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The Content Cirle, an introduction

September 13, 2010

Over the last year, I’ve been working on three projects that have fundamentally changed my approach on production and development of stories. You could say Where is Gary?, Miss Homeless and The Artists have transformed me into the now official category “transmedia producer.”

But what is it that I’m doing different then before? When talking about and pitching those three projects, I asked myself if what sets them apart from my previous work and what do they have in common?

Over the last few months, I did a couple of case studies on these projects. I needed to answer the questions I asked myself, in needed to come to some sort of a conclusion. The model of the Content Circle grew out of this search.

The model turned out to be a useful way to communicate what I’m doing different then before, to explain what I can offer as a service to traditional producers and distributors. How old and new can be combined. The Content Cirle is a tool to communicate what transmedia producers sell and is maybe useful for the creative process of story architects.

3 times audience involvement

Where is Gary? started in December 2009 as an interactive search for the con artists Gary. This 10-week online experiment was an intense and eye-opening experience which we recently edited into a 52 minute documentary. The most surprising thing about this project were the accusations that it was all fake, that Gary wasn’t real. Even when showing the documentary, still some people doubt the veracity. My response is they simple overestimate me as a producer to build such an illusion with a tiny budget and underestimate the potential of the internet.

Miss Homeless is our new project that taps into this potential. We just launched the website www.misshomeless.eu through which we invite all organization to set up a premiere of the feature film Miss Homeless on October 17th, the  International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. When I write this, 15 premieres in 7 countries have been confirmed and it feels like this is just the start… .

But our most ambitious project is The Artists, a 5-part participative TV drama series. It’s halfway its financing. On the same day, in 5 major European cities, 5 major artworks disappear from 5 major museums. This kick of our story, both on TV and online with the audience searching for the painting.

These are 3 very different projects. A documentary on con artists, a film with homeless people and a TV series about stolen art. But they have a fundamental feature in common that sets them apart from all previous project I was involved in. These stories allow audience involvement.

The Content Circle

In this article I would like to present a model which helps to analyse the characteristics of these projects and any project, interactive, multi platform or not.

The first step is to look at the content of your project as a set of all the content which is created as part of your story. The format of your content and the platforms where it is ‘consumed’ is not relevant at this stage. This helps to avoid thinking in buzzwords like transmedia, crossmedia, multiplatform and so on, because this ‘terminology used by advocates and opponents can sometimes serve to divide and confuse, rather than clarify’.[1]

So we simply start with a circle which represents the set of all your content. This is your content circle.

This content circle has three subsets.

At the core we have the cash content. This is the content producers and financers are most interested in. That’s where the return of investment can be found. Therefore, the subset of cash content is defined as: all content and line extensions that generate cash revenue.

People open their wallets for this cash content when they pay for cinema tickets, games, subscription fees, soundtracks, T-shirts, etc… but also producers credits like we sold with Where is Gary?. The cash content can take the form of any material or digital products as long as it has a value because it delivers an emotion to the buyer. In short, the value lies in the emotions.

The second subset is inform content. To attract buyers to your cash content, you need to inform the audience by offering free content in an enticing way. Therefore the subset of inform content is defined as: all content that travels freely to inform and attract the audience.

In fact, this content is all the direct and indirect marketing to sell your product, your cash content. It’s the trailers, stills and posters of your films, but also for example the interviews with the director and cast. It’s all part of the information (promo) you strategically spread in all media, including the internet.

The third subset that completes our content circle is the involve content. This is the content especially designed to tap into the potential of the internet. It is fundamentally different from the previous subsets because it allows a two-way interaction with and within the audience. This content invites the audience to share and create. Therefore the subset of inform content is defined as: all content to generate audience involvement through sharing & creating.

This is the most innovative subset. Audience involvement has always existed in simple forms like premiers or concerts (events) and competitions (games). It has proven to be a marketing tool. But today’s media allow to involve and connect with anyone anywhere and create a community.

The involvement of a community increases the emotional involvement, thus the value of the (cash) content. The return of investment is twofold: by sharing, your free content builds a viral marketing effect and by co-creation, your content grows for free.

These sets are not strictly split. Some content can be in more then one subset at the same time.

The content circle doesn’t float somewhere in an abstract emptiness. No, it is embedded in the context of media and reality. The context is the background of your content. Successful content always has a strong connection with its context.

