Going Old School: Telling Digital Stories in Analog Media

Jun 14, 2013
orson-welles-directing on CBS_small

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural DC-region Digital Analytics Association Symposium.  It was a great event with a lot of incredibly impressive folks doing interesting things, both inside the Federal Government, as well as leaders from NPR, PBS, NatGeo among others.  I would recommend anyone with any thoughts of learning more about how analytics are evolving to seek out and join the DC Chapter.  (Find more information about the DC Digital Analytics Association Symposium.)

I spoke the problem of constructing stories that start in one place (i.e. Radio) and extend or even end on another (i.e. mobile).  Just tune into any breaking news story and you can see how there is a confusing interplay across multiple channels.  An event, such as the recent Boston bombing, or even the Iranian elections today, exist in many places at once; on television, radio, social media, websites, SMS and the list goes on.  But how do you proactively use these channels – and the special qualities of each – to manage a coherent, interactive, engaging, relevant story?

While part of the issue is our relative inexperience in managing news over the plethora of platforms and channels, there are a few that are taking on the challenge of creating a new type of story for a multi-platform world.  These are the new storytellers, documentary film makers, and artists that are expanding their craft by bending, breaking and remixing narratives over traditional, digital and ever emerging channels.

For me the start of these new narratives began with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater War of the Worlds.  It was a radio story, but felt so real to the audience that mass panic set in among many of the listeners who believed the events were real.  This not only demonstrated the power of great storytelling over broadcast – perhaps the ultimate of what NPR calls “Driveway Moments” – but how a narrative actually had people driving to New Jersey to see if the aliens had actually landed.  Fast-forward to 2004 and the next leap forward was the series Lost, which broke out of the television format to continue the narrative arch, or the ‘mythology’ through multiple digital puzzles and hidden sites.  These are the foundations for what we are seeing today in multi-channel story-telling.

As I have thought more about the new narrative it is apparent that analytics must become an important tool for the story-tellers.  Rather than the old way of “more is better” as a proxy for quality (more audience = bigger success), the digital world allows story-tellers to hone their craft through nearly real-time feedback across multiple channels that can result in quick shifts, additions and changes to narratives depending on pockets of audience behavior and interests.

In my presentation, I choose to categorize how I am observing these story-tellers in three main buckets:

  • The Hand-Off where narrative arcs start in one place, but are continued on other channels that exploit the characteristics of that platform, such as interactivity of the web, or social of Facebook.
  • The Layering of information, each related to a central storyline, but different levels of information about that story.  The classic “For more information on this topic…” hand-off to a website is the ancestor of Layering.
  • The Extension is related to both above, but it is where a narrative starts and ends on one platform, but elements of the storyline, or minor story lines are ‘extended’ for fuller explanation on other channels.

Great places to see stories that exhibit this kind of narrative, such as Hand-Off stories include the whole “Expanded Star Wars Universe” of movies, books, games, comic books, videos, fan fiction, conventions, etc.  (I saw the original, but have become more immersed through the eyes of my 11 year old son…the joy of Star Wars Legos)  Lost is still, for me, the most fully realized version of the Layered story, though NY Time’s Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is another beautiful example.  Finally, Frontline’s collaboration with Pro Publica, especially their A Perfect Terrorist, is a wonderful example of Extension story-telling.

However, story-tellers, as mentioned above, need analytic tools to help them tell those stories.  The bulk of my presentation was my thinking about how we need to shape metrics and analytic tools to help us understand how things are working across multiple platforms.  I sketched out some categories of metrics I would love to have in my portfolio, as well as discuss the “one customer ID” problem we all face.

The best thing about my somewhat meandering talk was that after the presentation (see below) I got loads of questions, thoughts and critiques of how analytics needs to evolve to help support this emerging type of story-telling.  I am along for the ride like everyone else and look forward to working on these thorny problems together.


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Rob Bole is the Director of Innovation for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @rbole.

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