Transmedia Storytelling, Fan Culture and the Future of Marketing

The rise of each new medium — print, motion pictures, radio, television — introduces new forms of communication and entertainment. Often, the new medium initially replicates what came before: Many early movies were filmed stage plays, and early television programs were based on their radio antecedents. Eventually, however, each new medium evolves into its own form.

Our current multi-channel, multi-screen, “always on” world is giving rise to a new form of storytelling, dubbed “transmedia,” that unfolds a narrative across multiple media channels. A single story may present some elements through a television series or a motion picture with additional narrative threads explored in comic books, video games or a collection of websites and Twitter feeds. Depending on their level of interest, fans can engage in selection of these story elements or follow all of them to fully immerse themselves in the world of the story.

Andrea Phillips first encountered transmedia storytelling back in 2001 when a friend told her about a baffling website by the Anti-Robot Militia, a group opposed to the advance of cybernetic humans. On further investigation, she found other online clues that expanded the mystery, and she even participated in real-world events related to the story, such as an Anti-Robot Militia rally in New York. Phillips later discovered these elements were part of an elaborate marketing campaign — later known as “The Beast” — created by a team at Microsoft to promote Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Her adventure exploring the world portrayed in “The Beast” had a profound impact on Phillips, who decided that this was the type of work she wanted to do. She went on to become a full-time free-lance transmedia author, working on the interactive treasure hunt “Perplex City,” the immersive online sensory experience “The Maester’s Path” in conjunction with HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and the Facebook-based human rights game “America 2049.” Her new book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms, offers advice and guidelines for authors interested in exploring this emerging field.

Knowledge@Wharton recently sat down with Phillips in New York City to discuss the evolution of transmedia storytelling and how these narrative techniques are being used to engage consumers and find new ways to market everything from movies to consumer products.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start with a definition: What is transmedia storytelling? 

Andrea Phillips: I’ve been sticking with [University of Southern California professor] Henry Jenkins’ definition, which boils down to: one story over multiple media where each makes a unique contribution.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give a few examples?

Phillips: Star Wars, for example, is a hugely successful franchise [that is also] transmedia, because different parts of that universe are shown in separate works [each of which provides] a unique contribution. For example, in the films, you see Han Solo and Princess Leia fall in love. But if you switch over to the books, then you know that they ultimately get married and have twin babies. You see a broader picture of the same narrative if you consume multiple pieces of media in that universe.

With Indiana Jones, in addition to the movies, you have the “Young Indiana Jones” TV series. Or with Back to the Future, you have the films, which [offer] interesting narrative interrelations, but there’s also a Telltale Games series of short episodic games that expand that narrative and provide more depth.

The Matrix is one of the canonical examples of good intertextual transmedia because you see things happen in the films that are only explained in the graphic novel or in the video games. There are moments where a character [exits the story in] one of those media and, in the next instant, appears in [another medium]. And if you [experience all this material] you know what’s going on in every moment. 

Knowledge@Wharton: In your book you make a distinction between what you call “East Coast” transmedia and “West Coast” or “Hollywood” transmedia. Can you describe the differences?

Phillips: The stock-in-trade of the West Coast, Hollywood style transmedia — you might also call it commercial or big business transmedia — is really, really big pieces of story, as in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, where you have a movie and a TV show and a book, and they make a whole that winds up being more rewarding the more pieces you know about.

Whereas on the East Coast, there’s more of an indie film aesthetic and more emphasis on interaction and smaller pieces of story. So you might have a tweet stream, e-mail interactions and blogs as a part of your story. East Coast transmedia tends to be more interactive and more digital.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’ve discussed examples of the Hollywood style like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Matrix. What’s an example of the East Coast style?

Phillips: One of the most accessible examples of the East Coast style is wrestling. World Wrestling Entertainment is phenomenal transmedia. They have live events that people attend that are also aired on television, which is purely cross-media at this point. But on top of that, you have these characters acting like real people on Twitter. They’re amping up rivalries. The performers and the characters are essentially the same thing. They have a YouTube channel in which these same narrative threads are spun out. And then you see The Rock starring on “Saturday Night Live,” and all of his friends come as their wrestling characters, expanding that universe more and more into the real world.

