The Engagement Paradox

[EDIT: This article does NOT mention Pokemon Go….]

So, July is the Month of The Runner. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s the Go90 TV series that’s been in development by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for 12 years or so, where a “Runner” has to be chased down across the country by a team of Hunters for cash and prizes. It premiered on July 1st, and is LIVE, three times a day, for 30 days.

Let’s stop and think about that:

Three times a day.

Every day.

For THIRTY Days.

The first thing I thought when I heard about it was “Holy crap, I’m glad I’m not on that production team! It must be hell!” They need to assemble a new episode three times a day. Every day. For thirty days. The production schedule must be nuts. Nobody can be getting any sleep. It’s madness.

Now, I’m going to set aside critiquing the game itself (and there’s plenty to critique, believe me) for the sake of this article, as I just want to look at this idea of pushing content three times a day. Every day. For thirty days (Okay I’ll stop. Let’s call it…3/7/30 from here on).

This sounds like such a great idea, doesn’t it? If people love our show, they’ll tune in every time, and engagement metrics will be through the roof! Viewership will be amazing! And because we’ll be constantly (and I mean CONSTANTLY) giving our audience new content, they’ll stay engaged like never before!

Obligatory picture of puppies, because we all need more puppies.

But is this really true? Do you get more audience viewership/engagement the more often you give them something new? Let’s think about that for a second, because at first glance, that seems to totally make sense.

The Fire Hose of Content

Last year I was on a team that was mandated to do just that: Create an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) where all the content was delivered multiple times a day, six days a week. The thought was that this will create a sense of immersion, making it all feel very real.

So that’s what we did. Days turned into weeks turned into months…And we constantly had to churn out new stuff — Videos! Blog posts! Puzzles! — almost every day during that time. There was no chance for anyone to fully digest what we were giving them, because there was always something new coming right afterward. We semi-jokingly referred to it as a Fire Hose of Content.

Giving your audience the Fire Hose of Content.

But did we see our audience build over that time? Absolutely not! It constantly dwindled and it was tough to maintain what we had, despite constant efforts to create ways for new people to get on board and caught up, or retain those that we had. But more than that, I think it was limited from day one because of this Fire Hose of Content we had established.

Bite-Sized Delivery

Now, delivering content multiple times a day to create a sense of immersion is something I can get behind, for sure. In fact, a Halloween project I’ve produced for the past two years (Dark Detour) has done just that: Immersed the audience by providing real-time storytelling with multiple daily updates, delivered over social media. This indeed made things very real, and very real-time, and made it really feel like the story was taking place in the very world that we live in.

However, we did a few things to keep engagement levels as high as we could. Dark Detour created bite-sized pieces of content that were delivered via social media stream, making it pretty much effortless to consume, as the story showed up in peoples’ social media streams, right alongside all their friends’ posts. They were free to engage or not, as the content was pushed to them.

Plus, it only lasted 5 or 6 days. Because there’s such a thing as player fatigue, and it’s really tough to build and maintain momentum over long periods of time. Anything longer than that would have really been unsustainable. The amount and technique of delivery needs to be carefully crafted so as to not overwhelm, and if it’s done right, you can see pretty amazing engagement numbers (Dark Detour’s audience spent on average 35 minutes with the story per day — which is pretty unheard of). But it’s a balancing act, as if you’re not careful, you can go too far and actually begin to limit the numbers of your potential audience.

The Paradox

Because here’s the paradox: The more often you give your audience new content, the smaller your active audience becomes.

Sounds counter-intuitive, but here’s why: The number of people who can commit to watching once a week FAR outweighs the number of people who can commit to watching 7 times a week (or more).

Here’s a chart I whipped up to illustrate this:

Data source: My personal experience

This chart is a generalization based on the many similar projects I’ve worked on, but it’s really just common sense. Out of 100 people, most can commit to once or twice a week, but the more often you push them new content, the more people will not have the time to invest, so will drop away.

Even if they want to stay, if they miss a few days, so much has happened that it’s impossible to catch up. OMG look at all the stuff I’ve missed! Forget it! Whereas, if there’s only new content every few days, nobody worries about missing a few episodes.

So now we have The Runner, pushing new content 3/7/30. Honestly, this is a terrible idea, as I’m sure they’re finding out right now. By choosing to do this, they’ve limited their audience to a fraction of what it could be. Because I don’t know a lot of folks who have the time to set aside three times a day for a whole month to engage in a show. I mean, I love this kind of thing, I do it for a living, but even *I* don’t have that kind of time. And now that we’re 10 days in, forget about it.

“Here’s the paradox: The more often you give your audience new content, the smaller your audience becomes.”

Now this doesn’t even touch on the challenge of maintaining quality over quantity when trying to produce something like this. From my experience with the earlier ARG, it was incredibly frustrating as it felt like we were in such a grind to deliver the next piece, that we rarely had a chance to take a breath and plan anything out in advance, or craft things with quality and nuance and effective Q/A. (It should be noted here that this ARG team did a stellar job despite these challenges, and I’m still very proud of the result).

And to The Runner’s production team, I give tribute to your sacrifice. Godspeed.

Takeaway

So do yourselves a favor, all you digital content creators out there. Don’t succumb to the “more is better” way of doing things. Not only will the quality suffer, but your audience will shrivel away under the onslaught.

Be strategic with your pacing and audience engagement. Don’t pare your potential audience down to a small sliver right out of the gate by giving them more than they can consume.

In short: turn off that goddamned hose!


With thanks to Scott Gillies for coming up with the Fire Hose of Content.

Steve is an Emmy-winning Experience Designer and CCO of No Mimes Media. He’s recently worked at Niantic Labs at Google, Fourth Wall Studios and 42Entertainment, and is the Executive Producer/Host of the StoryForward Podcast.