Hi! Scott here!
As always with online issues and questions, there’s lots of little interrelated elements but the main question is this:
Should a webseries release its episodes one at a time in a slow roll out schedule, similar to TV, or should you simply put up all the episodes and let people find them?
Jill’s starting to think that slow roll out and promoting each episode on its own is not the way to go for webseries – that it is old school thinking. While I’m not one of the key players on Ruby Skye PI, Jill’s current series, I’d like to weigh in with our experience.
We have actually experimented with both types of release. Tights and Fights: Captain Euchre (and now Tights and Fights: Ashes) were both slow roll out while Team Leader was released on it’s website all at once.
What we found is that there’s pros and cons to each method. I’m not saying this to sit on the fence and be philosophical, I’m saying that there’s legitimate, strategic reasons to release your web series as a slow roll out. It all depends on your goals.
All At Once
Let’s start with The All At Once strategy.
It works if what you want to drive traffic to your central website, if you have a short ongoing series, and if you want to maximize your views in a short time – and don’t really care about views on each episode. Essentially, you’re promoting the website instead of the individual episodes.
It works because if people find your videos, and like them, they go to your site where they create multiple page views. Online videos are actually great if your goal is page views and time on site. People who have gone through the trouble of actually going to your site (however you get them there) are likely to stick around and watch more than one video.
One trouble is discoverability.(Discoverability is essentially how easy it is for people to find you – even if they don’t know they are looking for you.) The way the web works, new content is rewarded. If all your episodes are up, it is very difficult for you to post enough new content that Google considers you a valid, relevant page in it’s search engine. Plus, a lot of views come if your episode is in the ‘new’ lists on your video sharing sites (difficult with YouTube, with its billions of new videos every day, easier on sites with less traffic, but then there’s less traffic). If all your episodes are up, kiss those potential ‘free’ views goodbye. Again, reducing your discoverability – which is really important.
Another trouble is repeat visitors. People will likely come, watch as many episodes as they want… and then never come again. You’ll be constantly battling for new eyeballs. Again, not the end of the world, but it makes it difficult to build a community.
The best reason to use an All At Once release strategy is if you’re getting paid by ‘cost per impression’ advertising. You get people to come in, get a bunch of page views, and then get more people to come in. If your core experience and business strategy is more about the web site and less about people watching the individual episodes, this is the way to go.
Slow Roll Out
Now, let’s look at the Slow Roll Out strategy
In many ways, it is the reverse of the pros and cons listed above. It works best if what you want is to get people to focus on the episodes, on the unfolding story and on building a community.
The idea is to release episodes one at a time. Most people take the TV idea of having a regular, predictable schedule – whether it is twice a week or the first Monday of every month – and putting the new episodes up one by one until you have reached the end. With Tights and Fights: Ashes, we use a slightly unique system of posting up the episodes in “story time.” We don’t have a regular schedule, which allows us to adjust the pace of release to coincide with the events of the story. (The strengths and weaknesses of that strategy are a whole other discussion!)
There’s something to be said for denying people instant gratification. That if they like the show enough, having to wait to see what happens next creates a different level of value in their minds. The downside is people have to go to that extra effort to catch the next one – whether they are in some way notified of the new episode and just simply need to remember that there’s something there to go look for.
It works best when you have a long series, and each episode is mostly self contained. and you want people to continue to discovering your videos indefinitely. Essentially, you are promoting the experience of watching the episodes and not visits to your website.
It works because it increases your series over all discoverability. You have constant fresh content – which not only makes your series and your website easier to find by people but drives views back through your previous episodes. They might visit your site, but in all likelihood they will stay where ever they first discovered your videos for the simple reason they were already in the habit of going there. Those who subscribe to your videos will get an announcement when a new one goes up -and (again) if they are active users they don’t need to be reminded to visit the site – whether it is YouTube or whatever – because they already go there regularly for the purpose of watching videos.
The hardest part of the Slow Roll Out is that your views will be largely outside of your main website, making it more difficult to make money off your video views through current, easy to access online advertising, which is all geared to visits to web pages. (It sounds so 90′s, doesn’t it?) Slow Roll Out is best suited for strategies in which either the videos are already profitable /paid for or you simply don’t care about making money off the distribution… yet.
