The 8 Steps to Digital Storytelling

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Audiences from all demographics and age ranges are becoming increasingly more sensitive to the schemes of marketers. And if any brand comes across as scummy, we tend to call them out publicly. In an age where everyone has a voice and everyone is connected, public feedback has a much greater impact than it used to.

So what do we, as consumers, actually want? What feels a little less scummy to us? The answer, is a story. We don’t want to be sold to, we want to be engaged with. Brands across the world have begun revamping their marketing strategies to cater to this new age of connectivity and storytelling which Samantha Morra mapped out in her essay, “8 Steps to Digital Storytelling.”   

Step One: Come up with an idea and write a proposal

Every great campaign or story begins with an idea (duh) and that idea has to originate somewhere. Brilliant idea generation is one of the trademarks of a great agency. Without ideas that resonate with and impact the brand’s audience, the story falls flat. Making sure that we start with a great idea is the root of all of our creative work.

With that kind of pressure on the initial stage of telling a brand’s story, we make sure that we’re investing the time and mental energy necessary to produce the highest quality work. Ken Segall, in his book Insanely Simple, explores Steve Jobs’ approach to creative teams to ensure quality: “empower small teams of smart people.”

At MESH, we do just that, scheduling brainstorming meetings with the key players on a project with the simple objective of finding a solid direction. All ideas are welcome, no holds barred. Lay it all out on the table whether it be a sketch, a color pallet, inspirational imagery, a powerful headline, a mood board, an integrated campaign, or a unique brand experience. Each person brings their perspective and their creativity to the table; you could say it’s our own version of the Vulcan Mind Meld. With a direction in hand, we can then move on to step two.

Step Two: Research, Explore and Learn

A spark of a good idea might turn out to be a treasure trove or a garbage dump and to determine which, it requires that we dig into the concept with an analytical mind, researching everything from color theory to product placement. In this stage we’ll explore audience demographics, competition, brand positioning and a host of other variables in order to maximize exposure and memorability.

Another important aspect to the research phase is learning all we can about the product, service or brand who’s story we are trying to tell. Sometimes, in the midst of our research, we’ll discover a hidden gem that revolutionizes our campaign.

Step Three: Write / Script

Once we’ve built a foundation of facts, figures and data we can begin to flesh out the messaging. Our goal is not how many words we can write nor how eloquent. It’s to clearly communicate their story in the brand’s unique voice so that their audience understands. In some instances it requires a lot of words, in others, a certain amount of eloquence, and sometimes, neither.

Translating this message from our clients head to paper isn’t an easy process and can require much clarifying and reworking over many drafts to get it right. But getting it right is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle because the entire campaign rides on the ability of the audience to “get it” and do so in a heartbeat.

Great writing is captivating, prompts intrigue and gives the audience a next step whether that be buying a product or simply mulling over an idea.

Step Four: Storyboard / Plan

This particular step consists of visually mapping out the story across its various mediums. For video, storyboarding takes a very literal approach. We’ll take the script from step three and begin telling the story through a series of still frames that illustrate the video’s progress along the script. For mediums other than video, the storyboard/plan step will take the form of a mocked-up version of the finished product. The fleshed out concept from step two and the refined messaging from step three get reimagined as [fill in the blank]. It might be a billboard, a magazine ad, an Instagram account, a bus wrap, a Facebook post, a door hanger, a website or any number of other platforms through which your message will be experienced.

The objective of step four is to visualize your message in the context that it will be experienced by the audience in order to better understand how the message can/will be received. With video, we’re looking for the flow of the scenes and the script that draw the viewer in. With Facebook, we’re looking for eye-catching design and a powerful one-liner for maximum impact in a single second. Depending on the platform and context, the creative often has to be adjusted.

Step Five: Gather / Create Images, Audio and Video

Finally! Step five is what most people imagine when they think “creative agency.” Headphone-clad designers sitting at their desks engrossed in a concept while executives in the background mull over the various color pallets and typefaces pinned up to a cork board on the wall.

Sometimes it’s very similar to this scene and other times, not so much. Either way, creating the work is, understandably, one of the most fun legs of the journey. At MESH, we’ve got designers, copywriters, musicians, photographers, videographers, social media gurus and web developers, each responsible for one (sometimes eight) piece(s) of the creative puzzle. While we all have our specialties, we’re unique in that many of our creative team are first class in two, three, maybe five different skills which not only allows us to spread the work evenly and avoid bottlenecks in our creative process, but also means other trained eyes and ears are providing valuable insight at each stage of the project.

Step Six: Put it all together

Once the copy has been written, the footage shot, the music scored, the designs tightened and the site developed, it’s time to smooth the edges. With multiple people working on the same project, it’s inevitable that a few rough edges won’t quite aline. It’s only when every piece is pulled together into a cohesive unit that we begin to see what needs to be tweaked. In this stage, we gather together as a team and assess the project’s impact as a whole allowing everyone to interject their own impressions and critiques.

We line it back up with the client’s goals, values and desires and make sure every i is dotted and every t crossed. Think of it as getting your tires realigned – it’s an adjustment to ensure optimal performance. Once all is good, we prepare and package files to be delivered.

Step Seven: Share

Though step seven is when the work is released to the world, it requires little effort on our part except for monitoring. We want to make sure that everything is going off without a hitch in the real world but if we’ve done our part successfully, we’re able to pop some champaign and toast to a job well-done.

Step Eight: Feedback and reflect

Lastly, step eight – feedback and reflect – is often an overlooked step in the digital storytelling cycle because the project feels complete once it’s been released. However, this step is one of the most vital because it provides us with the information we need to grow. When we reflect on our work and are given the freedom to provide open and honest feedback, we’re empowered to proactively better the agency. If something didn’t work, we’ll figure out what went wrong and fix it for next time. If something unexpected worked beautifully, perhaps we should figure out how to replicate it in the future. Both praise and critique are welcome because only with a healthy dosage of both will we hope to become anything more than what we are today.

Storytelling in a digital age is a new phenomenon simply because we haven’t had this level of access or connectivity before in history. However, the principles are rooted in the fundamental trait of humans to communicate through story. We’ve done it throughout time, beginning with oral histories and continue to do it today with live streams and snapchats. We’re in the business of telling stories and telling them well. Perhaps, in the near future, we’ll tell yours.