Transmedia Storytelling: What’s in a Name?

Transmedia storytelling is a hotly debated term du jour that, on the one hand, is so broad that it’s nearly meaningless, while, on the other, seems to be incredibly difficult to replace with something better.  The term can mean different things to different people. But for all its limitations, transmedia storytelling also has a larger meaning, which is probably why it’s been so hard to get rid of. 

Transmedia storytelling is a marker of a paradigm shift in thinking about coordinated story-based communications that defy directionality.  Like “rock and roll” or “social media,” transmedia storytelling draws a line in the sand that is much more about mindset, creativity and collaborative exploration than the fickle world of technology.    So while many would agree that a new term is needed, “transmedia storytelling” still supplies some modicum of shared understanding and group identity.

From a psychological perspective, everything is “transmedia,” but now we’ve figured out that we can move intentionally within that realm.  It isn’t just about entertainment franchises.  The human brain makes sense out of the entire world in exactly that way that beautifully orchestrated transmedia projects deliver StoryWorlds—through different sensory input received at different times through purposeful interaction and attention that create a layered meaning. Everything we learn and know comes at us bit by bit and much of it we gather ourselves on purpose.  Our brain accommodates this flea market of inputs by filtering and organizing it into a narrative that makes sense.  The more personal and provocative the inputs, the more attention we devote, the more meaning we create and the more enjoyment we experience.  The caveat: this is true only as long as the information flow is relevant to us AND makes sense within a somewhat fungible range of expectations so we can stick it on the narrative in some way.  If new information doesn’t fit in our cognitive framework, we reject it and move on with the emotional residue somewhere between lack of interest and dislike. 

The really interesting thing about transmedia storytelling as it relates to brands and organizational messaging is the increasing awareness of how important it is to coordinate media interactions.  People have always formed their understanding of brands through a multitude of sources, from a casserole of mass media (TV, radio, print, billboards, direct mail, etc.), to interpersonal interaction of sales people, friends, family and personal experiences.  Companies have just been letting people do most of the meaning making without their help, disconnected messaging strategies, repurposed media and no attention to the person answering the phone in customer support. Not only is this approach sort of disrespectful of the audience, it ignores the holistic way that people come to understand everything. While there are a examples of companies and brands who get it, such as Apple, Dell, Toshiba, Dove and Coca Cola, we’ll know that organizations are really taking this concept to heart when it filters down out of the Fortune 100 and the internal silos of marketing, PR, sales, customer service and even HR are united around a core story and strategy. 

An effective transmedia campaign is not about what media platforms, special effects, or tools you use. It’s about a coherent of universe of meaning that unfolds across the media and motivates participation.  Sometimes the participation happens almost entirely in the brain through emotions, identification, and yearning.  Sometimes the participation is active, overly purposeful with clear markers of accomplishment.  Sometimes there is a powerful StoryWorld built out for exploration, sometimes an equally powerful StoryWorld exists in the consumers’ imaginations. 

Either way, we internalize them.  We see the story in our mind; we feel it. Stories engage all three levels of the brain, our instincts, our feelings and our thoughts—integrating the primitive, the emotional, and the executive center.  Stories synthesize passion, motivation and rationale together in a tidy packet, in integrated multisensory chunks—perfect for cerebral storage and recall.  “Top of mind” doesn’t come from a fleeting contact; it comes from satisfying internal needs, from the meaningful integration that comes from owning the story experience.  Both create a sense of ownership that can transform consumer beliefs and behavior whether it’s purchasing or voting.

A few years ago at George Gilder’s Telecosm conference, I heard the brilliant computer scientist Carver Mead and author Louisa Gilder talk about the physics of entanglement. The meaning of that term in physics is profound, highly mathematical, and beyond my grasp. From their discussion, however, I came away with an image of entanglement that seemed the perfect description of human experience and media that we are seeing come to fruition in transmedia projects. Not entanglement like a bad romance, but entanglement as elegantly intertwined and mutually reactive.  

But, frankly, what we call transmedia storytelling is irrelevant to the audience as long we do it well.


Pamela Rutledge