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Monday 17 January 2011

Transmedia stories

Extract of "Stories by Miranda July", Photo by Anna Gutermuth, CC licenced - http://www.flickr.com/photos/anniferrr/3991736436/

"Transmedia" has become a powerful force in campaign planning and creative development. Essentially comprising of a narrative spread across a wide range of physical and digital media, it is in itself a term which has gained massive attention in the last year. How can agencies, brands and consumers gain maximum advantage from transmedia campaigns? Are we seeing an eventuality where transmedia becomes the dominant force in campaign planning? Will there be a backlash, based on a desire for simplicity?

Imperica has brought three leading figures together to talk transmedia.

 

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali RamachandranWhat do you consider transmedia storytelling to be?

To me, almost every form of communication that is in the form of a narrative today is transmedia – across different media platforms. A movie no longer plays out just on screen; you are more than likely to see a video game, a Facebook page, and so on. A nonprofit that spreads a story across the web and offline is transmedia storytelling too, such as James Nachtwey's xdrtb.org, which aimed to spread awareness of tuberculosis in London through a web-and-real life treasure hunt.

Transmedia storytelling is disseminating a narrative across multiple avenues in an engaging and relevant manner. To be effective, relevance is key – deploying it across many platforms merely for the sake of it is pointless and ultimately self-destructive, because if people feel they are simply getting the same message across different platforms they will disengage themselves from the story.

 

Why has transmedia gained so much recent interest? Is it hot air, or a concept that is genuinely groundbreaking?

It isn't groundbreaking – transmedia storytelling has been going on in some form or the other from the days of Star Wars, that's the 1970's, just to quote one example. It's been gaining interest over the last couple of years - if you look at the archives of a magazine like Wired, you'll see a few references to it. It's gained increased interest, in my opinion, because of the number of media channels that have now become much more accessible to the masses. Mobiles have never been more popular than they are now, and in fact in developing countries mobile access is even greater than access to the Internet. In the Western world, access to the Internet has never been easier than it is now – in general, the progress of human culture (read Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants for a great primer); the increased use of effects like 3D in movies; and the advent of technologies like the iPad and Kindle, mean that storytellers have more options to weave their narrative across than ever before.

 

Is this "age of transmedia" something which is supposedly separate and revolutionary, or is it another small step in the evolutionary progression of digital media within society?

I don't think it is separate. Transmedia storytelling has very much been a part of our culture and society - the stories originally told in books have found their way to the screen for years, for example. I's just that we haven't known it in those terms till now. Is it a small step in the evolutionary progression of digital media? Hmmm....it is a step, certainly.

Having said that, I think every technology that improves how we function as a society is by definition a contributor to our progress, and though in the traditional sense of the term transmedia storytelling doesn't exactly 'improve' our lives, I think it certainly increases the entertainment quotient, and as far as the entertainment industry is concerned is an improvement, if we may call it that.

 

Is transmedia restrictive to big budgets, or simply big minds? What are the pre-requisites for good transmedia work?

Big minds, most certainly. Lance Weiler's use of a relatively small budget to engage audience's for his film Head Trauma is a great case in point. He didn't have the millions of dollars usually available to huge production houses like the Warner Brothers or Paramount, but he used what he had to arouse people's curiosity before they entered the cinema by employing actors at the entrance, inside the cinema by, for example, having people's cell phones ring mysteriously, and on the web by pointing people to a site where they found themselves in a group chat room all of a sudden.

 

What are the possibilities for transmedia campaigns, projects and work? Given that we have seen so much interest in the concept, are we still scratching the surface?

The potential is huge. With the gradual increase in digital advertising - though I do maintain that traditional TV and print advertising will always have a role to play, albeit a much smaller one than before - the opportunities for brands/projects/films to get noticed by more people by putting themselves in the different channels frequented by their audience is multiplying every few months. As the pace of technological change accelerates, it will become crucial for us to stay on top of it all, so that we are aware of and understand the advantages and pitfalls of utilising one form of storytelling versus another for any given user case. Traditionally, we've been used to campaigns rather than stories in advertising, but this is changing almost naturally as we are exposed to different mediums and getting inspired by other forms of art and culture such as films.

