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09/23/2009 Digital Lacks a Storytelling Paradigm

We all hear the stories about the upcoming downfall of traditional media: Newspapers going under by 2042, Hollywood and TV soon to follow the troubles of the music industry, Books - all electronic, and Radio, well, what's that? While I'm not discounting the troubles the industries, or rather the economics of the industries, face, I think it's one thing to say they're in trouble, another to discount them entirely.

Despite the shift in media attention, the digital space still hasn't found its paradigm in how it tells stories. Personally, I can't compare anything I see online to the pleasure in watching a well-crafted movie or TV show. That story format moves me in ways online hasn't approached.  In fact, the promise of digital (non-linear and interactive) seems to reach its pinnacle from a storytelling perspective in, of all places, video games.

Obviously digital is great at the non-linear, the immediate and at the two-way interactivity (although we still have a ways to go on that). Right now it seems to thrive on information retrieval and transactions, two important items for any business or individual. Maybe that's enough. But it seems that if this medium is truly revolutionary then it should start developing its story telling paradigm.

When you bring this to the marketing space, it's absolutely critical. Paid search works because it's informational, transactional and intent driven. Brand advertising, on the other hand flounders online because there are few good digital storytellers there, and even fewer who are willing to push the limits, unfortunately.

One of the most interesting examples, lately, is the Pringles banner ad. Whether or not you like the content, that banner was one of the few places where people had to see how the banner ended. And that's a great definition of a good story: you have to stay around to see the end.

That's what video games do. Now I played way more video games before I had kids.  There are a lot of reasons they're so addictive: I'm in control, everything I do causes the game to do something (interactivity), I get rewards or penalties for my actions, I discover things and I play in a story continuum. Now, I can even play with people all over the world. The goal is to get to the end, to see how the story concludes. Great games try to keep adding on endings so you won't stop. This is great digital storytelling.


I may choose to go online instead of watching TV or a movie. But I'm not swapping consuming one story for another. I go online to snack information, I watch movies to enjoy a story. When we go online to enjoy stories, that's how we'll know digital has arrived.

The question is whether that story will be passive like TV or active like gaming. Right now I think the industry could use more gaming stories to promote brands and products. I'm still surprised to see the Orbitz banner games still around; I used to have colleagues who'd play on those all day. When was the last time you could say that about an ad?

Brands will need help taking story-telling risks like this. But social media will help, because it will help extend the stories to those who haven't seen them yet. Good stories cause people to talk about them. We need to start pushing the limits of how we currently use this medium to tell those stories.


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