Filmmaker Matt Koval has been using YouTube for years, building up a subscriber base of more than 100,000 fans of his shorts and series. Teaming up with producer Robert Green, Koval has created and produced a web series which represents, much like Tony Valenzuela’s BlackBoxTV, what is possible when you combine high-quality production value with YouTube-style interaction.
8 Dates is a sweet-natured, often amusing series about Ava (Mem Kennedy), who’s attempting to overcome her cat obsession and shut-in tendencies so that she can finally find true love. Unfortunately, she needs some help to do so. Luckily her cousin Matt (Koval) is there to encourage her; dating, after all, is a skill that needs to be practiced.
While the show’s production was funded by dating site Spark.com, it barely qualifies as branded content; only a title card near the end of every episode indicates the site’s involvement. That said, the show’s subject matter makes it a good fit for the sponsor. As Koval wrote on his blog:
Spark Networks seemed to be one of the few brands who were willing to get behind a web series without completely smothering it with their sales pitch. We agreed that it was important to entertain first, and sell second. Selling first is a recipe for disaster on YouTube.
8 Dates, on a production level, is solid yet extremely simple in its execution: There are two primary locations (Ava’s bedroom and the restaurant where she meets her dates), with a revolving slate of guest stars to differentiate each episode.
The bulk of 8 Dates‘s charm comes courtesy of Kennedy, who brings nuance and depth to Ava’s awkward exterior. But while some episodes lack much in the way of sophistication, the finale, posted on Valentine’s Day, is a bittersweet reflection on the challenges of dating and the importance of continuing to try; it provides a mature, intelligent conclusion to the series.
Key to 8 Dates‘s success with YouTube is the way in which it incorporates audience comments not just into the episodes, but into the narrative itself. Each episode (save the finale) begins and ends with Ava directly addressing the audience, spotlighting specific comments on past episodes and replying directly to suggestions ranging from sweet to crass.
“Negative comments… aren’t seen often when a video is launched within a personal subscriber base,” Koval said via email. “It’s when outsiders stumble across the video, or when it goes viral, that negative comments appear. But it’s no biggie — it’s all par for the course on YouTube. Hater comments are simply ignored or deleted.”
Comments typically revolve around the end-of-episode call to action, where Ava asks fans to answer a specific question (“Could you date someone who was missing a body part?” “How do you know when it’s time to start dating again after a breakup?”). But some of the more general comments are credited with inspiring the actual plots for episodes, such as when Ava goes on a date with an older man, played by Mediocre Films’ Greg Benson, and a lesbian, played by YouTuber/juggler Olga Kay.
The cameos are another important aspect of how 8 Dates has attracted an audience. While sometimes casting directly from YouTube can be problematic, those brought in to cameo commit fully to their characters, avoiding any potential awkwardness.
Via email, Green explained his strategy for engaging the audience as follows: “Look at the people who already have built up credibility on YouTube (directly measurable by their subscription base and traffic) and leverage them into your show, either directly (collaboration) or indirectly (say nice things to your audience) methods.”
Koval was able to bring in most of 8 Dates‘s guest stars thanks to previous connections. But what if you’re new to the community? Koval says via email:
My advice for an outsider approaching [a YouTuber] would be to 1) Make your project high in production value. YouTubers get sick of making videos in our homes, and would love to be included as an actor in a “real” production. 2) Don’t be obnoxious with the sales message of your branded project. None of us want to shove product into our audiences’ face. My rule is to entertain first, and sell second. 3) Pay a legitimate rate. We bring a lot of eyeballs, and are worth it.
According to Koval, Spark is waiting for the series to complete its run before it analyzes its success and makes a decision about a second season. The current total view count for the series at about 600,000; Koval is hoping that it reaches one million views before it tapers off.
So, to recap, why should you Know This Show?
- Branded content, or any shows created with the support of a sponsor, works better when story, not selling, is the priority.
- YouTube comments offer immediate opportunity for interactivity, when properly engaged with.
- Bringing in known guest stars is a great way to improve your show’s visibility.
- And a charismatic star and solid production value don’t hurt, either.
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