What's Different about Digital Storytelling? Why It Matters to Effective Content...

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on December 20
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While marketers still rely on print-based models of storytelling, digital texts have fundamentally transformed the very structure of narrative. If you don't know the differences, you're not structuring stories in a manner optimized for online audiences.  Here’s a quick list of the differences:

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For the most part, content developed within the framework of traditional storytelling paradigms does not take full advantage of the possibilities enabled by digital story forms.  Traditional print-based narrative structures, including books and articles in print newspapers, are characterized by a singular author exerting an one-sided voice, a fixed order of events, and an established storyline. Because the actual “text” of a digital narrative has the capacity to evolve in fluid forms—for instance, through reader comments, shares, and new links—digital storytelling incorporates this capacity for change through its very design.   Rather than prescribing a fixed, linear reading order, we should think of digital narratives as mini-networks or “meta-templates” of potential texts. Furthermore, digital narratives do not communicate through a singular authorial voice; rather, digital narratives incorporate multiple, open perspectives and expressions to tell the same story--or multiple related stories within a broader narrative frame.

A typical case study, for instance, tends to focus on a singular account of a product or service in a particular time and place.  Digital narratives, on the other hand, provide a ”user hub”: Rather than representing the who's, what's, and why's of value through the account of a single author, digital content can present and invite complementary accounts. These different narrative accounts reveal perspectives from different locations,  peering into the same product or service, much as the outer spokes of a wheel ultimately connect to a central hub.

What it Means to Turn Content Readers into Content Writers:

A networked structure encourages audience participation by actually placing readers in an authorial role: Readers do not merely consume digital stories; rather, readers can dynamilcally contribute an ongoing, range of narrative trajectories that shape the overall character and meaning of the initial text.   User-generated comments and contributions in turn deepen the authenticity and authority of the content.  Effective digital narratives thus require more than simply telling a story.  They require strategies that encourage reader participation, by design. 

One way to encourage reader participation involves inviting readers to research claims an findings presented in content.  Like the “Pepsi” challenge of the 1970s and 1980s, inviting readers to investigate claims presented in online content empowers audiences/consumers to actively assess and approve the validity of claims.

On a more abstract level, the distinct features of digital storytelling require content creators rethink and enlarge their professional role from “top-down” arbiters of knowledge to facilitators of social dialogue and cartographers of information and communication resources.  The future of content strategy will involve creatively developing new ways to invite and guide readers into ongoing online dialogues.

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