How to improve your communications strategy through digital storytelling

What brands can learn from Facebook’s instant articles

Image credit: Death to Stock

With the evolution of mobile technologies and the internet, our ways of media consumption have changed. Consequently, marketers had to change their traditional monologue (brand to customer) to a bi-directional dialogue approach (between brands and customers). The good news: reaching target audiences is easier than ever. The bad news: it’s also more challenging. With instant articles, Facebook and its launch partners have shown how today’s audience can be attracted — elevating the practice of digital storytelling.

There is hardly an innovation Facebook introduced that caused a bigger media stir than the instant articles initiative. With this new option that the Internet giant came up with in the mid-May, publishers get the opportunity to integrate news articles directly into Facebook’s newsfeed. Nine launch partners decided to host their content on the social network: The New York Times, National Geographic, NBC, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, BBC News, The Guardian, as well as the German publishers Spiegel and Bild. While the last instant article was published on May 13, according to The Wall Street Journal the project is entering into the next phase in the coming days.

An opportunity not only for Facebook

Providing news via instant articles creates a win-win situation for all: Facebook, publishers and the readers. Facebook distributes content that lets the user stay in the social network, leading to even more revenues out of advertising — needless to say that this is the internet giant’s main goal anyway. However, within the deal, the participating publishers get a part of the action: according to various sources, they can keep 70 percent of the resulting advertising revenue, whereas they receive 100 percent of the revenue generated from ads placed in the articles’ content.

Image credit: Facebook

Hence, the new feature could work on the sales side, solving one of the biggest problems that journalism has to deal with at the moment: monetizing content. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research center, 30 percent of American adults get their news via Facebook.
Thus, via instant articles, the publishers manage to address their readers exactly at the place, where they are consuming more and more news.

And what about the readers? From their perspective, instant articles definitely are a step towards the right direction. Above all, they benefit from the advantage that they don’t have to wait for the respective online article to load in external sources: according to Facebook, “stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook”. With instant articles, the „reading experience“ should be „as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles.” It goes without any question that a slow loading time on mobile devices can be annoying and can be a leading cause of sight abandonment. However, it’s not only about speed, it’s about usability.

Instant articles as a means of digital storytelling

Facebooks instant articles could be a giant leap forward towards an integral solution that incorporates newspaper content into our digital era — especially since the new publishing option offers a compelling user experience. The reader gets presented a full-length-article in a custom design, combined with high-resolution images and videos — offering a solution that’s truly optimized for mobile use. (Right now, it’s actually a mobile-only initiative. Precisely, iPhone-only, since the articles are only accessible to users of the Facebook iOS app. Desktop, mobile web and Android users still see the same links to the publishers’ websites as before.) Moreover, the reader gets the opportunity to like or comment individual elements of the story, leading to new interaction possibilities. He is put into a story, which is a powerful method of engagement with the audience.

Facebook offers us a consistent mobile strategy and a great example for digital storytelling. But what does this nebulous term actually mean? There is a vast variety of interpretations with different authors having different understandings. Basically it could be defined as telling a great story that is brought to life with various interactive digital elements, such as photos, videos, audio, but also new technologies such augmented reality, facial recognition or virtual reality.

Why do we prefer stories?

The research of the neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how stories shape human brains: In a series of experiments, he discovered in which way our brains respond to effective storytelling. Stories that include the classic key elements — a climax, denouement, etc. — can evoke strong neurological responses. Tense moments in a story trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, whereas positive story elements lead to an increased production of the neurochemical oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that promotes empathy and emotional connection.

Jason Elsom’s graphic gives a great overview about how our brain works:

“Our results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials. This research suggests that advertisers use images that cause our brains to release oxytocin to build trust in a product or brand, and hence increase sales,” Zak said.

What makes a story great?

By combining narrative with digital content, the advantages that storytelling comes along with are supported even more. Visual content appeals to your audience: it evokes emotions and an even deeper engagement with the story, giving the author of the respective text a remarkable strategic tool — we will more likely remember a story that is told to us in combination with a photo or a video.

How powerful this combination can be is depicted in an article by Forbes. This is how Miguel Helft commented about his first encounter with an instant article: “Even before I read it, I was mesmerized. A beautiful video began playing automatically in my feed, monopolizing my attention. I clicked on it, and without any delay, I was immersed in a compelling multimedia experience. (…) It may not seem like much, but the simplicity, immediacy and quality of the experience was striking.” And exactly this is the reaction that you want to see.

Get your audience to focus on you

One main feature of digital storytelling is the inclusion of the new communication channels that the internet has brought us, such as social media. Thus, not only journalists, but everyone can take advantage of this narrative approach. There are multiple ways how to publish a story and how to address your audience through digital media. With instant articles, Facebook and its launch partners have only shown us one effective way how to get to your audience and how to grab their attention — an aspect that has become more and more difficult with the ongoing growth of the information technology.

Yelling just doesn’t work anymore. You might want to consider other methods of earning your customers’ attention.

Due to the emergence of the internet, we have to deal with much more information sources than people had to thirty years ago, with the rise of computer-mediated communication channels (first e-mail, then social media) eventually resulting in today’s information overload. There are more and more platforms where people can consume their news. In such a media environment, everybody has to process the incoming amounts of data and information more effectively, quickly determining its usefulness. Hence, though there are many different ways how to reach audiences, it has become even more difficult to actually reach them. And this is where digital storytelling comes in.

Take your content to the next level

Start thinking like content creators and put yourself in the place of the customer. Knowing the audience is the key: only if you know what makes your customers engage, you can evoke an emotion. Avoid digital selling and go for digital storytelling by creating a central theme in the customer’s mind with the help of text, video and graphics. The evolution of digitalization gives us possibilities we have never dreamt of — it is up to us to make use of them in the most powerful way.

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