Bernie Su's interactive storytelling is winning Emmys and raking in revenue, thanks to its die-hard fangirls.
Images: Pemberley Digital
The story is on your phone. It’s in your Facebook feed. It’s on your computer. Madness.
The phrase "transmedia storytelling," where a story is told across multiple digital platforms, has been the Hot Next Big Thing since at least 2011, and everyone from bands to Hollywood to marketers has tried their hand at the format, with limited success. It’s taken years of failure amidst the hype and vomitable PR speak for a clear expert on the genre to emerge and make it financially viable, and that expert is Bernie Su, a YouTube storyteller with a forte for adapting 200-year-old novels for the web.
What makes Su an expert at transmedia storytelling, exactly? Well, besides drawing large audiences (mainly women under 25), generating hundreds of hours of content, and winning a prime-time Emmy for interactive storytelling in 2013, Su’s transmedia properties are actually profitable. Like, waaaay in the black.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Su’s show that won an Emmy, is the longest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in history, at nine and a half hours. The show’s fans don’t care about the length, and raised just shy of half a million dollars on Kickstarter to put it on DVDs. The story can be watched just by going to the main YouTube channel, or you can check out the ancillary material spanning five YouTube channels and across a total of 35 social media profiles on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, depending on the personalities of its 13 different characters, with each digital platform adding an additional layer to the original story.
Some of the social media accounts are silly, like one Twitter account just for one of the character’s cats (Lydia Bennet’s), but still has 14,000 followers despite the show being over for a year now. This fictitious cat is still pretty e-famous too: last month it tweeted “Meow” and got more than 100 “favorites.” Some of the characters stories were primarily told through Twitter for months in advance, until they were mentioned by the main characters on the primary YouTube channel. Gigi Darcy, for instance, tweeted links to music she was listening to while processing heartbreak (in the novel she narrowly avoids being sexually corrupted) for the first 10 months of the show, until she was mentioned by the main characters and subsequently introduced to the fanbase.
Telling a story this way isn’t easy, however. Su called it “draining” in an interview, because “it’s hard enough to be ourselves on social media, and now you are asking a group of writers to run 13 different social media accounts?” He guessed that based off the 200,000 subscribers to the main YouTube channel versus the 40,000 followers across social media profiles, about a third of his total audience was tuning in to the transmedia side of the story. “If you have your top creative people creating content for a third of your audience, is it worth it?” asked Su. “Especially if you can’t monetize it…is that the best use of your writer’s time?”
It’s complicated, explained Su. “You can’t just bring in a PR person to come and tweet as Lizzie [the main character], because you don’t want to break the canon.” The canon here is the nine-plus hours of story, and interacting with the fans can break canon, or even change the outcome of the story. To wit: One time a fan asked Lizzie on social media what her favorite color was, a question that on the surface seemed like not a big deal. “But even that is kind of a big deal,” explained Su, “because if you respond ‘it is green’ and then the fan goes and looks through her videos and then asks, ‘why are you wearing so much blue?’ that answer would break the story.”
“It becomes incredibly difficult” just to answer a simple question, said Su. Sometimes fans didn’t believe characters were actually interacting in person, so they ask for proof, and having actors take excursions and photo-documenting it for the Twitter audience adds a whole other aspect to production, and takes time and additional resources. (Su’s team over at his production company Pemberley Digital even made fake postcards for a fake town and had actors send them to each other.)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, dubbed LBD by fans, is profitable now, after the Kickstarter for the DVDs, the YouTube ad sales, all the merchandise sold and the upcoming novelization being released by Simon and Schuster this July. But Su was never able to adequately monetize the transmedia side of his story.
With Emma Approved, another Jane Austen adaptation, however, he fixed that.
In fact, Emma Approved was designed specifically “to solve this problem of spending all this creative energy on interactive content,” said Su, who even described the show as “perfectly monetized.” Emma Approved as a transmedia property is a lot smaller than LBD; for starters, it’s only on two YouTube channels and has half the characters, so less time spent on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.
What makes Emma Approved so financially successful, besides time saved pretending to be women online, is simple: better brand integration with Samsung Mobile and online clothing outlets like Modcloth.com, Nordstrom, Lulu.com, Stelladot.com, and Amazon. Every outfit either of two main female characters wears in an episode of Emma Approved has a corresponding link to where it can be purchased, and women really like dressing like these characters in real life.
When fans purchase an item, the show gets a kick-back that’s so significant that when the show went on a winter hiatus, it continued to make thousands of dollars a month just through these clothing deals. As for Samsung Mobile product integration, namely the Galaxy Gear watches and Note 3 smartphones, they are an integral part of the story and used by the characters constantly. The products come across less as product placement and more as personal preference and a natural part of the story.
Take how Emma Approved integrated the Galaxy Gear watch, for instance:
No one has yet to complain about product placement either. “If you treat your friends the way advertisers typically treat you, they’ll want to punch you in the face,” said Su, “because they don’t want to be spoken to that way.” It’s all about having a genuine relationship with your friends, and your fans, he explained. That genuine relationship has worked out profit-wise too, because “even though Emma Approved view-wise is 80 percent of LBD, it is generating more money, generating revenue at a faster pace—at five times the pace actually,” said Su.
It’s not all sunshine and roses in transmedia land, however. Transmedia by its definition requires the use of multiple platforms, but what if those platforms are more trouble than they’re worth—or go out of business? Lonelygirl15, one of the first lauded interactive stories, had a lot of its videos—including the season finale—posted on Myspace, but now you can’t access those videos any more. Other times, social networks that are still in vogue behave badly: When Emma Approved characters first started tweeting ancillary story bits, their Twitter accounts were flagged as spam. “When that happened, we thought maybe we shouldn’t be so Twitter focused,” said Su. Which is why Su’s team at Pemberley Digital started focusing more on their website, which they can actually control and know they can rely on.
“We do our best to archive stuff, but we still worry about that… tech history is full of replacements, for search engines, browsers, social media, video game consoles… what happens when it goes away?” wondered Su. “It’s that whole ‘don’t build a house on someone’s else’s property.’”
But what if building on someone else’s property is what makes your storytelling unique in the first place? It’s a conundrum. Successful transmedia storytelling is a balancing act between utilizing different platforms and modern technology, while knowing the same technology that powers your story is unreliable and, ultimately, temporary.