Can Social Save the Web Series?

Part of the reason that network TV series succeed is the networks themselves are fantastic promotional platforms. It’s a huge help for a show like Hawaii Five-0 when CBS is constantly reminding viewers of other shows that Five-0 is indeed still on Mondays. Web video doesn’t really have those sort of levers to pull, which is why so many original series arrive with a burst of viewership and then slowly fade.
But with Leap Year, a recently concluded Web original sitcom, it appears the show’s creators and talent have hit on a winning formula for audience sustainability. Work your social media channels consistently. Treat the show as a community cause. And get influnential friends to spread the word.
The show, which chronicled a group of single 20-somethings competing to launch a startup business, generated 2,007,080 views over its 10 episode run from June 6 through Aug. 20. That’s not exactly American Idol territory, but 20,000 views per episode isn’t too bad for a Web original with little brand recognition or promotional backing. The show had a single sponsor — Hiscox Small Business Insurance — and thus Leap Year’s entire soup-to-nuts budget was less than $400,000, the equivalent of Ashton Kutcher’s fedora budget for the coming season of Two and a Half Men.
According to Leap Year creator and producer Wilson Cleveland, the show generated over 1 million impressons via Facebook and nearly 6 million impressions through Twitter. In fact, it may be the first sitcom with Klout score: 54, which is pretty high.
“Leap Year had a number of influential fans from the worlds of entertainment, business and tech,” he said.
Indeed, it surely helped that Leap Year featured several Hollywood actors, including Craig Bierko and Julie Warner (Doc Hollywood), who could tap into their various networks to spread word about the show. Felicia Day, creator of the influential Web show The Guild, drove 3,000 visits to the Leap Year site on her own.
In addition, the show was helpd by its startup theme by claiming fans from the tech/SIllicon Valley world, including Mark Zuckerberg’s sister and former Facebook marketing executive Randi Zuckerberg, Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV and Mashable founder Pete Cashmore.
“We got a lot of value from Twitter not only in terms of communicating with fans and sharing links to episodes and other Leap Year content, but as a means to get the attention of certain influencers we wanted to share the show with,” Cleveland said. “For a brand-new show, you have to strike that balance between constantly seeking out potential audiences while concurrently maintaining the relationships you have with the fans you’ve already created.”
Plus, Cleveland has a background in public relations, which he worked to garner 30-plus stories about the show and over 100 million media impressons.
Cleveland has been involved in several other Web series projects, including the well-received Ikea-set Easy To Assemble. His successful work attests that a good story and strong characters are essential for a scripted series — online or off. But audiences for born-on-the-Web shows have a different set of expectations, which the best shows must deliver.
“You need accessibility, whether to the cast and characters or the content itself,” he said. “And you need participation in everything from the creative to the marketing…On the Web, it’s important to establish a release schedule because the audience comes to expect it but they won’t always follow it. You establish the TV-like schedule in advance almost as a way to get the audience’s permission to market.”
Still, with such inherent interactivity built into Leap Year’s rollout strategy, all those bold-faced names schilling for the show, it’s fair to wonder why the series didn’t attract an even bigger audience. Cleveland said he believes he could have done even more to market the show to consumers, particularly entertainment junkies. Indeed, the average Hulu viewer completed 75 percent of each episode, he found, indicating that most liked what they saw. The show also demonstrated a female skew on Facebook and Twitter and a male skew on YouTube, indicating that more customized marketing channels could have helped.
“When it was determined Leap Year would premiere in June and end in August, the only audience distraction we foresaw was the July 4th holiday,” said Cleveland. “What I should have anticipated and perhaps even leveraged in terms of audience and media attention were annual summer events.” — events such as Comic-con, Internet Week, the Emmy nominations, the Just for Laughs comedy festival and the Television Critics Association tour.
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