Recently the online creative community’s collective head exploded when a crowdfunding campaign for a movie about the long cancelled TV show Veronica Mars exceeded its $2 million goal on Kickstarter by over 285%. But I, and many others in the digital crowd, were even more impressed by the modernized Pride and Prejudice web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that also ran a campaign at the same time and exceeded its goal of $60,000 by 771%. I was lucky enough to recently speak with LBD’s transmedia producer Jay Bushman who generously shared his experience of this wild screen media ride. In this issue of From Search to Screen I explore the journey of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries so far and pass along lessons in digital marketing learned, especially when it comes to owning your own success and finding, engaging and galvanizing your audience across multiple platforms.
The Story is the Thing
Lizzie Bennet co-creators Hank Green and Bernie Su recognized from the beginning Pride and Prejudice was their “greatest weapon,” a fantastic tried and true story (as Hank’s wife had pointed out). The book was first published on January 28, 1813, but has been retold and reimagined in plays, movies, television shows and multiple other creative works. This romantic comedy of errors has also often found significant commercial success. I could not help doing a little keyword research and noted that “pride and prejudice” is still searched over 200,000 times a month on Google. This enduring story clearly has much resonance, which the LBD team handled beautifully, transitioning it to a modern setting and narrative with great writing and pitch perfect casting (especially for Lizzie, Jane and Lydia).
By Luck or Design?
Now the digital marketer in me would love to say that this huge success story was also because the LBD team had a solid yearlong marketing strategy mapped out right from the beginning. However, this is not the case. Hank had enough faith in the power of the Pride and Prejudice story to literally put his money where his mouth was and become the sole investor, financing the initial 24 episodes. He also knew a little something about YouTube success from his many years running his VlogBrothers channel with his brother John. Although LBD wasn’t incorporated into that content, he knew he had over 1 million Nerdfighters (what VlogBrother fans are called) to help him get the word out. With zero dollars for marketing and promotion, the team still expected that after about three weeks of LBD they would have to reach out and do some active PR to get write ups in on and offline publications. This turned out to be unnecessary…
LBD soon took on a life of its own and was generating enough revenue from YouTube advertising to be self-sustaining. But this really hit home for the team when they went to Vidcon at the end of June 2012 (3 months into Lizzie’s story) and found themselves swarmed by fans, with sold out panels and an impromptu signing that lasted three hours. It was clear this show had struck a chord. Soon Deca.TV came onboard as co-owner, helping Hank recoup his original investment, providing infrastructure and financial support, taking over administrative duties, and freeing up the creative team to simply create.
And still the growth continues. Unbeknownst to the LBD team, January 28, 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and also coincided with the climax of the narrative of the web series resulting in a new wave of fans discovering the show and spreading the word even further. LBD can now boast coverage in top shelf media such as The Guardian newspaper, TIME Newsfeed, USA Today, ABC News, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, BBC News, and The Wall Street Journal.
Marketing = Telling the Story?
Although there were no marketing dollars in LBD or formalized plan in place, the pervasive storyworld of Lizzie Bennet across so many social networks created a huge in-story marketing machine. For instance, a clever writer named Kate Rorick wrote episode 59 which had Darcy walk into the frame for the first time at the very end of the episode, without revealing his face. This sent LBD fandom into a tizzy of anticipation which exploded in episode 60, heretoafter known as #DarcyDay. This storytelling machine with many moving parts managed and created by Jay and his transmedia team, also listened and responded, answering fan tweets, sharing gifs and memes on Tumblr and giving them more Lydia Bennet when they demanded it. While there are no hard stats on this, the teams’ anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of the audience discovered LBD because it appeared in their social media feeds as their friends shared and frothed about the series. What an amazing example of the power of superfans when a story and experience is truly authentic and engaging enough to move and inspire them in this way. Is it marketing, smart storytelling, or a hybrid of both? I bet you can guess what I think.