Digital Storytelling 101: Creating Stories to Rise above the Noise
Storytelling Content Creation

Digital Storytelling 101: Creating Stories to Rise above the Noise

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There’s an old saying: “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?” That saying certainly has a proximity to digital storytelling in today’s world and creating stories that connect. If a brand is creating stories that don’t connect with an audience, are those even really considered stories? A story is defined as “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.” If said stories are not entertaining or engaging, should they be considered stories at all? (I’d probably call them advertisements.)

If people can’t find, consume, and react to our stories, then what’s the point of telling them in the first place? Creating stories that connect with an audience is one of the key aspects of successful and sustainable digital storytelling. In addition to connecting with said audience, there are ways to structure and build stories, and a methodology to measure and track the success of those stories. In digital storytelling, marketers need to balance the emotional with the practical. They need to be thoughtful, insightful, and meaningful when telling stories to an audience, but they also need to be pragmatic about how to do it and how to track its success.

Creating Unique Stories That Resonate with Audiences

This is the part of digital storytelling that is both emotional and pragmatic. Marketers need to think about their audience members as human beings: Who are they? What are their ambitions—personally and professionally? What makes them mad, what makes them sad, what gives them joy? Marketers also need to back up their assessments with data: Where do they live? What are their household incomes? Are they married, and do they have kids? What kind of devices do they use, and how do they consume information? Once there are answers to those questions, marketers can personify their audiences.

Storytelling has evolved quite a bit. Dating back to our ancestors, stories have been the backbone of communication and the way in which people were entertained. That still holds true today, though technology has forced humans to adapt, telling and hearing those stories in new, different ways. Social media is a great example of that, making it easy for people to consume and share the stories that resonate with them.

Telling Stories in the Right Format

The key to creating the kinds of stories your audience cares about is understanding how they natively tell stories. For example, what media do they prefer? Does your audience prefer quick snippets of information (Twitter), scholarly analysis of topics (eBooks), informational how-to guides (video), or visual aspirations (Instagram)?

Many marketers are simply focused on attracting audiences from organic media such as search and social media through programmatic content creation. They churn out article after article and keyword after keyword, hoping to rank highly in Google’s search results. That’s one approach. But what if brands created something amazing—and unlike anything else?

The New York Times, for example, published a travel series entitled 52 Places to Go in 2015. However, rather than doing what their competitors did—that is, publishing another travel slideshow with boring images and generic descriptions—it created an interactive guide to the coolest places to visit in 2015. The format contains multiple aspects of storytelling: images, video, graphics, and maps. Each destination is presented in a unique but familiar, virtual visit-style format. Heading to Bend, Oregon? Experience the relaxation and tranquility of fly fishing, right there on the screen. Looking for adventure? Find solitude and sanctity in Campeche, Mexico.

An AdventureEach destination tells its own story, and connects to a broader inspirational message: follow the road less traveled, be spontaneous, and leave inhibitions at home. Stories aren’t concerned with layering in pop-up advertisements, calls to action, or newsletter sign-up forms. They are concerned about the audience, whose members aspire to travel more but don’t know where to go.

That’s just one example of the many formats available to storytellers. Others include:

  • Images: either singular (Instagram) or book style (Steller)
  • Video: lengthy and descriptive (YouTube) or short and sweet (Vine, Twitter)
  • Graphics: informational (infographics) or viral (memes, GIFs)
  • Written: snackable (blog posts) or journalistic (articles)
  • Interactive: experiential (virtual reality) or attention-grabbing (Web)

Tracking Whether Your Story Is Heard

In the age of digital storytelling, the end goal of any story is ensuring it is not only heard, but that it’s listened to, reacted to, and told again and again. The highest goal any marketer can achieve in digital storytelling, aside from creating stories that connect with an audience and create lasting impressions, is creating stories that are retold by the very recipients of those stories. In today’s world, that means shares, e-mails, regrams, text messages, digital messages, and so forth.

Besides engagement, there are a number of other metrics marketers should be tracking as an indication of whether their stories are successful. With storytelling, it’s not enough just to create the story: It actually has to be good.

  • Distribution: How many people interacted with the story? Metrics such as unique visitors, page views, referrals, and clicks are important metrics in digital storytelling, but they are only a few pieces of the puzzle.
  • Engagement: Of the visitors acquired, how many stayed to hear the entire story? With Web content, metrics such as time on page and number of pages visited are important. For video content, heat maps and view-through tracking are important for understanding which parts of a video were most entertaining and how long people consumed the story.
  • Virality: Is the story so good that people have to share it with their friends and family? Metrics such as shares, e-mails, tweets, likes, and stumbles are important to track. Tracking where visitors come from is important, too. If there is a lot of traffic from a certain website or social media power user, that’s an indication of an advocate, a person worth leveraging in the next story because it’s clear he/she will tell it to his/her audience as well.

Creating stories that connect with people is not easy. It takes a keen understanding of the recipient of a given story, a lot of work creating a story in the right format, and tracking whether it’s heard. The last thing any marketer wants to be is the tree that falls down with no one around to hear it.

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