Thoughts from Conferences

In the last two weeks, I attended as many transmedia conferences: Merging Media in Vancouver, and StoryWorld in San Francisco. My head is still reeling from the experience, which I can only describe as “awesome” in every sense of the word. At both events, I have to say that while many of the panels and speeches were good, and some were very useful (while others were not), it was the people that made each conference easily worth the cost of attending.

Seeing friends I’d met before -- Caitlin Burns, Simon Pulman, JC Hutchins, Andrea Phillips, Marie Lamb, Haley Moore, Rob Jagnow, Karen Wehner, Jeff Gomez, Nick Braccia, Sparrow Hall, Anita Ondine, Sara Thacher.

Meeting people in person I’d only met online -- Evan Jones, Scott Walker, Simon Staffans, Paul Burke, Alison Norrington, Christy Dena, Geoffrey Long, Stephen Dinehart, Tara Brown, Robert Pratten, Jen Hart, Carrie Cutforth-Young, Lorraine Hopping, April Arrglington, Jay Bushman.

And meeting people who were somewhat new to me -- Landon Pendlebury, Scott Dodson, Brian Seth Hurst, Brian Clark, Andrew Slack, Jan Libby.

And I know I’m forgetting people in every category, forgive me.

Every one of them an amazing person. Why is our industry so fantastic, people-wise?

I’d like to give some kind of overview of the two conferences, but I wouldn’t even know where to start without writing something so long no one would want to read it. The major salient points can probably be found by browsing my twitter stream -- I tend to use twitter as a way of taking notes at these conferences. (Thanks Brian Clark, who decided I should get some kind of “best Tweeter at Storyworld” award. Probably only true if it’s based on quantity rather than quality, though.)

I’ll do my best to cover some of the biggest takeaways I had.

Shifting Media Landscape

This really isn’t new to anyone who attends these things, I think, or people reading this blog, but it’s certainly a point that comes up again and again. Transmedia is on the rise at least partially because traditional media consumption is changing drastically. We don’t watch TV on our TVs anymore, and if we do, we often have other devices present. We live in a time when consumption of media has become a social thing again -- but through social media rather than in-person. And though it’s not really new that when we are rabid fans of something, we want more of it, or somehow want a piece of it, but the Internet, technology, social media have made that much more possible and easy to share.

Device or platform is no longer a silo. We watch video, converse, listen to music, read, play, on our computers, phones, tablets, TVs. Media must be built with that understanding -- but also with an understanding of the strengths of each choice. Optimize an experience for the way it’s going to be experienced.

Building an Audience

Again, not exactly new information, but building an audience is hard. The proliferation of access to being able to create and distribute media (everything from free editing software + YouTube to self-publishing to social media) means there’s a glut of content out there, which makes it hard for you to get your stuff noticed. Jon Fine of Amazon said at Merging Media that book covers no longer sell books -- metadata does. It’s about having as much information as possible attached to your property so that people can find it when they search for it, and it can find people when they search for similar things.

Christy Dena pointed out that your peer audience is not your core audience -- your fellow creators may be able to help get the word out, but they’re not going to be your rabid fans (they have their own projects to worry about). You need to get beyond your own community of peers to find your actual audience.

Brent Friedman said that the hardest thing to do with original IP is marketing. Get word out there, talk to bloggers and journalists, find innovative ways to spread the word and get those eyeballs. Be aggressive in getting an audience to know about project, and also don't be discouraged with small numbers at first -- it takes time.

Work for other people and other projects, too, to get your name out there and start building a following. Prove you know what you’re doing and can make cool stuff. And then find other properties like yours and cross-promote, or cross-promote with the other projects you’ve worked on. Share audiences.

But as Henry Jenkins pointed out, know that a pure number like number of page views is not a good metric; it’s essentially meaningless. The metric you must use to measure an audience is engagement -- how many of those page views are leading to people actually engaging with your project, reading it, caring about it, eventually sharing it with their friends?

To access that kind of audience, once you attract the eyeballs you must build loyalty. Know what your audience wants and please them; talk to them directly, at least some of them; show that you’re a real person behind the project, and that you care about the people following you.

Less Looking Back, More Looking Forward

Both conferences featured a lot of discussion that essentially boiled down to our need to catch up with the way audiences are consuming, or talking about where we’ve come. What wasn’t as prevalent was delving deeper and looking forward -- discussing real theory of practice, case studies that didn’t work and what can be learned from them, and people saying, “What if we tried this?”

I think the highlights of both conferences included the talks by Lance Weiler, for precisely this reason. Here is a guy who really is pushing the boundaries, and experimenting. He says that his work is storytelling R&D. He doesn’t know what will be successful and what won’t -- so he tries, and he learns.

This is what we need more of -- not only people doing this, but people talking about it at conferences like these. Yes, we know we need better communication between different departments in big studios; that’s obvious. Yes, we know the law needs to catch up, as do the funding models. And yes, we know that transmedia storytelling is pretty awesome -- that’s why we’re here.

What we need to know is -- how do we make awesome things even better? How can we take this theory and spin it into something groundbreaking?

Just Do It

So the biggest takeaway is -- and yes, again, not totally groundbreaking here -- to just get out there and do it. If you’re trying to build this area as a career for yourself, know that this is a lifetime bet -- it will take time and effort to get going, to get a name for yourself, but it will pay off. Don’t fret if it doesn’t take off immediately.

But don’t wait around for it to happen. Get yourself out there. Make something. Lance Weiler and Simon Pulman agreed on this: make small bets, fail fast and improve on what you’ve done, and scrounge money from wherever you can get it, project by project, bit by bit.

There’s no one answer to solve every problem. There’s no one singular working business model that will allow us all to succeed. Try everything, find what works for you and your project, and change it up if and when you need to.

Heck, I’m glad there’s no one solution. That’s what makes this exciting to be a part of.

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A few links to other roundups of StoryWorld -- Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether; Sparksheet's Finding the Story; Simon Staffans' Storyworld and the Real World; Simon Pulman's Practical Legal Considerations.