Guerilla Showrunner

Make your webseries. Better. Faster. Now

Interview: Burnie Burns of Red vs Blue on viral video, business models and more.

I’m pretty excited about our first interview here at Guerilla Showrunner. Red vs Blue, after all, is one of the five or six real Web Series hits in the history of the medium, right up there with Dr Horrible, The Guild, and LonelyGirl.

Burnie Burns was one of the founders of the show, and subsequently the founder of Rooster Teeth, one of very few successful professional Machinima production companies. It was great to have a chat with him about his thoughts on Web showrunning, the “viral” phenomenon, and even if Red vs Blue could happen in 2011 at all…

Tips for new showrunners

Hugh: So, to start off… If you could give a new Web showrunner 3 tips, what would they be?

Burnie: Make at least 3-4 episodes of a new project before releasing the first one. If you find you have a hit on your hands, you will need the extra production buffer to ramp up while still putting out episodes. If you don’t have any new content ready one there is a demand to see more, you will lose people back into the ether.

Hugh: Huh - interesting! So, do you advise breaking from your intended production schedule if you have a hit and releasing the next episode or episodes whilst the iron is hot? That’s a really interesting idea - I must admit I’ve always worked on “stick to the schedule”.

Burnie: I think consistency is key. I come from the perspective of a “once per week” show, but daily or monthly schedules apply. You want people to know when they can get it. I try to think of it as “staying out of the audience’s way” – you don’t want to make it any harder than necessary to find the show.

Also, if you are making episodic content, you have to be comfortable with the fact that your series will have individually less view per episode than the “one hit” video of the day. Your brilliantly written, superbly acted piece just will not compete with the kitten wearing the hula skirt. Learn to live with it; series production is a long haul, it’s not intended for short term gains.

Can video still go viral?

Hugh: One canard I’ve heard repeatedly is that “viral is over. You can’t go viral any more”. Given RvB was one of the most viral things ever, would you say that’s true? Could RvB happen now, and if so how?

Burnie: I won’t say RvB could not happen today, but I will say that I personally would not know how to make it happen today. Viral might indeed be dead. The internet has changed so much since 2002, the term viral simply might not apply to the current framework.

Back then, people were isolated on the web. The way information moved was from person to person – like a virus.

Now, everyone has joined major networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. This shift is an incredible leap forward in connectivity, but it brings a terrible amount of noise with it.

People are bombarded with so much content now, it becomes nearly impossible to sift through it. Actually it’s literally impossible. According to YouTube’s fact sheet, there’s twenty four hours of video uploaded every minute. There’s no way you could process it all.

The tolerance for content is dropping as well. A narrative takes time to develop, but people are not willing to invest more than three minutes in online content.

You have to hit hard and fast.

Business models and how to use them

_Hugh: Since you’re one of the few pro web series creators out there, everyone’s going to want to know - what’s the Rooster Teeth business model? Are you supported by indie work, or is your main revenue stream production work for other companies? (been there…) _

Burnie: For five years we survived solely on t-shirt sales and DVDs – I called it the Homestar Runner Economic Model.

For the past few years, we have mixed in advertising and professional production contracts as well. We employ thirteen full time employees.

_Hugh: You also have a “supporter” or “subscriber” program, right? _

Burnie: Yes, we have a subscriber model with early windowed releases. We treat that much like a digital DVD product. The Sponsors get higher quality and bonus features that you would associate with a DVD.

Hugh: Do you think other Machinima or web show creators could use the same model?

Burnie; I think the best bet for a new machinima project would be to produce it in hopes of forging a partnership with the developer. Too many times, I see very talented people producing excellent content, building a solid audience and then when it’s time to figure out how to support the project, the developer never picks up the phone when the producer calls for approval. It guess that it’s easier to say nothing than to say no.

It’s the IP owner’s prerogative of course, but it’s sad when honest people have to fold up shop because the don’t want to take liberties, but the dev never wants to supply a solid yes or no. They linger in limbo until they just give up and shut down.

How their content production has changed

_Hugh: What have the big improvements been between how you produced content when you started out, and now? And what’s still kicking your ass? _

Burnie: We have expanded our content offering. For a long, long time it was just machinima. Now we have animation projects, machinima projects, live action and traditional development projects that we don’t put on the web.

The thing that always kicks our ass is getting too invested in a video that just doesn’t hit. I think we’re very good about trying new things and developing ideas that resonate with the audience, but there’s always a few videos that we love a lot more than the audience does.

It’s even more frustrating when a few videos within a series will have lower views than all the other episodes around it. It almost feels like a large chunk of people have somehow skipped an episode or two. Sometimes you just have to shrug.

Hugh: I’ve seen the same thing. What do you think causes those sudden drop-offs? I’ve been thinking a lot about metrics lately, and about user retention and such things - I’d guess that either there’s an external issue or some kind of subtle design flaw in the episode - or the one before it.

Burnie: I think it’s just natural fatigue. I consider myself a South Park fan, but I won’t pretend that I’ve watched every episode. The same applies to The Simpsons. I watch it when I can.

Hugh: Well, I think that’s about all we have time for! Thanks very much for the interview!

What do you think? Is viral outdated? Should you break release schedules? And do you have any idea why episodes sometimes randomly drop in views? Let us know below!

_Guerilla Showrunner is the only blog on the ‘net (that I know of) that’s 100% about the art, craft and business of running Web series. We’ve got more interviews with top Web Series creators coming up, as well as loads of info articles on monetising your show, creating your web presence, and every other aspect of Web showrunning.Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss those articles when they appear! _

Read more →

Why fans don’t (necessarily) get you traffic, and traffic doesn’t (necessarily) get you more fans

“We’ll put the first episode out and tell our friends about it. They’ll tell their friends, and then it’ll go viral. We’ll get tons of traffic in and make lots of money.”

