Crowdsourcing Gone Wrong

Every now and again I come across something that really chafes my hindquarters, so to speak. Today, it's ill-conceived crowdsourcing. A London ad agency is, apparently... well, let's just quote the site:

Seriously. We’re giving our name away.

You’ve got six weeks to come up our new name and logo. The winner will be chosen by the community and, whatever the winning name is, that’s what we’ll be called.

Crowdsourcing is not an inherently bad thing. I've done it myself for projects like The TSA Choice, and I plan to do it again with Intimacy. But this is crowdsourcing gone horribly, horribly wrong, for a multiplicity of reasons. Let us count the ways.

First, this agency, currently called Golley Slater, is all but admitting that they do not internally have the creative chops to come up with their own name and logo. Holy moly. Who would want to hire such an agency? One that doesn't even have the fortitude to manage their own branding in-house. 

Second, this is an ethically dubious practice. Oh, sure, it's been done before. There are even whole businesses relying on it. But at the end of the day it devalues creative work, and exploits the people who do it. Creative work should rightly cost money, it being, after all, work. But by framing this as a "contest," this agency (and others like it) are trying to get substantial amounts of work from designers for free, on the promise that it miiiight pay off, if you happen to win.

You'll note that there is a cash prize mentioned on the site. You'll also note that they go out of their way to not tell you how much it is.

I'm not fond of companies that ask me to do substantial work on the premise that they might pay me if they like it when I'm done; particularly not work that could only ever be sold to a single client. A novel is speculative, to be sure, but a novel also has multiple potential buyers. In a pinch, I could even distribute it myself. A logo and company name... yeah, not so much.

Finally: The whole thing smells like a publicity stunt. "Ha ha, you guys, we are totally going to let the community decide what we'll be called! No, srsly!" But that's not true, as it turns out. Actually, if you dig a little deeper, they're going to pick their top five and let you vote from there. And sure, this prevents 4Chan from getting wind of it and renaming them Pedobear International. Still, it's kind of deceptive. This is not "the community chooses" by any means.

And in the fine print, they reserve the right for nobody to win, if they decide they don't like anything. Charming.

The crux of the problem is that in good crowdsourcing, all of the participants get value out of participating. The collective value of Wikipedia far outweighs its cost to individuals, for example. But this isn't asking a company asking for collaborators to chip in on creating a shared resource. This is a single company asking the public to do work that only the company will benefit from... for free.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

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The Maester's Path

I've just received word that I can talk a little about one of the projects keeping me busy lo these past few months -- I've been a copywriter on the team making The Maester's Path, a part of the marketing campaign for HBO's Game of Thrones. (Premiering April 17, exclusively on HBO!)

(This show is going to be *so awesome*, you guys, and I am not even kidding a little bit. I seriously can't wait to see the finished project.)

Anyway -- the project has been really interesting to work on. Obviously George R.R. Martin has an intense fan following, and it was very important to us to get everything pitch-perfect and true to the spirit of the show and the books.

And at the same time, given the nature and scope of the work, it would be a bad idea to try and create new canon for the characters, so setting up Twitter accounts for the Lannisters just wasn't the right way to go. Instead, the brilliant strategic minds at Campfire came up with a sensory tour of the Seven Kingdoms to introduce the world itself.

I have therefore had several recent conversations that went something like this: "No, we can't use that sweaty cotton scent for the Dothraki... it's against canon, they mainly use leathers and woven grasses." Good times, good times.

Photo by cc_chapman on Flickr.

I consider myself very lucky for being a part of this project. Stuff like this doesn't come along every day, and the team I've been a part of have been incredibly dedicated to getting it right. If you haven't already, please go check it out and let me know what you think!

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Marketing as Storytelling

A little while ago, I posted that transmedia is not marketing. I stand by that.

In comments, though, some suggested discomfort with a similar idea: that marketing is storytelling. There have been times I've disagreed with that, despite my own sometime involvement with marketing. The stuff I do is, after all, on the very fringe of marketing, right?

Of course, I'm wrong out of the gate. Imagine the simplest ads that ever were, and their problem/solution format. Rosie can't get her whites white enough/Sophie introduces her to Brand Omega. It's the same structure as any novel's tension/climax, even if the tension is caused by something prosaic. Shallow, tepid stories, but stories all the same.

Today, though, I had an epiphany. I read an article in the Guardian that touched on the absolutely brilliant Chrysler Superbowl ad, Imported from Detroit.

But it also drew its power from the intertwining stories it tapped. There's Chrysler's story, and Detroit's, Eminem's own, and that of his Rabbit character from 8 Mile – the ad's music kept threatening to break into his cathartic Lose Yourself. The more of the stories you knew, the more power the advert might have, and at their root they were all the same – comeback, redemption, turning flaws into glory.

