Commissioning for Attention Part 2 – Getting Attention

[This is the second part of a short series, based on a talk I gave at MIPTV in March 2009, sharing some insights from our commissioning social media projects at Channel 4 Education]

Matt Webb, the dashing internet guru who is half of boutique design duo Schulze and Webb, has pithily described the challenge facing anyone creating content or services online:

“2008 is the year we hit Peak Attention. You can either carry on encountering as much as you do now, giving every input less and less attention every year, or you can start managing it, keeping some back to take long-haul attention flights. What are the consequences of living post-Peak Attention? Nobody will be able to understand anything hard unless they make sacrifices.”

When I started at C4 in 2007, the first challenge we faced was how to get the attention of the 14-19 age group we were targeting. Up until Jan 2008, C4 Education made (brilliant) TV programmes that were broadcast in the morning schedule, during term time – a throwback to earlier Education programming that was aimed directly at teachers and classrooms. About 6 years ago, the strategy shifted to trying to reach teens directly, making this morning slot an anachronism, as most of the target audience would have been in work, school or college. Janey Walker took over C4 Education in 2006, and realised that TV just wasn’t the right platform anymore, at least not for this audience, with these slots. This led her to make one of the most radical decisions in UK broadcasting – she decided that from Jan 2008, the entire budget (about £6m) for the department would go on cross-platform projects, trying to reach teens in the spaces where they spend their attention, rather than this rather empty part of the morning schedule.

A major broadcast channel like C4 has a number of routes to getting attention – a prime-time slot, an established programme brand, hiring a major talent/celebrity, or a massive above the line marketing push. We didn’t have any of these, so had to go out into the wild web and try and drum up as much attention as we could in whatever ways we could. Over the last 18 months we’ve tried a number of things – partnering with spaces where teens are paying attention, like Myspace and Bebo; distributing content over many different 3rd party networks; making content available for download to podcasts and mobile phones; seeding content in existing special interest communities; running competitions with glamourous prizes – to be honest, I’d fly a plane over a city with our project URL on it if I thought that would bring it to people’s attention. Not all of this worked, obviously. The traffic to our sites isn’t anywhere near the kind of traffic that C4 gets for Hollyoaks or Skins. But here’s a few things I think we’ve learnt.

Design for streams, not for sites

Most people using the web, especially in younger age-groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader.

The average number of sites people regularly visit is generally reckoned to be 5 or 6, and most of these are services that organise and stream information to you – email, social networks, search engines, media libraries (ie Youtube or Itunes) etc. Every now and then a new site emerges that takes its place in this hallowed pantheon, but I wouldn’t bet on your project being one of them. Much better to design content that plays nicely with streams – content that can be interesting and enticing as a one-line text result in a search query, and that doesn’t mind being broken up into small pieces (Cf Matt Jones’ reference to the coke bottle in my earlier post). This is much harder for narrative projects than functional projects, as storytelling tends to rely on controlling the context for its impact – think of how the audience is controlled in a  theatre or cinema, or how television has built its aesthetics around its ownership of the living room and the strictures of scheduling.

I don’t think we’ve really got this right in any of our projects yet, but its the thing I’m most interested in exploring and playing with. Funnily enough, I think I was playing with similar ideas in a project with Tim Etchells in 2000, called Surrender Control, which assumed that we had no control over the audience or context at all, and tried to create an intriguing piece of theatre using just 40 SMS texts. But maybe this is going too far – maybe you need to base a story in a solid context, but let it be manipulated, ripped up and shared around the web as much as your users want to. Dan Hill summed this up beautifully in a post about the social media ‘ripples’ around LOST a few years ago. In the end, I don’t think there’s one model here, just a set of principles – design your content to play nicely with streams, or to be ‘spreadable‘, in Henry Jenkins’ terms.

Don’t be snotty about marketing

This is a simple one, really. Too many people in the storytelling business look down on marketing. Some people I know in web startups think that marketing is a tax you pay for having an inferior project. Bollocks. The reality is, in a post-Peak-Attention world, sitting there expecting people to discover your genius is frankly naive. We’ve had our digital agencies and TV companies working as one team, making decisions together about casting, shooting, web design and marketing. Its all the same project, and it should be the same people making decisions about everything. Marketing now is just another way that people find out about you – another ripple in the stream. Its too important to draw an imaginary line that fetishes some activity as ‘creative’ and some as mere ‘marketing’. If you do that, you’ll miss the opportunity to be really creative with marketing, and will fail to market your creative genius. Think of the coke bottle again – every fragment and shard of the project should be as beautiful, enigmatic and thrilling as the whole.

One last piece of advice – take your time. Trying to mimic TV and get millions of people online to look at the same thing at the same time would be hugely expensive and a waste of time. In a spreadable media world, it will probably take weeks or even months for people to find your project. Designing something that has to be experienced within a certain period or synchronously with thousands of other people is a nice idea, but it plays against the asynchronous nature of the internet. Unless you’re building a site that works alongside a major piece of event TV – think X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing – just relax, and don’t worry about overnights.

Instead, launch the project early, and often. Put out lots of little bits of content over time, and reward people who stick with you. Take the time to listen and work out why people are coming to the project, and more importantly, why they’re not. Make it easy for newcomers to pick up the story at any point, and to view content in any order if they want to. Attention is far too precious a resource these days to act like a bouncer and pull across a velvet rope if people turn up too late. The dirty secret of the web is that, although its never been easier to publish, its never been easier to be ignored. Worship every bit of attention you get from your users, as it’s their gift to you, not the other way around. Which brings me to the next issue – keeping attention. More on that in the next post.

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One comment

  1. Matt

    This really gets to the heart of the challenges facing storytelling/storyworlds in terms of ‘streams not sites’ (and the non-linearity, and looser context associated with this), and attention/time versus the on-demand voraciousness of media consumption online.

    I agree these models/principles are still emerging, and not clearly being defined – but this makes it more important that the ‘networked creator’ takes responsibility for the storyworld UX, that doesn’t automatically fit into neat default format. I’m currently forming a presentation on ‘The Networked Creator’ that looks at some of these principles – thanks for a pair of posts that definitely inform it.

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