“Always Be Marketing”? No, “Always Be Storytelling.”
A response to Josef Adalian
Written with help and advice from Sascha Hecks.
In Vulture last week, Josef Adalian says that the new mantra for TV shows is “always be marketing.” His article astutely points out the trend to “Live + 365,” as AMC calls it. Where the entertainment world was once ruled by the rhythm of the seasons — new shows on September through May, sweeps week, then reruns — technology has unmoored us from our historical rhythms and created a world of year-round VOD, a world where audiences can binge anything they like at any time. That means audiences can be hooked on your show at any time, and that, in turn, means that you must Always Be Marketing.
Adalian’s points are good ones. But marketing campaigns are only one part of a television show, and everything about the creation and sale of TV is impacted by the always-on phenomenon. Shortening the window between seasons of Angie Tribeca means that development and production have to take place in different ways and on different schedules. Ensuring that a show like Mr. Robot is bingeable requires new writing strategies, aimed at an audience that’s tuning in for six hours at a time — not once a week for six weeks.
Even more complicated, as pointed out this week by NBC Research Chief Alan Wurtzel, audiences are waiting until they hear good word of mouth about a series and networks need to provide access to previous seasons as viewers are not tuning into the show unless they can go back and consume in narrative order.
It isn’t just schedules and access that have to change, though. Many of the examples of never-ending marketing that Adalian cites actually extend the narrative world of each show. Flight 462 wasn’t only recut scenes from Fear the Walking Dead — it was a short film introducing a brand new character that turned up on Fear for Season 2.
But even though the word has fallen from favor, the concept of transmedia is back with a vengeance.
Now what does that remind you of? Could it be the way back when the Enter the Matrix video game introduced a new character (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) who then turned up in the movie The Matrix Reloaded? Or maybe it’s the way that Heroes extended their TV show characters through motion comics and online games, drawing website traffic (valuable at the time) and kept their audience engaged through the long drought of the writers’ strike. Or the way Hulu’s East Los High featured additional content that included everything from dance lessons to recipes to help audiences immerse? Or more recently the way Overwatch introduced the video games characters and backstories via short animated films before the game launched and are now releasing a graphic novel to feed fans’ need for more story. What was that sort of integration called again? That annoying buzzword? Oh yes… transmedia storytelling.
It’s hardly fashionable to use the term “transmedia” to talk about stories traveling over a variety of platforms to build IP and fan engagement. But even though the word has fallen from favor, the concept of transmedia is back with a vengeance. The entertainment space is crammed with ads, channels, platforms, and every brand and show clamoring for the audience’s attention. In the face of that, how can you successfully engage with audiences so that your show stands out? In a nutshell, this is best achieved through short-form content that audiences actually want to see and through social media integrations that actually build community with fans.
Forget the marketing perspective. Think of this from a fan’s perspective. What’s going to make you excited? What’s going to make you share that news with all of your friends? Is it:
A) The fact that the Gods of Television have given you a video recutting your favorite scenes from the last season;
B) A pic of your favorite actor with one of their best lines Photoshopped on top;
or C) New additional content that advances the story, reveals something about a character or grows the world you’ve been living and breathing for hundreds upon hundreds of epic binge-watching hours?
Forget the marketing perspective. Think of this from a fan’s perspective.
When fans pass around marketing material with glee, it’s not just to coo over their favorite actors. It’s to dissect who’s in what, to try and figure out what the storylines of the next season will be, to debate what’s going to happen next. When fans mainline Game of Thrones, then read thousands of pages of the novels, then buy a narrative game for the very first time in order to experience a new GoT story, we’re seeing the power of worldbuilding and story in action. Great stories and fantastic worlds can move audiences from platform to platform — even to platforms they’d never normally embrace.
That’s what marketers are learning: when you love a story, when you love a world, you’re always hungry for more. That additional content, in whatever format, can keep fan fires stoked in the long wait for the next season to drop.
Maybe, rather than Always Be Marketing, we should think of this turn as Always Be Producing. Always Be Storytelling. Always Be Connecting. Always Be Relationship-Building. Because “Always Be Marketing” implies that what’s happening is just bus ad after bus ad, thirty-second-spot after thirty-second-spot, ad infinitum. But that’s selling these campaigns short. What we’re really seeing is no less than a revolution in the way TV is made and consumed — and it’s a revolution that’s leading us to exciting new ways to tell stories on multiple platforms.