Transmedia of future to engage the populace in an immersive and interactive way

[From The Scavenger]

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Transmedia: The experience of the future?

With the former glory of old, linear media fading, Melody Ayres-Griffiths examines just what the new media artform known as ‘transmedia’ is, and how it will engage an increasingly discerning yet time-starved populace in an immersive and interactive way.

13 February 2011

Late in January, 2011, I attended a conference regarding just what exactly ‘transmedia’ is, and perhaps where it’s going. Although the meaning of the phrase changed somewhat depending upon who you talked to, the core of the explanations I received was simply this: transmedia engages an audience across multiple platforms, such as television, film and the internet.

The key word here is ‘engage’.

From one speaker‘s point-of-view, as a producer you need to engage your audience in an almost immersive experience, where your property – factual or fictional – melds itself into your audiences’ lives as seamlessly as a mobile phone. It’s just… there. You moonlight as a spy for an international human-rights syndicate. You work as a botanist for a prestigious university, cataloguing rare insects that you find in your back garden.

Some experiences are serious – some perhaps even deadly; others are not, mere frivolity.

Another speaker felt that transmedia could simply be other secondary levels of engagement around a primary property, such as a motion picture or a television series.

This could be as plain as a website – although that has become about as generic as slapping a poster on the side of a tavern wall – or as complex as a long-term viral marketing campaign, such as the ‘Y SO SRS’ campaign used for ‘The Dark Knight’.

These, however, tend to only involve the internet for delivery – although they may involve text, images, sound and video, it’s all coming from the same place.

Mixed-mode delivery of multi-media content was the focus of another speaker, who demonstrated an ‘experience’ (there really is no better term at present; feel free to make one up!) wherein participants interacted with the fictional entities present within it through the telephone, internet and so-forth.

I can imagine taking this much, much further – publish a ‘clue’ inside a newspaper, and prompt your audience to go to the library to discover it; install a physical fixture to which your audience needs to travel (or convince a friend or family member to do likewise) in order to get the next clue and carry on with the experience.

The possibilities are endless.

Bluetooth, GPS and other mobile technologies will soon drive spontaneous ‘experiences’ that are triggered merely by finding yourself in a particular location – a mysterious character may beg you over your mobile phone to assist them in some way, which then leads to the exploration of the surrounding neighbourhood; a ‘police official’ from a far-away land might text an inquisitive child, asking him or her to procure information from a local museum that will aid in an ‘arrest’ of some fictional fugitive or another (that one is already in early development); a ghost may speak through your mobile and direct you to where they ‘died’, and solve the mystery of their ‘murder’.

These will soon be as integrated into our recreational lives as any other prior form, but as they will solicit us where we stand, and not require us to go to them, I imagine they will quickly become far more popular than their old-media predecessors.

The question then becomes one of how to monetize these. You can’t just throw advertising willy-nilly into the experience – it would break the ‘fourth wall’ and ruin it.

Obviously, if the experience is a promotion for a larger ‘primary’ property like a film, the pay-off is in persuading people to fork over their money at the cinema to ‘see what happens’ and how it ‘ends’, but that large investment in time is soon likely to turn an audience off, once they find themselves involved in experiences that only require a few minutes of their time here and there, like a Facebook game but once again, the game solicits you (yes, yes; in Soviet Russia game plays you… thank you for that, Mister Smirnoff…) rather than you electing to engage with it, as it is traditionally.

Money could perhaps be made by audience direction – as an ‘experience designer’ you might direct your players somewhere in the vicinity of a Starbucks where they retrieve a ‘code’ that will take the NSA’s central office fifteen minutes to ‘crack’; obviously, this would drive traffic to that establishment and others in the area, who would cumulatively pay a fee for this commercial advantage.

You could require a player to acquire a specific object or uniform, and give this instruction near a shop that has the item, who once again would have paid you for the privilege.

Or, even simpler still, an advertiser could insert a cryptic ‘code’ in the design of their advert, and you could require a ‘player’ to decipher it, thus drawing their attention to the product, and money into your bank account.

One ‘experience’ would need hundreds of these ‘sponsors’ in order to make any money at all – but isn’t ‘micro-charging’ the way of the future in any case, either through charging your audience or your sponsors? This needs to be embraced.

