Brand Integration & Multi-Platform Narrative at the Studio, Publisher & Network Levels #Transmedia #BrandedContent
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby... Haven’t We (Or Have We)?
I had a lengthy chat with one of my best friends and colleagues recently on the role of brands within the new media paradigm. He's a successful film and TV producer who, like many people in Hollywood, has been sitting idle while production for the most part has come to a screeching halt, and unless you are a big name with a tentpole project, making anything these days seems like a Divine act from The Bearded Dude in the High Chair (or maybe just The Dude himself).
An entrepreneurial and highly resourceful guy, he'd been reading up on some of the latest developments in the "transmedia" or "crossmedia" world, and had some particular curiosities over new deals the likes of Michael Bay, Brian Grazer and others have struck in an attempt to build franchises around multi-platform narratives. I told him that I wasn't exactly sure that these were "transmedia" deals per se, but it's certainly been a good thing to see that some of the bigger players are starting to pine for alternative models that can provide scalability and ensure better audience delivery, capitalizing on what everybody in the entertainment industry likes to call pre-awareness. More importantly, our discussion bent towards true brand integration, especially since brands are the ones ultimately buying the media and/or acting as publishers of dynamic content.
For those of you unfamiliar with yet another unwieldy marketing term, pre-awareness focuses on the premise that popular stories or story vehicles can be created, extracted or cultivated prior to a movie or TV show release. This isn't exactly a new concept; however, a handful of studios, brands and networks have been doing some great work running campaigns and platforms tailored to this, and have generated bankable returns from their audience delivery (Eagle Eye, District 9, The Hangover, BBC’s Virtual Evolution, Polaroid Labs, et al).
The odd part about this (of course) is that all this terrific work and creative moxie goes into these initiatives, yet there is typically one critical element missing from the mix: sustainability. I mean, you've captured an audience, why not then keep them engaged? Why not keep conversations going? Allow new narratives to flourish? Develop new story vehicles based on participation?
In other words, why not enlist people as real storymakers?
A niche example of a potential franchise is the Tontine Massacre, the work of another producer friend of mine (BTW, to avoid coming off like a name-dropping a—hole and avoid ruining the integrity of this discourse, you’ll notice I’ve chosen not to disclose who my friends actually are).
Tontine Massacre is a particularly interesting example because it has built substantial audience and storymaking participation devoid of brand involvement, although the producers believe that this is a franchise brand in and of itself (a topic for a wholly different blog post and/or conversation). What’s also impressive is that the story elements and media types are truly self-revealing; in this instance, a scripted series and a reality series are concurrently imminent while the movie debuts and gathers buzz (Side note: I have not yet heard how the movie has performed since its release on July 1).
Another recent example of a decent brand integration, in which the brand channel or platform (Verizon) actually plays a vital role in the development of the narrative (and side or sub narratives) is the now popular, Valemont University.
This initiative has not only used the symbiosis of platform and narrative in a clever way, but has set itself up for a seemingly indefinite run as the narrative builds and rebuilds in tranches. And while this is not something that is considered to be win in terms of mass audience scale (whatever the hell that means these days), it has no less received above average ratings compared to other MTV’s Online testing venues. 72% of viewers rated the show “excellent” or “very good”... 14 points higher than the norm.
It will also be interesting to see if and how new product suites emerge, as the Valemont platform reveals itself as a truly viable franchise model. Verizon is already looking at the Valemont franchise as a storefront property that has the potential to be further activated through its ARG and other mobile gaming extensions.
You’ll notice, however, that both of these initiatives – including the audience building efforts deployed by studio and network marketing groups – are genre specific. Are Tontine Massacre and Valemont University set up for indefinite scale? Maybe, maybe not. But this is where artifact creation becomes so vital. Naturally, social phenomena such as vampires or serial killers attract a participatory element that is hard to avoid (True Blood is a multi-narrative, multi-platform franchise that utilizes both quite well), but when we get into deeper narrative territory – such as social causes or the breakdown of cultural mores – the luster of entertainment sensationalism and shock value give way to the need to tell a much better story, and further, to fuel that story via far more enriched experiences.
What Exactly Do We Consider To Be “Enriched Experiences”?
In the marketing world, we tend to think of enriched experiences as having access to more stuff through a channel or a device, not something that we necessarily shape and call our own, alongside of friends and family, and in the real world. Nike’s The Human Race is an enriched platform experience; conducting a scavenger hunt on my mobile device is not so much. That’s not to say in any way that experiences such as the latter aren’t potentially valuable, just that not all things are created sustainable. This is partly why a brand like Red Bull not only creates its own unique experiences, but boasts of its own TV network, aside from a whole host of owned media properties.
Well, many of us in new media circles have been bitching about “brand experiences” for years. And as I've ranted about in a host of other blog posts, there are plenty of inherent challenges within our current media models that prevent audience delivery efforts from becoming sustainable storymaking platforms, so I'll spare you those finer details (you can just read about them if you like, or just monitor the failures of media - in the media - as a buying and selling practice).
But here's the rub. We still haven't figured out brand integration. And perhaps this is the very thing that can actually make audience delivery a sustainable endeavor. Here's what I mean.
Let's first make the very clear distinction between brand integration and branded entertainment. Brand integration is, well, just that: a brand seamlessly becoming a part of an experience, one that can be comprised of any number of channels, and host any number of narrative pieces. Branded entertainment has had some bright spots, but most often it is the crap you see from the likes of Electus, you know, the stuff that some popular (or sometimes not so popular) actors decide to collaborate on, basically bad TV made for the web, and under the grave misconception that traditional storytelling and new media storytelling are the same thing. (Well, they're not, Mr. Silverman, not even close...) Sounds pretty 1997, doesn't it?
