In 2006, a strange, little novel recounting an oral history of the zombie apocalypse was published. By 2011, World War Z had sold 1 million copies — a major milestone for any novel, but especially so for genre fiction. It’s publication was certainly timely; it arrived amidst a rabid enthusiasm for zombie fiction that would eventually transcend most media boundaries. You can easily plot a through-line from World War Z to one of today’s most popular television shows, The Walking Dead, while passing through countless other books, television shows, films, music, and games. You’d even come across adaptations of classic literature with, you know, a little zombie action thrown in. More interestingly, World War Z itself has even been adapted into a variety of media. In 2007, an audiobook version was released which quickly sold 60,000 copies. In 2013, World War Z, the movie, was released and has earned over $500 million worldwide. The people have spoken. They want zombies, yes, but what they really want are stories told in every possible form.
You might look at that example and think, well, in light of how well the book did on its own, and how well the film did later, why even bother with the audiobook? It’s a fair question, given the luxury of hindsight. While 60,000 audiobook copies may sound like small number — compared to the millions of books and tens of millions of movie tickets — making the audio adaptation just a year after the book was published was no sure shot. It was a bet on the transmedia potential of the story, and on a potential 30% audience gain. If you average the total 1 million in book sales over the course of its first five years — 200,000 books per year — 60,000 doesn’t look so small anymore. It’s a very meaningful boost in audience. Now, no doubt some of the book’s most enthusiastic fans also purchased the audio book. But surely the audiobook won World War Z many fans it wouldn’t have had without it. That same calculus — fan enthusiasm + audience reach — led to the film adaptation. And yes, that’s where they really hit the jackpot.
Message Transcends the Medium
The lesson here is that a good story can have a long lifetime across a wide variety of media, each helping it to reach more people. That’s what we want, right? To tell the best story to the largest possible audience. In the case of World War Z, that little audio adaptation was the bridge between the book and the movie — by the numbers, a success in its own right, but perhaps more importantly, as the first in a series of metamorphoses. And of course, this is a lesson we can learn from other stories, many of which have soared to heights the likes of which even the best zombie book probably never will. Harry Potter, for example: seven books, eight films, eleven video games, one stage play, and five theme parks. Oh, and yes, seven audio books. One epic story, one massive audience.
Alexandra Alter, in a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, put it well when she wrote:
“The digital revolution may have dealt a heavy blow to print, but it is boosting literacy in other unexpected ways by fueling the explosive growth of audio books.”
Literacy — as in learning, education, competence, knowledge — gets a boost when the message transcends the medium. Who’d have thought? This is because it’s not enough for an audience to discover a story. The story needs to go with them, wherever they go, whether they are staring at a page or a screen or commuting to work or running a wooded trail. Can your content do that? Or is there just one way for your audience to experience it? How accessible is your content, really? Probably not as accessible as it could be.
So let’s talk about how to diversify your media portfolio.
A Two-Stage Transmedia Plan
Based upon everything I’ve written so far, you may think that diversifying your media portfolio is out of your reach. After all, I’ve been talking big numbers. But, nothing could be further from the truth. This is something you can do. I’m recommending you do it in two stages. The first is simply adapting individual pieces of content to a different form. Start with existing content; this is your low-hanging fruit.
You should be thinking about a theme-based, media-diverse content strategy.
For example, choose a written article that, though it may not be the most recent thing on your site, you feel is still relevant. This is content that can live again, in a new form. The simplest thing would be to turn it in to an audio or videocast. Try sitting down with a colleague and talking about the article. What is its core point? What examples did you use? What recommendations did you make? Record that discussion. It could be a casual chat, or one of you could interview the other about the subject of the article. You could take the same approach, but go in the other direction. Choose a video you’ve already recorded, or a webinar, or, if you have one, a recording of a talk you’ve given. Then, transcribe it (use a transcription service like Rev.com). After a little proofreading and formatting, that transcription could be thousands of words of indexable content.
