Monday, December 6, 2010

Transmedia Lessons from the Catholic Church

Contributed by GregPC

I’ve been fortunate. For a few years I worked in Kendall Square and often found my way over to MIT for various events – mostly the MIT Communications Forum. In the course of these visits I got to hear Henry Jenkins discuss the idea of transmedia – that is various content types and channels being used to share elements of a narrative that strengthen and support the overall story. If you consume one channel you’ll get part of the picture but the more channels that are tapped into the richer the experience and the closer one is drawn to the core story.

Transmedia has started getting more attention recently. Steve Rubel did a post on it and the Producer's Guilde of America has added Transmedia Producer as a new job title. But questions remain as to what exactly transmedia is and who's doing it well.

There are lots of examples of transmedia – MIT did a forum on Heros that discussed its transmedia efforts. Most of the examples I’ve seen are of media or entertainment brands – but I don’t think any of them are really nailing it like the example I have in mind. My winner for best transmedia storytelling has been at it for longer than anyone else, it’s reached more people than anyone else has and it’s used more channels than anyone I can think of. The organization I have in mind is the Catholic Church.

Think about it. There is a core story line that is expressed in text. But from that text have emerged dozens of expressions in different media – and all of them have been designed (or at least intended) to expose part of the core story and to make it accessible to different audiences.

Let’s look at just a few examples – and how communicators can put the lessons to work (of course not all of them apply . . . ):

Architecture – think of the cathedrals – with their design to inspire awe in visitors, the statuary intended to illustrate stories andintroduce characters from the core narrative (and also from local lore).

This isn’t something that’s easily done from a communications perspective, but we should be looking at ALL of our assets. What do the structures say about an organization? Are they sterile corporate spaces or do they help present a personality? How can that personality be communicated? Do images do justice, does a site tour video and does an explanation of why a space matters? These are all ways space can beused to help tell a story.

Stained glass – which are obviously part of the cathedral – serve again to illustrate stories to what was often at the time of their creation a non-literate population.

There’s been a growth in popularity in using images and infographics to help tell or support complex stories. This one is easily done and should be a part of any rich communications program.

Literature – there have been thousands of works that have used religious themes, topics, characters and events. In some cases these have supported the central narrative, in some cases they have merely used them as fodder for story-telling and in others they have been crafted in opposition to the church – but in all cases they provide and opening and exposure to the core story.

I’ve worked with a number of clients in the past that have tried the whole book route. To me, unless you have a proven commodity and a lot of time, books are a crazy idea. Writing is something else though and there are so many ways to get text-based content out there. What happens too often though is that people limit themselves to pretty staid formats. The blog post, the white paper, the tweet . . . nothing wrong with any of them; but why not the poem, the greeting card, the joke? I’m not suggesting that alternative writing always makes sense but it could sometimes . . .

Technology – the fact that the first printed book in the West was the Bible says something about the place of that narrative in the lives of those creating media. The church has – for better or worse – been willing to adopt (or demonize) media depending on how well (or poorly) it supports transmitting the core narrative.

There’s really not much to say here. Pretty much every communications person I know has figured this one out. Just don’t get too married to any platform.

Images – when it comes to visual content, Biblical characters and stories have been some of the most represented in Western art. Some of these were actively encouraged while others were strictly user-generated. In either case images have long and successfully served to help spread and make the core narrative more accessible.

This is another area where more could be done. Still photography is too often overlooked or given short shrift. Poor tagging, unidentified individuals, repeated shots, etc. all make for boring viewing. Now on video organizations are starting to get thehang of it and that’s great. What’s even cooler is the growing volume of user-generated content that’s being embraced – and rewarded.

Drama – dramatic interpretations of Biblical events have a long history – from Passion Plays to Christmas Pageants – these have been performed thousands of times all over the world.

You know I would love to see more companies use drama. How and why are open questions but there are some fun possibilities. Of course a handful of organizations are using drama through video and that’s a step in the right direction.

Music – liturgical music and music with religious themes have been around for millennia and have ranged from psalms to operas to popular music.

Music is tricky. It either comes across as a jingle or a spoof. Maybe we’re too jaded for songs to explain ideas? Maybe there really isn’t a place for music in business communication?

Location-based Experiences – the number of shrines/churches and suggested pilgrimages have long provided an opportunity for ordinary landscapes to be cooped and used for religious purposes.

There are very cool things happening here. And here and here. People are starting to connect the dots to help tell a story. Scvngr’s treks and challenges are good examples of tools for building location-centricexperiences and since they’re so simple to use there are lots of people taking advantage of them.

These are just a few examples of the channels that the Catholic Church has used (or which have been used by others) to convey and support and extend that core textual narrative. One could be exposed to any one of them and would have some sense of the larger story – but the more one is exposed to the deeper and more engaging that experience becomes. That is the idea and goal of transmedia storytelling.

What sets the Catholic Church apart is the fact that it has a centralized authority that oversees messaging. Few other faiths (or frankly organizations of any kind) can claim so long a history with so clear a lineage. This has resulted in an orthodoxy that has kept the story contained and focused for a very long time. This stability and longevity have allowed rules and understandings to emerge that have permitted the core narrative to be interpreted and transmitted in many ways without compromising the overall story. This whole thing is something I’ve been thinking about casually for a while. Does transmedia make sense to people at all? Does this example help illustrate the idea of transmedia? Are there other – better examples – that make more sense? Can’t wait to hear what others have to say.

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