Have you ever happened to read the expression transmedia storytelling without you being clear about its meaning?

And it doesn’t help that it is sometimes used a bit inappropriately, or that it is presented as something necessarily connected to new digital media. Let’s begin to make some order and clarity, to understand this concept well.

When was the concept of transmedia storytelling born?

Before talking about what transmedia storytelling is, it could help to give a quick look to the past.

The idea of content distributed through a multiplicity of different media can be found in some narratives that were spread, already in past centuries, through books, theatre or even simply handed down orally. Just think of the events narrated in the Gospel in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages!

But given the low penetration of the media in those ages as well as the scarcity of different media forms before the ‘electronic’ revolution, talking about transmedia storytelling with reference to a distant past is a bit of a stretch.

Someone tried to identify the first real cases of transmedia storytelling. The novel “Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded“, written in 1740 by Samuel Richardson is often mentioned as it gave life to sequel novels, theatrical adaptations, several paintings by well-known painters, and centuries later a film and a TV series.

In any case, the expression transmedia storytelling appeared for the first time in 2003 in the seminars of Henry Jenkins, a university professor of communication and journalism, who then deepened the concept in his 2006 essay “Convergence culture: where old and new media collide”.

So, if it is true that it is not digital media that characterize transmedia storytelling, the concept could only take shape in the modern era of digitized information.

Henry Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling.

So, what is transmedia storytelling? Henry Jenkins, who can therefore be considered a bit the “father” of the concept of transmedia storytelling, defines it this way:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”

Ideally, each media makes its own contribution to the unfolding of the story.

The definition is quite clear, but I still want to rephrase it: transmedia storytelling is a narrative that reaches its audience in its entirety through different media in a coordinated and planned way.

Indeed, in the full realization of transmedia storytelling, those who consume the content can live the complete entertainment experience only through multiple media intentionally in synergy.

As if to say, simplifying as much as possible, that if I have only seen a television series but I have not seen the movie or I have not played the video game, I have only partially benefited from the entire storytelling. I miss pieces of history.

Jenkins himself gives an example, citing the Matrix film franchise, where he points out that the relevant elements of the narrative are conveyed through live-action films, a series of animated shorts, comics and several video games.

In short, there is not a single source where the user can collect all the information necessary to fully understand the universe of the Matrix.

The integration of media in transmedia storytelling.

That is the most important aspect you need to understand, to have a clear idea about what transmedia storytelling is.

A multiplicity of media is not enough to talk about transmedia storytelling. This is precisely the reason why the term is sometimes used inappropriately. To clarify it better, we represent the thing visually.

If each media simply replicates the same narrative, we are not dealing with an example of transmedia storytelling. For the user of the content, it will be irrelevant to know the story through a film or a television series or a book, but it will simply be a matter of living the entertainment experience through the media most congenial to him.

The image below expresses this basic framework of multi-media delivery of narration.

Instead, the media need to make different contributions to the construction of integrated storytelling. The book, for example, adds elements that are not made explicit in the film, and the prequel television series lets you discover what happened before the movies.

But if the elements of the narrative are not consistent with each other, if there is no synergy between the media, we are not yet in front of a true example of transmedia storytelling. The user of the content will clearly perceive a misalignment, an inconsistency, which could make the entertainment experience confusing, even negative (see image below).

The meaning of Transmedia StorytellingHave you ever thought, watching a movie: “But how?! In the book the explanation is completely different”?

What is the real transmedia storytelling?

In transmedia storytelling we need coherence, synergy, integration. A bit like in an orchestra, in which each instrument (the media) contributes harmoniously to the overall musical performance (storytelling). The piano is not simply replicating the same notes as the violin.

Each element does not overlap trivially, but adds something, enriches the overall experience of the user of the contents, who is stimulated to continue his journey within that narrative universe, passing from one media to another (image below).

What is Transmedia Storytelling?As you can guess, there is an especially essential element in all this, to which unfortunately we cannot devote the space it deserves, and that the scheme seen above does not grasp.

It’s about time.

Transmedia storytelling does not necessarily have to pass through all media at the same time but must develop along a process in which each media, at the exact moment, contributes to building the entertainment experience.

To be clear, for the media company (a fundamental player we will talk about soon), which orchestrates the transmedia storytelling and plans the related business, it would be a serious mistake – a trivial example – to go out in cinemas with a film and at the same time distribute the sequel on television streaming platforms!

And obviously, also the experience of the user of the contents would be penalized by a total absence of timing, of a planned dilution over time of the various contents.

Transmedia storytelling in the modern entertainment industry.