Given all of this, is linear media, as a flat, contiguous single-delivery form of entertainment, on death row?

That’s difficult to say. The very young, the elderly and the disabled may not be able to participate in most transmedia experiences, and as such there will still be a market there for linear media to cater to; but the core of the existing audience is likely to be virtually gouged out of the screen industries’ ‘apple’ – those 18-35 year-olds who will much prefer to role-play in their own very-sophisticated fictional world rather than ‘engage’ uni-directionally with someone else’s.

Virtual reality? Who needs it if you can embed an ‘augmented reality’ into the real world? I’d love to be a secret agent for an afternoon – who wouldn’t? Help a private-eye catch a bad guy? Cool!

That said, to this point I’ve dealt only with fiction, which as you can plainly see is fairly easy to implement and monetize as a transmedia experience.

What of factual content? I’m not referring to educational content here per se – throwing together a real-world version of ‘Where in (insert location here) is Carmen Sandiego?’ – already a large multi-platform property – wouldn’t take a great deal of effort, and I expect to see a great many of these soon, with teenagers running all over the city trying to catch the villain. What fun! Rather, I refer here to lifestyle programming.

How do you take your fishing show franchise, for example, and convert that into a transmedia experience?

We need to henceforth do away with the paradigm of an ‘audience’ as consumers who have very limited interaction with the property – if any at all – and replace that paradigm with one of ‘community’ wherein members engage with the property on a number of levels, and strongly influence its direction.

Let me use one of my own properties as an example.

‘RetTek’ is a production that will look at retro-technology history and collecting – in particular, consumer electronics. Through both stand-alone short ‘webisodes’ and a half-hour television program (or a series of interstitials aired on other programs), my co-host and I will detail both well-known and lesser-known historical facts about the development of the consumer electronics industry, review early video-games and software, give collecting advice and so forth. Hopefully, it will be an interesting show.

But that’s just the old-media component – unilateral content delivery. How do we make this a truly transmedia property? How can we engage our community both with us and amongst themselves?

First we need to develop a sizeable community that has an interest in such things. This we will do on the internet, through an extensive website that will have discussion forums, chat, a ‘wiki’ and so-forth, to encourage as much engagement as possible.

The next point is very important: we will advertise the site on old-media, such as magazines, newspapers, radio and television.

What? Shouldn’t that be the other way around? Ought the internet be used primarily to advertise the television program? So you can get sponsors for the show, and make money in the traditional fashion?

No. That paradigm is on its last legs. The community is the property – not a television program, or a website.

To survive in the new transmedia landscape will require a severe shift in thinking. You need to develop a community, and then give that community what it wants – not do what you want and then try to lure an ‘audience’ into consuming what you’ve unilaterally manufactured.

Once the community has grown sufficiently and established what it might like to experience, then our segments – and other content, such as wiki and blog entries – will be tailored to fulfill those needs.

If we think it might be a good idea to do a segment on a particular topic, we will suggest it to our community, and if it meets with their approval (or at a minimum a lack of opposition) only then will we proceed.

The goal in transmedia franchises will be to build as large a community as possible – that community is how one will measure the success or failure of a transmedia property, as it will be these communities that will value a property in the future more than any other aspect, all bundled together and multiplied by a factor of 10.

We will attend technology conventions, and have retro-technology conventions of our own. We will have retro-videogaming competitions, both in the real world, and on-line.

Members of our community will be able to design their own retro-videogames, distribute them to other community members, and participate in scoring competitions with their own creations. The community will compose their own retro-synth music, and share it amongst themselves.

The list goes on and on, and I will stop because this piece is not about my own self-promotion, but my point should by now be crystal-clear: you will be unable to survive in the long-term media landscape if you do not begin to turn your audience into a community, and truly engage with it.

RetTek is not alone in its design – there are many other transmedia projects out there that will soon emerge from their cocoons and challenge conventional properties that still rely on unilateral audience engagement, in spite of their feeble attempts at a faux-bilateral viewer relationship. Who will win? That much should be obvious.

It’s a brave new world. Be a part of it.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths is associate editor at The Scavenger.

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