Simon Staffans: Transmedia and the Audience

written by: Simon Staffans

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In a post in February I talked about what I saw as the ”Five pillars of transmedia”, the different types of people that need to work together to successfully develop, produce and launch a transmedia project. There was a sixth pillar as well, which was the Audience. This is what I wrote back then:
All of this |the five pillars written about earlier in the post] leads to one thing; the need to create a transmedia experience that will engage, excite, enable and enrich an audience. This, while all the people representing the five pillars above need to communicate fully and thoroughly with each other, communication which may or may not include the use of translators and glossaries to assist with the understanding. 
What it all boils down to is that everyone must strive to understand everyone else and open one's eyes to the possibilities and challenges that will arise. Or, rather, open one eye to possibilities and challenges, as the other eye needs to stay constantly fixed on the audience, ready to adapt, respond, re-develop and communicate. The audience is the foundation that all these pillars need to be grounded on, else we’ll just have a heap of rabble in the end. More on them in another post.
I’ve been having a number of discussions lately on this subject, transmedia and the audience. Here then, a brief post looking at some of the issues:
Experiences from an earlier life
I have a solid background in traditional media, newspapers, tv and a lot of radio. I still think I could do a three hour radio show without breaking a sweat (although my music selection might be a bit dated). When doing radio, the target audience becomes extremely important. I used to close my eyes and imagine the persons I was addressing my next speak to; listening to it afterwards, the voice changes, the wording changes, the whole persona changes – which is something that cuts through the static and reaches people.
The same goes for transmedia project, only here it’s not enough just to close your eyes and imagine an audience. Having done that, you need to research that audience, find out what they do, what they like, how they behave, how they connect, how they share, how they play and who they really are. This is, in parts, gruelsome work, especially in the beginning. But the more data you have, the more knowledge you have, the more you have to build on for future projects, and the more knowledge you have about what knowledge is actually necessary to focus on. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the need to target your audience.
The inactive audience
This is a mistake I still do, when I get too caught up in the whirlwind of creativity. Fact is that the major part of your project’s audience, be it on TV or online or wherever, will choose not to be interactive. So, when planning and developing and producing anything, you need to make sure this large part of the audience are offered a full experience even without interactivity. That is, you need to make a great show or a great project, that simply becomes EVEN GREATER if someone chooses to interact with it. I’ve seen quite a few pitches go haywire on this point, as the show might be good, but no one on the creative team could answer the question ”what do the people who don’t have an iPad do then?”. Think of everyone in the audience.
The active audience
That said, you will (hopefully) have an eager crowd participating and being active and interactive. In which way this happens is of course dependent on your project and what you have developed.  One thing I’ve learned (and heard in discussions with a number of other creators) is that you can never create too for too much interaction. If you’re aiming for an ARG or for interaction with characters or for exploration of the greater narrative, the audience – if your content is compelling and engaging enough – will always be quicker than you anticipated. As you’d ideally like to have an audience hungry for more, you need to create more in order to not have a sated (or even worse, frustrated) audience at some point. This in turn takes its toll on resources and manpower; one solution is to design for audience co-creation in a more open environment, but this needs to be incorporated from the very beginning of the development process. Or the project will be limited in scope and time, which ultimately will make it more of a one-off. Choices, choices… but as a rule, use transmedia storytelling methods to always create more than you think you have to.    
Harnessing in the long run
In the same vein, think about what to actually do with your audience. Be they silent spectators or active participants, they have still invested either time or effort or both in what you have created. Providing the experience was a positive one you’ll have a more or less devoted audience to engage with. Many projects, for practical, financial or other reasons, think of their project in the scope of what is at hand, nothing more. I’d argue that it pays off to think a bit further, from the outset. Yes, it is harder to think of your project as a two- or three-step rocket. Yes, it is very much difficult enough to create ONE good project and get it financed and produced. But at the same time, not doing so will mean you’ll have to play catch-up at the point when you HAVE an audience, and that audience is clamoring for more. 
Also, think about what else you’d like to use your audience for; perhaps you’d like to do research on a very specific target group? Perhaps you’d like to engage them in a charity or get exposure for a start-up or something else? If this is something you want to do, you need to plan for it from the beginning, so that it in some way sits naturally in the narrative and the story world; having the main character support UNICEF at some point will make it possible for you to champion UNICEF’s cause to your audience, for instance. Bottom line, think ahead (there are always painkillers for the inevitable headaches).
Respect without groveling
Finally, I think this is a point well worth remembering. The audience deserves our respect. This would in my book involve not hoaxing them, not stepping outside given ramifications, not exploiting them, not treating them like commodity. ”Do unto others” is a phrase that comes to mind. That said, there is no need to grovel; you have created something, of which you have all the right in the world to be proud. If someone else starts giving you a hard time over it, just give them a friendly reminder that they can go do something else with their time. Haters gonna hate, no matter what; don’t let it get to you. Sensible and constructive critizism on the other hand, THAT is something you should let get to you J.
Good resources
I’ll finish by stating, as a disclaimer, that the views above are from my limited point of view. There are many others with insights greater than mine, who discuss the importance of the audience, who explore the interaction with audiences in their work and who are great people to keep tabs on in this regard. Lance Weiler comes naturally to mind, as do Nuno Bernardo and Gary P Hayes.  I will post a follow-up with more resources later on.

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