Essay: Real-time Storytelling

Posted on August 18th, 2010 by Chris Saad
Posted in Thought Leadership

Synaptic Web Scenarios:

Real-time Story Telling

How to save mainstream media using real-time platforms to re-invent the way we listen to, engage with and share stories.

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Cut to the chase…

For mainstream media to survive, if not thrive, it must embrace social media and take on the critical role of curator of the conversation. For social media to remain relevant and avoid slipping further into a wall of noise, it must work hand in hand with news organizations to create a symbiotic storytelling relationship.

The result will be a kind of curated grassroots conversation that has the authenticity of social media and the reach and authority of mainstream media.

The story so far…

The past 5 years has been hard for the mainstream media. The rise of bloggers as aggressive, lean and agile news sources, the decimation of the classified business by sites like craigslist and the increasing tendency of the general public to spend time telling each other personal stories on platforms like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter has meant that the traditional news business now looks like a slow, expensive, unfunded and out of touch legacy institution from the 20th century.

Today, there seems to be two camps.

There are those that declare mainstream news as ‘dead’ and have shifted their attention entirely to social media. Typically they are called ‘Social Media Experts’ and consist of disenfranchised ex journalists or recently empowered ex lawyers who have given up or been fired from their stodgy jobs and are now free to ‘tell it how it is’ on their own blogs.

Then there are those who claim that trust in mainstream media brands or the quality, depth and breadth of professional content can never be matched by the ‘great unwashed’ and therefore peruse last ditch efforts to save their old way of business using techniques like paywalls or pulling content out of Google indexes.

Mainstream media is alive and well…

The reality is that mainstream news is not dead. It is, however, based on business models and editorial processes that are outdated, ineffectual and economically inefficient given the new media landscape. A change is necessary.

There have been harmonious trends that have eroded the attention spent with big media brands. First, the rise of empowered audiences and second, the perceived failure of mainstream media.

The advent of personal publishing tools (like blogs, myspace, youtube, facebook and twitter), more flexible copyright laws like creative commons has created a generation of empowered audiences that have the means by which to tell their own stories and reach a small but significant audience.

Couple this with an important portion of the audience having a sense that the mainstream media missed some important counter arguments to major events of the new century and a growing skepticism in the reality of ‘unbiased reporting’ and you have a smart audience that has lost faith in the fourth estate and has the power to create an alternative.

However, the human impulse to tell each other stories – to want our own voice heard – is not new. It’s as old as cave men paintings. In that sense ‘social media’ is not novel. The only thing that’s changed are the tools and the resulting reach of an individual voice.

Social media only seems new because, for a while at the end of the 20th century, mainstream media was so successful at telling us what to think that many of us all forgot how to create, remix and share our own world views.

While mainstream media has made its mistakes, its role and responsibilities will always be very important.

What is occurring, then, is not a death, but rather a rebalancing between the powerful top down editorial process and the basic human instinct of telling personal stories by a camp fire.

Social media is here to stay…

For those that claim that mainstream media brands and content can’t be matched by the long tail, they misunderstand the point and purpose of personal publishing and storytelling. The impulse (and the outcome) is not to replace polished, professional and well told stories. The point is that people trust their friends more than they trust journalists or companies. The point is that today, you can get your news directly from the person living the incident. The point is that there is a hunger for authentic first hand accounts, niche subject matter and opinion.

Personal stories are stories about your mother, your father, your daughter, your son. They are about your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker or your peers in the factory down the road. Personal stories are the stories that are insignificant to everyone else but matter profoundly to you and your immediate community. These are the stories that were once shared around the water cooler or over hour long phone calls amongst husbands and wives, high-school sweethearts or two housewives in the kitchen. They are now turning into published media that consume more and more ‘audience attention’ every day.

We see clear examples of this everywhere. Simply uploading a photo to Facebook literally creates a ‘News Feed Story’ for your friends. It seems everything we do online is packaged up as part of a narrative. These are the things that cynics call ‘inane chatter’ on Twitter. There is nothing inane about family and friends sharing their lives with each other.

Trying to lock these platforms out only serves to isolate and alienate mainstream media from the audiences its trying to serve.

It is also true, however, that left to its own devices, social media can lack an important, cohesive and meta narrative that creates clarity and helps the world make sense of events. While algorithms and basic filters can help, social media needs the ethics, rigor and insight of professional journalists to help tell big stories.

Content Creation to Content Curation…

The key opportunity for media companies then, is to recognize and respect this ancient desire in our society and learn how to adapt.

The brands and the individuals that study the art of professional storytelling – traditionally called journalism – have a vital and pivotal role in this new landscape. It is not, however, the same role they played in the last century. Their role has already changed and their mindset, process and business models must necessarily change as well.

The role of journalist changes from one of content creation to one of content curation. From telling a story to curating a conversation. From finding sources to enabling people. From news organizations to news platforms. From selling ads to adding value.

The stories of our world are already being told in countless public, archivable, searchable and discoverable ways. What’s missing now is not someone to hunt stories down, but rather to weave them into a narrative. What’s missing is not the information, but the expertise to connect the dots and cut through the noise to find the meaningful and the important.

The job of today’s journalist then, is to help us look past cats playing piano or politicians giving talking points and listen to real people giving real opinions with real points of view. To find the authentic, to put it into context and to broaden its reach.

The whistle blower who is quietly tweeting about something he’s seen; The blogger who is trying to highlight an injustice; The people living through the hurricane and taking pictures of the devastation in real-time.

In many ways the role of journalist – curator of the news – has never been more important.

Rebalance the equation…

The tools to empower journalists to capture, curate and share these real-time stories have barely begun to take form. We have only just created fire, now we need to figure out how to harness the energy.

