Elements of a Hit Web Series (And the One You’re Probably Missing)

By 02/02/2012
Elements of a Hit Web Series (And the One You’re Probably Missing)

[Editor’s Note: The following guest column was written by J. Sibley Law, Founder of the TangoDango Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Moonbath.]

There’s a secret to building a hit web series; to writing the perfect story or cultural commentary that people can’t help but share. It’s elusive and the people who accidentally stumble upon it grow fewer with each passing year. Today, the overnight viral sensations (like Shit Girls Say) tend to be intentional and cautiously developed over time (SGS creator, Graydon Sheppard, built a 54,000 person twitter following before creating a corresponding online series).

Still, idiotic, super-cute, and extreme videos keep landing in my Inbox. It may be because we humans have a difficult time turning away from spectacle. But more than that, those videos might possess the elements that web series producer and show runner, Tim Street (VP of Mobile Video at mDialog and creator of French Maid TV) frequently and publicly proclaims to be the key to engaging an audience: Activate two or more emotions at the same time.

(Which emotions are conjured when seeing two toddlers seeming to have an intense conversation in baby-jibberish? It’s hard to articulate and probably different for each viewer. Awe? Laughter? Adoration? It’s difficult to pinpoint, but that’s beside the point. The key is that it conjures more than one emotion.)

Imagine plopping down a camera as you train your toddlers in the ways of baby-jibbersish and try to capture that perfect million-view moment. Invariably the best moments will happen off camera and be unrelated to your intention. So, what happens in those unusual, candid moments that you can recreate in a story, commentary, or other online video moment that engages an audience to the point of liking, sharing, or subscribing?

The Earlier Days of Web Series

For years, web series creators have been hearing and talking about “personality driven” content. On the surface this seems really obvious. Person on camera plays self or a character and is the central figure driving a show.

Before there was YouTube, Cenk Uygur fronted The Young Turks. In another corner of the Internet, Andrew Baron sat Amanda Congdon at a desk in front of a paper wall map to deliver news and commentary in a quirky-techie way and called the show Rocketboom. Both shows built loyal followings. In 2006, little more than a year after YouTube came into existence, Miles Beckett and company created an epic, multi-episode drama called LonelyGirl15, which released new episodes for more than two years. Character, story, and a reveal that the work was fiction (no one had ever done anything like it) drove views, news coverage, and then even more views. And, while spectacle (of newness perhaps) drove some early viewership, character and story kept them for the long run of the show. There were many other success stories over the following years, too (including WhattheBuckShow, Good Night Burbank, Wainy Days, etc.).

The Right Now of Web Series

Fast forward to this month when Felicia Day and Shira Lazar swept the IAWTV Awards, each going home with arms full of statues and happy fans. Both women write, produce, and star in their own shows. Lazar’s What’s Trending is informational and presentational and full of personality. Day’s The Guild is a character driven, niche fiction featuring Day as a gamer in a story that delights gamers and non-gamers alike.

While these two women were collecting their awards in Vegas, Franchesca Ramsey was having what seemed like an overnight success as her referential Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls climbed into the millions of views in just one day.

Ramsey wrote, produced, and starred in her poignant bit of cultural commentary in which she (a black woman in a blond wig) mimics things she has heard white women say. Like Lazar and Day, she has infused the work with her personality and worked for years to build an audience. (She stars in shows on two channels, a comedy channel and a channel about hair.) The way Ramsey’s Shit White Girls Say (which spoofs Shit Girls Say) rocketed past the success of her previous videos gives us an opportunity to look at what she did differently.

Overnight Success Developed Over Years

In truth, Ramsey has spent the past five years perfecting her on-screen personality. In a recent hair retrospective (and homage to her fans) she showed her many looks over the years. It’s a fun evolution from her initial online posts to the savvy, self-confident woman of today.

