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Most brands would love a tribe like Apple’s: intensely loyal, engaged for the longterm and ready to influence their social circles.

More than mere consumers, these superfans are brand co-creators. Many of them are young, tech driven and averse to traditional brand messaging. They want a relationship — not just a transaction. The experience they want isn’t linear. It’s transmedia.

What is transmedia?

First, transmedia is not cross-branding, cross-platform media franchises, sequels or adaptations. Unlike the traditional marketing model of consistent messaging across different channels, transmedia is a “grand narrative” told with different content on different channels. Instead of linear storylines, transmedia engages audiences through a nonlinear storyworld.

Wikipedia puts it this way: “Transmedia is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.” What Wikipedia left out is that true transmedia is also deeply social. Ways for the audience to participate are designed in from the start.

The story is the thing

In a successful transmedia experience, the novelty of the medium is part of the fun. Watching a TV show while checking backstory on a phone app, playing the video game, viewing a webisode on your iPad, reading a QR code off the side of a building or a product label … they’re all ways that a narrative can seamlessly expand. The technology enables the experience, but the story — within a storyworld — is the thing.

“The key point of transmedia storytelling is that dispersed entry points contribute to a complex (and complementary) universe that is greater than the sum of its parts — so that at the point of origin, multiple channels are not just considered but deeply planned out and integrated in ways that will engage the viewer where he/she is already spending their time.”

Tania Yuki, Manager of Comscore Video Metrix, April 29, 2010

Why now?

Transmedia isn’t new, so why now? Never before has entertainment been so available — on demand and on so many different devices. Audiences don’t want to wait for 8 pm on Sunday or hope to see a favorite commercial on the fly. They want it when they want it.

Audiences have also developed an appetite for wanting more immersive entertainment experiences. Releasing the narrative across different platforms allows the consumer to control the experience. And one media channel cannot accommodate this appetite.

What does transmedia look like?

Transmedia was born in the world of video games and ARGs (alternate reality games), so it’s no surprise that entertainment has led its evolution. But product marketing is also in the game.

Transmedia campaigns might include two or more of any and every form of traditional media as well as new forms like geolocation tags, QR codes, business cards for companies or characters in the story, texting, online meetups with characters and more. HBO’s Game of Thrones even staged food trucks that served Chef Tom Colicchio’s versions of food from the historical time period.

Early transmedia purists resisted commercializing experiences. But there’s no denying that marketing and ad budgets have found their way there. From ABC’s Lost and NBC’s Heroes to Coca Cola’s Happiness Factory and Nike’s “Catch the Flash,” transmedia elements are engaging hype-averse consumers. “Transmedia properties are helping push [traditional licensing] into the next decade, arguably making consumer products and promotions integral parts of maintaining and expanding the story world,” says transmedia leader Jeff Gomez.

Transmedia: Tracking the term

  • 1965: Fluxus Artist Dick Higgins uses the term intermedia to describe an approach to art making that mashes up traditional forms and emerging digital technology.
  • 1991: USC Professor Marsha Kinder coins transmedia to describe a form of storytelling, calling franchises that leverage the power of TV, movies and video games “commercial transmedia supersystems.”
  • 2003: Henry Jenkins, then media studies Professor at MIT, publishes his article “Transmedia Storytelling.” He theorizes that storytelling across platforms can make characters more compelling.

The look of success

Audi was an early adopter, crediting its best year in American sales to The Art of the Heist campaign, a 2005 ARG that involved traditional media (TV spots, print ads, billboards, radio), online elements and live events to populate the interactive fiction about a stolen Audi 2006 A3. The story continued for three months with detailed online elements including e-mails sent by protagonists, video conferences, blueprints, maps, surveillance videos and MP3s.

Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like capitalized on its surprise TV success with a transmedia turn. A three-day online campaign took Isaiah Mustafa’s character online to respond to fans with a stream of personalized videos. Within a week, the campaign had 40 million views and spiked Old Spice’s Twitter and website traffic.

What does transmedia have to do with you?

Any communication or branding campaign can take a step into the transmedia world by giving audiences more ways to engage and participate. Start small. You don’t need to launch a full-blown transmedia campaign to be part of the energy it can generate.

Transmedia is a creative strategic response to a changing market landscape. Successful transmedia campaigns spring from a storyworld that requires diverse characters, detailed environments and backstory that can draw and hold fans’ interests.

When the story is good, transmedia facilitates a hungry audience ready to co-create their own unique experiences. For creatives, transmedia spurs innovative strategies and tactics that can turn a brand consumer into a brand superfan.

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