Far from simple communication tools, social networks are becoming increasingly viable storytelling platforms for documentaries and works of fiction. Snapchat stories such as #PLS are also a great way to reach Gen Z and millennials.
“Social stories” stand out among other digital and interactive works as they need to be adapted to each social media platform and its specific features. Recently, Été—a graphic serial presented daily on Instagram—made its mark.
Today, I look at a work of fiction created specifically for Snapchat. #PLS was coproduced by the RTBF (Belgium’s French-language public broadcaster) and La Belge Prod, and broadcast daily during the months of October and November 2017.
A series of snaps (i.e., Snapchat posts) were posted on the project’s account which was followed by 28,000 people aged 13 to 25. In total, they were viewed more than 15.8 million times. This major success is attributable to both how the project was produced and the strategy used to share and promote it.
The development strategy: giving young creators a chance
The RTBF’s WebCreation team promotes itself as the “permanent laboratory” of Belgium’s French-language public broadcaster. It develops new digital works every two years by issuing a call to all content creators. Past projects include the highly successful Euh… and La Théorie du Yamong others.
Every other year, the call focuses on an innovative format. In 2017, the selected format was a fiction on Snapchat, a particularly daring call in the history of this Belgian broadcaster.
“We wanted to explore a new social network and reach a new target seeing that, as a public broadcaster, it is difficult for us to reach the 15–25 age group. We were initially to go with Instagram, but it was more interesting, riskier and harder to go with Snapchat,” explains Sophie Berque, who heads the WebCreation team.
Proposals received in response to the call for projects were not that numerous, surely because Snapchat remains a sort of oddity for many producers despite the efforts made by the RTBF to overcome creators’ complexes.
Quickly, though, one specific proposal stands out. It was made by two young authors/producers, Adrien Bralion and Maxime Benoît.
“They had just left engineering school and had never worked in audiovisual production. However, their proposal was very detailed and demonstrated a proficiency with Snapchat coding,” recalls Sophie.
“They had already produced a short pilot, which bode well for people without any experience. Above all, they had given thought to community activation. They were aware of the need to generate interest with fans even before the first episode aired.”
A story for youth told by youth. This fiction’s characters are students whose stories are not particularly out of the ordinary: their reality resembles that of viewers, 80% of whom are aged between 15 and 25.
The objective was not to cater to everyone. Indeed, the team quickly arrived at the conclusion that users over the age of 25 who watched #PLS on Snapchat rarely got hooked on the story.
“The challenge was to create appropriate content for the right people on the appropriate support. Therefore, we had to avoid falling into the trap of telling the story that we wanted to tell seeing as we are all in our thirties,” relates Sophie.
“Moreover, we sometimes uploaded content that we ourselves were not really sure of… Sometimes, the stories were everything but extraordinary but the results clearly indicate that they were highly appreciated by the target audience!”
The production and post-production strategy: keeping a sustained pace
Both authors decided to partner up with two influent shapchatters in Belgium as well as a few female and male actors. For the rest, they took care of pretty much everything themselves: scripting, production, editing, and so forth.
The choice of this production method can be explained in part by budget constraints (the total budget was limited to 80,000 Euros), but especially by the need to quickly produce and distribute content. There was a certain immediacy to the entire project.
The videos were not presented “almost in real time,” as is usually the case on Snapchat. However, the scenes were shot merely days before each sequence was broadcast. The entire team needed to work at a very sustained pace.
“We couldn’t shoot and edit everything ahead of time. We therefore had to accept a very different post-production mode compared to what we did with our fictitious webseries. They themselves realized that it was an extremely tense flow and were forced to work day and night to keep their promise. The post-production was therefore somewhat ‘unconvincing’ but it’s a good lesson for the future if we decide to go ahead with a second season,” admits Sophie.
The authors are given carte blanche seeing as, after all, “they are the ones who know how to address the young audience.” They even give themselves permission to improvise during shootings and sometimes accept to slightly modify the script after having been influenced by the actors who are very involved in the project. It wasn’t only a production achievement but also an immense vote of confidence on behalf of the RTBF.
“We even considered improvising even more by adapting to the news and audience reactions. But they kept to their script, which in itself represented an immense quantity of work” explains Sophie. “Over the weeks, there were a few winks made to the community but it’s clearly something that we could do better in the case of a second season.”
Ultimately, 160 minutes of content were produced and presented over a two-month period.
In certain sequences, the comedians filmed themselves, thereby strengthening their relationship with the audience. Moreover, others developed a more cinematographic regime of images to dissipate the slightest doubt as to the fictitious nature of the production.
“That enabled us to reach two objectives: produce a real work of fiction and interact with the audience.”
The distribution strategy: posting often and working with popular snapchatters
The average Snapchat user opens the app 18 times a day. Based on this knowledge, the team decided to post its snaps at different times during the day. The goal was to constantly renew the rendezvous.
Following an initial communication period prior to the first episode to “activate the community,” namely by exploiting the notoriety of the project’s snapchatters/comedians, #PLS was launched and lasted 40 days.
For Sophie Berque, “this distribution strategy paid off because we truly felt that the community was getting hooked on the project over time. We reached close to 30,000 young followers, which represents an impressive score for us here in Belgium. And for many of these fans, our project was the highlight of their day!”
Snapchat creates a sense of urgency: If you miss the day’s snaps, they end up vanishing after 24 hours. I know for a fact that some people have difficulty dealing with this reality. Today, #PLS is a thing of the past.
“Initially, we also considered posting the stories assembled ‘end to end’ on YouTube or Facebook. But we realized that that was not feasible seeing as the content had been developed specifically for Snapchat and that the fiction would have no meaning on any other support,” considers Sophie.
“Also, any target audience on a platform other than Snapchat would not understand the content, which posed an editorial risk for us.”
The short-lived nature is part of the contract seeing as the distribution also provides an opportunity to interact directly with the Snapchat account’s followers.
“The audience quickly figured out that it was fiction and did not particularly seek to intervene in the story. Nonetheless, we received many comments that testified to the proximity between the audience and this group of good friends as well as to the fact that they impatiently awaited the next day’s episode…”
“Many people were astonished to receive a response from the Snapchat account. Both creators invested enormously in that respect also and took the time to answer each and every one of the messages received!”
At the end of the series, they received somewhere around 1,500 messages from young viewers who did not want the adventure to end! For many of them, #PLS had become a ritual.
So is there anything left from the experience today? In reality, yes. The account and its 28,000 followers are still there and ready to welcome a second season, and the project’s Facebook pageserves to keep a trace of the work as well as additional content, including a music video parody that has been viewed millions of times.
The #PLS adventure also allowed the RTBF to rejuvenate its image with tens of thousands of young people and provided many lessons that will prove to be useful for future Snapchat projects.
Although the team has necessarily found aspects that need improvement—with respect to the depth of the scenario or certain technical aspects, for example—it is very proud of having successfully captivated an audience over time with a decidedly pioneering project.
In terms of fiction on Snapchat, we therefore await to see how things develop, whether with the RTBF or elsewhere on the planet.