By Liz Shannon Miller
Here is a drinking game you should never ever play: Go to a conference focusing on web original content, and do a shot anytime someone uses the word “discovery.”
Discovery, in industry parlance, can be best described as the way in which a potential viewer might find themselves watching web content they didn’t initially set out to watch. Discovery could happen through a blog that curates videos, the related videos that pop up when you finish watching something on YouTube, an email from your mom — what matters putting somebody in front of something that they’ve never seen before, and weren’t necessarily seeking out.
Problem is, beyond social sharing, which doesn’t extend past personal networks, discovery isn’t happening on the scale it needs to. Leap Year producer Wilson Cleveland, via email, summed this up accordingly:
I think the root of the discovery problem is more systemic and behavioral than technological or design-related. The Internet is an infinite platform that will never get smaller. It’s like Satan’s sock drawer. The more choices you have, the harder it is to find or be willing to find what you’re looking for. Seventy-two hours worth of video is uploaded every minute on YouTube alone. Unless you fall within YouTube’s younger demo of Internet natives who already know how to navigate the platform or where to find their favorite creators, the sheer volume of choices could induce a panic attack.
Discovery as a concept, in short, is awfully important to those hoping for the sustainability of web series — it’s often seen as the element that would really bring the web video industry to the next level. But from the perspective of Blip CEO Kelly Day, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. “Discovery is part of the ongoing challenge of buliding an audience — as long as there’s been media, there’s been the question of how do you bulid an audience for it?” she said via phone.
In fact, as I spoke with people in the industry this week about the significance of discovery, the word that came up the most was “audience.” Scott Brown, a veteran web series director currently working on Larry King Now, put it like this via email:
“Content discovery is about focusing on an audience and knowing who you want to reach. I believe we are seeing content creators doing this much more effectively lately, and now I’m seeing distributors do this as well… I use the term “distributor” as a blanket, since there are so many windows these days including networks on YouTube as well as independent websites. The most successful distributors I’ve seen are those that focus on a particular audience and consistently deliver high-quality, engaging, appropriate content to them.”
As one of those distributors, Blip has been segueing from an open platform towards a new focus on curated web video content driven by an editorial voice — “Human beings who have opinions about stuff still matters — talking to consumers about what they think is good still matters,” Day said — as well as a focus towards vertical channels, driving a viewer interested in watching one cat or cooking video into exploring other options.
“Inside YouTube is a wonderful place to discover certain kinds of content — it is a machine that is designed to surface whatever is hot and current at the time,” Day said. “The challenge for [Blip] is how do you expose people to the massive amount of really good episodic content we have and get people to connect with it.”
The connection part is important: Because in the end, it all comes down to who’s actually going to watch. “Know the audience you’re creating for,” advised Cleveland. “You should be able to create a fairly specific profile of your typical viewer. People tend to create their own content online because they see a gap in the market or feel their interests and experiences are somehow underserved. [But] don’t rely on discoverability. Assume your audience won’t find you on their own.”
Actor/creator Travis Richey knows this well. Richey has been producing web content since 2009 (including the popular series Robot, Ninja, Gay Guy) — currently, though, he’s best known as The Inspector of Inspector Spacetime, thanks to a guest star role on the NBC sitcom Community; Community was doing a show-within-show homage to the long-running British series Doctor Who, and Richey was cast in a few scenes as the homage’s equivalent to The Doctor.
Community fans and Doctor Who fans united to create their own backstory for Inspector Spacetime, Richey engaged with that community and ran with it, successfully Kickstartering a full season of the Inspector’s adventures through spacetime.
Community and Doctor Who both have large online fanbases — meaning that an Inspector Spacetime web series should have an immediate audience. But Richey’s series has a major handicap: It’s unauthorized by Sony, the studio which produces Community, and thus its official title is Untitled Web Series About A Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel Through Time. “Not being able to call it [Inspector Spacetime] hampers us a little bit. But people who know about it get it,” Richey said.
However, he was disappointed by the views season one has received so far — thus, for the in-progress season two, he’s turning to another proven way to improve a series’s potential discoverability: Celebrity talent, including Big Bang Theory series regular Mayim Bialik and some other actors yet to be announced. “The fact we have a show is the fuel,” he said, “but these stars are the spark plug.”
People with pre-existing followings is another strategy that Blip’s utilizing, with deals like the one just made with YouTuber Ray William Johnson — “people who have a voice,” as Day put it. (Not to mention a massive following.) This has been a strategy YouTube creators have followed for years — the tradition of the “collab” video has helped more than a few then-beginning YouTubers build massive followings.
The point is, there are plenty of strategies out there. Plenty of ideas. And somewhere in the mix is found solutions that help build casual viewers into a true following. Because in the long run, there’s no magic bullet for discovery in the web video world.
The ultimate strategy, it seems, is to flip the problem on its head. Instead of worrying about new platforms or focusing on how to put videos in front of people, the key seems to be figuring out what people want to watch and how they’re watching it. That’s how we’ll build not the discovery problem, but the audience solution.