Transmedia Storytelling [The Ultimate Guide]

What is transmedia storytelling?

For many brands, connecting with the audience has always been a big challenge. And for a long time, there was only one way of doing so — advertising. Although there are all kinds of advertising, like traditional media advertisements and brochures, it was all one sea of noise. Did the consumer like it? If yes, fantastic! But, if not, why not? There were no interactions between companies and consumers. It was one-way communication — an empty monologue.

When we entered the digital age, things started to change significantly. Today, consumers have a greater power of influence over companies. Brands are challenged to up their game and outwit their competitors. Each one is trying to communicate through different channels, produce more valuable content, and add a more personalized touch to make a better connection with customers. This is where transmedia storytelling enters the scene.

“Humans do not engage in activities that are meaningless. If you think you see people doing things you find meaningless, look again, and try to understand what the activities mean for them.”

– Henry Jenkins

Definition of transmedia storytelling

Transmedia storytelling is a process of creating and sharing content or a story through various media and communication platforms. It includes different points of entry to encourage engagement across a range of demographics and interest levels. The content produced in this process comes in the form of videos, blogs, ebooks, social networks, movies, and more. All this content has a common thread, through which the consumer plays an active role.

Technically, transmedia storytelling is not a new phenomenon, and is perhaps the oldest technique we have for spreading information. From memorized sagas transferred orally from one storyteller to another, to cave paintings and art, the tales told throughout human history have found multiple channels to the public.

Transmedia storytelling allows us to create an experience across many different platforms and formats which can reach a broad audience and create more depth to the overall plot and storyline. 

In transmedia, each platform creates its own contribution to the narrative. There are various platforms involved in transmedia storytelling which may include digital media, TV, radio, social media, story components, audience interaction, books, comics, games, collectible items, and particularly, alternate reality game (ARG) types that blur the line between in-game and out-of-game experiences. These channels allow for the development of layers, impactful changes, and plot twists.

The story content is created through different techniques so it can attract different people. The interactive quality and depth of the story’s world all work to develop strong audience connections. It creates multiple viewpoints and possibilities which quench our human curiosity and imagination, while open-endings allow us to work on the puzzle and draw our conclusions.

Who first defined transmedia storytelling?

Henry Jenkins, professor who defined transmedia storytelling

American researcher, Henry Jenkins, was the first to define transmedia storytelling in 2003. Jenkins is also a Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Jenkins wrote a book titled Convergence Culture, which explained his thoughts about transmedia storytelling. He warned that transmedia storytelling is an emerging subject, and different authors have different understandings of it. He also mentioned that the term “transmedia” per se means “across media” and may be applied to similar but different phenomena. Notably, the concept of “transmedia storytelling” should not be confused with traditional cross-platform, “transmedia” media franchises or “media mixes.”

Jenkins presented the media company DC Comics as an example. DC had released a series of comic books long before they had live-action films. This allowed the audience to learn more about each character’s backstory.

Transmedia storytelling is not mainly based on a single character or plot line but instead focuses on much larger and complex worlds where multiple characters and plot lines can be sustained for a more extended period of time.

Jenkins also laid out how transmedia tries to attract larger audiences. For example, DC Comics also released coloring books to attract audience members of a younger age. Sometimes, the audience members will feel as if some transmedia storylines left gaps in the plot line or character development. These gaps can be used to begin another extension of transmedia storytelling, which might even be fan fiction.

What is the difference between transmedia storytelling and traditional story adaptation? 

Transmedia storytelling is often compared and contrasted with traditional story adaptation. At first glance, they may look the same. We know now that transmedia storytelling is a form of storytelling made through multiple forms of media where each one must clearly contribute value to the overall story.

Two main factors propel transmedia storytelling: first is the spread of new forms of media such as the internet, video games, and mobile platforms and the demand they create. The second one is the economic incentives offered to media creators who share these digitized properties online.

According to Henry Jenkins, every particular form of media involved in a brand’s transmedia storytelling must be complete, and each platform must be self-sufficient. Which means a consumer must be able to enjoy the story from one platform without seeing another. Say, for example, the Harry Potter franchise. Fans must be able to understand and know the whole story by seeing the movie without reading the book, and vice versa.

On the other hand, traditional adaptation, also known as the “One Source Multi Use” (OSMU) model, emphasizes the commercial importance of original content by creating spin-off content based on original work. It adapts the storytelling of original work and spread it through different media platforms.

