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What's the Role of Transmedia Storytelling in Marketing?

by Elaine Fogel  |  
November 1, 2012

Although marketers have embraced storytelling since the advent of advertising, storytelling has taken on an new framework in our digital world. Moving seamlessly from our desktops or laptop computers to tablets to television screens to mobile phones without skipping a beat is so easy. And how many of us are using these devices simultaneously?

We're seeing new marketing tactics that distribute entertainment value and engage followers across multiple channels.

Because I wanted to learn more about transmedia storytelling and its role in marketing, I decided to ask transmedia storytelling expert and social marketer Nedra Kline Weinreich. She is president and founder of Weinreich Communications and program manager for the Entertainment Industries Council, working on health and social issues.

Elaine: With scores of new digital marketing communications channels opening up to marketers every day, it appears that those channels with entertainment value are catching on. Since you’re involved in transmedia storytelling and entertainment education, can you share what opportunities these new trends hold for us?

Nedra: I believe that the age of the 30-second spot and interruption marketing is just about over. It's so easy now to skip over TV commercials with our DVRs, block online banner ads, and tune out the pitches being thrown at us constantly. Our challenge as marketers is to figure out how to integrate our products and brands---in my case, healthy and pro-social behaviors---into the content to which people want to pay attention. In many cases, that's some form of entertainment, whether product placement on a favorite television show or your own original compelling content that makes people want to give you their most valuable commodity---their time and attention.

We live in a transmedia world, meaning that we now seamlessly move from mobile phone to computer to television---often all at the same time! Transmedia storytelling takes advantage of this fluidity by spreading different parts of a story across multiple media and allowing the audience to become participants in integrating the pieces. So, you could have characters from a television show tweeting about what they're doing during the week in real time in between episodes.

A graphic novel could provide back story for one of the characters that helps fans understand how he became a villain. Viewers could see a URL flashed on a business card in the show for the company the characters work for, go to that fictional company's website, and sign up for the corporate newsletter that provides weekly articles tying into the storyline. A minor character on the show might be a uncontrollable gossip who sends you texts about what the main characters are doing. And it's even more engaging when you can talk to the characters online, and they talk back to you.

Putting the story where the people you want to reach are already spending their time ---whether on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TV, mobile phones, or elsewhere---creates an immersive experience. When it feels like a story is unfolding around them, and especially when they have spent enough time with the characters to care what happens to them, they are primed to pay attention.

In the work I do centered on health and social issues, this is where the potential for influencing knowledge, attitudes and behaviors is highest, by integrating concepts from the research-tested field of entertainment education. Seeing a character experiencing a health problem, including their challenges and successes along the way, offers great opportunities to model desired behaviors and reinforce social norms.

How many people watching Claire Danes' character Carrie on "Homeland" have learned what bipolar disorder is from the show and perhaps recognized it in themselves or someone they love? How much more powerful would it be if we could read Carrie's diary as a teenager, see her medical chart, or follow someone in real life living with bipolar disorder as they discuss how their experience relates to Carrie's? Higher engagement and immersion in the story heighten the chances that an individual will be primed to take action in their own lives.

Elaine: The use of “story” has been around for eons. What is its role in marketing now, and how can marketers leverage it for bothbusiness and nonprofit marketing?

Nedra: You're right that storytelling is an ancient activity. We humans are hard-wired to respond to stories and use them to understand the world around us. A good story hinges on an emotional response, just as good marketing does. With so many products out there, marketers are constantly seeking the hook that will make a connection with their potential consumers.

Often, that connection comes about through a story---whether it's about the product itself, about how the company  started, or about how people use the product. (And sometimes the story doesn't even have anything to do with the product except in the emotion it tries to evoke.)

In some ways, nonprofits have it much easier than inert products like duct tape and washing machines in figuring out how to incorporate stories into their marketing (though look at how evocative the story of the lonely Maytag repairman is!). Nonprofits are inherently about people's stories... stories of loss, challenges, triumphs. The trick is going beyond just talking about the mission and services of the nonprofit (or the features and uses of the commercial product) and finding the stories of how it's changed people's lives for the better.

Elaine: I understand that you are involved in the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), working on health and social issues. Can you explain how storytelling plays a role in this organization’s mission “To bring the power and influence of the entertainment industry to bear on health and social issues?”

Nedra: The work that we do at EIC really has at its core the idea of harnessing the vast power of the entertainment industry to grab people's attention through the stories it tells. We work directly with the world's best storytellers---Hollywood writers and creators---to help them create accurate portrayals of health and social issues, reaching their massive audiences with important information in a way in which they will pay attention. We connect them with experts on the topics they are writing about and provide resources and depiction suggestions for how they could incorporate the issues into their shows.

