Outside the Frame: Great Documentary Websites

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

You fundraise, you shoot, and you fundraise some more. Years pass, and still, you toil. Finally: a finished film. And then, the question: “What about a website?”

You aren’t a website producer — you make films. Still, you know you need a site to help market your work. But websites aren’t free, and if you want yours to look good, chances are you can’t just have your friend’s 15-year-old son do it for you. So how much should you spend? What will it take? And at the end of the day — how will you know if it was worth the expense?

To answer these questions, we first need consensus on what, exactly, comprises an effective documentary website. Below I’ve rounded up a few recommendations based on my own experience. In the coming weeks, I’ll reach out to filmmakers, web producers, designers and awards organizations, and offer their perspectives. We’ll look at examples, and hear from fans of documentary film. Finally, I hope to hear from many of you — the filmmakers. After reading this series, I want you to get a clearer idea of what it takes to create a site that dramatically extends the reach and impact of your film. Then, with this foundation in place, we’ll look at the question of cost.

So let’s get to it. I submit that creating a great documentary website requires the following:

1) Plan Early — Plan for your website at the outset of the filmmaking process, therefore integrating website production costs (such as digital rights clearances and web production staff) into your production budget and fundraising process. Translation: your website is not an afterthought, either financially or creatively. If you plan for your site upfront, you’ll be ready to launch the site early enough to build an audience for your film before its release (and your site will have enough search engine visibility to continue attracting new interest).

2) Goals Before Graphics — Any money you spend on your site will be wasted if you can’t define the return that you and/or your funders expect on your/their investment. For example, if your primary objective is to sell DVDs, you will make different choices when designing your site than if your primary goal is to advocate healthcare reform (e.g. a big “sign the petition!” button at the top of the homepage won’t help DVD sales). While you may be tempted to zip past this strategic planning phase and go right into decisions about colors and features (“let’s have a podcast!”), trust that taking the time to define your goals upfront will pay off in the long run.

3) Hub and Spokes — Your site is the hub of a grassroots campaign to build interest in your film — an online calling card around which discussion and engagement can take place. Accordingly, it’s critical that you take the time to figure out online engagement strategies, which could include building a strategic presence on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, or creating partnerships with popular blogs, websites and/or organizations related to your film. In other words: it is not enough to just launch your website and wait for the “hits” to start piling up. Your audience is already swimming in media choices, online and otherwise — you need to earn their attention. The biggest cost in this arena is your time, or the time of someone you deputize to oversee these activities on your behalf.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be in great shape. You’ll be prepared well ahead of time for the expense of the web production process, and will be able to fully leverage your site as a strategic component of your marketing efforts. The site will be designed to emphasize those critical actions you want your audience to take — whether it’s purchasing your film, promoting it to friends and family, advocating a particular issue position or anything else under the sun. And you’ll invest your time and resources on targeted activities that maximize your audience’s engagement.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what others in the field have to say — from filmmakers whose sites have won critical acclaim, to producers and designers who create documentary sites, to awards givers. And I hope to also hear from fans of documentary film: What sites have caught your attention? What makes a great documentary website?

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • http://www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com/index.htm Scot Solary

    FOREIGNID: 19954
    I feel like the website we built for our doc, All God’s Children, is a great example of everything you’re talking about here. We tried to keep everything simple, clean, straightforward and easy to navigate. http://www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com/index.htm

  • http://www.rabbitfever.com Amy Do

    FOREIGNID: 19955
    Thanks for this article, Amanda! I would also like to add the importance of having a Facebook fan page and/or a type of forum for your audience/fans to “talk back” to the filmmakers. It makes things easier to instantly notify your target audience about screening times and news updates if they’re already a member of an established social network. I also think it’s so important to respond back to comments that are made by your audience because that will encourage them to come back and interact with other fans. Plus, it’s just a great way to get feedback on your website and film without having to guess what people are thinking! -Amy, Director (http://www.rabbitfever.com).

