Transmedia storytelling involves telling a story across multiple media platforms – including TV shows, movies, graphic novels, books, games, mobile apps, microsites, social networks, online communities and offline events – in a way that each platform explores different aspects of the same storyworld. Media organizations, changemakers, and brands are using transmedia storytelling to create immersive storyworlds that drive participation, action and loyalty.
The rise of transmedia storytelling can be attributed to three dynamics around how people create, consume and share stories today. First, people are consuming news and entertainment in byte-sized pieces, on smart phones and tablets, often on-the-go, leading to new opportunities to create cross-platform, location-aware storyworlds. Second, people have access to so much content that they are filtering for out or skimming most of it, except for content they are most passionate about. Third, people are simultaneously acting as consumers, curators and creators of content, making it possible to create non-linear storyworlds that grow through their participation.
As a result, movies, TV shows, games and toys are all turning into transmedia entertainment franchises. Studios are releasing not only movies but also alternate reality games (ARGs), set in elaborate storyworlds (A.I.’s The Beast, The Dark Knight’s Why So Serious?(video), The Hunger Games’ The Capitol (video), Prometheus’ Weyland Industries). Television networks are creating transmedia storyworlds to sustain fan interest between TV show seasons (Heroes’ Evolutions, Lost Experience (video),Dexter’s Hunt for the Infinity Killer (video), Game of Thrones’ The Maester’s Path (video), True Blood (video), BBC’s Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction (case study), and creating book series by TV show characters to deepen fan engagement (Castle’s Nikki Heat series, How I Met Your Mother’s Barney’s Bro series). Video game studios are creating ARGs to heighten anticipation around new game launches (Halo 2’s I Love Bees, Gun’s Last Call Poker). Toy brands are building transmedia entertainment franchises around popular characters (Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse, Barbie and Ken Reunion video). Some authors and publishers are creating immersive online experiences to bring alive the storyworlds in their books (Harry Potter’s Pottermore (video)). Independent storytellers are increasingly turning to transmedia storytelling to engage fans and build a reputation (Dirty Work interactive web series (video), Pandemic 1.0 ARG (video), The Guild web series and comic book). Beyond the entertainment industry, organizations and changemakers are applying transmedia storytelling to engage people, especially students, around science and social causes (NASA’s MarsCuriosity Rover, Urgent Evoke (video), World Without Oil (video), Ed Zed Omega (video), Cosmic Voyager Enterprises (video), Routes (video)).
Some of these transmedia storytelling programs have had significant scale and impact. For instance, the ARG Why So Serious? launched fifteen months before the launch of The Dark Knight and attracted 11 million participants from 75 countries. Harry Potter’s Pottermore has 4.4 million registered users who have earned nearly 60 million points for exploring the storyworld and performing virtual actions. The Guild web series is currently in its sixth season and has received 83 million views on YouTube.
The success of these transmedia storytelling projects shows that, even as attention spans are shortening and media consumption is fragmenting, fans are willing to immerse themselves in non-linear, multi-layered storyworlds, and even extend it through their contributions.
At the heart of transmedia storytelling is a storyworld with its own mythology and socio-cultural norms, which sets the stage for a cast of characters with their individual narrative arcs and web of relationships. Increasingly, people are consuming such storyworlds not as a linear narrative, but as a multi-layered, multi-platform, immersive experience.
Transmedia storytelling projects can be classified across four dimensions: the fictional or non-fictional nature of the storyworld, the depth and width of the storyworld, the interplay of different media channels with the storyworld, and the possibilities for participation.
Many transmedia storytelling projects are set in a fictional storyworld, with characters and plots, or even a mythical or speculative universe. Filmmakers, TV producers, game designers and writers use transmedia storytelling to extend their fictional storyworlds across channels (True Blood, Halo 2’s I Love Bees). Changemakers and educators often use transmedia storytelling to create speculative universes that provide new perspectives and open new possibilities for participants (World Without Oil). Increasingly, documentary filmmakers and non-fiction authors are creating transmedia projects by creating books, films, games, apps, events and social movements around the same theme or cause (It Gets Better, Half the Sky).
