The Traveling Bard

Storytellers need to meet their audiences where they spend their time

The Bard (ca. 1817), by John Martin The Bard (ca. 1817), by John Martin

Major Media companies aren’t having the best decade. A one-two punch from Google and Facebook has flattened onsite traffic and ad revenue, and the digital “platforms” they invested in are no longer very valuable.

When selling ads, audience data and size are pretty important, and digital platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube have audience in troves. While that spells bad news for publishers overly invested in ad tech, it should be rather liberating for content producers focused on great content.

Transmedia storytelling is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies, not to be confused with traditional cross-platform media franchises, sequels, or adaptations.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with the idea of transmedia storytelling for awhile, and it seems we’re finally on the crest of it going mainstream. Marketers should be familiar with this concept; it’s now common to craft a seamless campaign for omni-channel distribution so that a brand’s message is coherent and connected across TV, social, in-store, etc.

Content creators, for the most part, have owned their main — and most profitable — distribution channel for over a century. To their dismay, attention has shifted away from their proprietary grasps, and now they must focus on omni-channel distribution to maintain their brand value.

Traditional CMSes have focused primarily on one distribution point, but as consumption habits shift, we need to radically rethink our processes. Our new Content Management Systems will have to solve the problems associated with telling cross-platform stories to distributed audiences.

If content brands want to continue to sell their audiences’ attention in the form of ads, they need to work harder at connecting with potential readers, listeners, and viewers on the platforms they’re already spending time on. No more cheap tricks to get clicks, publishers need to focus on endemic content the same way marketers do.

Upstarts like NowThisNews have proven extremely effective at this, and after years of building trust with audience, we’re seeing their ladder up strategy. A brand once focused entirely on quick his social videos and posts, has announced they’re moving into investigative journalism and long-form video. NowThisNews will be able to convert a portion of their existing third-party audience into much more valuable consumers.

NowThis to expand into investigative journalism and long-form video - Digiday
_Short-form news video giant NowThis is getting into long-form programming, original shows and investigative journalism…

At the other end of the spectrum, some huge media entities are exploring transmedia storytelling. One of my favorite recent examples is ESPN’s Pin Kings, the story of Miami high school wrestling teammates that ended up on opposing sides of the War on Drugs.

ESPN’s in-depth reporting of this fascinating story included a few short form videos embedded in a long-form feature story, sixteen podcasts, and an hour-long documentary. The multitude of entry points increases the narrative’s opportunity to convert consumers to different platforms, and also tells a more robust story.

Old teammates face off in Miami drug wars: ESPN retells a Herald story
_When the cocaine cowboys turned Miami into America’s drug smuggling capital in the mid-1970s, it also transformed the…

Telling cross-platform stories at scale will require publishers to properly repackage narrative assets based on the constraints of the platform. In much the same way that technology has moved towards modularity and microservices, creators need to modularize their content. A new class of editor will focus on mixing and matching asset types available in this modular CMS.

In a previous job, I got to know the folks behind Contentful, an API-first SaaS CMS, or as they describe it “Not yet another CMS, but an API-centric microservice for managing content in a developer-friendly way”. Whether content is being displayed on a watch, a smartphone app, or on a third-party platform like Apple News, the publisher simply needs to call a singular story object and specify what assets should be displayed.

A similar approach to solving this problem is Directus, an open-source solution that bills itself as a “Headless” CMS. The really just means a CMS that ships without a commingled website. Given the lack of control publishers have on third-party platforms, the future favors publishers that embrace open, API first solutions to be more flexible.

As our newsrooms proliferate their number of consumer touch points, ease of maintenance is of equal concern to quality of content. Whether publishers license Contentful to leverage their APIs or roll their own solution with something like Directus, they’ll need to be clever about integrating third-party data into their content display logic: when, where, and how a consumer experiences the story.

The earliest adopters are already waking up to their Alexa, checking their Apple Watch for last night’s notifications, popping in their Airpods to cue up a podcast for the morning commute, and donning their slick new Snap Spectacles to seamlessly capture their world’s oddities. We haven’t built systems that allow our content to move seamlessly across these platforms, but it’s hard not to get excited about the future of storytelling.