Bunnytalk: Frank Rose on storytelling in the digital age

On 24 May, we at Bunnyfoot were lucky enough to sit down with one of the most influential technology writers around for a fascinating Q & A session.  Frank Rose, contributing editor for Wired magazine, and bestselling author of ‘West of Eden’ and ‘The Art of Immersion’, shared his views on how digital media is changing the way stories are told – and how brands need to adapt along with it. He also touched on how this all ties in to user experience.

To set the scene: the London evening was balmy, the venue full with digital media professionals, and Bunnyfoot’s own Aaron Young was ready to ask a barrage of questions.

Here’s a round-up of the key topics covered:

Digital storytelling – where we are and where we’re going

“In terms of how we’re telling stories online…I think we’re about where we were in the movie business in 1912. We’ve figured out the shots [but] nobody’s created Birth of a Nation yet.”

We’re just at the beginning of our transition from a non-digital to a digital age. In terms of storytelling, where there used to be a separation between the author and audience and between fiction and reality, these classifications are being blurred thanks to the increased interaction that social media and the internet bring.

With every form of storytelling there is a particular grammar to be discovered. Film has its own language of cuts, pans and fades – digital storytelling is only now beginning to create its own storytelling grammar.

Learning the new storytelling vocabulary

As an example of this new storytelling format in the digital age, Frank looked at the marketing campaign for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus which included a fictional TED video from 2023.

This is an example of where digital story telling is going – it needs to cross formats and have the ability to be shared far and wide by its audience through social media and word of mouth. It also gives viewers a deeper understanding of the world of the story than if they were to just experience the story on its own – a process Frank calls Deep Media.

Frank believes that this is just the beginning of a new way of engaging with the audience and we’re still learning how to take advantage of all the digital tools available to us.

How to market to a media savvy audience

“The ad industry is moving from a situation where people actually try to avoid ads to where they are engaged, share and pass them along – this has become the new standard.”

Forms of storytelling like film and television survive largely through advertising – but with the advent of TiVo, the audience can skip ads entirely. The advertising industry must instead get their audience to share their adverts themselves. The audience is becoming the distribution mechanism through spreading viral videos – if an ad isn’t shared it might as well not exist.

An alternative form of marketing is the dreaded product placement within films and television. Product placement can be done successfully and Frank has found, with younger audiences, that it is actually preferable to traditional but intrusive 30 second spots. If done in an obvious, ‘nod and a wink’ way then product placement is a lot more tolerable than subtle manipulation.

Distributing stories – the industry needs to change

“Any industry faced with radical technological change – there is always a tension between continuing to make money the old way… or taking a leap into the future. Guess which way wins and guess how many companies go out of business as a result.”

There needs to be a shift from antiquated forms of TV distribution to something more flexible. There are currently organisations, like cable and satellite providers, with an interest in keeping the standard ways of broadcasting. However it will soon be obvious that the current distribution format is not giving people what they want and expect: a more engaging, interactive, and on-demand, experience.

Marketers can no longer control the message

“It’s not the marketer who controls the message, it’s the people who are being marketed to.”

In the digital age, marketers need to give up the notion that they can completely control the ‘story’ of their brand online.

With social media, there’s no escape for brands and organisations from being discussed and commented about online. Everyone in the marketing business realise they have to listen to their users – digital media has made this even more important.

Digital media and user experience

User experience professionals advocate on behalf of the end user and make sure products aren’t released until they work well. But ‘deep’ media tools seem resistant to predicting outcomes – it’s difficult to predict if a video advert will go viral or fail.

If the point is to see if something went viral or how much it was shared, the best way to help the end user is to ensure they know what should be done next – whether that’s to like, share or comment on.

Moving away from media manipulation

Mass media has historically been able to manipulate and change public perception. Frank gave the example of the war in Iraq where public opinion shifted from against to for due to constant media attention.

Frank said that digital media can counteract this by presenting multiple viewpoints from multiple sources – a quick Google search brings up a number of viewpoints on any issue.

If there is any hope against media manipulation, it’s by moving beyond mass media into the kind of experience we’re moving into now.

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