Google News Lab’s Digital Identities workshop in Stockholm: 5 takeaways

A captive audience learns about digital identities in Stockholm. Photo: Kathryn Louise Geels

Last week I spent a beautiful September day in Stockholm sequestered in a small conference room with a couple dozen digital media folk. I was surrounded by people from Swedish and UK media outlets, academics and PR professionals to discuss social media, hyperlocal news, and how to manage one’s digital identity.

And I was surprised by what I learned.

The workshop was led by ‘digital engagement specialist’ Abhay Adhikari, who developed the Digital Identities framework that looks at how we use social tools to create community, dialogue and change.

“How can you create your own space for like-minded people to gather?” he asked, challenging participants to think about how they build their own ‘digital ecosystem’.

Participants also got a run-down of Google tools for enhancing digital storytelling from Matt Cooke of Google News Lab, who sheepishly admitted that yes, a few minutes had been set aside to promote his company (and I didn’t see anyone complaining when Matt handed out sets of complimentary Google Cardboard VR-glasses).

The last session of the day included some fascinating case studies about how different people and publications have capitalized on the potential brought by building and exploiting social networks. Sarah Cheverton told of how she built the Star and Crescent, an ad-free hyperlocal news site in Portsmouth; Henrik Ståhl of Bonnier News shared the benefits of “being early” to new social platforms; and Eliza Anyangwe shared what she learned building digital communities while at the Guardian.

Henrik Ståhl, Abhay Adhikari, Eliza Anyangwe, & Sarah Cheverton. Photo: Kathryn Louise Geels

Going into the day, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But after leaving the waterside pub where a few participants and organizers gathered to drink up the late-afternoon sun, my head was buzzing. Now that the dust has settled and I’ve had some time to digest all that was said, here’s my list of most useful takeaways for thinking about your digital identity:

Go where your audience is: Simply publishing content online isn’t enough to ensure people will find it. It’s critical to actively seek out and map the digital communities you want to reach and think of this as what Abhay called one’s ‘digital ecosystem’.

Identify the platforms, groups, and influencers your audience is already engaging with; listen, observe, and then insert yourself in those conversations. By meeting them on their turf you’ve already sent an important signal that you think they matter to you, which makes it easier for them to view you and the content you present as relevant.

Ask who you are communicating with: In the real world, we all have multiple identities that shape how we communicate; what we say and how we’re viewed by our colleagues differs from how we interact with our parents or children. When it comes to our digital identities, is useful to think along the same lines.

Are you using the digital space primarily to reach our professional peers? Your audience of (hopefully) loyal readers and fans? Personal friends and family? How you or your organization answers that questions is fundamental to shaping how your approach to creating your digital identity.

Move beyond demographics: One of the beauties of the online world is how it allows people with similar interests to find and engage with one another, no matter how far away or different they may be according to traditional demographic measures. Instead of reaching college-educated women in their 40s, publishers and brands can now communicate with specific interest-based communities, be they fans of fishing, food, or Finland.

Rather than viewing your website as a news channel or storefront, think of it as a space where like-minded people can gather, and shape your communications from there. Think about what your audience wants. Let their interests inform your content; create content that serves as a magnet to attract an audience with a certain set of interests.

Be vulnerable, invite others in: I’ve long struggled with how much of my own (or my organization’s) internal struggles to reveal online. Should I ask for help via Twitter, for example? Exposing one’s vulnerabilities is rarely easy, especially when doing so online creates a digital record that can take on a life of its own.

But the Google workshop included several examples of the benefits of inviting your audience to join in helping shape one’s digital identity. Want to know what your readers want? Ask them. Stumped about the best approach for an upcoming campaign? Seek out communities or influencers who can contribute. Doing so gives you access to more collective wisdom and a chance to reach a new group of potential fans.

Listen more, engage more: In a world where anyone with an internet connection is a publisher, you find a lot of people are talking. But who exactly is listening? Well, hopefully you are. Of course, online ‘listening’ often means reading (not scrolling) and processing what different influencers and groups are saying.

Doing so then makes it easier to step into the conversation in a meaningful way. You become a meaningful contributor rather than someone just adding to all the white noise.

Experiment, experiment, experiment: The digital landscape is incredibly rich and getting more so with each new post, website, and Tweet. The sheer volume of content and the myriad of tools for expressing them can be daunting. But also exhilarating.

Creating a digital identity and thriving in your digital ecosystem is more art than science. And like any craft or art, the best way to learn is by doing. Try. Fail. Learn. Try again. Fail differently. Learn more. Try again (see above about being vulnerable). In many ways, it’s about taking steps to let the best solution find you, rather than looking for a specific perfect solution.

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