Communications and related activities have played a major role in my work over the past twenty years. The key reason is that over this period, I have been involved in a number of emerging business opportunities such as the Internet and e-business, Linux, cloud computing and digital money. Marketing and communications are essential when introducing a disruptive innovation in the marketplace, given the need to explain what the new initiative is all about to key constituencies including clients, analysts and reporters.
Over the years, I have learned that in order to capture the attention of your intended audience and differentiate your offerings from those of competitors, you have to develop a compelling brand for your new products or services. This is particularly important when you are introducing a new and potentially disruptive offering in the marketplace.
Establishing such a brand requires much more than advertising. It is akin to engaging in a conversation with your intended audience, where you talk about what's in your mind, your aspirations, your questions, your doubts, what you know and what you don't know. In short, you are creating and telling a story about your brand. And, the more powerful, important and complex the messages you are trying to convey, the more important it is that you do so by telling a compelling, emotionally resonant story.
I believe that developing and communicating the storyline behind a disruptive innovation requires the close involvement of those who best understand and care about the new initiative and offerings. Marketing experts and design agencies are invaluable in this work, but by themselves they cannot properly communicate the in-depth understanding and passion of those most responsible for the innovations.
So, I was very excited when several months ago I learned about transmedia storytelling, a concept originally developed in the entertainment industry to tell a common story across multiple media platforms by moving characters and storylines across books, films, video games, comic books, TV series, and so on. The rise of social media and other digital channels makes the concept particularly powerful as a way of engaging the target audience with more depth and over a much longer period of time than would be possible within a single medium.
I first heard about this new concept during a visit to USC last March to attend a meeting of the advisory board of the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL), which I have been associated with since it was launched a couple of years ago as part of the Annenberg School. Transmedia storytelling, including its application to branding, is one of the major areas being pursued at AIL.
“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. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. . .”
“Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.”
In a follow-on 2011 tutorial, Transmedia 202: Further Reflections, Jenkins adds that transmedia storytelling should not only continue to develop a story across each new medium, but “most important, true transmedia should involve its audience in expanding the story through co-creation and collaboration.” He makes the distinction between adaptation and extension. “Basically, an adaptation takes the same story from one medium and retells it in another. An extension seeks to add something to the existing story as it moves from one medium to another.”
In Seven Myths about Transmedia Storytelling Debunked, Jenkins further explains the power of the concept.
“Transmedia allows gifted storytellers to expand their canvas and share more of their vision with their most dedicated fans . . . Many stories are told perfectly well within a single medium, and the audience leaves satisfied, ready for something else. Transmedia represents a strategy for telling stories where there is a particularly diverse set of characters, where the world is richly realized, and where there is a strong back-story or mythology that can extend beyond the specific episodes being depicted in the film or television series. Transmedia represents a creative opportunity, but it should never be a mandate for all entertainment.”
There are several reasons why I find transmedia storytelling so interesting to branding and other areas beyond the entertainment industry. It reminds me of collaborative innovation, one of the most important concepts that many companies in the IT industry have embraced over the past decade.
First of all, we now have a wide variety of digital technologies and channels across which to develop the market strategy for our new offerings, in addition to the classic analog channels. Transmedia reminds us that above all, content trumps technology. The key to reaching your target audience is the story you tell about your brand and your offerings. No amount of technology can make up for a weak, garbled, or inconsistent set of messages and overall storyline. As we are bombarded with information and ads, we will just tune out the vast majority of them. The competition for our attention is more intense than ever.
The best way to draw in your audience is to engage them as collaborators and co-creators of your offerings and overall brand. Ideally, you want to turn them from passive recipients of information to engaged participants. Doing so is very tricky and takes many forms. Often it means creating the platforms that encourages your audience to express and share their opinions about your brand. Beyond that, it means actively encouraging the audience to help support each other in the use and understanding of your offerings.
This is not without risk. Your active social media audience may express opinions about your offerings you don’t like. They may take your brand in directions you never intended. But, they will likely do so with or without you. It is important to show the audience that you value constructive opinions and will seriously take them into account as you continue to evolve your offerings and your brand. Properly done, this can turn your most serious critics into your most important collaborators.
Beyond listening to comments and opinions, you want to develop an ecosystem of active co-creators. A number of companies have embraced the concept of user-centered innovation, and actively encourage and support their lead users to enhance their offerings and take them in unanticipated directions. After all, these lead users know exactly what they want, have the wherewithal to enhance the products or services on their own, and are usually quite happy to freely share their ideas with each other. Their needs tend to be at the leading edge of markets, where demand is small and uncertain. The only way to satisfy their special needs is for them to do their own innovation and solve their own problems. Moreover, their needs often foreshadow general demand in the marketplace, and can help companies get an early start in developing future offerings.
Perhaps nowhere is this process of collaborative innovation most evident than in the work of open source communities like Linux. These communities have developed a powerful commons-based peer-production approach that is particularly suitable to our digital, networked world. Open source communities will sometimes develop offerings that might compete with the existing products of established companies. However, it is important for companies to find ways of leveraging the talent and passion that is often found in such communities by partnering in their efforts.
Transmedia also brings to mind the notion of open application platforms, another powerful concept in the IT industry. Platforms can be proprietary to a vendor or operated by a consortium of vendors, an industry organization or an open community. Competing on the basis of platforms is very different than competing on the basis of a single product or service.
The key objective of an open platform is to build an external ecosystem of developers that generate complementary innovations and thus enrich the platform. To do so, the application platform should provide services, tools and interfaces to make it much easier for lots of people to build applications or apps on the platform. If properly done, the overall value of the platform is far bigger than what a single company could have accomplished on its own.
It is interesting to consider how these various approaches to collaborative innovation from the IT industry might apply to transmedia storytelling and branding, whether engaging lead users, partnering with open source communities, or fostering an external ecosystem of developers on your platform. Above all, they require a major cultural change on the part of companies, from jealously controlling every aspect of their products, services and brands, to embracing collaborative innovation with partners, clients, and co-creators in general.
Given our fast changing, competitive world, I believe that the lessons of the IT industry will apply to the wider marketplace. Companies that successfully embrace the technologies, processes and culture of collaborative innovation will have a major advantage in becoming leaders in their industry.