Strand and deliver: Amie Mills on the rise of transmedia storytelling

It used to be so simple. Find an audience (usually from someone or something with enough money to own mass media), put an ad in front of that audience and roll around on a bed laden with cash, laughing maniacally. These days, there is huge media fragmentation, constant distraction (AKA ‘obesity of the mind‘), more good content on offer than ever before and numerous ways for consumers to dodge ads. That makes reaching audiences much more difficult, but the rise of digital technology and the rapid changes in the way people are consuming media has meant broadcasters and advertisers have had to embrace more creative methods of storytelling to maintain the audience’s attention, something Blacksand’s senior digital producer (and artist) Amie Mills discussed recently at the first TVNZ Outtakes event. 

There are a range of definitions used for transmedia. But, as Mills explains it: “Multi-media is one singular story told using multiple media forms (photos, video, audio etc.), published on one platform. Cross-media or multi-platform is when you tell a singular story across multiple platforms, and where the story isn’t significantly altered from one platform to the next. When we’re talking about transmedia, we’re starting to use terms like story world, where you have many stories told using multiple media forms, across many different channels and platforms … and how that content lives and breathes is uniquely tailored to the platform you’re viewing it on.” 

She believes Marvel is arguably the best example of a company that ensures its stories live on. The franchise brought in $7 billion dollars at the box office last year and as a consumer she says there are “myriad, dispersed entry points by which you can discover that content and engage in the Marvel story world, including comic books, fan fiction, movies, television, games etc”.

On each platform that the content lives, the narrative is extended, not simply adapted or transplanted.” 

When we interviewed Frank Rose about his book The Art of Immersion, which charts the different ways digital technology is affecting “Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories”, he showed where things were heading for both the creators and the consumers of content by pointing to examples like the fictional worlds/”fractal experiences” created by James Cameron on and off-screen; marketing stunts/transmedia puzzles that fuse the seemingly real with the fictional, like the Dark Knight’s Why So Serious, Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero, the Prometheus TED talk set in 2023, or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s global treasure hunt; or the rise of second screening and social TV, which is giving TV a new lease of life because viewers increasingly want to discuss events among a community of fans via social media.

Mills, who was digital project manager at the Health Sponsorship Council responsible for the Smoking Not Our Future campaign and head of digital production at UK agency Tokyo Digital, splits transmedia into four parts: digitally hard-wired (where digital tech/products sit at the very heart of the content creation), dual-screen meshing (when consumers are asked to actively engage with the content on TV using their second screen simultaneously), bridging campaigns (which are used to generate excitement around the launch of the next season of a show, or, with the daily soaps, to sustain audience interest whilst the show is on hiatus each year), and platform extensions (which are not about meshing simultaneously with the show but instead extend the content on to different platforms and encourage viewers to engage with it after they’ve watched it on-air). 

And she loves them all, because “of the life it gives to content”.

“For content makers it gives them an opportunity; a whole other world for them to extend their stories and characters and write differently.” 

As part of the documentary The Secret Life of Students, Channel 4 in the UK created the D:Rig system, which collected more than 200,000 data points, such as Facebook and text messages, from the 12 students featured, and incorporated some of that data into the show. While some might find it slightly depressing to see the students’ lives being lived mostly through their phones, this ‘digital hard-wiring’ also showed the possibilities for content makers willing to integrate technology into content.

Channel 4 is using this expensive piece of tech for some other shows and it seems like a sitter for reality shows that thrive on voyeurism and manufactured drama (it’s easy to imagine how appealling it would be for the audience to see messages sent by contestants on, for example, The Bachelor, popping up on screen to show what they’re really thinking). 

People have always loved participating in stories. Charles Dickens was one of the first to serialise his novels and take input from readers before the next chapter was released. But, increasingly, the audience wants to be part of the story and, for the rabid fans, to be given a more detailed back story, not just consume it passively. Accenture recently showed that 87 percent of individuals watch TV with their devices within arm’s reach. And Mills says Australian murder mystery Secrets and Lies tapped into this very cleverly by offering those who downloaded a mobile app additional insight into the show, like letting them listen to a phone conversation that couldn’t be heard on the live broadcast. Those who didn’t have the app didn’t miss out on anything, but those who did had their experience enhanced. And she says it’s one of the best examples of dual-screen meshing she’s ever seen. 

On the other side of the coin, Mills points to renowned transmedia/digital development company Project Factory and its work with a Norwegian soap similar to Shortland St to create a bridging campaign based around a big skydiving accident. Fans needed to watch the content online if they wanted to keep up with the story. And while she says there is more risk of alienating viewers with this approach, it worked and drove massive audience share growth. 

One of Mills’ favourite transmedia projects was the immersive mobile app made by Project Factory and Hartswood Films for Sherlock. She says they saw the potential for an extension of the show, so they funded the app themselves and filmed original pieces of video featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The ‘interactive adventure’ was also a paid-for app, so it was a new revenue stream for the producers, and Mills says it was hugely successful. 

She says TVNZ wouldn’t shy away from paid-for extensions like this in the future if it made sense, even though it wouldn’t always gel with its ad-funded model, but she says it proves that if the audience is truly engaged in a show, they may be happy to pay extra to enhance the experience.