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 19956
    Scot, I love the simplicity of your film’s site. I could immediately click on About to learn about the film, and then was enticed to check out the Photos and Videos you offer thanks to the clear labeling and design of your site’s navigation bar. The “buy the dvd” button is front and center, making it clear that this is the site’s main goal (have you been happy w/ how many clicks you’re getting? how are you directing people to the site?). One small suggestion: maybe add a tag line or something similar to the homepage to encapsulate what the film is about? I get a sense of it from the photo and the reviews you quote, but some brief text summarizing the film would make it that much easier to figure out.
    Amy – great point about Facebook. That’s an example of what I mean about the site being the hub, with online engagement strategies (like cultivating a Facebook fanbase) as the spokes. Plus, Facebook makes it so easy for people to pass information along – to post a blurb about your film to their own profile page, or invite friends to a screening, etc. It’s awesome that there’s a platform out there that makes it so easy to market an independent project.
    The only thing to keep in mind is that, of course, Facebook’s not a one size fits all solution… i.e. it’s a better fit for some films than others, depending on your target audience. Also, as I’m sure you’ve learned, it’s an ongoing time commitment – you can’t just create a page on Facebook and wait for fans to start banging down the door. You need to update your presence there with fresh info, and respond to the people you engage – all things it sounds like you’re already doing!

  • http://www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com/index.htm Scot Solary

    FOREIGNID: 19962
    Thanks for the compliments, Amanda. Glad you enjoyed the site. We have been very happy with the amount of traffic and DVD sales. We have been screening the film all over the US and our website is the primary URL listed on all our promotional materials, so those interested usually start there. We have also received a good amount of press (some of it national). They usually list the website in their article so that has driven traffic to the site as well. Gaining the press’ attention is also something a filmmaker shouldn’t take lightly and should plan on dedicating hours to that effort if there isn’t a budget for a publicist. Thanks for the suggestion of the tagline on the front page. We’ll give that some thought.

  • http://www.missnancymindstheirmanners.com Martha Daniel

    FOREIGNID: 20011
    We have used our website to keep interested followers up to date with our production and post production phases as well as posting updated trailers. We also use our website as an easy place for visitors to sign up for our occasional updates and make comments, which gives us a collection of emails for our “fans”. In addition, our website makes it easy to DONATE tax deductible donations, too!
    In addition, we have also used an inexpensive service called “Constant Contact” that allows us to send out email updates to our collected email fans, too. This was helpful for inviting people to a fundraiser.
    Recently, we made a fan page on Facebook that has been very successful; we do not have to approve all of the fans like a personal facebook page and we have enjoyed the comments from other folks, too. This will also help when we feel like (timing?) we can solicit donations directly to them . Again, we can garner Facebook emails…….great to stay in touch now and hopefully for future fundraising and eventual DVD sales.
    Must say, we are going into our 5th year (!!!!!!) of trying to squeeze this film out and the ways above have certainly helped keep the interest alive and the momentum going for us.

  • Amanda Woods

    FOREIGNID: 20818
    I was just looking up the schedule for P.O.V. in my area (Seattle) because it’s one of my favorite programs and came across this blog. I’m just getting started in web design, so had to take a look. I’ve been working on author websites (from the world of academia) but never thought about doing documentary websites. This idea greatly excites me, as documentaries are my biggest passion. If anyone has a current project and needs a website I’d be willing to work on it for little to no cost simply for the experience. I’ve got several works-in-progress right now, so nothing to link to here, but if you’re interested I can send you images of screenshots of my current projects. My style is very clean and simple, yet stylish. Nothing too fancy nor too cluttered. This is a long shot, I realize, but I thought I’d go ahead and add this post in case anyone here is seeking help with a website. Keep making those documentaries… I can’t get enough!

  • Amanda Woods

    FOREIGNID: 20819
    Follow-up to my last post. Here is my email address if anyone would like to contact me:

  • http://www.twitter.com/wolfemurray Rupert Wolfe Murray

    FOREIGNID: 20983
    A really inspiring article

  • http://projectpedal.com Mike Ambs

    FOREIGNID: 21091
    This was a very interesting post. And I couldn’t agree more with the importance of building your site *before* your film. A film goes through many stages of planning and production and even distribution, and each requires different attention, which is why your site needs to be flexible.
    Six years ago, when starting our documentary http://projectpedal.com – we had no funds what-so-ever. None to put towards the film itself, none to put towards the website. So I started it myself, spent a month making small adjustments to one of blogger’s free templates, until it fit the mood of the film and included information about the synopsis, the budget, the goals, the team, etc.
    Most importantly though, a film’s site, as Amanda mentioned, should act as a “hub”, in almost every sense of the word:
    Buying a domain and updating your blog once a month isn’t going to bring in the people you want… you need to post behind-the-scenes or promotional videos and host them on Vimeo, Blip.tv, YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. You need a face to your film, and pictures are a good way to start, but don’t host them all yourself; put them on flickr, on twitpic, (and again) on facebook. Create and maintain profiles on several social sites… see which take and which are best at what.

  • Jackie

    I was wondering if anyone can recommend websites they like for historical docs? I am producing one for the first time, and would love to see the strongest websites out there. Much thanks!