Stop. I wanted this project to begin to introduce that world.

Structure: Beyond the daily story tweet, each of which I hoped would be able to mostly stand alone without context, but which when combined with others over time would paint a larger story, I decided I would have a piece of bonus content at the end of each month or so.

The original conception of this bonus content was that it would a) contribute to the story, but not be necessary for the enjoyment of the story, in accordance with standard transmedia theory, and that b) while the driving platform (twitter fiction) was free, the bonus content would be a way of monetizing the project by selling each monthly piece for something along the lines of 99 cents.

Results: So how did it work out?

I think my first goal was largely attained. Upkeep on Azrael’s Stop doesn't take a huge chunk of my time, though there is certainly story arc planning and website upkeep and things that go beyond just writing 20 words a day (and writing those 20 words isn’t as easy as each 20-word increment in a blog post (25 of them so far, that’s almost a month of tweets!); they must be much more carefully considered, of course).

The monthly bonus content also takes up a significantly larger chunk of time, depending on what that content is; the interactive fiction I released at the end of April, for example, took a large amount of my time to produce, not least because I first had to learn how to write and program interactive fiction.

The second goal, making it easy for an audience to access, I think basically worked. I’m still not asking a lot of an audience’s time. I did learn a few things--friends of mine wanted to read the story but didn’t have twitter, and though I thought they could just go to the Azrael’s Stop twitter profile and read it from there, it turned out to be far more successful to create a Facebook page for the project and feed the story there as well--something I really should have done from the start.

I think this is a decent lesson in barriers to entry--the tiniest thing that makes it more difficult for a potential audience member to get into your story will lose you audience. To access some of the bonus content or the archive, I ask people to register an account on this site, just so I can track users, and even that had a lot of people a) unable to understand how to access the content, or b) not checking out the content because they couldn’t be bothered to take the 5 seconds to make an account.

As for the third goal of gathering an audience--this has been overall far less successful than I had hoped. I personally have over 250 twitter followers and close to 200 Facebook friends; Azrael’s Stop has less than 50 followers still, and 8 likes on Facebook (go like it!). I never expected it to have a huge following (as much as I hoped, of course), but I did think it would be better than that. And furthermore, engagement with that audience isn’t very high--when I ran a contest at the end of March to submit your own piece of twitter fiction about death, offering the otherwise-99-cent March bonus content song as a prize for the 10 best, I received 5 entries total. (Interestingly, that’s about 10% of my audience, which corroborates the commonly-cited core audience percentage.)

The bonus content strategy has been similarly less successful than hoped. The first piece was released for free as a proof-of-concept. The second piece, a fairly high-quality production song, was given out to the five contest entrants for free, and otherwise put on sale for 99 cents as planned--which achieved extremely few sales. Partially as a result of the low sales for that, partially because I’d never done it before and so didn’t feel justified charging for it, and partially because the interactive fiction community is a culture of free, I chose not to charge for the third piece, the interactive fiction game. I called it a beta and asked for comments, and have received none; I imagine its players are few.

Promotion: I think some of the problems I’ve encountered have a lot to do with promotion (or lack thereof). While I tweet about it when there’s new bonus content, and when it first started tried to get people interested, the promotion of the project hasn’t been nearly as active as it could be, in theory. I hate to be the guy on twitter just pimping his own stuff constantly, but a little more engagement on that front would probably help--especially when it comes to pimping the bonus content.

I also haven’t tried many other avenues of promotion--I sent a press release for the twitter fiction contest out to the UBC creative writing newsletter, and though it was broadcast, didn’t seem to attract any new entries or readers. Otherwise, each piece of content could be promoted on its own grounds--making the song available on music sites, for example--and that hasn’t been done.

And though I have thought of doing many of these things, I think there’s a deeper problem that may have to be addressed first.

Audience Engagement*: Four months of storytelling, which my core followers have said is pretty good and interesting overall, some decent-quality extra content, and an overall project concept that everyone I explain it to says, “That’s really neat.” But the audience just isn’t where I thought it could be. Why is that?

Promotion is probably part of it. But I think there’s a very large aspect of it that has to do directly with the very structure of the project itself. By having it be a mere 20 words a day, in mostly unconnected snippets, and audience barely dips into the world before leaving again. Then the next day does so again. And again. And never is there even the opportunity to go much deeper.

If you were to come as a new reader to the project, you could read the archives, get a bit of a sense of the world and characters, and perhaps want more, but there’s nothing more to get. And there’s not enough of the world and characters to really pull you in, for you to say, “I want to explore this world to its fullest extent, I want to know more.”

Azrael’s Stop isn’t a blockbuster movie or a complete novel. It’s not enough on its own to gather a significant audience that wants more, I think.

So what now?

 

I’ve felt a need to keep the project going, to have a tweet every day and something more every month, but I think this has hindered me from doing the kind of assessment I’m doing now.

I certainly plan to keep the project going--there are places I want to take it, and a lot more potential to explore. I will continue with the twitter fiction, which will continue to be daily for the most part. I will continue to produce additional content as well, but I’ve decided to eschew a strict monthly schedule.

I didn’t release something for the end of May, though I do have a short story prepared--I want to present it in a way that’s more than just a short story posted on a blog, and while I was going to produce it as a Wanderlust story using Six to Start’s very cool platform, it wasn’t written specifically for that purpose, and so doesn’t take as great advantage of the platform as it should. I know what I want from it, but it will take some more time--my point here is that I’m going to focus on putting out good stuff rather than just trying to put out stuff because it’s the end of the month.

I also feel like all the bonus content, for the moment at least, should be available for free; the price will be coming off Elegy of a Twilight Prince as well. Instead, I’m just going to put up a donation button--if you like what we’re producing here, I’d be grateful for any support you can provide, but the content will be free.

Something Big: What we need, though, is something a bit bigger than Azrael’s Stop. Something that will pull an audience into this world, and maybe make them then more interested in following Azrael’s Stop as a extension of their experience rather than their primary one. Something like a novel or a movie. And so we’ve been making some plans for something bigger and better. Hopefully I will be able to say more on that in the next few months.

Meanwhile, I hope you continue to enjoy Azrael’s Stop. And if you like it, do tell your friends!

Learning!

 

Even the tiniest barrier to entry will stop the majority of readers.

Go where the readers are. (Twitter is small, Facebook is big.)

Promote: don’t be the guy yelling into the darkness, but you can’t just hope people will find you.

And finally, an audience can’t deeply engage with something that isn’t there. You don’t just need a rich storyworld, you need content for them to bury themselves in.

Have any other thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think would improve the Azrael’s Stop experience or what else we can all learn from it.

 

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*Yes, I used the term ‘audience engagement,’ shoot me.