In other words, this type of storytelling creates content which is directly derived from the original work, making it as its creative center. As an audience, you must have some knowledge about the original work before you can fully understand what the adaptation is. This factor makes it a lot different from transmedia storytelling, which allows the user or the audience member to access content in any order, from any platform, with each individual work being its own autonomous world.

What types of media are involved in transmedia storytelling?

Detective Pikachu, transmedia story example

Transmedia storytelling involves various media platforms which include pretty much any communication method you and your target audience can access. Web content? Check. Social media? Sure thing! Posters? Stickers? Fictitious ads or announcements? You bet! The list below includes some of the possibilities, but your options are limited pretty much only by your imagination.

Print Materials

  • Books & magazines
  • Flyers
  • Posters
  • Postcards
  • Stickers
  • Comic books

Digital Content

  • eBooks
  • Website content
  • Fan fiction
  • Podcasts
  • Video
  • Video games

Direct Communications

  • Text messages
  • Chat or instant messages
  • Email

Social Media

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Tumblr
  • YouTube
  • Fan sites and forums

Experiential Media 

  • Theater
  • Concerts
  • Exhibitions
  • Live Installations
  • Theme Parks
  • Toys

Well, looking through that list, transmedia can undoubtedly deliver messages to your audience in lots of different ways! But of course, no single transmedia project will include ALL those communication platforms. Most of the time, transmedia stories will be told primarily in one format (film, video, comic, book, etc.), with additional content available in another format for those who want to dig deeper.

There is such an exploding array of media options for transmedia. As you explore the transmedia possibilities, remember to keep your story and project goals at the forefront and then open up your mind to the possibilities for storytelling and engaging your audiences in a unique experience. Each platform should offer something different, and all platforms – both traditional and digital – must work together.

Why are games an effective form of transmedia storytelling?

The gaming industry is undoubtedly one of the most profitable forms of entertainment. In fact, since 2015, it has surpassed the movie industry in terms of profit. This means there’s more money being spent on games than movies. To give you a rough idea, in 2018, data shows that games grossed $43 billion versus $41 billion in cinema.

But we won’t concentrate on the business behind these forms of entertainment. We’re here to discuss how games have evolved the narratives beyond the “main” environment and ventured into a different kind of entertainment which come in the form of games.

So why are games so effective in transmedia storytelling?

First, the level of immersion you get from games is far higher than most existing forms of entertainment. Although the audience passively consumes the narrative presented in movies and music, in games, the viewer becomes the ‘doer.’ Furthermore, the player can directly influence the story, even in linear campaign modes where the decisions you make are incorporated into the storyline.

Another interesting factor is that games are the only form of entertainment that effectively challenge you, not allowing you to move forward if you are not good enough to perform a task or overcome a challenge. No other format does this (imagine if you had to finish a quest before you could watch a movie.)

The engagement and the memory you get from games are what makes them so appealing and so effective in embedding the narrative of a story into people’s minds. To actually put the viewer inside the story, allowing them to experience the story themselves, makes it more meaningful. I mean, you’re most likely to remember the 30-minute gameplay you had in a Tomb Raider game than watching a 2-minute trailer from a Tomb Raider movie.

What are the benefits and limitations of transmedia storytelling?

With transmedia storytelling, brands can show up in a variety of platforms where consumers spend their time: online, via social channels, with video content, and more. But as with other strategies, transmedia storytelling has its benefits and limitations. Here are some of them.

Benefits

  • Transmedia encourages and supports consumer participation, from interactions across channels to the co-creation of products, stories, and messages.
  • Transmedia allows the brand to go “surround sound.” This means, when a customer is looking for insights about your topic, your information is available on their channel of choice, from social media to podcasts to documents.
  • Leverage multimedia content to create a richer brand experience across channels by experimenting with emerging channels such as podcasts, virtual reality, brand-run TV shows, and more.
  • Amplify messages and explore the best format for telling them—by experimenting with a full range of different forms and media to flesh out a complete transmedia strategy.

Limitations

  • Coordinating and collaborating with individual sectors of a media conglomerate can be a challenge.
  • While entry points may entice a range of consumers, it may also provide many points to push consumers away.
  • It could get hard to understand the entire dynamic of a franchise if you have several content creators.
  • Balancing content between hardcore fans and casual fans is a daunting task.
  • Not all stories are suitable for transmedia storytelling.

