The future of storytelling: transmedia communication

An interview with Professor Burghardt Tenderich, Associate Director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the University of Southern California (USC)


As part of its curriculum, as of this summer, the EMScom program will be offering a new course on transmedia storytelling and branding at the University of Southern California (USC), Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism during its staying in Los Angeles.

To give our executive students insights about the topic we asked some questions to professor Burghardt Tenderich, Associate Director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center. Professor Tenderich will also lecture the 14th Excellence-in-communications Lecture «Transmedia storytelling and branding: Mapping new territory» on April 25, 2013 in Zürich.


Why transmedia communication? Is it the future of communication?

Transmedia branding is centered on the idea that consumers and businesses want to engage with content that matters to them.  Nobody wants to receive random flyers in the mail. Can you count the number of promotional emails you receive for products and services you don’t care about? People tune out TV commercials by forwarding their digital recording device, changing the channel or grabbing a snack or drink from the kitchen. If brands instead produce and spread content the audience cares about and responds to, they are creating a dialog and engagement around a product, service or cause. Yes, in this regard, transmedia communication does represent the future of communication.


What’s driving the increasing activity around “transmedia”?

From the consumers’ point of view, transmedia branding is primarily driven by engaging in the social web. People and organizations spread information, they create or change content and they talk to each other and recommend products and services. From the corporations’ point of view, transmedia branding is in response to the massive changes in the media and subsequent the changed behavior of media consumers. In order to get through to their audience, brands produce and spread meaningful content, and they engage in conversations. In the consumer space, this content tends to be humorous or otherwise entertaining.


Transmedia has been caught between marketing and storytelling. What is really new about transmedia marketing?

In integrated marketing, audiences are bombarded with the same commercial messages over many different marketing channels; over and over -- and it doesn’t matter much whether they’re interested in what’s being marketed. As Doc Searls said in the Cluetrain Manifesto, ‘there is no market for your messages.’ In contrast, transmedia branding is a communication process in which information about a brand is packaged into an integrated narrative, which is dispersed in unique contributions across multiple media channels for the purpose of creating an interactive and engaging brand experience. Whether it spreads and succeeds is ultimately up to the audience.


What are the new main challenges for communicators?

One challenge is coming to terms with the fact that you have less control over your content and your brand than you’re used to. This is the case whether companies engage in transmedia projects ore not: your audience may choose to have a discussion about you, whether you like it or not. Communicators need to be on top of the conversation, probably by subscribing to commercial social media monitoring tools.


What are some of the common mistakes in transmedia communication?

As of now, there is not coherent methodology for transmedia branding. In fact, developing this methodology is a focus of our work at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab. Without a methodology in place, people might miss important steps in the process. For example, transmedia communication requires a clear definition of goals and objectives, and return-on-investment measurement. It also requires deep audience research. These are important steps that practitioners frequently miss.


Do the country’s cultural background play a role in transmedia communication? How to deal with cultural differences?

Everything in communication needs to account for cultural considerations. This is certainly the case in transmedia communication, where you’re actively inviting people to participate. Without a cultural context, mistakes are easily made.


Who do you see as the primary audience for transmedia, and how do you think transmedia can fulfill varied audience needs and preferences?

As of now, most transmedia branding campaigns we’ve seen are for consumer products of any kind. We are, however, already exploring how transmedia communication can apply to business-to-businesses audiences. In the future we will also see government agencies and politicians interacting with their constituencies utilizing transmedia techniques.


Can you think of any examples that could be great case studies on transmedia communication?

There are some amazing cases in the United States. First one that comes to mind is Old Spice’s The Man your Man could smell like. It has been tremendously successful and was very well done. I discuss this one, as well as others, in a discussion paper on the Design Elements of Transmedia Branding.


Do you have any suggestions for our executive students, attending the course?

Transmedia branding is such a new trend. Get involved, try it out. Help shape it.
For a deep-dive into the topic, my colleague Henry Jenkins just this month published a new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.


About Professor Tenderich

Burghardt Tenderich is an Associate Professor and the Associate Director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. Prior to joining the USC faculty, Burghardt Tenderich was the executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he lectured on technology innovation. He has over 20 years of experience in marketing and communication in the information technology and Internet industries, both in the United States and Europe. He holds a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.