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A StoryCode Report by Michael Epstein and Michael Knowlton.
Co-published with Filmmaker Magazine.
Anyone creating immersive media has run into a similar challenge: people outside of the creators’ bubble are not exactly sure what you mean by “immersive”, “interactive”, or “transmedia” experiences. Producers of this new form of media often get questions like:
This article takes a deep dive into audience numbers and behaviors for a few key immersive media projects, and, more importantly, it puts the spotlight on the top practitioners in an emerging craft. Beyond the numbers, brilliant new voices and audience experiences are surfacing in multi-platform stories, in social films, and in online documentaries. Here you find the early contours of what may become the foundation for a new generation of storytellers.
Transmedia writer and director Lance Weiler predicts that a “more social, more connected, more personalized wave of media” is coming, in stride with the platforms and practices of the new generation. But, like any new media form, there will probably be a lot of borrowing from older forms and audiences will take a while to warm up.
Even motion pictures were initially not great at commanding audiences' attention. In the era of silent film, movies were often called "chasers" because they would play last at a Vaudeville show, encouraging folks who found them boring to head for the exit. And, appropriately, we started by looking at how audiences stay—and leave—online interactive stories.
First we surveyed a number of interactive media producers, looking at how they are currently and would eventually like to study audience immersion.
The most significant statistic we found is that, on average, audiences for web-based interactive stories consumed 20% of the narrative content, spending an average of about 5 minutes on a project.
While this is much better than your typical website, it can be discouraging for a creator to think that their deep online storytelling experience with a big payoff at the end will only really hit a smidgen of their audience members. (See sidebar for more results from the survey.)
However, some projects really seem to have succeeded in capturing audience attention, so we decided to speak directly with their creators. What follows are a series of interview summaries and best-practices for attracting and engaging with online audiences in immersive narratives.
The following 5 profiles have their roots in a wide range of media genres: science fiction novels, cinema verite, horror films, and cause-based documentaries. For each project we highlighted one “super power” each of them excelled at in telling their narrative through interactive platforms. After these profiles we summarize the best practices we gleaned from these interviews.
Produced by the CFC Media Lab, in co-production with TIFF, and starring David Cronenberg, BODY/MIND/CHANGE is the first web interactive experience that generates a 3D-printed object based on data collected from the player. BODY/MIND/CHANGE is the digital extension of TIFF’s exhibition David Cronenberg: Evolution, and immerses audiences in a "Cronenbergian" world inspired by the film Videodrome, re-imagined for the 21st century and brought to life across two platforms – the Web and the real world.
Longtime transmedia producer Lance Weiler was the creative director and experience designer for BODY/MIND/CHANGE, a psychological thriller about trauma and the power of memory.
The story is narrated by an artificial intelligence bot, Kay, who is constantly asking the audience for information on their own formative memories. The experience culminates in a trip to the Cronenberg exhibit where audiences can collect a 3-D printed model of Kay, shaped by their responses to her questions.
Lance reports that about 4,000 people signed up for the experience and between each segment they saw about 50% of the audience drop off, culminating in about 500 people finishing the 45 minute experience and collecting their “Kay’s” at the exhibit.
From these numbers you’re looking at average time on site being around 20 minutes. Very high for an interactive narrative. This can be attributed to a few unique things about the project. First, it had a sense of scarcity in that audiences had to sign up and get an invite sent to them before they could experience the media.
Also, there was a strong draw to the star, David Cronenberg, who in a sense, has his own built in fan base. And finally, you can’t overlook the suspenseful, cinematic pull of Weiler’s films.
A trained screenwriter, Weiler stands out in the interactive storytelling community as a master of story architecture, suspense, and character development. His suggestions lean heavily on the foundation of cinema.
HOLLOW is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of those living in McDowell County, W.Va. It is one of the most well-known interactive stories in the US, being the first documentary film to play out as a collage of video profiles, data visualizations, and interactive landscapes all driven by the simple web mechanics of scrolling. The goal of all of these techniques was to pull the audience deeper into the emotional and statistical landscape of many small towns struggling to survive. But how do you measure such immersion?
Elaine and Jeff shared HOLLOW’s traffic analysis with us, “Since launch, roughly 18 months ago, the project has garnered approximately 141K Sessions / 253K Page Views / Time on Site: 5:37 / Bounce Rate: 65%.” Picking through these numbers, Elaine was most surprised by the average time on site being much longer than she had anticipated. “Time spent on the site seems to be the best statistic we can pull to determine how immersed our audience was, even though I believe that’s not a good meter for immersion,” she notes. Elaine felt that other factors like word of mouth, press coverage, and feedback at events also helped her understand how immersed the audiences were in the story.
Jeff added, that, “Creators setting expectations with long form interactive media is something audiences will have to get more familiar with and comfortable with over time. User Experience design techniques, though, may help expedite that evolution.”
The HOLLOW team has also held over 60 events that are a blend of live storytelling and an interactive walkthrough of the piece. For the story capture they partnered with Cowbird to create a mechanism for attendees to tell the story of whether they stayed, left, or returned to their hometown. They also created a campaign on Instagram called #HollerHome. Instagram users could tag a photo with this hashtag and share what reminded them of home. This campaign launched before the piece did.
