Jenni Powell: Mastering YouTube
Jenni Powell got her foot in the door of online media by poking fun at her future bosses. That's the beauty of online media, she says—it's wide open for rewriting the rules.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery. In fact, it’s what got producer Jenni Powell her first gig in online media. An avid fan of Lonelygirl15, the 2006 web series that’s garnered nearly 284 million views and sparked outrage when it was revealed to be scripted, Powell caught the attention of Lonelygirl creators when she started making her own parody videos.
“[The Lonelygirl15 creators] ended up asking me to come work for them on the last season,” says Powell. “They were like, ‘We can’t pay you very much and you’d be a PA…’ and I was like, ‘Great. I’ll take it.’”
Leaving a producer-level job with a television reality series to completely start over in online media, Powell worked as a production assistant on the last season of Lonelygirl15 then landed a gig as Felicia Day’s assistant on The Guild. From there, Powell has done production work on a wide range of web series, including the Streamy Award-nominated series With the Angels, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an Emmy Award-winning modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She currently serves as producer on Emma Approved, a web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and as producer for Felicia Day’s YouTube network, Geek & Sundry.
Jenni Powell: It’s a unique form of entertainment in several different ways. I think the biggest one being that there are no gatekeepers. If you have an idea and there’s nowhere else to tell the story, you can tell it in new media and you can do it the way you want to do it and there’s a lot of freedom there. There are two very different forms of [new media workers]. People who are doing scripted content for the web, and then there’s the “personalities.” That’s the term I use. Your vloggers. A lot of time they’re referred to as YouTubers. These are the people that are doing first-person narratives and vlogs. A career where you got to use a camera and reach out to this huge community of people that you never would have gotten to before. That career didn’t exist four or five years ago and now there are people that this is what they do for a living. They share their personal stories and they have communities of people that are interested in what they have to say and I think it created a new form of entertainment in the vlogger.
JP: There’s no simple answer, unfortunately. There’s not just a formula that I can say, “Yeah, you want money to make your new media project? Here’s where you get it.” Every show I’ve worked on has found their funding in different ways. The Guild ended up becoming sponsored by Microsoft, so Microsoft was supplying the resources in order for the show to be made, so every person on that project got paid. With Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we had funding up front from [executive producer] Hank Green, who allowed the project to get off the ground, and then it became popular, so we ended up getting a sponsor partway through. If your show is popular enough, you can also make a good amount of money off [revenue sharing], which is by either being a YouTube partner or something along those lines. But again, there’s no easy way. Every single show I’ve worked on was funded in a different way, whether it is an angel investor or a sponsor or it just growing to the point where it could sustain itself. It just takes a lot of time and research to find the right business model for your particular show.
Crowdfunding wasn’t a thing when I first started. There wasn’t a structure for it. Sure, there were things like PayPal buttons, where you could ask for donations. The first season of The Guild was completely funded on fan donations because the community wanted to see more content and were willing to say, “Hey, I’ll donate $10, $15, $50 to see more episodes made.” Now there are things like Indiegogo and Kickstarter that have taken that and built an infrastructure. Every day, new technologies and new ideas are coming out of people just getting very creative in how they’re going to get these projects funded. I think that’s another wonderful thing about new media, is that it’s spurring on those innovative ways of getting your projects funded because you don’t have a studio to rely on or anything like that. You’ve got to build it yourself.
JP: One of the biggest tools is YouTube gives you analytics, so if your show lives on YouTube you have an infinite ability to look at analytics. YouTube will go so far as to show you where people are clicking off of the episodes, your demographics, where people are linking in from. If you want to see how many people came to your episode from the Tumblr post you posted, it will show you that.
I think the important thing though when it comes to analytics, especially if you’re doing a narrative story, is don’t let the analytics get so much in your head that you are changing so much of your story to try and engage an audience that it’s no longer your story. At the end of the day, this is about telling the story you want to tell. This is why new media is so special. You can tell your story and people don’t tell you how to tell it. If you then, in turn, get so bogged down with trying to please an audience, you’re just going to tank yourself. You’re just going to be frustrated and a lot of times an audience can tell. They’re just like, “Oh great. You just did that to make us happy.” No matter what the audience says when they’re engaging with your content, they also don’t want to be spoon-fed.
JP: I think it used to be. I think, again, everything’s starting to blur. Pretty much every media project you see these days, whether it be new media or television or film, have a social media presence. I think what’s really interesting about the way new media tends to use social media is that a lot of times social media is an extension of either the story you’re trying to tell. With vloggers, social media is a way to continually be engaging your audience when there’s not a camera next door to you. You can be out at a great event and see something really great and you can snap an Instagram photo faster than you can whip out your camera and do a vlog. With vloggers, it’s this really great tool where they can very easily be in constant contact with their community and their community really, really latches onto that.
The best example I can give is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The social media and transmedia plan was in place even before we started shooting at all. We knew that the characters would have Twitter accounts and they would have Facebook pages and they would use those social media tools to help tell the story. A lot of that is because the way Lizzie Bennet Diaries is shot. It was in vlog format, so it made sense to use all those tools that vloggers use to help tell our story.
In terms of using social media, I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is make sure that it makes sense for whatever it is you’re trying to use it for. If your story is about aliens in the year 2030, they’re probably not using Twitter because they’re in the future. It probably doesn’t make sense to try and put transmedia into your story in that case. But if it does make sense then it’s another way to get another level of engagement on your story that people just really latch onto and it builds really loyal fans because they get so excited and they’re contributing to your story.
JP: The most important place to start is with your characters. Look at your characters and say, “Would this character use social media?” We all know people that Twitter’s not their thing, and that’s fine. If your character, if Twitter’s not their thing, don’t try to make Twitter their thing. Your audience will see that and be like, “This doesn’t make sense. This person would not do that.” You just have to get into the mind of your characters and think about, would this person have a Twitter? Would they have a Pinterest? Would they display what they listen to on Spotify online because they’re into music? There’s an infinite number of online tools these days that any number of characters could potentially use. It’s just a matter of knowing your story well enough to know if it fits or not.
JP: A great resource is Tubefilter News [where Powell used to serve as associate editor]. They cover the online space. They do it really well. They have content coming out every single day. Some people that are really doing well in the online space that you can learn a lot from are people like Hank Green of the vlogbrothers. Philip DeFranco, he created SourceFed and he also has his own shows. These are the types of people that are very smart in this space and also are very vocal. I always start with a couple of people that I find really interesting and then start looking at who those people follow. We’re a close-knit community. We all kind of help each other out where we can. Not to overwhelm anyone, but you just have to kind of pick a place to start and then just go down the rabbit hole as deep as you want to go.
JP: It can be tough if you’re not in LA or an area that has a new media community, but lots of areas do. Austin has a big new media community. The UK actually has a very strong online community, so find those communities and generally they’ll have things like meet-ups. I know here in LA we have them at least a couple times a month. They’re great places to network. If you aren’t in one of those places that you can go in person, there are a lot online places where people hang out. I know the International Academy of Web Television has a forum that’s very active and their members are all over the place. Just find the communities and make yourself known in them. My biggest thing is … if you’re going to show up in these communities and you’re going to put yourself out there, the next step is then you have to back it up. Never take a job you can’t complete well, because then you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
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