In my last post, I explored the concept of value co-creation with audiences and suggested it as a way for publishers to explore new methods for reaching consumers and increasing the value of their intellectual property. This post will provide a great case study of one author’s attempt to literally co-create content with his fans.
In 2006, author and podcaster J.C. Hutchins began publishing podcasts of his 7th Son technothriller trilogy. He had shopped the property around to different literary agents but failed to secure a publishing deal. As a result, Hutchins began offering free audio installments of his books as a way to raise awareness and establish a devoted fan base. His efforts paid off, and each podcast garnered thousands of downloads. Hutchins kept up the podcasting into 2007, when he secured a publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press for the first book in the trilogy, 7th Son: Descent.
However, plans called for the book to be published in 2009, and Hutchins struggled to find a way to maintain his audience during the interlude. Given his other professional obligations, he knew he couldn’t single-handedly continue to publish enough content to sustain his fans until 7th Son: Descent was available.
So, how to solve the problem of sustaining interest in the meantime?
Inspiration for the solution came from the short film anthology, The Animatrix, which was based in the world of the Matrix movie franchise. Nine different creatives were invited to tell their own original story within the Matrix world, using their unique vision and animation styles. The anthology explored both existing characters during the Matrix timeline as well as introduced new characters and storylines that exist before the Matrix timeline.
Hutchins decided to apply this approach to his own trilogy: “The Animatrix was an interesting narrative that took place in the gaps of the Matrix trilogy. I wanted to use that same philosophy of inviting professional creatives to come play in the 7th Son world.”
Hutchins began by inviting seven other popular podcaster novelists to write and record short stories set in the 7th Son universe. His plan was to publish them on his site through the existing 7th Son podcasting channels. Hutchins offered each of the podcasting novelists $100 for their contribution, with the agreement that Hutchins would not commercially benefit from the contributed podcast.
In order to remove additional hurdles for the author-podcasters, Hutchins scoped the chronological boundaries for the contributed podcasts and provided the following guidelines:
- Contributed podcasts would take place during a two-week period in the 7th Son timeline when the U.S. experienced a crippling nationwide power outage.
- None of the main characters from 7th Son could be used by the podcasters.
- Authors could write about anyone in the U.S. who experienced the power outage.
- There was a minimum word count but no maximum (essentially a short story in length).
Hutchins also reached out to another group of podcasters he describes as “great verbal storytellers.” These podcasters were invited to contribute much shorter works, possibly as small as a five-minute audio clip).
To help encourage contributions that would dovetail into the existing trilogy, Hutchins provided these invited contributors a single page of information that would be sufficient for podcasters who had never read 7th Son: Descent to still be able to participate. The page included key plot points from the novel, headline news and common knowledge that any character in the 7th Son world would know.
Additionally, Hutchins aimed to have every accepted podcast maintain world continuity and be able to be viewed as canonical within the 7th Son world. While this added to the workload of reviewing and editing submissions, the result was a more official feel to the project. Acceptance carried a much greater weight for the 7th Son: Obsidian contributors.
During the process of ramping up the podcasting collaboration, Hutchins realized he wanted to do more, and he wanted to include not just other podcasters but potentially any existing fan of the 7th Son podcast. Hutchins named this participatory anthology of audience-crowdsourced content 7th Son: Obsidian.
Following the same philosophy of lowering the bar for contributing, Hutchins set up a phone number for fans to call to leave in-world voicemails of fictional characters surviving the crisis of the blackout. As with the podcasters, Hutchins provided guidelines for submitting additional audio and video files.
With the infrastructure in place but the public launch date still weeks away, Hutchins “primed the pump” of contributions by directly courting selected fans and friends with a simple invitation to participate in “something very cool” connected with 7th Son. Cryptic invitations were also sent out on various social media platforms, with the simple offer to contact Hutchins via email to participate in a cool project related to 7th Son. He included no details about how they could participate.
For those who emailed Hutchins, he provided details about the project and began working out deadlines for the submission. In this way, Hutchins managed to aggregate a lot of contributions – some from professional podcasters, some from regular fans – well before the public launch of 7th Son: Obsidian.
Much like with the seven podcast novelists, Hutchins constructed the invitation in a way that allowed fans to meaningfully contribute to 7th Son: Obsidian without having to read any of the novels. He gave the same narrative boundaries to fans as he gave to the seven podcasters, plus some guidelines specific for contributing video. The same non-commercial understanding applied to all contributed content.