Today’s Ramsey deftly and poignantly assumes the roles of various white girls delivering uninformed and hurtful comments. She is spot-on accurate in her caricature of various archetypal white female personae and she maintains near-constant eye contact with the camera. Using the two-emotion measure, Ramsey easily hits the mark with shock, laughter, admiration, and more. But she has much more going on in the video. Here is a quick list of unique qualities impacting the overall success of this particular video:

  1. Referential – Spoofing an already popular series
  2. Camera-Ready – On-camera personality developed over many years
  3. Spectacle – Juxtaposing conflicting images pertaining to race
  4. Culturally Relevant – Providing an often unspoken perspective on race
  5. Audience Engagement – Activates more than two emotions at the same time

The Secret Sauce of Success

Of the three women, Day has consistently and significantly grown her audience. Certainly, sponsorship has helped as well as the loyal adoration of the gamer community. But, perhaps there is another factor at play: form.

Literary theorist, Kenneth Burke, in Counter-Statement, describes literary form as the “creation in the mind of the [viewer] an appetite, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” Sounds simple, right? Create a desire. Fulfill the desire. For example, every good love story has literary form, usually some kind of longing (think Romeo & Juliet). So does every good story about overcoming adversity (think The Pursuit of Happyness).

Ramsey masterfully uses literary form, so, I add literary form to the list of success factors:

  1. Literary Form – Creates a desire for the viewer and adequately satisfies that desire

In many ways, form is related to the two emotions rule. To activate two or more emotions, the show creator must create a desire, hold it in tension, and then adequately satisfy that desire. The moment she appears on screen in a blond wig and begins to parody stereotypes, Ramsey creates a desire for equity and a step toward the end of the scourge of racism by placing the viewer in her shoes. The accuracy and humor in her stereotypes take an important step in the conversation on racism. Ramsey creates a desire then satisfies it extremely well.

What About My Web Series?

Recently, I sat with an old friend who’s been creating web series since the beginning of YouTube, and prior to that had a successful career in traditional media. Spontaneously, we got talking about successful web series, which turned into a quick let’s-construct-a-web-series session.

“What are you passionate about?” he asked.

“Politics,” I said.

So he asked, “What’s your background in politics?”

I gave him a brief overview.

He continued his line of questioning. “What would have been the best outcome of your career in politics?”

“A job at the White House.”

“What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?”

That was easy. “I negotiated an agreement on behalf of a candidate who then reneged on the agreed upon outcome.”

So it was simple. “Here’s your story: Your main character negotiates a deal on behalf of a politician he’s working for. The politician reneges on the deal, then steals his job at the White House.”

The Secret Ingredient in the Secret Sauce

It sounds so simple, something I could infuse with Ramsey’s success elements and Burke’s literary form. It also sounds like a pretty good story. But it didn’t connect for me and I’ve struggled for the past couple of weeks to figure out why.

As I looked at some of the webseries and creators I admire, the reason it didn’t connect for me became apparent. My friend’s retelling of a story that incorporates my passions, desires, fears, and more lacked something critical: I wasn’t in it yet. Like the Tin Man at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, this story had not yet been infused with heart, with my heart. He picked something I was passionate about because, ostensibly, it would be easy to infuse the story with my passion, with heart. But, until I infuse the story and characters with heart, it’s not there.

Recently, NBC’s Brian Williams mentioned web series in a segment tease on his show Rock Center, then he repeated it like he’d said a dirty word. If the last few years have seen an explosion in web series creation and viewership, we’ve only scratched the surface. There are so many tangibles that web series creators must get right. But, what caught William’s eye about Shit Girls Say was the authenticity with which the main character (a man in drag), delivers fascinating things that girls say.

Simply put, in addition to having all the tangible and technical shit nailed, the series is full of heart. Franschesca Ramsey gets how to infuse a show with heart; and so do Felicia Day and Shira Lazar. Heart is a quality difficult to define, but you know when it’s present. In the case of these women, it comes in the form of trust. They quickly build trust with their audience and do an excellent job of sustaining that trust. But that trust happens because these women have infused their show with heart.

Like trying to describe the taste of chocolate, it’s easier to provide a sample. Sample the current work of all three of these women. And, make no mistake, Ramsey’s recent and explosive success is no accident. She combines all of the best ingredients (see above), years of work perfecting her craft, leverages literary form, and best of all, she infuses her show with heart.

J. Sibley Law is founder of the TangoDango Network and has created numerous online series that have been seen by many millions of people. Additionally, he runs the IAWTV Webseries Writers Group in New York City with Annunziata Gianzero. Out of Focus Heart on a TV photo by d3l.