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SXSW 2011: Transmedia Content Marketing


Brand marketers in a variety of different industries are beginning to accelerate their multimedia production and distribution efforts. They're acting more like non-fiction storytellers and commercial publishers, as they create new forms of digital content.

This established trend was one of the significant themes at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) 2011. In addition, the early-adoption of Transmedia Storytelling techniques -- by a relative few forward-looking organizations -- was the noteworthy emerging theme.

I attended several conference sessions on these topics. Here's my summary of the commentary shared at the event and the apparent implications to savvy marketers.

Don't You Dare Call Them Journalists

"Brave New World: Debating Brands' Role as Publishers" produced a lively discourse among panelists who believe that purchasing ad space in a trade publication is obsolete. Instead, now marketers just create their own site on the topic. However, one panelist said repeatedly -- "this is not journalism." It's unclear what it is; perhaps commercial storytelling is a good descriptor.

The objective, however, is very clear -- tell compelling stories and create content that your customers would find useful or insightful. That means much of the current product-centered content that companies produce doesn't qualify.

There are other significant challenges. The real thought-leaders are finding it very hard to produce enough meaningful content on a regular basis.

A Quest for Humans Who Tell True Stories

"Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising" panelists said the first progressive step is to teach agencies and clients to think like publishers, instead of marketers. Long after the Cluetrain Manifesto surfaced, corporate types are still having great difficulty finding their own human voice. Sadly, their advertising or PR agency of record are equally challenged.

Key takeaway: the talent puddle phenomenon is still a major gating factor for those who struggle to evolve their practices.

The quest for qualified professional multimedia producers, designers and writers is much harder for companies where science or technology is a key ingredient of the storylines. Unlike their consumer product counterparts, companies with inherent complexity in their products and services can't expect much from those who lack domain experience.

Also, in non-fiction scenarios the ability to fabricate mythical story worlds typically isn't an asset -- so entertainment industry creatives need access to subject matter experts who can lead and guide the narrative.

There's No Substitute for Authentic Storytellers

"One Story, Many Angles: The Multi-Platform Pitch" panelists explained why content creators must be ready to transform their work across multiple mediums. Your storyline hook needs to be refined for the Web, mobile and a variety of new multimedia capable devices. Transmedia or cross-media storytelling is where nascent digital media creativity is being applied to engage and involve influencers and other important stakeholders.

"Influencer Throwdown: Proving Influence Once and For All" panelists debated a controversial topic head-on. Meaningful success can't be effectively measured by how many people you can get to follow or vote for you. Instead of counting the people who reach you -- focus on reaching the people who count; those who share your passion (for whatever topic is your main focal point).

Hiring external social media influencers is misguided -- because most lack domain expertise and therefore have little credibility on your topic (unless it's social media). People question the motives of paid experts -- regardless of their supposed popularity or celebrity status. One panelist said these shallow endorsements can be harmful.

An Introduction to All Things Transmedia

"Transmedia Artists Guild: New Media Needs New Advocacy" panelists greeted attendees to an open discussion about how transmedia is truly a craft. Besides, companies don't make transmedia -- people do.

Many are independent practitioners who are isolated from their globally dispersed peer-group. All artists are welcome to participate in the early formation of this new advocacy organization. TAG seeks to fulfill needs that are currently being overlooked by other established organizations.

"Transmedia: What's the Magical Formula for Successful Design?" included a solo presentation by Anthea Foyer from The Labs, a creative and strategic consultancy. She provided a very insightful overview of the ingredients of successful transmedia projects.

Anthea gave examples of transmedia storytelling in action. Her enthusiasm for cross-media development -- combined with deep knowledge of the topic -- was like a beginner's guide to the how-to aspects of these new techniques.

Next Steps: Self-Study Learning Materials

Prior to attending SXSW, I started to gather e-books and tutorials about digital storytelling, transmedia storytelling and cross-media communications. I'm committed to my ongoing education. I tend to agree with Mark Twain's approach to skills development, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."

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