A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Our Media Holding Pattern(s)

It’s become no mystery to any of us that the media ecosystem (or echosystem as you might call it) is forcing the hand of developing new ways to tell and distribute stories. In fact, this isn’t really anything new, and it’s not endemic to one media type or discipline versus another. Just this week, AOL announced that it is hiring several hundred journalists to improve its content offerings, and presumably, explore new third-party relationships. Gawker has already committed to filling its distribution pipeline with stronger content offerings by hiring over 1000 journalists of its own.  And amidst these “content bunkers”, come the notions of how we can better filter, manage and curate content in meaningful and relevant ways.

If we hark back to the days of the first Internet gold rush, entities like ScriptShark, DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), StoryMaker, Homemade Entertainment (an entity I was a part of, backed by one of the founders of AC Nielsen | EDI), iFilm and a whole host of other players danced across the highwire of media distribution, hoping that innovation could somehow make up for the lack of bandwith (well, broadband...), and more importantly, audience participation.

In talking to my friends at movie studios and TV networks, we’re essentially in the same spot we were in 11 or 12 years ago... Perhaps even worse off on some levels. The independent film market is virtually non-existent. Studios on average make less than 20 movies a year, and while 2010 has enjoyed record box office numbers, the reality is that all of the moneymakers were a handful of tentpole films (Avatar being the biggest, of course). The biggest complaint amongst my friends on the studio and independent sides of the business is that very few of them, if any, are in production or going into production anytime soon.

Then of course, we have primetime and cable TV which are inundated with reality fare. Whether these shows are entertaining or not isn’t really the point; cheaper production costs mean it is harder and harder for producers to make money, higher-budget productions are much more difficult to justify and greenlight, and therefore, producers are far less incented to create more diverse slates of content, and arguably, content of greater quality. Despite this, upfront sales are quite strong – in fact, the numbers have spiked in the last 2 years – but what this leaves is a wake of uncertainty as to who the next generation of content creators and curators will be, and how soon the damn will break when it comes to qualifying these upfront buys. In other words, we can’t measure the same way we have in years past, and at some point soon, the numbers are going to expose some real holes to the very people who are subsidizing the market... Brands, and ultimately, consumers.

Convergence & Audience Delivery

Again, monetizing content is not a new problem, it’s just taken on a new face. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. There is great promise to all of this.

What the new convergence of technology and media affords us is one very powerful thing: audience delivery. Social technologies allow us to mine for topical and sentimental themes. We can identify commonalities and passions between groups of people. We have an acute understanding of what they want to talk about, what they’re willing to share and why. We have new methods for measuring online media, and can serve it under 1-1 data constructs. We can test in dynamic new environments and ask people what they want and how they want it, when they want it. And all of this gives us a purview into how stories can be developed with and alongside of audiences.

The wonderful part about transmedia vehicles – all theories and academic bickering aside – is that we know that audience (fan) participation works... Shows like 24, Lost, True Blood and others have proven this. Niche films like District 9, Paranormal Activity and Kick-Ass have enjoyed stronger openings due to audience buzz and narrative involvement. Other vehicles, like Valemont University, have attached themselves to social memes and cultural phenomena and have enjoyed their own successes, including interesting partnerships with brands like Verizon, who are now starting to invest in plays that allow them to develop relationships with new audience segments.

Coke, who has had its Open Happiness initiative for well over three years now, has taken its constituent properties to whole new level. In fact, Coke is betting the marketing farm on transmedia. Why? Because audience participation is the key to reducing media waste and creating amazing new opportunities to productize and license narrative franchises.

Dynamic Segmentation & Interdependence

And that’s just it: segmentation opportunities abound.

But in order to better understand the breadth of opportunities around audience building and segmentation, we must divorce ourselves, I believe, from a codependency on technology and media. Rather than considering frameworks that are agnostic, we can make story development, technology and media interdependent. What does this look like? A macro framework could look something like this:

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

You’ll notice that the labeled components of “media” and “technology” are entirely absent from this graphic (bear with me here, I will render an articulation of the publishing ecosystem in just a little bit). I have also intentionally left out any semblance of segmentation. Why? Because segments are adaptive outputs of audience participation and consumer attribution. In other words, we must allow the marketplace to vet out affinities, interests and sharing behaviors alongside of story development and respective media delivery systems. There is a framework, a system if you will, whereby we can simply use dynamic feedback loops to help guide and inform these stories, all of which carefully moderated and shaped through editorial curation.

