Change the World with Transmedia Storytelling

We live in a transmedia world. Information, stories, marketing come at us from all sides — from the radio news waking you up in the morning to your box of cereal describing the plight of the puffin; emails, texts and tweets with the latest updates from family, friends and co-workers; the billboards you see on the way to work; in-person meetings with your colleagues using the inevitable PowerPoint slides; your favorite TV show… We are bombarded with data that we constantly process on the fly to create a coherent picture of our world.

Why does this matter for nonprofits, public agencies and others who are working to change people’s lives for the better? Because the people you are trying to reach also live in this transmedia world. We need to reach people where they are, and where they are is practically everywhere! Of course, your particular audience is more likely to spend their time in certain places than others, but don’t assume that reaching them on one platform is enough to make an impression. (I know the term “audience” is not the most appropriate when we’re talking about a more participatory model, but I don’t have a better word yet for “the people whose behavior you are trying to change.”)

In addition to spreading your messages and interventions across multiple media or platforms, you need to find a way to grab their attention through the clutter. I’ve often written about the power of story and the use of the entertainment education approach to bring about health and social change, and I believe that combining proven behavior change models with transmedia storytelling has the potential to radically transform how we change social norms and create large-scale social movements.

If you’re not familiar with it, put simply, the transmedia approach uses multiple platforms to convey different parts of a story (as opposed to the same story told over again via various media). Of course, the word means different things to different people, and a broad debate has been raging in the field as to how exactly to define “transmedia” (sound familiar, social marketers?). Though the most typical example of an entertainment/marketing-focused transmedia project involves big-budget elements like a feature movie, video- or alternate reality game, graphic novel, webisodes or other production-intensive media, that by no means defines the approach. In fact, sometimes a mobile phone and social media are all you need to create world-changing transmedia content.

In considering how best to use this approach within the context of health and social change, I think “immersive engagement” may be a better term than “transmedia.” I love Robert Pratton’s equation defining pervasive entertainment, which does not describe every transmedia project, but which I think includes the key elements that can contribute to effective change:

Pervasive Entertainment = ubiquitous media + participatory experience + real world + good storytelling

We can adapt that idea for social change as:

Immersive Engagement for Change =
Behavior Change Model
+ Good Storytelling + Ubiquitous Media + Participatory Experience + Real World

Let’s look at each element of that equation (I’ve re-ordered the elements from the original to indicate their priority in this application):

  • Immersive Engagement for Change – Ultimately, your goal is to create an experience that leads to your audience taking some sort of action as a result of being engaged and motivated, whether it’s adopting a healthy or pro-social behavior, changing how they treat other people, helping the environment or actively joining a movement that aims to solve a social challenge. Awareness and education are necessary, but usually not sufficient by themselves to create real change.
  • Behavior Change Model – Start by identifying what you need to accomplish and how you intend to get there, by understanding what you need to include in the experience to effectively motivate the adoption of the key action(s). In a long-term story-centered project, you can follow the Sabido Method, which has been used successfully for decades to drive development of entertainment education content and brings together behavioral, communication and learning theories. You can use other simpler models, such as social cognitive theory or BJ Fogg’s behavior model, but the crucial point is to understand the pieces that need to be in place in your story and in the structure of your project for change to happen.
  • Good Storytelling – Engagement starts with a good story; without that element, the rest of the pieces will fall flat. A good story does not just mean an issue that you feel is important for people to know about. Give a lot of thought as to who the key characters are, what the conflict is, how the story arc will play out, and how best to present different parts of the narrative for maximum effect. Whether you are creating a fictional world or a nonfiction series about real people, the elements of what makes a good story don’t change. The story is your opportunity to create characters your audience can relate to, put them in situations where they need to make decisions related to the actions you want your audience to take, and show the consequences of those decisions.
  • Ubiquitous Media – By offering your content in the places the audience is already spending their time, your story can seamlessly integrate into their day. These touchpoints could be their mobile phone, their Twitter or Facebook stream, a link to a website, YouTube, email, snail mail, a comic book or location-based markers. The audience should encounter your content — whether fiction or nonfiction-based — alongside the other chunks of information to which they have chosen to pay attention, rather than making them go out of their way to find it. And your selected platforms must work together to support the story strategically and synergistically based on their strengths and weaknesses, and how your audience uses them.
  • Participatory Experience – As much as possible, we need to offer opportunities for the audience to go beyond just reading/watching/hearing what we’ve created, to enable them to participate by interacting with our content or — the holy grail — creating their own. While it’s unrealistic to expect a majority, or perhaps even ten percent, of your audience to devote time to writing something or creating a video, be sure to offer ways to participate for those who are most enthusiastic about the story or project. This could be anything from playing an online game or solving a puzzle that moves the narrative forward, to interacting with characters on Twitter, roleplaying a character in the story, connecting with others via a discussion forum to talk about the story or project, sharing their own real-life stories, attending a live (or virtual) event, entering a contest or other activities that bring people deeper into the story.
  • Real World – What is the point of a social change project engaging people with stories if the experience doesn’t ultimately include the real world? Rob Pratten describes pervasive entertainment as “[blurring] the line between real-world and fictional world.” This might mean having a character from the story send a text message to a participant’s mobile phone, bringing the story off the page (or out of the computer) and into their real life. To take it a step further for social change, I would say we also want the audience to draw the lessons from the story world (real or fictional) and apply them within the real world. If the story includes a young woman who models effective negotiation skills with her boyfriend when he doesn’t want to wear a condom, we’d like to see the young women in our audience learn and apply those skills in their own lives. If the story highlights the problems faced by a village that does not have access to clean water, we can provide ways for our audience to get involved in providing clean water to others in a similar situation through supporting a particular nonprofit or joining a movement working toward solutions. The immersive context of the story means that it touches people’s lives wherever they may be.

Thinking through the elements in this model can help us make sure that we design transmedia stories that are more likely to succeed in bringing about real positive change in people’s lives. In future blog posts, I will share some of the fiction and nonfiction transmedia projects I’m working on as examples to help flesh out these concepts.

In the meantime, I have created a Facebook group called the Transmedia for Good Network, where those of us who are thinking about how best to use these tools beyond entertainment and marketing can get together to share our ideas and projects. If you’re interested, please join the group!

Submit a Comment