thinking

Show me, don't tell me: the art of digital storytelling

A picture tells a thousand words, but it also speed-reads them to you.

I am from the in-between generation of internet users. My attention span is longer than 6 seconds but shorter than 5 minutes. I have little patience (or time) for companies to explain their lengthy propositions and benefit statements to me, just as I don't want the waiter at the restaurant I'm at to spend five minutes listing the specials. Brands that want to engage with me online either need to be fast, or very compelling - ideally both.

There is a LOT of stuff out there on the internet to cut through, both as a brand and a consumer. Every company in the world, plus every person, feels it is their duty to "say something", to push out content (which used to be called articles and films and opinions). Sometimes I feel we're all just shouting gibberish into an infinite black hole. And more than ever, audiences are fragmented when it comes to media consumption. It's not so easy to just push out an ad every season and know that people are going to hear your message, and the messages you do get out there are shorter, more ephemeral, less coherent. A tweet can't pack the punch of a 30 second spot emotionally, and even if it could, it'll be gone and out of memory by tomorrow. No-one wants the same tweet repeated at them 50 times, which is exactly what would have happened in the advert breaks if you watched Friends or Big Brother for a few weeks. So how can brands get their messages across? How can they tell their story? Snapchat? Instagram? Sure, if you're lucky enough to build a following, but you need to play by the rules of the game if you're on those platforms. You need Snapchat content for Snapchat. As awesome as the Reading Room offices are, they're unlikely to make for the most compelling Instagram feed.

This is a fairly untrendy point of view, considering the prevalent ideas that we'll all be buying our cars off of Facebook and organising our pensions through Whatsapp or Amazon Echo, but until that time I think that your humble website is the thing that will pick up a lot of the slack of the storytelling task. You have complete control. It's your turf. People don't go there by accident - they're there to complete tasks or to intentionally spend time just checking you out: you have a captive audience. Don't marketers dream of that? On social media you need to maintain a dialogue over a period of time to really tell a story. On your site, you have to opportunity to do it there and then - if you can be compelling enough to keep people's attention. Your users are coming to your house. What are you going to show them?

By the way, I don't mean interrupting a user journey in order to force-feed them more branded campaign messages. I don't mean creating a 3D "experience" or a user-generated 360 degree social NFC augmented reality AI. In fact, maybe I don't mean "content", maybe I mean "assets" and how you use them. I mean ensuring that the first 0.2 seconds of the experience gets people in the right heart-space (not head-space) and makes them vibe with you as a brand. On a travel site, are users immersed in a gorgeous video or bombarded with text content and latest tweets? I mean thinking about every area of your site and how you might be able to introduce some kind of rich brand asset, some kind of content, that might be enjoyable, inspiring or interesting to the user without disrupting their flow. When you're explaining the technical benefits of your product, are you doing it through an article or an interactive narrative that can show off the mood that the product creates as well as the features? If you're a B2B supplier, do your potential clients understand the attitudinal uniqueness of your brand, and how have you put that across? Light-hearted animations instead of stock photography of blokes pointing at charts? A creatively-art-directed photoshoot of your staff to bring out their personalities instead of boring corporate headshots?

This kind of thing requires effort and investment (although often not as much of the latter as you think) but it's definitely worth it. There's no substitute for high-quality, meaningful and interesting assets.

There are pitfalls to avoid: bad photos are bad photos and there's no way a good idea will save them. On the other hand, a creative is only as good as their brief - make sure you ask for the right thing. Make sure there's a meaningful concept at the heart of what you're producing, otherwise it won't hang together and will quickly descend into the generic. And no-one wants to be Generic Brand(TM).

But don't be scared of content. Your brand, you charity, your business, deserves the awesome video, the stylish or impressive photoshoot, the bespoke illustrative style or the animated interactive story that people share with each other. The content which, through all of the energy and power of creativity, inspires people more than the old ways of the internet. There's so much more that you can do, and it's in your reach. Let your imagination go and let's take up the challenge to keep inspiring people. The rewards will be great.

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