Imported from Detroit was an advertisement. It was meant to sell cars. And yet it spoke to me on a deep emotional level, the way the very best films and novels do. --And given the public reaction, I don't think it's just because I'm from a town outside of Detroit, and I've stood in many of those places on my own two feet. 

This ad very definitely channels the same mysterious forces that make a story. It was about pride and loss, strength having the odds stacked against you. At the same time, it doesn't have a plot, it doesn't have motivations, it's doesn't have a narrative.

And yet--

I think in some sense, when the word 'story' is used in a marketing sense, it doesn't mean the same thing to those of us who write fiction. We're using the same word, but we don't mean the same thing by it.

When marketers say 'story,' it's referring not to narrative, but to the same deep, primal dynamics that we creators of fiction explore through narrative: love, yearning, status, pride, loss, forgiveness. So a marketing effort is storytelling in a sense that at its best, it invokes these dynamics, even without plot, even without action, even without characterization (or even characters!). It's the seeking of an emotional response. And it certainly isn't a lesser artform; just a shorter one.

And lo, I am converted. You win, marketers. You've been storytellers all along, and I just didn't understand what you meant by it until today.

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Transmedia Is Not Marketing

Late last week, I was involved in a Twitter conversation in which a gentleman dismissed the "transmedia bandwagon" as having been invented by marketers.

I have a lot of problems with this. So many, many problems. Let me count the ways.

Our Antecedents

In his gorgeous memoir about the Cloudmakers, Jay Bushman likened the ARG as akin to the use of sound in the Jazz Singer. It wasn't the first film to use sound, it was merely the first film to easily show audiences the powerful way sound could affect a film.

Likewise, the Beast was by no means the first project to use fictional websites or blogging as a made-up character. And it definitely wasn't the project that invented the technique of creating evidence of a story and playing it out as though it were really happening. The roots of this narrative style are older than the internet, older even than electricity, sunk deep in the tradition of espitolary novels -- arguably invented in Spain in 1485.

And then there's the Blair Witch Project, which predates the Beast, but used many of the same tools and techniques. Filmmaker Mike Monello is a marketer today, and he's proud of what he does (as well he should be). He has no reason to shy away from calling the Blair Witch extended experience anything besides a clever marketing campaign; quite the reverse, in fact, since it turned out to be a brilliant factor in the film's success. And still, he is adamant that the extended world they created was more about art than anything else.

But the urge to call a transmedia narrative "marketing" if there is at any point an intended monetary transaction is overwhelming. I've heard people say that, for example, "Perplex City was marketing, it was just marketing itself."

This is ludicrous. It's like saying all cinema is created as a marketing tool for selling theater tickets. Yeah, there are films where that's sadly not too far off the mark; but it nonetheless misses the entire medium of film as an artform. Same-same with transmedia, folks.


So why do we have this idea that transmedia=marketing floating around, anyway? Why is it that, no matter how many Perplex Cities and Routeses and Must Love Robots and Cathy's Bookses and Lonelygirl15s and Head Traumas and Worlds Without Oil you bring up, they get dismissed as "rare exceptions?" Especially when it's so patently untrue.

That comes down to economics. It's not that there are more marketing campaigns using transmedia than anyone else; it's that the marketing campaigns are much, much more visible. Why? Because they have more money to throw around.

For one thing, they're a lot more likely to be able to pay the team a living wage, which means the creators can afford to spend more time and care instead of working on it in off hours and weekends. And more money means a higher production value; dollars spent translates pretty well into better-looking video, better-sounding audio, and sleeker, glossier websites. Audiences like that.

And even more important than improved production values, money lets you promote the story. This is crucial -- you need to pull people into your project. The most effective are any traditional media you can afford: TV spots, billboards, bus shelters, whatever. Even better if you can hire a PR agency to pitch your project to Wired, the Guardian, the New York Times.

This is why the most successful transmedia campaigns to date have, by and large, been part of an overarching marketing campaign. Those folks can afford to promote the project. And transmedia projects need promoting, just like every other form of entertainment does.

In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that building a transmedia narrative on its own is really bad marketing, because it still requires this overhead of promotion. If that doesn't put the nails in the coffin of this "transmedia=marketing" business, I don't know what else could.

Some Marketing Is Art

And yet, and yet -- even if transmedia were invented by marketing, even if it were solely used as marketing campaigns... is that such a very bad thing, really? I vote no.

We have a strange dichotomy in our culture that says art and money are mutually exclusive. If you're doing something for the love of it, you are legit. If you're doing work for sale or as work for hire, you are a sellout.

This is a steaming load of bull hockey.

I've worked on original IP projects for love, and I've worked on marketing projects. I apply the same degree of craft and thought to everything I do. Does this mean sometimes I'm an artist and sometimes I'm just a hack? Or does it mean that maybe -- just maybe -- some of those marketing projects shouldn't be dismissed out of hand as art and entertainment?

