Creating a Community From Scratch

It doesn’t matter who we are, we all want the same thing. If we’re documentary filmmakers or marketing professionals, if we’re experience designers or PR managers at BigCorp. What we really really want is to create something that builds a community.

This community should, in an ideal world, also have a number of ideal traits – it should be fiercely loyal to whatever it is we’ve created that the community has been built around. It should be pretty blind to obvious faults with whatever it is we’re peddling to them (pretty unlikely, I concur). And it should be a community that both fosters and regulates itself, allowing us to spend a minimum of effort and funds maintaining it.

Now, the world we’re living in is, last time I looked, not quite ideal. It is quite possible that our community – should we manage to induce it’s creation and fan its’ flames until it is self-sufficient – would become an uncontrollable beast. That’s what I was touching on in my last post – about the importance of trusting your audience, as scary as it may seem.

But how do we create this community? Luckily, there’s a formula for that. See, I believe we can grow a community from anything we come up with. It’s just a matter of adding up enough to get over the threshold. Enough of what you ask? That’s where the formula comes in:

FORMULA

 

If a project can be allocated enough time, enough currency and enough luck, it will succeed in creating a vibrant community. It’s the total amount that counts, so too little time can be offset with currency or luck, and vice versa. Currency is the multi-variable in the equation; it can be something as simple as money, or something less tangible like status of collaborators, star power of advocates or key players, the quality of the concept, project or content itself, the attraction power of the overall experience, the projects ability to tap into current trends, or something else.

Now, mind, even if all of these, and luck as well, were at a low, it could still be offset by investing time. On the other hand, investing such a considerable amount of time would be sure to raise the currency of the project as well, which would make it even more likely to succeed.

If you analyze your project, do you believe its’ different parts add up? And if they don’t, where can you add something to the equation?

A word on trust

trusted

In my last post I shared some thoughts on the importance of earning the trust of your audience, a crucial thing for any creator and storyteller. If your audience does not trust you, or if you betray their trust, you will either be largely ignored or face a world of hurt at some point.

This, though, is a coin with two distinct sides. See – you need to get your audience to trust you. But at the same time, you would do well to trust your audience in return. And no, unlike you, they don’t have to do much anything to earn your trust. If you want to fully explore and exploit the possibilities of an engaged and interacting audience, trust is a must.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction to this (and I will readily admit, my gut feeling) is a resounding ”NO WAY!”. I was raised in the traditional broadcast and publishing media landscape, where I was akin to the translator / information professional / gatekeeper / entertainer between the audience on the one hand, and content, artists, music, footage, you name it, on the other hand. Back then, you produced something, you broadcast it, waited for the accolades or the hate, and moved on. Granted, in radio I found it exciting to have the live and direct contact with the audience, where just about anything could happen. This was, however, still framed by the context of the show, and seldom could the audience in any way, shape or form run away with the narrative.

Today though, I can think of few more exciting things than an immersed and engaged audience doing away with something I’ve created and letting that narrative fuel their own creative flows and their own stories. Nothing, as a storyteller, could make me happier.

But this, again, takes me back to my earlier point – the one about trust. We need to bravely let go of our control of our stories – or at least of the worlds of our stories. We need to trust the people charmed by our tales, and their inert abilities to nurture our worlds and let them grow, while feeding them through stories and creations of their own.

But wait! you cry. What if they can’t be trusted? What if they distort and warp our stories into something horrible? What if I lose control totally, and never can get it back?

That is a risk we have to take. But if a story of yours only invokes derision, or even worse, indifference, is that really a story you want to tell? And if it invokes laughter, or compassion, or excitement, or sadness, but also a good amount of derision and frowns, all the better! You can watch stories and arguments rise from the interaction of the different camps that can give fodder to any number of future stories… and, as with humanity in general, over the long run, the constructive side will prevail, and you will be all the happier for it.

Earn your audience’s trust. But don’t forget to trust them in return!

Earning the trust of your audience

eyes

The other day I read an interesting report from 2015 from Gartner. The topic was ”Apply Digital Humanism to Customer Experience Design” (requires registration). As most things that Gartner put out, it’s geared towards the people at places like General Electric or Adidas or H&M or Booking.com; large companies that handle customer interaction on a daily basis, in huge numbers. At the same time, I can’t help but think that creators in the content business can make use of the facts and principles outlined as well.

The report highlights the importance of humanism in today’s increasingly transparent society, where one of the major drawbacks of being constantly online seems to be that it is now impossible not to have organizations and companies track your every movement, every search and every purchase. This, in turn, has led to fear and anxiety about private spheres being increasingly invaded.

