SXSW 2014 Re-cap: How Jane Austen Conquered Social Storytelling

This is the fifth part of my SXSW 2014 re-caps. You can find a complete list of all re-caps here.

Today’s re-cap is about my favorite panel from SXSW 2014, entitled How Jane Austen Conquered Social StorytellingThe two panelists, Bernie Su and Jay Bushman, explained how they made their three web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Welcome to Sanditonand Emma Approved true transmedia stories spread across different social media platforms. Not only have all three stories become immensely successful, but they actually ended up creating revenue through monetization.

 

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Background

The LBD originally ran from April 2012 to March 2013 as a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. The LBD started out as a personal vlog of grad student Lizzie Bennet as part of her Master’s thesis. Lizzie uploaded two videos per week at regular intervals, and by watching her vlogs, fans were able to follow the overall plot all through the end.

 

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

 

On top of Lizzie’s videos, several other social media platforms came into play. While Lizzie’s sister Jane, who works for the fashion industry, had her own fashion blog and Pinterest, for example, other characters like Bing and Caroline Lee and Darcy could be found on Twitter. Throughout the series, some characters even developed their own YouTube channels with vlogs, such as Lydia Bennett and Maria Lu.

Looks by Jane - Jane's Fashion Blog
Looks by Jane – Jane’s Fashion Blog

 

All social media platforms were carefully chosen to match the characters and their stories. Gigi Darcy, who was just recovering from a heartbreak, used This Is My Jam for quite a big part of the story (and long before she was introduced on screen) to express herself, for example, while others, such as Lydia and the Lees, were interacting on Twitter a lot. While the core story took part mostly on Lizzie Bennet’s vlog, as mentioned before, fans were able to follow the individual characters across platforms, and experience parts of the story in greater detail or as teasers. What’s more, fans were able to actually interact with the characters on the different social media platforms, which made the overall story even more tangible.

 

Stats and Monetization

All in all, the LBD produced a total of 9.5 hours of video, content on 35 different social media profiles, and 50+ million video views on YouTube. Its success was so profound that it was even the first web series to win a Primetime Emmy for Original Interactive Programming.

 

Winner of the 2013 Primetime Emmy for Original Interactive Programming
Winner of the 2013 Primetime Emmy for Original Interactive Programming

 

 

Given the subject matter, 90% of the LBD’s viewers were female, and out of those, 70% were females under 25. At first, the LBD was self-funded; when the producers tried to win over ad and digital agencies for the project, they were told that “Girls don’t use the internet.” Needless to say, this statement elicited a lot of laughter at the panel, and it was fortunately quickly proven wrong by the LBD’s successes.

As the popularity of the LBD grew, the producers found ways to monetize their content to support the continuation of the show. On top of YouTube ads (which, as most of us should know by now, don’t really make that much money), the LBD quickly sold merchandise like T-shirts, and ran a Kickstarter campaign towards the end of the series to create DVDs of all the video material as a form of re-packaging content. Despite the fact that the entire series remained free to watch online, the Kickstarter campaign quickly exceeded its goal of $60,000,  collecting a whopping $462,405 instead! The excess money was then put towards the second series by the producers, Welcome to Sanditon, outlined below.

Finally,  this June, the producers will also be releasing another addition to the story in form of a book. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet will be available at all major online and offline retailers, most certainly raking in further funds for the storyworld.

 

 

Welcome to Sanditon

Background

Welcome to Sanditon was based on Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel and inspired by Sleep No More in its execution.  It essentially continued the story world created in the LBD by making Gigi Darcy its main character, but also actively invited and integrated user-generated content in its storyline. As part of the core story, Gigi Darcy went to the fictional town of Sanditon in Southern California to use and test her company’s new video recording and communication software “Domino”. While she was there, Gigi encounters several different characters living in Sanditon, from the mayor to an ice cream shop owner. Once again, the story spread from YouTube to the Twitter accounts of several characters, but this time, gave fans not only the opportunity to interact with the characters, but to actively participate by creating their own characters and businesses of Sanditon.

 

Welcome to Sanditon
Welcome to Sanditon

Stats

Fans immediately jumped in, which resulted in more than 600 user generated Sanditon characters and businesses added to the overall storyworld. Fans could chose to be whoever they wanted to be, and tell their own Sanditon story. All in all, these fans not only produced over 800 user generated videos as part of the story, but even ended up creating a rival town for Sanditon called Dolphintown.

The UGC was then inserted in compilation reels that were shown every alternate week, so fans could not only see their highlights, but also felt truly included in the story.

The integration of UGC into the Sanditon storyworld went so well that fans were still playing their roles on social media at the time of the panel –  6 months after series ended!