Vet Alt! A Social Experiment in Dynamic Story Development

I recently had the privilege of conducting a unique workshop on transmedia story development at Gulltaggen in Oslo, Norway. There, I had about 40 people from all different professional levels – from C-Level execs, to students, to media planners, communications planners as well as copywriters and creative directors - who we broke up into 4 groups, and I tasked them in creating a narrative around a mutually agreed upon theme. The goal was to demonstrate that multi-platform narratives could be developed with just the core tenets of storytelling in mind, before any considerations around technology or media were made, and most important, that a sustainable experience (ala platform) could be cultivated. The results were impressive (at least in my opinion).

First, I gave them a storymaking framework.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

As you can see, there were four pillars, with a cause element in the middle (and by cause, not necessarily philanthropic, but causal, something that would incite and promote action). Experience would denote an event or situation had through a device, a place or simply a situation. Product would naturally culminate in anything you could sell, use or put on a shelf. Content would serve as the extension of the product and the experience, and would then tie into a service, meaning something that would provide value to people in their everyday lives. And around these components would be a story that could be collectively built, shared and distributed.

Then I gave them a short list of editorial guideposts to keep in mind as they developed the core story idea. They wouldn’t necessarily have to prioritize these things, just that they could use them as storytelling, and storymaking, drivers.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Contextualization would involve putting all story elements and relative arcs into the context of now, or things that were relevant in profound ways to groups of people, and the people they were connected to. Narration would involve weaving those contextualizations together into a synchronous ecosystem, meaning that the story would require that different plot points be executed in specific situations within a holistic experience. Productization would involve turning those arcs into actual things that could be used or licensed as utilities. And delivery would entail that we could actually follow up on the promise of what the story asked people to do.

We then chose a theme. The news of the day – and a lot of fear propagated by the media – centered around the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull. We figured that this would be a perfect cornerstone for story development, especially since it represented so many social, political and economic ramifications (and still does).

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

We then took a recess, allowing the 4 groups to ideate around the theme, given the framework. The groups would then convene amongst themselves, and develop a foundational narrative that would include ways to create and incent participation amongst advocacy groups or anyone willing to get involved.

30 minutes later, this is what they came up with.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment
Vet Alt! in Norwegian means “all knowing” or “know everything”. The groups borrowed the idea from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The concept, at its core, was quite simple: there is a society of people that live inside of the volcano, people of the Earth, and the eruptions are a reaction to the social, political and environmental ills that we have perpetrated on each other; the only way to get the eruptions to stop, are to employ acts of focused (not random) kindness and goodwill. The more we do this, the closer we would come to forging new relationships with the people of Eyjafjallajokull, and as a mutual reward of paying things forward, these people would tell us secrets about Mother Nature and our human ecosystems that would empower us to do great things in helping to improve the world.

Pretty intriguing idea, and the really nice part about it (and in true transmedia style) was that this concept took a real situation and blended in fantasy elements so as to create a nice balance between entertaining and informing (predicated on the notion that the purpose of media is to entertain and to inform). Here’s what I mean and where things get really interesting.

First, through open telepresence networks (such as the one that Cisco supports), we could get people to tell their versions of the volcanic story in real-time. Real people would curate. They would become journalists. They would contribute to a larger narrative about what the volcano represented to them as people, the fears they were dealing with, and how other groups of people around the world could help them in various ways.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Then we could create a currency system. Those willing to help in specific regions could administer and pass along things like energy credits for those in danger of losing power in their homes, or whole communities in danger of losing their power grids. Scientific and philosophical theories and solutions could be created as collective IP and shared as part of that currency system. Specifically, people would talk about their needs – consumer needs, if you will - in relation to their immediate environments. In exchange, major brands could offer up commodities such as food, water and clothing, in exchanges that were managed and monitored by the very communities in need... Something similar to what you would see on a mercantile exchange, or the NASDAQ, except these would be microsystems.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Now we see the emergence of a true platform. Storytelling portals would form, places and pass-throughs for the more formal exchange of ideas, media and information. With a new currency system, would come the activation of barter through various social and digital channels. Causes could be aligned to specific groups and regions, and people could actually see the effects of their participation in real-time and mapped across the different regions of the world. People would also establish new connections with each other by virtue of the causes they aligned with and the activities they shared in.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Now, new services would unfold, making infrastructure more valuable and enabling people to literally take action. New business opportunities could take shape. Educational systems could be revitalized. Moreover, studios and publishers would see an opportunity to support this larger narrative, invest in some of “side stories” as new branded entertainment vehicles, or simply support specific regions that they felt had relevance to their product, their message, or both. Studios could even resurrect related franchises that may not have done so well without this new storytelling context.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

