I’ve had a fun summer as one of the main writers for the Miracle Mile Paradox, an alternate reality game a group of us from Transmedia LA decided to create as a learning experience (for us as designers). I was originally thinking about how we could bring in a nonprofit angle, a la Conspiracy for Good, but a cause marketing strategy didn’t seem to fit well with the story. Luckily, I was able to figure out a way to bring in my real passion, which is transmedia entertainment education, and even draw on a project I’m managing at the Entertainment Industries Council working with (primarily) TV writers and journalists for accurate portrayal of mental health issues.
When the opportunity arose to write for some of the characters, I decided to go for it, as the realtime portrayal of a character via social media had always intrigued me. While there was an overarching storyline for the game, which took place over several months, there was a lot of leeway for character development and story arcs for individual minor characters. With almost 30 different characters in the story, with several writers covering two or more characters and quite a few more people who started creating a character and gave up fairly quickly, there was a lot of opportunity for interesting stories to play out on the sidelines of the main storyline.
The main story centered on an inventor named Rex Higgs who discovers blueprints for a machine called a “time switch,” builds it, and ends up on the wrong side of an evil multinational financial investment company called the Agent Intellect Corp (AIC). One of my characters, Lauralee Simcoe, is a corporate communications assistant working at AIC whose only functional role in the game is to have players hack into her online account at AIC for information. I created a story arc for her that involved her experiencing clinical depression, getting treatment and recovering. The strategy behind the narrative was to engage the game participants by getting them emotionally involved in Lauralee’s story, with elements of education, modeling and an accurate depiction of potential roadblocks and their resolution.
I’ve compiled excerpts from the story across various social media platforms to give you an idea of how Lauralee’s depression subplot played out over the five months or so of the game on the Storify site.
I’ve made the case previously for how stories can play a role in your efforts to bring about social change or individual behavior change. One of the best ways to draw people into your story is to provide opportunities for them to participate — whether they can contribute to building a rich storyworld, or actually have a role in the direction of the narrative. When someone feels like they are part of the story unfolding around them, they can vicariously experience what is happening to the characters. This type of immersion done well can evoke empathy, get an individual to think about how they would respond if they were in a particular situation, and/or frame their conception of how the world should work.
Collaborative storytelling is an experience in which multiple people contribute to the course of a narrative. There are many forms this could take – an exquisite corpse project, in which one person picks up the story where the last person left off; LARPs (Live Action Role Playing) and other role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons; interactive stories where the audience can vote on what action the characters should take next; and shared storyworlds, in which parallel or intertwined story-related content may be created collaboratively by a group of people.
As I’ve been involved in several transmedia projects – both on the inside and as a participant from the outside – I’ve been struck by how emotionally invested people can get in the story and with the characters. I wanted to give other social marketers and health communicators a taste of how a participatory storytelling project might work, so in advance of the CDC’s National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media (HCMM) in Atlanta, GA on August 7-9, I set up an experiment to run concurrently with the conference.
I created a site on Tumblr that provided some background on the story [the Hogwarts Conference on Muggle Medicine (HCMM) was happening at the same time as the other conference] and how to participate. By following the @HCMMstory Twitter feed and using the #HCMMstory hashtag before and during the conference, participants (both in Atlanta and virtually) could contribute tweets written as though they were attending the wizard version of the conference. Some of the sample tweets included:
- Think I grabbed a wonky portkey on my way to the conference. I ended up in the penguin pen at the Georgia Aquarium. #hcmmstory
- Heading to the panel on “A Sock on Every Head: Addressing Health Disparities Among House Elves.” #hcmmstory
- Don’t miss the Quidditch yoga session happening at dawn. An active wizard is a healthy wizard! #BYOBroom #hcmmstory
The story started a few days before the conference as the wizards were gearing up to head to Atlanta, and continued through the end of the conference. The @HCMMstory Twitter feed ended up with 23 followers, about 10 people contributing content, and about 40 tweets to the story. Most of the tweets were in the days before and first day of the conference. As time went on and conference fatigue set in, fewer and fewer tweets were posted to the hashtag. I found it increasingly challenging to follow the CDC conference and simultaneously come up with clever content for the story, and was so busy at the event that I didn’t have much time to devote to rallying the troops to contribute. I’m hoping that the other participants found it fun and that it was a taste of what could be done on a larger scale with a clear behavior change objective.