Today, therefore, in a context in which the media & entertainment industry has a profound impact on our culture and our vision of the world, cases of transmedia storytelling are not rare.

In addition to the Matrix, there are numerous film franchises that unfold their narrative through the coordination of multiple channels of the conveyance of content to the public. Think of the Marvel and DC Comics worlds, as well as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Walking Dead, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so on.

Or another good example is that of the Japanese Pokemon franchise, whose narrative crosses video games (from which the franchise originated), cinema, television animation, the famous collectable cards, manga comics, the app with AR (Augmented Reality) effects that will remain in history as the most downloaded app from the Apple Store in the launch week.

Pokemon, an example of what is Transmedia StorytellingBut why is there suddenly this ‘tension’ towards transmedia storytelling in the modern era? The first answer is that today there is a wide multiplicity of media unthinkable in the past, and digital has been decisive in this.

But there is a more complex answer. Which is linked precisely to the modern entertainment industry.

You have understood what transmedia storytelling is, now it’s time to understand why it’s so relevant also from a business point of view.

The advantages of transmedia storytelling for media companies and audiences.

Today’s large medium-sized corporations (Disney, Paramount, Warner, etc.) are broadly diversified companies with interests in different media that were once unrelated to each other.

Think of the Disney of the distant past (70s and 80s) whose television production was quite distinct from the production of animated films and the production of live-action films. What worked excellently in one media was rarely declined in other media, with a few exceptions.

Today the approach is completely different, there is a very precise model with which creative investment in a franchise is leveraged to generate revenue opportunities through a multiplicity of media and business.

Disney demonstrated this extensively in its management of the Star Wars franchise following the acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Suddenly, the Star Wars universe has been strategically articulated through new films, animated and live-action television series, video games, comics, novels, and even merchandise, but in a well-coordinated manner.

A logic that in strategic marketing would be called “brand extension”.

Even the Star Wars attractions in the popular Disney-owned themed parks become a piece of the strategy, just like a media: nothing strange, considering the millions of visitors.

As if everything were ideally to converge on a specific buyer persona who develops his entertainment experience in an expanded way, not limiting it to the film alone.

Thus, modern media companies have not only the opportunity (multiplicity of media that did not exist in the past) but also a double strategic imperative:

(1) maximize the revenue generated by each content user, pushing him to an expanded experience of fruition and consumption

(2) optimize the investment created or required by the development of a franchise, exploiting it through as many channels as possible.

In short, transmedia storytelling improves the margins of media companies because it increases revenues and reduces costs at the same time, widening the gap between the two. But beyond these aspects related to the business, it is also true that all this generates value for fans of a franchise, who today can enjoy a rich and articulated fruition as never before.

Transmedia storytelling for marketing

Although the concept of transmedia storytelling was born with reference to the media & entertainment industry, its application can extend to marketing, with reference to the brand.

By brand we mean not only the simple representative log but the full set of values that we intend to integrate into products and services. And these values are communicated more effectively the more they resonate with the consumer, and the best resonance does not pass through the cognitive channels of our brain but through the channels of emotions.

Here then storytelling takes on a role in brand communication, thanks to its power to arouse emotions in the audience. Just look at some TV commercials, able to vibrate certain strings, to realize the role played by storytelling in marketing.

But today, in planning brand management activities, marketers have the opportunity to access a large number of channels: social media (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube), television, radio, print, and also off-line events.

Each of them is suitable, through its language, to contribute to the narrative of the brand. And which narrative is more effective than the one that reaches the target audience through a multiplicity of channels in perfect synergy with each other?

And so also in marketing, transmedia storytelling becomes a new effective and innovative model to build the brand’s communication strategy.

For further information

  1. I recommend reading an interesting interview by Jeff Gomez, one of the leading experts in transmedia storytelling (which I had the opportunity to listen to in Milan in 2012) [Indiewire interview with Jeff Gomez]
  2. An excellent case study of the application of transmedia storytelling to brand marketing is described on the website of Jeff Gomez’s consulting firm, Starlight Runner Entertainment: it is Coca-Cola and its Open Happiness campaign
  3. For those wishing to start deepening transmedia storytelling at a professional level, I recommend an online course by Coursera (free if you are not interested in obtaining certification): “Transmedia Storytelling: Narrative worlds, emerging technologies, and global audiences
  4. It is impossible to recommend a book, since there are several publications on the subject, at least in English. But if I were you, I would evaluate a book by Robert Pratten, founder and CEO of the company Transmedia Storyteller Ltd, “Getting Started in Transmedia Storytelling“, that you can download from Kindle.