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The revolutionary power of transmedia storytelling

The revolutionary power of transmedia storytelling Gunther Sonnenfeld

There has been quite a bit of talk in recent years around the concept of transmedia storytelling. Few of these narratives have actually been implemented, but a select number of companies have chosen to satisfy consumer affinities, put great ideas on a pedestal, and think of creative ways to proliferate those ideas through carefully chosen channels.

On a deeper level, transmedia narratives strike an amazing balance between medium and message. In doing so, an exposition can carry out a story arc through application and dialogue that transcends all media execution. Whether you are a brand, an agency, a studio, or a publisher, transmedia storytelling is and will be an integral part of our future success as media entities and content providers.

Transmedia's history
So just what is transmedia storytelling, and why hasn't it been fully adopted?

For starters, it represents a process where integral elements of a fictional narrative get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience, as defined by Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the concept of transmedia storytelling was formally hatched by Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the groundbreaking "Convergence Culture." In the book, Jenkins deftly deconstructs not only the inefficiencies of media influence and consumption (or what we might regard in this context as "confluence"), but also identifies most advertising outreach as communications streams that are significantly limited in what he describes as their "hypersociability."

Hypersociability is a term used to represent the conversational -- or what Faris Yakob has coined as the "spread" -- nature of content. So the idea is that if we can create a true story arc around or within an idea, the scalability of that currency (what we share) is virtually limitless. In effect, it takes us from passing along a piece of content, an application, or a widget (which may die on the proverbial vine), and allows us to engage and participate in a phenomenon, and do so indefinitely. Case in point: "The Matrix", along with many of its associated harbingers, will be the topic of discussion at cocktail parties and dinner tables for as long as the media world exists in its own vacuum.

Transmedia development emerged along with the advancement in digital storytelling, but as Ivan Askwith, senior director of strategy at Big Spaceship, points out, it was also partly cultivated as a means for solving the problem of marketing and licensing excess. This has been a particularly frequent issue with feature film franchises, but has reared its head across a variety of media.

Askwith actually studied with Jenkins and earned his masters at MIT. His thesis was an exploration of how television programs use transmedia extensions as part of a larger attempt to create audience engagement -- a means for allowing viewers to stay personally invested in a storyline. He also did work on alternate reality games (ARGs) as part of a separate research effort completed at the institute. Alternate reality solutions have been around for some time, but have only just begun to reveal themselves in a more seamless format.

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Putting theory into application
One of the more famous case studies that blends content from a television property and utilizes (in part) ARG extensions is the hit series, "Lost."  In addition to the popular television series, the creators of "Lost" have produced a wide range of narrative extensions, including original webisodes featuring the main cast; numerous websites for fictional organizations featured in the show, such as Oceanic Airlines and the Hanso Foundation; a bestselling mystery novel that was published as a final manuscript by a character on the show; a video game that lets players explore the island and interact with the characters in an original storyline, and much more.

"Lost" is a perfect example of transmedia as marketing technique because it blurs the line between advertising and product, according to Askwith. "While most of the transmedia extensions around 'Lost' are ultimately intended to drive viewers back to the mothership of the television series, some viewers might just as easily (and legitimately) feel that the show is driving them outward, to seek out the other pieces that complete the narrative," he says. "So all of these other pieces might be advertising the show, but they're also advertising themselves -- and, increasingly, providing the ability for content creators to tell more complex stories, while generating new sources of revenue."

Coca-Cola's 2007 campaign, "The Happiness Factory", brought out the true narrative potential of what originated as a purely advertising-based vehicle. Inspired by the success of an award-winning television spot depicting the fantastic world and creatures that exist inside each Coca-Cola vending machine, Coke has expanded "The Happiness Factory" into a full-fledged transmedia franchise. This comes complete with an interactive website and "Open Happiness," a new commercial song featuring several popular music artists.

While brands like Coke are far from deficient with respect to their media budgets, it seems they may be challenged with finding more objective and resourceful solutions such as those provided by Starlight Runner Entertainment.

Jeff Gomez, Starlight Runner CEO and a pioneer in developing transmedia content for a number of Fortune 100 brands, including Coke's Happiness initiative, knows that this is no easy feat.

"There are short stories and multi-volume epics; transmedia narrative is a way of conveying messages, themes, and stories -- a tool or methodology if you will," he says. "Smaller efforts may become as ephemeral as a tale written in a magazine, while truly grand and artful ones will aspire to epic literature. We try to distinguish transmedia narrative implementation from standard terminology such as advertising campaigns, although the two can co-exist or overlap."

One example of this type of real-world integration is Dove's now famous initiative for Real Beauty. When you think about it, Dove took a very transmedia-esque approach. With the simple core insight that women of the world don't describe themselves as beautiful, Dove deconstructed our media portrayal of beauty, uprooted messaging geared towards women that has been ingrained since their childhood through multiple sources, and quite effectively, defied cultural mores and peer pressures associated with those deeper messages.

According to Gomez, this is an approach that demands a kind of brand discipline not associated with most initiatives. "[It] requires a combination of diplomacy and a fierce loyalty to the tenets of the IP or brand itself above all else," he says. "Studios, agencies, and publishers that are not doing this are finding themselves trailing the frontrunners."

Spreading the love
Askwith and Gomez are two early adopters who have taken this phenomenon to new heights, but there is a host of emerging players who have not only made their mark with distinctive and groundbreaking creative strategies, but who have endeavored to offer scalable business models that serve a higher purpose.