While 42% were still onboard with the thought of a company analyzing their purchase patterns with that company, only 33% thought it was ok for the company to analyze demographic information. Only 20% thought it was OK for the company to search their online history, 10% thought it was somehow OK for the company to check their social media postings, and amazingly enough, 5% were still OK with the thought of a company searching through their email.

What can creators learn from all this? Well, that we’re in a bit of a conundrum right now. There is SO much content fighting for peoples’ attention that it’s easy to believe that we need to shout our message from the rooftops, deafening the din of all other creators. There is SO much interaction going on that it’s easy to go to any lengths to make sure that it is MY content they interact with, that it’s MY plans for audience engagement and strategies for social media impact they pay attention to and follow along with. But that is perhaps not the right way to go.

One core principle of Digital Humanism is the notion of respecting personal space. Now, how do we do this, while at the same time being able to entice our target audience into engaging, participating, contributing and interacting? I think the answer is manyfold.

For one thing, automation – while saving sooo much time and being soooo handy – should be used with extreme prejudice. An automated occurence has no way of gauging whether a personal space is being invaded or not, and can’t in any way respond to such a situation, should it arise. Fewer interaction points, but moderated by people, would be my preferred solution. This also forces the production and the creator to kill quite a lot of darlings and focus on only the most essential interaction possibilities; in and of itself a useful excercise.

Secondly, we need to earn the trust of our audience and treat it with utmost respect. A company or an organization can never be trusted by someone as much as they trust their intimate relations or near friends – therefore it is not plausible to, as a company, expect that a person would want to share information with the company to the same extent they would agree to share it with their friends. But through storytelling and character building, we might be able to overcome at least some of this divide; people can be more trusting towards a well-crafted character – even if they know it’s ”only” storytelling – than a faceless company. The second this character betrays their trust though, all of that is gone.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. There is an inherent lack of trust nowadays, that we all are competing against. The only way to overcome that lack is to show an unwavering respect for the audience, through interactions and non-interactions. Combine this with a compelling story, great characters and a well-thought out plan for interaction, engagement and validation…. What more do you need?

 

 

 

Storyteller and bridge builder

bro.jpgWhen I examine the craft of the creator – or the storyteller, the producer or whatever other term you want to use – bridge building comes to mind. What we are, essentially, trying to do is build a bridge. It’s a bridge that is constructed between the stories and the content we’ve come up with by using our imagination and our experience and the people we want to reach, influence and engage with that content.

Where a builder of a real life bridge would study the surrounding area and test the bedrock for the most suitable place to start building, we do audience research, examine their habits, their needs and wants and their preferences.

Where a builder of a real bridge starts constructing with the help of blueprints drawn up by construction experts or architects, we construct our content and distribution plans according to audience engagement strategies, strategies for social media and so on.

We need to use the material most suitable for reaching the intended audience – some that we want to reach can only be so by using a bridge built predominantly of Instragram content. Another has to be reached by traditional TV content. A third has to have everything built on Facebook. We need to know who we want to reach, and how we best reach them, or our bridges will falter.

We do wisely to create bridges that allow for two-way traffic. Whereas the builders of yesteryears could content themselves with fewer bridges, and one-way bridges at that, the builders today know that they need a steady stream of traffic going both ways, in order to keep the precious audience connected to their own content, in the fiercely competitive environment this content exists nowadays.

Another complication in comparison with the builders of yore is the people we want to reach. Whereas these were inhabiting a few, large islands back in the day, nowadays it’s a sprawling archipelago that calls for the construction of a great number of bridges, only to reach the same amount of people one bridge would cater for earlier.

Luckily, bridge creation has never been easier. The cost of material has plummeted, as has the amount of time needed. And funnily enough, we’re not the only ones creating bridges anymore. If our stories, our content, is engaging and exciting enough, the people around will happily create their own bridges, in their own fashion, just to be able to connect with what we have to offer them.

Then again, as Isaac Newton said, and which I regard as a challenge for all of us – ”We build too many walls, and not enough bridges”.

 

Be there for your audience

friendshipFrom time to time I’m called in to the Finnish Broadcasting Company to sit in as an ”expert” on their social media panel – basically discussing the latest going ons in the world of social media, what new solutions or services are out there, what the most talked about topics are, and why we should care. It’s an interesting assignment that correlates pretty well with what I’m doing otherwise, and I get to step back into my old role of radio professional, which I still find pretty neat.