Hutchins launched 7th Son: Obsidian in May of 2008 and began accepting submissions from anyone. Guidelines and rules were published on his website, giving anyone the opportunity to participate. Since Hutchins did not have a mailing list at the time, he promoted the project on his blog, in his podcasts, and by encouraging word-of-mouth promotion among his audience and friends. Part of the appeal for fans was the opportunity to actively contribute official content to a storyworld they were already excited about. Instead of just talking about the 7th Son world, they could literally tell the next story in that world.
Hutchins set up a page on his website with the same guidelines and rules, and with the exception of the month of September, he published multiple installments each week through mid-October. Installments might be pure audio or video and may consist of a single work or be a compilation of several accepted contributions.
By the end of the project, Hutchins estimates he received well over one hundred submissions from fans, with more than half of them being audio-only submissions (and most of those came through the recordings left on the phone number Hutchins set up). The majority of submissions came after the public launch of the project.
Although Hutchins was responsible for managing the project, confirming that accepted submissions maintained world continuity, and the production of the 7th Son: Obsidian installments, he did accept help from a fan (Shawn Bishop) to assist with reviewing some of the audio submissions.
The project was well received by Hutchins’ fans, as evidenced by both their willingness to contribute to the 7th Son world and their interest in the resulting anthology. Downloads of the anthology installments within the first two weeks of publishing consistently fell between 8,000 and 10,000, though audio downloads were always higher than video downloads (Hutchins muses that if the project were launched today, the audio/video downloads numbers would likely be reversed).
Out of pocket expenses for Hutchins were well under $1,000. He used free software already on his Mac computer for media editing/producing (iMovie, GarageBand), and he used free services like k7.net to manage voicemail submissions and YouSendIt to receive large digital files from fans. He offered each of the podcaster novelists $100 to write and record a short story, but not every contributor decided to collect. Finally, Hutchins spent roughly $50 on stock footage he integrated into some of the video installments.
So, for less than $1,000, Hutchins was able to produce a fan-created multimedia anthology of official 7th Son content and publish multiple weekly installments over a 6-month period. This content remains on his website, serving as additional ways for fans to enter and experience the larger 7th Son world.
Aside from the obvious benefit of keeping his audience engaged until 7th Son: Descent was published, there are some important takeaways about this project that apply to any participatory invitation to audiences:
- Hutchins encouraged a higher degree of participation by creating a collaborative sandbox with only a few rules and limits on creativity. Importantly, the sandbox didn’t require contributors to be intimately familiar with the 7th Son trilogy podcasts.
- Hutchins recognized accepted submissions as official 7th Son world content.
- Hutchins made the rules of participation very clear from the beginning, and he provided parity for participation in the form of payment (to the seven podcasters) and credit (to the fans).
- Hutchins ensured there was a critical mass of quality content of at the time he publicly launched the project and invited all fans to participate.
- Hutchins put a hard deadline on submissions, adding to the attraction of participating before the project stopped taking contributions.
Regardless of the details of the participation, Hutchins acknowledges the value of inviting fans to contribute officially to an entertainment property. Importantly, he recognizes the value his fans brought to him: “The real heroes here are the people who created the content for 7th Son: Obsidian. They were the ones building the stories. I was just curating and publishing.”
7th Son: Obsidian achieved several goals. Primarily, it met a business need to maintain a connection between Hutchins and his audience between his podcasts and the release of 7th Son: Descent. It also pushed at the boundaries of collaborative entertainment within the podcasting space by allowing audiences to extend an existing podcast world in new mediums. It was produced on a very low budget that Hutchins could fund himself. Finally, it gave Hutchins’ fans a chance to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime, unique opportunity to add their voices to the 7th Son universe.
Hutchins acknowledges the challenge he had juggling his other projects and professional obligations while managing the 7th Son: Obsidian project. Still, he’s excited about the prospect of another collaborative anthology:
The most important insight I learned during Obsidian was that by providing a welcoming and fun environment, my fans could create without fear. That’s the best kind of collaboration, and I look forward to revisiting the model in my upcoming creative projects.
Value co-creation with audiences can take many forms and use many practices, but at its core is a connection between the creator and an audience. Once established, that connection can produce some surprising and wonderful experiences for everyone involved.
“One of the many joys of managing the 7th Son: Obsidian experience was watching the roles of author and audience absolutely reverse,” Hutchins said. “With the proper encouragement – not just from a project curator, but from an entire fan community – it can be relatively easy to empower everyday folks to pick up a phone or a video camera to help tell a larger story.”
Scott Walker likes to play in the collaborative sandbox of entertainment, building bridges between creatives and audiences. His most recent project is Shared Story Worlds, a site focused on participatory commercial entertainment. Scott is also a member of the StoryWorld Conference Council.
Want to learn more about inviting your audiences to create value with you or about using transmedia storytelling and cross-media strategies to extend your brand and intellectual property? Then, join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.