From platform research and audience testing to developing series and rapid prototyping, the focus of our team in its first year was learning. Working within a design/do framework, we hit the ground running and came out of the year with ten key insights from our work in the social TV space.
#1. We should have called this the Emerging Formats Initiative.
We learned pretty quickly that the importance of our work was not about the platform, but about the content format. It’s not worth our time to be chasing the latest social media platform with buzz; instead we have focused on the larger trends in how these platforms are reflecting media consumption. While Snapchat was a proverbial “shiny object” platform for years, what it created — vertical, tap-through narratives via Stories — was more important in the larger scheme of media consumption. We see the same thing today with TikTok: what fascinates us is not the rapid growth of TikTok’s MAU, but the iterative micro-narratives that drive this adoption. In 2019, our team identified three emerging video formats that should play a role in WGBH’s future content planning: interactive live streaming, Stories, and micro-narratives.
#2. Community building is not a “should do.” It’s a “must do.”
And it’s a “must do” from day one. Involving potential audiences from the first stages of production not only makes content better, it establishes deep trust and loyalty. In creating Escape Lab we conducted extensive audience research into science, space, gaming, puzzles and escape room communities and influencers and connected with them for advice and input before starting production. We talked to multiple Twitch streamers who advised on platform best practices, tools, their communities and content. We also identified groups for user testing and feedback. Members of the /escaperooms subreddit were enthusiastic, engaged and generous with their time, advising on show structure and watching the pilot when the time came.
#3. Traditional demographic categories are changing.
The internet is flattening time and generations can no longer be defined by the media they consume, or even how they consume it. A majority of people in every age group has access to an Internet-connected device, and the thousands of years of media available through it. At the same time, reporting and targeting based on gender binaries and single ethnicities is outdated and exclusive. Identity-based groups are strong and growing, but online consumers are also increasingly self-sorting into communities based on affinity rather than age, gender or ethnicity. Understanding this is crucial for authentic, long-term engagement.
#4. Produce for engagement FIRST.
Audiences now expect and appreciate self-aware content that authentically includes them and responds to their input. When developing a new concept, it is essential to understand there is likely already conversation happening online about the topic you want to cover. To account for this and integrate engagement into production, think about your concept as a contribution, and ask yourself at the outset: How is this story a two-way conversation? Which format and platform are the best fit for that conversation? What techniques and tools can be used to bake the conversation into the storytelling? Does this content add value to the platform and in the communities where it will be shared? How?
#5. Low versus high production quality is a false war.
One of our hypotheses heading into 2019 was that audiences on social platforms want authentic video, such as direct-to-camera selfie style videos and unpolished, handheld shots. However, we’ve learned that high production quality does make a difference in some cases — but let the context of the platform dictate the appropriate tone and style of your content. Tailor your production level to the audience’s expectations on that platform and to your own brand’s style.
#6. Some production rules are universal.
Platforms and formats change, but many rules hold true across time: bad audio means bad content; strong storytelling is essential; setting the stakes and letting viewers know up front what they’re getting is key to retention; schedules and scripts, whatever they look like, make production easier and more efficient.
#7. Minimize the cost of context switching, and account for the rest.
Producing multiple experimental concepts in multiple formats (and on multiple platforms) requires a fair amount of context switching for a production team, requiring a team to juggle the audience expectations, best practices and production workflows of many different platforms at once. Constant, consistent, clear communication and review processes help here; as does a commitment to documentation, organization and a commitment to consistently re-align hypotheses. Prioritize these (and interruption-free edits) to minimize the cost of shifting brain space back and forth across projects.
#8. Quit trying to drive audiences across platforms.
This year we fell in love with a family of YouTubers that runs a channel for families around game play and puzzles. But when we invited them to participate in our Escape Lab pilot, we found only a small segment of their huge YouTube audience followed them, despite very generous promotion on their channel and Instagram accounts. On the flip side, two Twitch influencers who also played the room drove massive audiences for our pilot. As a result of this, in the future we will focus on finding and engaging in-platform influencers and communities, rather than trying to convince audiences to go somewhere else. Research shows that audiences are building their own unique combinations of media experiences; whether that be Reddit and Twitch; YouTube and Instagram; or television and Twitter. Forcing audiences outside of their own media diet comfort zones is increasingly difficult in today’s day and age.
#9. Marketing alone won’t drive engagement.
When Escape Lab hit the front page of Twitch, our viewership skyrocketed by 4,000% — but our engagement rate barely budged, increasing by less than 10%. This demonstrated to us that no matter where audiences came from (via ads or organic discovery), the most important thing is to create engaging content that will keep viewers interested and entertained. Combine your marketing efforts with a commitment to engage and value those audiences once they get in the door.
#10. Younger audiences understand public media in a very specific way.
In 2019 we experimented a lot with branding, trying different combinations of WGBH, PBS and public media in our content. What we found was that our own station’s branding didn’t have much impact on the success of our content, meaning it was not the deciding factor whether or not someone watched. (This is consistent with research that younger viewers form associations with shows and series rather than TV networks for the first time in recent history.) However, we did find that the concept of public media, or PBS, carries weight with younger audiences, but almost exclusively because of nostalgic associations. Young audiences hear “public media” and think about the PBS Kids programming that was a staple for them growing up — with almost zero awareness of PBS’ current programming offerings. We see this both as a challenge and an opportunity to introduce new associations between public media and engaging, illuminating content for audiences under 35.