Why are movies important in transmedia storytelling?

Another successful model in transmedia storytelling is movies. Just like games, movies are highly profitable in the entertainment industry. It is also an excellent platform to share or showcase a story since it reaches a wide array of various audiences.

This reason alone is already a good factor in why movies are great for transmedia storytelling. It reaches different audiences from different parts of the world if the film is released internationally). It’s a perfect medium to establish the story of a character — their background story and their origin. You can put all of it in a single movie for people to watch.

Marvel transmedia storytelling example

One good example of this is Marvel’s Avengers. It started as a comic book way back in 1963. Being a comic book, readers would already see how the characters look. Then came the movie released in 2012. The film features a detailed introduction of the worldview and the characters: How each hero was born is laid out already, but there was no set framework for specific incidents, goals, and what the characters plan to do. Each platform showcases a certain hero being at a particular stage in a specific setting, making the story diverse enough that no two stories interrupt one another.

It served as a pillar for other stories and other movies to be released from the same franchise, with each hero having a movie of its own.

A story that moves in an entirely unconventional direction is an essential component of transmedia storytelling. The three pillars namely, the core story, the worldview, and the main characters aim to establish multi-platforming. Which means, they are designed to be open stories that can be developed into different media. They do not own one another but serve as an entry point to the next installment of the franchise.

Which movie studio has been more successful using transmedia storytelling?

With movies being one of the best platforms of transmedia storytelling, more and more movie studios have applied this strategy to spread their stories and campaigns to different parts of the world. Many movie studios are starting to leverage on the success of their films to open up more entries on various platforms.

Walt Disney Studios is one of the most successful companies that employed this strategy. They have developed tons of films which were also turned into games, tv series, action figures, and a whole lot more. Another is Marvel Studios which produced highly popular titles like the X-Men franchise and the Avengers franchise. These films were initially released as comic books until Marvel decided to release live-action films featuring these Marvel characters. Their effective transmedia storytelling strategies indeed propelled not only their exposure but their profit as well.

Transmedia storytelling is not only big companies like the mentioned above. Independent filmmakers also used transmedia to increase exposure and therefore increase the popularity of their films. They did this through the use of social media to spread some good words about the movie using their own social media profiles or directly to their friends.

With no multi-million dollar campaigns, the success of independent films is achieved through a strong word of mouth and good reviews from the press (also, a few awards at the most important festivals). Transmedia approach allows the producers and the film’s creative team to start establishing that word of mouth process early on so it can grow, like a snowball, during the entire production process, so when the movie is released it already has an audience. The success of films like Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project, and the more recent Kevin Smith’s Red State was the result of the buzz established by the production using social media and the internet. 

Transmedia storytelling examples

Below are some examples of successful stories which are done with transmedia storytelling. 

Star Wars transmedia example

1. Star Wars

The Star Wars franchise displayed one of the most successful transmedia storytelling techniques ever made. Star Wars isn’t something fans learn about through one piece of media—they experience lightsaber dueling through video games, popular planetary recipes through cookbooks, and the life of a Jedi through attractions like Star Tours and Trials of the Temple.

This franchise established a cohesive, deliberate transmedia storytelling which reinforced participation, interactivity, and performance in a way traditional instruction cannot. They made it accessible to individuals across multiple genders, racial, age, ethnic, and cultural spectra, and the narrative universe as a whole unites communities around the characters, places, skills, and values. The Star Wars franchise gave Disney multiple platforms to educate audiences about the values they want to uphold and fulfill the organization’s mission to create dynamic problem-solving spaces (i.e., learning ecologies) where audiences can write themselves into the narrative as they see fit. They wanted to help fans make meaning in their own lives by engaging with, and relating to, the likes of Luke, Rey, Finn, Leia, and Han.

Pokemon transmedia example

2. Pokemon

If you are a 90’s kid, there’s a high chance that you’ve grown up with Pokemon. I bet you were watching it on TV, playing the games on your Gameboy Color, collecting hundreds of trading cards, and decorating your room with Pokemon toys and bedspreads (I even had Pikachu pajamas when I was younger). This franchise is also a prime example of transmedia storytelling. Pokemon is still very much alive and is quite popular with boys and girls as young as four and up to grown adults. You can’t deny, there is something universally engaging about the series.

