Those who have deemed the vampire trend to be over have overlooked one pertinent detail—the blood-sucking creatures are, by nature, immortal. Last fall, Random House’s vampire-themed original online title, Mortal Kiss, was unleashed to virtual community Stardoll‘s 100 million users and gave new life to the way young girls engage with book content. The serialized novel, created by the publishing house’s UK division and hosted on the Swedish girl-skewing website, was a multi-platform project built with elements of social networking and gaming. What started as an experiment in online publishing has led to solid hard-copy book sales, a second upcoming serialized novel and potential film and TV spin-offs. With their second Mortal Kiss title in the works, Fiona MacMillan, Random House Children’s publisher for colour and licensing, and Stardoll GM Chris Seth open up about the incentive for the initial project, measuring success in the digital age, and what the next chapter holds for marketing content to youth.
A new form of packaging
As major international media outlets, it comes as no surprise that Stardoll has dabbled in branded experiences and Random House has experimented with new forms of content delivery. Mortal Kiss, however, marked a first for both companies in terms of delivering a deeply social, serialized book experience.
“We wanted a way to tell an original story to an audience we already knew was there and engaged,” says MacMillan. What Stardoll’s tween and teen audience got was a novel delivered in daily chunks of 1,500 words to the website across eight weeks. The book was conceived and written in-house at Random House under the pen name Alice Moss and then handed over as a manuscript to Stardoll’s digital team, which enhanced the visual and graphic elements. The novel was packaged not unlike a soap opera in that it teased readers with steady character development and plot hooks.
“The initial engagement was through text and story, but then we saw girls going into competition and collaborating with each other,” says MacMillan, adding that girls were blogging about—and voting on—plotlines and characters. In fact, user suggestions were listened to carefully and then used to tweak storylines and the eventual outcome of the novel.
Fans’ plot suggestions weren’t the only things closely watched. Both companies kept in tune with daily metrics in order to measure the success of the project and make changes accordingly. Branded activities that tapped into the core game-play elements of the site—such as Mortal Kiss dress-up games, short story contests, virtual fashion lines and daily polls—were strategically designed to allow for several points of engagement.
The number of page views on the campaign itself totaled 18 million over the eight-week period, and fan club membership topped 100,000. There were 700,000 entries in the Mortal Kiss doll dress-up game (which encouraged users to create avatar dolls of the book’s main characters), and more than 3,000 online discussions around the book itself. While the metrics did exceed initial goals, what surprised both parties most was the number of girls devoted to translating the English text into other languages. Weekly summaries of the novel were translated into 10 languages, and users proceeded to further translate their own daily interpretations to help bridge language barriers for international readers. (Stardoll users primarily live in North America and Western Europe, but the social network has experienced recent growth in Brazil, Poland and the Middle East.)
“We covered all our bases,” says Seth, down to creating a virtual Mortal Kiss fashion line based on key items from the book that were then made available for purchase. Real-world fashion lines inspired by the site’s content are common to Stardoll, and it’s a tactic that may be considered for the Mortal Kiss brand in the long run.
Dictating the future
In the near future, however, the focus is on a second serialized title, Love Never Dies, which will launch on Stardoll in mid-August. Aside from new characters, one main difference is that the novel will run over the course of four weeks, not eight. The partners decided to launch a more abridged version of the full novel in order to better capitalize on the planned hard-copy release.
“We thought it was more beneficial to shorten the length and extend content off the platform,” says MacMillan. “You can build huge equity in the story and character loyalty, but we learned that you have to hold back some content so you have something to offer offline.” While the published hard-copy of Mortal Kiss has sold roughly 10,000 English-language copies since launching at retail this past winter, it features exactly the same content that was delivered online via Stardoll.
But perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Mortal Kiss is that there is still a healthy appetite for the written word among digital-savvy tweens. “We knew our audience was interested in the right kind of literature, but it surprised us that the desire was there on a daily basis since Stardoll is more of a visual than text-based platform,” says Seth. The market for a vampire-themed product that can straddle both online and offline engagement, and potentially lead to film and TV adaptations, also appears to be alive and well.