An interview with Simon Staffans about transmedia storytelling


A couple of years ago I had the occasion to interview Simon Staffans for the online magazine Subvertising, after reading his work “One year in transmedia”. The original interview was never published in English, so I thought it was time to do it despite the years, considering the increasing importance and interest around transmedia also in Italy. It was a long conversation focusing mainly on opportunities transmedia could offer to companies and brands.

Enjoy the interview (and if you want to stay updated on trends and evolutions of trensmedia, go and find our more on Subvertising).

What is a “must have” in transmedia for you ?

I’ve been too long in media to look beyond the core, so for me the most important ingredient has to be the story. In transmedia, this can be extended to include the ramification, the story world that the stories play out in; they need to be carefully crafted, engaging, immersive… they need to have that glimmer of magic around them that not only invites people to suspend their disbelief, it simply makes them suspend it, easy as that.

A lot of different aspects can be put under the “carefully crafted” heading mentioned above; everything from well planned audience interaction and engagement to well chosen platforms for the different parts of the whole transmedia entity, from well structured business and revenue plans to well executed marketing campaigns.

The truth is that even if the story is brilliant, there is always the chance that it will pass everyone by through shoddily executed distribution or inability to raise awareness about the project; whereas the story is the most crucial part of any transmedia project, all parts must work together and support and build on each other in order to achieve the perfect transmedia harmony.

What is a so called “best practice”, an example everybody should know in order to understand exactly how a successful transmedia project looks like?

There are quite a few examples people point to as “classic” examples of transmedia storytelling. Star Wars, The Matrix, “The Beast” from Spielberg’s movie AI and the quite brilliantly executed “Why So Serious” campaign leading up to the last Batman movie. It all depends, though, on what you want to achieve, which area you operate in and where you are coming from. If you are trying to market a movie, you would do well to look at and get some inspiration from the campaigns leading up to the latest Ridley Scott movie “Prometheus”, or why not the campaign for “The Hunger Game”. If, on the other hand, you are working in television, you could take a look at how HBO are handling their series, from “True Blood” and their fangbanger communities to the elaborate campaign for “Game of Thrones”. Then again, if your coming from a grass root level, I’d suggest you’d take a look at “Clockwork Watch” from Yomi Ayeni and colleagues; a crowdfunded steampunk adventure featuring graphic novels, live events and much more, it’s an interesting example to keep tabs on. If you are not, on the other hand, in entertainment at all, you could take a look at the city of Porto and their campaign “The Treasure Hunt”, aimed at promoting tourism.

Basically, it’s really hard to point at one single example – but once you’ve identified what it is you will be trying to develop and produce, you will be in a better position to find examples to draw inspiration from.

- Reading some of your blog posts, I saw some similarities between transmedia and brand engagement, especially when suggest things like “be interactive”, “listen to you audience”, “communicate”. Do you agree?

Certainly. That’s why I believe that brands can have so much use of transmedia storytelling methods; there is no need to go all out and throw iPad apps paired with graphic novels at people in order to market a cookie brand, but the cookie brand could make enormous use of the way transmedia projects are developed – building the story world the brand wants to exist in, planning narrative superstructures that fit the image of the brand and its products, developing entry points for the audience, things to collaborate on and share as well as a reason to do so and the tools to do so, and to share their creations with their friends… all in all, transmedia storytelling has a lot to offer brands.

- The fact that transmedia has already inside itself the values of brand engagement makes it easier for brands to jump on transmedia projects?

I would think so, but then again I do not represent a brand… since a big part of many transmedia projects, especially the ones which build on audience interaction, are all about daring to let go of the 100%-control the creators have over their story and story world, I can see that brands might have a bit of a hard time arriving at a favorable stance regarding this. Letting go of the control of one’s brand might lead the brand anywhere, into areas the brand definitely would not want to go.

On the other hand, this is again where transmedia storytelling methods come to the fore. By creating engaging and immersive content we hopefully make people care about our content. By developing entry points and sandboxes for people to enter, collaborate, create and share, we foster loyalty and engagement. By talking with the audience we foster dialogue and interaction. All in all, by letting go of the total control, we might instead gain a hundredfold in creativity and buzz. And with the help of transmedia storytelling, that “might” can turn into a “will”.

- What is necessary to make a brand credible inside a transmedia storytelling?  Have you got some examples?

In a way brand involvement in a transmedia setting does not differ much from regular advertising campaigns or sponsor relationships. It is still about a brand investing in content of one kind or another, in order to get exposure, build brand awareness and/or approach a certain target audience.

Where transmedia campaigns differ is in the level of engagement they aspire to foster. Any brand thinking about involving themselves in transmedia storytelling need to ask themselves if they really want to and are prepared to get as close to their customers, their target audience, as they would in many transmedia cases. There is also the question of harnessing what has been accomplished; whereas ad campaigns and sponsorships have a beginning, a middle and an end, transmedia campaigns often build communities and movements that last potentially much longer. There needs to be a plan in place for this, which makes it very important for the brand to see to it that whatever the transmedia project is about, it is something that fits the long term plan for the company and / or its products.

- Is transmedia something that you would recommend to every company?

In a way, yes, since I believe every company – from the smallest kebab restaurant to IKEA or Apple – benefits from having a well-crafted background story, or mythology if you will. There is no need for anyone to start an ARG around their company, or create elaborate graphic novels, or anything else. But taking a leaf out of the transmedia development process, build the mythology of the brand and the company, build on the characters of the company and identify which stories that can be derived from that setting, that can only help any company I can think of.

- What are the advantages/benefits that transmedia can offer to a brand?

The most interesting benefits to me, if I were a brand, would firstly be the possibility to enter into a much closer relationship with my potential consumers (or audience, or in the long run co-creators).  Secondly transmedia would help me build the brand world my brand lives in, enabling me to derive stories, campaigns and possible consumer entry points from that world. Thirdly and lastly I as a brand would be able to let my work force develop their communication skills and brand promotion skills, in settings that makes sense for them as well the brand itself.

How are brands currently entering transmedia? Is product placement the only way or is there something else?

Here we come down to the question of how to define transmedia. Was the Old Spice campaign of 2010 transmedia or not? How about Coca-Cola’s Happiness Factory? Or, for that matter, the example of Snapple and their “Pursuit of Bestness” campaign?

In my book, brands are still threading the fine line between traditional marketing and true transmedia. They might be slightly more adventurous than a year ago, and even more willing to experiment in cases that are purely their own and not tied to some external content, but for the most part the area of brands and transmedia is an unexplored field – but one that I’m confident will be explored thoroughly over the next few years.

- Last questions: if you look ahead, where do you think transmedia will be in 2015?

I belive the term ”transmedia” in itself has become largely redundant. This, I believe, will be due to the fact that almost all media content are built according to transmedia storytelling methods and principles, which serves to make it the new ”media”, without any need for the distinction of ”trans-”.

So, in 2015 I believe we’ve come so far as storytellers, producers, creators and audience members, that most if not all projects take all platforms into consideration from the very beginning of a development process, utilizing the ones that make the most sense within the scope of the project, planning for audience engagement and for the long run, and executing it all in a very orderly fashion.

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