In the course of researching for my next appearance I stumbled upon a slightly disconcerting research paper, stating that, on average, we can only count on four of our Facebook friends in a crisis. The research – which was conducted in the UK – shows that the average Facebook user has approximately 150 friends, and that on average we can only count on 15 people to express sympathy, much less help out if times get rough.

This got me thinking about our responsibility as content creators. No, we’re not creating something that is necessarily real. No, we’re not childhood friends of people. No, we won’t set up coffee dates or lunches with our audience. But what we create – inspirational, engaging, moving, unsettling, vulnerable, loveable, disgusting, scary, heart-warming characters and stories – can be as important to people as the majority of their fleeting contacts on social media.

This, in turn, makes us responsible. Just as we can’t ignore a friend’s plea for help or advice or guidance, if we, in our hearts, want to consider us real friends, we can’t ignore our audience’s needs either. There’s simple things, like if we have committed to a release schedule, we must adhere to it. If we have committed to a tone, to a feel of our content, we must maintain it (or have a very good reason to tamper with it). But also more complex things – we need to continuously listen to our audience and research them, so that we know them and can anticipate their mood swings, their changing behaviour and what way they’ll be moving in the near future.

If the average person can only count on four of their ”friends” on social media, what we create should be the fifth.

Creating a future through stories

predictfuture

The future is here. You might not recognize it yet, not know it yet, but it travels with you whereever you go. You hold the future in you, and it is yours to mould and shape into whatever you want it to be.

We’re living in uncertain times. Refugees and migrants, economic hardships and war, climate change and climate change denial. The list is nearly endless. As I talked about in a couple of posts last year, I’m actively exploring how narratives and stories can help us shape the future into something that holds more promise. ”The Great Narrative” was a term I used, a term to encompass everyone, and, by default, everyone’s stories.

I’m finding that this train of thought has a direct influence on the way I approach more hands-on projects as well, be it entertainment, documentaries, experimental stuff, social media campaigns or something else. If we accept that we – and everyone else, naturally – have the power to shape and change our futures through stories, isn’t this something to be taken into consideration when working with audience engagement and other similar strategies? I think so, clearly.

What we’re looking at is an evolvement of the old adage from propagation planning, of giving people a direction and the necessary tools, and they will tell the stories you would like them to tell.

Now, instead, we’re looking at something that goes deeper. What I find I want to create is an alluring, enticing, engaging image of a possible future for the audience. It is a future they hopefully long for, yearn for, and one that holds promises of the solutions and possibilities they crave (even if they didn’t even know they craved them from the outset). It is out of necessity a true image (if perhaps not the full image) that is clearly accessible, through means and tools provided by us, the creators. This means that when the audience interacts with my story, it’s not only in order to advance the storyline, it’s in order to create a future for themselves to arrive at.

If we can dream it, we can make it. Our task as creators is to paint the dreams we want the engaged audience to have, and make sure they mirror the future they arrive into, when following those dreams.

Media and Us – An Interview With Jeff Gomez

jeff

Jeff Gomez, by Out of the Blu

This is an excerpt of Starlightrunner’s CEO Jeff Gomez‘ contribution to “One Year in Now Media vol V“.

Where do you feel the media world is at the moment, and how has it evolved in 2015?

I’m fascinated with how young people are using media as an extension of identity. Because we can touch and play with the things we love through digital media, the boundaries of ownership are blurring and being crossed with growing regularity. We see ourselves in facets of the characters in movies, comics and TV shows, and those facets take on growing significance, sometimes beyond the characters’ original intent. Is Deadpool a gay or pansexual icon, a lunatic who acts on sexual whims, or both? Is Rey a new role model who opens a major entertainment franchise up for girls, or is she a cipher, a Mary Sue manifestation of JJ Abrams’ goddess fantasies? The passion is palpable on all sides, and it only became more virulent with politics and hot button issues like race and religion.

I know its been reading like a whole lot of angst, and a lot of people are tired of the bias and vitriol, but I find it exciting. Look at all that self-expression! Ten years ago, if you wanted more than a handful of people to know how you felt about something, you had to make a tremendous effort. For most of us, that was unreachable. Today, not only can we reach hundreds of people at the touch of a button, but we can also reach and impact the source of our passion—the storytellers, the politicians, the brands, the government. With growing frequency, we can make a difference. The Confederate flag came down, Abercrombie & Fitch dropped its douchebaggery and changed everything about itself, we now know how many people have been killed in police actions and can set about reducing those numbers.