For example, media companies have been sharing their content on social networks and actively promoting those networks as the place to consume and engage. Platforms like Facebook are doing everything they can to encourage this behavior. The challenge with this model, however, is that media companies are outsourcing their core business to branded (someone else’s brand!), uncontrolable and unmonetizable 3rd party software platforms. They do this without taking anything back except some residual return traffic. In essense, media properties invest money in creating high quality content and then hand over the engagement and monetization opportunities to sites like Facebook, Twitter and others. This model is clearly unsustainable.

Balance must be restored.

The alternative is not to lock out these networks, but rather to recognize that while they play a role, there must also be a reciprocal exchange of value from social networks to media companies and their own websites – an exchange of value that is totally within the control of media companies to implement. In other words, media brands must not only share their content, but they must also borrow the best ideas, conversations and data from those networks to populate and inform their own product.

To do this, news media must understand 8 key principles.

1. Control the source

Mainstream media can not outsource its infrastructure to any one 3rd party social network. The internet is made up of many social tools and each can be leveraged in unique ways but in the end, controlling the point source (not the ‘destination’) of content is critical.

The opportunity here is to turn news sites into rich social news platforms. These platforms should be the first, best place for audiences to read and participate in the news. If audiences learn that your site is a better news experience than their Facebook news feed, then they encouraged to click the link and start to engage on your site.

To do this, news media sites must borrow and integrate the cutting edge technologies and interaction metaphors of social networks; Metaphors like friends, faces, social likes, real-time streams and more.

2. Crowd-sourced production

In many ways, posting an article or video should be the beginning of a story not the end of it. Journalists have an opportunity to plant a seed, pose a question and create a space inside which a conversation can take place.

The resulting feedback, properly curated, is extremely powerful yet cost effective to produce. It is like a ‘request for input’ on a global scale. Many today are just as interested in helping to tell a story as passively reading it; This technique empowers them to get involved.

In most cases, the request is not even needed. When an incident occurs, chances are people are already tweeting about it. Journalists, then, need the right tools to harness the best conversations and popular materials (photos, videos, links), apply the right metadata, mix them with editorial and make them part of the story.

3. Heightened Engagement

Once the piece is ‘complete’, the audience must be empowered to continue the story. This isn’t just about commenting (although that’s important) but rather about enabling audiences to add supplementary material, strengthen the importance of related links and prune irrelevant photos.

4. Distribution

A well known and broadly implemented aspect of real-time storytelling is sharing. Users need an easy way to share the permalinks to your content with friends and family via their favorite social networks.

This kind of social distribution across social graphs is becoming increasingly important in terms of driving traffic. Social networks now outstrip google when it comes to traffic generation.

Sharing, however, needs to be tied to more than just a ‘share this’ button. Every action on the page (like, comment etc) should be an opportunity to ask the user to share with their friends. Further, sharing should be cross platform – why force them to choose just one social network when you can get them to share it to many at the same time.

5. Aggregation

A good story creates countless conversations. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the ripples flow out and bounce around the edges coming to rest only after making countless beautiful patterns. Some of these reactions are comments on your article, but many, many more (more than 80% of all reactions) actually take place in hundreds of semi-public micro communities.

There is no where better, however, to see the full conversation than back on your site, where the content was first published. Your article must act as a magnet, pulling in and re-assembling all the niche conversations back into a cohesive and complete whole.

Aggregating, assembling and re-contextualizing these fragmented conversations is a non trivial task. It is, however, critical to understanding, communicating and leveraging the full scope of value your content has created.

6. Connection

Journalists also have an opportunity not just to curate a story or its conversation, but also a list of relevant information sources. As each of us become producers of niche information, helping audiences to find and connect to authoritative voices to follow is an emerging problem perfectly suited for media companies to solve.

7. Micro-subscriptions

Today, most news outlets only allow you to subscribe to board topics like ‘politics’ or ‘sports. Why not allow users to subscribe to tags, keywords, journalists or even memes.

Also, instead of providing geeky options like RSS, outsourcing the subscription problem to Twitter or defaulting to stale options like Email newsletters, why not offer real-time twitter like experiences right from your site.

8. Monetization

Monetizing these opportunities is a rich and critical subject. As such, it deserves its own discussion. Suffice it to say, however, that a new storytelling model requires a new monetization model – one that leverages, rather than stifles, the atomization and distribution of content far and wide.

New forms of monetization in a real-time storytelling world include advertising that travels with atomized content, micropayments, value added products and services like reports and conferences and more.

Real-time storytelling…

This is realtime storytelling. News platforms that are as functional, if not more functional, than their social networking counterparts. Journalists that cut through the noise and pick out the stories that matter. Articles that don’t necessarily tell a complete story, but rather plant a seed – creating a space inside which a conversation can occur. Tools that can aggregate and curate the conversation. An audience that can carry the story forward with their own links and media. Channels where participants can share the story with their friends.

Mainstream media is not dead. Social media is not the new game in town. They are two parts of the same ecosystem. They must work together to create a new form of storytelling.

Real-time storytelling is here…

Learn more about Echo’s Social News products.


In the spirit of planting a notion and curating an ongoing conversation, this is considered a’first draft’. Please contribute in the comments and let’s continue the dialogue.


Author: Chris Saad, VP Strategy (Echo)

With Contributions from: Khris Loux (Echo), Jeremy Wright (Co-founder, b5 Media), Ben Metcalfe (ex BBC, Myspace), Dan Schmidt (CBSi), Eric Blantz (Co-author, Synaptic Web), Jeremiah Owyang (Altimeter group)



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