Sunday, April 12, 2009

Can Influencers Be a Bad Influence?

This article is an unintentional sequel to last week's post, "Crowdsourcing: When the Crowd is Wrong." That article explored the problems that can occur when a small, passionate group of folks overwhelms a crowdsource program. But what about when a small, passionate group is the intended audience?

The right influencers enlisted for the right reason can yield extraordinary benefits, but influencers can be a bad influence if they are not carefully identified or if their impact is permitted to exceed their knowledge, vision, and capabilities. The world of entertainment provides two cautionary tales about the importance of identifying both who are influencers and what they will be permitted to influence.

The first case study is "Snakes on a Plane." Many consider it to be the first movie ever crowdsourced because online fans were invited and allowed to influence important elements of the movie's script. Interest in the film went viral well in advance of its release, purely on the merits of it's kitschy title. Fans (or should we call them "pre-fans"?) began to upload fake plots and trailers, and filmmakers eventually reshot parts of the movie "to meet the fans' expectations."

According to the Hollywood Reporter, The changes demanded by these "influencers" included bumping the rating from PG-13 to R with "more gore, more death, more nudity, more snakes and more death scenes." One well-known addition to the film was the now-infamous line, "I want these mother####ing snakes off the mother####ing plane," which was based on a fan trailer that became a viral sensation.

To paraphrase the late, great Paul Harvey, you already know "the rest of the story." "Snakes on a Plane" performed terribly--it opened with a meager $15 million in its first weekend and slithered out of theaters with a total gross of just $34 million.

That the movie was bad surprised no one--not even the Web fanatics--but it was shocking to see the online frenzy evaporate once the film premiered. In fact, it could be argued the fans hurt rather than helped the movie--the R rating increased the appeal to horror fans but limited the merchandising options and decreased the potential audience by omitting 13- to 18-year-old moviegoers. At best, it seems the influencers amounted to nothing, and at worst, they harmed rather than helped the movie.

So, where did the filmmakers go wrong? First of all, they mistook an online craze launched by four small words--snakes, on, a, plane--as an endorsement of the movie. The people who influenced the script weren't fans of the movie; they were fans of the wacky title. SoaP producers treated as influencers people who didn't have wide networks, had virtually no knowledge of the actual product, and offered nothing by way of insights about moviegoers or the factors that make a movie a successful.

Secondly, the producers allowed the fans to influence inward (altering the product) but didn't activate the outbound influence (improving a wider audience's perception of and intention to see the film). Instead of designing programs to expand the buzz to a more diverse audience, New Line launched a song-writing contest that didn't appeal to anyone outside of the existing base of fans who were already creating and uploading SoaP-themed songs. In short, they failed to use the potential influence of their fans.

A contrasting view of how to identify and handle influencers can be found with "Battlestar Galactica." The show, which recently left the air, bore little resemblance to the schlocky TV program of the 80s. The new series offered a mature and challenging vision of the future and was widely hailed by critics. Salon called the show, "electrifying, frank about the predicaments of the present in a way that a TV drama about the present could never be." E! Online offered a "hearty thank you to the creators, cast and crew" for the "entirety of four epic years with this great story."

Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick specifically set out to deconstruct the original television series. Cylons looked like humans, capes and lasers were replaced with military uniforms and bullets, and Starbuck was turned into a woman. In the words of Bonnie Hammer, then the president of the SciFi Network, "It was no longer your father's Battlestar Galactica. It was provocative, it was edgy, it was dark."

But what if a certain group of influencers had gotten their way? As Entertainment Weekly reports, Moore got a rocky reception when he showed preview clips at Galacticon, a Battlestar Galactica fan convention. "The clips ended and they booed and they hissed," he reports. Richard Hatch, star of the original series, agrees, "It was icy-cold in there. It was obvious that no one liked it." In the end, a Galacticon attendee stood up and asked Moore, "Now that you've heard all of this, will you take a pledge now that if this show goes to series, you will make sure it's more in keeping with what we would like to see?''

Moore could very well have treated the attendees of Galacticon as influencers; after all, this was a bunch of people so in love with the mythology of the show that 25 years later they still traveled across the country to gather. So what was the Executive Producer's response to the fan's question? Moore didn't promise changes to appease the existing fan base. He didn't even tell the Galacticon fans he'd give consideration to their concerns. Instead, Moore stood before the only group of consumers who gave a damn about the Battlestar Galactica franchise and said, "This is the show. You may not like the show, you don't have to watch the show, but this is the show that we're making.''

Rather than listen to the fans of the campy 80s series, the SciFi Channel instead turned to other science fiction fans, many of whom appreciated darker and more serious fare such as the "Matrix" series and cult flick "Blade Runner." In doing so, they rejected the easy and obvious choice for a group of influencers and instead found the ones that really mattered. At a subsequent Comic-Con convention, the stars of the new show were "pleasantly surprised at the positive fan response."

Moore and his crew might have been tempted to take the same course as the makers "Snakes on a Plane," opting to involve the existing fan base, turning to them for scripts, and allowing the BSG fans to set a different direction. But they didn't. Why? Bonnie Hammer summed it up best when she said that fans "can't drive the creative process."

There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement. It's a message that doesn't contradict the concepts of crowdsourcing and influencers but instead enhances them. In our newly Social world, brands should tap their fans, involve consumers, gather their insight, and provide opportunities for collaboration, but we must never forget that strategy and vision is the essential job of those within the organization and cannot be left to the influences of crowds.


Jennifer Lindsay said...

would love to interview you on this for my weekly podcast. are you available on friday? email me jennifer [at]

Eugenia said...

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice..."

So instead of making and marketing a show that had wide-spread appeal (the original was seen by something like 45% of the U.S. television audience and as a movie had good box office revenues in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia), it was turned into something that was made and watched by people who were insecure about Science Fiction being labelled as "childish" - an audience of about 3 million that declined to about 1 million.

I swear NBC/Universal has the most inept marketing department on Earth. I'm disregarding every positive review on the follow-up series Caprica.