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The Future of Transmedia?: Q&A with ShowMobile

Millennial’s mobile-first mentality and time-shifting ways are creating conundrums for the entertainment industry. Micro-entertainment on Vine and other platforms is fracturing their attention, and their devotion to multiple screens is making it difficult to figure out where to target them. In this environment, there is a growing group who believe that transmedia is the future of entertainment. Eric Foster White, the CEO and founder of ShowMobile, is betting on it. White’s background is in the music industry, where he produced and wrote songs for Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jessica Simpson and more. After losing interest in the music business model, he began to consult on the impact of disruptive technologies like file sharing, social media, and mobile. Now, White has launched a platform to help tackle those disruptive technologies and create content that matches the way that young consumers are interacting with one another. ShowMobile is a “made-for-mobile” entertainment network that connects fans directly with shows and artists through their phones. All of the content on ShowMobile is brought to life through transmedia. The app’s original show, HitStreak, follows a group of young musicians whose storylines are moved forward not just in episodes, but through texts, phone calls, status updates, and more. The app recently announced a partnership with teen idol Austin Mahone, and the YouTube-launched pop star debuted a channel on the app which will air exclusive episodes from his #TourLife series for fans, and be his “all-in-one” social media feed. We talked to White about ShowMobile’s unique storytelling approach, what’s next for the app, and why he thinks transmedia is the future of entertainment:

Ypulse: Tell me about ShowMobile – what was the inspiration behind it?

Eric Foster White: The inspiration for ShowMobile was from my nieces and nephews and kids constantly on their mobile devices. My son and daughter both don’t watch TV on TV almost at all – they’re 14- and 10-years-old. The mantra [behind ShowMobile] is “What does she do and how does she do it?” with “she” being my 14-year-old daughter. Then the question became, who is creating an entertainment experience that exactly matches that behavior? The answer we came back with was nobody. You’ve got TV using social media to attempt to drive kids back to the big screen. For instance, my daughter loves Pretty Little Liars, and the show says follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, but when she does it’s kind of ancillary and unimportant. So we saw a great opportunity there to create an entertainment format that exactly matches the mobile-first generation on their terms.

With HitStreak, we had this idea that kids would wake up in the morning, check their phones, and the show would advance. They’d come home from school, check their phones, and the show would advance. They do their homework, after dinner, and the story would move forward. It’s a storytelling format that engages them through all of the different platforms that they actually use, and then scripts across all of it. That’s the real power of what we’ve created. With HitStreak, there’s a new episode every Wednesday after school, but then that episode might cliffhang into a scripted status update between cast members that evening. Then that afternoon, ShowMobile users might intercept a text message conversation between the characters – we call it a “textisode” – so three times a day at a minimum the story is moving forward in a meaningful way across one of the social platforms that they already use. ShowMobile’s functionality, the Story Feed, brings it all into one feed so you can see it in one place, there’s a centralized point of consumption, but it doesn’t require abandonment of any of the other social platforms.

Ypulse: That’s interesting, and very different from anything that’s we’ve seen, save maybe Summer Break.

EFW: They did a fantastic job of the telling the story across multiple platforms. The challenge I think for fans of that series was having to chase it all over the place. ShowMobile puts it all in one feed, and our back-end is so advanced. It’s basically calendar-based publication of any type of content. A show like  Summer Break would benefit from giving their fans a centralized point of consumption, and we think you’re going to see a lot of that in the next couple years. We just want to be the solution for all of it.

YP: Can you explain the “notes” and  “store” features of the app?

EFW: We have a dual virtual currency model that’s similar to some apps in the gaming space. So every piece of content has a star value, similar to loyalty points. When you check out Austin’s Twitter you get 5 stars. When you watch a video on our player, the stars are sprinkled throughout and fans don’t know where, so to get all of their stars they have to watch all of the videos. We’re having watch-through rates of some of the videos approaching 100%, which is insane. Fans can use the stars to buy virtual goods for the cast, like virtual flowers, fist-pumps, and make their way up the leaderboard to get a shout-out from the cast. It’s a status-driven gamification model that they really enjoy. They can buy virtual goods for each other, and they’re doing that at incredible volumes. For a brand, they could potentially buy the inventory of free stars for HitStreak season three and then sell their products through the app, or have the stars that kids earn by watching sponsored content earn a discount on the cash-component of the products. But right now, it’s pure fun. Some are hoarding their stars, waiting for something big. I think we’ll see Austin utilize the stars a lot during his tour for fan experiences and meet-and-greets.

YP: Can you tell me anything more about the kind of content we might expect from ShowMobile next?

