Transmedia Storytelling in Higher Ed

Don Draper from "Mad Men"

What does Don Draper have to do with your school's brand?

One of my favorite TV shows is “Mad Men.” (What can I say, I’m a sucker for men with fedoras.) However, some of my favorite parts of the series never happen on television. Case in point? The “Mad Men Yourself” avatar creator, the characters’ Twitter accounts, the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce job interview game, the “Fashion File” blog posts that reveal new details about the show by analyzing the fashions featured in each episode. The list goes on.

Part of “Mad Men”’s success can be attributed to how this content has helped the show make a cultural impact beyond its time slot. It’s not a fluke; it’s a phenomenon known as transmedia storytelling.

Henry Jenkins, the USC professor credited with coining the phrase, defines it as:

A process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.

Basically, it’s storytelling across multiple platforms. “Each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story,” says Jenkins.

“Transmedia” could be this year’s “curation.” JWT Intelligence identified transmedia storytelling as one of its 100 big trends for 2011, and Edelman Digital also pegged it as one of the top 11 trends for 2011. In 2010, the Producers Guild of America even recognized “transmedia producer” as a job title. But what does it mean? And how is it different than—and uniquely effective when compared to—our typical idea of a brand strategy?

Components of Transmedia Storytelling

Here are some key components of transmedia storytelling:

  • It’s about creating a world around your brand that is so enchanting, people get immersed in it.
  • It’s non-linear and multidimensional.
  • It allows the user to become a co-creator of the narrative, not just a consumer of it.
  • It loosens the components of our brand story and allows them to exist independent of one another across different platforms, yet still in alignment–like stars in a constellation.
  • It relies on simultaneity and the aforementioned alignment for success.
  • It’s an optional enrichment of the brand message; the core should be able to stand alone and convey all essential details.

What are some examples of transmedia storytelling in popular culture?

  • The “Star Wars” franchise, comprising films, comic books, cartoon spin-offs, novels, videogames and toys.
  • The Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” real-time videos, inspired by tweets and comments from viewers.
  • Knorr’s Salty, the unwanted salt shaker, which Ad Week called “the Charlie Brown of advertising mascots.” The campaign included videos, Twitter and Facebook profiles and real salt shakers which have sold in the thousands.

Jenka Gurfinkel offers a great visual explanation of transmedia with these and other examples.

Transmedia is Branding

Transmedia storytelling is often used, as with “Mad Men,” to extend a fictional narrative into the real world (and I do enjoy following Peggy Olson on Twitter). But much as it is used for fictional brands, it can be used for our real-world brands, as well.

Will Renny talks about transmedia as taking branding beyond the achievement of mere relevancy and toward “inciting desire.” He explains:

In transmedia terms this means building brand ‘worlds’ or mythologies that tie every communication and experience back to a brand’s underpinning values, offering up a different part of the world or story in the different places it populates.

This is achieved in part by emphasizing the story over the product. As Beth Tucker at Antler put it, “People will buy the product that makes them feel good about engaging with it. … By branding from the inside out, businesses can create a much richer experience for their consumers.”

By branding from the inside out, businesses can create a much richer experience for their consumers. – Beth Tucker, Antler Agency

So, what’s our product? Our respective institutions, of course. And some of them are already putting these ideas to work.

A really great instance of this is Butler Blue II, the mascot at Butler University. Sure, he’s got more than 6,200 followers on Twitter, where he is a big-time engager, as well as a UStream page, Flickr account and Facebook profile, And when Butler reached the Final Four, you could download a Butler Blue II mask to print out and wear. Sounds an awful lot like Burger King’s “The King,” the symbol of another transmedia campaign, whose creepy yet awesome mask was also available (see slide 11).

Another good example is the scavenger hunt organized by Texas A&M earlier this spring, incorporating YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. “We wanted to pull together our existing channels into a cohesive social media package that builds a brand. This is difficult to do, and we pulled it off,” TAMU director of social media Diane C. McDonald told College Web Editor. McDonald’s goals included business development, social media channel integration and student engagement, and as the interview details, they found great success on all fronts.