You can see the tweets on Storify to get a sense of how the story played out.
Rick Austin at the KTExchange did a short interview with me at the conference about why storytelling is important for researchers, and about the HCMM Story experiment.
A great example of this type of participatory storytelling for change is happening right now at Ed Zed Omega – a collaborative online “thought experiment” following the stories of five young people who have dropped out of school. Created by Ken Eklund, who was also behind the collaborative alternate reality game World Without Oil, Ed Zed Omega encourages participants to interact with the characters via social media and to submit blog posts and other content sharing their perspective and advice on school and education.
I also love the model used by Beckinfield, which encourages people to create video diaries as a character they create themselves living in the fictional and supernatural town of Beckinfield, CA. Weekly emails provide participants with updates on what is happening in the town, from which they can create their character’s storyline and collaborate with others. Those who just want to view the content can do so, jumping from character to character to experience the story from different angles. Imagine this model being used for a community imagining how to tackle a shared problem like youth violence or pandemic flu, with different types of characters — or people responding as themselves — addressing the issue in their own ways. In responding to a fictional prompt (or an actual situation), people would have to think through the possible courses of action and their implications, and see how their decision plays out with the other participants.
If you want to see how the Harry Potter theme could be played out more fully to incorporate social change objectives, take a look at what the Harry Potter Alliance has been doing. By framing social issues as challenges from the series, the HPA rallies fans to take action in the real world and be heroes like their beloved characters.
Think about how your own projects could benefit from bringing people together to tell their own stories and how weaving a new narrative out of the separate strands could catalyze change for good among the storytellers and those who engage with the story.
Photo Credit: Scott Smith
We live in a transmedia world. Information, stories, marketing come at us from all sides — from the radio news waking you up in the morning to your box of cereal describing the plight of the puffin; emails, texts and tweets with the latest updates from family, friends and co-workers; the billboards you see on the way to work; in-person meetings with your colleagues using the inevitable PowerPoint slides; your favorite TV show… We are bombarded with data that we constantly process on the fly to create a coherent picture of our world.
Why does this matter for nonprofits, public agencies and others who are working to change people’s lives for the better? Because the people you are trying to reach also live in this transmedia world. We need to reach people where they are, and where they are is practically everywhere! Of course, your particular audience is more likely to spend their time in certain places than others, but don’t assume that reaching them on one platform is enough to make an impression. (I know the term “audience” is not the most appropriate when we’re talking about a more participatory model, but I don’t have a better word yet for “the people whose behavior you are trying to change.”)
In addition to spreading your messages and interventions across multiple media or platforms, you need to find a way to grab their attention through the clutter. I’ve often written about the power of story and the use of the entertainment education approach to bring about health and social change, and I believe that combining proven behavior change models with transmedia storytelling has the potential to radically transform how we change social norms and create large-scale social movements.
If you’re not familiar with it, put simply, the transmedia approach uses multiple platforms to convey different parts of a story (as opposed to the same story told over again via various media). Of course, the word means different things to different people, and a broad debate has been raging in the field as to how exactly to define “transmedia” (sound familiar, social marketers?). Though the most typical example of an entertainment/marketing-focused transmedia project involves big-budget elements like a feature movie, video- or alternate reality game, graphic novel, webisodes or other production-intensive media, that by no means defines the approach. In fact, sometimes a mobile phone and social media are all you need to create world-changing transmedia content.
In considering how best to use this approach within the context of health and social change, I think “immersive engagement” may be a better term than “transmedia.” I love Robert Pratton’s equation defining pervasive entertainment, which does not describe every transmedia project, but which I think includes the key elements that can contribute to effective change:
Pervasive Entertainment = ubiquitous media + participatory experience + real world + good storytelling
We can adapt that idea for social change as:
Immersive Engagement for Change =
Behavior Change Model + Good Storytelling + Ubiquitous Media + Participatory Experience + Real World
Let’s look at each element of that equation (I’ve re-ordered the elements from the original to indicate their priority in this application):
- Immersive Engagement for Change – Ultimately, your goal is to create an experience that leads to your audience taking some sort of action as a result of being engaged and motivated, whether it’s adopting a healthy or pro-social behavior, changing how they treat other people, helping the environment or actively joining a movement that aims to solve a social challenge. Awareness and education are necessary, but usually not sufficient by themselves to create real change.
