Transmedia storytelling: What it is and why it matters for marketing and digital content

Transmedia storytelling isn't limited to entertainment franchises. It opens up a world of possibilities in marketing and all kinds of digital content, too.
May 9, 2024


If you’re a gamer or a comic buff, have ever visited a Disney theme park, follow Ted Lasso on Twitter, or had any exposure whatsoever to Harry Potter, you’ve probably already experienced transmedia storytelling. 

The literal meaning of “transmedia” is “across mediums,” which span formats, channels, and platforms, including analog, digital, virtual reality, augmented reality, and physical locations. Per the examples above, these might be video games, books, graphic novels, film, television, social media, entertainment venues, or brick-and-mortar shops. 

Add the concept of “storytelling” and it should be no surprise that transmedia storytelling comes to us from the entertainment industry. As we’ll explore, transmedia storytelling isn’t limited to entertainment franchises. It opens up a world of possibilities in marketing and all kinds of digital content as well. But first, let’s dig into its origins.

What is transmedia storytelling really?

Crucially, transmedia storytelling is about much more than simply telling the same story in a bunch of different formats and places. 

The most widely recognized definition comes to us from Henry Jenkins, provost professor of communication, journalism, cinematic arts, and education at the University of Southern California. He defines it this way:

“Transmedia storytelling represents 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.”

The power of successful transmedia storytelling is in using the innate characteristics of any given medium to effectively convey part of a larger story. Each of the individual elements or mediums taken together is a bigger, more enriching experience of the whole. 

Transmedia storytelling examples

The Matrix franchise is a complex example, as Jenkins explains. It’s impossible to understand all of the storyworld of The Matrix from only the films, much less one film — key components of the larger story are also within animated shorts, comics, and video games.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ted Lasso’s Twitter account offers a fairly simple example. The account provided frequent Lasso-isms along with plenty of tie-ins to the show’s plot lines as well as real-life events and conversations, at least while the show was running. It brought Ted Lasso to life in a very different context than the TV series itself, making him in some ways more real and more tangible, while providing a way of engaging with the storyworld directly.

The account provided frequent Lasso-isms along with plenty of tie-ins to the show’s plot lines as well as real-life events and conversations, at least while the show was running.

Though the themes and even many of the Lasso-isms were the same as in the series, how and where they were presented, along with the additional conversation on Twitter, provided an added layer of meaning and interaction. Followers didn’t have to watch the show to get a very clear sense of Ted and the other characters.

Harry Potter is a complex and multifaceted case in point. In addition to the books and films, there are live theater productions, video games, board games, Wizarding World attractions (at Universal destinations in Hollywood, Orlando, Osaka, and Beijing), and even a shop on platform 9¾ at London’s Kings Cross Station (and online). The “world” of Harry Potter has also expanded to include spinoff stories like the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Video games have long been a rich source of transmedia storytelling, from Tomb Raider and The Last of Us to Super Mario Brothers and Pokemon. So have comics of all kinds. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is just one sprawling example. And let’s not forget toys: Barbie, anyone? 

It’s about more than the narrative

Importantly, transmedia storytelling encompasses more than simply “the narrative.” There is as much story in the way a Disney park is laid out as there is in any of the individual rides or the worlds they incarnate. 

It’s the different lands, the way you as a visitor are subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) encouraged to navigate through them, and even the experience of waiting to get into a ride. What you see in the zig-zagging line for The Haunted House isn’t simply to distract but also to prime you for what you’re about to experience inside the house. 

In a similar way, the breadth of the customer experience engaging with a business is — whether intentionally designed to be or not — part of the story. How you first learn about a business or brand, your interactions with it, the experience of buying from it, the ownership experience: these are all part of that bigger story. But let’s come back to that in a moment.

Some history (and relevance today)

While the definition of transmedia storytelling may date to the early 2000s, the idea of creating and building on a fictional world through different media is much, much older. Like, biblically old. (Seriously, the Bible is the source for just about any and every kind of transmedia interpretation.)

