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Have you noticed the rise of interactive media? From product placement in Stranger Things, to the interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, to The Weeknd’s live-streamed concert, there are a growing number of innovative and immersive experiences in the media world. Even Denny’s has started rolling out a new AR-powered menu, which allows you to see your food before you order, and also includes exclusive deals, interactive opportunities, and the story of the brand’s history. Video games used to be the most popular form of interactive content, and while video games are still as popular as ever — more than half of the U.S. population are digital gamers — other media types are starting to realize that video games aren’t the only format that can provide interactive experiences. We’ve seen major, global brands create successful interactive content over the past few years — including commercials, interactive narrative storytelling in both film and TV, live events across platform, and social media content.
Personalized experiences can leave a lasting impression and create an authentic, memorable experience for audiences. As consumers continue to seek more engagement from the content they consume, interactivity will have important implications on the way brands, marketers, creators, and distributors make content. What are the best practices for this emerging trend? What are applications that maintain a human centric point of view and add value? How can brands leverage interactive content to promote their product or service, while also championing the human of their audience?
For our March Connections Roundtable, we talked with industry experts Barry Owen, Chief Solutions Architect at Wowza, Jesse Uram, SVP of Growth at Westbrook, Grady Miller, CMO at National Research Group and former Global Insights/Strategy Lead at Apple TV+, and David Rose, CEO at ClearWater AR and author of SuperSight. We explored forthcoming trends in interactive media, current examples of innovative content, and what the future of audience engagement could look like — including AI-driven interactivity, new virtual technologies, multi-platform experiences, and more.
How to Super Serve Your Fans With Interactive Media
When you think of interactive content, you probably think of the kind that allows the viewer to make choices throughout the experience — like a video game, a social media poll, or even a choose-your-own-adventure book (or movie like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). But Grady Miller, former Global Strategy Lead at Apple TV+, explained some of the things Apple did to create an immersive experience that went beyond the actual content itself.
“Apple is really building an entire ecosystem of entertainment around the TV platform, for example, that is about extending the experience for fans and viewers of a title into new formats,” Miller said. “So rather than experimenting with interactivity with the content and the storytelling itself, in the way that Bandersnatch [Netflix] did, it’s a little bit more about that sort of intermediate experience outside of the content.”
For example, one of the most popular shows on Apple TV+ is For All Mankind, a sci-fi drama released in 2019. One of the ways that Apple activated the fan base outside of the actual TV show was through the interactive, AR experience For All Mankind: Time Capsule, on the App Store. This provided a way to extend the story and fill in gaps between seasons of the show — and allowed fans to bring the world of the show into their homes in a way that hadn’t been done before. It also gave an edge of exclusivity, as fans who experienced the AR Time Capsule would know something about the characters in a way that fans who didn’t use the AR Time Capsule wouldn’t.
“It’s about maintaining that engagement over a longitudinal time period, which is always a challenge in the television space and bringing people back for subsequent seasons,” Miller said. “I think that is a way of super serving the fans or viewers…wanting to make sure that it is really giving the highest quality experience to a fan of a title.”
Jesse Uram, SVP of Growth at Westbrook, talked more about the marketing and production side of interactive content. Westbrook is a media company founded by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and houses a film and television studio, a brand content studio, and a production company. Uram stressed the importance of respecting the audience and the platforms you’re creating content for.
“You’ve got to be creating content that people actually want,” Uram said. “You actually have to give them something they really want to engage with, and you have to respect the communities that you’re creating the content for. I see a lot of marketers go in with a little bit of disdain for their audience… But I think long term, especially as you start to think about these interactive communities, they can talk back to you…You’re coming into their world and you’re trying to get them to engage in your world. You need to make sure that you’re making something that actually services them and treats them with respect…That requires knowing how to make and create in each of those spaces.”
Westbrook created Exposure, a photo competition TV show, with Samsung and Hulu to showcase a new phone that Samsung was launching — with the main point of focusing on the phone’s camera capabilities. Uram mentioned that they worked the phone into the narrative of the show in a seamless way that went beyond typical product placement, which allowed it to be a more successful campaign. Samsung saw a 30-point market share perception swing on the usage of the camera, as people watched the show and saw it intertwined into the fabric of the story. Ultimately, the collaboration worked well for the platform it was created for, because they kept the audience experience a priority.
On the other hand, Uram gave an example of a client who didn’t think about their audience when trying to create interactive content. An interactive company originally came to Westbrook with a campaign idea — they wanted to get celebrities and fans together to create a community engagement competition centered around their title, including a big show and prizes. But as they fleshed out the idea, the original intention kept getting stripped away, until it ended up being 15-second ads with a celebrity telling people to come play the game, and Westbrook walked away from the campaign.
“At the end of the day, people don’t need to be yelled at to come play the game from a celebrity,” Uram said. “They would prefer that you bring them into the story and give them something back that’s worthwhile.”
Where Will Interactive Media and Audience Engagement Go in the Future?
With the rise of new technologies, platforms, and processes, there’s a lot of potential for interactive media. AR and VR technologies provide a new, hands-on way for the audience to engage — not just in gaming or entertainment, but also increasingly in the sports world. AI also provides a new way for brands, marketers, and content creators to produce content and cut down on production time.
