How One Transmedia Storyteller Used Audience Research: Does "Ruby Skye" Suggest a Changing Approach to Writing (Online) Motion Pictures?
On July 7th, 2013, one of my favorite thinkers about the New World of storytelling, Siobhan O'Flynn, posted about how Jill Golick, the creator of Ruby Skye P.I., used an "audience first engagement strategy" as a key early tool in developing her innovative Canadian web project.
Ruby Skye P.I. is an online detective mystery series that relies on many of the tools of traditional screenwriting. For example, like the Sherlock Holmes movies (and books), there is a central character who encounters clues - clues that a primarily youthful female audience can also ponder.
While a piece of dramatic literature that revolves around solving a case, where the user participates alongside a uniquely talented detective, is nothing new - the way Jill Golick developed Ruby Skye will likely strike some Old World storytellers as heresy.
How did Jill Golick break the traditional screenwriting rules? She didn't just borrow elements of theme, character and structure from existing young adult mysteries (like Nancy Drew)... the Ruby Skye project also relied very heavily on audience research. In particular, Jill Golick took a good long look at how young females interact with content and each other online.
Here's the central question posed by Jill Golick's work on Ruby Skye: Is a deep dive into audience behavior and preferences a valid starting place for writing dramatic literature?
Or is audience research a trap that only snares hacks?
The point is not just that Ruby Skye evolved using new platforms for storytelling (for example, the Ruby Skye storyworld includes non-traditional elements - like a microblog maintained by the main character's little sister), but that the fundamental decisions about the story itself were informed by tools that most traditional screenwriting texts don't teach.
While Robert McKee and Syd Field talk about leading the audience and audience reaction, I don't recall a chapter in their books that recommends starting with intense research into audience social media behaviors.
While few would argue with the statement that screenwriting is a craft with tools and techniques that can be learned, you're not likely to hear from established Old World screenwriters that they've succeeded because of audience research.
A deep dive into social media analytics (e.g., the numbers and charts that purport to measure engagement and the rate of social media sharing) is not something that most film schools are currently teaching.
Even in the New World of transmedia projects, the bias has been toward using tried and true auteurist tools for writing dramatic literature.
And isn't "story first" a bedrock of ALL dramatic literature?
But in the New World (e.g., when writing for a character's microblog?) perhaps the relative importance of the existing tools might have to shift.
And maybe... just maybe... unconventional tools - like researching interactivity and how potential audience members engage and share content online? - may have a legitimate role in online filmmaking.
Maybe... just maybe... the mix of screenwriting tools (including new tools and existing tools that have previously had only a secondary importance in traditional filmmaking) may evolve in surprising ways (ways that don't fit the existing paradigms for writing successful motion picture stories?) as the circulation of New World stories unfolds online.
A Siobhan O'Flynn writes: "Although I can think of numerous examples where ‘story first’ was the design principle to follow [for many transmedia storytellers], particularly for documentary and/or more art house projects (think ARTE, NFB), in [Jill Golick’s Ruby Skye P.I., an example of] a more mainstream, commercial space Jill’s audience first engagement strategy is now a stand-out winner by all metrics of success."
What sort of audience research did Jill Golick use?
"What really stood out in Jill’s engagement strategy was the time to get to know all of the show’s YouTube fans, and I mean really get to know them. She checks out their channels, their interests, their content on other platforms, she subscribes to their channels, posts comments on their videos & replies to every comment they post on Ruby Skye P.I. videos, and perhaps most significantly, cross-posts their content & posts, just as you would a friend’s."
If you're an online filmmaker, what tools are working for you as you set about writing your stories?
"As Jill Golick commented on her strategy to [Siobhan O'Flynn]: “I describe it as weaving marketing and business into the DNA of the story, I think all these elements have to be taken simultaneously and right at the beginning of the process.”"