Transmedia Storytelling: Game of Thrones, Professionall Wrestling, and the Future of Advertising

A significant and exciting shift is occurring in marketing and advertising.  It’s a shift away from one-off ad spots, direct mail, incremental television and radio promotions, and incentive-driven offers.  It’s a shift away from disconnected media and fragmented messaging.  It’s a shift toward layered, sensory, interactive, ‘transmedia’ storytelling.  And it’s the future of advertising for any business.

Transmedia storytelling (or transmedia advertising) is the process of designing a layered narrative using various types of communication with the aim of creating multiple consumer access points while simultaneously creating an interactive narrative that engages the consumer in a storyline.  It’s the process of creating a mini-plot line around a topic, individual, product, or event and then extending that storyline into a variety of media.  The good news: It’s really not that complicated.  The better news: It’s proving to be a whole heck of a lot more effective than a direct mail piece (in the trash!), stock content, or a television ad (who watches ads anymore anyway??).  If you’re a fan of either Game of Thrones or professional wrestling then you may have already participated in two brilliant examples of transmedia storytelling.

Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy set in the mythic land of Westeros.  The novels were already acclaimed and had throngs of fans when HBO decided to launch the series.  Their transmedia promotion tactics involved creating a five step, sensory-based story for people to engage.  They wanted fans to truly experience Westeros and they designed their campaign as such:

1.  Scent.  How do you make a television show smell (other than bad writing)?  HBO sent journalists, bloggers, and high level influencers a hand-crafted wooden box.  Inside the box there were scrolls, maps, vials, “potions,” and other things one might find in a Westeros spice market.  The contents looked as if they’d been transported from a fkingdom.  And they smelled like an ancient world.  They smelled as if they were from another place.

2.  Sound.  Game of Thrones created an interactive sound environment called ‘The Inn at the Crossroads’ and made it available on the Game of Thrones/HBO website.  Users could interact with ‘The inn’ and hear the creaking doors, the clinking mugs of ale, the squeaking floorboards, and the the cackling drunkards clanging swords.  It brilliantly pulled you in to each room, each staged area of ‘The Inn’ and compelled you to imagine the characters making the raucous noises.

3. Sight.  One of the central locations in Game of Thrones is The Wall–a massive sheet of ice that John Snow is assigned to defend.  Designers used Flash to create an interactive visual of The Wall.  Users were able to navigate its narrow, deathly passages.  They could rest in small towers.  They could meet the Nights Watch on their outposts.  They themselves wore ‘the black’ for a short period of time and understood the desolate danger on The Wall.

4. Touch.  Game of Thrones designers used a simple weather application to create an iPad app for Westeros.  The app allowed a user to see the temperatures throughout the kingdom as they changed throughout the day.  “Winter is coming” is the Stark family motto and so it makes sense that it was much colder in Winterfell than in other places.  Was the user able to literally be cold?  No.  Were they able to project their own understanding of temperature extremes?  Absolutely!  Ultimately the user understood that it requires a certain type of fortitude to survive in a frozen wasteland.

5.  Taste.  Other than smell, taste is the most difficult sense for a tv program to connect with.  Producers worked with a famous chef, Tom Colicchio, to create a thematic menu based on the foods in each kingdom in Westeros.  In a brilliant move, HBO decided to execute the menus in food trucks throughout New York and Los Angeles.  Locations were leaked on the Game of Thrones websites, menus were posted on-line, and people lined up to taste the fantasy!!  First class.

Game of Thrones’ transmedia storytelling set a standard for creative power and execution.  On a social scale, yet equally effective, professional wrestling employs low-budget transmedia narratives to keep fans on the hook.

WWE is a billion-dollar business.  The pay-per-view events are wildly popular and fans fervently align themselves with the wrestlers.  To extend fan loyalty and engagement further, the WWE uses Twitter to continue the on-going friendships, rivalries, and feuds that fuel so much of the WWE’s fan loyalty.

John Ceda and The Rock are two wrestlers that are more than wrestlers.  They’re Personalities, Stars.  And they both use the WWE Twitter handle to extend their own comments, observations, to the fans.  Moreover, when not wrestling, they let the fans in to their personal lives.  The Rock shares photos of his film work with the fans.  John Ceda shares workout and fitness tips.  And they BOTH continue to extend the ‘in the ring’ storyline into the Twitterverse.  Fans can watch a match and then follow WWE on Twitter to participate in the after-match conversation: what’s next for the grudge match?  Who’s the real villain in the ring?  Was The Rock sucker punched? How did Ceda feel about the things that were said about him?  And on and on and on. WWE is the perfect medium for transmedia storytelling because it is, at it’s core, story based.  Social media has proven to be a mandatory component of transmedia engagement and it’s low cost access is perfect for small businesses.

Every business, regardless of how big or small, tech or not tech, has a story to tell–has it’s own narrative.  There are characters on stage, there is a plot line, there are extras, and there is an audience.  Game of Thrones captured this diversity using a sensory story.  WWE captures their unique culture by simply extending the match to Twitter.  Both understand that loyal fans want to experience a heightened level of richness before, during, and after an event.  Small business can capitalize on the same momentum that transmedia storytelling creates in a few easy steps:

1.  Design a storyline.  Regardless of the product or service it provides a small business has a storyline.  Customer has need, business supplies need, customer is thrilled, story ends well.  OR, owner has a dream, creates company, delivers amazing service, customers are thrilled.  There’s no one best answer to the storyline, but it should be customer-centric in that you want to engage the end user in something they truly care about.

2.  Determine the story arc.  Beginning, middle, end?  Beginning, conflict, climax, resolution?  Transmedia storytelling succeeds because of it’s sequential design.  It creates enough tension for the audience to say “I want to see what’s next!”  That entails specific design features that pull the audience in to the action.

3.  Determine the media access points.  A story starts anywhere.  A Website video that leads to Twitter.  A Twitter post that leads to a blog.  A blog that gives hints about finding specials in a newsletter.  A newsletter that has embedded clues for a promotion.  The fun part of a transmedia journey is designing and embedding the messages in to a variety of interactive media.  

4.  Involve the players.  Transmedia succeeds because it involves ‘actors’ instead of boring stock photo image.  Involving the people that do the work and receive the service is a sure-fire way to both humanize the story and show the audience the diversity of a business.  The message is controlled, yes, but the way it’s delivered should ultimately be about the characters in the story.

5.  Keep it going.  The best stories never end.  Game of Thrones is a sprawling series.  I’m half way through Book 4 and don’t want it to end.  WWE understands this as well.  Many small businesses, however, don’t extend their advertising campaigns throughout the year.  They run them in the spring and fall–if that.  Transmedia storytelling succeeds in part because the audience sticks with the story for a longer period of time.  They have more chances to participate, more opportunities to get to know the players, the track the storyline.  And in the process they’re pulled deeper into a business and develop richer loyalty.

Traditional advertising creates ‘spike’ consumer interest–here today, gone tomorrow.  It simply fails to sustain long-term loyalty and interest.  Meanwhile, connected consumers are both highly informed and significantly less interested in boring, promotion-based advertising.  They can find it anywhere and tune it out at any time.  They want to be engaged and they want a unique experience.  The future of advertising will not be simple content-based services, stock photos, boilerplate content that everyone seems to be using.  It won’t.  The future of advertising will be based on connecting with consumers via an engaging series of interactive touch points that tell a cohesive product and service story.  In the process, the business becomes more than a business–it becomes an experience. The audience becomes loyal, interested customers. And the plot line evolves towards greater and greater success. 

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