Future of Engagement #7: Transmedia Storytelling

Media organizations, changemakers, and brands create cross-platform storyworlds to drive participation, action and loyalty.

What is Transmedia Storytelling?

Transmedia storytelling involves telling a story across multiple media platforms – including TV shows, movies, graphic novels, books, games, mobile apps, microsites, social networks, online communities and offline events – in a way that each platform explores different aspects of the same storyworld. Media organizations, changemakers, and brands are using transmedia storytelling to create immersive storyworlds that drive participation, action and loyalty.

The rise of transmedia storytelling can be attributed to three dynamics around how people create, consume and share stories today. First, people are consuming news and entertainment in byte-sized pieces, on smart phones and tablets, often on-the-go, leading to new opportunities to create cross-platform, location-aware storyworlds. Second, people have access to so much content that they are filtering for out or skimming most of it, except for content they are most passionate about. Third, people are simultaneously acting as consumers, curators and creators of content, making it possible to create non-linear storyworlds that grow through their participation.

As a result, movies, TV shows, games and toys are all turning into transmedia entertainment franchises. Studios are releasing not only movies but also alternate reality games (ARGs), set in elaborate storyworlds (A.I.’s The BeastThe Dark Knight’s Why So Serious?(video), The Hunger Games’ The Capitol (video), Prometheus’ Weyland Industries). Television networks are creating transmedia storyworlds to sustain fan interest between TV show seasons (Heroes’ EvolutionsLost Experience (video),Dexter’s Hunt for the Infinity Killer (video), Game of Thrones’ The Maester’s Path (video), True Blood (video), BBC’s Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction (case study)), and creating book series by TV show characters to deepen fan engagement (Castle’s Nikki Heat seriesHow I Met Your Mother’s Barney’s Bro series). Video game studios are creating ARGs to heighten anticipation around new game launches (Halo 2’s I Love BeesGun’s Last Call Poker). Toy brands are building transmedia entertainment franchises around popular characters (Barbie Life in the DreamhouseBarbie and Ken Reunion video). Some authors and publishers are creating immersive online experiences to bring alive the storyworlds in their books (Harry Potter’s Pottermore (video)). Independent storytellers are increasingly turning to transmedia storytelling to engage fans and build a reputation (Dirty Work interactive web series (video), Pandemic 1.0 ARG (video), The Guild web series and comic book). Beyond the entertainment industry, organizations and changemakers are applying transmedia storytelling to engage people, especially students, around science and social causes (NASA’s MarsCuriosity Rover, Urgent Evoke (video), World Without Oil (video), Ed Zed Omega (video), Cosmic Voyager Enterprises (video), Routes (video)).

Harry Potter – Pottermore

Some of these transmedia storytelling programs have had significant scale and impact. For instance, the ARG Why So Serious? launched fifteen months before the launch of The Dark Knight and attracted 11 million participants from 75 countries. Harry Potter’s Pottermore has 4.4 million registered users who have earned nearly 60 million points for exploring the storyworld and performing virtual actions. The Guild web series is currently in its sixth season and has received 83 million views on YouTube.

The success of these transmedia storytelling projects shows that, even as attention spans are shortening and media consumption is fragmenting, fans are willing to immerse themselves in non-linear, multi-layered storyworlds, and even extend it through their contributions.

How Does Transmedia Storytelling Work

At the heart of transmedia storytelling is a storyworld with its own mythology and socio-cultural norms, which sets the stage for a cast of characters with their individual narrative arcs and web of relationships. Increasingly, people are consuming such storyworlds not as a linear narrative, but as a multi-layered, multi-platform, immersive experience.

Transmedia storytelling projects can be classified across four dimensions: the fictional or non-fictional nature of the storyworld, the depth and width of the storyworld, the interplay of different media channels with the storyworld, and the possibilities for participation.

Many transmedia storytelling projects are set in a fictional storyworld, with characters and plots, or even a mythical or speculative universe. Filmmakers, TV producers, game designers and writers use transmedia storytelling to extend their fictional storyworlds across channels (True Blood, Halo 2’s I Love Bees). Changemakers and educators often use transmedia storytelling to create speculative universes that provide new perspectives and open new possibilities for participants (World Without Oil). Increasingly, documentary filmmakers and non-fiction authors are creating transmedia projects by creating books, films, games, apps, events and social movements around the same theme or cause (It Gets Better, Half the Sky).

