Anyone working in communications will have heard the statistics about how many paragraphs of web copy people are prepared to read before they bounce. But you can’t say everything in bullet points. Sometimes a story just needs space to be told properly.
Long–form articles have generally been the unloved stepchild of web content, but new life has been breathed into the format. These are still long written articles, but scroll down and the screen shifts seamlessly from text to full page images, interactive maps, video clips. Audio narration or atmospheric sound effects fade in and out. It’s pretty slick. The New York Times are running with it on features interspersing paragraphs with comic–book panels or cinematic aerial establishing shots. Pitchfork have combined in–depth artist profiles with animated photography and playlists. It’s immersive and engaging multimedia storytelling.
Capturing the imagination
Let’s look at a specific example, A Game of Shark and Minnow, a feature story from the NYT. Go and look at it if you haven’t already. Come back when you’re done.
Good, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I was hooked from the opening click. This is an article that is almost literally taking us somewhere on a boat. It’s atmospheric, visually striking, and informative too – not that I read it through first time, I confess. I got through the first paragraph and then I skipped ahead because I wanted to see more pictures of the rusty ship. Perhaps you did the same.
That’s fine. It’s a long article and most people aren’t going to read it. But plenty will, because it’s captured their imagination – what’s the ship doing there? What’s it like to live on it? The article does a neat job of giving the casual viewer the gist of the story, while inviting them to go deeper and explore the geopolitics of the South China Sea – something they might not have realised they were interested in.
Getting the message
That’s fine for a Sunday supplement article, but imagine this is a charity communication or a marketing piece. You’ve got key messages you want to get across, important information, and a call to action that shouldn’t be missed. Can you use a similar multimedia style and still be more targeted in the message?
Well, you might want to cut down the word length. The dangers of fracking is a good campaign example. The creators of this particular piece have recognised that visitors are going to be tempted to scroll on through and watch the graphical fireworks, so they’ve kept the words to a minimum.
The flipside is that it’s a superficial treatment of a complex subject, great for raising awareness among those with little interest. Not so good for those looking to debate the topic or learn more about it. So you’ve got to know your audience.
There is a real risk that storytelling in this form could become style over substance, but it is possible to tell human stories that resonate emotionally too. See jessandruss.us, a love story and the most innovative wedding RSVP you’ll see this year. Too bad you’re not invited.
Serving the story
Needless to say, flashy user experiences are not an end in themselves. If all the viewer notices is the graphics, then the point has been lost. At the heart of it there’s got to be a good story – one that is relevant, engaging and well written. That’s the starting point, and the role of the visuals is to showcase the story.
That means striking a balance between text and image, entertainment and information, choosing a format wisely and understanding our audiences.
This is where we can help.
We think this form of online storytelling is an exciting new possibility, but it’s going to be done badly more often than it’s done well. What we can offer is an intelligent, holistic approach where the form and content work together – here’s one we made earlier, if you want to see what we mean. If you’ve got a story you want to tell, get in touch.