I’ve started playing with this a little bit, creating a location for “Jumbo’s Tail” on Foursquare — as Tufts campus lore goes, students would pull the tail of the stuffed Jumbo (our mascot) for good luck before exams. Thanks to Foursquare, we can bring him back as a place students can symbolically check into for good luck.

Breaking it Down

When we in higher ed talk about user-generated content, brand storytelling, curation and social media, we’re dancing around the edges of transmedia storytelling. One missing component is the alignment and simultaneity of the narrative across all channels and finding a way to make that narrative not only relevant, but desirable to our audiences.

As web soothsayer and transmedia advocate Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital says, “Organizations need to do more than just unleash their subject matter experts en masse. They need to activate them in multiple channels at once and equip them in how to create a compelling narrative.” To that end, Edelman offers three recommendations (slide 10) for aspiring transmedia publishers:

  1. Recognize that the narrative is no longer a whole
  2. Equip employees to tell their own stories
  3. Hand-craft your content for each venue

Think of the possibilities. What if instead of a vision statement, you had a Twitter account of your institution’s founder who actually established that vision, and let him continue to articulate it and point it out among the everyday happenings on campus. What if you captured the mythology around a transformative moment in your university’s history and created media around it — a comic book, a web video series, even an “Angry Birds” style game app?

Ultimately, transmedia storytelling can expand your brand’s surface area, creating more opportunities for people to connect with the core narrative. “Each bit of the larger whole contributes to the viewer’s discovery of the story universe, and each piece is an entry point by which the consumer can … discover the story world and in turn be immersed within that story world,” Blacklight Transmedia’s R. Eric Lieb told The Wrap.

I think this idea of “entry points” is particularly key. Couldn’t you argue that the presence of George Mason as a Cinderella entrant into the 2006 NCAA Final Four is part of that university’s transmedia narrative, with the accomplishments of the basketball team serving as a new entry point? George Mason’s 20 percent increase in freshman applications, 52 percent increase in registered alumni and 18 percent increase in gifts certainly indicates as much.

Transmedia Storytelling vs. Brand Strategy

Whereas a brand strategy hopes to leave an impression and provoke action, transmedia storytelling recruits the audience as co-authors of the brand narrative, without knowing for certain where it will lead.

Let’s take a step back. Isn’t transmedia just a Hollywood way of thinking about content governance, branding consistency and message alignment across multiple content delivery channels? You could make that argument. But where I think this approach takes things deeper is in the level of not only engagement, but emotion and involvement that transmedia storytelling has demonstrated itself capable of eliciting. Whereas a brand strategy hopes to leave an impression and provoke action, transmedia storytelling recruits the audience as co-authors of the brand narrative, without knowing for certain where it will lead.

Whether we’re courting applicants or dollars or simply a more informed student body, these techniques show promise in achieving those goals. And as some of the transmedia experiments in higher ed have shown, the yield can be high.

So, what do you think? Does transmedia storytelling bite off more than we can chew, or does it have a place in higher ed marketing and branding efforts? What other examples of this have you seen?

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. Andrew Careaga says:

    I love the idea of transmedia storytelling. But I do have a few reservations.

    1. You speak of biting off more than we can chew, and unfortunately, that’s one of the concerns that drives much of the decision-making going on in higher ed marketing circles today. In an era where many of us are dealing with budget and staffing cutbacks, trying to keep pace with the heightened expectations of our audiences can be challenging. On our campus, we’re still trying to work with an unstaffed IT department to wrap up a mobile app! (And we have to do it before the student graduates in two weeks. Gah!) So, staffing and resources to devote to transmedia storytelling is always going to be an issue, and higher ed communications leaders will have to take a strategic approach to determine how to best leverage transmedia approaches without burning out staff or eating up uncertain resources. I know this argument makes me sound like an overly cautious bureaucrat. But these days, my chief concern is to keep my staff from becoming over-burdened and to keep them focused on tasks and tactics that move our university forward in a strategic manner.

