Putting Digital Punch in “Immersive Storytelling”

By David Nassar

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Change Agent.

Shortly after I started at Brookings about five years ago, I led an effort to launch a new digital platform for narrative storytelling on policy issues. The strategic rationale behind it was two-fold: that readers respond more emotionally to stories than they do to “reports,” and that the digital tools available today create opportunities to tell stories more effectively and thereby better inform a reader. We considered several ideas including a new website and a multi-featured digital magazine, but to maximize efficiency and effectiveness we settled on individual essays, now known as the Brookings Essay. We agreed on a couple of core requirements consistent with the strategic rationale: the essay had to be a narrative that included characters, and each essay had to be digitally enriched to supplement the user experience beyond the text. We’ve stuck to that for most of the Essays.

Other publications have used similar platforms. The New York Times is probably the most famous purveyor of the medium because of Snowfall in 2012. The products are broadly referred to as “longform.” This is a term I hate because it defines these products by their length, which is silly, or to quote Chad Millman, managing editor of ESPN.com, with whom I’ve shared panels on this subject, “it is precious.” Books and magazines have been “longform” for centuries before the internet. What defines this medium is its immersive elements. That is why I prefer the term “immersive storytelling.” I know some people take issue with that term too, but we have to call the medium something and I think “immersive storytelling” does a much better job at describing the product than “longform.”

The immersive elements’ purpose is to make the content more accessible. They may do this by engaging the reader more deeply or by explaining information in a different way. In short, they add to the story in ways that words cannot. Some people believe they are just bells and whistles and argue the reader is better served by a clean platform that is easy to read. I think the choice has to be made based on your goals, the particular immersive elements and also on your experience or sense of what topics will work best with digital enhancements. Some topics may be better served by a clean presentation of text. However, other topics benefit from different treatments. Photos are perhaps the original immersive elements. A good photo can pull you in and hold your attention and make you care about the story in a way that words cannot – that is their purpose. If a photo, or a piece of dataviz, or a video or an interactive draws the readers in and encourages them to continue longer with the piece, then it has succeeded. Also, if it makes an important point and the reader learns that point and then stops, the piece has still succeeded.  Obviously, if an immersive element inhibits a user’s ability to read a piece, and/or does not add to the reader’s interest and understanding of the piece, then it is unnecessary.

The enhancements are important, but they cannot make the piece successful on their own. The development of the Essay requires a diverse team, starting with the author and an editor. The most important thing about these pieces is the story, and immersive elements cannot cover up for inadequate content.  

The technical development requires designers, web developers, and analytics experts who work with the author from concept to implementation. Mobile demands such a high degree of testing that for us it has made each one of these pieces an elaborate testing exercise that I would encourage anyone to consider before they begin a similar process.

The promotions team includes email, social media and traditional media specialists.  These pieces would not be possible if we were not integrated from the very beginning, and I would caution any traditional publisher to keep that in mind. This system requires staff to work cross-functionally and to consider the piece holistically. The designer has to think about promotion, and vice versa. The web developer has to think about how design will impact code, and so on.

This holistic approach is unusual for us – Brookings is made up of 100 scholars in DC and another 200 around the world who produce between 15 and 20 pieces of original content every day – all of which get promoted across our various channels but very few of which get such a holistic treatment. That is because these are the only pieces we publish where the scholar begins the writing in conversation with the people responsible for the digital presence and promotion. In general, I think this kind of holistic process should be used more often, but time constraints make it a challenge.

This kind of process absorbs a lot of staff time and is expensive in other ways.  I think this is why several media outlets have explored the medium but either stopped or made it an infrequent exercise. We are able to make it work for two reasons. The first is that we’ve built an internal team and we leverage the lessons we learn and the capacity we build working on Essays for other projects across the Institution. It would never work for us if we had to contract it out and were paying for each Essay. Second, because we are a non-profit, we have different definitions of return on investment (ROI) than do for-profits.

ROI has been measured in a few ways:

  • Engagement with a piece is a key indicator that the reader is absorbing the content, particularly interaction with the immersive elements, sharing, page penetration and time on site.
  • Does the audience grow for Brookings content as a whole, particularly with new readers?
  • Conversation in the media, both traditional and social, about the piece indicates whether we have struck a chord.
  • Does our staff learn lessons from the production of the essay to contribute to our overall digital performance for the rest of Brookings content?
  • In the long run, and consistent with all Brookings content, is there an impact on the policy discussion? This last point is always difficult to measure but is the ultimate gauge of our success.

As a next step, we need to move from written stories to which digital elements are added to pieces conceived as digital products. The innovation I’m looking for is as different from the book as the smart phone is from a landline cord phone. Both can be used to talk, but that is no longer the reason for the smart phone’s existence. We haven’t gotten there yet at Brookings. I know that achieving this will require engagement with authors much earlier on in the process, really from conception of an idea. It also means being open to the idea that it will look nothing like the current format we use.

Related, on Storytelling for Good