“We can use AI to cut down on production times and ease,” Uram said. “Of course, they’re not perfect. We still have to kick them to our editors to clean them up, but it cuts down on time, even in writing prompts. When we’re even developing TV shows now, if you get network needs from somebody, you can put the network needs in AI and see what it spits out as a baseline…Why not leverage these technologies to help you guide your thinking?”
Increased accessibility is also one of the biggest drivers of interactive content. As the technology becomes more widespread and higher quality, it increases the number of people who can access interactive media — not just the audience or viewers, but also the content creators. Barry Owen, Chief Solutions Architect at Wowza — a live stream software company — explained how easy-to-use technology levels the playing field for creators.
“One of the things we’re seeing with technology is the increased accessibility to it and the ease of use,” Owen said. “It’s way easier to contribute and consume video now than it has ever been before, with the advent of better networks, 5G…I think it has democratized live streaming to a certain extent where you don’t have to sit in somewhere with a high bandwidth connection necessarily, and everybody can participate. It’s more level playing field.”
Miller, who now works at National Research Group (NRG) — a global insights and strategy firm at the intersection of entertainment and technology — explained some of the research they’re seeing about the future of virtual technology. While a lot of people are excited to use the actual interactive experience of VR in gaming, entertainment, and sports — and the current AR set ups with the LA Rams and Minnesota Twins prove that engaging sports fans at events can be an interactive way to build community — most people are excited to use VR as a way to extend self-improvement and learning.
“One of the things that we’ve seen in our research here at NRG is that, in particular with virtual reality experiences — especially given that it kind of has a higher barrier to entry with the actual technology and headset — is that the number one use case that the general audience is excited about is for self-improvement and learning,” Miller said. “Rather than just the gaming or the experiencing of entertainment, which is certainly something that I think the early adopters are excited about with VR equipment, the general public sees the value of these high price point devices as a way of interacting with the world that’s going to improve you. Sometimes that might be through experiencing a piece of content, but oftentimes it’s more about learning and advancing your own knowledge.”
David Rose, serial entrepreneur and CEO of ClearWater AR — an augmented reality marine navigation system that uses computer vision to help boats see underwater — explained the importance of blending real world experiences with virtual reality. Instead of creating an entirely virtual world, like a Metaverse, it’s important to focus on the real-world aspects that you can then augment with interactive, virtual content. This is the premise of Rose’s book, SuperSight — which talks about the blending of experience, where you have a real world view that you’re trying to augment in some way. But Rose also stressed the notion that media shouldn’t know where it’s going in the future.
“One of the big ideas, which I think is a really nice idea, is the notion of a limited look ahead, which is like a good conversation,” Rose said. “Media shouldn’t know exactly where it’s going. Like a good conversation, it could take a bunch of different paths and you could get feedback from someone who looks bored, or someone who looks interested. The notion was, if you have a documentary that is painting two sides of the same picture, you should have a big dial and say, I’m really sympathizing more with the person on the right, and then maybe it’s going to sub in more clips that are going to try to swing you back to the left…For me, it’s kind of like conversation…a great conversation is the right metaphor to think about what the future of media might become.”
Champion the Human
One of the most important aspects of interactive media is building community. By keeping the audience engaged and at the center of the experience, it helps to create a world of community where we can champion the human. When crafting an immersive experience, try to understand your audience and the values that drive their decisions.
“Try to let human choice and values guide that creation,” said Darren Bishop, Travel + Tourism Practice Lead at Heart+Mind. “Provide them with opportunities to express themselves and engage in making choices within these environments — imbue the experience with an understanding of the emotions and values that might be driving some of their decision making.”
Humans are drawn to good stories — and the power of storytelling can be a useful tool for interactive media in helping their audiences create change, show empathy, uncover new perspectives, and learn more about the world.
“I think some of the best storytelling is absolutely happening in interactive,” Uram said. “God of War is like the best treatise on masculinity and fatherhood, and you’ve got The Last of Us…all these things are changing what used to just be murder simulations, over and over again, now you’re getting real humanity and empathy put into gaming…It’s about the communities that are now being built around these. The power of putting positivity as much as you can into these communities through the power of storytelling…can galvanize systemic change and is so much of this youth that’s about mental health and toxicity. I think interactive, more than anything else, can actually get you there.”
Tips for Brands, Content Creators, and Distributors on Interactive Media:
- Partner with great people and respect their opinions. Do not think interactive is one thing — it’s an ecosystem.
- Keep things as simple as possible — less will go wrong.
- Be early adopters. Play-test new platforms and tools to develop your POV. Make sacrificial prototypes.
- interactive experiences allow for focused attention — 82% of consumers say you engage in a deeper way than you can in “real life” — so make sure it is creative, innovative, and has an authentic reason to be there.
- Spin up a collaboration with an academic group to help prototype new ideas like Snap filters, AR, elastic video, and more.
- Don’t shy away from video or interactive media because it’s too hard — find partners that can help and give it a try.