Audience as Characters: the new frontier of #interactivestorytelling

I just wrote an opinion piece for B&T magazine here in Australia on the evolving role consumers are playing in interactive stories. Hope you find it interesting.

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The best brands have always told great stories.  But in the world of real-time social connections, multiple screens and a culture of immediacy, the concept of the brand story is changing.  They’re no longer linear; and they’re no longer told in one sitting. Welcome to the era of interactive storytelling – where audiences become characters influencing the story.

The best brand stories now encourage different levels of participation to achieve maximum impact and scale.  This means designing interactive stories for skimmers (those exposed to the story), dippers (those sharing the story) and divers (those immersing, influencing and advocating the story) is a must for marketers.  Whilst it’s easier to entertain or engage ‘skimmers’, what is interesting is how brands are developing interactive brand stories for the ‘dipper and diver’ audiences –  as these are the most influential groups.

Many brands have experimented with interactive storytelling where the audience becomes the narrator (i.e, Chrysler ‘Steer the Script’, Coke’s ‘Share a Coke’, and many Alternate Reality Games such  ilovebees ARG, The Dark Knight ARG). The other popular strategy has been crowdsourcing the story, where the audience becomes the creator of the whole story. While some brands have done this well (i.e our latest MINI #notnormal campaign in the UK,  Arvo Beers ‘Perfect Lager Project’, Fanta Flavour Lab, The VW People’s Car Project in China, our own digitally customisable London Olympic Mascots) others have missed the mark, (the Raymond Weil’s ‘help design a new watch’ Facebook competition springs to mind) .

But the new frontier for participation branding is putting the audience into the story, as an actual character influencing other characters and the outcome. That is, it’snot just about giving a few people aunique experience (such as the “Best job in the world” campaign) anymore and relying on the online amplification of that (does anyone even remember who won Best Job?), but actually creating multiple stories for the many, democratising the experience so to speak.

To understand this we look to narrative theory – that’s the idea that in any story there are typical characters we identify with – the protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, threshold guardian, trickster, minion etc.   If you think about what’s been hot in popular culture, TV dramas such as the Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad (and more recently The Fall, Luther and Game of Thrones) play around with who’s the hero and who’s the villain. While if we look to gaming, we can see evolving storytelling arcs and different role-playing in games such as Bioshock Infinite, Last of Us, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Heavy Rain, Skyrim and Final Fantasy. Narrative theory has even transcended into the music space, with pop band IO ECHO launching an interactive music video ‘Ministry of Love’ that allows audience to control the band through a series of rooms.

So what’s happening at the more ‘creative’ end of interactive storytelling in terms of the role of the audience?

Audience as the protagonist is still the most common approach (e.g. the character ‘Alex’ in Toshiba/Intel’s “The Beauty Inside”), however brands are now playing with more unusual roles – the most famous of those being the audience as foil in Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ and Old Spice’s ‘Man your man could smell like’. The role of audience as mentors to the community is also becoming a useful tool, some interesting examples being ‘Curators of Sweden’ (where Swedes get to manage the countries Twitter account) and Google’s Build with Chrome collaboration with LEGO (disclaimer: I worked on this one).

At Iris, we’ve experimented alot by thinking about audience as threshold guardians of the story, where fans work with each other to inspire or help the protagonist achieve greatness. For example, our recent adidas #hitthewinner Wimbledon Twitter game inspired Andy Murray fans to predict where he would hit a winner during his Wimbledon matches in real time. Fans won prizes if they predicted correctly, but what they were also doing was playing the role of guardians motivating him to Wimbledon glory.

So where’s the white space for brands looking to experiment with new interactive stories? Thinking about audience as sidekick rather than protagonist is an interesting place to start. Imagine audiences feeling like they are working alongside the brand. Also thinking about ‘groups of heroes’ rather than relying on one main protagonist to engage. We know people seek brands that help them belong, so brands with big advocate communities should explore this approach. The real visionary brands will involve audiences as an antagonist or anti hero as they look to create provocative ways for characters to interact and compete with each other.

So yes, the brands with the best stories will always win, however, if you neglect to think about what role your audience plays in influencing the story outcome, you’re missing a massive engagement opportunity.

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