Transmedia Storytelling - How to keep media multitasking audiences happy. Part 1

23rd June




Written by Masters Student

How to keep media multitasking audiences happy?

Who isn’t familiar with this scenario: two teenagers sitting on a sofa, watching TV, while simultaneously handling their laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The problem: Media multitasking is quickly gaining momentum and is, in part, ascribed to the influence of the internet, which has multiplied the entertainment sources for consumers. Nowadays, multiple media platforms are courting for consumer´s attention and marketers are having difficulties with how to reach this new generation of elusive audience (Nielsen, 2014).

The answer: Transmedia storytelling, a buzz word for the creation of content that is shareable, scalable and immersive (Norrington, 2013). It offers consumers a way to no longer receive media messages passively, but rather engage with media in a way that fits their urge for combining media channels to achieve a “flow state” (Olver, Lant, Plant, Majeske&Kurch, 2009, pp.139-148). Entertainment properties such as movies and TV shows have long capitalized on the transmedia storytelling strategy but how can marketers jump on this bandwagon? For example, how has the Coca Cola company turned their “Happiness Factory” campaign into a transmedial hit? 

          1.     Media Multitasking – How people are engaging with media today

The ubiquity of available information has created a “bottleneck” for consumers, meaning their attention is constantly being challenged by multiple messages, leading to booming marketing costs in the attempt to stand out  (Merkin, 2003, pp.20-21).

Media multitasking becomes the consumers´ answer to skyrocketing media messages and the proliferation of media platforms because it allows consumers to interact with multiple messages at the same time. Media multitasking is defined as the “practice of participating in multiple exposures to two or more commercial media forms at a single point in time, including traditional, online, social, and entertainment media” (Bardhi, Rohm & Sultan, 2010) and about 80% of teens engage in this kind of behavior regularly (Pendleton, 2004). For example, 81% of generation Y respondents engage in telephone conversations, 76% use their computer and 66% read magazines and newspapers while watching TV (Elikin, 2003). Overall, about 25-30% of all time spent on media is spent multitasking. Hence, a total of astonishing 43 hours of worth of activity is performed within a 24 hour time period by the average US citizen (Yahoo, 2006).  

However, many researchers doubt the effectiveness of such media processing approaches, Srivastava (2013) for example discovered negative effects on message processing and recall ability in multitasking consumers. A complementary study explains that media multitasking really is not able to satisfy the cognitive needs of consumers, but rather serves emotional gratification, which might explain the increasing trend of media-multitasking despites the proven decrease in effective productivity (Zhang, Mao, Rau, Choe, Bela, &  Wang, 2013). It might be suggested that today´s consumers face feelings of increased time scarcity and need for connectivity, which lead them to believe polychromic time use is the answer to all their problems. Especially young consumers that grew up as “digital natives” cannot withstand the power of multitasking (Olver et al., 2009, pp. 381, 536).

Bardhi, Rohm & Sultan´s (2010) study on the topic bridges this paradox as they suggest an inverted U-curve relationship between the extent of multitasking activity and the MAO-model[1]. Hence, multitasking can have both negative effects, such as feelings of chaos, disengagement and enslavement, as well as positive outcomes, such as feelings of control, efficiency, engagement and assimilation. According to the study, consumers employ a variety of multitasking strategies to better handle the variety of information available through different media platforms. By means of these coping strategies they are able to achieve what Pilotta and Schultz (2005) identify as synesthesia; a holistic, integrated and overlapping sense experience. Consumers able to accomplish such a flow state are able to unveil media synergies.

Accordingly, it was also discovered that the ability to switch between discrete tasks is higher in younger consumers (Brasel&Gips, 2011) and frequent multitaskers. Young and heavy media multitaskers are, thus, better able to navigate the multi-screen environment (Alzahabi&Becker, 2013). Interestingly, most consumers are unaware of the amount of multitasking they perform, with most of them judging their shifting behavior at only 12% of their actual 120 switches in 27.5 minutes (Brasel&Gips, 2011).  

          2.     Traditional media – Why it is unable to serve the needs of multitaskers 

Obviously, this fragmented media landscape (Winer, 2008) and the consumers´ quest for achieving media synergies, does not coincide with the way marketers have traditionally merely reproduced messages across media platforms for the purpose of sequential consumption. Consumers are flowing freely across all media channels, while content does not.