    2. There’s something that bugs me about fictional characters tweeting, blogging, etc. This is also hypocritical on my part, as I love what Butler has done with its mascot and how Old Spice Guy created such great buzz with transmedia marketing last summer. But I don’t like the way Mad Men (or Community, to cite a favorite TV show of mine) has Twitter accounts devoted to their fictional characters. Call me old school, but TV characters should stay on TV. Unless they shouldn’t. I don’t know. Cognitive dissonance, c’est moi.

    3. I’m not a Mad Men fan, so maybe that’s part of my bias toward the transmedia efforts tied to that program.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • Resources definitely factor into it, but I wonder if a successful transmedia storytelling effort doesn’t necessarily require a heap of new resources and warm bodies, but perhaps more efficient utilization and coordination of the ones already at our disposal? It’s an important question in general, though — are we being as efficient and resourceful as we can when it comes to our content efforts? Perhaps worth further exploration in this space.

      With regard to fictional characters tweeting, I can see what you mean, because if done wrong, it can be offputting or annoying. It takes a thoughtful approach to do it right and have it add something, not just being done for the sake of being done. But the point I thought was important in the course of my research for this article was that the elements of a transmedia narrative support the core narrative, but are not required. Community makes just as much sense with or without the characters’ Twitter accounts, and that’s important.

      But when it comes to not being a “Mad Men” fan, now that I just can’t understand ;-)

      Thanks for the great comments, Andy!

  2. Nice article, Georgy. I am glad to see someone breaking this down for the rest of us. Your article stirred up so many thoughts I just had to post about it, with my own personal twist and some other examples that extend on the ones you gave. I also responded to your “too big to chew” question. In short, yes – until one of our competitors does it. BTW, you can count me in as a “Mad Men” fan too!

    • Hi Jay – I just read your post (which I will link here for the benefit of others – Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing them.

      I think you’re right. I’m sure at one point, video and social media were “too big to chew” until someone else started doing them. We need to strive to remain forward thinking. That said, even if all of our peer institutions launch transmedia branding initiatives, it’s something that should only be undertaken with clear goals and the resources to achieve them.

      Also, thanks for pointing out “The Language of New Media” – an addition to my reading list!

  3. J. stratton says:

    Wonderful post – I teach high school and college and weave transmedia elements into many of my classes. I have found there are many things to consider when moving to this approach. It takes time and planning to move a story (or in education a lesson) across multiple points (whether you want to say platforms, mediums or storylines/narratives). Then there is the need to assess in some manner how effective the delivery was to students and if the student was educated (and as we must keep in mind, educated in the goal/objectives that the lesson/story was designed to meet – many transmedia properties by their very nature wander and diverge). Also, many transmedia properties/events/stories/etc. have an element of active participation – which is actually just a more student-centered classroom – yet, many have a hard time designing a learning environment.

    I also have some reservations as voiced by another person regarding fictional mixing with reality – are students ready and prepared to separate fact from fiction? There are so many hoaxes and false information now that education has to combat – have we taught the students the needed skills to thrive and learn in a transmedia environment? It is one thing to enter a transmedia universe for pleasure – another for academic/business…. will students be able to make the distinction?

    Oh so much to talk about!!!!! :)

    • Hi J – great points. With regard to hoaxes, I think that the more integrated, interconnected and aligned the elements of a transmedia storytelling effort are (and thus, easier to associate with official sources), the more credibility it has. Clarity has to reign in anything we do, so confusing our audience would defeat the purpose! We definitely need to be mindful of that. Thanks for commenting!

      • J. stratton says:

        I agree – I also have hope that as with any media, when it reaches “mainstream”, a level of awareness and ability to discern “in-world” from “real-world” comes with it – although, I know there are still many possible issues and “fun”topics such as ethics in transmedia (see for instance) to be addressed.

        Ideally education (definitely higher Ed) can fill a very important need; helping people build important skills that transmedia projects/delivery/media consumption requires (a topic I am very interested and would love to discuss in more detail.

What do you think?