Going Viral the Organic Way: New Media Meets Human Engagement in Tiffany Shlain’s Character Day

Like many moviemakers, we think of our films as providing a moveable feast for the mind: the film being the appetizer, and the conversation that people have afterward—hopefully about the big questions of what it means to be human in the 21st century—being the main course.

So when we were brainstorming around the release of our new eight-minute film, “The Science of Character,” we asked ourselves: “How can we launch this film to have more impact and reach than ever before?” The film explores the science of how character strengths can be cultivated to lead a fulfilling life, and our aim was to reach the largest possible audience of teachers, parents, and students, ingraining character strengths into daily life for the benefit of families, communities, and society.

In the past, we’ve experimented with distribution strategies from theatrical and online releases to digital distribution (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc.) and special events—but we had never had a truly global, simultaneous premiere, and this film was perfect for it. The film itself was collaborative in its making, created with videos sent in from people all over the world via what we call “cloud filmmaking,” where we write a script and ask people to contribute images and videos for specific sections of it. Once these “cloud films” are complete, we offer them to schools and nonprofits for free, with customized endings where we put their logo and their call to action at the end. To date we’ve made four of these cloud films (“A Declaration of Interdependence,” “Engage,” “Brain Power,” and now “The Science of Character”), and have customized the films for over 1,500 schools and nonprofits. (Visit letitripple.org to view these and customize your own version.)

We took the collaborative nature of cloud filmmaking and pushed it a step further with a collaborative premiere: creating a day to galvanize people in schools and organizations worldwide to focus on character development. Each would host their own event centered around the film, accompanied by online resources and a big global Q&A on Google Hangout, led by experts in the fields of education, neuroscience, social science, and character development.

Moviemaker Tiffany Shlain. Photograph by Marla Aufmuth

Moviemaker Tiffany Shlain. Photograph by Marla Aufmuth

1. Create Day

First of all, who do you ask to create an international day? Who makes those decisions—the “Day” committee? God? I mean, if you want it to be truly official, there’s the United Nations… but we conjured some moxie and said, “Let’s just create a day, give it a name, and see who shows up.” Guerilla day-making.

We called it “Character Day,” and set it for March 20, 2014, the first day of spring. (Little did we know that there was already a day and a hashtag, #CharacterDay, used by schools to designate a day students get to dress up as their favorite cartoon characters. Oops. We overtook that hashtag leading up to the event.)

2) Set Goals

We set a goal of having 250 schools and nonprofits around the world all screen the film and plan events around the conversation of character development on Character Day. They could have it at any time, anywhere, with as many people as possible, with the only stipulation being that it had to be on March 20, to generate the global connection of us all watching the film and discussing character development together.

3) Give Sneak Peeks

People love to be the first to participate in something. I had given a talk at TEDWomen several years back when we launched our first cloud film, and I contacted them about giving their TEDWomen audience a “sneak peek” of the film. An amazing group would see the film, take a postcard home of how to get involved, and be the early adopters in getting the word out.

4) Get Your Community on Board

Your community is the starting point for all outreach. Your email list is your gold—more valuable than all other social media platforms. Sending emails (not too many, and keep them short!) was key leading up to the event. We also created a schedule of Facebook posts and tweets—again, not too many, but enough that they’d fall in people’s feeds.

We were completely blown away by the response. People everywhere wanted to be part of this global day with us—a day that everyone was invited to. Over the course of two months, we built more social media strategies (for example, the 24 days leading up to Character Day each highlighted a different character strength) and we kept our communities (Facebook, email, Twitter) engaged with developments, updating them with behind-the-scenes action and the growing list of participants.

A still from a “Thank You” film highlighting all the participants of Character Day. Design by Una Lorenzen

A still from a “Thank You” film highlighting all the participants of Character Day. Design by Una Lorenzen

5) Communicate the Plan

Whenever you are doing something new—like creating a global day around an eight-minute film—plan time for a lot of explanation. We provided a clear “menu” of options for how big or small each participant’s event could be, including online discussion materials, suggested formats for schedule, and lesson plans. Some schools decided one school-wide event was best, while others hosted individual events in each classroom simultaneously. Provide tools and resources, but give free rein to your audience to plan and personalize their events. We also encouraged schools to share their ideas with each other to help out those that needed more guidance.

After two months of outreach, we had over 1,500 schools and organizations committed to joining us on Character Day. Having far more participants than we’d expected was a wonderful problem to have, but our small team of four definitely needed some help. We brought on an additional part-time person to help with the social media efforts. She focused her time reaching out to the Twitter communities that were already engaged in the relevant conversations and bringing them in to join ours. Originally, we had promised the 250 schools and organizations that participated a poster we had designed of our 24 character strengths. Now that the number had more than quadrupled, we had to ask for the schools to just cover the cost of shipping so that we could still provide the printing of the posters to everyone at no cost.

The momentum from the day led us to a conversation with the White House, which got behind it through social media. Having Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, tweet about getting involved was a huge, much-needed boost.

Tiffany Shlain attends a Character Day screening at Park School Elementary in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Patrici Flores

Tiffany Shlain attends a 2014 Character Day screening at Park School Elementary in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Patrici Flores

On March 20, we had people from more than 120 countries and over 3,000 cities tune in to Character Day. One of us attended local live events to host Q&As, the other stayed in the studio to host the online Q&A for 24 hours, hitting all the time zones for Google Hangouts throughout the day and night. This part was exhausting, and next time we will have multiple hosts share that duty.

Would we do it again? Yes, but we learned quite a bit. Most importantly, we’d have to scale up and give ourselves a year’s lead time instead of the four months we had. The recovery time for our depleted team took a long time. What remained, though, was thousands of people who attended screenings discussing character, and millions of new people in our social media world (Character Day had 11.9 million Twitter impressions), each of those people spreading the conversation of the importance of character building.

We’re already gearing up for Character Day 2015, improving upon the concept and making it even easier for more schools around the globe to participate. This time, the day is set for September (the beauty of creating your own “day” is you can change the date), which is a better time for most school systems and would have the most impact. We’ll give schools the choice to show any of our six cloud films (or all of them), which all celebrate character in one aspect or another. We’ll also be providing hard copies of the resources and films for schools that don’t have Internet access. These are all things we’ve gathered from feedback from participants. To thinking big and letting conversations ripple globally! MM

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, has received more than 60 awards for her work, including an Emmy nomination for her AOL original series The Future Starts Here. Sawyer Steele is an Emmy-nominated producer and writer who has made several films with Shlain, including the Sundance award-winning feature documentary Connected. Their second Character Day is September 18, 2015. Visit moxieinstitute.org to experience their campaigns firsthand. @tiffanyshlain, @sawyersteele

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015.

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