The TV show, “How I Met Your Mother,”is increasingly transmedia in its aesthetic, with a lot of little pieces being spun off. They’ll mention a website or a band, and you’ll search for it [to find that] the band has a website and you can hear the song. The character that Neil Patrick Harris plays has actual books that you can buy in stores that aren’t really narrative; they’re essentially great running gags. But none of these is a big piece of the story. They are all just little pieces that add to the whole without being independent narratives, and that’s what makes it more an East Coast style.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does it matter if the story arc is designed to cross multiple media from the outset or, as in the case of Star Wars, was originally a film that was later expanded in other media?

Phillips: Intent has nothing to do with it. It just matters what the work is.

There’s a lot of talk about authorial intent in art. But that’s valuing the experience of the creator over the experience of the audience. The experience of the audience is the only thing that matters.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned characters interacting in the real world. This is similar to the concept of an alternate reality game [ARG]. Is this a form of transmedia in your view?

Phillips: I would call it a subset, a genre of transmedia where it’s highly interactive and very often puzzle driven. The idea is to provide your audience the experience of a story playing out in the real world and in real time. I came from the ARG tradition, and I am very fond of it. It does have some logistical problems with scope. It’s hard to scale something up to an audience of millions of people and still give everyone the feeling of intensity that you have in some of the really amazing work that’s been done.

Knowledge@Wharton: And the notion of gamification — using game techniques and rewards for things that otherwise wouldn’t be game-like — does that fit into the realm of transmedia?

Phillips: That’s a completely unrelated issue. It’s something you could use with transmedia, but it’s not the same thing. I actually hate the idea of gamification in a lot of ways.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why do you hate the idea of gamification?

Phillips: On the one hand, my Nike FuelBand just gave me a little [message] saying I hit the goal of activity that I set for myself today. Later, when I sync it to my phone, it’ll [play] an animation that says, “Congratulations,” and a robot will do a little dance. That’s all fine and good. But when you’re talking about a story, a narrative experience, then overlaying a game interface on top of that distracts from the experience. It breaks your flow and disrupts your suspension of disbelief. It winds up creating a set of dynamics and expectations that aren’t appropriate to the experience that you’re trying to provide.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is the term “transmedia” used to characterize things you don’t consider to be valid examples of the form?

Phillips: If you look at something like the Smurfs — sure there are Smurfs movies and a Smurfs animated series and lunch boxes and plush animals and so on and so on — but at the end of the day, they’re not building up to a single narrative thread that becomes stronger when you see all of the pieces. I would call it cross-media when you have the same content and story appearing on multiple platforms. But it’s not transmedia because there’s no transcendence. The same episode of “Yo Gabba Gabba” on the TV and on your cell phone does not make it transmedia.

I also think that we get tied down a lot in definitions, almost pointlessly, because at the point of creation, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re making something that’s transmedia. It matters whether you’re making something that works and is interesting to you and to the audience.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you get started in this field?

Phillips: Eleven years ago there was a marketing campaign for the film A.I. It’s called “The Beast” now. A friend of mine sent me a link to this website for the Anti-Robot Militia. We had no idea what it was, but it was really weird. These people were talking about how robots aren’t alive and have no right to exist. It was anti-robot hate speech.

We were so baffled by this that we started looking around. My friend found more websites and then found a Yahoo group called Cloudmakers, which were people looking into this thing.

It was amazing because we didn’t quite know what these interrelated websites were. We called it “The Game,” and we called ourselves Cloudmakers, but we didn’t have any other language to describe it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Were you disappointed when you discovered it was a Hollywood marketing ploy?

Phillips: Not at all. It was irrelevant.

There was an interesting tension in that whole experience that you don’t see anymore because times have changed. We didn’t know who was behind it to begin with. We didn’t know it was a movie tie-in. There were Anti-Robot Militia rallies that we went to. That was fun. I think somebody wound up searching for the wrapping of packages that had been sent to the venues to look at the return label [and found] they had been sent from Microsoft.

And then because of the characters mentioned in the story and this idea of a little robot named David, we figured that it was going to be a tie-in to the film A.I. But there was no moment when we saw, “In theaters on such and such date…” within the context of the game. It was completely true to the experience the whole way through. And we loved it so deeply and so passionately — because it didn’t feel like we were being marketed to. I talk a lot about love letters to the audience. It felt like a love letter to us. It was rewarding us with content just for showing up.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did it enhance your enjoyment of the film?

