A Digital Ecosystem For the Galaxy: Designing a Universe For a Universe

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By Victor Piñeiro, Strategist, Big Spaceship

When we first engaged with Lucasfilm, we were confronted with an exciting challenge - How do you create a digital ecosystem for an entire universe? Digitally translating franchises like Star Wars, Transformers, Lord of the Rings or even Coke’s Happiness Factory presents a monumental challenge to brands and their agencies. Besides boasting a galaxy of content, these properties have multigenerational enthusiasts of all shapes, sizes and intensities, each looking for something different from their favorite brand’s online presence. In crafting digital homes for iconic brands, we’ve  learned a thing or two about the process. Here’s some wisdom we’ve gathered along the way that benefits franchises, agencies and any marketer that is trying to resonate with a diverse group of fans and followers:

Research Your Fan Base

Every brand or franchise has diverse audiences with different needs, so begin with deep user research and audience segmentation. Get to know how your brand’s fans are split and what the different user needs are. This might mean visiting fan conventions and conducting ethnographies, or administering surveys on the existing website. Persona research and development will help stakeholders visualize and better serve each segment throughout the process.

Prioritize Audiences

Every fan base is split into unique subsets, each with their own dynamics and needs. It’s rarely as simple as stratifying hardcore superfans and casual fans.  For example, Lord of the Rings enthusiasts might feasibly be broken up into those who love the books, those whose primary touchpoint is the movies, those who experience it through the video games, and those who recreate it through Live Action Role Playing. Each fan subset wants something different from the site. Emblazoning the homepage with Elijah Wood might feel traitorous to the novels’ fans, while using Tolkien’s artwork might confuse movie fans. Role players want a site that focuses on information and community, while those who love the video games want strategy guides and more games to play on the site. Who do you please, and how do you reach a balance?

The Eye of the Beholder

If you’re constructing your brand’s core website, you’ll likely want to appeal to all fans, which can become a balancing act. One thing to keep in mind is that different fan subsets can appreciate the same things in completely different ways.  When redesining StarWars.com, we found a Star Wars fan might peruse Star Wars’ online Encyclopedia to learn more about Jabba while a superfan might delight in the details the author put into the Encyclopedia entry on moisture vaporators.

The Universe vs. The Culture

There are two levels to a brand or franchise, and both must be taken into account when translating a property to digital. On one level we have the fictional universe – the diegetic – full of the characters, locations and moments that won fans over. On another level we have the culture that’s evolved around that fictional universe, from memorabilia and cosplay to conventions and YouTube parodies. A subset of hardcore fans might want to stay within the fictional universe when engaging with your brand, while others are more interested with the culture surrounding it. It’s important you engage both types of fans online, and provide content that satisfies each.

Make It Scalable & Modular

Because active properties are growing universes, the online hub needs to be scalable and easy to update. To that end, building a modular framework will help you out in the long run. As new brand stories come into the picture – not to mention fresh editorial content – the experience can be tailored to accommodate new developments without a need to reinvent the entire digital experience.

Legitimize Fans: Aggregate Niche Content

If you have an established fan base, chances are that fans constantly create content around it.  From blogs to wikis to discussion forums, fans are constantly churning out opinion pieces, writing up brand-related news stories and critiquing the latest brand-related products. Rather than spending considerable resources creating timely, niche content, aggregate that content from fan sites and focus instead on mainstream, evergreen content. Not only does it free up resources, it legitimizes fan efforts, which often earns you bonus points from the hardcore fan community.

Different Audiences = Different Social Behaviors

When considering the social aspects of your digital presence, keep in mind the audiences you want to engage with on every platform. While hardcore fans prefer discussing your property with other hardcore fans, these conversations often turn off casual fans, who would rather socialize with their actual friends. If you’re trying to make Star Trek’s site (or social presence) friendly for casual fans, the post with 500 comments debating Kirk vs Picard might be turning them off.

Casual Fan Entry Points

To engage casual fans, which tends to be significantly more challenging than engaging hardcore fans, consider what casual fans love about your brand. Often, hardcore fans tend to be more detail-oriented, while casual fans have positive memories of their favorite brand experiences. The History of Cybertron feature on your site will probably draw far less casual fans than the page showing off Optimus Prime’s Top Ten Lines.

The Site = The Hub

Finally and most importantly, if you’re dealing with a brand that has a large universe and huge fan base, fans are already engaging with it across various forms of media. Digital should be the hub, providing connective tissue between the myriad experiences fans are having with the brand. Whether a video game, movie or banner ad brought them to the site, it must contain information that provides context about the property, fills in knowledge gaps and gets them excited about the universe. Beyond merely educating or marketing, digital needs to feel like your property – it must exemplify the tone and personality of the brand. When building StarWars.com, we never wanted to lose sight of making it feel like the epic space opera that it is.