 

If transmedia suggests greater uses of our senses – eyes, ears and mouth - at different times within the storytelling process, is this something that audiences will genuinely find interesting and appealing?

I'm speaking for myself when I say yes. As long as a story is interesting and relevant, if I'm required to use all my senses to go deeper into it, I'll willingly do so! I think with highly engaged communities (which, ultimately is what a brand or campaign aims to cultivate), it will be the same.

 

Can you see an approach in future media practice, where transmedia becomes the dominant concept?

That completely depends on the context.

 

How do we avoid the same type of backlash in transmedia practice, as we are seeing in social media (backlash of both the term and the concept)?

The atomic unit of a transmedia project is the narrative. That, in my opinion, is its USP. I know I'm sounding repetitive but as long as the story – the narrative – has a solid foundation, I wouldn't worry about a backlash. Of course the strategy needs to be planned out thoroughly as well: read Dan Light's blog post about how the Watchmen transmedia narrative was planned and executed, for an example of how transmedia can be an important way of engaging fan communities. As far as advertising is concerned, at the end of the day, anyone loves a good story, and a brand wants an engaged audience. If that story comes from a brand, then why would the audience reject it, as long as it makes sense to them?

 

What do agencies and other media producers need to do, in order to align themselves to transmedia production schedules and narratives? Organisations are usually geared up to produce just one product in one media channel at a time (or if more than one, usually unconnected) – so will transmedia cause a headache for organisations that want to be part of it, and will we see new organisations sprout up as a result?

There are some new organizations already, like Helen Klein Ross' Brand Fiction Factory in the US.

This is an interesting question, because you're right: production schedules for transmedia projects are longer than a typical one-off advertising campaign, because it has to be deployed in a phased and continuous manner if communities are to stay engaged. Having said that, I think there are a lot of parallels between agile software projects - or projects planned and executed by agile agencies, such as Made by Many - and most transmedia projects. Agile projects need a fair amount of scheduling, given that they operate on a make-release-learn-iterate cycle, and are similar to transmedia projects from the point of view of needing sufficient advance planning of what will be done when and learning from what is going on on the ground... not that traditional agencies don't work that way, but it is more rigorous when you know you have to release something continuously.

I think that such a way of thinking could benefit agencies if they are to enter into transmedia projects; it's a combination of having enough structure, in terms of planning and flexibility, and in terms of needing to change, depending on circumstances.

 

Does transmedia finally change the role of the consumer within digital work, and allow them to truly become the active participant that brands and agencies are keen for them to be? How do we know that this is what consumers want, and they don't just want to be suffocated in a world of media passivity?

I think that transmedia definitely makes for more engaged consumers, but perhaps transmedia storytelling isn't for everyone. I'd rather a brand didn't talk to me across multiple platforms, if they didn't have much to say in the first place.

There is a fair amount of talk now about people getting saturated with brand messaging. If people have a reason to invest in your brand and want to, surely that is better than having a disinterested audience? At the end of the day, brands need an audience, and it's common sense when I say that an engaged audience is better than a disinterested one, or worse, none at all.

 

Do you have any good examples of transmedia work?

 

 

Julian McCrea

What do you consider transmedia storytelling to be?

Developing a story which is conceived to be told across multiple platforms.

 

Why has transmedia gained so much interest? Is it hot air, or a concept that is genuinely groundbreaking?

Audience media behaviour is now truly across multiple platforms - a 6-12 year old has up to 6 separate media devices in their bedroom. Media companies need to come up with entertainment properties that are across multiple platforms, in order to maintain revenue. Advertising agencies are trying to create communication that has more emotional engagement with their audience. Hence, they want to tell brand stories that exist across platforms.

 

Engaging audiences across platforms is not new in itself. So, why are we here considering transmedia to be a revolutionary, new concept?

It is not revolutionary. Transmedia works really well, when the world you look to create - the 'story world' - can be looked at from many different angles and mediums. This is not that different from what Edward Bernays did in the 1920's in his exhibition of Future Cities, and crucially by Doctor Who for over 47 years, which has one of the best storyworlds ever constructed.