As new affinities would develop around franchises old and new, we could also realize new learning opportunities. For example, kids at the middle or high school level who had never heard of Jules Verne could now learn about his writings in a wholly new context, and more importantly, they could contribute to the new storymaking paradigm in their own way, relating the story elements of his work to Vet Alt!, or related franchises via games, electronic books, music or any number of media types. More importantly, people, particularly our youth, would develop a greater sense of their place in the world.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Even further, more brands would jump into the mix, seizing opportunities to make their products more relevant, and reward students for their active participation. And if new segmentation groups would result in this, then so be it. Now, we would not only see greater sales opportunities, but greater media opportunities, whereby consumer relationships could be cultivated and sustained in meaningful ways.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

The New Publishing (and Media) Ecosystem

The example provided above is hypothetical, although we have seen and executed initiatives that either contain or resemble many of the elements that are mentioned. In my belief, we are not far away from a complete media transformation, in which open networks will determine and co-create value and allow for the nurturing of things like sentient learning, metadata and analytics systems. We, as people, comprise these networks. We are the media that we make.

I’ve introduced this graphic in other posts, and perhaps now it might be a tad more relevant ;) Here’s a stab at what this ecosystem might look like, and the various dynamics at play.

Developing Open Narrative Frameworks #Transmedia #DynamicPublishing #ContentDevelopment

Not all media types or disciplines are accounted for, but hopefully you can see that everything is more or less inextricably linked. We cannot create messages without content behind it. We cannot build loyalty and manage relationships without meaningful experiences. We cannot predict audience engagement without being connected to the very people we want to sell to. We cannot sustain sales without allowing people to share experiences and respective products via communications they feel comfortable with and on their own terms. We cannot innovate and build products and services without each other. We cannot tell stories without each other. In sum, media silos and specialty camps do nothing for us unless they contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Above and beyond that, commerce has become a social practice. Currency systems, as we have discovered, don’t have to rely on hard capital inputs or outputs. And we don’t have to replace the systems we already have in place, we just have to improve them.

Are Brands the Future of This New Storymaking Paradigm?

Well, the short answer, the bottom-line driven answer, is that brands are the ones purchasing our media. But they're also helping to create it, and have realized that they can create and/or cultivate powerful ecosystems by virtue of the media platforms they own.

As someone who has led a fairly entrepreneurial career path and has (fortunately) had the opportunity to do a lot of different things in and around the media ecosystem, a lot of people thought I was crazy to end up back at an agency. But in truth, I dare to say, it is probably easier these days to tell stories in innovative ways inside the walls of an agency than it is to do it on the outside and try to get funding entirely from studios or independent production entities.  The reality is that brands have the money and the desire to experiment – after all, as we all know, the media models we’ve come to know and use are severely broken. This is not to say that “branded entertainment” properties will become the norm for all marcom outreach efforts tomorrow, but you can make a safe bet that content development is and will be. And the fact is that this is one discipline that provides some of the most promising (and profitable) white space opportunities in media, or what Henry Jenkins has well established as our convergence culture.

(In Conclusion) Becoming Storymakers

There is another aspect to this that begs introspection: the imminent reestablishment of our storymaking roles. One of the great failures of media over the last several decades is the notion that each one of us must fit inside of a box with respect to how we contribute to content, and type of content we create. But we must ask ourselves how it is that we have a limited number of filmmakers and films, a limited number of authors and books, a limited number of TV writers and shows, a limited number of playwrights and plays... The list goes on and on. To boot, we have endless reams of mid-tail content on sites like YouTube, yet a very small portion of that content (to no one’s surprise) has any real meaning or relevance to who we are as people and our desired roles in society.

Culturally, we are all storytellers, and as societies of people, we all have the potential to be storymakers. There is absolutely nothing that is stopping us from creating paradigm shifts other than ourselves. But we do have to break these old systems of thinking at the highest level. We must reengineer our story development methodologies. Perhaps we should remove methodologies altogether. And it is a fair assumption that this will happen sooner than later, simply because something has to give.

As for open narrative frameworks, all that is required to innovate is a pen and paper, and the abject desire to create something extraordinary.