The fall of 2009 saw several new-media narratives that complemented and challenged the limits of traditional forms, television and film. Circle of 8, by Paramount Digital, Mountain Dew’s Green Label Studios, Blockbuster and MySpace; and Valemont, an MTV and Verizon Wireless co-production, are two prototypes in this wave of branded entertainment that attempt to determine how new models can be created to utilize different platforms and drive additional revenue streams while driving viewers along traditional platforms.
Studios and networks are discovering that it’s essential to find ways to keep an audience engaged in a branded message and prevent fast forwarding through the commercial break or clicking through to a commercial Web site. Transmedia applications of branded entertainment are the answer, with Valemont and Circle of 8 standing out as examples of branded entertainment that attempt to create fanbases that spread the content virally.
Valemont accomplishes this in a popular form (a vampire story set in a fictional elite university) in an unorthodox way. The initial two-minute segments aired during breaks in MTV’s The Hills and The City, leading viewers to MTV.com and an alternate reality game through its online portal (www.valemontu.com) and through Verizon V Cast. Characters navigated the fictional world with their cellphones, or a virtual Verizon phone on the Web site, to access new videos or texts about Valemont’s secrets. Valemont reached millions via MTV, many of whom went on to casually browse its content online, though only a handful became “high-participation” fans.
These rarified viewers are necessary to keep a program, movie or online experience going long-term. Dubbed “torchbearers,” they are repeatedly exposed to (and thus supportive of) branded messaging. The vibrancy of fan communities is the bellwether of the future success of youth-skewed entertainment and branded content. Utilizing multiple social media venues, www.valemontcommons.com (a fan forum administered by the show and in-character moderators) allowed audience members to role-play as students of the fictional university and became a venue to organize fan pressure to urge MTV to renew it — this time as a full-fledged TV program.
Valemont complimented its core fansite with communities on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter feeds and fictional blogs. Most importantly, it had immediate content, quizzes, and events that allowed fans to not only join into the fictional universe, but actively participate in the world. These communities evolved organically around the structure of the ARG and spawned a range of fan-originated groups. Valemont’s participatory sites and social media presence became a vibrant playground for hardcore fans. These fans participate in the fictional universe on a daily basis and actively evangelize the program to others.
Circle of 8 takes a different approach. With a planned DVD release exclusively through Blockbuster, the program has a revenue stream that guarantees some return on the marketing investment in a 65-minute “movie” compilation. Interactive frames allow viewers to click through to branded Green Label Studios minigames that yield clues to the terrifying mystery a young woman is confronted with in her new apartment building. Viewers could also explore the MySpace profiles of the fictional characters and enter the Green Label Studios art network. Regardless of their clicking through to these other elements, viewers observe products placed within that storyline from Mountain Dew, Kia and others.
The methods of participation are more passive in Circle of 8 than Valemont. While Circle of 8 has more than 100,000 MySpace friends, they are not as active on forums nor have they spawned additional communities outside MySpace as Valemont’s viewership has. It is a trade-off: contests and consumer product campaigns drive more attention to a brand but do not create sustainable interest like the social-media communities that create venues for user-generated content and encourage fan participation in a wider universe. While Circle of 8 has clearly gotten its message out, its marketing has not structured it to quickly support a sequel.
In the end, it is a matter of choice which style of fan outreach to pursue. Valemont’s narrative provides an open universe that can and will continue in the future. Circle of 8 doesn’t suggest an ongoing franchise. Brand integration worked in both cases, proving that the future allows for experimentation and exploration, unquestionably getting the sponsors product to the eyes of thousands if not millions of viewers. Through social media and careful implementation, these two programs show that transmedia narrative programming can successfully entertain and evangelize a brand’s message.