Interview With Tiffany Chen and Eric Taylor
Location: Teleconference
Interview Date: 1/13/2017

In late December, Crunchyroll surprised the anime world when they unveiled their first ever Anime Awards. The event, which they intended to “recognize and celebrate the accomplishments in anime over the last year,” seemed to hit all the right notes. An independent panel of judges, composed of experts, critics, and prominent super-fans, selected the list of shows for each of the categories. The nominees, from Yuri!!! on ICE to My Hero Academia, likewise, felt like they were pulled straight from many fans’ “best of” lists for the year. Also, voting was open to the public.

From January 3 through 9, people cast their ballots in fourteen categories, which ranged from “Best Couple” to “Anime of the Year.” The first batch of winners were unveiled a day later, on January 10.

Fans hoping to see “Anime of the Year” will have to wait a bit longer. Crunchyroll will unveil the winners in grand fashion, hosting a live event on January 28 at San Francisco’s Folsom Street Foundry.

Enter Tiffany Chen and Eric Taylor.

Tiffany Chen is Crunchyroll’s Senior Product Manager. She describes her position as “a little bit of everything.” She works with licensors for materials and promotions, and leads the content management team, and communicates approvals among countless other duties. With a working proficiency in Japanese, she’s ready to bring her A game regardless of who sits across from her desk.

Eric Taylor, Lifecycle Marketing Manager at Crunchyroll parent company Ellation, is the man behind the message. His day-to-day duties include reaching out to existing Crunchyroll customers, and bringing newcomers into the fold. From email marketing to promotional partnerships, this is the fellow who makes it happen.

Not coincidentally, he also paved the way for the Anime Awards. Taylor cut his teeth at gaming publication GameSpot, which is no stranger to the concept of awards shows. Annual honors, “best of E3” presentations, and more dot the publication’s annual calendar, and have become a regular celebration for gamers of all stripes.

He pitched the idea of an annual anime awards event in a meeting. “In September of last year, a few months after I had begun working at Crunchyroll,” he recounted, “I just asked a very broad question in a meeting: ‘Do we have any awards? Have we ever done an awards thing?’” Receiving a “no” from the group, he asked, “Why not?”

“In terms of difficulty and trying to get the project running,” explained Taylor, “it’s difficult to nail down one thing. The process was large overall, and there were probably four or five teams involved throughout it including design, [operations], the content managers, marketing, etc. Given the tight turnaround time, and that we’ve never done anything like this before, there was effectively no playbook, no process that we had to follow.”

Which ultimately led to a lot of “seat of their pants” decisions, so to speak. “It made it exciting, frankly, but also made it challenging at times. And a lot of learning came from that, so now, when we tackle this in the future, we definitely have a model we can follow, in terms of how we communicate, how we go through the process of both kick starting the project itself, and going on to the next stages and finalizing and executing it.”  Taylor noted that, “what really made it a success was that all the teams working on it bought in, and it became a passion project.”

The community embraced the idea wholeheartedly. “We know our audience is super passionate about anime, they’re very vocal,” notes Taylor. “They go into forums, they create their own Tumblr pages, and they’re always talking about what their favorite shows are. What they hate, what could be done better, so we knew we’d get a strong reaction one way or the other,” Taylor states. “What I don’t think any of us anticipated is just quite how much.”

“We were pretty blown away with how big the response was,” commented Chen. “In my own personal Yuri!!! on ICE fan pages on Facebook, I would see people [discussing the awards]. We definitely had been promoting it, but it was just these fans who had found out about it through our posts, and were running their own campaigns to encourage their friends to vote for their favorite shows.” Indeed, the events on social media seemed to take on a life of their own through the brief run-up to the voting period. “It was crazy to see this whole organic movement. I was really surprised, as this was the first year we had done something like this, that it just organically gained so much traction because people were rooting for their favorite shows.”

Through that organic growth, Crunchyroll saw over 1.8 million individual votes cast, which translated to “millions of page views,” per Taylor. He noted that people took to YouTube to talk about what worked and what didn’t, all of which translated to more attention on the awards show. “People on their own YouTube channels created videos about the awards, both pros and cons ranting about [shows] that weren’t nominated, going crazy about their favorite show that was nominated.” Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook’s response could only be described as “phenomenal.”

Taylor did state that Crunchyroll was aware of the many detractors. “That’s a given with anything like this.” But, as any seasoned marketer will tell you, even the detractors are a good thing. “Ultimately, in the end, that’s a good thing. We can take that and use it to improve the experience the next time around.”

Of course, not everything can be improved by feedback. The nagging specter of recency bias, in which people place more emphasis on the here and now, as opposed to the distant past, can lead to a few quirky outcomes. “That’s a legitimate concern,” admitted Taylor. “Ultimately, the end goal for us, though, was to give a platform for the fans to just voice themselves.” And, indeed, Crunchyroll controls neither time nor space, so this is an unavoidable issue. “If you’re taking a step back and looking at this from the completely neutral perspective, yeah, there certainly is recency bias.” And, indeed, this plagues even Hollywood, who has increasingly loaded major films to receive “Oscar qualifying runs” at the end of the year.

Taylor used Yuri!!! On ICE as an example, as its overwhelming presence in the awards list was an interesting phenomenon. “We simply wanted to put out something that allowed the audience to engage, and it so happened that Yuri was an incredible show. Not just on Crunchyroll, but in general. And that audience was, inarguably the most passionate audience, so that movement really created a lot of hype and put a lot of votes on Yuri, in particular.”

