So how was this sudden success coming for lonelygirl15? Or rather for Miles Beckett (a surgeon turned vlog-director, a remark in brackets no journalist would forget to add, neither blogger) and his handful team? Miles talked about it at Digital Life Design conference in Munich - an excellent thinktank conference held from 21-23 January 2007 on digital innovation, design, business models, green solutions, the future's future etc.
If you do not know what lonelygirl15 is, go to youtube and you will find more uploads about her than about JFK, Tony Blair etc. The main point is that for quite a long time viewers thought that she was a real person sharing her thoughts with the great public, asking for help, talking about her relationship with her boyfriend, etc. She turned out to be a fictional character springing out of Miles Beckett's head.
Or is it the main point? I think not. I think the following approach tells a lot more about the mechanism of a viral video series, its cultural context and its business successes, plus its UGC:
* Miles checked out what was popular on youtube and chose his theme accordingly (OK, could have been lonelypet2month if you ask me, but Miles hasn't contacted me for ideas)
* The mini soap opera series started on June 12 2006, already on July 4 a lonelygirl15 monolog attracted half a million users within 24 hours. So the time for success was there within 3 weeks. Was it coming free? Not in a sense of free time: lonelygirl15 was acting as a real member of the community, actively participating in youtube life, like commenting on other people's videos, thus calling attention to herself and her problematic life. Miles did not talk about it, but there must have been certain preferences for picking the hubs in youtube. How many hours per day have they spent on it in those 3 weeks is another question. Finally, what sort of contribution was it? I guess more than a 'nice post, thank you XY' which is so typical of linkhunters merely placing their linktraps for cathcing eyeballs. etc.
* They also have their own website now - so they have an independent site to monetize in addition to youtube generating income for itself.
* (and here comes the most important bit): Miles does not intend to go ahead simply with the lonelygirl tributes, he is actually trying to mash up the video series with social networking. He is trying to discover what online video communication is capable of. How? For instance, they are encouraging viewers, or rather, fans to contribute to the story with their own ideas, whether it is on the forum, or in a video response format. There are four characters now, and one of them was announced to check out the chatroom at, let's say, 6 o'clock Pacific time. 'Was announced' is not a good wording though: what in fact happened was that the fictional character acting as a real person, plagued by real problems wrote to the visitors of lonelygrillgirl15 site that 'I dunno what to do, but at 6 o'clock Pacific time I will go to the chat room." So (s)he was asking for advice, and fans were eager to share: "servers crashed in fact…," says Miles.
* Anyway, the fan-base is very-very interactive, there are 500-1000 comments per shot. Soap opera fans react very emotionally, e.g. they warn the characters what not to do (that reminds me of kids shouting to Little Red Riding Hood 'the wolf is behind the bush', and of moments when fans are actually raising money to save fictional lives. The good news is that we can get closer to a fictional existence to raise money for non-fictional people - like the guy who raised money for a new apple powerbook (!). Maybe the hundred dollar laptop campaign could use such fictional elements? Where is the limit?
* LG15 is still the number one on youtube, states Miles. There are about 1-1.5 million users/week: continuously. Despite the fact, that it turned out that lonelygirl15 is an invented, edited teenager. In fact, as it usually goes with publicity, the number of viewers, and more importantly, the number of ardent fans has increased manifold. A question for Miles: have they ever used product placement in the monologs? How exactly are they monetizing this endless program of heartfelt bedroom intimacy while preserving its 'authenticity'?
* No copyright problems, no lurking litigation. Fans are actually encouraged to download the sequel, and make their own versions (Why not encouraged by other soap operas from TV companies? Can they react really so slowly? Have you heard about other TV series/serials building on viewers participation?)
In short: was it a costly operation? Not at all (e.g. self-tutored vlog director, Miles was saying that the lighting they use is a desklamp and the windows).
Was it a simple idea based on old recipes? Very much so (flood of South-American soap operas, Dallas etc., best age group targeted with the main character, etc. all prove it)
Are they working on adapting video series to web 2.0 trends? Clearly and consistently.
Oh yes, and they are profitable (from project week 5 or 10?).
Do I watch lonelygirl1015? No, not at all. But there are lots of things to learn from Miles' team, so why not get the gist of it? :)