While Malcolm Gladwell made the “tipping point” a part of our shared lexicon over a decade ago, the desire to put a finer point on why one thing succeeds (and others fail) has been in our genes from the beginning. It’s only natural to want to pick apart the success of others with the hope of learning something that will help you with whatever it is you’re doing or want to be doing. Just as chimpanzees learn the fine art of ant fishing from one another, humans turn to their fellow man to learn what’s worked and what hasn’t.
In the business world, more often than not, this desire to learn from success takes the form of stilted case studies. Sometimes it takes the form of an informative conversation. I hope this post more closely resembles that second option.
Following that line of thinking, I decided to interview someone who has seen a huge amount of success in the highly competitive field of Web-based entertainment to hear some tips on DIY marketing, creating quality content and the importance of an integrated communications approach first-hand.
Rob Michael Hugel is Brooklyn-based actor, writer, director (and longtime friend) who’s seen a great deal of attention for his hilarious web series, I Hate Being Single. I was lucky enough to catch up with Rob in advance of the web series finale, which airs tonight at a public finale screening party at indieScreen in Williamsburg and goes live tomorrow on the web at ihatebeingsingleseries.com. You can catch episodes 1-5 on the series’ YouTube channel in the meantime.
Before we get into your take on marketing and promoting the series, how would you describe the premise of the I Hate Being Single for an audience who is used to elevator pitches and discussions of ROI?
The premise I would describe is probably that it’s a sitcom web series. Picture a Curb Your Enthusiasm for the Portlandia generation but in bite-sized 5 minute episodes. It’s a little bit Wes Anderson, a little bit Cosby Show. Each episode is a standalone story so you don’t necessarily need to know the backstory to get it. The tone of the show is dry like the British Office or Larry Sanders Show, with observations of Brooklyn and the “indie” lifestyle from the perspective of a lonely outsider. Anything can happen to him in the show but the eventual outcome is true to the phrase “I Hate Being Single.”
What’s been your overall strategy when it comes to promotion?
My strategy with promotion (and production) has been to do as much as I can without money. I made the series with the help of favors and eventually a Kickstarter. I work freelance and sacrificed a lot of the paid work time to do the show, so it’s a complete DIY strategy.
The promotion has been entirely online with the exception of a couple hundred flyers for the release day. Social media is the first and daily, and press outreach is done strategically to what the episode is about. I had a release schedule of about 14 weeks with a new episode each week so that was important to use as tool to keep people coming back each week knowing there would be a new episode.
As a rule, I try to make everything dealing with the show look true to the series style as far as graphic design, posters, flyers, images. I basically operate like a one man TV studio in the same way they have a graphics department making trailers, promos, magazine ads; I’m doing the same thing on a small scale. I watch HBO, FX and IFC and think about how they promote their shows. I’ll follow that guide. Anything to make the audience believe that the show is legit, substantial, and worth looking at. Consistency is very important.
Did you have a particular audience in mind when you made the series?
I wouldn’t say I had an audience in mind as a goal, but I thought there would be a good possibility that people like me would like it. Independent spirits, artists, musicians, comedians, actors, fans of indie films, fans of independent comedy, and Williamsburg itself. There’s been a lot of film or TV that parodies and satires the world of hipsterdom that is about us but not necessarily for us. So this was my attempt to recreate that world but in a more earnest and genuine way than it’s been seen.
It wasn’t untill the series premiered at the New York Television Festival that I got the response from people of all backgrounds who connected with the story. It was a great realization. (Image note: That’s Rob accepting the Bing Audience Award at the NYTVF in the thumbnail above.)
You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the upcoming finale. What did you learn from that experience?
The Kickstarter was a great relief. I really just had a lot of reservations about whether or not we’d meet the goal ($5,000) and I was nervous about asking for money, and would people judge me, and stuff like that. It’s a strange situation to create a show that has the potential for a whole TV series, but be the ONLY individual representing. No co-creator, no co-writer, so it was all on me to pitch the Kickstarter and represent the show, and not sound too desperate, cocky, entitled, amateur, and any other criticism.
The support from the Kickstarter was amazing. People donated who I never could’ve expected, and it was truly a huge sign of support from the “community.” A lot of the money was from people I know through doing comedy in NYC over the years, and friends from throughout my life. The largest donation from one person was $500 and the rest were a collection of $10, $25, $50, $150, and $300 donations. I think people assume there’s always a big backer (family member, or wealthy stranger) that takes care of a large chunk and the campaign is almost a front for that. I am very proud to say that was not my experience at all. All the donations add up and make a huge difference. We met our goal the day before production, so I was promoting hard for the entire process, and very, very nervous about if we’d make it.
You’ve been promoting the series through social media quite a bit. What does your presence look like online and have you found any one platform or tactic to stand out in particular?
I really love Tumblr as a tool for this show. Our official website is a Tumblr and I’ve been using a personal blog for a while. Over the past year I think there’s been a great boom of Tumblr users. It’s the best place for people to spread work and not feel like its “clogging a feed” or something like that. It’s my goal to keep working on getting tumbld and find more followers that way. I search tags of things that I like or I’m influenced by and find thousands of people who like the same thing and want to share it. It gives me confidence that we’ll reach the right people eventually if we keep working at this.
As for Facebook it’s been really great for gaining a grassroots following. I have a great network of friends in NYC and across the country who, when they repost from Facebook tend to get a positive response, which leads to a new follower on the fan page, or YouTube. It’s very typical that I’ll post something on Facebook, a friend reposts it, and a minute later my I Hate Being Single page has a new follower that I don’t know who is connected to the friend that reposted. It really is social networking!