 

Is this "age of transmedia" something which is supposedly separate and revolutionary, or is it another small step in the evolutionary progression of digital media within society?

I think transmedia, in its current construction, is linked to the way in which people use digital media and society. If I have a 'discoverer' audience behaviour, then I will want to consume a transmedia story. The problem with this logic, is that the mass market audience are not all discoverers; they are passive. Transmedia stories, when they are constructed, need to take into account both sets of audiences and understand they must both be entertained from the experience. When they start doing this, transmedia will be truly revolutionary.

 

Is transmedia restrictive to big budgets, or simply big minds? What are the pre-requisites for good transmedia work?

Certain types of genre - large scale sci-fi and action - make it difficult. This is due to the audience's benchmark of where that genre currently takes them to. For these, a bigger budget is needed. However, for all other types, a well-constructed story world is the only pre-requisite. You should be able to say it in a sentence. You should not get writers who currently work in a specific medium to try and write a story world.

 

What are the possibilities for transmedia campaigns, projects, and work? Given that we have seen so much interest in the concept, are we still scratching the surface?

The creatives within the agencies need to want to create, and the agencies want to sell, this type of work. Production-wise, they are not designed to deliver this sort of work. This type of work is a lot harder to make due to its complexity and will take a brave agency to step outside of its comfort zone.

 

If transmedia suggests greater uses of our senses – eyes, ears and mouth - at different times within the storytelling process, is this something that audiences will genuinely find interesting and appealing?

I think that a certain of audience want it; an audience who want to engage with the story. But, still it depends on the constructs of the world you create. To create these other sensory experiences, you would be better getting soundscape artists, aromatic interface designers, and food designers in to help create it.

 

Can you see an approach in future media practice, where transmedia becomes the dominant concept?

I think it already is; people just don't call it this. Transmedia is a niche concept spoken by a special club of people who know what it means. For most other people - the people making the decisions - they regard it as storytelling across multiple platforms.

 

How do we avoid the same type of backlash in transmedia practice, as we are seeing in social media (backlash of both the term and the concept)?

It is too early to tell. There will, of course, be some really bad examples of this form of storytelling – as with any other singular medium. You must realise that there are no conventions yet, which makes it both an exciting and infant form of storytelling.

 

What do agencies and other media producers need to do, in order to align themselves to transmedia production schedules and narratives? Organisations are usually geared up to produce just one product in one media channel at a time (or if more than one, usually unconnected) – so will transmedia cause a headache for organisations that want to be part of it, and will we see new organisations sprout up as a result?

They need to bring in a story designer who works with the creative team to develop the story across platforms – much like what my company does. They then need to get organizations that are the top of their game in each of the mediums they are looking to use. Crucially, they need an account team that wants to do this work, and show the client that it is meeting their marketing objective.

 

Does transmedia finally change the role of the consumer within digital work, and allow them to truly become the active participant that brands and agencies are keen for them to be? How do we know that this is what consumers want, and they don't just want to be suffocated in a world of media passivity?

Some consumers will want to be engaged and some will want to be passive. The key problem for the brands and agencies, is to create a story that will get their key demographic to engage.

 

Do you have any good examples of transmedia work?

  • The Night Chauffeur for Stella Artois is a 15 minute Nouvelle Vague film in the back of a 1960's Citroen. This was shot outside London pubs, and firmly for the 'discover' mindset. It is beautifully-constructed interactive theatre, that can be viewed from multiple audience viewpoints.
  • Tree of Codes is a lovely book that can be read in multiple ways. It redefines the medium in which it is told.
  • The Unfortunates is originally a 1967 book in 27 pamphlets, and has just been re-adapted into an 18-part radio play for Radio 3. At the core of the story, is memory recollection. The story does not have to heard in chronological order, and I really love the work. It would be a brilliant starting point for a transmedia story.

 

 

Mel Croucher

Mel CroucherWhat do you consider transmedia storytelling to be?

