In his keynote speech at DIY Days in New York earlier this month, self-proclaimed “story architect” Lance Weiler trumpeted transmedia storytelling as an “opportunity to lay story across the real world in a way that’s never been possible.”

On purely technical terms, he’s right: A single story can be told around the world instantaneously in various media. Examples abound: Wieden & Kennedy’s Old Spice campaign with its use of online video, TV spots, and social media; the use of games and live events for The Dark Knight; and the sprawling epic that was BMW’s The Hire. Weiler himself IDed other tools in the transmedia arsenal: geolocation and the improving technology of near field communications or NFC.

How to create an effective story across multiple platforms

The burgeoning interest in transmedia storytelling means nailing the basics of narrative, though, so it’s important to review first principles:

  • Reel ’em in. Find a fresh slant to pique the viewer’s interest and draw her in. Journalists call this “the hook.” The Martin Agency’s caveman commercials for GEICO spring to mind because, seriously, cavemen? A new slant indeed.
  • Appeal to emotions. People want to feel (generally good) emotions: sympathy, delight, assurance. Help them achieve that goal. It’s reaching back, but United’s 1989 “Face to Face” offers a nice illustration of the power of emotional appeal.
  • Change over time. Or, put another way, have a story arc: beginning, middle, end. You don’t want to end up the same place you began, do you? Mcgarrybowen’s recent “Witch Hunt” for Miracle Whip does a beautiful job of exemplifying this.
  • Be surprising. This is related to the first tip but differs because it isn’t  tied to plot or angle, but can focus on character, language, or other story element. Think St. John’s “Catvertising.”
  • Feature the product prominently. Okay, this one isn’t about storytelling, per se, but it is about advertising. The best narratives suggest that the story can’t exist without the product. What would Deutsch Los Angeles’s “The Force” be without the Volkswagon?

Cutting both ways: the good and bad of transmedia

Keep in mind that transmedia stories allow for collaboration in ways that are both liberating and threatening. Weiler found that, as transmedia storytelling tools became more available to a wider public, “the real challenge was realizing that those who I formerly called ‘the audience’ actually became collaborators of the work I was making.”

The outcome is part and parcel of the participatory culture in which we now live, and it’s best seen (at least in terms of marketing) in the actress Alyssa Milano’s hijacking of the Old Spice campaign when she asked Proctor & Gamble (P&G), owners of the deodorant, to donate $100,000 to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Her move could’ve led to a best-case, triple-bottom line scenario: Had P&G actually pledged to the NWS as the actress hoped, the company could’ve seen where cause marketing took it.

But what’s best-case is also worst-case: P&G lost control of the narrative, a result that almost always makes businesses uneasy, causing them to shy away from social media or, in the case of Nestle, suffer public fails recognized here and forever for their intensity and sheer wrongheadedness. That fear may also be the juggernaut powering the advent of job titles like “strategic storyteller” or “staff storyteller.” Companies want someone who can explain their brand in a compelling, trustworthy way that maximizes the medium in which the story is told–be that print, video, augmented reality, or game.

This is all known–sort of. Transmedia storytelling is still finding its legs and it can be expensive, so until it becomes more prevalent (or cheaper–The Hire cost an estimated $15 million), focus on telling the story effectively and be prepared to share the storytelling seat with others.