Boiling Down Digital Storytelling

Boiling Down Digital Storytelling

Basic Principles to Get You Started

If you’re tackling digital storytelling for your brand, then it probably feels like you’re being asked to boil the ocean.

No wonder the task seems daunting—we just passed 1 billion websites according to Internet Live Stat’s count. And by the end of 2014, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union expects that we’ll hit nearly 3 billion Internet users.

Every second on the Internet equals:

  • 7,840 tweets
  • 1,390 photos uploaded to Instagram
  • 45, 905 Google searches
  • 89,924 videos viewed on YouTube
  • 34M emails

The sheer scope and velocity of communication in the digital space is compounded by the platform itself; in fact, digital comprises multiple formats and channels—you could easily spend your time specializing in a single area from websites, email, video, social media and games to apps.

So where do you start?

I think a few basic principles can ground day-to-day content planning and creation, making the task manageable and your output more effective.

online or offline, storytelling is the same

 

1. Online or analog, storytelling is the same.

Digital is still often referred to as “new media”; in fact, news headlines since 2004 show virtually equal preference for the two terms. The connected web has fundamentally changed how we list, buy and sell products and services—disrupting industries from banking and travel to education.

But the types of stories we tell online follow age-old patterns we’ve inherited from oral narrative through to stage plays, radio, TV, movies and advertising.

In the end, you still need to tell a good story with compelling characters and conflict—but in this context your brand, product or service should help fulfill the central protagonist’s need. One of my favourite examples is the Webby award-winning Milwaukee Police Department’s website, which highlights how the community’s desire for safety is fulfilled by dedicated officers—not the usual lionizing of might and authority.

Customer is the hero

 

2. Your customer is the hero.

Storytelling may bridge both analog and digital—but our cast of characters has changed irrevocably with the democratization of online publishing and social networks. Your customer’s now squarely center stage as the most valuable player in the narrative.

Not a terrible stretch in an era of widespread #selfies, eh? (Cool fact: selfies make up almost one-third of all photos taken by people aged 18-24.)

For marketers, that means that the specs of any product or service are secondary to how that purchase makes life for the customer better.

GoPro’s tagline is literally “be a hero” and its dedicated channel includes snapshots and videos created by customers using its action cameras. User-generated content gives customers the creative control to tell their own story.

Alternatively, Lowe’s is creating a series of six-second Vine videos that highlight quick fixes around the home rather than fixating on the features of individual tools or parts. Do-it-yourselfers are making a home into a sanctuary and Lowe’s wants to be part of that experience—not just sell widgets.

 

Online complements offline

 

3. Online complements offline.

Customers expect a seamless experience when they move back and forth from clicks to bricks; a Forrester study reveals that 71% of customers expect to view your in-store inventory online. And 50% of customers further expect to buy online and pick up in-store.

Often, however, organizations can’t deliver an integrated customer experience because of how they’re structured. For example, a recent study by Forbes Insight and Wipro of 125 global executives in consumer goods highlights how internal fragmentation is holding back some companies:

  • 37% still treat digital marketing as a separate function
  • 39% operate e-commerce in a silo
  • 50% reported that their digital marketing failed to integrate with essential back-end processes in one or more instances

While it’s tempting to stick to digital platforms when you’ve been put in a corner to muck around on your own, the end results will be better if you can marry online and offline efforts. Plus, the demand for greater integration doesn’t apply just to selling and fulfilling orders—it’s the same for storytelling too.

Event organizers have been doing it for a while by live streaming attendees’ tweets, photos and videos. Likewise, digital signage at brick-and-mortar locations have been widely used to reinforce key messages from in-flyer promotions and direct mail campaigns. And political activists routinely employ online petitions and rallies in real-life to advocate for change.

And even though “Weight Watchers has an online app, it continues to host weekly, in-person meetings as well,” points out innovation broker Katherine Bierce.

 

All content should reflect your voice and tone

 

4. All content should reflect your voice and tone.

Even the lowly “Page not found” is a chance for you to connect with your audience. In fact, some brands and agencies have taken up the challenge and produced some really creative versions of the staple 404 page.

My personal favourite is the one for SpaghettiOs—a simple but clever reference to the famous “Uh-oh SpaghettiOs” jingle created when the brand launched in 1965 that still acknowledges the visitor’s disappointment after stumbling on a broken link.

404 SpaghettiOsThese are some of the basics rolling around in my head that make the daunting task of telling digital stories more achievable. What are yours?

