What’s the Value of Transmedia Storytelling for Organizations?

Transmedia storytelling is exploding across the media community. One of our new Blogging Fellows explores some of the implications for arts organizations.

An image from BAM's 150th anniversary print campaign.
An image from BAM’s 150th anniversary print campaign.

Transmedia is the art of sharing a narrative over multiple media platforms (print, online, stage, film, social networks), where unique content is delivered through each platform. For example, Fringe, the hit television show, used transmedia to expand its storyworld and reward its biggest fans. To learn more about how Fringe used transmedia, read my case study about the multiple platforms implemented over the show’s five seasons.

Though arts organizations are different than television programs, I believe it is increasingly imperative that arts organizations employ transmedia thinking as a way to expand a story over multiple media platforms. Almost every company has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel. What’s missing is cohesiveness and interconnections of story between each unique platform. Companies often post the same updates to all their social sites without considering that each platform offers a distinct voice and storytelling opportunities.

I’ve previously written about how I imagine theater artists embracing transmedia, but it’s my growing opinion that arts organizations should also integrate transmedia strategy with traditional marketing plans to tell their story because it has the power to create an identity that is more authentic and engaging (and fun!) for your community.

What story are you telling?

Organizations should begin each season asking: What story are we telling this year? Once you choose the story, look for ways each platform can feed the overarching narrative that celebrates your special season.

Brooklyn Academy of Music had some success telling the story of their 150th anniversary. BAM rolled out one of their most talked about print campaigns, BAM and then it hits you, which portrayed everyday people going about their day and remembering a moment from a performance they saw at BAM.

But this story was only told in print ads. What if BAM had created new moments online and off that literally hit the public where they lived? Patrick Stewart might have surprised lunching pedestrians with a scene from Macbeth in the middle of Bryant Park. Then, BAM could have captured the pop-up performances on video and shared on YouTube. The extension of the print ads would have rippled throughout the city and, potentially, the rest of the world.

What’s the role of artists?

Frequently, administrators who implement marketing campaigns don’t have deep conversations with artists about their work. The marketing team sends out a questionnaire about the show, and they base all the marketing on a fifty-word blurb provided by the artist. What if we actively integrated artists into the marketing of their own work?

A wonderful example of such an expansive story was The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s “Tea Time with Tyrone” for its production of Robert Askin’s Hand to God. I served as EST’s season producer for almost two seasons, so I personally know Rob. Recently, when we discussed “Tea Time,” Rob reflected on how the idea of creating Tyrone’s online presence grew from actors and the creative team playing around during rehearsal. As a result of this creative spark, he created a Facebook for Tyrone, then Twitter, and finally, he spawned the irreverent talk show with EST staff members as guests on YouTube.

As well-known theater professionals like Bobby Cannavale and Eric Bogosian saw the play, EST recruited them to be in “Tea Time” sketches. EST turned the concept of celebrity endorsement on its ear.

Artists have wild ideas. If you know the scope of your season before it begins, bring the artists in to a brainstorm about the story you’re trying to tell. They might imagine a clever way to tie their show into the story of your season.

Always stay engaged

There is a movement in theater called #NEVERBEDARK. It’s a big idea that I admire. To read more about the concept of never being dark, visit 2amt.com. Essentially, it means to always be producing in your space. Whether through readings, workshops, or full productions: Never be dark.

I like to apply this philosophy to online marketing strategy. It’s jarring when arts organizations that have been silent on social sites for many months suddenly erupt with a torrent of announcements about a new production. Or, worse: a plea for fundraising. Regulars on social sites who don’t hear anything from you only to be smothered by an onslaught of appeals will hide or unfollow you, if they haven’t already for lack of activity.

With a strong strategy, you can create a transmedia marketing story that continually engages. Your audience wants to discover cool and inspiring tidbits about your organization or production, not just another video of a choreographer pontificating about why she’s making deep choices. It’s a chance to start the dramaturgical conversation before your audience enters the theater.

Play. A lot.

