For most TV shows, the pre-produced episodes tell the whole story. But what if a show's characters could give their point of view on what the audience sees in the show? Taken one step further, what if fans could have conversations with the characters about the show's drama? And what if the audience was so integral to the story that they became the crux of the story's climax?
AT&T Hello Lab sought to achieve all of these storytelling firsts, while most importantly utilizing these new approaches to generate meaningful conversations about real world issues facing teenagers today.
We didn't just want to create a scripted series, we wanted to give an audience the opportunity to interact and engage with our story and characters across several platforms. We did this through a whodunit mystery with a cast of characters as reflective of our audience as they were relatable.
Cue Guilty Party, a scripted YA mystery that centers around the victim of high school bullying who seemingly takes revenge on the clique that cast her out. Over the course of nine short form episodes hosted on YouTube, students confront their misdeeds and work together to uncover the truth behind who is wreaking havoc on their lives and exposing their secrets.
We cast we cast nine social media influencers (Miles McKenna, Teala Dunn, Alexis G. Zall, Jessie Paege, Manolo Vergara, Kian Lawley, Tiffany Alvord, Vale Genta and Kenny Knox) with a cumulative reach of over 38 million fans to leverage their built-in audiences to drive viewership across the platforms they engage with their fans on.
Furthering the multi-platform storytelling experience, every episode focused on a different character's story, and each influencer created ancillary vlogs in-character that gave a real time feel to the sequence of events. In addition, we built out social media profiles for each of the characters and had them leave comments on each other's video diaries, as well as comment back to fans—and the fans loved it! We also created social media storytelling extensions revolving around the series: a Tumblr where fans submitted theories, a novelty Instagram that poked fun at the fictional high school, private groups on Instagram where we dropped weekly clues, and even an interactive Facebook Canvas ad featuring exclusive character footage.
In the series finale, we integrated fan comments into the show's climax, as the lead character exposed viewers for cyberbullying when they didn't realize what they had been doing. Here's one fan's response for a taste of the reaction: "BUT WAIT DID THEY TAKE THE COMMENTS ON PREVIOUS VIDEOS FOR THE VIDEO ALEX SHOWED THE SCHOOL BECAUSE NOW I FEEL AWFUL AND IT TAUGHT ME THAT YOU SHOULD NEVER MAKE ASSUMPTIONS UNTIL YOU KNOW THE WHOLE STORY."
After the finale, we hosted an in-world meetup where select superfans met the characters and solved the last mystery of the series, a mystery that fans had been asking about all season long. Throughout the campaign, every interaction was geared towards deepening the world of the show and integrating fans further into the plot. The authenticity of the story and its characters gave our fans a safe place to talk about hard-to-discuss topics like eating disorders, depression, sexuality, and poverty.
In the end, we didn't just create a branded series, we co-created the story with the help of our fans across multiple platforms. When fans say things like Guilty Party is "the future of TV," we know we did something right.
As a vehicle to drive audience connection and engagement, Guilty Party exceeded our expectations and was a success in more ways than one. In just ten weeks we accumulated 42 million views, 351 million impressions and 38 million engagements—an organic YouTube engagement rate 5.7 times the industry standard.
In just one season, we effectively created a diverse community that actively engages in meaningful conversations on our channel, even months after the finale. That's something to be proud of.