Leveraging the individual strengths of multiple storytelling platforms, transmedia builds a storyworld meant to engage and involve its audience and delivers an informative, entertaining experience.

On September 17, I was in New York City. It was the first anniversary of the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and the police were everywhere.

As I walked down Wall Street, I came across a rather disturbing advertisement. It seemed quite provocative that a security company would launch a campaign for “the 1% that matters” on the day the demonstrations had begun a year ago whose slogan was “We are the 99 percent!”

Still, I couldn’t resist visiting the Byzantium Security website, which at first looked like any other corporate website. After a few clicks, I was redirected to a recruitment page where a mesmerizing set of personality tests apparently indicated that I had the qualifications to become a Byzantium special operative, a surveillance expert.

A few days later, I received an email from Agent Sam Hunter warning me that Byzantium could not be trusted anymore. Someone had betrayed Agent Hunter, and she needed help. The new Cinemax series Hunted had not yet begun, but thanks to transmedia storytelling centered on the fictitious company Byzantium, I was already hooked.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Henry Jenkins, a media studies professor at the University of Southern California says, “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 medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

In transmedia, also known as multi-platform storytelling, different platforms—websites, radio broadcasts, videos, television series, books, graphic novels, social media tools, images, advertisements, posters, newspaper articles, text messages, e-mails, live events, and phone calls—contribute to the telling of a story. Each form of media is used because its specific attributes add to a narrative superstructure called the story world.

Robert Pratten, zenfilms.com

Transmedia provides new content and insights to the story universe or characters through each contribution. One of the best examples of such an expanded story universe is the Star Wars phenomenon, in which books, graphic novels, movies, computer games, platform games, multimedia projects, toys, and audio dramas were built around the epic saga.

This model is different from traditional franchising, which repeats the exact same story on different platforms, such as a computer game adapted from a movie. One criticism is that this is frustrating to the audience as the diaspora spiraling out from the original story lacks any novelty or element of surprise.

If Heidi were a transmedia story

The death of the couch potato

The 2012 Google report titled The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-platform Consumer Behavior shows that consumers use multiple screens on a daily basis and often simultaneously. Some 77 percent of respondents claim to use another digital device at the same time that they are watching television, and a lot of times it’s to find out more about what they are watching, according to one of participants in the report: “I’ll be watching a movie or TV show and I’ll look up the actor or actress on IMDB or I’ll Google image them, or I’ll see when it was made or how it was filmed. I’m always doing that.”

One of the lessons from these findings for businesses, the entertainment industry, and storytellers in general is that reaching a broader audience requires taking advantage of all available media platforms to tell a story that will captivate viewers and allow them to choose their own paths, thereby increasing their sense of control and engagement.

Transmedia storytelling is already in the plans of major companies such as Coca-Cola, which has put story at the center of their marketing strategy for the ten next years. And Coca-Cola is not the only major brand to see the value in engaging its audience. Multi-platform marketing campaigns have been successful beyond expectations. The Audi A3 The Art of the Heist campaign and the viral Lost in Val Sinestra by the telecommunications company Swisscom have provoked endless reactions in the press and on the Internet. Thousands of people have followed these stories and spread the word about the related products.

We want stories and they better be good

Originally inspired by alternate reality games, transmedia also engages the audience in the story by mirroring real life and eliciting reactions from fans. When Betty Draper, a character from the TV show Mad Men came to life on Twitter in 2008, many assumed it was a move by the producers to generate interest. But in reality, the @BettyDraper handle was a fan’s creation.

For more than three years, @BettyDraper, followed by @don_draper and several other Mad Men characters, provided tens of thousands of fans with entirely new storylines created by other fans of the show, hinting at what was going on in their lives beyond the TV screen. Now, nearly all TV show and movie characters have Twitter accounts, some initiated by fans, others by shows’ creators. Meet Ward Hill Lamon, Abraham Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, the central character in a new movie called Saving Lincoln.

Born as an offshoot of the entertainment industry, the concept of transmedia storytelling has now penetrated many fields, including public health and healthcare and illness management, in which a multiplatform approach helps patients understand their conditions, manage their treatment, and communicate with their physicians.

In social activism too, the use of transmedia has spread virally. Websites, books, films, mobile games, music, blogs, social media, demonstrations, interactive projects, and exhibitions have all been used raise awareness and as calls to action.

Tale me more

As much as it may be used to deliver a message, transmedia is also a powerful storytelling tool, and some of the most beautiful and stunning examples are found in documentary films, where this new model extends and amplifies the content, engaging the viewer and giving full power to the story. As a result, audience members actually get to dive into the documentary in a whole new way. For example, the award-winning, Arte TV-produced Prison Valley documentary invites the viewer to follow a path through the polemic universe of 13 penitentiaries in Ca?on City, Colorado.

After arriving in Cañon City by road, the spectator is offered a room at the Rivera Motel, where inmates’ families stay when visiting their relatives in prison.

This rather impersonal yet inviting motel room will be the place from which the viewer explores the different angles of the project, texts, discussion groups, photographs, and audio testimonials. The user returns to this spot after each sequence of the documentary, having added content to the notebook and Polaroid picture collection on the bed with each step. It provides a neutral area of reflection and distance from the subject, allowing the user to choose where to go next or whether to share about what they just experienced.

Mark Twain once said, “Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.” At its best transmedia strives to live up to this goal, allowing you as the audience member to participate in the story. You can follow the linearity of the film, or you can dig deeper like I did after viewing an interview with an inmate’s wife. I felt there was more about it than just what she shared in front of the camera and there was indeed. In my hotel room, I found access to her journal and letters she had been exchanging with her lawyers. The feeling of connection to a subject has never been stronger.

In Bear 71, through webcam footage and animal tracking devices set in an interactive playable map, the viewer is enabled to explore a grizzly bear’s territory and better understand the perils she faces living close to humans.

These new paths through documentary content arouse a sense of individuality and autonomy. For the first time, the audience can choose from which angle they wish to experience the subject. The same tactics were used to produce Inside the Disaster, where you can follow the story of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti through the eyes of a survivor, a journalist, or an aid worker.

The ability of transmedia storytelling to engage viewers has also led to the production of multiplatform fictional TV series, RIDES, and new classroom tools following the stream towards hybrid education.

What comes next for transmedia?

Recently recognized by the Producers Guild of America and major film festivals as a new genre, transmedia may become the norm a few years from now. You can imagine that very soon, most communication, entertainment, marketing, exhibitions, and teaching will incorporate numerous platforms and interactive components building beautiful and complex story universes.

Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and transmedia producer, believes we’re on the cusp of an explosion of creativity in transmedia, as he told Wired magazine: “We’re going to see our transmedia Mozart. We are going to see visionaries who understand the value of each media platform as if it’s a separate musical instrument, who’ll create symphonic narratives which leverage each of these multimedia platforms in a way that will create something we haven’t encountered yet.”

And when those symphonies are well orchestrated, they carry us away like the children in the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Furthermore, transmedia, through the extension of platforms that describe a reality, real or fictional, stretches the connection between what we know and what is possible.

I have never played computer or alternate reality games, but I must admit: Transmedia is entrancing!

The question now really is: Are you ready for the great adventure?