Framing your marketing calendar around a transmedia strategy creates a unified voice for all your platforms. It guides your audience seamlessly from one place to another, making for a more holistic and engaging experience. No matter which platforms you use, always ask how each piece can tell your organization’s story in a unique way. And play. These are new toys. The sky’s the limit. When you have fun, your audience will have fun.

How has your organization played with multiple platforms, online and off?

James Carter is a dramatist, experience designer and producer. He was a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and its associate artistic director for eight years. Recent transmedia plays include FEEDER: A Love Story and NY_Hearts: LES. For more about James, read his blog onemuse.com where he explores the intersection of art and technology, or follow him on Twitter @jdcarter.

  • Robert Askins

    Thanks for the mention JD. Those videos were so important to how we got out the audience. Credit where credits due though, its the talents of Steve Boyer, Ryan Williams and the guest stars that made Tea Time with Tyrone so fun to watch.

    • Of course, Rob. Obie award winner Steve Boyer killed it as Tyrone, and Ryan does marketing for EST. I presume he produced the videos? In the end, it was a collaborative effort between marketing and creative, and it’s that synergy that can make for a successful extension of a production’s story online.

  • We are only a 2 person show with limited budget so the execution to date has been not what we’d like, still our show is entirely interactive and improvised. We encourage people to continue the ‘story’ by posting stories,video,pics to our FB, Twitter and Tumblr. After a year we have finally had some video sent to us. We have been bad about the never be dark but are attempting to do monthly webisodes that mirror our live show. We plan to incorporate the video into the next live show – record that etc etc. And if we can partner with the right folks attempt a simulcast show in 2 or more cities.

    • Kelly – It certainly can feel daunting to create a massive marketing strategy if you don’t have the infrastructure for it. It sounds like you’re headed in the right direction. Encouraging your audience to dialogue with you is a great tactic.

      Regarding never being dark: Make it manageable. Unlike a large institution that creates a marketing strategy for an entire season, you might consider breaking your year up into chunks. Decide what story you are going to tell for a month, or for the quarter. If you do a monthly webisode, use that as a launch pad to find ways to riff on the theme you use for the webisode.

      Also, if your show is interactive and improvisational, bring that spirit online. Maybe you can create a game for your audience. I see you have a joint Twitter account for your show. Have you thought about creating individual character accounts? If you tweeted to each other in character, you might find yourselves igniting a Twitter improv that could engage your followers. The more you can spill what you do in your show out onto social networks, the better idea people will have for what you do on stage.

      If you take it in small chunks, you won’t feel like you’re biting off more than you can chew. Keep it up! You’re poking in the right places.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    At a convening I attended a few years back, one of the speakers discussed the advantages of thinking about arts programming and audiences in the same way that game developers think about their players and the progression of each game. Games, particularly video games, have entry points and various levels that players can move into as they become more experienced and more invested in the game. This idea really resonated for me and I’ve been thinking of programming in this way ever since, which is why I think this post provides a great strategy for providing an established audience with an opportunity to be more engaged, or in gaming terms “level up,” and gives new audience members an entry point where they can explore an organization without too much upfront commitment. I must admit that I am not a marketing or communications person, but this multi-platform strategy for connection really spoke to me. I had typically thought of online media, particularly social media, as more of a place to do traditional marketing – dates, times, descriptions, etc – just on a virtual platform. I like the idea of multiple angles for storytelling much better. Finding an interesting way to dress up the facts in a more original, unorthodox fashion is a great strategy that is likely to have a great impact on those we hope to connect with. I felt like I was having a “duh” moment while reading this – it seems so obvious yet it had never occurred to me before. Thanks for sharing!

    • Erinn – The gamification of marketing/advertising has been on the rise for the past several years. It’s unsurprising you might think of that in relation to a multi-platform marketing strategy, for transmedia creators use game mechanics all the time. I’ve met more game-makers in the past few years than I ever expect I would. As you suggest, it is an opportunity to engage your audience, and I think it’s important to look at why games engage. The strongest trait of games is (perhaps obviously) they’re fun. When people have fun, they share with friends, and that helps spread your story.

