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Literary theory, comic books and think tanks—together at last!

Our two literary theory concepts—paratext and transmedia storytelling—map nicely onto alternative approaches for WonkComms.

The Paratext Model

Paratext is the traditional think tank approach to research communications. The big, honking report is The Thing. The blog posts, the op-eds, the roundtable forum, the tweets, the media write ups, the infographics—all that stuff we produce as WonkCommsers and then twist researchers' arms to get them to please review it—all function as paratexts, as "extra stuff" that's great to have but not always a requirement.

That "extra stuff" exists to “hype, promote, introduce, and discuss” the main text—which is probably a big PDF file.

It’s WonkComms as ad agency. Your job is to make sure that people buy tickets.

Obviously it’ll help if you have a great product. But if you’re really good at your job, you can turn bad-to-mediocre films into giant hits (see every Star Wars film between Empire and The Last Jedi.)

There’s much to be said for this model. For one, policy is complicated. You need a lot of words to prove yours is the right option. For another, we’ve often promised our funders some sort of big deliverable at the end of the project, and we want to be able to tell our funders that they got their money’s worth.

The drawbacks to this kind of approach are pretty well-known already.

The Transmedia Model

This is the content everywhere model. It’s one in which you create modular content that you can remix and push out across multiple channels. No single output is a “main” thing. Rather, each blog post, each tweet, each infographic, each op-ed tells part of the story.

Each of those channels may well have entirely different audiences. Some completists might read everything. Some will catch all the Avengers movies but not bother with Inhumans. Others might really like Jessica Jones but not care much for video games. Some may show up only to see Black Panther and never watch another entry in the MCU.

But that’s all okay. Because while transmedia storytelling needs pieces that are all designed to complement one another, you can (and should!) still build each piece to be self-contained. Your audience doesn’t have to care whether Trevor Slattery meets the real Mandarin to get something valuable from Black Panther.

Of course ... you knew there was an “of course” coming because like any good Marvel project, there’s always a somewhat-ominous coda. In this case, the “of course” is that transmedia wonkcomms is a whole lot harder than paratext wonkcomms.

Our tools aren’t really up to standards—though some are getting closer. Our processes are still mostly geared toward print. And our organizational cultures are still (mostly) primed to privilege the big report. Changing that requires a Hulk-sized lift.

But as Marvel shows us, when you do transmedia storytelling well, the results are spectacular. I’m almost as excited to see a think tank pull it off as I am to see Infinity War.

For more context

What's the paratext and transmedia business?

What to read next

What does it look like when we create content that is meant for a lot of channels?

Other items of interest

Not wanting to read a big report isn't a moral failing.

This has been true since at least 2014. Seriously.

Moving to modular content requires new metaphors for content.