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]

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By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally posted for Fast Company)

A few months back, my friend and longtime colleague Grant McCracken posed a question to Fast Company readers: “Is design thinking dead?”

Grant’s answer to the question? Channeling his best “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (which makes me wonder, what would Austin have been like if he were “The Canadian Rattlesnake”?), Grant offered a resounding, “Hell no!” And I couldn’t agree more.

Grant was responding to a pronouncement Bruce Nussbaum made in a Fast Company article last year that design thinking was “a failed experiment.” In his article, Grant contends that it “might be the wrong time to declare the design-thinking era over,” when companies are “headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits.” Instead, Grant concludes that “design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too: we need this approach more than we ever did.”

I agree with Grant’s call. Sure, design thinking has sometimes had its name used in vain, applied too liberally to projects far and wide and executed sloppily in many cases. In other cases, people may have held too closely to what they saw as the tenets of design thinking, opting to keep a purist definition of what is or isn’t design thinking in ways that didn’t allow the concept to adapt and evolve as it entered new realms of the business world. (See, for instance, Lara Lee’s BusinessWeek piece from a few years back about how design thinking must be an element of overall business strategy, not the end-all, be-all.)

To Lara’s point, the most exciting extensions of design thinking move beyond “design thinking” in its most narrow sense. Many of them wouldn’t even necessarily be projects you would expect to come out of the IDEOs and Jump Associates of the world. Instead, I’ve been heartened to see the many hybrid ways in which the tenets behind design thinking have infiltrated other worlds.

For instance, Lee (a Jump Associates alum, and formerly VP of Enthusiast Services for Harley-Davidson) has focused on helping companies understand how to build relationships with their most passionate fans by thinking about the community and the company from the enthusiast’s point-of-view. In Harvard Business Review piece a few years back, Lee and colleague Susan Fournier at Boston University wrote that, “A brand community exists to serve the people in it,” not “to serve the business.” Lee’s work has demonstrated how building community among customers ultimately must focus on serving the customers’ needs and wants, not selling the company to them.

Or look at what David McQuillen did first at Credit Suisse (and now is continuing at OCBC Bank in Singapore) in the realm of customer experience. McQuillen took an experiential approach to getting company employees, all the way up to the C-suite, immersed in how the bank looks from the customer’s perspective. McQuillen drew from the design thinking tenets of empathy and creativity to help bank employees begin to understand things from their customers’ point of view. For instance, he asked employees to spend the day in a wheelchair to better understand life from the perspective of disabled customers. Other times, he had senior executives stand in line at bank branches to understand what their customers went through. Then, he worked with his colleagues to develop pragmatic solutions to the problems they encountered based on what they went through as customers or to understand what new decisions might look like from the customer’s eyes. (See Ian Wylie’s profile of David McQuillen in Fast Company for more.)

I’ve been greatly inspired by the writing and thinking of Carol Sanford, who speaks about the design of businesses that have a commitment to responsibility at their core–primarily by focusing on serving first their customers, then their employees and partners, then the earth, then the community, and finally their shareholders. In her work, Sanford applies the tenets of empathy, creativity, and pragmatic problem-solving to make a strong case that it is completely rational to make responsibility to these stakeholders a core commitment of any organization and employees throughout the company should be immersed in this way of thinking, no matter their division or rank. Rather than leave the design to designers or the strategy to strategists, Sanford argues that such an approach should be seen as simply “the way employees think.”

Certainly, Grant McCracken’s own work can be seen in this light, as having been heavily inspired by some of the tenets of design thinking. McCracken’s call in his last book, Chief Culture Officer, was for companies to hire people whose job it is to listen to what is happening in culture, the patterns taking place in the world around a business that they might be oblivious to, focused as they are only on their products and services or the concerns of their sector. His forthcoming book, Culturematic, focuses on helping people develop a spirit of innovation and pragmatic testing when creating culture–whether that be marketing, entertainment, or any other type of content.

We might even see the current push toward transmedia storytelling in this light. (See this Fast Company piece from my mentor and co-author Henry Jenkins on transmedia storytelling, for instance.) Transmedia storytelling focuses on developing a story that has continuity and which develops over multiple media platforms, with different facets of the story being told through the platforms which best convey that part of the story and which create the best means for the audience to engage with and immerse themselves in the story. For years now, entertainment creators have been experimenting with using this approach to find new ways to tell stories that best serve audiences. And, these days, people like Maurício Mota and Mark Warshaw with The Alchemists are hard at work at helping companies think about how transmedia storytelling leads to them designing stories across all their communication touchpoints which engage, inform, enlighten and connect with readers, rather than focusing on using their communications platforms to tell audiences what they want to say.

None of the projects listed above may be “design thinking” in the narrow box we often confine it to, but they illustrate how a hybrid of this approach has been used to create new ways of thinking in customer service, corporate responsibility and business innovation, marketing, community engagement, and corporate strategy.

Of late, I’ve found design thinking of particular use in my world of communications strategy and public relations. Peppercom’s co-founder Steve Cody was speaking to a group of 75 heads of marketing and communications some months back for the Association of National Advertisers and asked how many of those communications professionals had ever experienced their brand from their customer’s point of view. Three-fourths of the respondents said no, leading us to believe that many of us communicating with an audience on the company’s behalf had become disconnected–or perhaps never actually been connected–with the communication experience of the audiences we seek to reach. (See more about the thinking behind this project herehere, and here.)

In response, we partnered with Emily Yellin–whose book Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us was how I first became acquainted with David McQuillen’s work at Credit Suisse. She has both helped Peppercom put this way of thinking at our core and worked with us to develop an offering to help companies start approaching their marketing and communications work by putting themselves in their audience’s shoes–whether that be customers, employees, recruits, or other key groups. (See more about our offering here.)

While I wouldn’t consider myself a trained designer by any means, our approach has been greatly inspired by taking the questions design thinking brings to the table and applying them to corporate communications, public relations, and marketing. As we embark on our launch of our “Audience Experience” work (which officially launched this week), and as I look at the work being done across so many sectors of business strategy as described above, I once again echo Grant’s assessment. “Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No!”

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