Arguably one of the most compelling examples is the Land of Oz — not Australia, but the one with Dorothy and the ruby slippers. The original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published by author L. Frank Baum and illustrator W.W. Denslow in 1900. Baum went on to write another 14 books that further explored Oz and its inhabitants as well producing stage plays and a sort of multimedia travelog of Oz. (Not all were financial successes.)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow

These came well before the famous 1939 Technicolor film, The Wizard of Oz, that most of us think of today. That Baum was variously a merchant (proprietor of Baum’s Bazaar) and a newspaper editor should inspire anyone in marketing today.

The underlying principles of transmedia storytelling long predate any form of digital media, but the diversity and structure of digital media make the concept especially important and relevant today. As Jenkins explains in his book on the subject, Convergence Culture, “In the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms.”

No matter whether we’re selling entertainment or anything else — products, services, healthcare, investments, software, you name it — we must operate across media to engage our audiences and build successful businesses. 

In the case of businesses (whether B2C or B2B), the basis for the story being told, as it were, is not a “fiction” as Henry Jenkins describes it, but the brand and company values, the product or offering attributes, the origin story, the mission or purpose in the world, and the key events in the history of the company and its offerings. These are the foundational elements of what Jeff Gomez and Alan Berkson describe as the “corporate narrative” — the business equivalent of the fiction at the core of an entertainment franchise.

The role of storyworlds

The biggest challenge of transmedia storytelling is working at any kind of scale larger than a single creator or small team. This is equally difficult in an entertainment franchise or within a business or brand. 

In order for multiple people or teams to work on different aspects of the story that may draw on different threads, explore different mediums (video games vs. short form videos, for example), or pursue distinctive interpretations for a specific audience, there needs to be some source of continuity. Otherwise, these become an unrelated collection of parts. Add the complexity of teams working in parallel or at completely different points in time and the challenge compounds.

Ensuring consistency and fidelity to “the story,” be it a fiction in entertainment or a corporate narrative in business, requires a reference source that everyone can refer to, draw from, and — importantly — contribute to building and evolving. This reference is called a storyworld. Among businesses, we can more specifically call this a brand storyworld. 

In the entertainment industry, the compendium of all the characters, plotlines, events, and so on has traditionally been kept in a big book or binder. This is often referred to as the “show bible” or “pitch bible.” More accurately, these reference sources are the canons that encapsulate all aspects of the universe a storyworld inhabits. For long running series or expansive franchises (think Star Wars or again, Harry Potter), they can run to the size of multiple door stops. 

More recently we’ve begun to see digital versions of storyworlds emerge — or at least the basis for digital versions. Peter von Stackelberg has developed a number of models for defining and relating the various elements of a storyworld. With some adaptations, these same models work for brand storyworlds as well.

Peter von Stackelberg has developed a number of models for defining and relating the various elements of a storyworld.

Image source: Peter von Stackelberg

(If you think this diagram looks an awful lot like a knowledge graph, you’re right!)

Any kind of storyworld is constantly changing and evolving. The more the canon is built upon, the more new details there are to go into the canon.

To borrow from Star Wars, the original three films formed the basis of the Star Wars storyworld. The subsequent prequel films build on and expanded the earlier elements of the storyworld. Rogue One and The Mandalorian also drew from and extended the storyworld into new directions. Those are only the film and television aspects of the Star Wars universe. 

This ongoing change and evolution means that storyworlds are living resources that require ongoing management and curation. Unless they are actively maintained, they cease to be useful reference sources for any subsequent work. 

Take away the central canon, and what might have been compelling transmedia storytelling quickly becomes a jumbled mishmash of ideas that don’t mesh or feel coherent. At worst, they can be downright at odds with what came before. Without that coherence, the audience experience loses value and, in the context of brands and businesses, people lose trust and interest. 

Gomez and Berkson discuss this extensively in The 10 Maxims of Successful Corporate Narrative.

The importance of interaction

Unlike traditional broadcast media like, say, a television series, transmedia storytelling recognizes the central importance of audience participation. They don’t simply attend or watch, they are fully part of these experiences, sometimes even creating them. It’s easy to see that on social media (remember that Ted Lasso Twitter account?) and in multiplayer video games in particular. 