Changing the Face of a City: Live Tweet Transcript

I got a chance to attend last night’s session on the content strategy used to rework the City of Vancouver’s website from the ground up.

My favourite tidbits:

  • 4,500 citizens responded to a survey about how the City could improve the site–those are outstanding numbers and indicate that the stakes are high
  • The site went from 26,000 HTML pages to under 5,000 through a combination of prioritizing most frequently visited content and rewriting copy in plain English
  • Visitors go to the site to find out about parking and traffic tickets, garbage and recycling, and how to arrange inspections. What does the City focus on? Council minutes and bylaws–after all, the City is required to maintain these records. But that doesn’t service the public.

Want the full transcript tweet by tweet? Here’s my transcript via Storify.

Buzzing after #KaiNagata Talk at SFU

Is TV News Journalism Salvageable?
Photo credit: SFU Woodward’s

Why do we continue to watch TV news when the end product is superficial and designed to either placate viewers or play to our fears?

Is TV journalism salvageable?

That was the starting point for Kai Nagata’s talk at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts earlier this week.

Rebuttals were made by long-time broadcaster George Orr, CBC Radio’s Kathryn Gretsinger, Openmedia.ca‘s Steve Anderson, and SFU communications instructor Bob Hackett who is also the co-founder of Media Democracy Day. Veteran journalist and UBC instructor Deborah Campbell moderated the discussion.

Since Nagata left his position as CTV’s Quebec Bureau Chief this summer and published Why I Quit, the blog post has generated 500,000 hits and 1,450 comments.

So I was excited to hear from him in person. Nagata didn’t disappoint. He’s passionate about the institution, and hopeful for the future and the potential to empower citizens to become “volunteer journalists” (a la volunteer firefighters) using open-source, online training that doesn’t leave students in debt like traditional j-schools.

By his own admission, it’s a working idea that’s still baking and will likely change and evolve over the course of three years—a self-imposed time limit.

But, of course, it’s his commitment to his craft that I find most compelling and magnetic.

Plus, I admire his willingness to show a clip of his own work and critique its shortcomings in front of peers, mentors and strangers.

I also enjoyed hearing from George Orr who made it clear that the idea of a “golden age” of Canadian reporting is a myth, idealizing a past that never existed. He also succinctly revealed the pitfalls of modern reporting, but didn’t just glibly mouth tired excuses about deadlines and diminishing resources. For example, Orr outlined the desk’s overwhelming desire for conformity that punishes reporters who stray too far from what their competitors produce. And how Google has helped dumb down media, lulling reporters into doing a simple browser search instead of doing their own research over the phone or in person.

It was an excellent discussion and I walked away buzzing with all that’s possible when professional journalists and citizen media start collaborating together.

Julie Ovenell-Carter live tweeted the evening so I’ve pulled together a transcript below of her tweets if you’re interested in a post-by-post replay of the evening.

Rebecca and Tracy Speak: Headstart 2011

Cupcakes!!!
Last year, I met Rebecca Johnston right before a panel hosted by Third Tuesday Vancouver got underway at Ceili’s Irish Pub & Restaurant .

This September, we’ll be co-presenting at Headstart 2011, a grassroots conference run by and for Royal LePage realtors across Canada.

During the intervening months, Rebecca and I have become good friends, sharing war stories from our professional lives as well as our personal aspirations, interests and foibles. When she asked if I’d be interested in working together with her on a presentation for Headstart 2011, I jumped.

We’re now putting the final touches on our presentation entitled “Making the Message Matter: Five Dos and Don’ts of Successful Communication for Realtors.”


Working with Rebecca, I’ve learned (or been reminded of) a few key lessons:

  • Tell a story. When planning your script, don’t forget that people love a good story. We’re wired for storytelling and listening, not dry statistics. I can geek out when it comes to social media and content so Rebecca has pulled me back from the ledge a few times.
  • You are your presentation—not your slides. God knows, I despise PowerPoint. But it’s easy to get sidetracked and let the software drive your story if you let it. Rebecca has prompted me to remember that the slides should play a supporting role like a prop in a play.
  • Set the ground rules for collaboration early. Rebecca and I are both writers  and both passionate about content. We worked together during the early brainstorming stage and then decided to draft two complete scripts on our own. We’re in the process of collating the two scripts together now. This has worked out very well for us—Rebecca is great at setting the stage and providing context whereas I like to dive in to the “body” of the presentation right away.

I’m sure there’ll be more to make note of as we get closer to September and start practicing how we want to deliver the presentation. Do you have any tips to share? Drop a comment to share your killer presentation ideas or tell me what you hate presenters do!

