Inside the Making of a Small-Business Web Series

How does a small hot tub manufacturer end up a finalist for Best Content Marketing Video Series at the 2015 Content Marketing Awards, competing against brands like Cisco, Petco, and Quiznos?

The answer: a shoestring budget, Vine and YouTube stars, and a willingness to take risks.

Bullfrog Spas, based in Utah, used that blueprint to whip up its comedic web series, “The Principal,” without any sort of bloated production process. Written and directed by Samson Madsen, “The Principal” brought digital video stars together to explore the antics and misadventures of school principal Dr. Gary J. Foote (Eric Artell) as he tries to woo his assistant (Manon Matthews), mentor the school jock (Marcus Johns), bond with his favorite student (Lana McKissak), and lead the Fighting Bullfrogs of Brookfield High to victory.

The first season premiered in October 2014 and ran for 12 episodes, each about five minutes long. To date, the show has garnered over 5,000 subscribers and 140,000 views on YouTube. It’s not exactly a viral series, but that’s the point. The Principal” was created to gradually develop brand awareness and long-term interest in the company’s message—a crucial strategy for small businesses looking to reach new audiences.

“We basically begged to get a small budget approved and set aside one week to film,” said Jake Ricks, online marketing manager at Bullfrog Spas. “We didn’t want to go crazy, but we did need enough time and money to make it look good.”

To cover cinematography, lighting, and sound, the company brought on local film industry professionals. And to lessen the financial blow, four internal employees—Ricks, Madsen, a graphic designer, and a marketing assistant—handled a lot of the creative legwork.

“You’d be surprised how many really talented filmmakers exist in nearly every mid-sized market these days,” Ricks said.

It may have helped that Bullfrog Spas in-house employees had filmmaking experience, but because of the tight budget, the company still had to cut back on locations and cast size, limitations that actually ended up informing the story. Since the company couldn’t cover the cost of shooting in multiple locations, Madsen was challenged to write a script that took place all in one setting.

In an effort to reach a younger demographic, Ricks and his team cast Vine and YouTube stars who brought built-in audiences to the project. For instance, Eric Artell hosts Daily ReHash’s “Behind the Vine” series, which has generated millions of views on YouTube. And Manon Mathews has over 2.4 million followers and 1 billion views on Vine.

“There are actually quite a few social media stars that really want to be actors,” Ricks said. “Even though they are famous already, many of them are still willing to do acting work for reasonable rates.”

However, there were still some learning experiences. For instance, even though the actors were working for standard SAG rates, Ricks thought they would instinctively put in a lot of effort promoting “The Principal” through their social channels, but instead, they just posted a few updates and then moved on.

“It was naive on our part. Brands are paying far more for Vine and YouTube promotion with these social stars than we paid them as actors,” Ricks said. “They need to protect their channels and only have so much room to insert promos before they get the ‘sellout’ backlash from their followers. You have to make it worth it for them.”

For brands looking to team up with YouTube and Vine stars, Ricks suggests clearly stating in each contract that the talent should promote the content on social media according to a specific schedule—with proper compensation, of course.

Looking back on its strategy, the Bullfrog Spas team also realized the importance of planning all parts of the project from the outset.

“Map out your strategy first, then story, then production, then distribution,” Ricks said. “It all has to be there for the content to succeed. There are thousands of web series out there on YouTube with views in the low hundreds that have decent aspects, but they are missing one or more of these key elements.”

Ricks will keep these best practices in mind as he continues to work on launching season two. But the company noted that they wouldn’t have learned these valuable lessons if they hadn’t taken the leap to create a branded series in the first place.

“Do it. Think long term gains,” Ricks advised other small businesses. “This stuff will be there supporting the brand long after an ad campaign gets skipped by a DVR or blocked by a browser plugin. And even if your first project isn’t incredible, your next will be better. You will learn things you don’t even know you don’t know.”

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