Four Tips for Brands Embracing the New Methods of Storytelling

Talking Transmedia at the Convergence Culture Consortium

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Christine Huang
Christine Huang
The fourth Futures of Entertainment conference hosted by the Convergence Culture Consortium took place at MIT before the holidays, bringing together scholars and key thinkers from across TV, advertising, activism, new media and beyond. The hot topic of the weekend was transmedia.

A primer for those unfamiliar with the term: transmedia is that which moves across multiple channels of communication. Professor Henry Jenkins (formerly of MIT, now at USC), a transmedia scholar and founder of the Convergence Culture Consortium, distills the concept further: "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."

But transmedia approaches are applicable anywhere a narrative is formed. Here are four key takeaways from the conference for brands and advertisers to consider in this new transmedia age:

1. Make stories drillable. Jenkins, the event's keynote speaker, highlighted "drillability" as his first key principle of transmedia storytelling, pointing out the importance of creating narratives that resonate widely as well as deeply. While many storytellers and brands focus on spreading their narratives horizontally—across platforms, networks, users, etc.—it's in their vertical foundation, their drillability, that lasting engagements are formed.

2. Each piece of a story must be enriching, but not essential, to its overall experience. With storytelling becoming less confined by distribution channels and "gatekeepers" (as Campfire's Mike Monello pointed out during his panel), stories are taking on fluid, reactive and flexible new forms. But each part of a story, whether it be an Alternate Reality Game (such as Audi's "Art of the Heist") or a webisode (Ikea's "Easy to Assemble"), must serve to support the larger narrative without becoming an essential element of its unfolding. In other words, no one manifestation or platform should be necessary for the understanding of the bigger picture, but each piece must help form the composite whole.

3. Recognize the power of your fans. Understanding how to build off a fan base is one major challenge facing today's content creators. The internet has empowered fans, turning the once fixed relationship between creators and their audience into a real-time dialogue, and sometimes even collaboration. Fans' reactions now come in many forms—from fan fiction to user-generated mash-ups to spoof ads and websites. Content creators must approach fans, where they already congregate and exist, as co-creators of their narratives, rather than barometers.

4. Build a world, not just a story. Jenkins' fourth principle of transmedia storytelling focuses on the importance of creating a world for your story to live in, not just a story that works in this world. While creating an elaborate universe for characters is a basic element in most storytelling, brands outside of entertainment should consider it, too. What kind of world could you build around your brand's story? Around your users? Around your mission? Maybe its fantastical (Coke's "Happiness Factory") or maybe it's just our world, but better (Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty").

Transmedia isn't new. What makes it particularly interesting to us now is the speed, variety, reach and interactivity of today's platforms. We are on the frontier of technology and new forms of communication that are changing the ways we create, experience and share stories (take a look at Jonathan Harris's Whale Hunt if you want a good example). The law of conservation of energy doesn't seem to apply in this world—because the stories we create and consume are no longer defined by time, space or material object.

Christine Huang is head of cultural trends at GlobalHue, the U.S.'s leading multicultural marketing-communications agency.
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