I recently participated as an audience member in Hurst, “the first ever Twitter horror movie,” written and directed by UK filmmaker Kristi Barnett. It unfolded over the course of three weeks via Twitter as a girl named Karen Barley shared her day to day life through real-time tweets, Foursquare alerts, and pictures, audio and video clips from her phone. (You can find it all archived here.) I went into it knowing it was unlikely to have a happy ending, but was highly curious about how it would feel to have a story delivered to me in this manner. Here are my thoughts about what worked and what didn’t, and (because I just can’t help myself) some ideas about the digital marketing for such a uniquely delivered story.
(Note: If you want to read the archived movie, you may want to do that first as there are several spoilers below.)
What Worked about Hurst
- My favourite moments during this experience were when Karen responded to my messages to her. I loved that I could interact with her directly, giving her advice about her love life and the strange behaviour of her boyfriend and boss to which she occasionally responded, creating a bond with a character that was more immediate than anything I had experienced in a story before.
- The extra media (images, audio, video) all felt authentic and true to the character I was getting to know. I was reminded of the effective Blair Witch Project where the lower quality video was reflective of the story as well as the budget.
- The performances of the two main actors, which also included them doing the camera work, were strong and authentic as well. There was consistency between the written voice of the tweets and the performances. Without the believable performances in the extra media everything about the story would have fallen apart very quickly.
- In terms of the storyline, there was a critical narrative turning point for me. On July 12 this video was uploaded to Karen’s account. It was of Karen sleeping and then her boyfriend intoning at his reflection “I see you.” It completely gave me the creeps and increased my investment in the story. I got more and more anxious to communicate with Karen and warn her. It was the chance for me to yell at the movie screen to keep a character from her terrible fate (something I have often wanted to do during regular horror movies).
What Didn’t Work about Hurst
- I must admit I went into this experience a bit sceptical. In fact, I talked about it with a horror director friend of mine who felt that “good horror needs a buildup that 140 characters doesn’t really allow. It makes for really choppy storytelling, and no real suspense.” To some extent I agree with her. Movies can build tension through editing; but you can’t do that during what was essentially a three week real-time performance. Lots of the day to day boring bits found their way into the early narrative and although they didn’t progress the story they did build the reality of the character.
- Besides the occasional banality, I also found a delay or lack of response from the character often took away from my engagement with the narrative. I loved it when Karen responded to me directly. But when I was ignored it was frustrating. I wanted to feel I could change the outcome of the story or even the pace at which the story unfolded. For instance, there was an experience in Karen’s past with her boyfriend that made it unclear whether or not he was setting her up for a practical joke. I, and several other people, asked her about this but she remained vague. The information was provided later as part of the pre-scheduled Tweets. There was, however, a missed opportunity for the audience to get more invested by delivering that story element in response to our earlier queries.
- Another issue I had with the parts of the story that belonged to other characters and the wider context. This was obviously a very strong first person narrative. Karen’s creepy boss was likely a part of a druidic cult who had specifically selected Karen for this “special assignment’ on Croydon Hurst. Although a website had been created to provide some of the basic information on these cults, it was unclear why Karen was so desirable, and why she had to be there on a certain day for certain things to happen. Other things that continue to bother me – why the weird things happened to her boyfriend long before the “magical” date of Karen’s birthday, what if she had gone up to Croydon Hurst alone or Darren hadn’t strayed off the main path? There were just too many elements that seemed to happen by chance. Without a more complete wider context, these leave me feeling perplexed and unfulfilled. I don’t need every loose end tied up, but I’m not convinced the story stayed true to its own internal logic.
- I wish that Karen’s conversations with her followers had also made it into the archive. I clicked on many of these to read and learn more during the three week performance. I think this is a narrative element that adds to the story and makes it more truly interactive/transmedia than just the tweets Karen was posting.
My Digital Marketing Take on Hurst
Leading up to and during the “live” tweeted story, Kristi did a lot of interviews and spread the word with a press release. It was a basic but effective technique and certainly how I learned about Hurst. But I think there was more that could have been done during the “broadcast” of this story and even more that could be done now that it is archived. Here are some of my ideas:
- There is obviously some real interest in druid cults online. Some very basic keyword research shows almost 3,000 searches a month for “druidism” worldwide (almost 400 in the UK alone). “Celtic astrology” has 1,600 estimated searches and “secret cults of the world” has 36. Even this minimal initial data reveals language used by a potential audience that the Hurst team could tap into – perhaps through the druid website they created or some of the other online assets.
- The words above (and many others) could easily be incorporated into the behind-the-scenes site, except that it is not terribly search friendly being made in Flash. An html site with more visible, optimized text could attract traffic from the Internet search media that could potentially grow the Hurst audience substantially.
- Now that the “performance” is over, a more richly optimized presence on Facebook for Karen (where she is clearly identified as a fictional character) offers possibilities for getting the word out about the movie than when it was just another venue for re-posting her tweets. I would recommend a look at my posts on optimizing social media to point the Hurst team in the right direction.
- Kristi should be leveraging all her online assets – her Twitter feed, her website – making sure they are well crosslinked, integrated and as search friendly as possible, using the right words in the right places, keeping technology out of the way, and participating in relevant online conversations on social networks.
Was Hurst a Success?
Over the course of the three week story arc I watched Karen’s Twitter followers grow and peak at about 810 and then drop to about 730 over the last week. Just when it was getting more tense and weird, she was losing people’s interest. Maybe as an archived story it will work better than with the delayed real-time delivery. No matter what, I think it helped Kristi’s professional brand as an innovative storyteller. But I think, at the end of the day, the most fascinating narrative will actually be the meta story – the story about the story of Hurst. And that, my followers, is still unfolding.
Do you have any other questions, resources, tips or insight into Hurst or other cutting edge storytelling? Please send them for via email to annelise(at)veria.ca or Twitter @veriatweet
Or Revisit Last Week: Social TV – The “Second Screen” Elephant in the Room