There’s a small number of international fans on Facebook. I have no idea how they found us originally, but there’s some random people from South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Even though it’s small number of people, it’s one of the coolest things I can think of; thanks to social media I know they’re out there at least, and can communicate with them easily.
That being said, I wish it was easier to get Facebook fans. I Hate Being Single has 550 fans and I have over 1,000 friends on my personal account. About a quarter of my Facebook friends have “liked” the fan page. It’d be nice to get that higher, but it’s out of my control aside from a friendly reminder once in a long while.
What just wasn’t worth the effort?
I can’t really tell what wasn’t worth the effort at this point. I’m still feeling like everything has paid off in one way or another, and since we aren’t yet done releasing the season, I think there’s a lot of promotion on the horizon. I know the finale episodes will exceed people’s expectations for a comedy web series. I’m getting ready to work on that promotion as soon as it’s up.
I think we all have found our friends can get quite tired of promotions, whether its related to fundraising for an upcoming charity race, getting people to check out your new blog or anything else that doesn’t directly involve them. I’ve found this is especially true on Facebook. People want to see pictures of you and significant others, read funny life experiences, but beyond that, you’re often pushing your luck. Did you run into any of this in your personal promotions?
I haven’t had much backlash from personal promotions. I think different Facebook users have different experiences depending on who they’re friends with. I live in NY with a very bustling and almost overwhelmingly energetic community of comedians, improvisors, and actors. So, in my daily feed there is almost constant promotions of live shows, web series, films, articles about people’s projects or jokes. So, I don’t really think a lot about the people that aren’t in that circle because it’s what I see the most.
I do get a lot of good support from other friends or family from the past who live in other places. They’re always encouraging from afar and keeping tabs on what’s going on. I do think once in a while that people could be judging me for posting too many mentions of something, but I don’t hear from them and they can take me off their feed if it’s too much trouble.
What words of advice for those looking to find an audience for their creative work?
My advice to creative people looking for an audience is to first concentrate on the product and make it as good as you believe you can. Imagine yourself in a public place with like-minded people, like a concert or art gallery, find them online and get the work in front them. I always think about who my inspirations are, and find people who have that same inspiration. They’re more likely to associate with what I do. Get specific.
You’ve gotten quite a bit of great press on the series. How did those pieces come about?
The press has been awesome. It’s a mix of things. Some people contacted me out of the blue from seeing posts on Facebook through friends, a few were through friends of friends who were recommended to check it out. I sent out press releases on the morning of most of the full-length episodes, which came out biweekly. I sent about 200 emails each day with a press release about the series, and that particular episode. I targeted NYC blogs that would cover it for the topical NYC stuff and other sites that I saw had coverage of indie film, web series, comedy, TV, and fashion. I feel like the show has a flavor, and if there’s any outlet that has a similar flavor, then I’d contact them. Some of the press didn’t get back to me until the 3rd or 4th episode/email, which is worth mentioning because I’m the kind of person that feels slightly uncomfortable emailing someone repeatedly with no response. I learned that the persistence is important and not be discouraged to get no response, for it may come a while down the road and be totally positive.
One of the things that quite a few of the blog posts and reviews mention is the high production quality, which is definitely not standard when it comes to the web. What was your thinking there?
The quality was a very conscious choice. I’ve been doing TV production and making videos (in one form or another) since I was in middle school. I really wanted to make something for the internet that looked better than what the internet expects. The center of that issue is money, of course. I didn’t have money to shoot episodes 1-12 (everything except the finale) so I was working with friends who donated their help to shoot and be the crew. The DP for those episodes was Giga Shane, who is a videographer and experienced with documentary shooting. He can make things look great with just his eye, lens choice, and a light. Even if it was paid for it’d be looking amazing for very little money compared to a professional shoot.
The sound was done by Matt Cook, a close friend and collaborator (Nights In Ultraviolet, CafeBloodbath). He knows how to record good sound and that’s something a lot of people get wrong on small budget productions.
Aside from the shooting quality I really wanted to make the show specific and detailed throughout. The music was original by a friend Jake Zavracky (Zavracky.bandcamp.com). I’d email him ideas for the tone and he’d write a song send it back and forth a couple times. Then I’d recut the song to fit the episode exactly.
The opening title logo was created by my good friend Mike (theblackaxe.com) and animated by Giga, the DP.
Basically everything in the show was done specifically so people watching could get into the story and not be constantly reminded that what they’re watching is a) on the internet, b) not famous and c) not funded.
The finale episode is that same idea, but using the budget we raised to pay a director, DP, steadicam operator, sound mixer/engineer, locations, lighting gear, and more pro camera. It looks like it cost $100k and it only cost $6k. Again, that’s only because so many people are willing to sacrifice getting paid a lot for the project itself. It’s not a model I plan to continue and if I won the lottery today, I’d be giving them a chunk because it means everything to the project and to me.
What’s next for the series?
I’m hoping to continue the series in the best way possible. I’ve been hoarding ideas for a while and will be ready to write it while we spend some time promoting season 1. I’ll be looking for a home for the show somewhere we can be funded for the season, should we find the right fit and of course. I wouldn’t rule out pitching to TV as well. I’ll be in LA in June to start this process.
What’s next for you acting-, writing- and directing-wise?
What’s next for me will be hopefully somewhat determined by the show. My girlfriend and I co-host a stand up show every month at The Gutter, I’m performing at UCB NY with the house team “Onassis,” and I’m acting in an independent pilot at the end of the month. Continuing pursuit of commercial and legit acting work in NY and LA and working on a new live show.