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Viral voices: Anatomy of a successful web series

Viral voices: Anatomy of a successful web series Lucia Davis

Shawn Kohne is one of the executive producers and stars of the popular web series, "Dealership." He sat down with iMedia to join in the digital vs. traditional TV debate from a content creator's perspective.

iMedia Connection: What are the benefits to having an online show? What opportunities does digital entertainment provide that traditional can't?

Shawn Kohne: Well, I feel that both avenues are very strong ways to go. Having a show online is great because we control everything. If we think that a really nasty joke is funny, it can stay in the episode. But if we were on a network, stuff like that wouldn't fly. It's also nice because it's so easy to access. Everyone uses YouTube or Funny or Die to get little doses of comedy on a daily basis. They may not be watching us, but they might find us and tell one of their friends about it, which is really all we can ask for.

But being on a network would be huge exposure. It's not that it can't happen online; it can and does, but no one really knows how or why that occurs. You can't plan to have your web series "blow up" because there is no way to guarantee it. With a network backing you and your idea, they will at least pump tons of money into marketing your show, something that most people with content online cannot afford to do.

I would have to say the best thing about being online is the direct contact with the fans. I love talking to them and finding out how they found "Dealership," what their favorite episodes are, what they want from season two, and all that fun stuff! Fan interaction is way easier online.

iMedia: How did you cultivate your audience online? Was there a "tipping point" (a clip being featured somewhere, someone tweeting it out, etc.) or was it more of a gradual thing?

Kohne: I do not feel we have had our "tipping point" in all honesty. We got our initial audience with "The Pilot" in 2006, which kind of blew up on The Something Awful forums. Unfortunately we don't have the original view count since it was on one of our personal YouTube profiles; "Dealership" now has its own channel. Years later Something Awful still supports the series, which is great. We have also been mentioned on Rooster Teeth, The Examiner, Gawker, Chudd, and on KPLR 11 news in St. Louis. "Dealership" has also recently been featured favorably on Funny or Die and Blip.

It has definitely been a slow, gradually moving project. Our fans really help move us further along by getting their friends watching, sharing videos online, and buying our T-shirts. Any time I see a picture of a fan wearing a "Dealership" shirt online I immediately make them "Fan of the Week" on our Facebook page. It's a really awesome feeling to see that kind of support from our fans.

iMedia: What's your audience? How have you seen it grow?

Kohne: Our audience is 82 percent male, most of which is 25- to 34-year-olds...but we love our female audience, and we thank them for hanging in there! We really need to get some ladies on the show so we can boost those numbers.

We have seen "Dealership" grow in very cool ways. I personally love the fact we have fans in crazy places. We had a signed poster giveaway on Facebook, and a fan from Estonia won! I mean that's pretty darn awesome! I also heard stories about actual car dealerships falling in love with the series, which is really funny to me.

iMedia: Did you deliberately target your audience demo?

Kohne: We don't really set out to make videos that only men 24 to 35 will enjoy. We simply make videos we feel are funny. If we laugh at it, chances are other people will also get enjoyment out of it, male or female.

iMedia: How is "Dealership" making money?

Kohne: "Dealership" doesn't make money actually. We used to get a very small amount of money for letting YouTube put advertisements on our episodes, but that option was randomly taken away from us by YouTube. Being on Blip gets us a tiny amount of money as well. I think we made $3.50 last month through them.

Fortunately, we didn't spend much money making "Dealership": We have over 20 videos online currently, and we made all of them for under $500. That is quite impressive compared to how good the videos look and feel.

iMedia: What is the next step in your growth strategy?

Kohne: The next step is to make a season two, which we are currently writing scripts for. As a way of expanding our fan base, we are going to shoot here in Los Angeles -- everything else was shot in Missouri -- and hopefully get some recognizable faces in a few of the episodes. If we can get some cameos throughout season two it will help put us on the radar.


iMedia: What are some of the digital shows that have had big breaks? Are there certain vital partnerships content creators should seek out? What does a start up web series do to create "buzz"?

Kohne: The biggest "big breaks" [for web series] that I know of come from "Workaholics" and "The Guild." I don't quite know how "Workaholics" got their success, but "The Guild" was geared toward such a specific group of people [gamers] and if they liked it, there was no way it wouldn't take off. With "Dealership," we don't have a fan base of 10 million car dealers waiting for a web show to come out about working on a used car lot.

I'd say the only "partnership" we have currently is with Blip. They have been really great with helping people see our show. They tweet our videos and post episodes on their Facebook, which they do not have to do. But it is nice that they dig the show so much.

Man, if I knew how to create "buzz" for us, I would be out doing it right now. I have personally tried everything. I've stood outside in the summer heat, in character, holding posters advertising "Dealership." I've contacted every website online that hosts web shows. I have spent countless hours and days tweeting to random people who mention John Carpenter's "The Thing" or cupcakes; we have episodes that feature both of those things. Or tweeting at any celebrity we think might enjoy a laugh and possibly give us a retweet; they never do. The random everyday people we tweet tend to respond favorably though, which is still nice but that won't get us our "big break." All we can ask for from them is they enjoy it enough to watch the rest and tell a friend or two about us.

iMedia: According to the DCNF website: "Consumers are shifting. Things don't 'go' digital anymore. They start digital. The great divide that separated digital content from broadcast media is shrinking. The time people used to spend watching is now spent interacting and what was a simple search engine yesterday is now a go-to source of news, information, and entertainment. And like all great changes, this has created a new opportunity." How do you feel about that statement?

Kohne: I do agree with this statement. Look at "Workaholics" -- that was a web show, and it's now on Comedy Central. I am not saying it would work with every web series out there, but for some it could definitely work.  The opportunities that have been created are still not great: For example, there is still no way to get into contact with YouTube unless you have a video really explode number wise. If you can't get a partnership with them, you kind of get lost in the shuffle. Same with sites like Funny or Die; even those avenues are too big to have them support your project at this point. Online content is basically sit around and wait for Kevin Smith or someone to stumble onto your video and then hope he will retweet it nine or 900 times. And yes, I have asked him to do that on more than a few occasions.

Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow Dealership at @dealershipshow. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Lucia Davis is a journalist, social media consultant and founder of The Art Bus Project. Previously, she was director of content at Obviously Social. Prior to that position, she served as community editor at PR News after working as...

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