By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally for Fast Company)

“Transmedia storytelling” has become a common phrase in many media industries circles. But what does it look like for B2B?

The phrase “transmedia storytelling” has been widely adopted in media/entertainment circles in the past few years. Originally used by Marsha Kinder, the concept was explored in-depth by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book, Convergence Culture, and subsequent work. In short, the concept looks at a connected story told over multiple media formats.

Originally, transmedia storytelling was most passionately studied and adopted in relation to entertainment properties. Jenkins explores franchises like The Matrix to illustrate it in Convergence Culture. As one of his graduate students at the time the book came out, I applied the concept to in-depth explorations of professional wrestling and soap operas. And a wide range of industry practitioners began to think about transmedia storytelling as a way to supplement the narratives of television shows and films, as a way to market the launch of a new story world, as a way to resurrect or keep alive a narrative between installments of primary texts or after its primary text has ended, and so on. By 2010, the Producers Guild of America had come to consider a “transmedia producer” a new official credit in the field.

Meanwhile, people started applying the “transmedia storytelling” approach to marketing and corporate communications, starting with Grant McCracken back in 2005. Meanwhile, Faris Yakob began mapping out what “transmedia planning” might look like in 2006. Today, there is no shortage of marketing conferences or conversations that end up with “transmedia” being woven in somehow.

In order to drive a more serious consideration of what transmedia storytelling means for marketing/advertising/public relations, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California recently launched a new initiative called the Transmedia Branding Research Group. They kicked it off by bringing in more than 35 different people for a full day of brainstorming on what “transmedia branding” might mean.

We started the day talking and thinking primarily in terms of so-called “consumer brands.” But, as the day wore on, I joined Burghardt Tenderich and a few other colleagues to pose the question of what “transmedia” means for a professional services firm or other B2B company, where storytelling in the entertainment sense might not be a major focus but where relationships stretch across multiple media touchpoints already.

The Lab has decided to make transmedia storytelling for business-to-business brands one of their primary areas of focus, an endeavor in which I look forward to participating. As that effort gets underway, here are my initial thoughts about what “transmedia storytelling” in the B2B world really means. In short, I think B2B transmedia storytelling can be most powerful when it:

  • Is built on real-life relationships. Hill Holliday’s once suggested that the difference between B2B brands and B2C brands is that B2C brands typically have to use their storytelling to create the illusion of “brand personality” or of a relationship between the product/company behind the product and the customer. Meanwhile, the vast majority of B2B customer relationships are built on direct interaction between human beings at each company. The concept of “transmedia,” then, should often be focused on extending these relationships which already exist into new realms.
  • Has the advantage of having its story world “set” in the real world. Much like the world of professional wrestling unfolds 24/7 as a fictional story world within our “real” world, the “story” of B2B companies similarly unfolds in real-time: spanning across news releases and digital content from the company, coverage in the news media, experts from the company participating in industry events and in industry publications, those experts’ participation in social media, etc.
  • Focuses on the people behind the “brand” of a company. “Transmedia” for B2B companies gains power by focusing on how the company’s marketing, research, and products/services intersect with the experts who drive their business. Often, then, subject matter experts at the company become the key “characters” in the transmedia story of the B2B brand-which makes these representatives’ visibility especially important.
  • Demonstrates the thinking and expertise which inspires the company’s products and services. In building an overall narrative about a B2B company, the focus is on the expertise, not the products of that expertise. Situating the company’s commercial offerings within that passion and knowledge is key for telling a story beyond selling products.
  • Puts an emphasis on the importance of internal collaboration and external continuity. Of course, several of these types of activities have long been a major part of B2B marketing/communications, but thinking of them not only as “storytelling” but also as connected starts to reframe how the company thinks about its overall reputation and the way its communications connect to one another. It also helps connect parts of the company (HR, marketing, customer service, sales, investor relations, governmental relations, etc.) that might not regularly interact if the company’s various communications aren’t thought of from a “transmedia storytelling” standpoint.

I’m looking forward to playing some small role in brainstorming with the Annenberg Innovation Lab on these issues more deeply in 2013, but I feel the concept of “transmedia storytelling” holds much promise in helping B2B marketers think more deeply about how they connect their marketing and communications efforts and better serve the audiences they seek to reach in the process. And I look forward to thoughts from any readers as we further hash out what B2B transmedia storytelling means.

