Today’s television landscape doesn’t relegate storytelling to the actual screen, but offers opportunities to extend the lives of characters through transmedia. While the avenues are open creatively on a number of digital and social platforms, it also offers opportunities for companies to advertise in new places, often blurring the line between an organic extension of a story and a piece of marketing.
“We live in a world where marketing is becoming increasingly opt-in and where consumers are turning to ad blockers and turning the channel,” says Jim Marsh, vice president of digital and social media at HBO. “Transmedia gives us an opportunity to reach consumers in a way that is compelling and interesting.”
When it comes to approaching transmedia from a strictly storytelling standpoint, Norway’s hit teen drama “Skam,” created by Julie Andem, expanded its narrative and tapped into its young demographic by utilizing a real-time approach to unfolding the story, wherein scenes that were supposed to take place during various times during the week — such as an early-morning class on a Wednesday — would drop online at that exact time. The show also created real social- media pages for the characters, who interacted with each other around the episodes’ airing.
“It’s obviously clear that social media plays a significant role in teens’ daily lives, and it was important for us to reflect that and to connect with them in that way,” says Andem. “Teens are looking for someone to relate to and bringing these characters to life through real-time content and on social media makes them identify stronger with the characters.”
Andem carried these techniques over to her Americanized version of the show (entitled “SKAM Austin”), which launched on Facebook Watch in April.
“Being on a platform that people check throughout the day allows you to tell a different type of story,” says Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy.
While Van Veen admits that it can seem “cumbersome” to have to create so much additional content beyond the actual episodes, what was key in “SKAM Austin’s” production was designating one person to that role.
“When you’re on set and someone just has an iPhone and in between takes they say, ‘OK I’m going to shoot this, I’m going to shoot that,’ it’s a little thing that pays off huge down the line,” he says. “The characters are eating in a restaurant and in between takes to go snap something from a character’s perspective. Those elements aren’t ancillary, they’re core.”
Those elements, especially the characters’ Instagram feeds, he says, also allow the show to organically build buzz and bring in more viewers as days in the week counted down to the next new episode. And being in the spaces in which the audience already organically was and delivering custom, personal-feeling content directly to them became key in creating a “direct connection” with the audience.
“I think what we can do very well is use the social fabric of Facebook and Instagram to tell stories in new ways and also tell stories at a pace that you might not otherwise,” he said.
From FX’s “Pose” to HBO’s “Veep” to the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” many shows are extending the voices and perspectives of characters through unique social-media accounts — to varying levels of engagement level with other series content and fans on the platform.
The “Jane the Virgin” writers’ room started an account for Rogelio De La Vega (Jaime Camil) in 2014, during the show’s first season. In its fourth season, the show took its story expansion efforts offline, releasing a tie-in novel “written” by its main character, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) after a key storyline saw her struggling to write and then sell the historical fantasy romance piece.
“You get so attached to characters on the show, and they feel real … so it’s really to extend your feelings of Jane,” says executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman. “It was a way to continue to broaden out the audience’s experience of writing the show, which we always try to make interactive with the tweeting and the text on-screen.”
The writers of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” were inspired by the Rogelio account, which has grown to over 90,000 followers, and in their second season, they created accounts for the law firm within the show, as well as “Miss Douche,” a spokeswoman for a feminine hygiene company. Both of those accounts grew to just under 3,000 followers in the few months they were active in 2017.
“We’ve had a number of accounts we wanted to do over time, but we just don’t have the manpower,” says “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” executive producer Aline Brosh McKenna.
This is why, in the third season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” when Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) began heavily posting videos to her Instagram page, McKenna and her staff opted not to make the page a reality.
But since social media as a business falls under the corporate marketing structure, and the characters are properties in which studios and networks have a major stake, often transmedia efforts must mix the creative with the corporate.
Earlier this year, in the middle of “Riverdale’s” second season on the CW, an Instagram account was launched for the character of Kevin Keller (Casey Cott). A few months later, AT&T began running ads that directed viewers to the social page. The custom content, which was designed as “behind-the-scenes” images from Kevin’s point of view to offer viewers a perspective not often garnered by simply watching episodes, launched in a seemingly organic manner but was actually sponsored content.
“I think that a lot of times a partner lets us stretch as a brand, and that’s exactly what this did,” says Rick Haskins, CW’s executive vice president of marketing and digital programs.
Having a partner in the content means consideration for that partner’s brand messaging and demographic must be considered in addition to the show’s own messaging and demographic, but it also provide more resources. When all entities are “on the same page” about the goal of the content, that collaboration is what Haskins feels is key in making transmedia successful.
“It cannot feel to the consumer that they are either being duped or being taken advantage of,” says Haskins. “[AT&T was] willing to do what the consumer wants, which is get to know more about the characters. They helped us be more creative in doing something like this.”
While transmedia can be a fun exercise in short-form character development, it can also be a time-consuming endeavor without traditional rewards. After all, in-platform and third-party audience metrics tools make it easy to track the growth of a social-media account’s followers or engagement, but it is harder to correlate any growth in those numbers to traditional over-the-air or digital ratings of the weekly episodes.
“This type of work can be incredibly resource- and labor-intensive so it’s important to us that we don’t do transmedia work just to do it,” HBO’s Marsh says. “There needs to be a real goal as to why we want to do it. If we don’t have a clear story then we’re going to end up saying a whole lot of nothing on a wide variety of channels.”
Still, HBO has seen the value in taking “big swings” and has encouraged its creators to embark upon intensive transmedia campaigns for comedies including “Silicon Valley” and “Veep” and sci-fi western epic “Westworld” that not only include unique websites and social media accounts, but also one-of-a-kind virtual reality experiences.
For “Veep” and “Silicon Valley,” for example, HBO launched original websites from character points of view, updated weekly when the shows are in season. “Silicon Valley’s” efforts also expanded into creating in real life the apps characters discussed in the show, as well as a virtual-reality experience in which fans could unlock Easter eggs inside a room-scale rendering of the house. “Westworld” arguably has the most extensive campaign with multiple in-world websites, character chatbots and real-world experiences, as well as a partnership with Quartz Bot Studio on Tes, a Delos host that invites the audience to interact further with Delos content.
To stay both competitive and creative in an increasingly crowded landscape, outside the box thinking when it comes to storytelling — and evaluating success of that storytelling — is key.
“You’re looking to keep people interested, especially [multiple] seasons in,” says “Veep” executive producer David Mandel. “I’m not going to sit here and go, ‘Oh my God, we got a million new viewers because we did a Richard Splett website,’ but I think it’s something that keeps the fans excited, and there’s value in that.”