At the end of the day, marketing and advertising are one of the very few plausible ways for visual designers and writers (just for example) to earn a living with their art. Yeah, some of it is going to be phoned-in, soulless work. But you know what? These industries do as much to shape our consensus culture as the film and TV industries do. If you need evidence of that, look at Old Spice, or the Budweiser frogs. They have a commercial point, sure, but nothing captures the public's imagination if there's nothing there at the heart of it.

Transmedia is bigger than purely marketing. It's true that marketing dollars have done a lot to shape us; but as Bushman says, vaudeville marketing dollars did a lot to shape early cinema, too. Cinema is a lot bigger than that now. Give us that same hundred years and we will be, too.

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Transmedia for Fun and Profit (Entrepreneurial Edition)

Yesterday, I posited that it's possible to make a pretty good living in transmedia as a freelancer or as an employee... but both of these paths have their disadvantages. Now let's look at the third way you can build a transmedia career: Entrepreneurial spirit. 

I sometimes think the natural lifecycle of a transmedia freelancer leads inevitably to starting your own business. The ranks of freelancers have thinned drastically over the last couple of years as many of my contemporaries do just that. 

You may wonder why it is that I haven't started my own agency, too, pitching projects to all of those juicy contacts I bragged about in the first part of this post. I've thought about it, to be sure, but I see my friends embroiled in bureaucratic nightmares; suddenly, instead of doing the work, they're doing payroll and accounting. Have I mentioned yet how much I like to do the work? 

If you're going to start a transmedia business, you need to know where the money comes from. Let's see how to squeeze some money out of this thing.


When we think transmedia, most of us think first about commissioned work. You start an agency, a studio, a media or production company. Then you sell your company's labors to another company. That other company generally wants to market a product (sometimes another entertainment product), but sometimes it's something else: A TV network commissioning an original webseries-plus-experience. A corporation or educational institution looking for an innovative team-building exercise. A governmental agency wanting to test its processes. 

Most of the big ARGs and transmedia experiences you can think of fall into the category of commissioned work: Why So Serious, ilovebees, World Without Oil. My career as a freelancer has largely revolved around commissioned projects like these -- I get hired by a production company that is in turn working for, say, Channel 4.

If you start your own media company or agency, you're basically freelancing with higher stakes. The risks of not getting projects and not getting paid still exist; worse, you're now responsible for the hustle for more people than yourself. It's not for the faint of heart.

To make a go of being an agency owner full time, you'd better have an amazing address book and a contract or two signed and notarized. You'd better have a track record to show potential clients, too. Once upon a time you could get a contract just by talking a good game, but nowadays, there's a lot of competition. If you're just starting out, you'd be wise to keep your day job and develop your company on the evenings and weekends as much as possible... or have other revenue streams. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of potential revenue streams out there for independent work.

Going Indie

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you don't have an address book filled with people falling over to make a deal with you. Or maybe it is, but you have a transmedia story in your heart and you want to make that. How do you do it?

First, recognize that transmedia work is very rarely a solo effort. Once upon a time, I said that an ARG needed three basic skill sets: A writer, a designer, and a technologist. Nowadays, in the brave transmedia future, I'd add a fourth -- a producer. You're going to need to build a team. But this doesn't necessitate four different people, one for each role.Transmedia is the domain of generalists and bootstrappers, people who are comfortable stepping out of a job description in order to do whatever needs doing. Bear this in mind when you're recruiting.

If there is any chance of money on the table, you're going to need to be very clear about how it will be divided, and you're going to have to really, really trust the people you work with. Choosing a business partner is as big a commitment as, say, getting married. In both cases, if you make a bad choice, you can get cleaned out and left bleeding. Get a pre-nup, kids. The love might not last forever, but a signed contract does.

Next, if you're going to do indie work, you need to know how to monetize your audience. I have some good news and bad news: The good news is there are a lot of ways to do this thing. The bad news is that none of it will make you much money unless and until you can get yourself a whopping big audience.

Hey, if it were easy, everyone would do it, right?


Thus far, most of the money in the transmedia world comes from advertising, one way or another. Either the experience is funded with the marketing budget for something else, like a TV show (which is, in turn, funded by ad dollars!) or else the commissioner plans to use the content as a vehicle for advertising (putting the transmedia experience in the role of that TV show). When MTV commissions an original transmedia experience, it's because they can get a sponsorship deal with, oh, Verizon, for example. Those ad dollars flow to the commissioner, who doles some of them out to the transmedia production company. The cycle of media continues.

But advertising can be a consideration for non-commissioned indie work, too. There are two kinds of advertising to look at -- overt ads, and product placement. 

You won't be able to get product placement unless you can prove you have a pretty good audience going already. The only transmedia project or ARG I'm aware of that has done product placement was LonelyGirl15, and it was awfully heavy-handed; presumably because LonelyGirl didn't have a lot of bargaining power. I don't think this revenue stream has yet been explored the way it could be.

