8 Dimensions of Storytelling in the New Media Landscape.

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a lecture at a newly established creative space annex learning hub at the Swiss public broadcaster RTS and showcase some innovative examples of digital storytelling from across Europe. I started to look for stories and arrange my slides but quickly realized that those examples would only tell part of the story. Exciting and interactive, without proper context, I might as well have been a vendor of mirrors and shiny objects. The story I needed to add was a broader, more fundamental one. A narrative about the changed context and new dimensions that every storyteller has to master in this digital day and age. A story I could tell them by just adding one single slide: a picture of my daughter checking the family iPad on a lazy Sunday morning.

Look around you, the world has changed

It was a Sunday morning, and my daughter was searching for some YouTube clips on our iPad. A moment that in its simplicity contained all the elements and dimensions of the changing media landscape I wanted to talk about.

  • Haru is 8 years old, half Japanese and half Belgian, schooled in English and French and raised in Dutch, a symbol of a new super diverse world that doesn’t fit in the neat audience categories of bygone days.
  • It’s early on a Sunday and she is still in her pyjamas— at ease — watching something without any effort.
  • She is on YouTube — searching for something recommended by a friend.
  • She uses our iPad — mobile — with fast data — she can go and sit wherever she wants.
  • The interface is intuitive — I never ever showed her how to use the thing. She just figured it out.
  • She watches small episodes — 12 to 20 minutes — snackable — easy before breakfast or just after school before homework. The content fits the context.
  • The app remembers her behavior and always comes up with new recommendations she can watch — never ever has she asked me to search for something. (Mind you I have strong filters in place and always check what she watches)
  • In the end, this is a full stack experience — she is hooked and returns for more.

So that’s the story in a nutshell. Now let’s take a closer look at the most important new dimensions every journalist, media maker or storyteller should be aware of.

1. Know Your Audience

Know your audience. It’s the first and most important rule. It seems a no-brainer but I still meet too many storytellers and journalist who make things for an audience of one: themselves — while it’s good to have the personal drive to tell a story it’s also important to understand who else might be interested. And how the audience has changed as well as the ways we look at audiences has changed.

For a long time, audiences were defined in socio-demos: social class, age group, education, gender. Nowadays newer ways to segment them appear: framilies have replaced families, life stages group people together around different jobs to be done, Netflix works with taste-communities and BBC has a wheel of moods and needs to map audiences to their offer and different touchpoints.

The audience is also literary changing: through migration for instance: The number of people with parents or grandparents outside EU 15 keeps growing — in some cities in Europe this is number is well over 50% of the population. And off course when we address diversity we have to think beyond origin and include sexual orientation, gender, ability to access media and many other dimensions.

Take Away: Take time to really know who your audience(s) is/are and mirror society.

2. Frictionless Media

Media has become ubiquitous. Content is everywhere and is offered in superior ways by global players who set standards for convenience and comfort. Every obstacle you put in the way of your audience is an excuse for them to find an easier path.

Desire paths represent the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and a destination.

In an age of frictionless media, users expect an effortless journey: They’ve got used to picking up a series where they left or watch something seamlessly across a series of devices. Adding some nuance: in some cases, you might want to go counter this inside your storytelling experience. Lean forward is not dead. Some people like the difficult and steep way up. In gaming, for example, obstacles are part of the expectation.

Take Away: Remove unwanted obstacles to enjoy your story.

3. Join The Conversation

We have left the age of broadcasting. Engagement is the code word and social platforms have introduced a myriad of ways to build interactions into the media experience with a potential to spark conversations, spread content and foster relations. One to many has become many to one, one to one or many to many.

We are just at the dawn of the age of interaction. Shares, likes, and comments are very much engagement version 1.0. With voice devices and the rise of AI a more conversational media ecosystem will emerge, forcing us to completely rethink how we make and distribute content. Innovative media companies like Hearken are already tinkering with the newsroom process, reinventing the role of the audience: no longer simple consumer they are becoming a partner in the creation of news ingraining listening, trust, and relevance from the very outset of every story.

The Hearken Story Cycle.
Take Away: Make audience engagement part of the whole storytelling process.