Phillips: It did. I forget what the experience of that movie was like for people who didn’t go through that marketing campaign. There’s a lot that happens in the film that’s ambiguous, that doesn’t have [much] context.

You have a moment [in A.I.] when a bunch of thugs are destroying robots, and you have no idea why. But we knew this was a robot hate group, Anti-Robot Militia.

A lot of the story of the game was about Martin Swinton, who was the little boy in the film who gets sick and is locked in this stasis pod. The movie has to do with his mother adopting a boy robot as a replacement for her son. The movie has themes about emotion and love, robots and what makes a real human — sort of a Pinocchio element. The game put that all on the surface.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you go from exploring these things online to making this your work?

Phillips: We were all changed by this. Many of the people who participated in The Beast went on to become creators. It was a moment like we’d never had before.

I had always been a writer — not a great, successful writer — but someone who wanted to be a writer. And when ["The Beast"] happened, I said, “I want to do that. How do I do that?” I didn’t do much about it for a couple of years, but then some of my fellow Cloudmaker moderators, Dan Hon and Adrian Hon, started a company called Mind Candy with Michael Acton Smith in the UK. I badgered them to hire me. I made myself indispensable. I kept doing things for them until they had no choice but to hire me. And the game that we made ultimately was Perplex City, which wound up being this amazing thing.

Knowledge@Wharton: In some cases, ARGs and transmedia stories use websites, Twitter feeds, etc. that appear to be real. Is this ambiguity — of what’s in the game versus what’s real — part of the fun or is it a problem? 

Phillips: We learned a lot of lessons from “The Beast,” but it took us five or six years to work out that a lot of the lessons we learned were the wrong ones. One of the lessons we thought we learned from “The Beast” was this idea of “This is not a game” — the idea that everything had to be presented as if it were real and the team behind it should be completely secret. I think that was the wrong lesson.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why was that the wrong lesson?

Phillips: It has to do with experience. There’s a point where you enjoy ambiguity. The problem is that that point is a little bit different for everyone. And the audience wants to be in control of knowing where that line is. When you present yourself as real, you open yourself to creating problems for people.

Assuming that your audience can’t possibly know it’s fictional is ridiculous on the face on it. We knew perfectly well that there was no Anti-Robot Militia. The idea that admitting that something was fictional would ruin the whole thing winds up being a non-starter. An audience is a little more robust than that. They’re not so fragile that when they can find out that it’s not real, it will ruin it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Isn’t there an ethical component to this as well?

Phillips: Definitely. A lot of student projects seem to love to start with fliers plastered around campus [saying], “Missing girl.” They think that’s really great. The problem is that they’re thinking about the experience with the eyes of someone playing a game. They don’t step back and realize that context is everything, and not everybody who sees these pieces of content is going to come into them with the correct context. So you have to analyze everything from that surface level: What does this really look like? Is a normal person going to look at it and think, “This looks like a fun game.” Or are they going to think, “Oh no, some girl is missing; I shouldn’t go out after dark by myself.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you make sure people find out about a game built around stealth websites and other online secrets? How is a project like this launched?

Phillips: Badly, usually. There’s a myth that if you make something interesting and you tell a couple of people, it will spread virally across the Internet. That is, by and large, a terrible, terrible lie. It is not true that the cream rises to the top on the Internet.

When you launch something, don’t just send someone a mysterious box. Send them a mysterious box if you have to, but also send them a letter with a URL telling them what you’re doing. Send out a press release. Make sure people know what it is you’re going to do, and make sure that they know before it’s almost done or nobody will look at it.

These things do have to be marketed and promoted exactly the same way that every other entertainment medium does. It’s frustrating to see campaigns start with no concept of a marketing budget, no concept of how they’re going to spread the word beyond, “Well, people will know because it’s cool.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In your book, you point out that some transmedia is fairly ephemeral. Unlike a franchise like Star Wars — which you can experience multiple times — the more interactive, East Coast style of transmedia often occurs once and is then done. Does this hamper its evolution as an art form?

Phillips: I do think that we are being hampered by lack of knowledge of prior art. You see a lot of people trying the same things that sound like good ideas on paper but don’t quite work.

