Lost Zombies is a project conceived and executed by Skot Leach and partners Ryan Leach and Rob Oshima. It began with the goal of producing a community-generated film, a crowd-sourced zombie documentary, but ended up being quite a different beast.  In the following case study, Skot highlights many key milestones in the project, lessons learned along the way, and how much it actually changed from the initial concept.

1. We established our goals and values.

The first thing we did was sit down and discuss our goals for Lost Zombies. We developed a kind of core purpose which was “to tell a story in a new way.” From there we came up with our goal, “to create a community generated zombie movie.” Specifically we wanted to invite anyone interested to contribute content they created to our website lostzombies.com. We intended to compile these submissions into a feature length film. 

We had our Purpose and Goal and next we talked about the core values we wanted to embrace with the project. We concluded that the project should be: Epic (large in scope and scale), Open (allowing outsiders to influence and shape the project), Cohesive (we wanted a clear story world) and Disruptive (we wanted to challenge the status quo of how films are made and what the role of the audience is).

Lesson Learned: Having a goal and clear set of values gave us something to fall back on as the project evolved. There were times (still are) where the project seems 180 degrees from where it began, but having values and a broad goal allowed us to not get caught in the details. When decisions become tricky we simply look back to our values.

2. We wasted a lot of time plotting our story which we believed people would fully embrace.

Once we had our goal and values we began to craft an elaborate series of plot points for our film. We first decided to go with a zombie theme. We felt that in order to allow for the highest level of participation and to achieve our “cohesive” and “open” values we needed a theme that would enable someone with limited skill and tools the ability to submit a piece of content… Basically our thinking was that in 30 seconds of video a person could easily establish a zombie scenario full of action and drama. 

People assume the idea for the project arose out of a passion for zombies. That wasn’t the case, we like zombies, but they weren’t the driver. We simply felt that zombies were a universally accessible theme that created a great range for potential stories. 

We began plotting an elaborate scenario in which a cosmetics company uses nano-robotics to reverse aging. This, we thought, would allow us to create a precise moment at which the nanobots would be activated, go awry, and cause a mass, simultaneous, zombie outbreak. Only what we plotted was even more complex. We spent months on this stuff.

Lesson Learned: Consider carefully how much you intend to let the audience “drive” the story. The larger role the audience plays, the less time you should plan details. It’s more important to have a team of people with a range of skills ready to manage the project. If the audience is driving it’s going to become a living breathing thing that you cannot completely plan for.

3. Accidental launch.

We choose the Ning platform for the site’s home.

Ning, for those who don’t know, offers a social network service you can skin to your own look and feel. You can also add and remove features such as video submissions, pictures, blogs, forums, etc. 

On May 1st 2008, one of my partners sent the Ning site, lostzombies.com, to a few friends on Facebook. Within hours the site was gaining members rapidly. At the time I didn’t believe we had our story locked down and ready for prime time, but it was live so we rolled with it.

Lesson Learned: We Should have launched even sooner. My partners release of the site (whether accidental or not… He’s sneaky;) ) was a good thing. We had a clear goal. We had the framework for user interaction in place (website, etc.). We were wasting time planning details that ultimately didn’t matter.

4. 6 hours later, our plan was irrelevant.

 Almost instantly members rejected the story line we were pushing.

They were looking for something simpler and more accessible. We quickly scraped the story we had been building and requested members simply submit any zombie related content. This achieved two things, first we began getting submissions. Second we drew in a larger audience.

Lesson Learned: Remember your goal and vision. What must the end result achieve? What can’t be left out? Keep only the things you must and be willing to change and/or sacrifice everything else based on your users’ wants and needs. Our nanobot zombies didn’t matter. We wanted the audience to participate in the creation of our story world, that was what mattered.

5.We created videos, YouTube accounts, Twitter accounts, Digg accounts, Stumble accounts and more.

Prior to launch we “seeded” accounts. By this I mean we created accounts with all the major social media sites and we began “friending” people who we felt would be interested in our project. We did this obsessively. Around launch time we began posting short zombie videos on YouTube, then inviting our YouTube friends to check them out, pushing the links to Twitter, posting on Digg, and Stumbling the videos. We would do all of this in a very short period of time in an effort to drive a quick bursts of traffic to our videos. Those bursts would send the videos up the ranks on YouTube resulting in more organic discovery. Meanwhile we were managing the website to welcome the wave of newcomers.

Lesson Learned: You can create traffic by seeding accounts and cross promoting your content. BE CAREFUL. It’s easy to get caught up in traffic goals and have your message turn to spam. If you are seeding accounts find like minded people to friend who you believe would be genuinely interested in your project. With a zombie theme, it was easy for us to find zombie lovers. Your tactics here should reflect your story and your values and goal.

6. Pushing

We “pushed” weekly. We called it a “push” whenever we had a video or piece of content we wanted to distribute through out network( YouTube, Twitter, Stumble, etc.). These pushes drove traffic, buzz and most important momentum.

Lesson Learned: Build a network and push calls-to-action and/or content to them to keep them engaged. This creates momentum which pulls in more users and generates more buzz.