      You mention video games, and I want to point out that great video games almost always have strong stories. I happy you’re seeing the potential for storytelling online instead of using the platforms as just another place to broadcast ticket links to purchase tickets. People will engage with a strong story. They’ll tune out typical bulletins about fundraising. That’s one of the reason Kickstarter has been successful. They haven’t gamified their site, but they do encourage creators to tell their story and reward their backers.

      If we can tell a good story and reward our audience for participating, they’re more likely to be part of our community instead of just being a customer.


  • James, I think there’s some really solid ‘big picture’ advice here, particularly that each platform has something unique to offer and that to use a platform without tailoring the content is to miss some opportunities for engagement. Also, I really agree that the big ‘story’ or institutional narrative should be interspersed throughout our communications and platforms all season long when possible. I do have one question that I’d love to get your insights on. For me, when I ‘commit’ to a new platform or channel, the first question I ask is: Do we have an audience here? I do think there are lots of platforms out there with which to experiment, but what would your advice be for someone who’s considering a trans-media campaign and who maybe doesn’t yet have a robust social media or online presence?

    • Anna: I have a friend who is an illustrator. He creates comics and graphic novels. Recently, he told me he was considering joining Facebook. Yes, he’s one of the rare few that still isn’t on Facebook. My first question to him was, “Why?” He wants to promote his work. I asked him who is on Facebook? He answered his wife, his mother, and friends. I asked: “Are those the people who want to buy your work?” He shook his head.

      Fish where there are fish. That’s the advice I gave him, and that’s my answer to you. I suggested he find out where comic book geeks gather online. Find out where his favorite artists’ social spaces are. Go to comic websites and see where they link. Do your research, find your audience, and tell your story to those who will listen. Within a week he’d joined Tumblr and Twitter. He still hasn’t signed up for Facebook.

      Transmedia isn’t only about social media. It’s about sharing your story over multiple platforms to ignite your base. If you are an organization who’s demographic doesn’t use social media, it doesn’t make much sense to waste time and creativity building content. You’ll be the tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it.

      • Hi James, I agree that trans-media/multi-channel campaigns aren’t all about social, but about leveraging a “big” story across media. I’m still thinking about how to best make the decision for which platforms or channels to include in a campaign. As we continue to discuss, I think it’s good to mention that the purpose isn’t always to sell but to engage more broadly. Also, could we make the case for going to a platform or channel without a solid existing base, perhaps because the platform particularly suits the project, or because being at the forefront of the platform is valuable in some other way? I think these are the things small organizations have to balance when making these decisions on limited resources. And, back to the notion that we should be where our audiences are, in the case of your friend, does not having a Facebook presence imply anything (intentionally or unintentionally) about his work (or in the case of arts organizations, does not having Facebook presence imply something about the organization, even if the “sell” doesn’t happen via Facebook)?

        • Sure, Anna. That’s what the last bit of my piece is about. Playing. Go to these platforms, see if they work for you. Share what you make with your base. They may catch on and sign up for the platform because they like what you’re creating there. We should be trend-setters. But it’s a balance. Just because your base isn’t on a platform doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, but we need to be careful about putting tons of resources creating content where no one is listening. If a tree falls in the forest…

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  • Kelvin D.

    As laid out here, it would appear that transmedia storytelling is pretty much a no-brainer for organizations seeking a closer connection, and dare I say dialogue, with their audiences. What is keeping organizational leaders from having a more integrated, or synergetic, relationship with their staff, artists, and community when it comes to transmedia storytelling for the organization or season?

    I have not had the privilege to glimpse the inner-workings of many theatre companies that take the time to assemble the right works and artists for each season, but I would have to imagine that a lot of the conversation is centered on the budget, commercial
    potential, education angle, poster graphic, etc. I do find that the process by which many organizations approach their audiences are big season announcements, glossy
    brochures and images that are meant to grab the attention of the audience online or offline and convert that individual into a buyer for the season. Does this predictable approach year after year excite audiences or actually engage them on a higher level than the previous year? I can’t imagine that it does and my big take away from your post is that there has to be a transmedia plan that engages everyone from the season newcomer to the highest level donor and it’s a process where everyone on staff, from artists to the Board Chairman, should have contributed, in some way, to an innovative approach to the transmedia storytelling for the organization and its season.

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