I also appreciate that it still takes an effort to express oneself through social media, and that more and more people are refining their skills in this space. Arguments are becoming more cogent. Words and images are being combined more effectively. Video is being used more powerfully. Older and younger people are joining the conversation. Compare this with what was going on in most online chat rooms in the 1990s, and you can see that we’ve come a long way, and will continue to get better.

What has been the best of 2015? What made you squee with joy?

Purely subjectively, this has been the first year in quite a while that the full spectrum of my creativity has been put to the challenge. In projects originating in Canada and in the Middle East North Africa region I’ve had to think about how religion and spiritual belief can be transformed to better meet the needs of people in the digital age. In the process, I’ve had to face some of the darkest and most wayward aspects of human nature and ponder how narrative can be moved from that which controls to that which enlightens and empowers. I’ve had to look at the violence and dogma in some of these religious scriptures and try to get people to understand how the sheer passage of time demands that we move away from authoritarian communication and the placement of the meaning of these texts into new, modern contexts.

In Australia, my company Starlight Runner had its first transmedia population activation project to be announced publically at launch. We are using our narrative-based multi-platform techniques to help indigenous, regional and remote students and those from low socio economic backgrounds succeed at university. The project is sponsored by Curtin University in Perth. The challenge is a big one, because there is a significant communications gap between cohort and institution. Finding the key to this one has been tricky, because the thought processes of a lot of these students has been difficult to understand. The narrative is nonlinear.

This prompted me to pull out a project I’ve actually been working on since the late 1990s. It’s a narrative model that can function as an alternative to The Hero’s Journey popularized by Joseph Campbell. We’re calling this new model The Collective Journey, and it takes into account the nonlinearity of the kind of communal storytelling we’re seeing in social media, and the new dialog-based storytelling happening between storytellers and audiences across all media around the world. Transmedia and transmedia-adjacent people like Maya Zuckerman, Joe Brewer, Jordan Greenhall and Alan Berkson have been pondering these issues over the past year, and Starlight Runner is actually in the process of integrating The Collective Journey model into our solution for the Australian activation. I can’t think of much that is more exciting than this, because if it works at all, we’ve made a significant breakthrough in the transmedia space. We’re documenting this so that people everywhere will be able to benefit from this work.

What are you looking forward to for 2016? What projects will you follow?

For fun I’m fascinated with how Star Wars is evolving the conversation around the potential of transmedia entertainment. More than anything before in global pop culture, the 2015 rollout of Star Wars by Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm and Disney is informed by a highly contemporary reading of franchise transmedia storytelling as espoused and informed by people like Ivan Askwith, Caitlin Burns, myself, and the Producers Guild of America. Kennedy decided to wipe the slate clean by dispensing with the Extended Universe (thousands of Star Wars stories in comics, novels and video games that George Lucas never considered canon), and starting from scratch with an entirely canonical transmedia story world.

Now we have the centerpiece of that world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it’s a “driving platform” story, a big movie, that is wildly successful even though, arguably, there are several pieces of plot and information missing from it that many people believe make the movie less enjoyable. You can find those pieces in the novelization, or articles that interview key stakeholders, or in comic books, or even in online fan speculation. So is this bad filmmaking? Is it bad transmedia? Or did transmedia just come of age? I think 2016 is going to help us figure that out, and it’s going to set the course for the future of this type of storytelling.

On the business end I’m intrigued by this relatively new trend of live immersive experiences. They’re evolving beyond zombie runs and high end Sleep No More choose-your-path plays. We’re seeing these locked room mysteries and horror houses that test your mind and fortitude. We’re also seeing installations that leverage performers, gadgets, practical effects and a variety of media platforms to pull you into their stories. When done best, you are actually the protagonist in the story, not just someone walking around and watching it. It’s been a dream of mine to bring something like this to life. I’m hoping we can apply some of what we’re extrapolating from The Collective Journey model to make projects like these even more successful.

If I should follow one person or one company in 2016, who or what should it be?

Maya Zuckerman is one to watch. She’s learned how to surf waves of synchronicity, and land herself at the nexus of what we’re looking for. If I want a fast way to bring myself up to speed on what I need to know, I check out her Facebook and Twitter . If I want to talk media theory without worrying about crossing the line into metaphysics, I go to her. I’ve been having a great time talking with her about The Collective Journey, and editing her series of articles on the topic on Huffington Post. But all of the people I’ve mentioned above are well worth following.