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AD: Fans, Friends & Followers

Monday, March 12, 2007

From SXSW: Finding your audience in a noisy and competitive world

I lost count of how many panels at SXSW this year dealt with the Internet video economy. There was one on next-generation TV, my session on “New Media Goes to the Movies,” one featuring Rocketboom creator Andrew Baron, and another featuring his one-time anchorwoman, Amanda Congdon.

There were plenty of questions about production technology and codecs, and other wonky stuff. But the most interesting question, to me, that kept bubbling up was this one:

    If you have a brand-new project, whether it’s a short piece of viral video, a full-length feature, or something in between, how do you get people to care about it?

Marketing isn’t a new problem for creative people. But in the digital milieu, you’re up against media conglomerates with vast bank accounts (in 2006, the studios spent about $35 million, on average, marketing a new movie) and incredibly clever DIY devils just like you, who've got no money but lots of energy.

So what are some of the ways you get someone to care about a piece of content they’ve never heard about before, created by someone they’ve never heard of – without spending a lot? Here are some of the ideas that came up in SXSW panels, and in my conversations with people at the fest.

1. The content needs to be remarkable and unique. People have to see it and feel compelled to tell other people about it.

2. Are there ways you can get people involved in the production? Some filmmakers have experimented with letting people audition for a bit part in a movie by giving them a scene and letting them upload a video of their performance to a Web site. There are countless other ways to get people to feel invested in your project: by voting on their favorite title, scouting locations (you might ask them about the most romantic restaurant in a given city, where you’ll shoot your big marriage proposal scene), submitting songs for the soundtrack, designing posters.

3. Give the prospective audience something other than the standard trailer or the standard movie Web site. Create a blog in the voice of your hero, or shoot a series of video confessions recorded by your villain. Make a fake instructional movie or public service announcement that links in to your plot. Ian Schafer, who runs the marketing agency Deep Focus, suggested to me that one opportunity the Net presents to filmmakers is creating a sort of trail of breadcrumbs that the audience begins to follow, which leads them naturally to the start of the movie. (Ian’s agency has done campaigns for 'Kill Bill,' 'Lucky Number Slevin,' and 'Pan’s Labyrinth.')

4. Whatever promotional material you put on the Web, make it easy for people to e-mail links to their friends, or embed audio and video in their MySpace pages or blogs. (Director Lance Weiler calls this the “embed and spread” strategy.) You may even want to offer some sort of prize or incentive for the people who turn out to be the biggest promoters/spreaders of your content: free t-shirts or copies of the DVD or simply a thank-you in the credits.

5. Your target audience can’t be “everyone.” Who’s going to be most interested in this project? Naval history buffs? eBay sellers? Cancer survivors? Teenage boys? Once you’ve figured out your target audience (or audiences), start communicating with the blogs or Web sites where that audience congregates online, and figure out how you can get some coverage. (And most importantly, a link to your site.) Maybe you can give them an exclusive clip, do a Q&A with them, or work with them to run a contest, with free digital downloads of your movie, or a free soundtrack CD, as prizes.

6. Be first. The first to shoot a Bollywood zombie musical. The first to make a series of episodic videos set aboard a cruise ship traveling around the world. The first to get invited to go to the International Space Station to make a doc. Being first gives you a major marketing hook – a reason to reach out to journalists and other influecers who can help spread the word about what you’ve done.

7. Look for partners with deep pockets who will help showcase your stuff – a video-sharing Web site, cable VOD service, set-top box company, or other business that is looking for content. They can help you attract attention to your work; you give them content and cred. You may need to give them bonus material, extras, or simply work with them to help promote their site or service – but these partnerships can pay off.

8. Get into a film festival. Director Joe Swanberg said that film festivals can help generate buzz – especially when you take every opportunity to talk to people about your movie, hand out fliers, do Q&As after screenings, sit on panels, and meet the media and industry reps who swarm to events like SXSW, Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, etc.

No doubt about it – eight is an odd number for a list. What are strategies #9 and #10? Drop me a note at, or post a comment below.

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