As Colmar Brunton’s Adreaction study found: “One of the biggest multi-screen opportunities is not simultaneous connections between screens, but rather ensuring a presence across screens to build multiple touch points and amplify content.” And in the case of the Our First Home renovation game, Mills says it was an entirely new format and it was trying to bring as many people as possible into it, so it didn’t make sense to charge for app downloads. In the end, the game was downloaded 26,045 times, which she says is very good for the New Zealand market, and it had an average session duration of over 27 minutes. 

While ratings are still the bread and butter of TV, it’s a relatively crude measurement. As such, engagement metrics are becoming increasingly important. And engagement doesn’t just happen on TV. 

Mills says Our First Home struggled a bit with the ratings in the early days. But the sponsors like Resene, BNZ, Fly Buys and Toyota were still very happy with the engagement they got from the game, which was promoted during broadcast. 

“You can see the holistic nature of it. It’s a 360 brand, not just linear. It’s all part of the mix.” 

For marketers, expanding the offering and creating more value was the aim of the game, which was built by Stephen Knightly’s InGame, with planning, strategy and commercial integration done by Blacksand (in the case of the MKR voting app, she says that was initially conceived as a marketing initiative to increase viewership and engagement before show sponsor Genesis Energy attached itself to it). 

“That opened the doors to get moving on it earlier with partners,” she says. “The reality is if there’s more time it will be better because it can be woven into the mix as part of sponsorship packages.” 

Just as content marketing initiatives are often bespoke and therefore hard to scale, the same is true of trans-media campaigns. But one of the benefits is that a game or another extension that requires sign-up means it gets more data. 

The launch of TVNZ’s new Ondemand platform led to an increase in direct marketing muscle at TVNZ because the way it intended to communicate with its viewers would be changing and Mills says this evolution is going to allow some really smart targeting, rather than blasting messages to a broad demographic like 25-54 as is generally the case when it comes to traditional free-to-air broadcast.  

She says it can personalise messages to viewers or downloaders and suggest content based on their viewing behaviour or areas of interest, it can use and build on existing databases when launching new seasons, it can engage with fans who have shown their love for a show via social media and, for show sponsors, it can send relevant EDMs. 

NZ on Air’s digital funding stream aims to help create more content that lives in more places, and TVNZ has dabbled successfully in this area, with 2009’s Reservoir Hill winning a digital emmy. Auckland Daze also ticks that box. It started out as an online series and then moved to linear TV, it incorporated ideas suggested via social media into its scripts (Jono and Ben also did this last year for one of its skits), and it also filled in the gap between seasons with an ‘Instagramisode’ from Thailand in association with Grabaseat.

Mills says Kerry Chalmers (who also plays Fasi’s girlfriend on the show) is incredibly good at creating content that can live anywhere. She is also behind children’s web series Nia’s Extraordinary Life, which is also funded by NZ on Air and, in typical transmedia fashion, has a children’s book spin-off.

“It’s happening more and more,” says Mills. “I don’t know if it’s yet at that place that a show has to [have a trans-media element]. Usually it’s a property that’s locally commissioned, and you have those discussions early.” 

And she swears by the belief of Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez, the man behind Coca Cola Happiness Factory, which, after a seven percent increase in sales, was deemed the most successful campaign in history of Coca-Cola: it’s always about extending the narrative.

“The explosion of phenomenally good TV in the last few years means there’s so much content and you need to do this to keep hold of them.” 

She says Blacksand is particularly inspired by what the UK’s Channel 4 is doing. And she says it’s much easier to do it well when you’re close to the content, rather than as an agency coming from the outside. And this is part of the reason in-house creative departments within media companies are becoming better—and more important. 

She says Blacksand tries to work as closely as it can with commissioners. And Step Dave is a good example as it works with the scripts and with screenwriter Kate McDermott to look for any offshoot pieces that would work well online. 

“Having that dialogue early is really important. And it was the same with Our First Home, which would have been six months in the planning … It’s so wonderful because when [McDermott] writes the back stories of the satellite characters, there is stuff you can barely touch on on-air that you can take much further online. Narratively, I think the story world is already there, it’s just giving it air.” 

It seems like having to consider all these new platforms would make the writing process far more complicated, but after you’ve got your head around it, she says most realise it offers more creative possibilities. She points to House of Cards, which was created with the help of a now-famous venn diagram, and has a story arc that moves much more slowly than traditional TV. Also, because of the platform and the way people consume the content, it doesn’t have as much of a bias in its structure towards writing for ad breaks or creating suspenseful ‘find out what happens next week’ endings. 

But the complicated bit is when you have to map out clues for campaigns where you need to ensure there’s enough intrigue to keep the audience interested. 

The Shortland St Clue Hunt bridging campaign and the six week immersive murder game to launch the show How to Get Away With Murder showed just how keen fans were and they had to change both campaigns on the fly to make them more difficult. 

She says one of the fans even printed out all of the content of the How to Get Away with Murder campaign four weeks into the game and put them all up on her bedroom like a proper detective to try and find discrepancies, of which there were a few. And the fans were so keen they even set up their own discussion forum. 

Holden, which sponsors Shortland St, also got involved in the transmedia action and one of the clues involved people hunting around in a new Colorado ute. 

It’s a very broad palette these days. And as Gomez summed up: “Every platform is a musical instrument, playing a narrative symphony.” So you’d better get practicing. 

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