Have you ever wondered why you’ve got really enthusiastic fans, but not much traffic? Or why, when you get a huge traffic spike and you think you’re made, it drops right off again and you’re left with exactly as many fans as you started with?

I’ve been in both of those positions in the past. And they boil down to one simple truth.

Fans don’t automatically produce traffic, which doesn’t automatically produce fans.

They CAN - and there are ways you can make much more certain that they do. But it ain’t going to happen without planning.

Traffic doesn’t always bring you fans

Woohoo! We’re on the front page of Digg! That’s going to get us…

Bugger all.

Great traffic doesn’t necessarily mean tons of comments, fans or cash. One of my fastest-viewed short films was “When We Two Parted”. Front page of YouTube UK, 73,000 views inside a few hours. Loads of great comments.

It’s also the film I produced that gets forgotten the most. Virtually no comments about it online. Very few mentions anywhere.

(To be fair, it didn’t get fans because I did a very rare, for me, zero-effort launch. I made it for myself as a hobby project, and the YouTube thing was a bit of a shock. But it still serves as a good example.)

This is pretty common. Even with tons of traffic, some films, episodes or even series will just see people bounce.

Why? Well, there’s two reasons.

First, all traffic is not created equal. Digg, in particular, and the other “I’m bored” aggregation sites like Reddit and, yes, YouTube’s front page, have a tendancy to send streams of very disinterested viewers to your film. They’re clicking through because of momentary curiosity and nothing more. And as such, whilst you might get great traffic from them, in the long run you’ll probably get more fans and more revenue from a guest post on a medium-sized blog that’s very targetted at the interests your series serves.

(I’ll keep coming back to this point on this site. Most of the time, you’re better off getting 50 very, very interested people to your site than 5,000 completely untargetted visitors.)

Second, there are a whole bunch of things you need to bear in mind when you’re getting traffic, if you want that traffic to convert to dedicated fans and followers. You need to think about how you’re capturing those people initially and letting them know that there’s more to see. You need to think about the personality you’re projecting online. And you need to ask whether your series is casually interesting, or if you’ve managed to find something that fascinates people - and if you haven’t, find it.

I could talk about all these things a whole lot, but I already did it elsewhere, in Get Crazed Stalkers. If you’re interested in learning more about how to convert casual viewers to fans, you really need to sign up to that (it’s free), because it’s a series of 3 lectures going through the entire process of turning your casual viewer base into devoted, enthusiastic fans.

Fans don’t necessarily mean traffic

It’s very easy to fall into the following thought trap: “If someone loves my work, they’ll tell their friends about it.”

No, they won’t.

This one’s confused me plenty of times. On Kamikaze Cookery, for example, we had a large, vocal and enthusiastic fan following. We also comparatively rarely saw people recommending our stuff, and as a result, stayed fairly small.

There’s a key difference between liking something and wanting to share it. And top of the list is this: the reason that we like something and the reason we might share it with our friends ain’t the same.

There’s no cost associated with liking a product other than the initial time to view it. However, there is a potential cost associated with sharing something - social standing. Your viewers will only share something with their friends - any group of their friends - if they believe that their friends will like it, and if they believe they won’t be annoyed by it.

It’s standard sales - you’ve got to provide benefits and overcome objections - only in this case the currency we’re trying to get our viewers to pay with is not cash, but their friends’ eyeballs.

Eew.

So, if you want your fans to share your stuff - are you selling it to them? Are you providing a call to action? (I talk about reminding people to do stuff - calls to action - in episode 1 of Crazed Stalkers - it’s a very powerful and easily forgotten tool).

Are you demonstrating the benefits, which can be as simple as providing something that will make sense outside the context of the series?

You know The Guild? You know their stand-alone, very funny music videos? With girls from the series in hot outfits? Yep. That’s why they make ‘em - they’re obviously, immediately something that many peoples’ friends would like to see, and so Guild fans share them.

(We should have done a LOT more 30-second clips from Kamikaze Cookery episodes for people to share.)

Are you reassuring potential sharers that nothing bad will happen because they share your stuff? Might seem silly, but there’s nothing like a crushing “WTF? Pointless.” comment to make your readers wish they’d never shared.

Many people will share like a shot with friends groups who share an interest - KKC got shared around the molecular gastronomy/geek crossover, for example. Can you pinpoint what interests would mean peoples’ friends were more likely to like what they’re being offered? Can you provide examples of other people who’ve shared your stuff and gotten grateful comments?

Most people won’t want to ask their friends to take much time our of their day. Do you have short samples that people can share? Do those samples, in turn, have calls to action on the end, and ways to capture viewers?

Andrew Chen goes into the psychology of sharing in great depth in his essay on viral loops - it’s really worth reading if you want to understand how to turn fans into traffic.

Money… soon

Of course, once you’ve got ten thousand fans or a million viewers, it’ll be easy to turn that into money, right?

(All of my readers who’ve been in that position are laughing right now).

Nope. Just because you’re super-popular doesn’t mean money is going to turn up. Hell, both Twitter and Facebook have looked like they weren’t going to turn a profit in the past.

So how the hell do you turn fans or traffic into cash?

Hate to cliffhanger you, but… that’s the subject for another article. I’ll write it soon, I promise!

_Subscribe to Guerilla Showrunner to avoid missing the money articles! And to learn how to translate your casual viewers into hardcore fans, sign up to Get Crazed Stalkers - it’ll just drop right into your inbox. _

Read more →