I don't consider a cereal packet, a comic book, a Tweet or a flashmob that involves a video game to be transmedia, unless it makes a real contribution to the entertainment. In other words, if it doesn't add to the story, then it ain't transmedia. Creating merchandise to surround a successful media element is nothing new: the works of Charles Dickens spawned the Pickwick Cigars brand. This is a genuine precursor, because Pickwick Cigars did not exist before the novel, and would never have existed without it - unlike product placement in contemporary movies and games.

 

Why has transmedia gained so much interest? Is it hot air, or a concept that is genuinely groundbreaking?

Has transmedia gained so much interest? I am not at all sure. There is an undoubted buzz in certain creative and games-based circles, but the power does not reside there. Most brand managers and media buyers that I talk to, have no real grasp of the potential of combining media. They want to view a balance sheet that shows, "the campaign cost X, and the number of consumer leads it generated was Y". If the return on investment is negative, then it is all hot air. If it is positive, then it is genuinely groundbreaking. Each project must stand on its own merits.

 

Engaging audiences across platforms is not new in itself. So, why are we here considering transmedia to be a revolutionary, new concept?

I do not consider transmedia to be a revolutionary new concept. It just took the rest of you 30 years to catch up.

 

Is this "age of transmedia" something which is supposedly separate and revolutionary, or is it another small step in the evolutionary progression of digital media within society?

The latter.

 

Is transmedia restrictive to big budgets, or simply big minds? What are the pre-requisites for good transmedia work?

There are no restrictions whatsoever. Some of the worst movies/videos/games/websites/music ever produced, swallowed huge budgets. Some of the best, cost next-to-nothing.

 

What are the possibilities for transmedia campaigns, projects, and work? Given that there has been so much interest in the concept, are we still scratching the surface?

There are no new conceptual elements, everything is derivative. All active gaming is a combination of two basic elements: Chess and Ping-Pong. However, we are still scratching the surface when it comes to how these derivatives are presented and experienced. Technology advanced to embrace stereo back in 1930, and 3D, way back in 1838; and the hallucinogenic experiences presented as fiction in Avatar will eventually be available for anyone who can afford it... but you can get all of that for free right now by nipping in to my local pub. We have been attaching passive delivery systems to ourselves for a long time - wrist watches, headsets - but this is the first generation to attach active delivery systems as an extension of our eyes, ears, mouths and physical locations: smartphones. It is probable that the next generation will embed interactive delivery systems into their sensory organs. And, as long as they stay out of my local pub, good luck to them.

 

Can you see an approach in future media practice, where transmedia becomes the dominant concept?

I cannot see further than my next visit to the toilet, let alone predict the next dominant concept, and neither can anyone else. When Edison produced the phonograph he thought he was pioneering a device for recording legal documents. He had no idea he had invented the recorded music industry. When the first telephone network was installed in 1878, they thought it was for relaying live concerts to the homes of the rich. They failed to spot any application for voice communications. A century later, mobile developers completely missed the appeal of text messaging for an entire generation. If transmedia ever becomes the dominant concept, it will be more by accident than design.

 

How do we avoid the same type of backlash in transmedia practice, as we are seeing in social media (backlash of both the term and the concept)?

Is this a question about fashion? - in which case, all fashion is fickle and no forward planning can be of any use. Adapt or die. Or, is this a question about control? We cannot avoid any backlash by attempting to control mass appeal. In both social media and transmedia, it is the users who have the power, not the developers. I think that this holds true for all cultures.

I believe that transmedia content will be affected by internal checks and balances triggered by external influences. A backlash cannot be avoided, but it can be accommodated, because of the natural alliance of content. For example, developers tasked with selling revolting high-caffeine drinks may exploit extreme violence or extreme sports in video games. They do not care whatsoever if they offend the bulk of society, because they are only interested in their target market: male wankers. Similarly, developers tasked with selling life insurance may tailor their transmedia content to baby-boomers weaned on love, peace and the Grateful Dead.