Transmedia storyworlds range from simple story extensions to immersive multi-layered, multi-platform experiences. Story extensions can include blogs, vlogs, social network profiles and even books from fictional characters (Gossip Girl’s blog, MarsCuriosity Rover on TwitterHow I Met Your Mother’s Barney’s Bro series),  to simple apps and games set in the storyworld (Pretty Little Liar’s Bump and Tell, The Hunger Game’s Become a Citizen), and book or film adaptations of the original project. Other storyworlds are immersive experiences, with multiple interconnected websites, web video series and multiplayer games that explore back stories, introduce new plots, characters and twists, or re-create the story in the real world (Prometheus’ Weyland Industries, Pottermore).

In some transmedia projects, the storyworld is distributed across many channels, and each channel explores a different part of the storyworld in an interlocked way, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in sequence (Heroes’ Evolutions), while other projects have minimal interplay between channels (Welcome to the Pine Point (video)), or replicate the same storyworld across channels (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries). Most transmedia projects that are built around an alternate reality game have a strong live, real-time feel with many moving parts (Dexter’s Hunt for the Infinity Killer), while others are more asynchronous.

Finally, some transmedia projects provide multiple possibilities for fans to co-create the storyworld by deconstructing plot twists on fan wikis, contributing fan fiction and fan art, creating their own parallel narratives in virtual worlds, solving puzzles and playing games to unlock new parts of the storyworld, competing in challenges and tournaments, and participating in scavenger hunts, flash mobs and events in the real world (Why So Serious?). Other projects create an immersive multimedia experience, but provide fewer possibilities for participation (Our Choice).

Alternate reality games are a particularly popular form of transmedia storytelling, as they can be effectively incorporated into short-term high-intensity campaigns leading up to big launches. Most ARGs comprise of elaborate scavenger hunts that take place across fake websites and blogs, real web publications, fan communities, physical artifacts, flash mobs and rallies, and often include a series of puzzles, single-player simulations, and multi-player challenges or tournaments. Most ARGs induce mystery through hidden clues, suggestive announcements and partial reveals, and new elements are revealed on a preset schedule or after fans complete milestones. Fans share clues and solutions over online communities and wikis, and collaborate to unlock levels and complete the game, to get rewards like points and badges, physical artifacts, or exclusive content.

Case study: The Dark Knight – Why So Serious?

Transmedia Storytelling for Brands

Brands are learning to use paid or co-branded ads to pull consumers into branded transmedia storyworlds, which aim to retain people’s interest over the long term, and convert them first into passionate fans and then into paying customers, much like movie trailers with entertainment franchises.

Some brands bring their fictional characters or mascots alive through ads, web videos, video games and social network profiles. Burger King’s former mascot The King made appearances in real life, on TV shows and in video games.  Aflac created social media profiles for its mascot Aflac Duck, to engage consumers year round. P&G’s Old Spice created 185 video responses to tap into the popularity of its Old Spice Man, which is not only one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in recent times, but also an entertainment franchise in the making.

Most brands have created such storyworlds as part of alternate reality games, as they lend themselves to short-term, high-intensity campaigns. Brands have created alternate reality games to showcase the brand purpose, engage consumers and build excitement around events.

Coca-Cola built on its brand promise of happiness by creating a series of ads set in the fictional world of the Happiness Factory. Coca-Cola has also created a Happiness Factory Bible to outline the storyworld, character back-stories, and potential transmedia projects. Axe created the Axe Anarchy Graphic Novel (video) based on storylines and characters suggested by fans. Wrigley’s 5 created the Human Preservation Project (video) to showcase the importance of protecting and stimulating our senses. McDonald’s created The Lost Ring ARG to engage consumers around the 2008 Beijing Olympics and drive them to its outlets to search for clues. Audi created the Art of the Heist ARG to launch the Audi A3 in the US and showcase its sophisticated technological innovations.