Transmedia storyworlds range from simple story extensions to immersive multi-layered, multi-platform experiences. Story extensions can include blogs, vlogs, social network profiles and even books from fictional characters (Gossip Girl’s blog, MarsCuriosity Rover on Twitter, How I Met Your Mother’s Barney’s Bro series), to simple apps and games set in the storyworld (Pretty Little Liar’s Bump and Tell, The Hunger Game’s Become a Citizen), and book or film adaptations of the original project. Other storyworlds are immersive experiences, with multiple interconnected websites, web video series and multiplayer games that explore back stories, introduce new plots, characters and twists, or re-create the story in the real world (Prometheus’ Weyland Industries, Pottermore).
In some transmedia projects, the storyworld is distributed across many channels, and each channel explores a different part of the storyworld in an interlocked way, sometimes simultaneously and sometime in sequence (Heroes’ Evolutions), while other projects have minimal interplay between channels (Welcome to the Pine Point (video), or replicate the same storyworld across channels (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries). Most transmedia projects that are built around an alternate reality game have a strong live, real-time feel with many moving parts (Dexter’s Hunt for the Infinity Killer), while others are more asynchronous.
Finally, some transmedia projects provide multiple possibilities for fans to co-create the storyworld by deconstructing plot twists on fan wikis, contributing fan fiction and fan art, creating their own parallel narratives in virtual worlds, solving puzzles and playing games to unlock new parts of the storyworld, competing in challenges and tournaments, and participating in scavenger hunts, flash mobs and events in the real world (Why So Serious?). Other projects create an immersive multimedia experience, but provide fewer possibilities for participation (Our Choice).
Alternate reality games are a particularly popular form of transmedia storytelling, as they can be effectively incorporated into short-term high-intensity campaigns leading up to big launches. Most ARGs comprise of elaborate scavenger hunts that take place across fake websites and blogs, real web publications, fan communities, physical artifacts, flash mobs and rallies, and often include a series of puzzles, single-player simulations, and multi-player challenges or tournaments. Most ARGs induce mystery through hidden clues, suggestive announcements and partial reveals, and new elements are revealed on a preset schedule or after fans complete milestones. Fans share clues and solutions over online communities and wikis, and collaborate to unlock levels and complete the game, to get rewards like points and badges, physical artifacts, or exclusive content.
Brands are learning to use paid or co-branded ads to pull consumers into branded transmedia storyworlds, which aim to retain people’s interest over the long term, and convert them first into passionate fans and then into paying customers, much like movie trailers with entertainment franchises.
Some brands bring their fictional characters or mascots alive through ads, web videos, video games and social network profiles. Burger King’s former mascot The King made appearances in real life, on TV shows and in video games. Aflac created social media profiles for its mascot Aflac Duck, to engage consumers year round. P&G’s Old Spice created 185 video responses to tap into the popularity of its Old Spice Man, which is not only one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in recent times, but also an entertainment franchise in the making.
Most brands have created such storyworlds as part of alternate reality games, as they lend themselves to short-term, high-intensity campaigns. Brands have created alternate reality games to showcase the brand purpose, engage consumers and build excitement around events.
Coca-Cola built on its brand promise of happiness by creating a series of ads set in the fictional world of the Happiness Factory. Coca-Cola has also created a Happiness Factory Bible to outline the storyworld, character back-stories, and potential transmedia projects. Axe created the Axe Anarchy Graphic Novel (video) based on storylines and characters suggested by fans. Wrigley’s 5 created the Human Preservation Project (video) to showcase the importance of protecting and stimulating our senses. McDonald’s created The Lost Ring ARG to engage consumers around the 2008 Beijing Olympics and drive them to its outlets to search for clues. Audi created the Art of the Heist ARG to launch the Audi A3 in the US and showcase its sophisticated technological innovations.
Several technology brands have created branded transmedia storytelling programs to launch new products, highlight product features, and showcase the potential of technology to change our world. Intel & Toshiba created The Beauty Inside (video), an interactive film where anyone could play the role of the lead character. Nokia created an interactive story called Someone Else’s Phone to show how a lost phone might reveal all our secrets to a stranger. Nokia also partnered with Tim Kring to create the Conspiracy for Good (video) to support social organizations and showcase its Ovi platform. Microsoft created The Vanishing Point ARG (video) to launch Vista. Google created the Niantic Project ARG to showcase its augmented reality app Ingress (video). Orange has created a series of ARGs — Alt Minds (video), Detective Avenue (video) and Fanfan 2 (video) — to showcase the transmedia storytelling technologies created by the Orange Transmedia Lab. Cisco created The Hunt ARG to engage its sales force and inform them about upcoming Cisco technologies.