(For more on transmedia storytelling as a concept, see Jenkins’ and “Seven Myths about Transmedia Storytelling Debunked”.)

[Image: Flickr user Zach Rathore]

Similar Posts:

By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally for Fast Company)

The innovation paradox is the need to find answers we didn’t know we needed, from places we didn’t know to look–the very antithesis of what we often do.

When I first read a manuscript of Grant McCracken‘s Culturematic some time back, two sentences struck me so deeply that I highlighted them and simultaneously wrote a note on the table of contents: “Blame the Dewey Decimal system! It clusters like things together.”

The thought has been with me ever since: cropping up when I turn to the same old sources to seek an answer, echoing in my thoughts when people dismiss an answer’s relevance because it’s not in their field.

A similar message echoed in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln is a leader whose way of thinking isn’t constrained Dewey Decimal System-like in desire to categorize the world into knowable divisions and categories. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dewey didn’t create this system until a decade after Lincoln’s death.) In one of the most pivotal scenes of the film, as Lincoln is deciding to end the war or push forward with getting the 13th Amendment passed through Congress, he put his conundrum aside to talk with a telegraph operator who studied engineering. Soon, Lincoln is reflecting on Euclid’s mechanical law about equality in measurement and reaching the “eureka” moment that moving forward with passage of the 13th Amendment is his answer.

Grant’s exclamation about the Dewey Decimal system comes from talking with physicist Steve Crandall about Bell Labs. Steve said that people hunkered down in the lab doing research at all hours, but often they reached the revelation they needed when they went out to lunch and started talking with other people about things seemingly unrelated to the research problem they were trying to solve.

However, it’s not the “aha! moment” in the shower, where taking your mind off something finally gets you to your answer in isolation. No, it’s more than that. In fact, the answer goes even beyond Lincoln’s conversation with the engineer, since it only acted to trigger something seemingly unrelated that Lincoln already knew. No, the sort of answer Grant is talking about requires finding information you don’t already have, in places you don’t normally look. It’s a process that requires interaction with culture, with people who are thinking about something you don’t know and that may seem unrelated on the surface. Grant calls it serendipity in action, the answer to the “innovation paradox,” which states, “We need ideas we can’t possibly guess we need. We must canvass concepts that are entirely unrelated to our present problem set. Only thus do we give our deeper powers of pattern recognition a chance to work.”

Culturematic‘s declaration about the Dewey Decimal system is positioned in Grant’s criticism of a current business obsession of innovation that has corporatized it, domesticated it even, moving “innovation” from an intense curiosity and spirit of experimentation toward a systematic, managed, tiered, orderly, and controlled way of understanding the world. In a world where experimentation and innovation is seen only logically, unrelated knowledge is noise, and conversation about anything other than the problem at hand is a distraction.

The “Dewey Decimal problem” extends far beyond narrow-minded innovation labs, though. It inhibits the everyday innovation of everyone in the workplace. Companies consider employees’ engaging with the culture outside their walls as “waste.” (See one 2010 British study which said employees’ engagement on social network sites during work hours was costing the economy “as much as $22 billion.”) An extreme idea of production sees anything not focused on the explicit task at hand as a loss in efficiency and “free time” as the enemy.

It’s hard to imagine true innovation surviving in such an environment. And, even when companies don’t hold to such extreme views about efficiency, there’s not much room to place value on listening to culture or seeking serendipity. Even companies that see some value in paying attention to what’s happening in the world, unrelated to the explicit task their workers have before them, can’t get beyond expecting their employees to cram a bit of cultural learning in the 15 minutes between appointments on their Outlook calendar.

If we want a workplace culture where our employees can engage in pattern recognition to solve the problems they face, we have to encourage an environment of listening, learning, and creative reasoning…to encourage critical thinking over tactical execution (a problem that runs particularly deep in the marketing/communications world). For instance, back in November, we organized a small conference at MIT called Futures of Entertainment, bringing together marketers, media industries professionals, consultants, academics, entrepreneurs, activists, and a range of other professionals from a diversity of industries/disciplines to see what we could learn from one another. Afterward, some attendees professed that they almost hadn’t come because they didn’t work in “entertainment.” Instead, as Doug Williams at Innovation Excellence writes, the conference focused on innovation not by being “about” it but rather engaging in innovation as a mindset. As Doug says in his conclusion about where to go for inspiration and new ideas, “The choices may be less obvious than you think.”