Case study: AXE Anarchy: The Graphic Novel

Several technology brands have created branded transmedia storytelling programs to launch new products, highlight product features, and showcase the potential of technology to change our world. Intel & Toshiba created The Beauty Inside (video), an interactive film where anyone could play the role of the lead character. Nokia created an interactive story called Someone Else’s Phone to show how a lost phone might reveal all our secrets to a stranger. Nokia also partnered with Tim Kring to create the Conspiracy for Good (video) to support social organizations and showcase its Ovi platform. Microsoft created The Vanishing Point ARG (video) to launch Vista. Google created the Niantic Project ARG to showcase its augmented reality app Ingress (video). Orange has created a series of ARGs — Alt Minds (video), Detective Avenue (video) and Fanfan 2 (video) — to showcase the transmedia storytelling technologies created by the Orange Transmedia Lab. Cisco created The Hunt ARG to engage its sales force and inform them about upcoming Cisco technologies.

Case study: Conspiracy for Good
Some brands simply partner with existing media properties to create co-branded transmedia storytelling programs. For instance, Ford sponsored the Legends of Alcatraz ARG, based on the TV series Alcatraz. AT&T partnered with Tim Kring to create the Daybreak ARG (video), based on the TV series Touch, to showcase the power of technology to transform our lives. Microsoft created a Bing-powered treasure hunt called Decode Jay-Z to launch Jay-Z’s book Decoded, by releasing each page of the book in a new physical location, one page at a time, and using Bing search and maps to guide fans to them. Coke Zero created an obstacle course and challenged people to Unlock the 007 in them, as part of its brand promotions around the James Bond movie Skyfall.

Future of Transmedia Storytelling?

In the future, we expect all types of storytellers to create interactive multimedia content using tools like Thinglink (video), Stipple (video), FlixmasterMozilla Popcorn Maker (video), 3WDOC (video) and Klynt (video). We also expect transmedia storytellers to orchestrate transmedia projects — manage content and mailing lists, publish content according to a schedule or in response to audience actions, make calls and send emails or text messages — using tools like Conducttr (video), IFTTT and Zapier (video).

We expect transmedia storytelling projects, especially alternate reality games and augmented reality experiences, to create customized experiences around locations, using tools like SCVNGR (video), Moveable and Aris Games.

We expect that TV shows will use tools like Galahad (video) and Rides (video) to create truly interactive multi-screen experiences through real-time transmedia storytelling. Transmedia game designer Andrea Phillips believes that television is the most exciting area for transmedia right now:

“You already have a schedule, you know when your episodes will be airing and you have your pacing. It’s a fantastic spine around which to build a more intensive interactive experience… If I let you forget about my show for seven days until I air again, that gives you seven days to find something else to care about more.”

We see more studios adopt the Participant Media model and create engagement, even movements, around their movies using proprietary platforms like TakePart. We also expect more independent authors and documentary filmmakers to try to catalyze social movements around their books and movies.

We expect that ARGs will become an even more important part of the launch campaigns for new movies, TV shows and video games. We anticipate that many of these ARGs will be co-branded with technology brands to showcase new possibilities in technology, or with consumer brands to launch new products or create immersive experiences around the brand purpose.

Finally, we expect more brands to sponsor or create their own interactive storyworlds, either as short-term campaigns or as long-term destinations.

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This is a chapter from a MSLGROUP report titled “Now & Next: Future of Engagement” that I wrote with Pascal Beucler and Nidhi Makhija.

The report highlights the ten most important frontiers that will define the future of engagement for marketers, entrepreneurs and changemakers: CrowdfundingBehavior Change GamesCollaborative Social InnovationGrassroots Change MovementsCo-creation CommunitiesSocial CurationTransmedia Storytelling, Collective Intelligence, Social Live Experiences and Collaborative Consumption.

In each of these reports, we start by describing why they are important, how they work, and how brands might benefit from them; we then examine web platforms and brand programs that point to the future (that is already here); then finish by identifying some of the most important features of that future, with our recommendations on how to benefit from them.

Future of Engagement report on SlideShare

Future of Engagement slide deck on SlideShare

Future of Engagement video infographic on YouTube

Future of Engagement infographic on Visually