We have discussed a number of successful web series and what the creators of those series have done to increase awareness, and hopefully viewers. Sometimes, unfortunately, just being good isn't sufficient. A quality show needs not only to connect, but it needs to have a life of its own outside of its episodes, something people talk about, feel connected to. Something in which viewers are active participants.
Meet The Audience On Their Turf
We'll start with one of the most recognizable web series, The Guild. This show is about people on the Internet, for people on the Internet. Creator/star Felicia Day could not have bought a better marketing tool in selling this show. With millions of people playing World of Warcraft, an audience who is already using the Internet in a meaningful way, it wasn't hard for the potential audience to say, "This is a show about me."
The Guild doesn't stop there, though. It is a regular at the San Diego Comic Con, and the stars interact with their fans, giving them sneak peaks and surprises every year, building trust with the brand. Fans want to know that the creators of the series are as enthusiastic about the show as they are. This seems like a no-brainer, right? But so many times the people involved with a show don't seem to match the level of enthusiasm of its audience, and the fans see right through that. A sort of sinking feeling that the creators are looking down on their audience, rather than being ardent participants, usually ruins goodwill.
Offer Incentives to Viewers
We also looked at the web series We Lost Our Gold. This is a series that gives viewers the opportunity to find $10,000 in gold coins if they watch episodes containing clues to the treasure's whereabouts. We still don't know if this treasure will ever be found, especially since interest in the series got slim real fast when most people ended up quitting the search because the clues may have been too difficult to decipher.
However, difficulty aside, We Lost Our Gold certainly got people watching, and watching more than once. The possibility of getting $10,000 richer is certainly a reason to watch a show. It may have been intolerable had the show not been entertaining, but every episode is well done. We're not sure if the creators of We Lost Our Gold got want they wanted, or are expecting to get more out of it, but they've made some mistakes in keeping interest alive by not, perhaps, creating more episodes or encouraging viewers to keep up the search.
There are other ways for web series to be successful, but many of those involve already having some sort of connections or being a companion piece to something that is already well-known. The Vuguru-produced series Back on Topps has corporate sponsors, namely Topps, the sports trading card company, and Dick's Sporting Goods. Two very funny comedians, twin brothers Randy and Jason Sklar, play former heirs to the Topps legacy trying to prove themselves to new management. The show is funny, and it plays to a wide audience: people who like sports and collect memorabilia, and also fans of the Sklar brothers and those savvy to the stand-up comedy scene.
Having a sponsor certainly relieves some financial burdens, but it also gives your show some added exposure. Topps and Dick's Sporting Goods not only get advertised, but help advertise the show itself to people who may not know about the show, but buy their products, with reminders around the store or inside a pack of trading cards.
Tie The Web Series To A Companion Piece
The other way a web series can be successful is by being a companion piece to something well-known. The Office almost always has provided extra content for their show on the NBC website. Sure, there are "deleted scenes" and so forth, but where The Office built their brand is in self-contained "webisodes." Usually starring the secondary characters, the various Office web series created a life beyond the actual series, providing character development for little-seen personalities on the show. It sates fans waiting an entire week for the new episode, and it fleshes out the actual show when the secondary characters make their appearances.
Social Media & Transparency
Nearly all of these web series also use social networking to keep fans interested. The easiest way to keep fans involved and active in the show is communicating to them, either by answering questions, providing hints or teasers for the next episodes, and making fans feel like they are part of the process by taking feedback.
Extend The Story With Extra Content & Alternate Reality Games
Web series might also like to take a cue from the recently departed TV phenomenon Lost. Perhaps no show in the past decade involved their fans more or gave them more in which to participate each week. Lost not only had their own official website, but several ancillary ones including oceanic-air.com that contained extra back-story and easter eggs to find.
Also, between several season hiatuses, Lost provided "alternate reality games" such as The Lost Experience, Find 815, and the Dharma Initiative Recruiting Project. Between seasons 5 and 6 they offered a multimedia online experience known as Lost University, where fans could "enroll" in classes to learn about all things Lost. Lost was also big at Comic-Con. The creators of Lost consistently strove to give its fans an active experience in being a fan of the show. You may not have liked how it all ended, but you have to admire the steps the creators of that show took to make it meaningful.
Above All, Be Consistent
Also, what web series need to be is consistent. Right now, there are just a handful of series you can count on. When The Guild says the next season will be on these certain dates, you can bet the series starts then.
Too many series are in constant limbo, and this might be due to funding or lack of interest, either on the creative side or the fan side. Too many new series announce themselves and then don't give potential viewers a solid release date. Even successful ones, notably the WB-produced series "The Lake," which promised another season but didn't deliver. Similarly, the popular Hulu series Dorm Life ended its second season in 2009, and despite a great deal of viewer interest and rumors of a third season, fans of the show have never been given definitive word concerning new episodes.
It looks like the key to launching a successful web series is to be good, be enthusiastic, target an audience and be willing to interact with them, make your audience active participants rather than passive, and don't jerk them around.