Chen commented that recency bias isn’t insurmountable, highlighting the other overwhelming favorite this year, Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World. “I was actually wondering, like, I wonder if fans would be into Re:Zero because it had twenty six episodes versus twelve, so it’s kind of like Eric says, where we don’t have control over certain shows that come out in those lanes. I was wondering if some of the longer series would actually have more fans because they’ve been out for longer, but it kind of evens itself out.”

And, indeed, I had to smile a bit, before noting the sheer number of write-ins for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure were cast. The title, which has been ongoing since 2012, took home three “fan submitted” wins this year. Specifically, JoJo brought home the write-in awards for Hero of the Year, Best Male Character, and Best Action. With a chuckle, Eric agreed, noting that “the posing is probably what brings people to that show.”

Seth chimed in at this point, asking if either Chen or Taylor were fans of tennis or golf. Both expressed that they knew of the sports. Seth pointed out that both have four major tournaments per year, and used the analogy to ask if there were plans for seasonal awards. Both Taylor replied that they hadn’t considered the idea. The project came out of nowhere, and was up and running within two and a half months. That said, they haven’t had their big “debrief” period, to really see what went right, what went wrong, and what could be improved. Ultimately, though, Crunchyroll is “open to whatever is the best experience for fans.”

It was at this point, that the conversation turned a bit more serious, and discussions on thornier topics like ethical conduct began to arise. Taylor took the lead on this particular topic, explaining that, “ultimately, the finalists that we provided to the audience to vote on came in from an independent panel of judges.” He explained that these judges came from numerous backgrounds, which included figures like Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas, as well as IGN’s Miranda Sanchez. “They were all big into anime, huge fans. Some of them had much more professional, or what you might call traditional anime backgrounds. While others were super fans of the genre and the medium and just really enjoyed anime in general.” The end goal was to provide a short list of shows, which would be easy for fans to vote on. And, unfortunately, this did mean that some titles fell through the cracks.

Furthermore, this does seem to be a project that Crunchyroll intends to keep firmly in their control. When asked whether this would become the first step in a broader, more unified industry award, Taylor replied that “the original plan was, and still is to be a leader in this space. We feel that Crunchyroll is the leader in anime, and we want to take that flag and run with it. Set the direction or how this should be done.” He noted that, while Crunchyroll is open to making the experience better for the fans, including partnerships for promotion, “at this point, it’s certainly something we want to keep close to our chest, so to speak, because we feel really intimately involved with it, and we want to own it so we can make it the best that it can be for our audience.”

The conversation began to shift toward the focus on customer acquisition and retention. Specifically, did this have any real effect? Taylor replied, stating “yeah, it certainly did.” The original top-line goal was to “create something for the fans, give them the opportunity to engage with the content that they love.” From a marketing perspective, this was also a chance to re-engage users, as the awards shone a light on titles that hit earlier in the year such as ERASED and Kiznaiver. “Obviously, if you look at it from a marketing perspective, yeah. You want to also re-engage the audience with maybe shows that came out in [Quarter] 1 and [Quarter] 2. Something like ERASED, for example. Fantastic show, but it hasn’t been out in a while. So, resurfacing content like that was a goal of ours.”

Apparently, the gamble has paid off, as “[Crunchyroll has] seen the data to back it up. We’ve seen a lot of people come back, check out these shows that came out earlier in the year. We’ve had really good success at driving viewers’ eyeballs to older content.”

When asked if this had an impact on new subscriptions, Chen and Taylor remained coy. “I can’t go into specifics on that,” noted Taylor, “but we had a really great quarter. We saw a lot of success bringing new customers onto the platform.”

Looking to the future, Chen and Taylor seemed optimistic about the lessons learned, and prospects for future events. “One was, as you guys saw, we had an ‘Other’ section for people to write in, we didn’t have that originally,” noted Chen, “It just didn’t really cross our minds, but after seeing feedback from the fans, we realized that was something important for people to be able to write in something that they felt they wanted to be represented.”

Taylor echoed that sentiment, stating that “making it bigger is always the easiest thing for anything. Just throw more production [i.e. money] behind it, make it bigger. But the risk is in becoming a watered-down version, where the quality doesn’t stand up. So I think in order to do both, we need to listen to the audience. I think that Tiffany provided the best example of this project was something as simple as allowing users to input an ‘Other’ category.”

He pointed to the amount of feedback from Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, in which users were demanding the ability to nominate their favorites as write-ins. “In the original scope of the project, that wasn’t something we had considered, and we turned that around really quickly because it was obviously something important to the audience. And they really appreciated that. We saw some great numbers come in from people hitting the ‘Other’ option and entering their favorite show, or character, or whatever the option was.”

During the debrief segment, Taylor noted, the company will consider what fans want to see in future awards ceremonies, which will ultimately start the conversation to improving next year’s events.

As we closed our conversation off with Chen and Taylor, we asked for one final comment, as a parting shot. Their answer was straight-forward, and very much to the point: “To anyone who participated in the awards, thank you very much! All your support was what made it a success, and please, be vocal! Let us know what went right, but more importantly, what we did wrong, because we’re going to make it better next year!”

And with that, our paths separated once more. Our conversation was over, but it’s clear that the Anime Awards was something that they had invested a lot of energy and excitement into over the past several months. The anticipated Anime of the Year award is set for the big stage in San Francisco, and it’s clear that there’s still much work to be done before the curtain goes up. That said, it’s clear that Crunchyroll’s team is up to the task of making this awards show one to remember, even as 2017 begins to show its visage on the horizon. Right now, their mission is simple: to build that glitzy, glamorous spectacle that any anime fan would be eager to watch, year after year.