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Interactive Storytelling Strategy

Interactive Storytelling 101: Where It Fits in Your 2016 Content Strategy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Remember the very first time you picked up a book over 500 pages? It was probably part of a school assignment. The thick set of pages would weigh your backpack down, pushing the straps into your shoulder blades as you sluggishly walked to the bus or down the street and into your bedroom.

Thumbing through the pages, all you’d see was blocks of black text and a few page breaks. No photographs. No illustrations. Just text.

While fiction and nonfiction stories don’t always use visual elements to move a narrative forward, we as digital marketers can leverage the endless number of tools and technologies at our fingertips to disrupt the way we tell stories to our audience. We’re no longer constrained to text-only content; we are liberated from age-old publishing models. Now, what does the future of storytelling look like?

For some stories, interactive design offers the perfect set of parameters. But what is interactive storytelling, and how do you know if your story fits this approach? This article will cover the basics of interactive storytelling and show you how to fit it into your ongoing content marketing strategy.

What Types of Stories Lend Themselves to Interactivity?

There is a growing difference between content marketing and brand storytelling. While these two terms may sound similar and even share a few core concepts, not every piece of content created for a marketing strategy uses story-form to connect with an audience.

Interactive design can emphasize the most powerful phases of a good story. Movement and visual elements can give life to core characters, emphasize turning points, and provide implied context without distracting from the story’s progression.

Interactive stories can also be told in chapters. This gives the marketer unprecedented power, as they can give readers only what they need to get hooked on a story, and then use writing techniques to convey suspense and anticipation among an audience—two clear drivers of effective long-form, episodic content creation.

So when evaluating whether a story lends itself to interactivity, you first need to revisit the format in which the story is being told. Does your story simply go from point A to point B? Are there turning points in the narrative that require action on your reader’s part? Should you give your audience the power to dictate how the plot progresses through dynamic and responsive design? Think about it this way: Interactivity is about more than moving images and parallax scroll: It’s a conduit to telling immersive stories that force your readers to make decisions and empathize with your core characters.

How do you choose the best format for your story?

Interactivity can come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s important to understand when a simple animation might serve a better purpose than an entire microsite or advanced landing page.

A simple blog post covering a trend or reporting on third-party research might not need a whole site redesign, but it could benefit from a helpful data visualization that quickly communicates a data set to an audience. Conversely, dense industry research can be overwhelming for an audience… and stressful for a marketing team to deliver to its audience. Here, it makes more sense to pick apart the story within the research, develop a narrative around those data points, and then deliver that information through a progressive, interactive concept.

Some of the best examples of interactive storytelling come from The New York Times T-Brand Studio (see interactive graphic above). These sponsored native ads are rooted in storytelling—just like the publisher’s newsroom—but the designers and strategists incorporate mixed media elements to move the reader from the first sentence down to the last word.

How do these various interactive elements lend themselves to effective storytelling? By including multiple media assets in a single story, the T-Brand Studio gives the reader any number of ways to digest the information on the page. This puts choice in the reader’s hands.

In a study funded by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, researchers wanted to understand how readers found, read, and shared long-form content. Because many of us are strapped for time, there are advantages to understanding what motivates people to engage with longer-form assets.

The study found that the majority of readers discover long-form content on media outlets, and finish reading the stories in one sitting 66 percent of the time. When you look at the most-read long-form stories, the majority includes visual elements to break up text, video and audio clips to appeal to the senses, and interactive components for sharing and for discovering more information.

How does interactive content fit in with the rest of your marketing strategy?

As a marketer, you have specific goals to reach every quarter. The idea of investing time and money in designing long-form content that follows storytelling principles more than it sells a product or generates leads may seem misguided, but the advent of the visual web is not the product of marketers—it’s the evolution of the new information age, now dictated by consumers themselves.

In a September 2015 report from GumGum, researchers attempted to define the visual Web, but found that it doesn’t come with one definition: It includes design, advertising, and anthropological phenomena. When asked what led to the Web as a more visual place, respondents noted three interesting events:

  • 19.1% described the visual web as a “user experience and design phenomenon driven by more mobile usage and shrinking screen sizes.”
  • 18.1% said it had to do with “anthropological phenomenon based on modern-day visual media tools colliding with human beings’ natural storytelling abilities.”
  • 14.9% said it was an “advertising phenomenon driven by lack of consumer attention to banner ads, less screen real estate, and the advent of native advertising formats.”

When you look at these responses, you see that interactive, visual storytelling is the result of technological change and a shift in how people prefer to consume information. When you apply storytelling techniques to this process, you begin to see the future of marketing taking shape as immersive web experiences instead of  interruptive advertising campaigns. This is the type of information a consumer will willingly provide contact information to receive more of from a brand.

Interactive content becomes part of your solution to the soon-to-be ad-free world. People ignore pop-ups, they fast-forward or opt-out of television commercials, they ignore email offers because they’re part of loyalty programs. So in order to get in front of your desired audience, you need to present them with an experience they can’t get anywhere else, combining the art of storytelling through smart, engaging copy with the science of storytelling through immersive, exciting experiences.

Interactive content fits within every marketing program you run, but the degrees in which you add mixed-media elements depends on your budget, your program’s end goal, and what exactly you’re trying to communicate to your audience.

What If All Stories Were Interactive?

Now think back to that 500-page book again, and how much more appealing it would’ve been to read if it included video and audio clips, images, a few choose-your-own-adventure elements, and a button to click to get more stories just like it immediately. We might’ve all done our homework if that’s how assignments and stories were structured back in middle school.

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