Article

Gina Lovett
Gina Lovett 11 April 2014
Categories Content, Technology

A Cheer for Digital Storytelling

The advent of digital storytelling is doing much to create excitement in digital marketing circles, but while it heralds new possibilities for an era of socially led and participatory marketing, so too, does it raise questions. And confusion. What actually is digital storytelling? What's its place in digital marketing? How does it differ from a cross-platform campaign?

The advent of digital storytelling is doing much to create excitement in digital

marketing circles, but while it heralds new possibilities for an era of socially led and

participatory marketing, so too, does it raise questions. And confusion. What actually

is digital storytelling? What’s its place in digital marketing? How does it differ from a

cross-platform campaign?

Advertising and marketing have always been about telling good stories – it’s just

telling them in a more multi-media or trans-media way, I hear some of you respond.

You’d be right to a degree, but it would be clearer to say that digital storytelling is

an approach to marketing that combines multi- and/or trans-media content with

traditional storytelling techniques involving narrative, structure and form. The

great storyteller’s skills are in the tricks they use and how they use them. We

must remember that storytelling is an art form, designed for the entertainment and

immersion of the reader – or in the case of digital storytelling – the user.

As yet, the grammar of digital storytelling has not been fully defined but already it’s

clearly nonlinear, facilitative, participatory, interactive and immersive. Just like in art,

design and other creative industries, the outputs of industry are beginning to facilitate

conversations and discussions, rather than just making statements. Unlike other

marketing campaigns, digital storytelling has a focus on doing and making. It’s about

ethnography, consumer insight and building experiences – transforming stories from

products we consume into experiences we share.

To really grasp this, it’s wise to let go of the idea brand messaging can be controlled.

In digital storytelling, the brand has roles: author, curator, art director, narrator.

This makes it a much more difficult space to occupy and hence requires a greater

understanding of structure and narrative.

Digital storytelling is also less self-conscious and prescribed than other types of

marketing. You could liken the process and interaction to improvisation. The role of

the brand here is not direction or control, it’s about facilitation – feeding participants

cues and turning points that draw out their opinions, thinking and attitudes. The

outcome is, however, unpredictable.

According to the theatre director, author and improvisation expert Keith Johnstone,

the best way to get the most out of improvisation is to introduce a measure of what

you could call ‘absolution of responsibility’. Improvisation is rarely successful when

director and actor are worried about the content of the outcome. Content lies in how

things unfold, not in what characters say. Once you lose the self-consciousness of

saying something in an exact-type-of-way, it becomes possible to concentrate on

structure and narrative. And it’s the type of narrative, or the type of role adopted by

brand, that can really engage the consumer.

There are a great number of narrative types that lend themselves well to digital

storytelling – the vignette, the list, the epistolary, the dialogue, the rashamon story

told from several different perspectives, the unreliable narrator or unusual points of

view. These could all work well in a participatory context.

But it’s also the simple storytelling tricks such as reincorporation – bringing in at the

end what you mentioned at the start – that really mark something as a narrative.

As Johnstone says, the story takes the actor anywhere, but he gives it shape by

remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. This

simple trick, he says, nearly always gets a cheer.

It goes without saying that clichéd happily-ever-after narrative structures are

usually best avoided, unless they can bring something new. What about making the

convention the story? A good example of this is how award-winning Guardian video

journalist, John Domokos approached a story on disabled people being forced back

to work despite obvious incapacity.

Domokos had the opportunity to visit a family, whose daughter was a case in point.

Thinking about how he was going to video it, he was acutely aware that he wanted to

avoid the cliché of TV news: the domestic setting depicted by a householder opening

their bills or making a cup of tea. Then it dawned on him that in this instance, asking

the girl to make a cup of tea would be the best way of showing her incapacity to

work.

There’s also another lesson from Domokos’s ‘back-to-work’ video: use the right

platform to tell your story. Think about what the story is and what’s the best way

of telling it. There’s no point in commissioning a video if all the action that you’re

capturing is someone’s monologue on a sofa. What qualities does a particular

platform have that will convey or evoke emotions that other platforms can’t?

One of the pitfalls with digital storytelling is the ease with which the vast array of

capabilities and options can be captivating. There are so many content options –

text, sound, photography, animation, video – not to mention technology and platform

options. AR or gaming? Twitter or Facebook? It’s easy to be seduced by shiny

technology and an urgency of being everywhere at all times but don’t lose focus on

the end goal of immersing the user.

Another big question for those interested in digital storytelling is how to build

interactivity into a narrative. Sapient Nitro’s work for XGames and ESPN

demonstrates an interesting approach to this by nailing a way of getting consumers

to generate data that tells fans a story about themselves. Getting fans to shake their

phones as part of a ‘hype meter’ during a game measured and graphed excitement

in real time. The visualisation of fans’ behaviour showed moments of peak

interactivity and excitement, enough to make fans ask what happened to generate

that? Whatever you think of the actual campaign, there’s something in the ‘data as

meta fiction’ approach that can be adopted or improved on.

It’s also here that I remember Ze Frank, the pioneer of the interactive, immersive

internet. His words, enshrined on Wikipedia, say: ‘For me, experimentation is not

about the technology. In an ever-changing technological landscape, where today’s

platforms are not tomorrow’s platforms, the key seems to be that any one of these

spaces can use a dose of humanity and art and culture.’ I haven’t quite managed the

reincorporation technique this time round, but I do hope this digital storytelling will get

a cheer.

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