EFW: We’ve got big plans for HitStreak, we’re contemplating HitStreak Nashville, U.K., Mexico City with four new cast members in each city since music is a universal language. But unlike say, American Idol or The Voice, which are in many territories that are not connected, here HitStreak Nashville would be right next door to HitStreak Miami and benefit from that audience and the audience we’ve built from other channel partnerships. We see it as the first truly mobile, global entertainment format with connectivity and cross-marketing through the audiences. We’re having conversations with YouTube talent in different avenues—for example, a teen fashion and beauty YouTube star, who may have her own channel, but meanwhile she’ll make an appearance in HitStreak to help the girls figure out their wardrobe, and that cross-pollinates. A dance star would help choreograph the kids’ music videos, or a gaming YouTube star could become Bryan’s best friend. Some of the conversations we’re having are about having cameos from well-known recording artists who might also be in the fictional HitStreak studio. The format is designed to bring in all of these verticals from that teen YouTube world, but also allows them to have their own channels in their own formats. Each of these channel partners we’re talking to in gaming, dance, style and beauty, we want to bring them into HitStreak as cameos, but some of them already have very clear visions about what they want to do from a format standpoint. We are lending our accrued expertise in producing transmedia to them as needed. In some cases we may co-create, but in some cases we’ll simply be the platform where the content lives.

YP: So there’s a good amount of freedom for the ShowMobile partners?

EFW: Austin’s channel is his own. We just released Austin’s exclusive Tour Life Episode 5, the final episode in his behind-the-scenes tour series, which was basically pulled in from YouTube but premiered in the app first before being released online. It’s his channel. So he may decide to create an original series at some point. Some of the other channel partnerships we’re going to announce are based on the idea of creating original transmedia series right from the get-go, while others might simply be more of a social aggregation. In six months of publishing HitStreak and producing and creating for transmedia, what we’ve learned could fill a book. You can’t script the same way, shoot the same way, publish the same way – everything is different because it’s such a nimble process. We’re very excited about applying those learnings to other content.

YP: What would you say is the biggest lesson that you have learned in transmedia creation?

EFW: We found it’s very important that the writers actually use social media. It would seem obvious, but it really is important because if they don’t, the authenticity suffers fatally, and the kids immediately sense that it’s someone’s mom or dad writing what they think Instagram or Twitter is, as opposed to really knowing the ins and outs. That’s been a key learning. The difficulty there is, if you really want quality writers you have to get writers who have had a lot of experience with traditional storytelling. We’ve got both very experienced writers and some younger ones who are very social media savvy, and we’re sort of training them to think that not everything has to be on the screen. You can tell important story through transmedia and not have to shoot everything. For example, we had Crystal break up with her boyfriend via a text message that all of the users got one afternoon after school – that was a key plot point. Later that night users could unlock a phone conversation to listen to a conversation with Crystal and her friend talking about why they broke up. That’s exactly how it all might have happened. Putting key and important story outside of the video is the bet you have to make.

YP: Was that conversation unlocked with stars?

EFW: Yes, that was a test for us—almost everybody unlocked it. What was interesting was, we only had 19% of our users opted in with their mobile number the morning of the “textisode” break-up. That night, there was that unlocked phone call where you heard Crystal talking to her friend Olivia about feeling bad and why it happened, and the users who missed the text message were in the community saying, “What happened? You broke up?” The next day, Crystal walked into the video episode and asked her friends if they thought she “did the right thing.” So the users that had not followed the transmedia carefully and not included their mobile numbers in their profile were confused. Then they started telling each other to put their mobile numbers in or risk losing important parts of the story. That night we went from 19% to 26% of mobile opt-in, and now we’re in the low 30s. It’s a lot about familiarizing the fans and users about how we tell story.

YP: Can you tell us what ShowMobile’s current userbase size is?

EFW: We are in the low six-figures and growing incredible fast. Our active users are on average launching the app six or more times a day, which is really validating since we’re not a social network. All we have is one episode a week of traditional video, so we must be doing something right with transmedia. They’re spending 11 minutes on the app, which is also very high. Sharing numbers dictate that one person who downloads shares with two friends, so it’s like three for one. We’re just now starting to see a real uptick in the growth curve. When we first started out we were hiring agencies to bring us 13-14-year-old female users and we found out that not a lot of them have any! We were only getting a few hundred installs a day. But now we have several hundred thousand of those data points. Obviously Austin is driving an insane amount of downloads and the next channel partner benefits from being in the same relative demographic next to HitStreak and Austin, bringing their own audience, and so on.

YP: What are the big goals for ShowMobile in the near future?

EFW: We want to be the made-for-mobile transmedia platform for anyone wishing to create high quality entertainment. I’m as convinced as I need to be that HitStreak is going to be a dominant, global entertainment format. Music is a universal language and mobile is universal, so we are very much looking forward to HitStreak Miami expanding into HitStreak Nashville, U.K., Latin America, Asia and so on. Let’s say through HitStreak we identify the next Shakira in Latin America, we can bring her up through the ShowMobile platform to the U.S. market and we have a means by which to cross-pollinate and discover new talent. We’re building careers, and using the platforms to launch new ones.

YP: We’ve written a lot about the next generation of content creation and delivery for young Millennials and the next generation coming up. Do you see ShowMobile as the future of content delivery?

EFW: I sure hope so! Listen, someone is going to do this. The mobile phone is the most personal device in human history. I think mobile content distribution is unstoppable. As a parent I don’t like to see my kids’ mobile phones glued to their hands 24/7, but it is also a reality. Instead of having them wandering around through the social media wasteland and seeing what people had for breakfast, we’re trying to make that universe matter from an entertainment standpoint and raise the quality of it. Eventually in five to ten years everything will be coming through you mobile phone and you just flick it up to a big screen.