Transmedia: Gatekeeping the Story, Not the Page
By Alison Norrington, Storyteller
“Imagine that each storytelling medium is a musical instrument. If played well, you’re going to get something artful and beautiful.”
The basic premise of transmedia is that rather than using different media channels to simply retell the same storythread, you utilise each channel to communicate different elements of the story. Its success relies on fragmenting a narrative and making each platform work which, in turn, extends the life and longevity of the IP/story.
Contrary to some thinking, this practice isn’t device-driven (Kindle, Nook, iPad), but is platform-driven as it is the platform that subtly dictates and influences audience reactions, social & behavioural trends and user experiences. With a transmedia strategy in place, everything remains connected by the same central narrative, but each channel excels at what it does best, rather than bending to fit a central idea that’s being re-purposed for multiple platforms.
Working in partnership with these channels is the social element of a transmedia property and encouraging social relationships helps to forge connections, forming a storyworld community that shares and builds on mutual experiences.
“You’ve seen the advertising,
she’s been to an event,
I’ve tried the product,
he’s had a good experience with a character….
and we all compare notes”.
(This note comparing isn’t so different from what readers have been doing for years in bookclubs and I’ve noticed that in the back of some of Emily Giffin’s books there is a Reading Group Guide consisting of a series of questions to consider story elements, character behaviours and to question how you, the reader, might have done things differently).
Transmedia ‘success’ relies heavily on reader/audience engagement, but from a personal or community point of view, it is imperative to consider where the value is in this engagement. It is important to invest time researching all potential avenues for social networking and community building within a transmedia story.
- Where you have created robust characters, it is worth analysing their ‘type’, hobbies and emotional drivers to embed fragments into like-minded communities.
- Where you have a solid base of a storyworld, you can research communities of like-minded thinkers and ‘types’.
- Where you have created the drill-down ‘rabbit holes’ that lead to alternative storyworlds and geographies, there exists another option to research alternative options for community involvement.
In so doing, you are spreading your transmedia ‘bets’ across a wide landscape of both digital and real world platforms, whilst remaining tightly focussed on NOT wasting time and resources on hosting parties where none (or few) of your target audience will be hanging out.
It has been suggested that transmedia storytelling is a little like quilt making – great fun for the people making the quilt, but where’s the market? Who buys them? Where’s the revenue?
Whilst it’s true that transmedia storytelling, creation and strategy is great fun, to do it well is also extremely challenging and requires a great deal of focus and commitment – which is why any ‘spreading of bets’ across platforms must be informed and totally relevant – to genre, story and platform.
Strategy and reader demographics must be a high priority in this creation process. And so subtly woven and written in that it is (excuse the sewing pun..) seamless!
This spreading of transmedia ‘bets’ is something that Matt Locke has been looking to do for Channel 4 as he explains how the channel is rethinking its focus towards metrics and measurement.
Matt’s analogy is spot on: “The way I see it is reaching our audience is a bit like a roulette table. They were placing all £6m on one bet and it just wasn’t coming off. This year, my job has been to spread the bets and see which ones work.”
But this mode of spreading bets will only work if it’s backed up by a solid structure of target audience/reader awareness and behaviours. Matt has been exploring strategies to collaborate too, potentially working with media partners such as Bebo and MySpace, looking at mobile projects, and working with Channel 4 radio on podcasts.
When asked what the channel was looking for from content producers back in 2008, Matt replied:
“We’re doing a lot of projects which are collaborations between TV companies and digital agencies. That’s really interesting because you get the TV indies’ storytelling abilities and the digital agencies’ expertise about the digital world – how to seed audiences and grow and engage them. That’s the sweet spot for me and what we are not seeing is a lot of digital agencies who have their own story and development team. Most seem to work as guns for hire and don’t develop their own IP. We are starting to see that change – Mint has started its own TV arm called Menthol, for example. That is what I am looking for – the combination of the storytelling and delivery expertise.”
Which begins to merge with what Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner spoke about at TOC2010 last month.
Jeff was reiterating to publishers how they are so close to sitting at that ‘sweet spot’ – they have the legacy of storytelling abilities (not so much in the creation of, but certainly in the professional ‘filtering’ system, publishing, marketing and distribution) alongside the potential expertise about the digital world. Publishers such as HarperStudio, Penguin, Macmillan, Fourth Story Media and Perseus, amongst others, are beginning to seed audiences and engage with them across a series of platforms.
I consider the book as a primary transmedia platform, and a great means of introducing transmedia to genres that aren’t so tech-centric – such as chick lit, self help and ‘how to’ guides, perhaps. The book is an age-old familiar, tactile product and if the primary story is well written, transmedia elements can be woven in as part of the text narrative and readers will be compelled to engage with fragments across a variety of platforms.
Publishers are renowned story gatekeepers but now exist in a time where ad agencies are using the concept of ‘story’, along with branded content, to sell – and doing so extremely well. Publishing can develop as a multi-modal broadcast media by gatekeeping the ‘story’ and not the ‘page’, and by releasing the focus on ‘page’ and adopting a transmedia approach, they can still keep the book as the primary product whilst working with media partners to cast a wide net and offer a series of options for receiving, interacting and engaging with these stories.
No other place exists in the entertainment industry where ‘story’ is deemed as ‘publishing’ – cinemas screen movies, radios broadcast plays, audio downloads are podcasts and television broadcasts sit-coms and dramas – all of which can make the leap to a computer screen, but traditional print publishers are also competing with a host of new online broadcast options – audio stories are appearing on YouTube and AudioBoo; text novels are available on our mobile devices; and we can consume 140 word bursts via Twitter.
Only in the last 500 years or so did a distinction arise that cut the musical society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world music-making was a natural activity where everybody participated. Our culture now makes a distinction between a class of performers – the ‘experts’ and the rest of us who pay to listen. This is in marked reversal to what is happening with publishers – publishers were the ‘experts’, the gatekeepers of professional and quality writing, and now everybody can publish online.
And for free…
Ultimately, a transmedia IP must be supported by a solid structure of strategy and can’t rely on a ‘gut-instinct’ or a ‘roll of the dice’. Transmedia doesn’t have to be a gamble and neither is it a piñata that’s fun to whack and see where the seeds scatter. It is a strategically mapped process balancing story architecture, experience design, engagement, fragmenting, research and value – and that applies from publishing to push-button gaming, advertising to animation and movies to mobile devices.
Not every story idea will work (or is suited!) as a transmedia property and transmedia ’success’ is supported by a solid structure – much stronger than any ‘luck’ that a random rolling of dice could bring. Getting tight on strategy and value early on will weed out what might and might not work.
“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run…”
[This article was originally published on storycentral DIGITAL and has been reprinted here with the permission of Ms. Norrington.]
Alison Norrington is a bestselling chick-lit novelist and practice-based PhD researcher, studying the concept of “story” and ways to fragment and channel narratives across a series of platforms and media, focusing on Emerging Platforms for Writers, Fragmented Interaction & Pervasive Media. She is writing a romcom “digi novel” — a transmedia print, video, web, GPS and gaming story that interconnects whilst also standing alone, enhancing and driving the printed book.
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