When the series was first released, computers and smartphone were not as prevalent as to now. The Nintendo company made a brilliant move of selling and conveying Pokemon media through many different formats. There is the manga (Japanese comics), tv series, movies, video games, and more! As computers have become more common and easy to use, fans also participated and created tons of websites and even games online in efforts to comprehend and drill deeper into the ever-expanding world of Pokemon.

3. Batman (The Dark Knight)

DC Comic transmedia example

One of the most prominent and most successful examples of this advertising concept using transmedia storytelling is, no doubt, the campaign made by 42entertainment for the release of the Christopher Nolan movie “Batman, The Dark Knight.” 

The immense campaign started in the 2007 Comic-Con in San Diego where the first “Jokerized” dollars were discovered. It was then followed by the launch of a website called WhySoSerious.com. There were around 30 more clues released through different platforms which got fans even more excited. More and more people participated in the campaign. Each one of the clues is incredibly diverse content, (including the joker cake, Gotham pizza, joker package, a “Clown Travel Agency,” and more) all of them encouraging fans of all over the world to participate in an alternate reality experience, finding clues on and offline.

The Matrix transmedia

4. The Matrix

The Matrix series is well known for its three-part feature-length live-action films, the story, as well as its characters, have been adapted into other forms of media such as an animated film and an online game for PC.

These adaptations were not just a simple tweak of the original content, which is the film. These were made specifically for their corresponding mediums, showing each incarnation’s level of freedom and own independent story. The product is a collection of content that forms a flexible grid of different latitudes and longitudes. While some audience members may only prefer to consume the contents from a single platform—which is totally acceptable—experiencing all the Matrix-related contents lead to a much immersing, integrative type of entertainment. This is a different kind of transmedia experience, something that can be classified as a proactive expansion of a text-based narrative.

Walking Dead transmedia

5. Walking dead

AMC’s The Walking Dead is another prime example of transmedia storytelling. Walking Dead was first created as a comic book, which evolved into a television series. Due to the comic’s popularity and the concurrent trends in young adult fiction for dystopian worlds and alternate realities, US cable channel AMC picked up the rights to produce The Walking Dead television series in 2009, releasing the first episode in late-2010. Also, a companion television series, Fear the Walking Dead, that plots the backstory of the zombie epidemic, was first broadcasted in mid-2015.

It was then made into webisodes – short videos available only through the internet. The webisodes featured additional insights and storylines from characters that are not in the show, offering extended lore to the world the show exists in. Transmedia expanded even further to video games and mobile games. Valentine’s Day provided a mobile app to “zombify” yourself to send to your sweetheart. Next, the companion series: Fear the Walking Dead.

How does The Walking Dead use transmedia storytelling?

AMC television series, The Walking Dead has been running for some years now. At face value, this series appears to be about ‘zombies’. Instead, it is an exploration into how the humanity of a group of disparate individuals and family units, driven by a mutual need to navigate through an apocalyptic post-epidemic landscape, is challenged, evolves and devolves. This franchise also utilized the transmedia storytelling technique throughout its media existence.

Not only does TWD consist of a comic book and TV series but the franchise also includes:

  • Twitter – The official Walking Dead Twitter page currently has 6.75 million followers. (Twitter.com, 2019)
  • Instagram – The official Walking Dead Instagram page currently has 6.8 million followers. (Instagram, 2019).
  • Facebook – The official Walking Dead Facebook page has over 34 million likes. (Facebook, 2019).

The Walking Dead also expanded to the video game industry and produced a video game series titled The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series. The video game focuses more on characterization, character development, emotion than action and problem solving rather than combat. It is available on multiple gaming platforms, including PC, Mac, PlayStation, Xbox, and iOS devices.

Conclusion

The unique ability of transmedia storytelling to utilize various forms of media to widen consumer choice and to provide familiar yet new content gives it an outstanding potential as a marketing strategy. And for consumers to properly engage with the created narrative through this strategy, it is necessary to try out multiple media platforms and contribute to the available information and knowledge about the story.

However, these qualities of transmedia storytelling also have the potential to create a negative effect on the marketability of a product, merely because not all consumers are willing to navigate through various platforms to fully understand the narrative world. As the story adds information and content, it has the risk of morphing into something that only appeals to a small group of cult fans rather than the mass audience. It is vital to offer a story that inspires consumers to actively participate in the larger network of content for you to reach the full market potential of transmedia storytelling.

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