4. Behavior Shaped by Technology.

Technology and behavior are a bit like a chicken and an egg. We shape technology and technology shapes us. Everybody has seen the pictures of a festival or subway train 10 years ago and nowadays. The impact of mobile phones on our behavior can hardly be underestimated. And it’s not the only device that has entered our lives. We navigate our days across different screens and touchpoints. Depending on the context, time and activity we have different expectations and restrictions to consume stories or interact with content. On top of that fluctuating wave of devices, we also tend to use different applications in different settings. Keeping up with the audience has never been more a challenge and/or opportunity.

sample customer journey across devices and apps.
Take Away: Understand context and device driven media use.

5. Interfaces Interactions

With new devices come new and different user interfaces, unlocking a score of unfamiliar formats and alternative possibilities for interaction. Take video — the era of screens and apps has seen an explosion of alternative formats for video: square, vertical, 360 and even round. All of them coming with their own productional requirements and considerations.

New devices come also with new challenges and opportunities for interaction. What happens when you make a video tapable of swipeable? How do ensure your audience actually understands the countless possibilities? Before you know it you are not adding layers of interaction but just layers of friction.

sample touch interactions.

And friction can kill everything. It’s the number one reason VR is after years of hype still not widely adopted and will probably stay a niche for a long time while AR feels like a much more natural experience that has easily found its way in our new set of media realities. Voice devices hold that same promise of more natural interactions, even if they come with a whole set of other challenges in terms of discovery, prominence, and attribution. Designing for conversation and building brands and stories without visual cues brings media makers and storytellers in uncharted territory.

Take Away: Adapt your story to new interfaces and unlock brand-new interactions.

6. The King of Content needs the Queen of Distribution

We have heard this before but we have not yet figured it out yet. Media makers have to make hard strategic choices about the channels they use to get their content out. Do we float in a stream controlled and created by others or do we tend our own garden with a lot of effort and no guarantee that someone will ever visit? The question quickly becomes a rabbit hole leading us in a very layered distribution ecosystem. Online platforms operate across various domains delivering hybrid functions or connecting distinct services in an integrated ecosystem and disintermediating publishers and media makers along the way.

Example: Nowadays Google is not ‘just’ a search engine but a fully integrated part of the ‘Google experience’. If you search for example for a sports event Google will not just give you related websites but offer smart aggregated content in custom designed formats like youtube previews, top stories, knowledge graphs, scoreboards, etc. The search engine becomes in a sense a content destination.

Platforms provide the hardware and operating systems that set the conditions for other parties to be included. Only apps or content that fits certain criteria are allowed and ranking and discovery are not transparent. A lot of platforms also develop and control the most important apps for user engagement in the value chain creating additional conditions for integration and filters for discovery. Any third party has to go through a chain of submission and control in order to get discovered and get engagement from their users. Creating own dependable destinations has become more important than ever, but the reality is that true independence from all platform players has become nearly impossible.

Take Away: Make distribution an integral part of your storytelling process.

7. Welcome to the Youniverse

We talk about personalization as if it’s already there. Media and platforms collect troves of data, storing every interactions, behavior, and preference but very few actually know how to turn that into value. Data lives inside silos and is hardly connected across departments and functional units in organizations to reveal insights and understanding.

There is also a lot of unclarity to the purpose of all that data hoarding. What are we actually trying to do? And how much of that is in the interest of the public? With increasing scrutiny of the use of personal data and the notion that privacy shouldn’t be a price for convenience, media companies and storytellers will have to come up with better propositions to justify the use of data. Personalization shouldn’t be about pushing content to people but rather help us understand how we can create personal experiences and meaningful journeys for audiences.

Take Away: Define meaningful personalization.

8. Hooked by Experiences

Bringing all this together it’s no wonder my daughter is getting hooked. The tailored, effortless experience, with social and engaging content, triggers her to come back. Not the single experience but the relation is the end game. Big platforms like Facebook and YouTube are shifting weight away from simple reach or views to loyalty and intent: they are trying to understand what people seek out proactively and what drives them to watch from the same publisher or creator week after week.

Hooked Canvas by Nir Eyal.
Take Away: Loyalty trumps one time reach. Build hooks to drive repeated engagment.

End Note

This post is a summary of a presentation held at RTS on March 30. It was aimed at a group of storytellers and journalist eager to build more digital skills and knowledge. It might contain some obvious truths but I thought it valuable to bring all the pieces together in a single image. Feel free to contact me with any questions. My contact details can be found on: https://www.ebu.ch/digital-media