Today we can imply all media to build this connect. Because “what’s so powerful about transmedia implementation is that it maximizes the potential of your story or message, while both building intense brand loyalty and opening up multiple revenue streams.”[2]

From product to process

The traditional media have perfected the relation between cash content and inform content because at that level it is a push model. Now and then they spiced it up with some involvement. The content is delivered for free to inform you, and you’ll probably want more so you need to pay. The exchange with the audience is a cash exchange, making them passive consumers. This is not a problem at all of course, most audiences, including me, just like to consume content. Something with a beginning, a middle and an end: a finished product.

Digital technologies have fundamentally changes this old model so much cherished by the traditional media. In their view, web 2.0 and ‘user generated media are destroying our economy, our culture and our values’[3]. They are correct about the first part, the old economic model is crumbling, but culture is thriving which is a good thing. We can talk about values in an other article…

Defining the ‘cult of the amateur’ as a threat shows a lack of vision and a lack of respect for your audience. We need to embrace the audience that generates content and shares information. We should invite them to join our story, to get involved[4]. This is what the involved content is designed for. We don’t just push content, we also pull it in. We exchange more then money. This involvement transforms our content from a finished product to a process. Its even a good remedy against piracy.

Looking at our content as a process in stead of a product also helps to see our audience in an other way. We don’t see the audience as those who have consumed our content and those who didn’t.

A process allows various levels of involvement. Form passive consumer to active co-creator (‘prosumer’), any member of the audience can choose it’s own level of involvement. As the 1-9-90 rule says: the higher the involvement, the lower the amount of people involved. This results in the so called ‘participation pyramid’. That’s good news because this keeps audience involvement manageable.

The shift from a product to a process requires a new creative function. Someone who knows which content should be placed where to obtain a certain effect. This is similar to a film editor who creates a story by putting together shots, snippets of content. In the converging media, the relationship between the producer and the distributor becomes like the relationship between the director and the editor: which (snippet of) content comes where on the timeline (and platform). This is where the story architect comes in.

The language of the story architecture

I love the concept of ‘story architecture’ for two reasons. Personally because I was in architecture before rolling into film. But it also grasps the idea of ‘building’ a story over various platforms. Creating a structure through which the audience can move freely, discover new areas and cross paths with other people. Story architects even invite the audience to help build, rearrange and extend the world he/she has created. In short, architecture is a cool metaphor.

The story architects creatively organises the content inside the content circle. Just like a film director organises images into a film or a composer organising sounds into music, the story architect builds an experience.

A film, a music composition and a game can be part of this experience (and are probably part of the cash content) but they are building blocks. Why not pull in elements from the context around your content circle? This enhances the connection between content and context, increasing the experience. Everything can serve as a building block. It can take any form: material, immaterial, in the media and/or in reality. The media becomes one big playing ground open to anyone to live their own story.

This ‘own story’ is no longer simply projected on a screen. Your ‘own story’ is constructed out of many stories you have seen, heard, played, read through various media or imagined/remixed/created yourself. It doesn’t even matter where you have seen it because all building blocks merge into one story. The story is communicated through numerous media and converges into ‘your story’ on your mental screen, only for your mind’s eye to see.

This ‘mental screen’ is as new as the silver screen over a century ago. Just like the pioneers back then, we need to experiment and learn how we can use the characteristics of this new medium to communicate a story, an emotion, in the most powerful way.

This is not an abstract fantasy or idealism. The development of a new language for the converging is simply matter of time. Kids are already using it unconsciously.

Conclusion

The model of the content circle was developed so I could communicated in a simple way what it is I’m trying to do. I’m trying to add a level of involvement to the traditional way of story telling.

In Where is Gary? you could get involved in the search for Gary or share the websites; for Miss Homeless we invite you to organise a premiere and show your solidarity; with The Artists we challenge you to find the paintings and become part of the story.

Invite the audience into your story, because they want in. And they’ll get in, with or without your permission.

This article is my first modest step to join the vivid and vibrant debate. I simply hope to learn from it so I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Peter De Maegd

[1] Power to the Pixel Think Tank report  2009. To my opinion, the best definition of these words is given by Michel Reilhac in his Into The Future speech.

[2] Lance Weiler explains why filmmakers should expand their films into a “storyworld.”

[3] The Cult of the amateur, Andrew Keen

[4] a must reed on this subject is Remix by Lawrence Lessig

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