In April of 2001, a close friend sent me a link to the "Anti-Robot Militia," which was just like it sounds: a hate group against robots. One click later, I was hopelessly hooked on a marketing campaign for the film A.I. Compelling story, new technology, and an online community called the Cloudmakers all came together in a perfect storm of immersive entertainment. This was my first taste of the future, and I’ve been trying to recreate that experience ever since.
We didn’t know what to call it at the time. Now we’d call it transmedia. Transmedia storytelling is the art of breaking up one story or experience over multiple media, so that each medium is making a special and unique contribution to the whole. But the lessons I’ve learned over the past decade of creating and participating in transmedia projects are surprisingly applicable to anyone who has an audience — and on the web, that means everyone.
So here are five of those lessons extracted from my new book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling.
At its heart, this is the promise of social media. Act like a human being on social media — someone who listens instead of just talking, someone fallible and vulnerable who apologizes for mistakes. If your character, customer service group, or brand does this, then people will start to care about them as though they were real people.
Here’s a great example: the Mars rover Spirit had a Twitter account and sent out updates about its exploration. We all knew perfectly well that there was a human being at NASA writing those Tweets. But all the same, when it shut down for the last time and sent its goodbye message, Twitter wept.
Simplicity spreads. That’s why it’s difficult to make a transmedia story (or anything) that’s complex, layered, interactive… and also attracts a massive audience. If you want to go mainstream, you have to send clear signals and deliver an immediate payoff for a wider, casual audience.
Sometimes depth is a worthwhile goal, though. Catering to a select group of hard-core fans or customers creates evangelists to sing your praises. To that end, transmedia creators often want to create very deep, immersive experiences—but that creates an enormous burden for content generation. Detailed, personalized email responses require a writer. Every hour that writer is generating personalized content only one person will ever see is an hour taken away from some other aspect of your project that could improve the experience for a wider audience.
Many creators thread this needle with a tiered structure: the bulk of the project is aimed at a lighter, more casual audience, but there are also rewards baked in for anyone motivated to engage a little further. You can play to both ends of the spectrum, creating projects that are both broadly accessible and very deep… but it’ll cost you.
Friction is a key concern in transmedia. That’s the force that lowers your metrics every time you switch to a different platform, and the reason it exists is because your audience isn’t always willing to work very hard. When you show a URL in your TV program, you’re never going to see 100% of your audience make that transition.
Great transmedia design involves the same kinds of thinking as great UI design: always think about how much you’re asking your audience to do, and see if you can make it less without damaging the experience. That might be cross-linking more visibly, reducing the number of clicks it takes to access a piece of information… or making your game or puzzle a little simpler to play. Smooth over the jagged moments when your audience might not stay with you.
A serious friction problem recently played out in the online campaign for Prometheus. Fans played along with a series of online challenges, and discovered that they were locked out of the final installment unless they switched to Internet Explorer 9—with no warning ahead of time. Much outrage ensued; probably not the positive branding experience Microsoft had in mind.
If I am jumping through your hoops and subscribing to your email list, following your Twitter account, or buying your DVD, you’d better have an amazing treat waiting for me… and it had better be something that I want, not just something you want me to have.
Remember the famous scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie finally gets his Little Orphan Annie Decorder Ring… and it turns out that the radio show’s coded messages were Ovaltine ads the whole time? Something like that played out in a transmedia component for Tron: Legacy, where players competed to attend a live event… which turned out to be a viewing of a very short trailer for the film, not the in-story content payoff they were expecting. In another context, that trailer would have been enormously exciting. Given the travel and effort this audience had expended, it was disappointing, instead.
If you have a consistent pattern of rewarding your audience’s time and effort with a payoff in content through thoughtful blog posts or video, emails answered, and so on, then you’ve bought enough goodwill to encourage your audience to take a bigger risk with you next time. But if you ask and ask without ever delivering to the audience the thing they want, they won’t give you another chance.
In transmedia creation—and in everything—the most important thing I’ve learned is that you need to be willing to take a gamble. Transmedia is a living, breathing thing, and it’s growing before our very eyes.
It’s important to learn about prior art and constantly interrogate your design. Are you doing it that way because that’s how it’s always been done? Try to work out why. Some best practices of even three and five years ago have come and gone, so the past is a great resource for learning what not to do… but certainly nothing to be limited by.
It’s an amazing time to be a creator; the edges of the art are only just being explored by people who have a crazy idea and the grit to try it out. Be one of those people.
Andrea Phillips is a transmedia writer, game designer and author of the new book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms.