Wednesday saw the great and the good of UK planning gather for our sixth (gosh, six events already) Google Firestarters event at Google HQ. We'd themed the event around digital storytelling and video, an increasingly important subject given the growth in content marketing, the abundance of new digital tools and ways to tell stories, and the runaway momentum of online video. We had three very different, but very insightful perspectives.
First up was Ajaz Ahmed, founder of AKQA (which he launched aged 21, and that went on to become the largest independent digital agency in the world until WPP bought it in June) and co-author of Velocity (The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital). Ajaz began by talking about how companies and brands that have endured have a never ending story. He's said before that his mission with AKQA was “to put multimediocrity out of its misery and use technology to celebrate the spirit of our clients”, and that captures the theme of his talk very well. Digital offers an extraordinarily rich canvas for storytelling, he believes, but it requires approaches that are about creating compelling stories by using the inherent properties of digital to create things that can't be done in another media, something they have done extraordinarily well in their work with Nike. For the cost of a 30 second ad you can create a piece of work that created 100 million minutes of deep engagement and something that enables people to take the brand with them.
So it's critical that the audience get something out of the work – it has to be useful, inspiring or delightful – but this is not necessarily about adding layers of complexity. He made the point that every time digital disrupts, it tends to do so by making something simpler. So whether an idea is big or small doesn't matter – the only thing that matters is whether a story or an idea is compelling enough for people to want to share it. This is not always the easiest option for agencies, but if they are to truly return to their genesis as ideas companies, and not become factories for 30-second spots, they need to move away from trying to fit old formats into digital and accept that covenience is often the enemy of right. To use one of my favourite quotes from him: “What’s important is that agencies respect audiences and be artful. The magic is in the product, the values, and the spirit of the brand, so it must seek to amplify these truths in an interesting, consistent voice across all customer touchpoints.”.
Matt Locke used his experience as a multimedia commissioner at Channel 4 (and before that at the BBC), and from his current work at Storythings, to build on these broad themes by focusing on storytelling in the context of audience, behaviour and circulation. For audience, he talked about how obsessed we are with attention, which has always been an important factor in storytelling – it is the feedback loop for stories, the connection through which you can understand how the audience is responding and how artists learn and refine their craft. Dominant measures of attention (and we are coming to the end of the era where single metrics are used to measure success in media) can affect the kind of art that people produce, the businesses that accrue around media and attention, and the ways of cheating the measure we're using. Multiple measures free us to be more flexible with our approaches in using different formats and media to tell stories in different, less linear ways (what if the online game came before the broadcast show rather than just during and after it?).
Matt went on to describe how spikes of attention can change behaviours, and used the progression of audience behaviours that have have become prominent in digital and the web to explain this. Which led him to talk about how we're moving from the age of distribution to the age of circulation. Whereas once ideas and stories were distributed (through mass media), they are now circulated between people, which compels brands to design for shareability and what he called 'transgression' ("design for two people, not for one"). He used a fascinating piece of analysis on what makes a successful YouTube channel (go read his blog post about it) using two different metrics comparing the channels with the most views, with those that have the most subscribers. The ratio bewteen the number of views to the amount of content reveals how hard some people (notably many traditional broadcasters) are having to work to get subscribers, but also reveals the different strategies involved ranging from talent-led (often music based, few uploads, views driven by organic search), to broadcast-led (linked to existing TV shows/channels, lots of uploads, views largely driven by organic search, but few subscribers), and Youtube-native channels (lots of subscribers, lots of uploads, most traffic driven by links within the Youtube platform). What's important out of all of this is that we have to design in a different way – for new attention patterns, new behaviours and for circulation rather than distribution.
Matt Heimann of Diagonal View, the largest independent producer of online video content, followed up with a talk that focused on the fascinating approach they have for producing content. Expanding on Matt Locke's point about how attention is the feedback loop, Matt H used the analogy of the audience being the fire to which it's important to stay close to in order to keep warm. What that means for them is using a constant stream of user data and realtime feedback to inform what content they produce in extremely agile ways. Some of the YouTube channels they produce have audiences larger than broadcast properties, with members of the community often becoming content producers, but their focus is in matching data to content to become far more responsive in how content is produced and stories told. James Caig has captured well in his write up of the event how Matt used the example of comedian Milton Berle, who would adapt his set based on how the audience reacted to his first five jokes. Matt H's suggestion was that in order to balance story structure with adaptability there should be two plans – a structured one that identifies your key direction and what will gain you attention, and a more responsive one that is able to capitalise on feedback and attention patterns.
The perspectives from the speakers were without exception fascinating, and some great questions and discussion afterwards from the audience added to the richness of the talks, making it an absorbing event. As always, my thanks to the speakers, to all those who came, and to Google for hosting. I've created a Storify of the event which is worth a look, and Phil Adams has also done a great write up. The talented scribes at Scriberia also did a great job of visualising the talks, and you can see a larger version of that visual here. We'll be doing one more Firestarters event pre-christmas (probably in late November) so watch out for that.