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CRMs, self-distribution and the Virtuous Circle

The Virtuous Circle diagram

In 1997, Kevin Kelly in Wired Magazine set out twelve rules for the new economy. Rule five was the 'Law of Increasing Returns: Make Virtuous Circles – the idea that you could create positive ripples that self-sustain themselves: as a networked platform becomes useful, it gets users, therefore is more useful, so gets more users, ad infinitum.

I had been previously completely focussed on a marketing approach known as Cluetrain - a communication philosophy of – triggered with this blog in August 2006, and continuing into the last funding book – be authentic, tell a story, don't 'speak to us like you've forgotten how to speak'. But as a marketing strategy, Cluetrain is about engagement; what of retention and growth? 

The Virtuous Circle Project came as part of a bigger project Netribution ran with the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI). Creative Scotland had launched a £0.5m digital innovation fund, while SDI was about to make the significant step from short film production to features, with a plan to self-distribute. Netribuition had just finished running an enhanced-VOD / pop-up cinema development project exploring playlists, second-screen (Digital & Live Generated Media in Public Spaces, DALGMIPS, Creative Scotland) and recognised the skills of running larger public funded project were different to those around innovation, software development and research. It seemed a perfect match so we came together, discussing creating an open source, supporting infrastructure for any film company, who is selling, fundraising, and promoting worldwide (and who might just be one or two, probably slightly technophobic people. It was called Micro-major and was inspired by the garage/bedroom-based vertically integrated film studio where money and time spent on marketing and distribution needed to be minimised and really effective. A proper improvement in efficiency here could mean the difference between profit and loss and it was all only made possible with the very recent launch of web video platforms from YouTube to iTunes and Netflix. SDI had three feature films in various stage of completion, as well as a programme of events, an open shorts programme and strong links with the University of Edinburgh, seated in their College of Art campus.

It felt the perfect space to model a toolset that could support a small group of creative filmmakers to build an audience, and do so in ways that were mutually supporting. This is where the Virtuous Circle idea came in —if you could keep a film's audience with you through the development, fundraising, production and release of your film, could you carry them with you to your next film? Or to other similar films, such as other documentaries?

Creative Scotland made a grant of £100,000 and a process was begun to look at tools and recruit a Producer of Marketing and Distribution: who would be a full time producer embedded at SDI with the job of handling all digital and most distribution activities: crowdfunding, email blasts, websites, social media, mailing lists, deals with VOD platforms, and so on. This would be both on a micro-management level and strategically.

After DALGMIPS and research into popup-cinema (Living Cinema Project, TSB) and decentralised automated digital licensing (Video Access & Licensing Identity Database,, TSB) we were aware of the cost and time constraints of building innovative tech, and realised we could only focus R&D spend on a few areas. So we could build a Git Hub for public re-edits of the Future My Love Jacques Fresco film, or we could have a more complex website. We could build an Audience Management System (or adapt a good open source one like CiviCRM), or rent one, with Nation Builder. 

Debate over the CRM was one of the biggest points of deliberation, a split forming between myself, pushing for CiviCRM, and Ben Kempas, the PMD, pushing for Nation Builder. Nation Builder could do things Civi wasn't even discussing in their forums – namely track social media activity and link those with user records. It meant you could see that this person — who donated £10 in your crowdfunder — is also saying great things about you on Twitter, so really should be invited to your premiere. Or to group everyone who came to an event and easily send them an email (or if you had the details, show them a Facebook ad). Rather than the huge cost of adapting CiviCRM to do what we wanted — power a bunch of different wordpress or Joomla websites, this would cost £20 per film site per month. Ben was keen but — although it made budget sense — I was emotionally tied up with wanting to make something open source that could be of benefit to the whole indie film world. I also didn't like the NB design, or it's method of templating, firstly as it used SASS (a form of CSS I had not learnt), and secondly as it was through a browser, not FTP. All NB sites at the time looked very similar, and simple-ish CSS tasks, like over-riding the design of their buttons, seemed excessively fiddly. Like many devs, I wanted control over the code.

Nation Builder won, and it freed up lost of the budget to do other things. The Future My Love site, cost, relatively speaking, a lot of money and was running a Joomla CMS – while the main SDI site was still Wordpress. Most of the other film and microsites were Nation Builder, and we linked the Joomla/Wordpress sites through to the main NB database. This meant — and this is key — that every film site was feeding into the same database. If you registered for a screening on one website, joined the mailing list on another, and made a donation on a third, it would all be linked together. The purpose of linking this, aside from saving time by storing details, was so SDI could know who their best supporters were around different films, activites and themes.

It was interesting entering this area amidst much valid concern about data privacy. Here was a clear case where I would have defended SDI's right to store people's (consent-given) data as being ultimately in their interest: SDI was not going to sell this data, and they aren't following you as you wonder around the web. It's pretty hard for SDI to capture any data on you unless you chose to give it to them, or make a tweet in a public place that mentions them. Ultimately it helps you, documentary lover, stay in touch with the documentaries you love. It's a space that needs absolute regulation, yet it must be remembered that companies operating at that scale could not handle too much management burdon — and the tech requirements can't be ignored. For me, the best thing about Nation Builder site was that they took responsibility for keeping the data private. Their company's reputation depended on it, and in an age of countless hacks, this was attractive.

The first film to be released: Stem Cells Revolution, sold well in schools and universities. Future My Love got lost of coverage around its Edinburgh FIlm Festival launch, and released online and with a beautiful collector's art piece DVD edition (with string and cardboard and a transcript of the film's poetry. Appropriately for a film discussing a world without money when the machines do all the work, Nesta provided funding to build a Pay It Forward (PFVoD) player where people could watch the film for free and if they liked it pay it forward for the next visitor at the site to watch it.

The big success in project was probably I Am Breathing — a beautiful, rightfully acclaimed, bittersweet tale of a blogger dying of Motor Neurone Disease (MND/ALS). Here Ben Kempas and producer Sonja Henrici, mobilised a partnership with the Motor Neurone Disease Association to fund a full billboard campaign for the film. Using a crowd-screening tool that was designed and created with a distrification player (a paywall wrapper for an embedable video player), anyone in the world on MND day could host a screening, after selecting screen size and buying an appropriate license, with half the money going to the MND Association. Dozens of screenings were organised around the world, all signing up through the website, and raising ALS/MND awareness (tho not quite on the scale of what happened with Ice bucket!).

In retrospect it's hard to specify, on the tight budget we had to distribute and market three features over two years, what could be done differently. But with more resources it would be interesting to see how far it could go as it exceeded all expectations, triggering not just a big improved relationship with audiences, and massively upgraded technology use by Scottish Documentary Institute (who were already ahead of the curve), but improved stakeholder relationships, be it with MND Association, Edinburgh University or new funders such as a Nesta.