 

What do agencies and other media producers need to do, in order to align themselves to transmedia production schedules and narratives? Organisations are usually geared up to produce just one product in one media channel at a time (or if more than one, usually unconnected) – so will transmedia cause a headache for organisations that want to be part of it, and will we see new organisations sprout up as a result?

My problem with this question is the word "organisations". The larger the number of people involved in any creative project, the more derivative the result, and so the harder it is to enthuse the target audience in such a competitive marketplace. What agencies and other media producers need is a visionary at the helm to override and overrule the vested interests of traditional empire builders (marketeers, techies, creatives, media buyers, lawyers, accountants and so on). Orson Welles would have made a good transmedia project leader; so would Frank Zappa or Joseph Stalin. Agencies and media producers tend to be followers, not leaders, and I believe that mavericks and small independents have as much chance of success as large organisations. The problem is getting brand managers to take a risk, to challenge a norm, to play unsafe, to put their faith in something innovative, untried and untested. I have met very few of them since I got in to the world of transmedia, multimedia, cross-media - call it what you will - in 1977.

 

Does transmedia finally change the role of the consumer within digital work, and allow them to truly become the active participant that brands and agencies are keen for them to be? How do we know that this is what consumers want, and they don't just want to be suffocated in a world of media passivity?

Yes. We don't. Experience tells us that the vast majority of consumers are content to be passive. They always will be. Why they are idle slobs should not concern us. How to involve the active minority is what concerns us, and the twin mechanisms are as old and as universal as time: greed and fear. These mechanisms often combine in the form of peer group pressure, so greed becomes a hunger to experience something new, and fear becomes a desire not to be left out. What changes everything, is the fact that this active minority can be contacted globally via little screens, and even if they constitute a tiny percentage of the population, they number millions.

 

Do you have any good examples of transmedia work?

There are three of my own that I still like. 

  • In 1981, I produced Pimania. It was released in 1982 as a video game, an audio soundtrack, a comic strip, a t-shirt and a gold and diamond prize for the winner, all of which needed the other elements for maximum participation. The central character, the PiMan, also made live appearances and TV recordings. The game went to number one in the UK, Germany, Spain and a few other territories. At one point, we had thousands of "PiManiacs" searching for the prize in the real world, and I trickle-fed them clues via the game content, the comics and two subsequent audio albums. The prize was eventually won in 1985. In 2010 a commemorative Pimania album was released complete with PiMan mask, so I guess the little bastard is still selling.
  • In 1993 I produced Run the Bunny for Duracell. I believe that was the first member-get-member campaign using trackable routines, embedded in product placement software. It exploited a new-fangled concept called the Internet. It also exploited an old-fangled concept called games piracy, where I actively encouraged players to copy the game. The real-world element involved field-testing smart batteries. The gaming element involved shoving virtual batteries up the arses of virtual pink Duracell bunnies. The incentive was that if someone you seeded the game to win (a laptop, a cell phone, or similar battery-powered stuff), then you would also win - provided we knew who you were, your email address, what hardware you owned, what hardware you would like to own, what you had for breakfast, and so on. I coined the word "adware" for that one, which has since come to mean something quite different. We produced it in 11 languages, including Mandarin and Russian; I mounted it on half a million computer magazine covers for "free"; and I think it was the first viral marketing campaign to go global. It ran on the PC only, and sucked in 100,000 sales leads for my client.
  • The other transmedia campaign that I would like to cite is Take A Break for KitKat. Essentially, groups of office workers would waste time staring at a KitKat screensaver of a chocolate planet Earth. As the planet revolved, cities illuminated, and the idea was if you identified the cities, ate lots of KitKat and answered a tie-breaker, you would win a world trip. Again, it was based on the "please copy me and pass on" viral principle. I am ashamed to admit that one of the cities only appeared for a eye-blink every half hour. Sorry.

 

Anjali Ramachandran is a Strategist at Made by Many. She blogs at One size fits one, and is @anjali28 on Twitter. 

Julian McCrea is Managing Director of Portal Entertainment, an agency which works with storytelling across multiple platforms.

Mel Croucher is founder of melcroucher.com, and a former Managing Director of companies including Adware Interactive and Automata.

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