- Behavior Change Model – Start by identifying what you need to accomplish and how you intend to get there, by understanding what you need to include in the experience to effectively motivate the adoption of the key action(s). In a long-term story-centered project, you can follow the Sabido Method, which has been used successfully for decades to drive development of entertainment education content and brings together behavioral, communication and learning theories. You can use other simpler models, such as social cognitive theory or BJ Fogg’s behavior model, but the crucial point is to understand the pieces that need to be in place in your story and in the structure of your project for change to happen.
- Good Storytelling – Engagement starts with a good story; without that element, the rest of the pieces will fall flat. A good story does not just mean an issue that you feel is important for people to know about. Give a lot of thought as to who the key characters are, what the conflict is, how the story arc will play out, and how best to present different parts of the narrative for maximum effect. Whether you are creating a fictional world or a nonfiction series about real people, the elements of what makes a good story don’t change. The story is your opportunity to create characters your audience can relate to, put them in situations where they need to make decisions related to the actions you want your audience to take, and show the consequences of those decisions.
- Ubiquitous Media – By offering your content in the places the audience is already spending their time, your story can seamlessly integrate into their day. These touchpoints could be their mobile phone, their Twitter or Facebook stream, a link to a website, YouTube, email, snail mail, a comic book or location-based markers. The audience should encounter your content — whether fiction or nonfiction-based — alongside the other chunks of information to which they have chosen to pay attention, rather than making them go out of their way to find it. And your selected platforms must work together to support the story strategically and synergistically based on their strengths and weaknesses, and how your audience uses them.
- Participatory Experience – As much as possible, we need to offer opportunities for the audience to go beyond just reading/watching/hearing what we’ve created, to enable them to participate by interacting with our content or — the holy grail — creating their own. While it’s unrealistic to expect a majority, or perhaps even ten percent, of your audience to devote time to writing something or creating a video, be sure to offer ways to participate for those who are most enthusiastic about the story or project. This could be anything from playing an online game or solving a puzzle that moves the narrative forward, to interacting with characters on Twitter, roleplaying a character in the story, connecting with others via a discussion forum to talk about the story or project, sharing their own real-life stories, attending a live (or virtual) event, entering a contest or other activities that bring people deeper into the story.
- Real World – What is the point of a social change project engaging people with stories if the experience doesn’t ultimately include the real world? Rob Pratten describes pervasive entertainment as “[blurring] the line between real-world and fictional world.” This might mean having a character from the story send a text message to a participant’s mobile phone, bringing the story off the page (or out of the computer) and into their real life. To take it a step further for social change, I would say we also want the audience to draw the lessons from the story world (real or fictional) and apply them within the real world. If the story includes a young woman who models effective negotiation skills with her boyfriend when he doesn’t want to wear a condom, we’d like to see the young women in our audience learn and apply those skills in their own lives. If the story highlights the problems faced by a village that does not have access to clean water, we can provide ways for our audience to get involved in providing clean water to others in a similar situation through supporting a particular nonprofit or joining a movement working toward solutions. The immersive context of the story means that it touches people’s lives wherever they may be.
Thinking through the elements in this model can help us make sure that we design transmedia stories that are more likely to succeed in bringing about real positive change in people’s lives. In future blog posts, I will share some of the fiction and nonfiction transmedia projects I’m working on as examples to help flesh out these concepts.
In the meantime, I have created a Facebook group called the Transmedia for Good Network, where those of us who are thinking about how best to use these tools beyond entertainment and marketing can get together to share our ideas and projects. If you’re interested, please join the group!