Once you’ve had a little success adapting existing content, you’ll begin to think more proactively about the new content you create. Perhaps you’re a natural speaker. That next article you need to write might actually be better if you began by leveraging your preferred engagement style. Record yourself talking through your idea, then transcribe the recording and develop it into a written piece. If the audio is good enough, publish that, too. Use what you have.
Stage two goes from the low-hanging fruit to the big picture. Instead of thinking about adaptations of discrete content, you should be thinking about a theme-based, media-diverse content strategy. This takes planning, but, honestly, if you’re trying to hit 3,000 words per month of content that speaks to your personas at the various stages of the busying cycle, you should be doing a lot of content planning anyway. But instead of going month to month, assigning articles ad-hoc, you should plan quarter to quarter, setting an overarching theme for each interval. Once you’ve established your theme — as in, identifying the message that really matters to your firm this quarter — you and your content team can decide how that theme can be articulated across your core content types. For example, let’s say you create the following types of content each quarter:
- Blog posts
- White papers
- Needs assessments
If your team produces one blog post a week, say at an average of 500 words each, they alone will get you to 2,000 words each month. That’s your pulse. The other four types of content are, obviously, going to be less frequent. Say you create one white paper, webinar, and needs assessment per quarter. 1,500 words is a good target for your white paper. Your webinar, on the other hand, is likely to be 45 minutes to one hour of audio content. Transcribed, that could be upwards of 8,000 words. Same for a talk. That means that over the course of three months, you could add just under 20,000 words of indexable content to your site. That’s well over your goal of 3,000/month. If you skip the talk, you’ll be just at your goal. Suddenly, hitting that goal doesn’t sound as difficult, does it? One blog post a week? One white paper and one webinar every three months? You can do that. Now, I didn’t mention the needs assessment. A needs assessment is a great way of engaging your prospects, but since it’s essentially a form, it’s not going to contribute much in the way of indexable words. That’s ok. But it is going to be a major part of your theme-based, transmedia strategy. It’s a way for you to dig deeper in on your prospect’s reality by gathering information from them in a different way each quarter. A good prospect will be hungry to give you that information, especially after experiencing the rest of the content you’ve produced that quarter.
Now, this approach relies heavily on transcriptions. If you’re skeptical about whether the quality of a transcription will be good enough, especially if outsourced or done with software, don’t be. We’ve come a long way since the Google Voice transcriptions of almost a decade ago — the unintelligible “Hi, Chris ;laksdjf;laksdf” emails that were basically worthless. Rev.com transcriptions , for example, are done by people. They’re remarkably accurate and require very little proofing and formatting after the fact. Speech-to-text software has also gotten very, very good. Back in 2013, I recorded a webinar with Blair Enns which I also simultaneously ran through Dragon Dictation software. Presto: a 6,000-word article. And very little editing necessary. Just this past summer, I dictated an entire newsletter into Google Keep on my phone. While commuting in to work! I’m serious, this stuff works.
You Can Do This
I realize that this transmedia approach, especially the quarterly theme plan, is ambitious. We just recently adopted the quarterly plan ourselves, and this past quarter, we published five blog posts, a white paper, a webinar, and a lead calculator all around the theme of the “marketing metrics of successful agencies.” It has taken us years to get to this point — years of regularly producing content and sometimes adapting it to different forms. But it doesn’t have to take you as long. In fact, it’s going to be easier to adopt this plan if you’re not already too set in your ways.
But here’s the good news. As ambitious as producing four blog posts, a white paper, a webinar and a needs assessment every quarter sounds, hitting your content goals through only written content is much more ambitious. After all, some of you are natural speakers. Some of you are natural in front of the camera. And yes, some of you are natural writers. The key is to pay attention to where you’re natural. Media diversification makes better use of your unique abilities as content creators and grows your audience more effectively by meeting them where they want to be.