Forget the hype, transmedia is just good marketing

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By Marcie MacLellan,  founder of Incontext Communications

I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t particularly moved when I first heard the term “transmedia”.  I came across it while participating in a development programme for filmmakers as part of the Venice International Film Festival. It was dubbed the “next big thing” and was supposedly transforming the way films were produced and promoted.  But I didn’t buy it. I was sure it was just cross-media repackaged and re-marketed to the people who invented it in the first place.

I’ve since discovered that there are many ways to describe this new buzzword which first took the world of film and television by storm. It’s since proved so successful; it is now making its way across virtually every industry that relies on advertising to turn a profit.  But apparently there is one thing it is not – and that is cross-media.

Using the ever-reliable Wikipedia, cross-media is described as a media property, service, story or experience distributed across media platforms using a variety of media forms.” Meanwhile, the inventor of the term itself, Henry Jenkins, defines transmedia in his book Convergence Culture as representing “the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms.”

Using these descriptions alone, it sounds a bit either/or to me. But it is when Jenkins takes his definition of transmedia one step further that the difference in approaches – versus technology – becomes clear. He writes: “transmedia immerses an audience in a story’s universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story.”

In layman’s terms, the resulting difference lies largely in the perspective a brand story takes, the detail it offers and the impression it creates. With cross-media you generally start with one concept and deliver it across all media available. With transmedia, each medium that your audience interacts with should serve a very specific purpose, while allowing your story to unfold like chapters in a book.  And like a good book, more of the narrative of the story is shared over time, allowing for a deeper connection with its characters. And that’s where, as a producer of content, transmedia can be far more exciting than cross-media ever was.

It is important to remember that this practice isn’t device-driven, but is platform driven as it is the platform that subtly dictates and influences audience reactions, social and behavioural trends and user experiences,” writes Allison Norrinton in her article, Transmedia Storytelling – What’s it all about?. “The bottom line is that with a solid transmedia strategy in place everything remains connected by the same central narrative and theme, but each channel excels at what it does best, rather than bending to fit a central idea that’s being repurposed for multi platforms.”

Film franchises and global brands are embracing transmedia, from The Blair Witch Project to The Matrix, from Coca Cola to Intel and Toshiba.  When Jonathan Mildenhall, vice president of global advertising strategy at Coca Cola, spoke to Forbes last year he described the complexity that transmedia has demanded of their campaigns, particularly in relation to their commercial “Happiness Factory”.

‘It was an ad, and only as good as the media dollars that we put behind it,’ he told Forbes. ‘But transmedia helped us understand how the story arc and the narrative of the Happiness Factory could evolve over time and how it could be used through different channels.’

He went on to explain that this narrative involved detailed descriptions of everything that made up the fictional world depicted in the ‘Happiness Inside’ commercial, ranging from character names to make-believe locations, and continued this story across videogames and social networking campaigns, as well as traditional media outlets.

It isn’t just global brands with million-dollar budgets that are getting on board.  Our local clients are also starting to embrace transmedia, with London School of Marketing (LSM) among them. Targeting an audience of local and international students who want to pursue a wide range of designations to further their career, the team behind LSM believes that education is a life-long process. That is why they want to do more than raise brand awareness – they want to connect with their prospects and customers over the long-term.

‘We are new to transmedia but are big believers in what it can do. We don’t just want to reach prospective students to tell them how much our programmes cost and what they include,  we want to involve them in the full story about how the education we offer can make a long-term difference,’ said Anton Dominique, COO/CFO of London School of Marketing.

‘We have been communicating with email, blogs, white papers, ebooks, social media, webinars and more recently films – but we have been doing it from our perspective. What we want to do now is use our marketing efforts to better engage and represent the viewpoint of our different audiences, from international students to experienced professionals pursuing their MBAs.’

Like Dominique, marketing professionals know that as the world of the consumer changes, so too must their marketing approaches – hence the hype behind transmedia.  I still think the term itself is a bit overhyped; after all, transmedia isn’t exactly ground breaking. But when the fit is right, I do have to agree that it can be game-changing.

Customers are the ones deciding what advertising they will respond to and how.  To reach them, it is obvious that we need to tell brand stories that target audiences want to hear again and again. In that way, a transmedia approach is simply good marketing, managed strategically, with more innovative and personalised tools in place to deliver it.  And that’s not so hard to buy into.

Marcie MacLellan is founder of Incontext Communications, a copywriting and content production agency with offices in Canada and the UK. Since 2010, she has been a lecturer with the London School of Marketing, a leading institution offering accredited marketing and business qualifications in the heart of London.