Think you need to do an awareness campaign? Think again. I talk about this common pitfall and more in my latest video:
If the video inspires you to learn more about how to use social marketing to make your program more effective, I have a new webinar series coming up! The Hands-On Social Marketing webinar series starts January 11th, and will focus on the social marketing process, audience research and segmentation, behavior change strategies and social marketing evaluation. Webinar #1: Social Marketing Step-by-Step Tues, January 11, 2011, 11:00 am PST / 2:00 pm EST / 7:00 pm GMT This 60-minute webinar lays out the process of developing an effective social marketing program by following six key steps. Following this clear process, you will ensure that your program is developed and implemented systematically and strategically. Webinar #2: Understanding and Segmenting Your Audience Tues, January 25, 2011, 11:00 am PST / 2:00 pm EST / 7:00 pm GMT This 60-minute webinar will discuss how to select the target audience(s) you will address with your social marketing program and the various types of research methods you can use to understand what motivates them. Webinar #3: Behavior Change Tricks of the Trade Tues, February 8, 2011, 11:00 am PST / 2:00 pm EST / 7:00 pm GMT This 60-minute webinar presents an assortment of methods you can draw from to help your audience adopt positive or healthy behaviors. We’ll discuss various behavior change theories, the use of fear appeals, the design approach and more. Webinar #4: Real-World Social Marketing Research and Evaluation Tues, February 22, 2011, 11:00 am PST / 2:00 pm EST / 7:00 pm GMT This 60-minute webinar focuses on how to conduct research to plan and evaluate your social marketing program. While many feel evaluation is the most challenging part of social marketing, this webinar will give you the confidence to tackle a design for your program. Archived webinars from previous series on social marketing fundamentals and social media are also available. For more information and to register, just go to Social Marketing University Online.
Those who tell the stories rule the world.
- Hopi American Indian proverb (also attributed to Plato)
Stories can be powerful. They can be life-altering or world-changing. When we use them in social marketing, stories can serve many different roles:
- Grab people’s attention to get them to focus on our issues
- Make abstract concepts more concrete and relevant
- Shape people’s understanding and interpretation of issues and events
- Provide vicarious experiences that prepare individuals for real-world situations
- Increase empathy for others
- Persuade people of the importance or benefits of taking action
- Strengthen relationships between individuals or across groups
With the centrality of story to what we as social marketers do, I was excited to learn of the Reinvention Summit – a “virtual summit on the future of storytelling” put together by Get Storied. This two-week event will focus on the power of narrative to change the world. Between November 11-22, the summit will offer online webinars, interviews and panel discussions with over 30 experts on various aspects of storytelling.
The social change-related sessions I am most excited about are:
- Andy Goodman and Lily McCombs – Social Movements as Participatory Storytelling
- Pip Coburn – Expanding the Threshold for Change: Narrative, Technology and Innovation
- John Elkington and John Marshall Roberts – Sustainability and Global Behavior Change
- Richard Geer – It Takes a Village to Tell the Story: Reinvention in the Community Sphere
- Nancy Duarte – That Resonates with Me! How to Change the World One Presentation at a Time
- Angela Maiers – Story Power: Reclaiming the Place of Story in Education and Life
- Katya Andresen – Storytelling Your Cause: What Donors Want and Need to Know About Your Story
And in the transmedia realm:
- Lance Weiler – Storytelling R&D: How to Build a Transmedia StoryWorld
- Gunther Sonnenfeld – Dynamic Publishing, Transmedia and the Construct of Good
Best of all? The basic pass costs only $11.11 (this price ends Wed., November 10th at 8 pm ET). If you miss that deadline or want more benefits, the conference organizers gave me a coupon to pass along for $25 off an Activators or Explorers Pass (Code: REINVENTION). [By the way, I bought my pass and tweeted about the event long before the organizers got in touch with me about it because I think it’s such a great opportunity to learn!]
Even if you don’t “attend” the summit, you might be interested in downloading a free e-book by Michael Margolis, the president of Get Storied. Believe Me: a storytelling manifesto for change-makers and innovators offers principles for how to use storytelling to create change in your organization or community.
Let’s get better at telling our stories! We’ve got some good ones.
Photo: Ruth Lozano