Skyship Entertainment is based in Toronto and produces digital content for preschoolers. With more than 9 billion YouTube views and 9.9 million subscribers, the digital creator is demonstrating how to unlock great success by meeting the needs of a specific market and using data-based intel.
“Follow something that’s true to you and that you’re going to enjoy […] because, especially with YouTube, it can be a very large a part of your life,” said Morghan Fortier, co-founder and executive producer of Skyship Entertainment. “It can be something you’re doing every day and I think if you’re passionate about, it can be someone else’s favourite thing as well. That’s kind of how it starts.”
The company produces content (primarily for YouTube), handles its own financing and self-distributes. Skyship began by creating music videos for traditional and original songs, then moved on to nursery rhymes. In 2015, it began developing more narrative-driven content and, in 2016, launched seven series on YouTube channel Super Simple TV. Now it’s producing content in Spanish and Japanese, as the company’s main audience are English As a Second Language (ESL) learners around the globe.
The start of Skyship Entertainment
Devon Thagard and Troy McDonald started the company about 10 years ago while teaching English in Japan. They found it was hard to find classroom material that resonated with their students because the English songs were too complicated. Out of necessity, the duo began writing its own songs. When YouTube came about, a member of the group suggested they upload their songs to this new platform in order to share their content with other teachers.
“A few years later, when YouTube started monetizing, [Thagard and McDonald] sort of flipped the switch and realized that they had an audience out there, that they could make a go of it on YouTube,” said Fortier.
Fortier and her partner, Brett Jubinville, connected with the team to add animation to the songs and, shortly thereafter, Skyship Entertainment was born. From there, the company expanded its content to more narrative-focused videos that it felt would resonate with preschoolers.
“When you’re specifically creating a digital social entertainment hybrid, you’re very much looking at the community that you want to reach out to and to be a part of,” explains Morghan Fortier.
“Find a motivated and underserved audience that you can feed and respond to.”
YouTube is a powerful tool in that it gives creators direct feedback on how audiences are responding to their content. In the recent research report Where Next for Kids’ TV, Samreen Ghani, Head of Operations at WildBrain, explains how YouTube is used to quickly monitor performance. “The data we access on YouTube is anonymous but gives us an indication of where the content is working in which geographical location and with which demographic.”
A good example of this is Skyship Entertainment’s series Carl’s Car Wash. Fortier and the Skyship team saw that car washes were popular with preschoolers, based on analytics obtained via Google Trends, and they decided to build a character around this data.
“We expected to have an uptick in views with the car wash sequences [in the videos], but there was actually a dip. We interpreted this to mean the audience was responding more to the story than the car wash moment,” she said.
With this information, Skyship Entertainment expanded on the cast and started to tell more detailed stories in the second season of Carl’s Car Wash.
“It’s kind of a cool way to have a program evolve. Once we understand what people are interested in seeing, why don’t we give them more?”
YouTube specific content
Creating content for YouTube is a different process than creating content for a traditional broadcaster or even a streaming platform such as Netflix or Amazon. Fortier explained that it’s not just about having a creative idea, but also something that’s sustainable. Ideally, you want to upload a video once or twice a week to keep your audience interested in your content.
For Skyship, Fortier said YouTube was—and still is—the ideal way to distribute content.
“The ESL community is global and that’s been a large part of our audience since the beginning. And really what drove it in the beginning was reaching people a little easier. YouTube has definitely done that for us.”
The downside to producing content for YouTube is that you bear 100% of the risk for 100% of the reward. Finding the cashflow at the beginning of the project can be tough, although tax credits and financial incentives can help boost Canadian projects.
Fortier highlighted another key part of creating for YouTube is creating a brand outside of the digital content. This includes selling DVDs, merchandising and branching out to other platforms. This sort of distribution would usually be controlled by the broadcaster, but as a YouTuber, the initiative lies with the creator.
It may be surprising to learn that a digital-first company sells DVDs in 2018, as video streaming and downloads are overtaking physical sales. But DVDs help Skyship reach audiences that do not have access to YouTube either because their Internet connection isn’t fast enough or because the platform is officially blocked (as is the case in China, for example).
Fortier and her partner both come from a traditional TV background so they also bring a different viewpoint to digital creation. In most cases, YouTubers don’t give too much attention to the duration of a video. However, this company keeps it in mind in case it wants to make the content work in different avenues such as traditional broadcasting.
A shift in the Canadian landscape
The Skyship Entertainment team has been observing the shift in Canadian content creators as many look towards digital content as the way of the future. This includes traditional broadcasters who, Fortier noted, are often still taking a very Canadian content approach to what they produce.
In her opinion, the industry in Canada is still growing, and those tax incentive credits and cash envelopes are helping move this industry forward.
“It’s exciting for us because it gives Canadians the opportunity to be out there on a global landscape and I think that’s a very interesting shift in our broadcast personality.”
In the end, the key to success is the ability to fail and bounce back quickly.
“It’s totally OK to fail. Just fail quickly and rewrite yourself.”
“Fully believe in what you’re doing, but keep your eyes open in case things go sideways so you can shift and restructure,” she explained.