Define your terms…but not too much.
Congratulations, you’re starting on a multi-platform project! Your first task is to figure out what exactly that means because there is no unified, widely accepted definition for multi-platform. You may also hear the words crossmedia or transmedia used. Any of these terms come with requisite eye-rolling since there has been a ceaseless, multi-year debate about exactly what these words mean – google WTF is Transmedia for a taste.
Strict terminology definitions are not really the point, however. What is crucial to know is that everybody who uses one of these terms has a different understanding of what it means. So as quickly as possible, figure out what that understanding is. If you’ve been hired on to a project, the person who hired you or the main creative force on the project is going to have their own vision that they are using the term to describe – learning about that vision is your first job. Because for the duration of that project, that vision will become your definition of multi-platform, regardless of how anybody else chooses to use the word.
If the chief creative force on the project or the person doing the hiring IS you, the same dynamic applies. If you are hiring somebody to be a multi-platform coordinator or a transmedia producer, be sure they know what you mean when you use these words, and exactly what tasks you believe that position entails.
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Not all platforms are created equally.
No matter how many platforms your project uses, there’s almost always going to be one platform that is primary. It’s usually the one that comes with the biggest budget, or the one demanding the most resources. The challenge is how to structure your multi-platform content so that the non-primary platforms do not feel like afterthoughts.
Watch out for any of the following words: “ancillary,” “secondary” or “bonus” content. These are giveaways that while the project leaders have consented to a multi-platform approach, it is not a priority to them. If this is the case, adjust your plans and expectations accordingly.
There’s always a new toy.
Multi-platform storytelling is often driven by the digital departments of larger companies, or by individual creators who are interested in pushing boundaries. This means that innovation is highly regarded. That can cut both ways. While working with new platforms and innovative storytelling methods can be exhilarating and adventurous, it can also sometimes fall victim to a tendency for innovation for its own sake.
Every year, there is some tool or technology that becomes the new hot thing. Some have longevity (e.g. digital cameras replacing film.) Some crash and burn (e.g. Google Glass.) Others settle down into becoming a regular feature in the larger ecosystem (e.g. Twitter.)
Right now, the new shiny toy is VR/360. There is a ton of money being thrown at developing VR technology and producing 360 programs. I’ve done one myself. You may be brought onto a project to hear the following, “Oh, and there’s going to be a VR component, too.” And it’s up to you to figure out how to make that work. You’ll need to immerse yourself in how VR storytelling works. See as many projects as you can. Figure out who’s making them. Develop an opinion. Figure out which ones you like and which ones feel gimmicky.
This doesn’t mean you need to become an expert in every single platform or toolset that becomes available. But the ability to dive into a new technology and to develop enough fluidity to use it in a multi-platform setting is an important skill to have – and it’s a skill that’s completely transferrable to whatever the next new shiny thing it. You don’t need to be a master of VR, or location-based storytelling, or augmented reality, or any specific mode. The skill that makes a great multi-platform producer or creator is the ability to take a new format or tool or platform and find a way to fold it into the larger project in the right place.
Throw out the manual.
Every time a new platform or tool hits the market, it’s usually accompanied by a story about how it can and should be used. These stories can be helpful, but more often then not they just get in the way. To make great multi-platform content, it’s often necessary to use different platforms in ways they were not designed to be used. For example, the late Brian Clark, co-founder of Indiewire, pioneered the sport of “Endorsement Bombing” – using LinkedIn to endorse people for random and crazy skills.
Sometimes, these platforms will resist your attempts to get creative. On the show “Welcome To Sanditon,” we invited fans to create their own characters that lived in the storyworld. On the first weekend, over 600 fan-created Twitter accounts were made – so many that Twitter began blocking them as spam. It took us several days to get that situation sorted out, and highlighted to importance of developing relationships with the people behind the platforms that you’re using.
Know who owns the tools that you’re using.
There is a dizzying array of possible tools at your disposal – especially internet-based platforms like YouTube and the multiple flavors of social media. Many of these channels have terms-of-service that will affect how you can use your media, and even who owns it. Yes, this means you actually need to read all of the terms of service, and figure out who you’re granting licenses to and what those licenses cover.
If you use these platforms, never forget that you are building on someone else’s land. What happens to you if they change their policies, their designs, their APIs, their search algorithms? Does your project break? Does it disappear completely?
Show your work.
One of the most difficult problems in the multi-platform space is the question of repeatability. In a single medium, this isn’t much of an issue. You can easily re-read a book, re-watch a movie, or listen to a song multiple times. But what do you do when your project combines audio, video, text and interactive forms? Social media is an especially difficult problem – these platforms are all biased towards what is happening at this moment, not what happened yesterday, last week, last month or last year. Never mind trying to create context between multiple social media platforms and other types of media.
Most multi-platform projects have a one-time life. You either see it when it’s first released, or you never do. Which means as multi-platform creators, we are sacrificing 99% of our potential audience because we don’t have a good way to reach the people who didn’t hear about it right away. There is a rich history of multi-platform projects over the past 15 years that are either completely lost, or only exist in truncated forms – like photographs of old stage plays.
This is a problem that I’ve been fairly obsessed with for the past several years. And so after years of using other peoples’ platforms, and I’m building my own: The Horizon Factory is an authoring, distribution and monetization platform that allows content creators to produce digital media apps from video, audio, text, graphic, social and interactive media in any combination, and without needing to know how to code.
Finding a way of centralizing your content for easy consumption – whether for your primary audience or for a much larger secondary audience who might find it in the months and years to come – is an existential question for the multi-platform space. We’ll need to find a format or formats that allows our projects to have a longer life past their initial distribution, or else we risk multi-platform storytelling being forever stuck with the label “experimental.”
Find the community.
The multi-platform world is still relatively small, but wherever you are there will likely be other people trying to work in similar ways. You can find support and advice from seasoned producers who may have faced similar challenges, as well as lots of new eager creators with exciting ideas. Some great places to start are the Storyforward and Storycode communities. And if you can’t find a community where you are, start your own. You’ll be surprised at how many people are thinking about multi-platform storytelling and looking for others to connect with.
Jay Bushman is an award-winning multi-platform writer and producer. His projects include the Emmy-Award winning The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and its follow-up Welcome To Sanditon and the interactive series Airship Dracula and Dirty Work. Bushman is also the Chief Creative Officer and a Founder of The Horizon Factory