Brand Narratives Will Benefit from Transmedia Storytelling

CAMBRIDGE—The final session at Futures of Entertainment 2 is called “Cult Media” and it features four entertainment makers, including Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer and writer on NBC epic saga, Heroes. Henry Jenkins, co-founder of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program is moderating the panel, members of which are batting the term “transmedia storytelling” around like a badminton birdie in the warm and cozy confines of Bartos Theater.

Transmedia storytelling is Jenkins’ term. This is how he described it in a handout to his students.

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

To someone in the marketing communications game, this might sound like integrated marketing. But it’s not. Rarely, if ever, does a marketer build a story across multiple media. Rather marketers simply repeat the same story in different media channels. However, there’s no rule against the practice and for the ambitious brand curator, such a path makes perfect sense. Jenkins’ explains why:

Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence. Pierre Levy coined the term, collective intelligence, to refer to new social structures that enable the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society. Participants pool information and tap each others expertise as they work together to solve problems. Levy argues that art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities.

In other words, when creating a transmedia story, it’s imperative to leave holes in the narrative that can and will be filled by the fans, or customers, as the case may be. In his handout to students, Jenkins’ mentions how the ABC television drama, Lost, achieved this by flashing a dense map in the midst of one second season episode: fans digitized a freeze-frame of the image and put it on the web where together they extrapolated about what it might reveal regarding the Hanso Corporation and its activities on the island.

In marketing circles we like to discuss the importance of brand zealots and how to treat these key individuals with the respect and special recognition they deserve. Yet agency culture struggles with the newness and complexity of UGC. In an earlier panel today, Baba Shetty called early industry attempts to incorporate UGC as a submission form for television scripts (that might run on the Superbowl, or the Oscars) a “joke.”

Getting brand zealots, or fans, to contribute to the brand story is no joke though. I don’t mean activating a stand-alone user generated content idea. The whole point of transmedia storytelling is to add to the existing body of work. Granted most of this existing work has no room in it for the user/fan/customer. But moving forward we change that. The user/fan/customer has to feel more than welcome, more than special—they must feel like a true co-creator.

Ultimately, transmedia storytelling is about getting “community” right.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.