The Business of Engagement at the Cross-Media Forum NYC

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Power to the Pixel logoLast week, I attended the all-day Cross-Media Forum NYC presented by IFP and Power to the Pixel, where pioneers in independent film, marketing, new media, and more gathered to talk about case studies, emerging trends, and opportunities to extend projects across platforms. Even though focused on the film industry, many examples from the day could assist book publishers interested in going cross- or transmedia. The case studies were especially useful in framing cross- and transmedia strategies as business decisions, based on early data about audience engagement and point of sale being collected through some of the innovative projects highlighted at the Cross-Media Forum.

Why Go Cross-Media?

One of the inherent tensions about cross-media projects is that it’s still too early to show definitive return on investment, partially because of lack of data and partially because of the general difficulty in linking the cross-media dimensions of a project to the actual point of sale. However, this does not mean it’s impossible to talk about the very real effects of cross-media and transmedia strategies on audience behaviors and engagement. Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, who worked on blockbuster universes like Avatar, noted that the integration of mobile phones (not just smart phones) in cross-media deployments made experiences more “intimate.” Because cellphones are so commonplace, so deeply ingrained into everyday life, using phones becomes a way of “going where the audience is” and engaging them in a highly personal one-to-one connection that created loyalty, long-term engagement, and ultimately the further possibility of sales.

But, the usefulness of a mobile phone deployment extends beyond “going where the audience is” and can also collect valuable data about audience behaviors. Thus, point of sale came up again when independent filmmaker Lance Weiler presented Pandemic 1.0, his transmedia R+D project launched at the Sundance Film Festival. Seeding several dozen phones in biohazard bags throughout Park City, Utah, Weiler could trace participants’ interaction with the phones and with the preloaded Pandemic app, which asked participants to perform simple tasks like taking pictures and then collected those contributions to become part of the overall creation. Interestingly, the Pandemic phones were also equipped with “near-field technology,” which made it possible for the phones to interact with a data visualization installation at Pandemic HQ; participants brought the phones (along with other objects) to the data center, thus unlocking new pieces of the story.

As an R+D project, Pandemic 1.0 collected multiple points of data, including how many times the official Pandemic phones were passed from person to person, how many in-app tasks were completed, and, in terms of potential sales, how many people beyond the in-game phones downloaded the free Pandemic app and joined the experience through it. The mobile phone aspect of Pandemic 1.0, however, was only a portion of the data collected and visualized in the project, and it will be interesting to see how this data will inform the next iteration of Pandemic.

Game mechanics too create trackable entry points to a creative project that, as Kevin Slavin of Area/Code and Zynga NY noted, accumulated value over time. Even simple games can stand as pervasive entry points for audiences to engage with a part of a story, thereby introducing the public to the main creative project. Interestingly Slavin shared data that contrasted the number of views of a TV show with the number of views of its online game component as well as hours of engagement and web pages served. His data showed rather definitively that the numbers for the online game far exceeded the numbers for the TV show (by 50 to 100 percent depending on the point of comparison).

Of course, the challenge is completing that circle, driving the audience’s engagement with the experience, the game, or the social media component into sales, but the sheer numbers of audience engagement outside of the TV show or main project suggest that there is a great deal of potential here. Will producers and publishers be able to tap this potential and forge sustainable business models? At this stage in the game, only those that take the risk and try will get the necessary data to answer that question.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Cross- and transmedia strategies have been deployed in various forms for the past 15 years, so it’s not quite right to say that all this is new, as many speakers at Power to the Pixel reiterated. For Jeff Gomez, the last 10 years of cross-media has been just a “rehearsal,” albeit one that is mostly playing out in the entertainment industry but which will inevitably go beyond it. Past projects and current business models have to be reworked as the “transmedia storyteller” becomes a more powerful stakeholder in the creative process, as those stories extend beyond the entertainment industry, as audience expectations continue to shift, and as producers of content internalize these new expectations.

This is just a small taste of the discussion at the Cross-Media Forum. Speaker after speaker discussed how the audience, if not a stakeholder, has a higher stake in the entertainment property because of the more participatory nature of storytelling brought about through technology. Will publishers and creators give up enough control—control over the creative process, over IPs, over the nature of the experience itself—in order to meet the expectations of a new kind of audience, an audience that is increasingly multi-platform and “born digital”?

Interested in learning more about using transmedia storytelling and cross-media strategies? Join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.

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2 thoughts on “The Business of Engagement at the Cross-Media Forum NYC

  1. This was a phenomenal event. And I appreciate the perspective here on how to make cross-media ventures financially viable.

    One thread that wove through speaker after speaker was the increasing level of audience participation in the story and in the storytelling.

    Kevin Slavin talked about the characters interacting with audience, the audience talking to characters, audience becoming characters (eg, creating fictional Twitter accounts).

    For Valemont, Nina Bargiel (the Slackmistress) live-tweeted 9 different character accounts, interacting directly with fan followers on Twitter, who then virtually joined a secret live party event.

    In Perplex City, as related by Andrea Phillips, participants unwittingly sent a popular character to her doom and, instead of being merely sad as one would be in a passive experience, they felt deeply guilty about it.

    Jeff Gomez envisioned transmedia experiences that serve as portals into the the world of the oppressed and voiceless. Their stories are shared, not told, and then retold until they become everyone’s stories. Once the stories are our own, we act on them–in a positive way, we hope, to better the real world.

    My ongoing, open-ended question about audience involvement deals with how to reshape the pyramid mentioned by Lance Weiler: The masses who watch or read part of the transmedia story passively and then drift away, the 5-10% who click through to other media, and then the 1-5% at the very top who fully engage by jumping down the rabbit holes, filling the cheese holes (e.g., fan fiction), and even directing story outcomes (ARGs, Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories).

    I’d love to hear more about:

    How do you reduce or eliminate friction at the entry/exit points of the properties in order to increase involvement (both #’s of players opting in and depth of play)?
    How do you sustain a level of involvement over time and between peak experiences? (Lance is embarking on Pandemic 2.0, and I’m curious to know how many fans will carry over from the first release.)
    How do you continue a transmedia property indefinitely (in my view, the best way to ensure a ROI), especially while maintaining the type of live fan-character conversation that engaged the Valemont fans?

    • I agree: it was a phenomenal event. I left the day with so many ideas and things to say that I found it impossible to really talk about them all. Looking at audience participation (and how audiences have shifted) was absolutely a big part of the day, and in some ways, I’m still ruminating about all the things that were discussed.

      As for the pyramid of participation levels, I’m not so sure you can “reshape” that. Unless audience expectations shift toward the top level of engagement (naturally or of their own accord), I think there will always be a few, really serious participants and a majority of “lurkers.”

      That said, I think producers should plan for different levels of participation: casual and passive material for the vast majority, enticing entry points and immersion for the more involved. I think to choose one over the other is a missed opportunity.

      edit: Actually I take it back: I think there’s 1 way to “reshape” that pyramid. And that’s for immersive, participatory, cross-media, etc. storytelling projects to excel, really excel, and to demonstrate to audiences the value of engaging in that level of participation.

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