Overt ads are a mixed blessing. They're easy to implement; you don't have to prove you'll have an audience to put Google ads on your websites. But they can look distracting and unprofessional, and they aren't going to make you very much money unless you're getting an awful lot of traffic. In the cost/benefit analysis, I come down against banner ads and such; your mileage may vary.


One of my favorite transmedia-lite projects, Shadow Unit, puts out their content for free, with only a tip jar. I don't know how much money they've made on the project, but it's certainly not millions. Heck, it's not even enough for them to live off of; they're all still working on other stuff. And it's certainly more than you're likely to make if you go down this road. Shadow Unit is the work of a handful of award-winning science fiction authors who have fans of their work built in.

Still, there are advantages to this approach. By creating zero barrier to entry for their content, Shadow Unit (and single-platform artists like Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Coulton, Cory Doctorow) are making it easier to get new, enthusiastic audience members. As audience size grows, the odds of being able to monetize in diverse ways down the pike grow more significant -- by getting a book or movie deal based on their content, for example (please let it be so!) Or by getting sponsorship, as web series The Guild has done with Microsoft.

If you give it a try, you won't be rolling in bucks, but you might be able to bankroll the resources you use to create more work.


Merchandising gets overlooked a lot. Some popular webcomics and indie games use merchandising as a key revenue stream -- t-shirts, hats, art prints. A transmedia product could go this route, too: Selling shirts for an in-game company or sports team on the easiest level. As with donations, it probably won't be a ton of money... unless you have a ton of audience. See how it keeps coming back to that?

A different kind of merchandising involves selling items specifically crafted for a narrative purpose, like EDOC Laundry. This is a tricky line, because you might well call some of these games...

Pay to Play

This model gets an undeservedly bad rap. We wring our hands over Majestic and say that a subscription model just doesn't work, ignoring all of the amazing and money-making projects already in existence that are at their heart pay-to-play experiences: Cathy's Book, The Hidden Park, the aforementioned EDOC Laundry.

If you're planning on making a classic ARG and you don't already have an existing track record, then no, a subscription model isn't going to work. Too bad. But the model itself is sound; people are willing to pony down cash for a transmedia experience.

The biggest problems with pay-to-play are actually more traditional business problems. Making a compelling story is just the beginning. After that, how do you get product on shelves? How do you promote? How do you distribute?

Perplex City was in part a pay-to-play game, though you could call it a hybrid with the donation model. Most of the content out there was free, so you could follow along with the story regardless of whether you bought the puzzle cards or not. The business model for Perplex City was fundamentally successful. The project did make money! And it would have made a lot more, if we had come into it with a better grounding in stodgy business fundamentals like manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. 

There is a lot of untapped potential here. It's probably not something you can do right out of the gate, but it's a definite possibility to work toward. Don't count it out.


Instead of getting a commercial commission or monetizing your audience, you could apply for any of a number of new media or arts grants to fund the transmedia project of your dreams. 

I don't know a lot about this, excepting that it is hypothetically possible. From what I do know, however, the money probably won't help you pay the rent; you'll be lucky if it covers all of the resources you need to build out, with the expectation that labor is free.

There's a reason we have the 'starving artist' stereotype.


Socks Inc. on Kickstarter just proved to us (and how!) that you can crowdfund a transmedia project successfully. It's too soon to know just what kind of precedent this has set. 

However, the money they raised is, in the grand scheme of things, not very much. For the time they're going to spend on this project, the resources used, and the number of people involved... I don't think that $7357 is going to go very far. Still, it's a better track than building all of your portfolio pieces and building a fanbase entirely on your own dime. 

And in Conclusion

If you're starting out in transmedia, your first step is probably to make stuff and put it out there for free. That's the same if you're angling for a freelancer gig, regular employment, or if you want to go indie. For the first two, you need a portfolio. For the last one, you need to build up a critical mass of adoring and money-spending fans.

It's possible to build up a fanbase even while working as a freelancer or for a company... but it's actually a lot harder than if you go indie, because you're going to have more limitations on what you say about your work. If you're unlucky, you won't even get any credit at all, and nobody will ever know the work was yours.

So, for Chuck Wendig, and all of you potential transmedia creators out there: Transmedia is a big, scary world if you're trying to turn pro. There's money to be had, to be sure, but you're going to have to really bust your tail to get it.

If this discourages you, then great; I hope you enjoy your career doing whatever less-risky thing it is you have the skills to do. As with all creative work, this isn't a path you should choose unless you are absolutely damn sure there's nothing else in the world you want. 

But for those of you who have the fire in your belly, who just know that you've got what it takes? Welcome, brothers and sisters. It's not easy to make a living this way, but we're sure going to have a good time on the way.

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