Social Media—Where We All Share Status

Immigrants among Vancouver’s highest social media content producers

Twitter escultura de arena

Last week, Delvinia and Environics Analytics published a new online study about Canadians’ social media habits. Among other trends, the study revealed the high rate of adoption of tools like Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn among immigrants trying to maintain old networks and establish new ones.

#NetCulture: Stories of Culture and Diversity

The results struck a chord immediately given the fact I’m volunteering to support #NetCulture, an upcoming event on April 5 where six local speakers from Vancouver’s culturally diverse communities will share how social media has helped them strengthen their identities, roots and friendships.

Based on the study, it’s no coincidence that #NetCulture will take place in Vancouver. In fact, Canada’s three largest and most diverse cities— Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal—are responsible for producing “more than three-quarters of all Canadian social media content.” And as major urban destinations for immigrants moving to the country, these cities are natural hubs for events like #NetCulture.

Stellar Speakers

Veronica Heringer, one of the six speakers at #NetCulture, immigrated to Canada from Brazil and now runs madameheringer.com where she writes about social media marketing, PR, advertising and the ups and downs of being a foreigner in Canada. From documenting her quest for citizenship to publishing periodically in Portuguese, Veronica epitomizes the “young, upwardly mobile immigrants” building a network by creating engaging content online.

Immigrants are also more likely to meet in person with people who they connected with online than rural Anglophones or upscale suburban Francophones. This thread will weave through Paola Viviana Murillo and Norma Ibarra’s presentation at #NetCulture. Latincouver.ca is a virtual plaza that links Latinos and educates local Vancouverites about Latin America. Paola and Norma will discuss how they help create virtual connections on Latincouver.ca that translate into successful offline events.

“A disproportionate number of older immigrants are also contributing to the online dialogue,” the study reveals.

Aptly, retiree Ashok Puri who came to Canada in 1969 will speak at #NetCulture about his experiences couch-surfing in Nepal, Mexico, China and India. Plus, he just launched his own blog, Papa Puri’s Kitchen, where he’ll post on travel, food and Ayurvedic health topics.

Jay Catalan and RJ Aquino—recently profiled with other emerging leaders from the Filipino Canadian community in Living Today—are using tools like Facebook to drive awareness of their initiative. Tulayan, Tagalog for “bridge,” is a volunteer-run group that hosts cultural events as diverse as a 10-week language program and Pinoy story time at VPL to networking over wine and keso (cheese).

Way Too Azn’s Ray Hsu and Zi-ann Lum will showcase how they harnessed social media to respond to recent portrayals of Asians in the media—helping to spark a national debate about multiculturalism and inclusiveness.

For the “interculturally minded,” Jordana Mah will uncover how Schema Magazine has used social media and the web to highlight people, events, and issues that speak to a generation that is moving seamlessly through cultures rather than between them.

C U @ #NetCulture

The survey of 23, 144 Canadians’ social media habits nicely sets the context for next Tuesday’s discussion. But statistics are only half of any story. For a far more intimate and lively look at how each of us can use social media to share stories of culture and diversity, I’ll be in a front-row seat at #NetCulture.

To register for this free event, please visit http://netculture.eventbrite.com/

Photo credit: Rosaura Ochoa

Spin Often Masquerades as Strategy

Recently, I received the following critique about a draft I had written:

“That’s not strategic—that will lead to more criticism about X, Y and Z.”

For a strategic communicator, that type of response is like a headshot from Zdeno Chara.

So I had to step back and consider—was the reviewer right? Had I missed the mark?

But then my 5PM epiphany—he equated “strategy” with avoiding criticism.

But sometimes the truth means you’re going to tell people precisely what they don’t want to hear. You can frame the message to its best advantage but, in the end, people may be genuinely unhappy. And vocal.

Risk management is a key part of building a strong, proactive communications strategy, but if you sanitize the message in order to avoid negative publicity, then you’re spinning.

Spin often masquerades as strategy.

Criticism can be hard but you have to face it—not duck it.

Live Blog: Transmedia Storytelling with Brent Friedman

How to Build a Universe Worthy of Devotion

Brent Friedman
Photo by GigaOM Events

Brent Friedman, Founding Partner of Electric Farm Entertainment, is in Vancouver to speak about the basics of transmedia storytelling, from definition to uses in both mainstream and digital experimentation, using his company’s recent MTV hit series Valemont as a case study.

It’s the Story, Stupid: Content Marketing

I’m back home after spending a couple of days at a content marketing retreat on Whidbey Island hosted by the Langley Center for New Media.