Although many have pointed out that online media platforms, especially social media sites, should be integrated in the total media “ecosystem” (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011), it is not being discussed how such an integration can take place.

Traditional static advertisements are simply not engaging and empowered multitaskers have the ability to quickly switch if the outlet they are using does not grab their attention (Brasel&Gips, 2011). Hence, marketers need to develop engaging content distribution systems that attract consumer attention and pull people in, thereby capitalizing on the idiosyncratic benefits each media platform offers. The key to long-term success becomes engagement rather than reach (Clancy, 1992) and marketers have to find a way to implement this in their branding strategies quickly before consumers direct their attention to more interesting content – they do have enough options after all.

          3.     Transmedia Storytelling – How to integrate content in an engaging way

Transmedia storytelling capitalizes on exactly that trend – knowing that customers have multiple media channels to choose from and rather than discourage their quest for synergies, encouraging it. Transmedia storytelling is the “evolution of the integrated marketing model” (Berelowitz, 2011, p.12) in that instead of thriving for messaging consistency, marketers disperse their stories over multiple channels but connecting them through common stylistic devices. Therewith, consumers are encouraged to become active and finding the missing story lines themselves. By the means of this strategy, marketers earn consumers´ attention, rather than interrupting them, and offer immersion, interactivity, integration and impact (DeMartino, 2013). Phillips (2010, p. 10) defines transmedia storytelling as:

“the art of conveying messages, themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well-planned use of multiple media platforms…an entertainment concepts that touch consumers via distinct media at the same time, immersing the consumer so deeply in a particular world that you will want another hit of that thrilling, dreamlike experience. In [the] future, content will flow seamlessly across media platforms so that a consumer can engage with the property via touch points that are complementary, but completely distinct.”

Hence, transmedia storytelling is optimally targeted towards multitaskers and their hereditary behavior of switching between different mediums, trying to combine them effectively.  The consumer is no longer presented with a finished product, but is rather encouraged to complete the story himself. Furthermore, brands are no longer centered around values, which are inherently static, but storylines, which seems much more fitting in today´s ever-changing environment.

Trying to tie a product to a storyline is not new. Marketers have done so for years, e.g. through product placement or sponsorships. Transmedia storytelling takes this attempt even further by creating independent brand stories and no longer piggybacking alien content (Benn, 2008). The importance of brand storytelling or content marketing has been widely recognized (e.g. Pulizzi, 2012; Bacon, 2013; Borth, 2013). However, most of the literature is concerned with what content to create and what story to tell, not with how to deliver it to the customer. In today´s society the old saying “Content is King”, is turned into “Connectivity is King” (Odlyzko, 2001). Hence, while an intriguing storyline is crucial for attracting consumers, a network of hypodiegetic spaces and intertextuality is what turns them into loyal fans. Transmedia storytelling is the predominant strategy for achieving this.

  Exhibit 1: What is Transmedia Storytelling? Source: Transmedia Storyteller, n.d.


Exhibit 1: What is Transmedia Storytelling?

Source: Transmedia Storyteller, n.d.


The entertainment industry has tapped into the transmedia storytelling potential long ago. Transmedia storylines, such as The Matrix, Survivor, or Transformers, have been rewarded with great success. And since “commercial marketing is the best financed source of media production in our world [and] often at the cutting edge of semiotic innovation” (Lemke, 2009, p. 292), the attempts of translating this trend into the marketing sphere shouldn´t come as a surprise. However, while stories are part of the product in the entertainment industry, companies sell physical products or services. Hence, constructing a compelling storyline is more difficult. Assumingly because of these difficulties and the complexity of building a transmedia property, many marketers have refrained from using the tactic in their overall branding strategy but have rather experimented on a campaign-based level.

However, when employed correctly, transmedia storylines cannot only boost a company´s image, but more importantly open the channel to engage with customers in a meaningful discourse.

[1] The MAO-model refers to a conceptual framework in marketing used to explain how motivation, ability and opportunity shape consumer behavior. For more information, read Ölander&Thᴓgersen, 1995


The second part of this blog post and bibliography will be published on 26th of June.