As a nonprofit that's been around since 1983, EIC has gained the trust of the industry by understanding the creative process and how we can best assist creators in their work. Every year, EIC recognizes the best portrayals of mental health and substance abuse issues in the entertainment media through the PRISM Awards; to get a good idea of how storytelling plays a role in our mission, watch the PRISM Awards Showcase, now available for free viewing on demand on the FX Network website.

Elaine: Thanks to Nedra for sharing her expertise!

If you have experience using transmedia storytelling or entertainment education, please share how you're using it for marketing purposes. If you have questions on this topic, fire away and we'll ask Nedra to respond.

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Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, and a marketing and branding thought leader, speaker, writer, and MarketingProfs contributor. She is the author of the Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most for Small Business Success.

LinkedIn: Elaine Fogel

Twitter: @Elaine_Fogel

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  • by Walter Weeks Thu Nov 1, 2012 via blog

    With social media becoming increasingly important in our daily lives companies have to adapt their marketing strategies in order to stay in the game. Companies have to use facebook, twitter and youtube to attract new customers and business. If a brand uses youtube to promote a new product via the use of a clever advertising video, it has the potential to be seen by millions, which could result in a large increase in profits.

  • by Elaine Fogel Thu Nov 1, 2012 via blog

    Very true, Walter. And imagine how that can multiply when using transmedia storytelling??

  • by Rick Austin Thu Nov 1, 2012 via blog

    Hi Elaine:
    I interviewed Nedra on the topic of storytelling while we were at the most recent CDC social marketing conference. I'm glad to see her continuing to push the idea of cross-platform storytelling. My particular hobby-horse is trying to figure out how to get researchers to accept the idea that their results are not being bastardized by inserting them into an evocative narrative. As Nedra points out in your interview, we are hardwired to respond to stories. We are not hardwired to respond to an Excel spreadsheeet.

  • by Elaine Fogel Thu Nov 1, 2012 via blog

    Thanks, Rick! So true! Even in the speaking world, the presentations that tell stories rather than demonstrate charts and graphs are more engaging. (Just finished my MarketingProfs PRO seminar, so it's on my brain.) :)

  • by BBA student Thu Nov 1, 2012 via blog

    1/7 of the world is now on facebook. others are growing fast
    that is enough to understand the importance of social media.

  • by Neha Verma Fri Nov 2, 2012 via blog

    Social Media is increasing day by day.Many marketers depend on social media to promote their business.Some people use tools to promote or market their business resulting more traffic,more business.

  • by Meagan Dahl Fri Nov 2, 2012 via blog

    One of the great components of Transmedia is not just multiple authorship and expansive, ever changing content, it allows for all users to participate in real time. Transmedia storytelling is a great tool for content marketing, but it doesn't just impact the way we tell stories from a straight marketing perspective, it also impacts how we use mobile technology for marketing.

    Mobile allows costumers to participate on multiple platforms, anywhere at any time with brands, making the possibility of iterations and interactions seemingly endless on both sides of the marketing fence.

  • by Elaine Fogel Fri Nov 2, 2012 via blog

    Sounds like you know what you're talking about, Meagan! Thanks for adding this. :)

  • by Gunther Sonnenfeld Sun Nov 4, 2012 via blog

    Hi Meagan:

    While mobile is a great channel for sharing and participating in stories, let's not forget (to Nedra's points) that transmedia storytelling is about narrative -- what happens to a story or what does it do as it is told across platforms? How does each piece contribute to the overall narrative or the "whole" (be it a brand campaign, a social initiative, an educational effort, what have you)? How do archetypes (characters) play their own unique roles?

    Think of a transmedia narrative as a dialogue between people that are interacting with a story and/or participating in the creation of one.

    When you mention "real-time participation", this is what I would hope you mean.

    Transmedia storytelling is not integrated marketing. It is not content marketing. It is not social media as we've come to know them. It is not just the process of "moving content across channels". It may comprise some of those elements, but it is much more focused on sustaining a narrative, and building a storyworld, than anything else.

    In addition to Nedra's great musings as practitioner, I would encourage people visiting this blog to read Andrea Phillips (who just wrote "A Creator's Guide") and Lance Weiler (who is offering up an open curriculum on his Columbia course "Building Storyworlds"). Both provide great views into the practice of creating/developing transmedia narratives, and how various platforms are used.

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Nov 5, 2012 via blog

    Thanks for sharing these resources, Gunther.

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