One such play is "Humanitainment," the brainchild of Michael Fox.

What started with a successful viral campaign for Barack Obama (featuring 5 No. 1 viral videos including "Baracky" and "The Empire Strikes Barack") that helped to define the Obama brand and shape the 2008 election, has evolved into an innovative transmedia branding model that organically fuses commercial entertainment with socially-relevant messages.  It's what you might call pop culture... with a purpose. 

As Fox -- a former entertainment attorney turned cause advocate -- explains, "We are living in a time where technology enables us, and the state of the world requires us, to use new media not only as a revolutionary marketing tool, but as a way to galvanize the consumer to participate in transforming the future.  Twenty-first century branding is not just about making consumers' lives better... it's about making the world better."

Reconstructing cultural paradigms
Goodwill and great intentions have been necessitated by tough economic, environmental, and social times. To the extent that we can seek out powerful interpersonal connections within the transmedia landscape, we also have to account for what type of thinking is required and retool the processes by which we implement this thinking. You might look at this as a hybrid of management consulting, technology development, creative ideation, and hub-and-spoke deployment.

The reality is that many agencies are not equipped or set up for success in this regard. Transmedia vehicles cannot be confined to a predetermined media plan or buy. And, as Conn Fishburn, a former senior partner at Ogilvy and recent head of partner innovation at Yahoo, points out, this is an inventive methodology that takes us far beyond creating just an ad campaign.

"Transmedia programs are inherently about the creation of culture. About understanding the living story, how it is picked up and adopted by people who add to it, shape it, and make it their own based on a core brand DNA," he says. "Agencies typically make static objects that have no history or future and represent ideas that are somewhat plastic. Great ideas must weave themselves into the broader cultural zeitgeist."

Further, all inter-agency departments need to be able to ideate and touch the work in a truly collaborative mindset, and this must translate well past coloring ad units, websites, mobile apps, advergames, or outdoor elements with the same brand palette.

Transmedia development is not a repository for the window-dressing that has become a host of fairly innocuous integrated solutions. What we're really talking about is building conversational elements with their own personalities that are endemic to a particular touch-point in which each channel has its own voice in the collective arc of a storyline.

Following audiences and moving with markets
Let's also not forget a paradigm that has left us all scratching our heads in the search for a viable solution: branded content and product placement. Many talent agencies and creative shops have scrambled to monetize content within very challenging and shifting models. Transmedia narratives have the potential to create greater opportunities by extending stories, reaching multiple platforms, and enabling better audience targeting when done right.

"Audiences are more willing to engage in a number of different ways now," according to Jesse Albert, senior new media agent in the Global Branded Entertainment division at ICM. "Loyalty is given to entertaining content and not to distribution, and audiences will look to find that content wherever they can or please. With transmedia, brands and IP can take advantage of the consumer's willingness to explore distribution channels by extending content offerings across the spectrum."

Loyalty is the operative word, and a formidable hurdle, when we consider the advances that new technologies are making to bring content to us. Retargeting, for example, presents a seesaw battle between what is intrusive and what is seamless. As content providers, when we move with people and not with ad inventory, we have to be very careful about how we extend invitations to interact with content.

As Albert explains, "Content only becomes of interest to consumers when there is something unique to each medium that extends the value proposition of the core IP offered, rather than simply replicating it. Above all, we must reward the true fan who follows the IP thru all channels with wholly unique offerings."

Marketing and development functions
What Albert and Fishburn allude to are actually two fundamental parts to transmedia: the marketing functions and the development functions of a rollout strategy. This requires a bit of reverse engineering, to say the least.

The marketing functions would serve to optimize a media plan or spend (in other words, reduce waste), or, from the ground level, would build out a framework that serves a market need -- in effect, putting the consumer front and center. The idea behind this is that we would actually brand markets, not market brands per se, so that common interests would supersede age or economics. So, in this sense, we are talking about developing initiatives in a true psychographic and technographic capacity as opposed to a mere demographic one.

The development functions would serve to build a mythology around IP. You could take your favorite CPG or electronics brand and build a storybook around its core DNA that is rich in lore, platonic soft text, amazing iconography, and a suite of virtually endless outcomes -- think of video annotations without a set number of second or third acts.

You can then take tools that are already on offer within the semantic web (artificial intelligence) and build layers that extend these stories out into the world, free of dictation, compartmentalization or even language barriers. Subsequently, you'll be creating a seamless, organic and highly collaborative experience.

In conclusion
We are literally looking at a global shift in the way we view ourselves and the way we relate to others in our natural environments, all through the possibilities and intricacies of our own imaginations. Picture this: Using a transmedia narrative to engage and build a new set of cultural values for a society completely different from our own, and creating an entirely new ecosystem in the process. Or perhaps it would call competing brand environments into gamesmanship.

Imagine Adidas's latest declaration that "Impossible is nothing" joining the ranks of Nike's "Just do it" on a wondrous stage blending fantasy and real human emotion.

What this means for advertisers is a potential windfall of consumer engagement and advocacy, or true "super-use." What this means for consumers are potential gateways of self-expression that can be mass adopted and at unprecedented scale. What this means for media is an adoption of content generation that breaks down silos and gives rise to human growth (not the machines).

With this type of quenchable mythos, anything is possible.

Gunther Sonnenfeld runs his own digital media consultancy, ThinkState.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Gunther is a digital brand strategist with Fortune 500 and global non-profit experience on the independent agency side. He specializes in social media marketing, interactive development and technology integration; he facilitates the build-out and...

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