Of course, it’s not the Dewey Decimal System itself that’s to blame; after all, there is value to applying some sense of order to the world. Rather, it’s the dominance such a system starts to have. We create a model, then forget it was a model we created at all. Soon, every decision has to be made by the Big Data analytics system we set up, every decision governed by the customer segmentation profiles we brainstormed. But we can’t let categorization rule us, and we can’t limit our inquiry only to where we know to look. Otherwise, we’ll never overcome the innovation paradox.

[Image: Flickr user Caro Wallis]

Similar Posts:

By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally for Fast Company)

Big data is undoubtedly useful, but it takes human analysis to figure out how to understand what it is we “know,” and how to take action on it.

A recent USA TODAY piece by Chuck Raasch about Rick Smolan’s new book, The Human Face of Big Data, looks at how humanity is impacted by the unparalleled ways we can now collect, analyze, and use data. Perhaps what struck me most was a phrase used by both the article title and Smolan, likening “big data” to a “planetary” or “global” nervous system.Jonathan Harris uses a similar phrase in the article about the Internet in general.)

Without a doubt, more things can be quantified than ever before. The myriad ways that benefits society is only hinted at in Raasch’s article, and I’m sure the same can be said for Smolan’s book. With the wealth of data we can now collect and analyze in increasingly sophisticated ways, we have only scratched the surface as to the vast number of advances we might find.

However, in any era with rapid technological change, it’s easy to start slipping into what has been termed “technological determinism,” to start speaking of the technology as if it drives culture and humanity, rather than thinking of technology as a tool.

“Big data as our global nervous system” presumes everything can be quantified, that culture can be culled down to quantitative data. It supposes the world is infinitely knowable. It posits that context and particularity is only so useful inasmuch as it can be captured by machines. And that’s where the tail starts to wag the dog, to use a cliche.

Big data can’t tell Lexus that my customer survey results were skewed by the fact that the person who sold me my car laid a guilt trip on me to fill out all “excellent” reviews on his survey, lest his pay get docked. Big data can’t tell Target that it might be causing significant strife for a teenage-mom-to-be by giving prenatal coupons to her family. Big data couldn’t tell one major company I worked with that their heralded and highly successful social media presence for job seekers was actually primarily a place people came to only when they’d narrowed their search down to the final few contenders, and that they weren’t connecting with the audiences they sought to reach earlier in the job-hunting process.

Before we’ve completely decided what this new world looks like and what big data is, let’s think long and hard about the things that can’t–and won’t ever be–quantifiable…or, to put it in better terms, what gets “boiled out” when you quantify human communication–the context and humanity that a spreadsheet can’t capture. As I wrote last February, perhaps the answer is that our organizations must become “cyborgs”: combining what can be gathered technologically with the humanity that can help us balance and make sense of what the quantitative can tell us, lest we be lose our humanity and just become robots.

I’m of the staunch belief that unparalleled development of both data and qualitative insight, in combination, can further help transform human understanding, technological advancement, and everyday life. New access to quantitative data gives us unparalleled access to information at a scale we’ve never had before. We can discover patterns in quantitative data we didn’t know existed.

And qualitative insight helps us truly understand the lives of other people, to listen to them in the full context of what they are talking about–to pay attention to the particulars. Human analysis and thinking about what all that qualitative and quantitative data means is what helps us make sense of it all: to empathize with other people, to consider the ethical questions that will inevitably come along with how data is collected and what data tells us, and to perform the sort of qualitative pattern recognition that helps us identify what’s happening in culture, in ways that numbers support but can’t lead (because we have to know what we’re looking for to find it in the numbers). Continuum’s Lara Lee may have said it best in Stephanie Clifford’s New York Times piece back in July: “Data can’t tell you where the world is headed.”

Perhaps, most of all, it will take human analysis to figure out how to understand what it is we “know,” and how to take action on it. As Frank Eliason once told me, senior executives are rarely convinced by numbers that aren’t financial, but a good story that illustrates an issue and creates empathy–with data that backs that story up–is a convincing package.

Grant McCrackenEmily YellinCarol Sanford, the aforementioned Lara Lee and I discussed this issue in-depth at the recent Futures of Entertainment 6 conference at MIT, in a session called “Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human”. And coming out of that conference, finding this balance between big data and qualitative insights is a subject a group of us are planning to roll up our sleeves and tackle. I hope you’ll join us.

[Image: Flickr user Bogdan Suditu]

Similar Posts:

© 2010 PepperDigital