Technology is rapidly changing how people tell and share their stories, and transmedia campaigns exemplify those radical shifts. Innovative thinkers have realized that with today’s huge spread of web and mobile tools, stories can evolve in wildly engaging new ways, sometimes allowing the audience members to interact with the narrative and with each other as part of the adventure. Each platform that plays a part of a transmedia campaign — social media, broadcasting, interactive apps, and so on — complements the other and provides a distinct opportunity to hook the target audience.
That’s the philosophy of Alex LeMay, the CEO, founder, and executive producer at The Shadow Gang. The studio lives in the intersection of entertainment, content, and marketing, creating original media experiences for its partners to expand their audiences and increase revenues. Social media is a fundamental part of that suite of tools.
One of The Shadow Gang’s most striking projects was a campaign called GoBZRK, a transmedia project to promote a young-adult book by author Michael Grant. His BZRK series centers on a dystopian world with a power struggle over free will. The Shadow Gang brought elements of that story and those characters to multiple channels — including social media, mobile games, comic books, and video content — in order to build excitement about the book’s release.
We spoke with LeMay about the GoBZRK campaign and why social media played such a central role.
Meet the Audience First
LeMay said that his company’s initial step in developing the GoBZRK campaign was to understand the book’s audience. The team conducted extensive research ahead of time about the target demographic — 14 to 24-year-old readers.
Part of the book’s appeal, and thus an integral part of the campaign, was the rebelliousness of fighting against a corrupt power. “We wanted to create a place where a 15-year-old girl or boy could try on an identity that was semi-rebellious without actually going out and spray-painting a bridge,” LeMay explained. “We knew that we wanted to create tools that looked like their behavior, that looked like their emotional state. So we had to create some custom tools and then we had to also put this in places where they already were, in ways that they understood.”
Specialize Each Network
One of the key takeaways from The Shadow Gang’s work was a willingness to be flexible. While the company had a game plan from the beginning about how the story would be told, the team was open to change. “At the end of the day, if one gets too religious about that, you’ll get killed,” LeMay said.
For example, in early testing and development, the team realized that Facebook and Twitter best served very different roles for storytelling. Twitter excelled at sharing and exploring the characters, while Facebook served as a news feed for supplying information. The Shadow Gang was careful to tailor the role of each network within the campaign to capitalize on those strengths as the project grew.
Not content to let the audience interact through another company’s channels, The Shadow Gang actively used social media as a traffic driver to its own proprietary platforms. Not only did that give the agency more control over the audience, it also helped promote the brand while still making social an integral cog in the campaign. “It’s not enough to push content at audiences anymore,” LeMay said. “We really believe social is as much a piece of content as any piece of video or any game.”
A Worthwhile Payoff
Social networks are the linchpins of transmedia campaigns. “They move story forward and they spread story in a way that we’ve never been able to do before,” LeMay said. “So we not only think that social should be a part of a campaign, we think it should be at the center of everything.” Social was a driver in getting people connected to the story and to the BZRK world.
The social campaign led to a mobile game, and the app then directed people to the centralized website. Rather than place the physical product front and center, The Shadow Gang had its audience hunt for the app, then introduced the book at the end. The title was treated as a tell-all at the end of the players’ journey. It provided more information about the world they had been introduced to through the GoBZRK experience. It was a subversive take on marketing that perfectly matched the secretive, underground nature of the story’s conflict and characters.
The forward-thinking approach generated enough buzz and positive response that five months before the book came out, the movie rights had already been sold to Sony, the title was sold to 14 different countries, and the publisher’s money had been recouped. “It created a business element that worked for us as well,” LeMay said of transmedia. “The fans got more than a book, they got the book of the future.”
Gamification Means Longevity
Even though the official GoBZRK campaign ended after three months, LeMay said that there was a large holdover of fans who kept returning to the transmedia sites. Although the sponsors are no longer distributing prizes, LeMay said that for as long as the sites were running, every click was rewarded. Visitors still received points, badges, and achievements even after the official end date.
LeMay also noted that people could opt to replay the entire scenario, taking new paths through the game. This approach of offering rewards and multiple play options was a smart way of keeping people involved in the world.
Convincing the Sponsors
The Shadow Gang tied in several sponsorships with the GoBZRK project. LeMay said that the campaign was a hard sell for many of them since it was so far removed from the traditional channels those companies were accustomed to.
The Shadow Gang convinced sponsors that an affiliation with smart new approaches to content and media was a win-win situation. “Brands have to be okay with saying ‘you know what, the engagement is going to come through our association,'” he said, noting that companies are increasingly aware of the need to align with great content.
LeMay also persuaded sponsors to join because of how well the GoBZRK campaign would appeal to the demographic in question. “This is not for you,” he told potential sponsors. “You are not the audience. Your daughter isn’t content to sit back and have something wash over her all the time,” he explained. “She wants to participate and sometimes she even tries to get into the director’s chair.”
Adopt the Right Attitude
LeMay’s advice for companies pursuing transmedia marketing is to dive in headfirst. Since the approach is so new, he acknowledged that the task is daunting and largely hasn’t been codified. “Tell great stories first,” LeMay said. “The story you’re telling is more important than the gimmick you have behind it.” An audience needs that narrative to relate to, and they won’t be able to attach to the glitz of a marketing ploy in the same real way.
Because of the nature of transmedia today, LeMay opined that “the safest move is the boldest move.” He discouraged a tentative approach to this type of immersive experience. “If people are trying to dip their toes in the digital water, there will be no result and nobody will come,” he said. “Put social in the center and make sure that you make something important, and shoot big!”