THE SILENT HISTORY is a groundbreaking interactive novel that uses serialization, exploration, and collaboration to tell the story of a generation of unusual children — born without the ability to create or comprehend language.
Told in a series of short, text chapters (i.e., commuter friendly,) this novel also invites its readers to help created extra location-based chapters that extend the narrative to experiences in locales around the country. The story is beautifully written and winner of a 2013 Webby Award.
The producers report that the book has received 50,000 downloads from the App store, 30,000 of which were paid. Quinn and Horowitz purposely didn’t look at other metrics like unique users, average session time, and bounce rate, because it wasn’t their focus: “If you look at the number of copies the novel of the year sold vs. youtube viewership, it would be ridiculous. How do we put those in the same universe?”
Quinn and Horowitz did measure audience reaction to various forms of freemium, making more or less content free and seeing how many went on to purchase.
IMMIGRANT NATION is a series of documentary films and interactive web platform exploring the immigrant experience in the United States. The platform allows audiences to briefly tell their own immigrant story (in pictures and words) and then easily search for stories with similar thematic lines and origins.
The site also hosts several short documentaries created by the project team, highlighting the curious corners of the immigrant experience from marathon runners to mixed marriages. Beyond the website, the IMMIGRANT NATION team has developed a number of live experiences, including workshops on Ellis Island, school visits, and a permanent museum exhibit.
Estimating the overall audience for the project is difficult because short films from the project have been showed on PBS’s POV.org and The New York Times’ Op-Docs section, neither of which have released viewer stats, but which can be estimated to be high six to low seven digit impressions. In addition, Rigby estimates that the average session on the website was initially 7 minutes and is now around 4 minutes.
But more telling for Rigby has been the ongoing Facebook audience which includes over 11,000 followers and active commenting on his team’s regular posts. This crowd was created, in part, by live events in conjunction with the film, which Rigby estimates were experienced by over 5,000 people.
For instance, on Ellis Island the production team set up a booth where visitors could create immigration stories using the project website. For Rigby this ecosystem of film/events/social media fed an expanding audience that kept the project evergreen.
His social media platform has become the first stop for the best of the 700+ user-generated immigration stories produced on his platform. Every week, his team culls their favorite user-generated stories to post on Facebook.
Gerald shared some insights based on his recent work on two interactive documentaries: MONEYOCRACY - a transmedia project about the influence of money in US politics and GROZNY NINE CITIES - an interactive documentary that explores specific aspects of Grozny’s aftermath by considering them as “cities” hidden within Grozny.
Both projects had tight production timelines. To mitigate this, Gerald and his team followed an agile development approach. “Our goal was to create rapidly and iterate often. The projects evolved significantly throughout their development. The biggest challenge is to maintain a rapid-iteration approach that includes the audience point of view. It is crucial nowadays that we adapt our creative process to this constraint.”
Each project had a different distribution plan and media partner and with both projects traffic spiked tremendously at launch then tailed off over time. Gerald shared the projects’ traffic analysis with us,”For MONEYOCRACY we had approximately 20K Sessions / 95K Page Views / Time on Site: 4:30. For GROZNY NINE CITIES we had approximately 10K Sessions / 25K Page Views / Time on Site: 3:00.”
”MONEYOCRACY had a much longer tail of user activity as there was a gaming component that brought users back to the site after it launched. The idea behind the game was to morally challenge users and present them situations that shed light on the real problems of campaign financing in the democratic process.”
Gerald also mentioned the problem of platform, “The reality is that we are distracted when we are using the internet. We are multi-tasking and have a bunch of tabs open. There is a reason why YouTube videos are 3 minutes. Immersive media creators sometimes try to replicate the experience of cinema but on the web, and that’s kind of impossible.”
It’s clear that the final form of this next generation of storytelling experiences is still evolving. As Lance Weiler says, it’s a time of “audiences moving freely in a pervasive way” through immersive narratives, but it’s also a time of “awkward, fragmented landscapes.”
For creators looking to create innovative work which engages audiences in a new ways without losing them, we recommend the follow approaches:
One final common theme we heard when speaking with creators was the lack of truly critical analysis for this type of work. These forms are still so new that we don’t have the benefit of critics who can challenge things. Our goal with this report is to only enumerate best practices, but to begin a critical discussion of this new work through this lens. We welcome your comments below, and look soon for a section of reviews on www.storycode.org.
Michael Epstein and Mike Knowlton are volunteer chapter heads with StoryCode, an expanding movement to explore new storytelling techniques in the digital age. Every month, in chapters around the world, StoryCode sessions feature compelling authors, producers, and developers of new media stories.
Michael Epstein is the founder of Walking Cinema, an interactive studio specializing in participatory media production for the museum and broadcast industries. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the California College of art.
Mike Knowlton is a creative technologist and co-founder of Murmur, a studio pioneering next-gen storytelling. Murmur was part of the team that helped create Immigrant Nation.