TRANSMEDIA AND THE ESSENCE OF STORY

A couple of weeks ago I went to listen to a guy called Jeff Gomez talk about transmedia. If that sounds like a buzzword, it’s because it is. In the right hands, however, a transmedia strategy can be extremely powerful, whether it’s for a movie, a brand or even a country.

As a child Gomez was exposed to an early version of transmedia through his fascination with Japanese comic books. In a struggling post-WWII Japan, in a last desperate attempt to help each other survive, competing companies started sharing their comic-book IPs. This resulted in a whole bunch of new hybrid story universes, across comic books, TV shows and movies. It renewed the public’s interest in their product, as well as opening up an entire universe of possibilities for storytelling.

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With his company Starlight Runner, Gomez formalised the form, which he called transmedia, and as a result of his efforts, more and more movies and entertainment properties these days have a transmedia strategy as part of their overall business plan.

So what is transmedia?

Transmedia is multi-platform storytelling. But rather than repeating the same story in different media, it tells different parts of the same narrative, expanding on a core idea to create a rich and complex story universe.

Like an orchestra where every instrument contributes to making the total experience richer.

Every execution must be unique and play to the strengths of the individual medium.

It’s also completely scaleable (despite a focus on Hollywood movies, iconic brands and entire nations).

And it’s ultimately about how we can better use storytelling to engage people and solve problems – theirs and ours.

Matrix is a great example, which not only spawned two sequels, but also Animatrix – nine animated shorts from the Matrix universe – video games and extensive online extensions. All telling different kinds of stories featuring different characters, all of which unmistakably originated from from the Matrix universe.

Jeff Gomez is now kind of a big deal, and is currently working on the Avatar sequels and Star Wars.

And it’s easy to see how all this relates to brands. In advertising we’re certainly into using a whole lotta different media platforms. Problem is, we tend to repeat the same old message across all of them, boring the consumer to death in the process. Transmedia it’s not.

Gomez talked for eight hours, but what I found the most useful was the idea of finding the essence of a story and the importance of audience participation.

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FINDING THE ESSENCE OF A STORY

The original story must be versatile enough to work across a wide variety of media platforms and it must be rich enough to support several narratives. While it’s easy enough to see what this means for a movie, it can be a bit trickier when working with a brand. The key for both is to find the essence of the story.

I know what you’re thinking. We define brands’ essences all the time. Problem is we usually get it wrong. A true essence is unlikely to be the one word that has been workshopped and compromised on to appear at the centre of the brand onion or at the top of the brand pyramid. This is usually the lowest common denominator that explains why the marketers think the brand is so awesome at what’s after all its core business. No one connects with that.

At its core, storytelling is a practical teaching tool. Human beings have evolved to tell stories as they help us live our lives. They teach us about right and wrong. Indeed the best story worlds are for kids, helping them to grow up. So for people to engage with your story, there has to be something in it that they can relate to and learn from (sorry, learning about your product doesn’t count).

The essence is rarely obvious. And it’s certainly not arrived at through focus groups. We connect with stories subconsciously, in ways we cannot articulate (which is worth thinking about next time you ask a focus group how they responded to your creative). So to find the  essence we must go back and analyse the history of the brand, understand what made it successful to begin with and what people’s perceptions of it are today.

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Analysis are time consuming and complex. It takes patience, but the good news is the answers can be diverse, interesting and surprising. Some examples Gomez gave.

The essence of Pirates of the Caribbean is the universal struggle in human beings to find the balance between their civilised and primal selves – as manifested in Jack Sparrow.

The essence of Coke is found in its history of bringing people together across cultures and borders, despite their differences and conflicts.

Colombia was in danger of being left behind the rest of the world when its youth – at a mass-scale – failed to prioritise education and careers.  The answer was found in the country’s recent history, where drug cartels and the FARC guerrilla made it dangerous to stand out as a successful individual, leaving a deep mark on the country’s youth culture.

These are all things we can empathise with and relate to at some level.

Only when you know what the core ethos and moral of a narrative is can you expand on it. Only when you understand why it once resonated with people, can you start solving problems related to it.

A failure to understand what appealed to an audience about a movie, for example, is why so many sequels fail. Rather than expanding on the essence, a superficial storyline and other specific elements – like jokes in comedies – are simply repeated.

And it’s why so many brands fail to leverage their inherent brand equity and thus solve its problems and seize its opportunities effectively.

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AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION

Thousands of years ago, when people were sharing stories around the campfire, everyone would participate in the telling of a story. The division between storyteller and audience is something new.

A transmedia strategy must, according to Gomez, involve some form of interaction with the audience, where their feedback is allowed to influence an evolving narrative.

This does not mean we can bribe people to participate and call it customer generated content. Involvement and engagement are earned. Only when you create something engaging can you expect to be rewarded with engagement. And only then does it make sense to expand into other media.

Which, of course, provides a challenging hurdle for most brands to overcome, as few generate the kind of enthusiasm required for a transmedia strategy to be implemented.

We must therefore take a few steps back and identify the true essence, ensure it’s relevant, then slowly build a larger narrative around it, allowing it to evolve informed by audience feedback.

It doesn’t happen overnight, or through campaign bursts, but evolve and expand over time.

Even the creators of Matrix made the mistake of assuming their audience were more engages than they were, leading to two indecipherable sequels. Imagine how involved they are with the average brand.