Part one of two-part series on transmedia and the changing landscape of media, including the changing role of online video.
Transmedia has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the entertainment and advertising world, gradually reshaping the way we engage with stories of all kinds.
Once a collection of siloed channels with their own unique agendas, media formats like paper books, DVD movies, websites, and online video are now evolving and blending together, with end users increasingly making less distinction between the media types and platforms that are now woven into our daily media routine.
This fundamental shift in consumption has given rise to the idea of transmedia: stories told and delivered in a platform-agnostic world, blending story elements seamlessly between various engagement points.
Just What is Transmedia?
Despite the growing buzz, nailing down an agreed-upon definition of transmedia has not come easily. According to Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California, the practice is still too new of a phenomenon to have a narrow definition agreed upon by all. But Jenkins, one of the earliest transmedia advocates, has indentified a definition that has been adopted—more or less—by his peers and colleagues. In presentations and on his blog, he describes it thusly:
“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”
Enlightening yes, but still quite a mouthful.
Given the formative period of this new trend, it might be easier to explain what transmedia isn’t. Following that line of thinking, transmedia shouldn’t be confused with cross-channel distribution or branded entertainment. Indeed, entertainment and other content has been shared between channels for some time now, and cross-channel marketing, where a consumer runs into coordinated advertising campaign on TV, radio, online, and other media touchpoints, is hardly new thinking. Branded entertainment, on the other hand, where a product is incorporated into a storyline, can be part of the transmedia equation, but it goes further than that. Transmedia entertainment is branded entertainment that’s social, co-created with consumers, delivered across multiple platforms and is dynamic, changing to fit the user’s engagement level.
Advancing the Storyline at Every Touchpoint
The last sentence of Jenkin’s definition, relating to each medium’s unique story contribution, bears further discussion. In a transmedia environment, rather than simply telling the same story in multiple channels, each platform instead plays its own unique role in moving the story forward as part of a well-choreographed presentation. In this emerging scenario, transmedia producers, or “story architects”, plan out the story in full, developing tightly integrated storyboards that use a variety of mediums to their fullest advantage.
For the story architect, the challenge—the art, really—is to design the story so that wherever a user plugs in, they find value and aren’t missing anything or being left outside of a larger conversation. On the flip side, for those brand or story passionistas that choose to engage the story at many levels and various platforms should feel like they’re getting much more out of the story.
For brand marketers, that means letting go the practice of consistent messaging across every touchpoint in favor of a new, more nuanced goal, one that considers the communication canvas in full, conveying different parts of the story to different channels. By taking advantage of each channel’s strengths and creating unique extensions of a story based on those elements, the possibility for a deeper and more engaged experience emerges.
Another leading voice in transmedia, Jeff Gomez President and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment put it this way in an interview with Forbes.com:
“In today’s interconnected world, young adults, teens and even kids have become so comfortable with media technology that they flow from one platform to the next. The problem is that their content is not flowing with them. As a discipline, transmedia provides us with a foundation for the development, production and rollout of entertainment properties or consumer brands across multiple media platforms. Transmedia creates the flow.”
To create the transmedia flow that Gomez refers to, stories are accessed across a fleet of communication vehicles used in our daily lives, from computers to smart phones to tablets to e-reading devices, and gaming consoles. Story engagement can take place online at websites or social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, in books and ebooks, on video games and through online video channels, not to mention in live events and other forums in the physical world.
Brand Examples in Transmedia
Up to now, transmedia development has naturally gravitated toward existing story forms, such as movie properties and television shows, but increasingly advertising agencies have embraced transmedia campaigns as a means to deepen brand connection and engage more fully with their audiences. As the concept takes root, more and more brands are recognizing the potential to better coordinate the creative execution of their brand story and are experimenting with transmedia-laced strategies.
Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s recently announced extension of her enormously popular Harry Potter universe, will be open to all in October. Details for Pottermore, which USC’s Jenkins calls the most highly visible transmedia project to date, are still not fully known, but according to Rowling, the site will provide an interactive online reading experience and will feature additional unpublished content the author has been saving for years, along with providing the first source for Harry Potter digital audio and ebooks.
MTV has experimented with multi-platform storytelling in recent years, first with its Valemont series, and then with its Savage County horror series, which blended TV, web video, social media platforms, an iPhone app and a newspaper-like website that reported on the stories as if they were real.
Another example is Post Secret, an ongoing community art project where people mail-in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard. These postcards are then displayed on a blog, which is viewed and commented on millions who in turn are inspired to add their own comments. There are Post Secret books, a Post Secret mobile app, a column that appears in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and exhibitions that travel around the country as part of a traveling art show.
In the followup to this post, we’ll take a deeper look at these and other dynamic examples, plus the various components within that make each a successful transmedia project.
Writing a Compelling Brand Narrative
Central to cross-platform brand story is the narrative itself. According to Michael Margolis, President of Get Storied, for a brand to succeed in today’s multi-tiered communication environment, it’s vitally important to first have a story worth telling.
“It’s fundamentally about the story and how you package the story in a way that other people can identify with,” Margolis said in an interview with Sparksheet TV at the 2010 BrandsConf event. “If people can locate themselves inside your story, then the need to persuade or convince or or sell people on anything disappears.”
In other words, the overt act of selling ends and real engagement can begin. Getting to that point, though, is the real challenge for brands. As Margolis argues, our media-is-everywhere lifestyles have sharpened our B.S. detectors, leaving us wary of brand messaging. When approached on one of these platforms, our brains are on guard, skeptically analyzing the information source. “The question in the back of my mind is, ‘Are you just trying to sell me more shit? Or do you believe in something and want to change the world?”
How a brand demonstrates to the world that it does really care about their mission—the humanization of your brand narrative—is key to the success of any campaign, transmedia or otherwise. Certainly, for readers of this blog and other online video proponents, that’s an important point, because online video remains one of the absolute best mediums for displaying personality, emotion, and living, breathing brand—in vivid, frame-by-frame color.
The Role of Online Video
For online video creators specifically, working within a transmedia narrative means joining a storytelling ensemble and playing a role within the larger brand story, rather than trying to tell the whole story. With cohesive direction and planning, the ensemble is capable of creating brand new story worlds and vast narratives that capitalize on the benefits of each medium. Like instruments in an orchestra, they create a scenario where the sum is truly greater than the parts.
Tania Yuki is Vice President of Advertiser Solutions for Visible World, a leading provider of targeted television advertiser solutions. She previously worked for comScore, where she managed the Video Metrix product. In a comScore blog post from last year, Yuki reiterated the importance of online video in the transmedia mix.
“TV, for example, is undeniably the most powerful reach vehicle, but online video often delivers higher impact per viewer. In fact, it scores higher across several key brand metrics, including recall, relevance, and favorability.”
In addition, Yuki points out, 43% of people who watched original TV programs on both TV and the web have stopped a TV program that they were viewing online midway in through order to visit an advertiser’s website, which demonstrates the highly targeted, engaged, and inherently interactive nature of the online video platform.
“And that doesn’t even address the potential of brand integration, relevant placements, and sponsorship that come with transmedia implementations,” Yuki said.
Though still in buzzword status, transmedia is likely here to stay and in the longer term should become the standard for storytellers in all forms. Meanwhile, marketing models will need to shift and creative skill sets will need to broaden. “I want to learn animation, I want to learn video games … I want to learn book publishing and I want to learn TV,” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro told a reporter last year. “Why? Because, as a storyteller, I’m convinced that in the next 5 to 10 years, we’re going to need to know all of that.”
For more examples of transmedia brand campaigns, advice about how to find your best brand story, and the importance of fan and user engagement in transmedia, read part two of the series, Transmedia and the Art of Brand Storytelling.