Jennifer Wilson • Executive director, The Project Factory
by Melanie Goodfellow
- Executive director at The Project Factory and Pixel Lab tutor Jennifer Wilson talks about audience engagement and monetisation in the digital world
Successfully extending scripted TV drama and film onto another digital platform is a challenge – especially if the aim is to reward fans and make money at the same time, too – but one company that has cracked it is The Project Factory.
The firm’s group executive director, Jennifer Wilson, will be one of the tutors at The Pixel Lab this summer.
The London- and Sydney-based digital production house has worked with numerous TV series, including Australian soap Home and Away and Dutch drama Spring Levend, developing game-based websites and apps offering audiences new experiences linked to their favourite shows. It also handles the global social media for the hit period drama Downton Abbey.
“We’ve done it for the last three years – consistently growing audiences and generating commercial returns,” says Wilson.
Beyond TV, the company created an interactive website for Ken Loach’s feature documentary Spirit of ’45 [+see also:
film profile] and is also currently working on a three-part ghost story with Australian writer Mike Jones, which will go out in book format as well as a digital experience.
The Project Factory’s most successful project to date, however, is Sherlock: The Network game app, taking the hit TV drama series Sherlock onto mobile platforms. At the heart of the app’s success, says Wilson, was the commitment of the show’s creators, UK-based production company Hartswood Films, and The Project Factory to remain true to the story-world in the show.
“They knew that they had a brand and engaged fans and that they wanted to do something mobile,” she explains. “They were ideal because they were determined that whatever experience was built around Sherlock, it had to be completely true to the Sherlock story-world in the TV series. That, without a doubt, is the single most important thing that a brand owner needs to recognise.”
As part of this commitment, Hartswood arranged for the show’s stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss, to be available to shoot a set of new, exclusive footage to accompany the games app, consisting of ten new cases that players help the detective to solve.
“It was important that the Sherlock that the fans experienced in the game lived in the same world as the Sherlock they watch on TV,” says Wilson.
The Project Factory brought in transmedia writer David Varela to write the ten cases, which were signed off by the TV series writers and creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
“We’d give them a storyline… a couple of times we were told they were a little too close to something that was due to happen in the series. There was a lovely comment we heard anecdotally, which David will never forget: apparently, Steven Moffat said the writing in the game was ‘annoyingly good’,” she notes with a laugh.
Care was taken in crafting the stories in the app to ensure they were in keeping with the original show. “There had to be reasons why Sherlock was talking to them or needed their help, as well as reasons behind the sorts of games on the app… the fact that they are games of deduction and logic is not by chance,” says Wilson.
The approach paid off. The app has been downloaded close to one million times since its release at the beginning of 2014, and has topped the app charts in more than 39 countries. A recently launched Chinese version is expected to add another million downloads in the coming months.
Crucially for both The Project Factory and Hartswood, the app is already turning a profit. “It’s made money – not enough to retire on, but we’re happy with how it is doing, and we would definitely do it again,” says Wilson.
The app was initially launched using a premium model for six months before being converted to a freemium model to lure in new players later on in the game’s lifespan.
“You get two cases for free, and then you have to pay to unlock the rest of the cases,” she says of the app’s pricing today. “The important thing to do is to have a price strategy regarding when to charge premium, when to drop the price and when to go freemium – and it is unique in every case."
Wilson says it is important to factor in the commercial side of such a project right from the beginning. “If you can really engage with audiences and reward your fans and get them to participate in what’s going on, there are ways of monetising it, but too often people come to this at the end. You have to think about what you’re selling, why would people pay for it and how you can enhance the experience to make people stay,” she continues.
“You’ve got to think through whether an app is going to be free or put out on a freemium or premium model. Think whether advertising or sponsorship is appropriate, or whether merchandise might play a role. None of this is rocket science, but people don’t seem to consider it from the start.”
It is just one of the lessons that Wilson hopes to drum into participants at The Pixel Lab this summer. “My background is very strongly in mobile as the central device in people’s lives,” she says. “I’m interested in mobile and the use of human-centred experiences, person-centred experiences, and getting people to engage and participate.
“In terms of The Lab, I will be interested in the coherency of the experiences that the participants are developing, and what can be done to encourage people to participate, looking at the role of gamification, and what incentive there is for people to come back and do something again and again. One thing we know with these experiences is that people drop off. I want to know what we can do to make them sticky and keep them around for longer.”
Power to the Pixel’s The Pixel Lab development workshop runs from 28 June to 4 July and is now accepting entries. The deadline for producers and media professionals to apply is Thursday 26 March at 18.00 GMT. For more information on the programme and to apply, head over to the Power to the Pixel website: http://www.powertothepixel.com/events-and-training/pttp-events/pixel-lab-2015.