31 October 2011

Personalization in Transmedia Storytelling - BIB11


This is the presentation I made in San Francisco at the Books In Browsers Conference hosted by the Internet Archive and O'Reilly Media on October 28, 2011. I have made some minor edits, but for the most part it is intact.

There is the video of the talk, which I will include a link for at the end of this post. Before viewing, I should preface it with the fact that I was nervous and while I still believe the iPad is a good teleprompter, one should stop their twitter notifications from pushing alerts while one is trying to read the speech in front of an audience (and a camera). A room full of tweeters didn't help... any ways, here it goes:

Why is transmedia storytelling important?

I’d like to demonstrate the effectiveness of transmedia storytelling and why with all the technology we have at our fingertips with devices like this one (hold up ipad) that it’s relevant, needed and expected.

Now I'd like to first say, that transmedia isn't for every book. But i believe that some stories are better when they are experienced vs. when they are just read. Some books are better left alone. But 'those' books is not where I work, I work in experiences, in immersion.

Over the next few years we are going to see tablets in many cases taking over desktops and laptops to become many peoples interface with digital content. And, with the fact that readers will have the capability to view more robust media, they will begin to demand more from storytellers.

This past summer, while camping in the Canadian Rockies, a bunch of friends and I were sitting around the campfire on a dark night. In fact, it was pitch black as only it could be in such a remote setting. The fire was cracking and sending sparks towards the stars



A friend of mine is a really good storyteller and he starts in on this fantastic tale of campers just like us, lost out on an old logging road, not too far from where we were. The story began to get really interesting, we were on the edge of our logs as he began to tell us how one by one these lost campers get gruesomely picked off by something mysterious in the woods.

We were hanging on his every word when all of a sudden someone from the group, an accomplice of the storytellers, sneaks up behind us and jumps in front of everyone with an axe at the climax of the story.

You'd think that a bunch of middle-aged men might be immune to this but it startled all of us. The story was good, really good, but I bet if I told it to you here in this room right now, you wouldn't have the same reaction.

The surroundings, the realism and the immersion in the storyworld combine themselves to create a very scary encounter. By adding these components; the remote darkness, the campfire, and a drunk man with an axe - the story has gone from a simple reading of a story to an experience. The audience is entertained and engaged.

Transmedia is the campfire. Transmedia is the ambience and surroundings. Transmedia is the interaction. It builds a credible storyworld that immerses the audience and gives them an experience.

Next week is the Storyworld Conference, the first world-wide Transmedia conference ever, it’s right here in San Francisco. Transmedia has moved from being talked about to being done – it’s a major buzzword in Hollywood and everyone is jumping into the game to figure things out and to tell fantastic stories..

There are challenges facing transmedia producers:

1. Category Recognition
2. High production costs
3. Inconsistency in approach

Combine that with the fact that nobody within the transmedia world can agree on what exactly transmedia is. There are many different strains, many different concoctions.
However, there is one thing that everyone can agree on: they don’t like the term transmedia.

I don’t much care about the label, I’m more concerned with how we tell readers about what we have. And, to do that, I suppose we need some consensus on what it’s called. And, as long as we, as a niche industry can’t agree on what to call it, how are readers going to even know what to ask for?

This transcends into discovery. Even when a reader finds us, how do they know we're a transmedia story without us being obvious about it?

While researching transmedia storytelling and trying to find similar projects to ours, it actually solidified my assumptions on a problem that everyone faces, Discovery. Everyone wants their book to be discovered, but in most every case but in transmedia, you have a category or genre that aids the reader in their quest for content. Transmedia can pertain to every genre. So, how do we let readers know that this book is an interactive, immersive experience? How do we differentiate our product from a regular book or from an enhanced book?

And, while I’m sure there are other projects out there similar to ours, they are not easy to find… even though each of them are likely spearheaded by very talented digital companies, from a readers perspective, they are hard to find – getting found in a category that nobody knows exists is entirely left to chance. And, being left to chance, is something that is best not presented in an investment pitch...

Simply put, the category of Transmedia stories just doesn’t exist as it should. It needs to be created and promoted.

There are few places that list transmedia as a genre, and when they do they typically list the ‘how to’ books on the subject rather than books that employ transmedia storytelling. This would lead one to believe that there are more experts on the subject of Transmedia than there are content creators in the field.

For instance, when we look at the listings on Good Reads, the category of Transmedia contains 17 books on how to write transmedia and one book that actually is transmedia. And, it really isn’t transmedia storytelling, it’s a novel with an Alternate Reality Game component… close, but no cigar.

Differentiation is probably a better word to use than category, but I've got a retail background.

Apple has made efforts to differentiate books with an enhanced section in the iBookstore, this is getting closer, but an enhanced book isn’t necessarily transmedia. Simply putting an embedded video into a book doesn’t make it a transmedia book, it’s an enhanced book. So, how do we stand out and let readers know that what we have is an experience based narrative?