It’s especially true when it comes to brands and businesses, where so much of the brand experience is the customer experience — and audiences/customers are not shy about sharing those experiences, good or bad. How long did it take you to rant on social media the last time you had a flight significantly delayed or canceled? What about the Momfluencers shouting out the tips, tricks, and products that genuinely make their parenting lives better?

In The 10 Maxims of Successful Corporate Narrative, Gomez and Berkson go into significant detail on the importance of participation as well as examples of where it has succeeded and failed. Effectively incorporating and accounting for audience participation is a major factor in building the kinds of customer relationships that lead to customer lifetime value. When they go well, audiences feel closer to the brands and businesses they engage with. That leads to both an enriched experience and a higher affinity for continuing the relationship.

But incorporating that audience participation can be tricky. For one thing, it can never really be “managed” by any brand or business. At best it can be influenced and curated. 

Systematically incorporating such participation into plans for building out aspects of the storyworld and directly engaging audiences is a fairly new thing. Once again, von Stackelberg offers a model for thinking about the relationship between the things we can build and control as businesses and the things we can’t. 

Once again, von Stackelberg offers a model for thinking about the relationship between the things we can build and control as businesses and the things we can’t.

Image source: Peter von Stackelberg

Transmedia storytelling in marketing and customer engagement

There is no controversy asserting that a great story forms the core of great marketing. In this era of increasingly fragmented media and advertising venues, that storytelling becomes even more important in attracting audiences, building a customer base, and creating fans. Great storytelling, however, shouldn’t be limited to successful ad campaigns or promotions. 

To fully harness the power of storytelling, any business can put brand storyworlds and corporate narratives to work. These can be applied to shaping all kinds of interactions throughout the customer relationship — across media, in different modes, and over time. In order to make the most of the (typically very large) investments that companies make in content of all kinds, a transmedia storytelling approach should be incorporated in any aspect of customer engagement. 

Again, it’s not just a question of how to tune a narrative for a seven-second social ad. Customer service interactions and learning services are equally important aspects of the brand storyworld. They form a key part of the overall experience and relationship between a customer and a business. 

Loyalty programs offer yet another example. Remember that rant about a canceled flight? When I can directly contact an agent in the frequent traveler program by phone or chat in the mobile app to find an alternate flight, I feel valued and cared for (true story!). Instead of a snide post on Insta, I tell a colleague about how my frown turned upside down. And that slogan in the in-flight safety video sounds genuine rather than pat. At least until the next time I head to the airport. 

By thinking of every kind of customer interaction as part of a brand storyworld, we can design better communications and build stronger relationships.

Empower your team with transmedia storytelling

We can empower many different teams, internally and across agency partners, to work autonomously but in a well-coordinated way. 

Having the canon of a brand storyworld to draw from makes it easy for everyone to be assured they’re working in concert toward a shared vision. It also empowers a higher degree of creativity without the risk of going off-piste — contradicting other work or veering away from the brand message and core values. 

Improving both the coordination in how we work and the efficacy of what we create has the potential to generate far higher return on investment, as well as goodwill. We produce more engaging content and more effective campaigns. 

It also means we can be more efficient in using and reusing the content that we develop because we can better see how and where elements within it might be repurposed. Transmedia storytelling and brand storyworlds become the other kind of structure that puts structured content to most effective use. 

Recommended reading

For more discussion and examples of why and how transmedia storytelling is so important to effective content marketing, see The Art and Science of Content

To get the handbook on brand transmedia storytelling in practice, download The 10 Maxims of Successful Corporate Narrative and listen to the discussion of what this all means with authors Jeff Gomez and Alan Berkson. 

Check out one of the newest textbooks on transmedia storytelling for brands: Transmedia Brand Storytelling: Immersive Experiences from Theory to Practice (no, we don’t get a commission if you click this link).

Hear a gaming-centric perspective on this approach that connects video games and education in Dr. Kris Alexander’s recent Ted Talk.

For some great blogs by key thinkers in this subject area, check out:

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