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.


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.

Google goes transmedia with new ARG:: #Ingress

Google have just launched there first ARG (Alternate Reality game) called Ingress to be played on Android Smartphones. You have to request an invite to play. It’s a global mind control battle that pits you against others around the world, all via your smartphone. It’s about mind hacking, something called Niantic. Looks super cool and another example of how Google are leading the way when it comes to creating immersive brand experiences that involve consumers across all screens. An amazing participation branding example showcasing the strengths of the Android platform and I can’t wait to get involved

Coke launches ARG around secret recipe

Coke has just launched an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) based around its secret recipe and a dude called Dr Pemberton (who apparently invented Coke). It’s quite cryptic and weird but I’m sure  if they seed it correctly with their massive Facebook fan pages, it will get traction, big time.

They’ve seeded a video on YouTube embedded with hidden clues and links to a Twitter page, FTP vault accounts, Facebook App Pages, Live video Feeds, Random Microsites, more Microsites and a YouTube video.

Seems like a big departure from their ‘happiness’ positioning, but for me brands that have mythology around them like Coke, should celebrate it.  I think this is an interesting way to start conversations on social platforms for Coke’s fanatics who always have wondered about Cokes recipe…maybe?? Having said that, it feels about like Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ where they’re tapping into the whole 1800’s Civil War thing. Am gonna follow it and see how it evolves. Good on Coke for having some interesting initatives out in the market, combined with Expedition 206, they are experimenting with pop culture.

Principles of Transmedia Storytelling

Watched an interesting lecture by the ‘father’ of transmedia storytelling, Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, who recently returned to MIT (he’s now at USC) to speak to students about the 7 principles of transmedia storytelling. You can find the full 50 minute lecture at his blog  here, but I’ve summarised some of the key points I took out of it.

Essentially ‘transmedia storytelling’ is cross platform entertainment where each media touchpoint makes its own unique contribution to the story and the audience/community is encouraged to engage with the story and remix it to help influence the outcome of the story. In terms of brand communications, there has been quite a few famous ‘transmedia’ ideas, most notably the ARG’s (Alternate Reality Games) used to launch moves like The Dark Knight, or McDonald’s ‘The Lost Ring’ ARG associated with the Beijing Olympics. There’s also been Audie’s ‘Art of the Heist’ and numerous others. I’ve always been fascinated by ARG’s just because they generally ask people to play an active role in the outcome of the story, and what’s ‘on screen’ is only part of the story.

In a nutshell here are the 7 principles of transmedia storytelling which Henry spoke about:


With transmedia narratives it’s about ‘depth of engagement’  – you have to create a story arc that allows people to deep dive into it’s complexities and uncover nuances. This makes it far more engaging for the true fan as they have a reason to keep coming back.


Most traditional advertising communications speak about ‘continuity’, but in fact the success of transmedia storytelling comes down to ‘multiplicity’, where people are encouraged to have different perspectives on characters. A great example of this is Batman, in terms of all the comics, anime and cartoons, there are always slightly different perspectives on the character which make the franchise ever more appealing and contextual to youth.


For me, the most interesting part of great transmedia ideas are when elements are taken out of the story and put into the real world which enable deep immersion by the consumer. Brands that are driving digital scavenger hunts like for HALO 3 ODST are doing well at building extractability within their ideas so the consumer id engaged beyond their computer screen or mobile.


The story created is just the beginning, what really matters is what happens in ‘their world’ – how people interact and taken on what fans have gathered. Think Pokemon, which has over 200 characters to collect or the complex relationships between all the X-Men characters . In essence people want to map the stories of these characters and take joy when brands take them on a journey.

5.       SERIALITY

Sounds really obvious, but seriality is a critical component of a transmedia narrative. A series of instalments drive both anticipation and speculation of what will happen next with the idea, resulting in deeper engagement for the individual.


Transmedia ideas typically work best when people can uncover a ‘backstory’ or secondary characters within the mix who have or will influence the outcome of the story. So in the case of ARG’s, people want to know the lead in and reasoning behind what’s happening. It comes down to people’s fascination with mythology and a world where people are constantly interested in hearing different points of view and comparing them.


This principal should really be called REMIX, as it’s all about fans bring the content into their own world and putting a spin on it, it’s about crowdsourcing and reconstructing the narrative. The Hunt for Gollum story is a perfect example of fans creating this narrative as a prequel/backstory to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As a youth marketer, there’s alot we can learn here, first and foremost is that brands today need to think about how their brands story unfold over multiple touchpoints as well as how the colletive remixes that story along the way. Nothing should ever be set in stone, what we do as marketers is START SOMETHING..hopefully a conversational in culture that can then unfold and be remixed in culture.

Youth Marketing Rule #3 Create multimedia experiences that fuse real and digital worlds

Gen C don’t distinguish between the real and virtual world, it’s all one experience, so brands need to create narratives where the brand story builds and evolves across different platforms. Blockbuster movies have been creating ARG’s (Alternate Reality Games) to hype films for the past 5 years (The Dark Knight was a killer ARG), and brands like Audie ‘Art of the Heist’ have been dabbling in the space. According to wiki, an alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions. The most famous ARG of 2008 was ‘The Lost Ring’ used to hype the Beijing Olympics and subtly sponsored by McDonalds. It was a truly global interactive experience to uncover a lost Olympic sport, with over 2million participants over its 6 month period. In the future, brands will need to create these multimedia experiences which engage Gen C across multiple channels and play to their need to compete and discover new cultural phenomenon.