My hope is that there are content creators at the Storyworld conference and that the discussion of public awareness for transmedia storytelling is brought forward. If quality of attendees is anything like this room, I suspect it won't take long for a solution to arrive

I should back up and give you a little background. Last year we released One Child, a transmedia thriller it contained an original soundtrack, 4 filmed scenes, 27 social media profiles and was released in real time online and then sold as a print version, an eBook version and a browser-based version. I’m over simplifying the description as many of you are already aware of it. We learned a lot from this experience and looking back, there’s not an awful lot I would change to the way we told the story from the transmedia side of things. From the distribution side of things, well that’s another subject.

You see, in my space, how we approach transmedia at Enthrill is that we use multiple mediums to tell the story – our base narrative is written and edited the same way a traditional book would be. Where we differ is in the planning of the story and how we break out the plot, the character stories and the various elements to tell the story through multiple venues.

So, while we may employ a serial release of the narrative in real time, readers can follow some of the characters online through social media profiles, you can read and interact with their blog posts. In fact many of the elements we put into play you can follow without ever engaging in the narrative, they can be stand-alone stories in themselves.

Our next transmedia story is due out in March of 2013 - over the last 6 months we have conducted extensive research into the locations for the story, having the author spend about 6 weeks on the road between eastern europe, London and Boston. In addition, we've been planning an extensive back-end for the project and will begin development over the next month.

On the storytelling side, we’ve already begun two blog sites and have created 6 character profiles online. We are not making these discoverable yet, but, I can tell you that one of the blogs will be written by a character in the story who by day, works as an IT manager for a large company and blames network security issues on the end users. By night, he writes his blog under a pen name scorning these end users – the blog is called ENDLUSERS and will be written in character by a real life IT professional. You see, the blog may never be mentioned in the narrative of the story, but you can discover it a number of different ways. It’s a stand-alone piece that you can enjoy on it’s own.

Creating multiple story paths like this one is called transmedia storytelling. It’s using cross media platforms to tell or extend the story.

This method creates an immersive experience that is ‘real’ for the reader. We believe this method of transmedia is critical to telling the story and allows readers to slip fully into our storyworld.


Believability is crucial in transmedia storytelling as far as we are concerned. Everything we do must be true to the story or to the character. Some storytellers are using different mediums to channel a character - an example of this would be getting tweets from Betty Draper, a character from the television show, Mad Men – some people think this is cool, and while the tweets are in character and pertain to the story. My thoughts on this are that it’s hard to believe that someone in the 60’s is tweeting at all, I mean, everyone knows that Twitter wasn’t around until at least the late seventies.


In my mind, this type of use or method of transmedia is strictly promotional. It uses alternate mediums to sell a TV show – this is no way to carry a narrative. And, although there are people who like this as part of their experience, it has less to do with the story and more to do with the promotion of the story.

Unfortunately, (for this idealistic storyteller) this use of transmedia as a promotional tool vs. as a storytelling tool, is more prevalent, because it’s easy to monetize. It’s easy to monetize because it’s easy to understand – transmedia storytelling inherently isn’t.

Promotional transmedia is at it’s best, glorified advertising and I believe it hurts legitimate transmedia storytellers because to most people, transmedia is transmedia. There's no differentiation. And, money, like water follows the path of least resistance. Things that are easy to understand, find funding.

So, how do we, as transmedia storytellers, monetize?

I’m really excited about this - because the breakout of the story creates multiple, independent opportunities for making money on the project that don’t conflict with the story. Monetization in transmedia can be as fragmented as the story itself. Focusing on book sales alone is losing site of the bigger picture - there can be hundreds of verticals within a single property.


Merchandise – who wouldn’t want an endlusers t-shirt? The merchandise doesn’t even have to reference the base story, in this case, it’s a characters' blog, who’s to say that the character isn't monetizing his own site? How about offering advertising space on the numerous websites and blogs that we have in place as part of our storyworld? Real websites have advertising, so why not fake ones?

Then we come to product placement.


I know, it's a dirty word to some. But, transmedia storytelling allows us to integrate product placement and have it become part of the story – it helps in making the characters and plot believable. Linking characters to real world things and brands isn’t anything new, but the fact that this information is being spread over multiple platforms and mediums makes this type of integration especially appealing to manufacturers and advertisers.

This means that there can be more than a mere mention in the text of the book, it can be brought to life in video, through social media and throughout the storyworld. A seamless integration between story and brand(s).

For instance, a character can use an iPhone, like the Apple page on their Facebook account, add Apple to their interests and comment on the Apple page. In addition to the character integration, we can also put ads for Apple products on our radio station web site as well as other web sites in our story world.