In my belief, branded entertainment evolved as a trainwreck species, a "spork" if you will, so that producers and media companies could shoehorn more ads inside of what would hopefully become popular content. But of course two critical things have always been missing from this anecdotal powder keg: audience delivery and audience participation. What's worse is that there is no real way to monetize this content because, well, without audience and participation, the media inventory it is sold on or delivered through isn't really worth all that much. No wonder the CPM and CPA models are in flux... media people are too busy talking and listening to themselves. But I digress.
The Places We Can Take a Packaged, Validated Idea
All frustration aside, let's get back to this brand integration thing. The unequivocal component of brand integration is that it is a function of audience development. This means that without delivery, participation and narrative insight, there is no real story, and there is no brand of any kind to support it. Further, without context, consensus and ultimately, value co-creation (concepts discussed ad nauseam in my other posts and presentations ;), we have little hope of engendering sustainable participation. So, unlike typical development bound by a media buy, we must literally talk to our audiences first before we even develop any story into a media type, and continue talking to them and collaborating with them as media types populate the "echosystem". Brands can essentially get involved at formative points, i.e. when and where it makes the most sense, and the narratives that unfold can take up an organic place in our media mix, all with the hope that they can be further cultivated, shaped and remixed by the audiences participating in them. More importantly, more media can be developed, as well as sold, and they effectively culminate in a franchise experience. Some folks call this transmedia or crossmedia storytelling, but I’m going to avoid these terms so we don’t get hung up on semantics and mired in media theory pissing matches.
Here's what a franchise experience might look like in its ideal state:
Now I would be remiss not to mention that this model, or framework rather, begs a good many questions and challenges around story development. While a lot of my producer friends are intrigued by the possibilities of transmedia or crossmedia development, many of them are not sold on the notion that stories can be developed purely by way of participation. My response to them is that, sure, of course not, but it all depends on the level and type of participation, and more importantly, the level of editorial curation and moderation that must be established in order to cultivate these stories.
Let's take, for example, the process by which stories have traditionally been developed for movies and TV (and sometimes other forms of media). Typically, a story was found in a newspaper, a book or a magazine, and then the rights were bought or optioned for a designated sum, or against some sort of royalty/point allocation scheme. Once the project was set up at a studio or a network, writers would be attached along with some name talent, and the development process would begin, sometimes taking years to flesh out and many times yielding no end media result. With the advent of new media, and more recently, digital publishing, the thought was that studio and network execs could fast-track projects - which they have by and large - except for the fact that, once again, audience delivery and participation have been missing from the mix.
This scenario is even more ironic if you consider that major publishing sites like HuffPo, The Guardian, The Onion, The New York Times or even Vanity Fair do very little, if anything, in the way of enlisting people to actually help tell or curate the stories they publish. Granted, there are considerable rights issues associated with this (and pushing things like value co-creation to the side), but this makes little sense considering that people are already willing to participate and share. If you look at pure, peoplesourced journalistic plays such as CNN’s iReporter you find an even bigger problem, which is creating a real incentive for people to participate as story generators (in this case, contributors essentially get nothing for their involvement and CNN uses the media however and whenever it pleases). To boot, sites like Gawker and portals like AOL have recruited journalists to alleviate the curation (and content filtration) problem, but we are still left with a dearth of what can be considered validated stories.
Validated stories are those that are both curated by subject matter experts (in other words, professional writers, journalists and/or storytellers) and audiences who, by default or by way of socialized interactions, have become stakeholders in the narrative process. Stakeholders don't have to exhibit a high level of participation per se, but they would contribute critical pieces to the narrative that go beyond just commentary - such as text, photos, video and/or audio. The key thing, as my friend pointed out to me in our conversation, is that professional writers or storytellers must be introduced into the mix as soon as possible. He likened the issue to the independent film market, where "unproven" storytellers predominate (not necessarily a bad thing) and create a barrier to prospective audience participation simply because those prospects have no basis with which to trust, or entrust themselves, to an open narrative experience that requires time, passion and energy. There is also no real means for consensus. TV development, on the other hand, has benefitted greatly from more open ways to curate, despite the fact that the TV writer/producer community is a fairly closed, tightly knit circle.
Becoming Media Generalists
There is an additional layer to this, something that goes well beyond what folks in the social space have been crowing about in regards to content strategy, and that is the ability to merge disciplines, and more importantly, develop stories as media generalists. I have purposely not used the word agnostic because I don’t think agnosticism leads us down a path to narrative success; we must be acutely and curiously mindful of how channels and ecosystems work in tandem. This, in my opinion, is where the biggest gaps – and biggest white space opportunities – reside, whether you are a studio, a network, a publisher, a brand, an agency, a media company, or any kind of content producer.
If we look back to the social web, it becomes pretty clear, very quickly, that the lack of story validation has caused a pronounced upswing in the proliferation of mediocre content (YouTube, for example, looks like a portal for America's Funniest Home Videos... wait, maybe I shouldn't mention that... But hey, the average CPM is less than $4). Conversely, social memes have led to some interesting development across media, and I'm not just talking about the LonelyGirl15 chronicles. But again the question we must ask ourselves is if what propagates or shows virality is actually worthy of audience delivery and participation, and without a meaningful storymaking framework, what we expect to gain in the way of building scalable franchises.
Maybe media are just media - earned, paid, owned or otherwise - unless we commit ourselves to something bigger.
For now, opportunities abound. And those in media that wake up to the reality of what makes audiences tick as storymakers will realize that the upfront markets don't have to be a dance with overvalued (or undervalued remnant) inventory... they can be what they’re supposed to be: a means to make the advertiser (brand) relationship more real than its ever been.
[Many thanks once again to my colleague and a sage experience designer, Sheena Warmin, for her aesthetic chops...]
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