So, Slow Roll Out is great if you want to maximize your video views indefinitely, and build a community, but it is challenging to make a buck. Most of the people who make a profit of this strategy are YouTube partners who have been posting episodes regularly for over three years. And they are also constantly using YouTube to promote their videos and gain new viewers, who go back and watch the older episodes.
I know this post is already pretty long, but I also wanted to comment on some of the points raised on Jill’s post.
Audience Drop Off
Will Dixon made a comment about how every webseries he’s studied sees the most numbers on its first epsiode and then quickly drops off. He claims this is an argument in favour of the All at Once release. I respect and admire Will, but I hope that he will allow me to disagree with his conclusion. Yes, almost every web series or channel has the most views on its first episode. But he’s reading that fact from the point of view of the TV model. There’s a number of reasons why web series views turn out like that – and they’re not the reasons Will thinks.
1) What is build? What is drop off? – Most people, if they find a new series online, will watch the episode they have stumbled on, and if they like it, will go back to episode 1. That means more people will ever watch episode 1 than any other episode. From there they may jump around to what looks like the most fun episode. It make look like a ‘drop off’ between episode 1 and episode 2, but you have to look at the numbers over the series as a whole over time – are the new viewers of the series as a whole trending up or down? If they are trending down, it’s not your release strategy. It’s either your content or your…
2) Bad promotional strategy – The big companies who have tried to build audiences around online series have lost their shirt for some simple reason, bad promotional strategy. You simply can’t build an audience for a web series through press releases. Shows like Prom Queen had giant first episodes and then almost nothing after that. Why? Because their promotional strategy was a top down, very expensive push to get people to watch that first episode. The people who were watching were curious rubber neckers, who slowed down to take a look and then kept moving. It works on TV – where people are habitualized to watching something, so the goal is to get them to sample your show. The web is different, and even more so if you’re trying to change people’s habits to watch online instead of TV, which essentially what coverage in the mainstream media is trying to accomplish.
3) Time – I hope it won’t be too obvious of me to say that web series aren’t like TV shoes or movies in that they don’t need to get their views in a short amount of time before they are not available anymore. Ignoring one off viral videos, the single greatest factor in how many views an episode gets is how long it has been available? the longer it is up, the more people see it, the easier it is to find, the more people see it. Those views build up over time. It doesn’t mean people aren’t coming back, and it doesn’t mean that people have forgotten about your show, it means that whenever a new person stumbles across it, it is new to them. So they check out the first episode. Yes, your first episode will always include views by people who go… “Hmm. Not for me” and move on. But that is not an issue with your distribution strategy.
4) First Episode as Gateway – You put a big number 1 on it, so people are going to treat it as their introduction to the story – especially if all the episodes are the same length and it also happens to be the introduction to your story. When someone tells their friend to check out your show, chances are they’ll start from number 1. A related question, what episode do you want new viewers to start with? If someone’s new to your show, what episode are you driving them to? for many series with an ongoing, linear plot in the which the episodes flow into each other like chapters, that will be episode one.
I could go one with many little things that affect how your viewers watch your show and why you’ll always get the most views on episode 1, but I feel like those four are the big points I”d like to make. Here’s another quick one, your launch day will always include a look in audience – that”s true on TV and online. No matter what you do, there will always be less views on your second episode than your first. Those people that stick around? They’re called your fans. Those people who couldn’t be bothered to keep watching? They aren’t your audience. Forget about them.
There was also a comment about all the noise on the internet. It’s very true. But it is only a problem if you’re thinking in terms of ‘how many views am I getting in day one?’ And yes, it is impossible not to launch a video and compulsively check your views and worry about why you have 20 instead of 20 thousand. But all those successful web series that you admire? They had their audience build for years. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Keep promoting, keep up your activity, and those views magically add up before you know it.
I’ll make one more point (if you’re even still reading!) and here it is – you’ll go crazy comparing viral videos to web series. It’s like comparing apples and 8th dimensional quantum string theory. they are different in every way. Viral videos go viral because they bring the concept of the video into the context of the viewers’ real lives. Ongoing fiction, like web series, brings the viewer into the context of the fictional universe. And that takes time. If you want a million people to watch one episode and never watch another, focus on going viral. If you want a nice slow build of new viewers discovering your show, I’d stick with the slow roll out.