My point is that it can be part of the story, placement may not even be obvious to readers unless they were using Small Demons.

The total integration would be very seamless and natural, as part of the story – the reader may not even make the connection of ‘placement’ but they would certainly be exposed to Apple as part of the experience.

In fact, the product doesn’t even have to be mentioned in the narrative of the story at all to 'qualify' for product placement in transmedia.

Product placement in a transmedia story needs to be weighed however – will it benefit the story or detract from it? This question must be asked. At the end of the day, the story must be believable. Product placement must make sense for the character and for the story – planning and strategy must be employed to be successful. Placing products must coincide with the audience and hand picked to suit them.

Monetization is important; creative and intelligent use of product placement can be a useful monetization tool for transmedia projects. With so many entry points or ‘rabbit holes’ leading into a story, the opportunities are endless.

Monetization can come in other ways though;

Some readers may stumble upon a blog and follow it for sometime before learning that it is part of a larger story – this may be intriguing to them as they uncover more and more and then discover the story itself. This experience is their own and they made it. How do we capitalize on this?

The act of discovery on the readers part can be preserved by the reader and captured as a product – by way of a bespoke ebook. A custom book tailored for each reader.


Imagine ordering your book online and it being unique to you, based on your experiences with the story. The tweets you followed, the blogs you commented on, all interweaved as part of your very own memento and shipped or downloaded to you as a one-off. That’s pretty cool.

And with the perceived value of a digital asset being low, we need to find ways of changing this perception. Richard Nash had a nice graph depicting ebooks as the lowest point of entry and limited editions as being a bit higher up, ok a lot higher up.

When we look at the story without the packaging of a print book, the reader is left with a 1 megabyte file – it’s intangible and is hard to instill value. Enhanced books, books as apps, digital/print combos – these are all attempts at adding value to the digital asset to justify a higher fee. I have no issue with these, as I believe they do add value. Content creators need to pay attention to anything that can change perception on ebook value.

But adding value isn’t just in the how much extra stuff you get, it can also be measured on personal interaction and what you offer the individual.

We need to continue to be creative in marketing and sharing ebooks. For drm constrained books, what about for an extra fee at time of purchase, you get the rights to share that book with a friend or two. How about on the last page of the book there’s an ability to sell the book to friends through a social media platform, where the reader, the publisher and the original bookseller are paid a commission? The book get’s marketed, it get’s read and people make money. There's lots of ideas - they just need some exploration.

Including readers into the equation means they have an interest in the story, readers love to talk about the books they’ve read. This is extended to the transmedia experience – interaction plays a large roll. By capturing this interaction we believe we can make a remarkable, one of a kind book for everyone.

We believe that people will pay more for something created just for them, a unique product or something that they have a personal connection to. As we build out our next transmedia property, we are developing an engine to do just that – it will incorporate your personal experiences within the story, combine it with the narrative of the book and make it available to you in a print or ebook format. The best part is, we will be able to use this engine for future projects, reducing our cost as we release more stories.

Transmedia isn’t going away anytime soon, the high cost to implement it is what’s stifling it’s growth in publishing however. Everyone from documentary film makers to television shows to book publishers are looking at transmedia because it is a powerful engagement tool and fans love the immersion. The high cost has prohibited many projects from happening or they have to be paired down to the point of ineffectiveness.


As we build out our ‘transmedia engine’ we will eliminate some of the tedious tasks, create a platform to disseminate the narrative and to capture the individuals experience. Once built, our plan is to apply it to all projects going forward, reducing our costs and creating a familiar, yet unique experience for readers.

Delivering different experiences while giving readers an intuitive guide throughout the process that is consistent in each project is paramount.

Moving forward we need to spend as much time on transmedia storytelling awareness and category building as we do in producing transmedia properties – we need to create the category, define the category and make readers aware of it while at the same time creating exciting content that demonstrates the need for this type of storytelling.

My hope is that Transmedia storytelling will soon become a profitable space for publishers and authors to follow and one that publishers and booksellers will want to promote as unique and one that offers readers added experience.

Before I go, I'd like to tell you about a beautiful book. A couple years back I found a beautifully produced hard cover book, it had a canvas jacket, the pages were printed in Pantone 877 and a warm black. Any print nerds out there that can tell me what 877 is? Silver, not just silver but metallic silver (this is a colour that cannot be replicated in the digital realm, like many others). The book was entirely printed using two colours, solids, halftones and duotones. It was really a work of art.

I bought two copies. You see, the book was Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I bought one copy for me and the second copy for my junior high school english teacher who introduced it to me 25 years ago. She sent me a really nice thank you letter.

The reason I tell you this, is because beautiful books need to be shared and experienced. Transmedia enables both.

Thank you.

Here is the video of my talk.

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