Building a TV Storyworld in 8 Steps


By Andy Bryant

The concept of transmedia storytelling has been with us for around ten years, but what’s significant is that it’s no longer just production teams who are creating these stories. TV marketers and creatives are getting in on the act. The boundaries between content and marketing are blurring.

So how is marketing being used to build TV storyworlds: the mythology, the characters, the settings, the events and the backstories? I divided the examples I collected into eight categories, although there is a lot of overlap between them.

1. Start building early

The best recent example is SyFy’s transmedia drama Defiance. To introduce this brand new storyworld, the SyFy marketing team started a full nine months before the premiere at the ComicCon convention, harnessing live events and stunts and building social media buzz. Planning with military precision, they built a cultural momentum map to plot their activity against key moments in popular culture, even including premieres of other big TV shows from rival networks.

2. Build immersive experiences

Some of the most successful storyworlds have been enriched with the help of experiences like complex and absorbing microsites, online treasure hunts and interactive trailers. To launch The Tunnel in France, Canal+ created a deeply involving web site inviting people to search for clues and experience the world of the key villain. And Red Bee’s campaign for season 3 of Sherlock included an interactive trailer with hidden hotspots via which fans could unlock exclusive extra content.

3. Develop the characters

Marketers are increasingly creating additional content beyond the show itself, with the specific goal of telling the characters’ backstories or extending the audience’s appreciation of their personalities. One of the best examples is the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, which has just finished an epic 9 season run in the US. A lot of the additional content has been to build the character of the lothario Barney Stinson. As well as a book series and blogs in character, CBS has continued to create deliberately amateurish fake websites to carry though some of the jokes and plot points in the show.

4. Send love letters to the audience

I borrowed this phrase from Andrea Phillips, who created some of the early transmedia content for HBO’s original launch of Game of Thrones. What she meant was rewarding content created simply for fans to enjoy, in a way that doesn’t really feel like marketing. SyFy have done this with a series of “making of” films for Defiance to help viewers get more out of the story, for example by learning about the invention of new languages. For season 3 of Game of Thrones HBO created a global website and mobile app enabling fans to create their own family arms (they call them sigils) and for season 4 they created Buzzfeed’s most successful paid post ever, inviting you to find out how you would die in Game of Thrones. (I would end up decapitated, in case you’re wondering).

5. Harness social media

I can’t do justice to the huge topic of social TV in one short post, but we’re seeing increasing evidence that TV marketers are developing a deep understanding of how each social media platform works best. The call to action at the end of Red Bee’s trailer for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary, #savetheday, led to it being the most tweeted-about drama in Twitter’s history. TNT’s Battle for the Handle to promote season 3 of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama Falling Skies is an inspiring and award-winning case study. Fox in the US used Tumblr brilliantly to develop the rich storyworld of crime drama The Following and Finnish broadcaster Yle made use of Instagram to engage viewers in the world of their multi-platform drama for teenagers, #lovemilla. This project also illustrates my sixth point…

6. Keep the storyworld alive

Dana Ortiz of SyFy told me that “there’s no such thing as going dark any more”. What she meant was that, in an age of social media and intense competition between channels, it’s important to keep fans engaged with a storyworld during the gaps between episodes and seasons. #lovemilla does this via the lead character’s Instagram and Facebook profiles, which continue to deepen the relationship with viewers on a daily basis. HBO’s #RoastJoffrey campaign kept Game of Thrones fans hooked during the gap between seasons 3 and 4 by encouraging them to ridicule social media’s most hated character.

7. Encourage fans to interact

The best recent case studies of storyworlds all have elements that go beyond the immersive experiences I mentioned earlier and encourage active participation by the audience. A great case study is Canal+ in Spain and their outstanding digital marketing work for Game of Thrones, which included a second screen app with a game layer allowing fans to unlock rewards depending on the extent of their participation, an interactive game (Grito de Guerra – Battle Cry) with many layers of involvement and a Facebook invitation to fans to recite the Oath of the Night’s Watch in their launch promo for season 4.

8. Take the story into the real world

Marketers and creatives are increasingly finding ways to translate the mythology of their storyworlds into live experiences and one of the most successful examples is The Walking Dead. In keeping with the show’s track record for Zombie Walks and other participative events, Fox in Germany created morphing cosmetics ads on the underground and a scary Horror House in Germany’s Movie Park.

So where next? I’ll defer to the wisdom of one of the world’s greatest TV and movie storytellers, Steven Spielberg, who said in a recent interview with Variety: “We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a screen. We’ve got to put viewers inside the experience. That’s the future.”

If you have a PromaxBDA log-in you can view the whole presentation here.

About the author

Andy Bryant is Director of Creative at Red Bee Media.

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