Wild Guide – Wild Web

From ARGs to web-only series, wildlife programming is stampeding into new territory
September 1, 2009

With multi-platform programming and social networking becoming buzzwords in film and television, natural history has had to adapt with the changing media landscape. The big screen will always be the preferred platform for beautiful wildlife footage, but some innovators in the field are embracing newer screens to pull people into their programming.

Discovery Channel’s massively popular Shark Week franchise has successfully worked the Web over the last few years, using online games such as Sharkrunners (realscreen, March/April, 2009) to promote its annual programming block. This year, Discovery enlisted New York-based creative marketing company Campfire to come up with a buzzworthy campaign. Their efforts resulted in ‘Frenzied Waters,’ a multi-platform project that effectively used Twitter, ARGs, social media networks and its own home site.

The company, along with newly acquired social media company, The Advance Guard, targeted carefully selected bloggers and journalists and sent them themed ‘capsules,’ or jars containing assorted shark-related paraphernalia. Some included bloody swim suits with chunks torn out of them, materials from a shark attack, and most notably, an obituary of the recipient. Each capsule contained a code that would unlock one of the new stories on, which initially was absent of any Discovery or Shark Week branding information. The anonymous website was just part of the intrigue, which was crucial for the campaign’s element of engagement. According to James Young, Campfire’s account supervisor, the campaign hinged on ‘the idea of fear.’ Once directed to, users would first only see a floating capsule with the title ‘My Story,’ where they could then link to Facebook Connect. There, users could experience a shark attack from their point-of-view and at the end, be the stars of their own obituaries, using their own Facebook photos. Those that had their jobs listed on Facebook were also rewarded with seeing a job posting for their supposedly now vacant position. ‘It was a point-of-view jarring experience of going from pleasure to horror,’ says Young.

The capsules also engaged people in the real world, too. Week by week, the floating capsules on listed locations in different sections of the U.S., like an antiques shop and a shark tank, which would have received one in the mail. Interested sleuths would investigate the GPS coordinates and, in real time, track down the locations, post photos of the found capsules on Flickr and discuss their findings on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

‘Knowing that there were 11 of these each week, it got everybody excited because once they saw what it looked like and how cool they were – we really did put a lot of care and effort into the details of each piece – everybody wanted one,’ says Young. ‘Everybody worked together to get one.’

The website and ARG project definitely tapped into an audience, although more of a diverse one than expected. ‘Frenzied Waters’ managed to snare an almost immediate reaction from niche audiences (ARG fans and shark enthusiasts) and the expected demo of tech-savvy 18-45 males, but when Twitter-happy American Idol host Ryan Seacrest tweeted about it, its viral status skyrocketed. Interestingly, Young notes that of the people tracking down the capsules, the majority were female.

As of press time, had a total of 5,800 hours racked up by online users, and an individual reach on Twitter of 2.75 million. Even more impressive, pun not intended, were the 4.75 million impressions on Twitter.

The groundswell of interest was all part of Campfire’s carefully laid plan. According to managing director Steve Wax, ‘We design projects that are thought through in terms of sequence, so you don’t think of it as a massive blast and then you see a lot of traffic. We put out bread crumbs and are very mysterious. We keep feeding it out and keep people involved.’

While Campfire took to the relatively new realms of Twitter, ARGs and the like for their project, a trio of companies – Amsterdam-based wildlife prodco Off the Fence, online content portal Babelgum and World Wildlife Fund – went for a different direction instead. Babelgum commissioned Off the Fence to produce a six-episode, half-hour conservation program for Babelgum’s online wildlife strand, ‘Our Earth.’ The fully-funded series, Extinction Sucks, was the first wildlife series commissioned specifically for the Web. It follows Australian friends Aleisha Caruso and Ashleigh Young as they perform madcap fundraising stunts for equipment needed for wildlife conservation projects across the globe. The concept had existed previously with Caruso and Young who posted their exploits on their MySpace page, and OTF teamed with them to grow its presence via Babelgum.

Even though the programs themselves were filmed and packaged like traditional broadcast content, it was the series’ exclusive presence on Babelgum’s channel and the complementary online initiatives that made this a wider-ranging project. Babelgum set up a Facebook site for Extinction Sucks, while Young and Caruso were in charge of their own Facebook site, and OTF utilized its own web presences to support the program, as well as WWF’s website.

‘Television has moved away from what I would call the ‘sit back and watch’ traditional programming,’ says OTF series producer Deborah Kidd. ‘Natural history is a passive experience, although spectacular, but it hasn’t sought to build an audience, make them sit forward and make them think ‘I can get involved with that!”

With that goal in mind, OTF produced a traditional television program for the Web, but also made sure to bring in an online ethos. ‘We connected these online dots, trying to bring these various disparate communities that share the same goal, which is animal conservation, together into this one hub,’ says Kidd.

Since the project began airing on in April, Extinction Sucks has nearly 5,000 MySpace friends and more than 2,000 fans on Facebook. Kidd says that although audience numbers are a little harder to gauge online than on traditional TV, it’s the impact of creating a stepping stone from online to the real world of natural history enthusiasts which has her excited. ‘We can see this massive spider web effect going around and about the globe,’ she says.

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