 

 

Emma Approved

Background

Emma Approved is the latest installment of the producers at Pemberly Digital. Just like its predecessors, EA has been immensely successful and was chosen Variety’s #2 web series for 2013. As can probably be gathered from its title, EA is an adaptation of the Austen classic Emma, and once again tells its story across different social media, with Emma’s video blog as the driving platform. The social media used (at this point in time) include Emma’s advice and fashion blog, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. Within these media, video, photography, text, social media interaction and even music are used as full stylistic devices, offering fans many different perspectives into the same storyworld via new pieces of content on each platform.

 

EA's Emma and Knightley
EA’s Emma and Knightley

 

With EA, fans have once again got the opportunity to interact with the story’s characters on the different media that they are on. This even lead to cases where fans made covers of a song one character (Harriet) wrote, posting it to EA, where they were then re-tweeted.

Finally, it seems that the storyworlds created with the LBD, Sanditon, and EA have now come full-circle when recently, Caroline Lee from the LBD crossed over into EA, where she played a rather significant part.

 

Stats and Monetization

Unlike the first two series, EA is the one project that is now actively making money from product integration, thereby monetizing every platform. So far, EA has created 48 videos and countless photographic and text content. Once again, its audience is overwhelmingly female; 93% are women, and of them, 56% are women under 25.

 

Product integration has worked extremely well for EA for a variety of reasons. Firstly and most importantly, EA’s product integration is non-invasive; the products are fitted organically into the story. While the products themselves and especially their functions were highlighted, they were not blatantly called out.

At the same time, however, the adaptation itself lent itself to product integration extremely well. In EA, Emma has curated a personal brand as a life coach intent on making people’s lives better. As a result, she actually declares items, methods, and services “Emma Approved” frequently, making it easy for the producers to have her “approve” and focus on integrated products – even if it is only in form of an “Emma Approved” holiday gift guide on her blog.

Two of the organically integrated products were the Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch and clothing from Modcloth. Both types of products matched the show’s target audience – young, tech-savy and lifestyle conscious women – as well as the show’s content extremely well. The Galaxy Gear watch was fully integrated on all five platforms due to different foci on what it could do, rather on just what it is. The watch was part of characterization and actively involved in the creation of the story –  characters created videos with it, for example – making its integration even more natural and even valuable to the story.

 

The Samsung Galaxy Gear watch becomes an organic part of the story
The Samsung Galaxy Gear watch becomes an organic part of the story

 

In terms of Modcloth, the products also fit well into the plot and into characterization as they helped to highlight Emma’s focus on style as integral to an individual’s personal brand and improvement. Emma not only wore stylish fashion pieces herself in her vlogs, but she also blogged about them extensively on her fashion blog, even highlighting other characters’ – Harriet and Caroline – fashion choices.

As a result of the integration of Modcloth items, fans not only bought the products, but they even showed them off online. While the exact sales numbers cannot be disclosed, Bernie Su stated that they were more than satisfactory.

 

Modcloth product integration (bag)
Modcloth product integration (bag)

 

Finally, Bernie Su and Jay Bushman explained that the fact that they were serving an audience that is currently badly underserved – young women – contributed to their successes. However, they also highlighted several times that it is not just about finding the right audience/demographic and using as many platforms as possible, but most importantly, about telling a great story that is meaningful for its fans.

 

Personal Notes/Comments:

As I mentioned above, this was probably my favorite of all panels and presentations at SXSW. It was the only one that brought us a significant step closer to a best practice for commercially viable projects in the new media age, and especially in the transmedia age. The producers did a perfect job at marrying story and monetization in a way that made fans happy and their projects successful. The loyal fans of the LBD, Sanditon and EA demonstrated again and again that the right people will not only be willing to honor good content with money (Exhibit A: The Kickstarter Campaign), but that they will even be happy about product integration if the product is matched to their interests.

Moreover, from a fan/user perspective, there are also several narrative design decisions that make the series even more appealing. I started following the LBD, Sanditon and EA from day one, and I simply love how all three story worlds are truly transmedia, i.e. they open up new perspectives and content at each media platform. What’s more, all three projects make it incredibly easy to actually follow all three stories across the different platforms and characters by providing story maps for each project.

This means that if you’re not able to follow the story in real time because you may not be online on each platform all the time, you can catch up whenever you are ready to without any problems. Also, if you would like to follow a particular character or story arc, you don’t have to painstakingly figure out where to go, but you get an easy-access road-map that will save you lots of time and nerves. It always surprises me when a transmedia project does not have such story maps – if you want a user to follow you, why don’t you make it as easy as possible for them?

 

With this, we’re at the end of all my SXSW 2014 re-caps. I hope they’ve been useful to you, and I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Just drop me a comment, e-mail or tweet! 🙂