Part of the problem is simply lack of awareness. I like to make a joke that the most common way into transmedia as a career is to invent transmedia. And that’s sort of a joke, but it’s partly a real problem because people do have this amazing idea of making something immersive and interactive, and they think they’re the first person to ever have that idea: “I know, I’ll make a tweet stream to go along with it.” They can’t learn the lessons of the people who’ve been doing this kind of thing for 10 years already and have made a lot of the same mistakes. If there were a bigger focus on craft, then people would stop making those mistakes, and they might start making new and interesting mistakes that we haven’t seen before. And we would all get better at this.

Knowledge@Wharton: You call your new book, The Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, a practical guide to transmedia. Who needs a practical guide to transmedia?

Phillips: This is a book that I hope will benefit everyone who is interested in transmedia. It’s fundamentally a book about craft. I’m trying to explain all of the mistakes that I’ve made and why some things seem to work and some don’t, and walk people through how to make choices in structuring their story and finding an audience.

One of the problems with transmedia production is that a lot of people come into it with knowledge of only film or only marketing. They don’t know how to make a website or how to manage e-mail. This practical guide is meant for people who might already be competent at one medium and want to expand, but don’t quite know where to start.

Knowledge@Wharton: We often see transmedia used in marketing campaigns, where the transmedia material is essentially an advertisement for another core product. Why is this a common approach to transmedia? 

Phillips: I think that it has to do with an interesting shift happening in marketing and advertising. There’s a lot of talk about the attention economy, where we’re in a flat-out war for attention. Marketers have cottoned to the idea that people aren’t going to look at marketing just because you put it in front of them. People simply don’t notice banner ads. Calling [the impact of a banner ad] an “impression” is a terrible lie, because it isn’t making an impression on anybody. You just tune it out. It might as well not exist.

Marketers have started to realize they need to create content people will seek out because it has value to them, independent of the value to the marketer. You’re seeing things like the Old Spice guy, which has tremendous entertainment value — partly because it’s really funny and partly because Isaiah Mustafa is extremely beautiful to look at — and people seek that out because there’s something there that they want. And the marketing comes in subtly.

Knowledge@Wharton: The Old Spice example is interesting. We often see transmedia marketing campaigns promoting other media products — a movie or a television show. In the case of Old Spice, it’s advertising a consumer product.

Phillips: Old Spice is a great example. Levi’s had a “Go Forth” campaign for blue jeans that was all about go-getter innovation. Stella Artois, the beer, has run an alternate reality game. There was another one for the Sarah Jessica Parker perfume Covet. [Transmedia has been used for] consumer brands more than you would think. 

Knowledge@Wharton: Can these techniques also benefit corporations and enterprises beyond just marketing?

Phillips: You don’t need to look at entertainment media. You don’t even need to look at corporations. Look at the military. The military runs war games in which you’re play acting a story about a particular war scenario. It is a very effective training method for preparing people for that kind of war because they’re in a story and they have a framework to understand everything that’s going on.

I think that Cisco commissioned No Mimes Media to do “The Hunt,” which was at least partly a training endeavor to increase awareness of how to use certain company tools. Training is a spectacular use for these things.

I think corporations could benefit from looking at these sorts of things as training exercises because it makes people care about it more than attending a two-day seminar.

Knowledge@Wharton: Look into the future. What will we see in transmedia in two, three, five years from now?

Phillips: I don’t make predictions for five years out. That’s pretty much my cut-off date. Five years ago social media had basically not been invented yet. So I don’t know what that next thing is going to be. I am confident it is not five years away.

In the near future, I think the most exciting area for transmedia right now is television because it has a built-in solution to a lot of the problems of interactive transmedia. 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. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that, because we’re reaching an era where just having a TV show isn’t going to be enough to keep someone’s attention.

We’re entering a period where 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: And you believe Transmedia can play an important role in keeping audiences engaged during those intervals? 

Phillips: I absolutely think it can — to provide that persistent emotional connection. It doesn’t even have to be really plot intensive; it just has to provide something that your audience will continue to care about to remind them that they love you, and to tell them that you love them, too.

Fan culture is probably the most powerful thing in entertainment — more powerful than studios, more powerful than production [companies]. Having a fan base or not makes or breaks any creator’s career. If you have a base of fans who love what you make, then you’re going to be okay. And the way to get a base of fans who love what you make is to respect them and to give them what they want.

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