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The Rules of Convergence (or a start at least ): Part 1

July 5, 2007

Hopefully this blog entry won’t come across as too misleading, I’m sure I’m not alone in despising those articles that purport to give conclusive answers to the burning issue of the day only to leave you with the vague feeling that you knew all that already.

In a meeting with the head of a very well know youth oriented media company I had a chart with the words ‘transmedia research’ at its centre, which was greeted with a mocking snort – what buzzword were we going to use next, ‘UGC’, he laughed. We even provided a concrete example of a ‘transmedia’ research project in action which didn’t seem to impress him either.

Strangely enough said youth media company already have a virtual world (two in fact!) but the UK arm of the company hadn’t experimented with them, and to be honest seemed fairly ill-informed about their status.

Henry Jenkins‘ book, Convergence Culture, in all its indisputable genius is only the starting point for the convergence, transmedia, UGC etc debate. Many of Henry’s brilliant examples come from the 90s when the web was less dynamic and less popular and when gaming and MMOs were still finding their footing. Today every action/blockbuster movie release comes with its own dollar-heavy game tie in and flash heavy website. TV is following suit – The History Channel and 24 have adapated computer games to expand their IPs and The L Word has perhaps one of the most successful sites on Second Life, even ‘world events’ become transmedia translatable.

But being a transmedia brand isn’t easy and there are probably more experiments that fail to live up to their expectations than outright successes – in the worlds of MMOs three huge franchises will immediately spring to mind (The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online for those not in the know). But in reality this isn’t a million miles away from brand extension in the oh so old fashioned world of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods for those not in the know). Moving into a new product category has always been a difficult process – brands become renowned for doing one kind of thing and it takes an awful lot of clout to persuade people they can do something else just as well. Success stories abound, but that’s only because failure is quickly forgotten, but I’ve worked on many projects where a new product doesn’t even see the light of day, such are the responses in research. What works for some brands such as supermarket chains like Tesco’s, Asda, Walmart or even Amazon, isn’t going to work for a non-supermarket brand that can’t guarantee a captive audience and low price margins.

The difference with transmedia brand extensions, is, well the medium. Moving into a digital medium whether we’re talking websites, computer games, MMOs or social networks requires that the most is made of each medium, and perhaps digital mediums’ strongest feature is ‘interactivity’. ‘Interactivity’ isn’t a word most marketing departments are familiar with and it probably sounds very vague, which to be totally honest it is. Interactivity isn’t the solution it just frames the way you think about something.

For example, in this promo video for the Transformers computer game Brian Goldner, chief operating officer (whatever that means) for Hasbro says “you get to immerse yourself in the experience where almost anything becomes a tool of the Autobots or a tool of the Decepticons, buildings, cars you name it”. Interactivity for an action film is, or rather can be, very simplistic (but very effective), and has the benefit of years and years of development in the computer games industry. Since Doom showcased the BFG, a gun that could obliterate a room full of demons without scratching the paintwork, the desire for a fully interactive environment has been one of the holy grails of the gaming industry and is only now being realised by the likes of Lucasarts and Crytek studios.

But different brands/IPs/franchisesand different mediums require different kinds of interactivity, and it requires ome consideration to decide which kind works best and what is credibly attainable. As a start I’ve broken interactivity into eight (four in this post, four in part 2) different types and explained their benefits and the mediums they are most suited to.

1. Experiential
Experiential interactivity is physical interaction with a ‘world’ or setting and is the core element of FPS, adventure, RPG and strategic computer games and most MMOs. Obviously the choice of which elements of a ‘world’ or setting are interactive depend on the brand/IP/franchise, for example the Transformers game mentioned above focuses on the ability to use environmental objects as weapons whereas a game based on a food brand would focus on something different, maybe creating recipes, exploring production culture and processes etc. Experiential interactivity is naturally suited to action franchises, but games such as The Sims and MMOs such as Second Life prove that this needn’t be the case.

2. Responsive
Responsive interactivity is the interaction between users and brand/IP/franchise owners, where the owners will actively change features based on user suggestions or at least acknowledge suggestions and explain why such changes aren’t possible. This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for many companies to get their heads around but can be one of the most rewarding. It is perhaps better suited to digital environments where changes can be made relatively cheaply and quickly as opposed to physical products or organisational structures that require more time and resources to alter. For example the Second Life community at the L Word has a suggestions box and on site staff from Electric Sheep will build features for the site such as swimming pools and McDonalds has recently added the ‘Make Up Your Own Mind’ website to its roster. Blogs are also avenues through which responsiveness can be realised in the form of individual acknowledgement if not through affecting actual change.

3. Creative
A fairly self explanatory example of interactivity that allows users to create their own content in the manner of Youtube or Second Life, but also includes lesser known examples such as fanart, fanfiction, modding, machinima, mashups. Like responsiveness creative interactivity is counterintuitive to the production driven mindset of most companies, not to mention the legal issues that can arise. The range of creative avenues open to brands means that most brands/IPs/franchises can make use of this technique. In fact computer games and MMOs probably struggle the most with this kind of interactivity, often putting strict limits on what can be created in game (of course ‘external’ creativity such as machinima, fanart, modding etc. are possible). Currently creative interaction tends to be used in controlled promotions like Coca Cola’s Virtual Thirst competition in Second Life. An act of creative interaction on a greater scale would of course be Counter Strike, an entire game built by fans using the Half Life computer game engine.

4. Social
Social interactivity is again fairly self-explanatory, it describes any platforms that allow users to communicate with other users. This can range from forums to 3D spaces such as MMOs to social networking sites. While these technologies are fairly simple to set up, the difficulty resides in creating a dedicated community. Some brands/franchises/IPs have pre-existing fanbases who are actively engaged in debate and discussion others will always struggle to attain this level of interest, for example a popular movie franchise is more likely to be able to develop social interaction than a popular FMCG brand. The biggest barrier to social interaction for most brands is one of inappropriate language and sensitivity to criticism. This issue is greater for asynchronous communication such as forums where messages can be read long after they were posted, than synchronous communication which is fleeting and private. Forum communities often end up moving to ‘un-official forums’ where they can be critical and abusive as they like. While removing off-topic and offensive material is acceptable on most counts, brands/IPs/franchises who want to build a strong social interactive element will have to prepare to be tough skinned or develop a synchronous communication approach so that unacceptable material leaves little mark on the brand.

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