how to build an audience and market your documentary film

How to Build an Audience and Market Your Documentary Film

In my last post, I wrote about distribution, where people can find your film. Now I’d like to talk about how people can find your film: audience building and marketing.

How to Build an Audience and Market Your Documentary Film

You’ve created something amazing… you’ve put it on YouTube… or, better yet, you’re trying to monetize it by putting it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, or any number of VOD platforms… now, how do you get people to watch it?

This is the question that has haunted every single filmmaker since the beginning of time (well, since the 1890s when motion picture cameras were first introduced, but who’s keeping track?). There are infinite ways to do this, but to really break this topic down I want to explore two terms that one of my favorite marketers, Gary Vaynerchuk, mentions often: strategy vs. tactic.

The terms tactic and strategy are often confused: tactics are the actual means used to gain an objective, while strategy is the overall campaign plan, which may involve complex operational patterns, activity, and decision-making that lead to tactical execution.

What does this have to do with film marketing?

Simply put: everything. Unless you are an absolute beginner, learning the basics of shooting and editing, you should be thinking about marketing strategies and tactics with every film you make before you make them.

In fact, thinking about marketing can be a great source of inspiration for your future films. So, without any further ado, I want to explore these terms.

Film Marketing Strategy

In my opinion, film marketing should be carried out with one specific strategy in mind: to provide as much value as possible to as many people as possible.

Unlike other information or entertainment products, films are offered at a very low price point. Combine this with the fact that films can be expensive to produce and it’s difficult to turn a profit on films without marketing them to wide audiences.

That said, reaching a wide audience does not mean trying to reach everyone. In fact, if you are making films to provide value to everyone, there’s a good chance you’re not making good films.

Instead, it’s important to focus on reaching wide audiences within very specific niches. Not only will this allow you to provide to most value possible to the audience, because you are giving them exactly what they need (and are probably already looking for), but by serving them so directly they are more likely to share your work and increase virality.

If you’ve made a film about a specific issue or topic, you want to focus your efforts on sharing it with people who are already consuming content about that issue or topic. If providing value to a specific audience is the strategy, you need some tactics that can help you accomplish it.

Film Marketing Tactics

Now, before I get into specific tactics I have to give a disclaimer. There are an unlimited number of ways to get your message out to audiences. There is no way for a single blog post to adequately explore all of these options.

So, instead of giving you a long list without much detail, I’m going to focus on a few that I know work and try to give you enough information about each of them to get started.