7. Is this in-game?

We presented many of our early videos as though zombis were real. The videos were shot in first person and we usually titled them with names like “Zombie attack. REAL?” For awhile we presented lostzombies.com as a place to post “real” zombie footage and photos. We observed this technique in several ARGs and we loved the suspension of disbelief and immersive feel it gave the project. Ultimately it could not be sustained. Trying to create a film while simultaneously attempting to maintain a alternate reality where contributors of the film were role playing as survivors was simply to complex. Newcomers we reluctant and confused to take part. Once we stopped trying to maintain the site as a story world and focused the site on the task of creating a story world, we gained more traction towards our goals.

Lesson Learned: I still struggle with this. I love the in-game feeling the site had early on. But we felt that in order to achieve our goal the site had to become a kind of meta site. The trade off was we gained a much larger user base, which is essential in achieving the goal of creating a film. We also feel that once the film is done we can use it along with other content to create an in-game story world.

8. Created stickers, gave them away

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One of the most effective tools for captivating and drawing people to the project involved stickers. We created stickers that read “WARNING. A zombie apocalypse occurred at this location. For more information go to lostzombies.com.” We ordered 500 of these and gave them away to anyone who sent us a SASE. They were gone in a couple of weeks. Members were posting their photos on the site which we featured and “pushed” across our network ( http://www.youtube.com/user/lostzombiesdotcom#p/u/24/Ixh7QQnhF68 ). The stickers became a way to engage members and get them to participate. As a result of the stickers’ success we began shipping and ordering more stickers, giving away thousands.

Lesson Learned: Find low barrier ways for people to participate that have results you can publish. Shooting a good video is hard, it requires equipment and talent. Sticking up a sticker is easy. If you allow a user to participate via a low barrier entry point and then publish their participation you not only engage that person deeper in the project but the content becomes another way for people to discover you project and to add weight to your story world.

9. TV ads – In August of 2008 we ran an ad on Television.

While browsing through Google’s various ad options, searching for a creative and unexpected way to promote Lost Zombies, I discovered you can run ads on TV using Google. I was initially surprised by this but we gave it a shot and for around $150 we aired a 15 second commercial during Adult Swim. I’m not a fan of commercials, but I felt that if we put together 15 seconds of first person video that featured zombies it might just be cryptic and random enough to grab some eyeballs. It was. Whenever we aired this spot we’d get a 50 to 100 registered users almost instantly. They would head straight for the chat room and say “ I just saw a commercial for this on TV,” which created a new kind of momentum. People seem to believe that in order to get on television, even with a commercial, it requires some kind of special skill. As a result this created a sense of epic scope among users. Everything suddenly seemed larger.

Lesson Learned: Use a mix of formats to extend your story world. I guess this goes without saying, since you’re already creating a transmedia project. Even so, remain open to opportunities to extend your story into areas you weren’t planning to. There are many many platforms our there. Poke around and find one that resonates with your project. These extensions don’t just add to your story world they multiply it.

10. Sold stickers, earning up to 1k a month

After giving away thousands of stickers, we were going broke. We told members we needed to start selling them. We set up a PayPal checkout on our site and suddenly we had a revenue stream.

Lesson Learned: Some people are afraid to charge for services or merch related to their project. Don’t be. If they users don’t want it they’ll let you know. If you are charging for something that is authentic and true to your project you will not alienate your user base. We were concerned with charging for stickers we once gave away. However we were transparent with our members and told them we could no longer afford to give them away and that by charging a small amount it would allow us to better fund the project. They were incredibly supportive.

11. Listened… Created a book based on users behavior.

A couple years after launch the site was something totally different then what we expected when we began. In many ways it was much more exciting and interesting. We had expected a few hundred users and a film by this point. Instead we had thousands of users and some really amazing content and stories, but no film. We essentially had the created the largest zombie site on the web. We wrestled with what to do about the movie and found that users were enjoying the site and weren’t pushing us to finish. In fact the most common question asked was “you’re not gonna shut down when the film is done are you?” Around this time we noticed some users submitting hand drawn notes written from the perspective of individuals surviving a zombie apocalypse. Members were reading each other’s notes and responding with their own. We spotted this behavior and came up with the idea of putting the notes together in a book. We asked for more notes and the members didn’t let us down. We compiled a book which we were about to self publish when we met an agent who ended up getting us a book deal with Chronicle Books. Our book comes out in September.

Lesson Learned: Listen. The audience will do really cool stuff. Let them. Embrace it and celebrate it. If you have the flexibility to let your project evolve do so. Sometimes slowing things down can result in more opportunities for your story world to grow.

12. Still no movie

So here we are almost three years with now movie. So what was all that talk about goals? Making a movie was our goal and we still haven’t done that. However we are still witnessing growth in both our site membership and our story world and as we grow we get more and better content and we increase awareness about the project. We also allow the story to breath and meander in ways that introduce new opportunities, like the book. That said, we do plan to make a movie… Some day.

Lost Zombies Stats

-17,000 registered members on lostzombies.com
-3,000 daily visits ( this spikes whenever we do a “push”)

The Lost Zombies Ning community is still alive and thriving at lostzombies.com and you can reach Skot Leach through his website at skotleach.com. This case study was originally posted by Skot at the Transmedia Artists Guild forum.