Some brands simply partner with existing media properties to create co-branded transmedia storytelling programs. For instance, Ford sponsored the Legends of Alcatraz ARG, based on the TV series Alcatraz. AT&T partnered with Tim Kring to create the Daybreak ARG (video), based on the TV series Touch, to showcase the power of technology to transform our lives. Microsoft created a Bing-powered treasure hunt called Decode Jay-Z to launch Jay-Z’s book Decoded, by releasing each page of the book in a new physical location, one page at a time, and using Bing search and maps to guide fans to them. Coke Zero created an obstacle course and challenged people to Unlock the 007 in them, as part of its brand promotions around the James Bond movie Skyfall.
Throughout the year, we have tracked the conversations around a number of transmedia storytelling initiatives and branded programs in our weekly insights reports and quarterly magazines; here are a few highlights.
In 2008, NASA created a Twitter account for its latest Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, to share the story of the robot and the science behind its mission to Mars. A three-person social media team manages the story, tweeting in first person from the point of view of Curiosity, and using simple English – or, as Mashable puts it, “the voice of the internet.” The account chronicles Curiosity’s production and testing stages; interactions with students, journalists and science fans; journey from the NASA headquarters to Mars; and current explorations on Mars. For a more serious tone, people could follow NASA on Twitter.
Science writer Annalee Newitz calls this type of storytelling “a new kind of hard science fiction”:
“Curiosity’s Twitter account is a lot more than just a hook to get people interested in science, though. It’s successful because McGregor, Smith, and O’Connor have created a character with a very distinctive voice. Their task was akin to writing a science fiction story from the perspective of a robot on Mars.”
Some milestones from Curiosity include:
“This week, I’ve been testing my newly attached arm & practicing hand-eye coordination. New video at http://bit.ly/b1vnnT” (September 2010)
“I HAVE LIFTOFF!” (November 2011)
“I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL” (August 2012)
NASA also used a variety of participatory programs and multimedia content to engage different audiences and generate excitement around the Mars mission. NASA tied up with Disney’s Wall-E and engaged US students in a contest to Name NASA’s next Mars Rover. NASA also engaged with global space lovers with a program that invited people to ‘send their name to Mars.’ To create excitement around the Mars landing, NASA released the videos 7 minutes of Terror, in which scientists explained the challenges of landing a 1-ton robot on Mars, and Grand Entrance, in which Star Trek actors William Shatner and Wil Wheaton described the landing.
The mix of transmedia storytelling and engagement programs contributed to the buzz around the landing and helped Curiosity attract 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
As the editorial team of the National University of Singapore’s business blog noted
“By playing up the wow-factor, explaining the science of the mission in simple but engaging ways, along with a hefty dose of infectious enthusiasm for its own efforts, NASA has broken down the stereotype of egg-head space geeks unable to communicate with the rest of the world. By challenging perceptions, giving new perspectives, brands can strengthen connections with their community.”
In 2012, Intel and Toshiba created an innovative immersive storytelling experience with The Beauty Inside – a six episode web series in which the audience plays the lead role of shape shifter Alex. 26 people participated in the scripted web series alongside Hollywood stars, and 50 people shared their own stories on The Beauty Inside Facebook page via photos and videos.
The combination of celebrities, audience participation and a powerful story engaged audiences and led to the viral success of the web series, which received 5.2 million views on YouTube.
Blogger Denise Fernandez pointed out:
“The entire social film experience gives viewers a sense of intimacy and belonging, something cinemas and television have never accomplished yet.”
Writer Ella Riley-Adams wrote
“This project seems like a solid combination of vital entertainment factors. “The Beauty Inside” features one familiar young celeb, one up-and-comer (Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, respectively), and will be directed by Drake Doremus, a man with Sundance clout. Viewers can easily get involved and have input in the plotline when they audition, and they’ll then spread the news to their friends and followers. This may be an elaborate creation for some simple product placement, but a branded movie with both star power and shareability seems likely to succeed.”
The Beauty Inside also helped promote the benefits of Toshiba’s new ultrabook and engage people around the product. As Ashraf Engineer, member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network, commented
“To me, this was a great way to get your target users involved in the message you want to send out and to display the versatility and utility of your product.”