  • E-mail & List Building. E-mail marketing has been one of the most effective channels on the internet since e-mail was invented. The reason is simple: people check their e-mail. Even today, when the internet is saturated with e-mail marketers, open rates are still at about 30% (depending on the industry). That means that 30% of people who receive your e-mail will open it and read some of it. Compare that to channels like Facebook or Twitter, where your message is easily lost in the feed of information, and you can see why it’s such a valuable tool. If you’ve noticed, on my blog I have an e-mail sign up form on my landing page, in the right sidebar, and at the bottom of every post. I make my offer clear for subscribers, telling them exactly what they will receive. After they subscribe, I follow through. The best part about e-mail marketing is that most platforms have automation features, meaning you can write all of your e-mails in advance so that, when someone subscribes to your e-mail list, they get regular e-mails from you in a pre-determined order and frequency. The key to e-mail marketing, just like social media, is what Gary Vaynerchuk calls Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. You want to provide real value to your e-mail subscribers, not just hit them with offers. If you’ve created a film about a specific topic, and you wanted to follow Gary’s method, you could send three automated e-mails to subscribers that provide massive amounts of value (like education or entertainment), and then in the next e-mail provide a clear offer. This builds trust with your audience and makes them more engaged and likely to spend money on your endeavors when you have a valuable offer. Some marketers will hit subscribers with an offer right away, then provide value in a few e-mails, then hit subscribers with the same offer again. Other marketers will send a dozen high-value e-mails before hitting their subscribers with an offer. There are some statistics that you can find with searches about conversion rates, e-mail sequences, etc., but in general I think it’s important for you to just start experimenting. In fact, you don’t have to have a completed film to start list building, either. Many people say that e-mail marketing is the best channel to market crowdfunding campaigns, so you could start building your list long before you ever create a film as long as you have value to provide. Want to get started? Create a landing page on WordPress, or sign up for one of the services that offer pre-built landing pages like ActiveCampaign or ConvertKit, and give it a try!
  • Blogging/Vlogging & Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Whether you’re going to try the e-mail marketing route, or simply just try to send people to a landing page with an offer to watch (for free), rent, or buy your film, you are going to need traffic. One of the best ways to generate traffic is what’s known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). With SEO, your goal is to create content on a blog or on YouTube that people are searching for. Google is the #1 search engine in the world and looks for blog content in its search rankings. YouTube is the #2 search engine in the world and looks for video content on its platform’s search rankings. Want to know what people are searching for? All you have to do is navigate to Google or YouTube (or this awesome tool I use called Soovle) and start typing in keywords related to your topic. In return, you’ll get a ton of information about what specific keywords and phrases people are searching for. Use these keywords and phrases when you are naming content, use them in the descriptions of videos or the content itself, and use these keywords in the tags. Struggling to come up with content? Create video clips from the interviews you conducted for your documentary film that provide good information on the topic. Create entertaining clips and teasers and give them names people are searching for. Create content sharing your behind-the-scenes process and name the content appropriately. If you start looking around YouTube and popular blogs you’ll see this strategy in action and that’s because it works. By creating short, supplemental content around your film, you are not only providing people with massive amounts of value, but you are giving them a teaser for the film itself. After all, if a few of your blog posts or YouTube videos can provide them with so much value, then certainly your film is going to be even better!
  • Social Media & Influencers. Most people look at social media and influencer marketing as a source of traffic generation. That’s fine, because it is. In fact, social media is one of the best ways to generate traffic and get people in front of your e-mail opt-in form, blog post, YouTube video, or product offer. But, simply sharing a link or paying/convincing an influencer to share your link is only one way of using social media to market your film. Yes, I think you should share your links on all social media platforms. Yet, I think you should try to connect with influencers in your film’s niche and try to get them to share your links. But, I think the real power of social media is even greater than simply sharing links. In fact, I think the secret lies in the name itself. Social media is the places around the web that people gather to be social about various topics. The real power in social media is the ability to join in on the conversation and connect with these people, and you don’t do that by spamming them with a link. The best way to get people to engage in your content on social media is to engage in their content on social media. So, once you’ve created your profiles, filled out awesome bios, and included a link in each bio back to your most effective offer (e-mail opt-in, marketing content, or product offer), it’s time to start engaging. Follow as many people in your niche as you can — you may be surprised at how many follow you back. Like posts relevant to your niche. Reply to posts and engage in valuable conversations with people in your niche. One of the best functions I’ve found for this is the Twitter search function. On Twitter, you can search for just about anything, from keywords in someone’s bio, to keywords people are currently talking about, and you can jump right into conversation with them. So, what are the words someone talking about your film’s topic would be using on Twitter? Search for them, start replying to their posts, and see what happens. Having conversations with people on social media is a great way to get them to watch and share your content because you’ve built trust with them, and that goes for influencers as well. Too many people will make a list of influencers and blindly send out hundreds of cold e-mails, hoping that one of the influencers reads the e-mail and decides to share their content. What if you started following them, sharing their posts, replying to their posts, being an active part of their community, and then you asked them to share your content? I’m telling you right now, this is a more effective approach.

Now, of course, all three of these tactics are free or inexpensive, but they do take time. If, rather than time, you have boat loads of money you are willing to throw at a project, you should experiment with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising on platforms like Google, YouTube, and Facebook, as they have been known to be effective.

If, on the other hand, you prefer in-person marketing efforts, you can always experiment by handing out flyers, trying to speak at local events related to your niche, or otherwise making face-to-face connections with influencers who may want to share your work.

Get Your Message Out There

The point of all of this is to get your message out there. Regardless of the route you take, it’s important that your film be seen for two reasons. First, your film is valuable to the right audience, and they deserve to watch it if you’ve taken the time to create it. Second, one of the best ways to improve as a filmmaker is to get feedback, both positive and negative, and try to consider that feedback when you begin working on your next project.

So far we’ve covered just about every step in the documentary filmmaking process. If you repeat this process enough times, you are bound to be successful and make great movies.

In my next post I’ll explore mindset, a subject that I’ve focused on in my own life and seen great results from. In the meantime, get out there and make movies!

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