We often write about cross-platform fan engagement as though it has been happening in earnest for three, five, maybe ten years. And yet with Dawson’s Desktop, ‘Dawson’s Creek’ was doing this as early as 1998, and doing it extremely well.
“We knew we were doing something cool that hadn’t been done before — but I don’t think we had any idea how much it would serve as a template for so many future interactive web extensions that would follow it,” Arika Mittman, Head Writer and Producer, Dawson’s Desktop, told Lost Remote in a recent interview. “Nearly every show now has some kind of web element that plays within the fiction of the show, allowing you to help solve the cases or read diaries or watch “webcam” footage. It may seem commonplace now, but we were the first to do something like that.”
Following the first season of ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ Dawson’s Desktop was born. Dawson’s Desktop drew from 25 different fan sites and had a dedicated staff – led by Mittman and Ann Glenn – tasked with producing content. As described in Jennifer Gillan’s 2010 book, “Television and New Media: Must-Click TV,” Mittman “[took] on Dawson’s persona, she drafted his emails, journal entries, IMs… and even documents for his trash bin.”
But the team didn’t stop with Dawson’s Desktop. As Glenn (the web producer on DawsonsCreek.com) described to Lost Remote, soon fans were able to book reservations at The Potter B&B and learn about Pacey Witter’s platform for his presidential bid; then spawned Pacey’s, Jen’s, Joey’s and Jack’s desktops; when the show was on hiatus, fans could keep up with the gang via the ‘Summer Diaries’; their graduation from Capeside High came with a digital Capeside High Yearbook; as for the college years, the team built microsites for both Worthington University and Boston Bay College.
“It was really a magical time because we just thought hey let’s build – and we would,” Glenn told us. “Nobody really ever said no, we didn’t worry about how much something cost or even legal concerns. The internet was a bight shiny new object and we didn’t look at it as marketing – Arika and I weren’t marketers – we just wanted a way for you to get immersed in the show enough so when you tuned in the following week you had a deeper understanding of what was happening and you would keep coming back. Keep the show top of mind so you talked about it with your friends and they tuned in.”
Those at Sony Pictures Entertainment who did see the marketing opportunity, though, were also pioneers. “The site,” Gillan writes in her book, “was emblematic of a movement toward impression-based marketing in which advertisers pay for the exposure of their products to a specific audience.” Dep – the hair product line undergoing a re-branding – joined Dawson’s Desktop as a presenting sponsor. 1-800-Flowers also became a partner, offering six products as part of the “Dawson’s Desktop Capeside Collection.” ‘Dawson’s Creek’ had become one of the first shows to build and also to monetize a microsite.
Dawson’s Desktop and its sister sites represent social TV in the pre-Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr age. Had these platforms been available to Mittman and Glenn at the time ‘Dawson’s Creek’ aired, the experience would have been different but certainly just as robust. “It’s funny,” Glenn said, “I will see somebody touting a site or campaign and think ‘oh we did that for ‘Dawson’s’ or, ‘wow, if that platform was around today, like Tumblr, that’s where I would have put their diaries.
We also asked Mittman and Glenn how Dawson – a film traditionalist and a Spielberg fanatic – would have embraced new mediums such as Vine and Hyperlapse. “I think Dawson would have absolutely embraced new media,” Mittman said. “He would have put his movie up on the internet! He might have wanted to do it the way Spielberg did it – but I think he’d know that if Spielberg had been born in 1980, he probably would have embraced new media, too!” Glenn agrees: “I think he would be all over Vine and Twitter. He would be pushing short films out to his fans. You know what? I hope Dawson still keeps a blog or online diary somewhere chronicling his life as a successful filmmaker.”
Now, almost every network for every show is engaging in a form of cross-platform engagement; some are doing it better than others. MTV, for instance, has a devoted Connected Content and Fan Engagement department, and last year the network “hired Kaitlyn Vella as a social media editor based on ‘Teen Wolf’ recap rap songs she posted to YouTube. Kaitlyn is 21 years old.'”
If there’s one takeaway from the success of Dawson’s Desktop for showrunners and producers it’s that when considering how to engage fans in the 167 or 167.5 hours between episodes each week, or in the 12 to 16 weeks during a show’s hiatus, authenticity is key (MTV’s Kaitlyn Vella hire is a great example of this). Did Dawson’s Desktop result in a ratings increase? Perhaps, but we seem to be no closer to being able to claim this type of causality then we were 15 years ago. At the time, Mittman and Glenn and the ‘Dawson’s Creek’ producers deduced that young people using the internet would want to engage with their favorite show in other contexts. Simple.