The Beauty Inside is the second social film from Intel and Toshiba, after launching the social thriller The Inside Experience in July 2011. The overwhelming positive reactions to both imply that people are ready for more integrated, immersive storytelling experiences.
As part of its promotions for the newest James Bond movie Skyfall, Coke Zero challenged unsuspecting passengers at a train station in Belgium to unlock the 007 in them and complete a mission in 70 seconds. The mission began at a Coke vending machine and directed participants to race to Platform 6 to win free tickets to the premiere of Skyfall. Participants evaded obstacles such as an old lady with dogs, a spilled cart of oranges and an attractive ex-girlfriend.
70 people attempted the mission and a video showing the successful attempts was published a week before the UK launch of Skyfall. The video immediately went viral, with 5.3 million views and 44,692 likes in just 7 days and widespread positive coverage on blogs and social media.
Marketer Christien Smeja applauded the program for its insight:
“Great campaign from #coke & #jamesbond, tapping into every man’s secret desire to become a secret agent!”
Blogger Joseph Pedro highlighted the challenge brands face as the online space grows increasingly cluttered, and applauded Coke Zero’s success on breaking through the clutter:
“OK, we’ve all watched in amusement for the past couple of years as companies worked hard to figure out how to reach consumers through everything from flash mobs to webisodes. We admit we became quite jaded toward the whole thing after a while. So, when we saw that Coke Zero and the new James Bond flick Skyfall were in viral-video bed together we loaded it up with hesitation. Thankfully, it is kind of awesome.”
Govind, member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network, attributed Coke Zero’s success to its long term commitment to storytelling:
“Coke keeps coming with these interesting engagement ideas all the time. This is a matter of being committed to this strategy of storytelling. Can’t happen just by chance.”
In the future, we expect all types of storytellers to create interactive multimedia content using tools like Thinglink (video), Stipple (video), Flixmaster, Mozilla Popcorn Maker (video), 3WDOC (video) and Klynt (video). We also expect transmedia storytellers to orchestrate transmedia projects — manage content and mailing lists, publish content according to a schedule or in response to audience actions, make calls and send emails or text messages — using tools like Conducttr (video), IFTTT and Zapier (video).
We expect transmedia storytelling projects, especially alternate reality games and augmented reality experiences, to create customized experiences around locations, using tools like SCVNGR (video), Moveable and Aris Games.
We expect that TV shows will use tools like Galahad (video) and Rides (video) to create truly interactive multi-screen experiences through real-time transmedia storytelling. Transmedia game designer Andrea Phillips believes that television is the most exciting area for transmedia right now:
“You already have a schedule, you know when your episodes will be airing and you have your pacing. It’s a fantastic spine around which to build a more intensive interactive experience… If I let you forget about my show for seven days until I air again, that gives you seven days to find something else to care about more.”
We see more studios adopt the Participant Media model and create engagement, even movements, around their movies using proprietary platforms like TakePart. We also expect more independent authors and documentary filmmakers to try to catalyze social movements around their books and movies.
We expect that ARGs will become an even more important part of the launch campaigns for new movies, TV shows and video games. We anticipate that many of these ARGs will be co-branded with technology brands to showcase new possibilities in technology, or with consumer brands to launch new products or create immersive experiences around the brand purpose.
Finally, we expect more brands to sponsor or create their own interactive storyworlds, either as short-term campaigns or as long-term destinations.
* This is the seventh report from our upcoming People’s Insights Annual Report titled “Now & Next: Future of Engagement,” to be published as an interactive iPad app. The report will highlight the ten most important frontiers that will define the future of engagement for marketers, entrepreneurs and change makers: Crowdfunding, Behavior Change Games, Collaborative Social Innovation, Grassroots Change Movements, Co-creation Communities, Social Curation, Transmedia Storytelling, Collective Intelligence, Social Live Experiences and Collaborative Consumption.
In each of these reports, we start by describing why they are important, how they work, and how brands might benefit from them; we then examine web platforms and brand programs that point to the future (that is already here); then finish by identifying some of the most important features of that future, with our recommendations on how to benefit from them.
Do subscribe to the People’s Lab email newsletter to receive each report and also an invite to download a free copy of the interactive iPad app.