Storytelling was the kernel in every presenter’s session—from the mechanics and psychology of storytelling to measuring its impact. Forget key messages and feature-benefit adspeak—it’s about the story, stupid.

For a pithy round-up of key ideas, see Kathy Hanbury’s blog post 28 Content Marketing Tips from the Content Marketing Masters. Or take a look at Drew Davis’s adept curation of the retreat’s key tweets, presentations and pix via Storify.

Storify screen shot
Screen shot of Storify created by Drew Davis

I peeked over Drew’s shoulder a few times while he assembled the page on Storify. “Note to self,” I thought, “look up this tool.” So when I came home, I read Storify Wants to Pull Stories from the Stream, a review on GigaOM.

Funnily, I think Storify neatly captures the mood of the retreat and our hyper-focus on storytelling. “Turn what people post on social media into compelling stories,” reads the tagline on Storify’s homepage.

Co-founder Burt Herman adds, “We’re coming at it from the point of view of story-telling — it’s about creating a really rich experience about an event. There are all of these real-time updates, so many that we are drowning in them. This is about finding relevance in the noise.” (Source: GigaOM)

Aggregating, curating and creating content are top of mind for many professionals these days. For me, Storify is emblematic of the zeitgeist, a reflection of how journalists (and marketers) are re-inventing how we tell stories in a digital age.

So are you a believer or is this just a new round of gurus, books and webcasts?

5 Reasons Why I’m Loving #CMRL 2011

It’s the morning of Day 2 at Content Marketing Retreat 2011 on Whidbey Island, WA. I didn’t sleep well and I’m up early.

Why?

Because Day 1 rocked. My mind’s buzzing with thoughts from Edelman’s Trust Barometer and Aristotle’s Story Structure to new tools like Gist and Dlvr.it. With 11 presenters in the span of one day, there’s a lot to look up, turn over, question and explore.

Mulling over Day 1, I’ve teased out five “ah-ha” moments where I learned something new or corroborated long-held, personal beliefs.

  1. Content Marketing means we are no longer limited to “renting” space in third-party media publications, including newspapers, magazines and websites. When each of us is now a publisher, we “own” the means of creating and syndicating quality, branded content. I find this both liberating and daunting—the obligation to produce better content has never been higher. (Via @juntajoe)
  2. Statistics may seem sexy to some but the reality is that we don’t connect to percentages and figures—we connect to people like ourselves. Stack stories with dry data and you’re hamstringed. Instead, focus on crafting a narrative about people. (Via @terrinop, Jack Penland and @hrhmedia)
  3. Traditional marketing married a message to an audience. Today, you need to think about engaging customers through the power of narrative. I can’t get lazy—got to go back to my storytelling roots. (Via @hrhmedia)
  4. Leave analysis-paralysis behind and just start creating content. Quality is important but so is quantity—after all, you never know what will resonate with the audience. Plus, the content you create and publish has a relatively long shelf-life, unlike more traditional means of communication like one-hit ads. (Via @heinzmarketing and @juntajoe)
  5. Turf wars abound—but don’t get bogged down competing over who “owns” content in your organization. While you squabble, who is creating or publishing content? Different content creators need to work together so that content can get re-purposed for multiple channels (as appropriate). (Via @TPLDrew and @heinzmarketing)

In summary, Day 1 rocked. Off to join the group for Day 2 and get my learn on!

Flavour of the Month: Content

January is shaping up to be a sweet, sweet month when it comes to content.


Next week, I’ll be attending the 2011 Content Marketing Retreat at the Langley Center for New Media in Washington state from January 13-14, 2011.

I found out about the event before the holidays on Twitter. Luckily, the event is only two hours away from Vancouver so I registered.

I’m looking forward to being able to dedicate a good chunk of time to think about content strategy, budgeting and analytics. Typically, I have to squeeze in relevant readings at bedtime—not the best means of keeping abreast of any topic.

The keynote speaker is Joe Pulizzi, founder of Junta 42 and co-author of Get Content, Get Customers. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and have an interest in the program, check out the 2011 Content Marketing Retreat.


On January 20, 2011, I’ll be at the next event put together by Third Tuesday Vancouver organizers Joseph Thornley and Jeremy Lin which brings CC Chapman, co-author of Content Rules, to our city. The book focuses on how each of us are now publishers—whether we want to or not—and how quality content can turn customers into willing advocates who engage and share what we produce.

Want a preview of the book? Boom.

Am I missing any local events about content? Drop a comment to share it with me.