Layered Narrative Storytelling: A Journalistic Standard for Creating Content

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Second in a Series

All the Facebook updates, tweets, RSS alerts, texts, chats, Instagrams and pins can’t change the One Simple Truth of countless millennia: We are wired for narrative.

Similarly, all the opining for simpler days when media was mass and J-school graduates got to decide what stories to tell won’t change the exponential media fragmentation that led to the rise of “content” at the expense of story.

The convergence of these divergent forces hasn’t all been bad – we have never been more connected, never had more choices and never had more control over our media experiences that we do right now. The “Great Unbundling” of traditional media platforms from their static containers delivered a newfound freedom. “What I want, when I want and how I want it” is no longer a vision but rather an expectation.

Nevertheless, as media unbundled, our ability to tell stories unraveled. Journalistic principles gave way to bursts of speculation and reporting information ahead of facts.

Our ability to tell stories became as fragmented as our audiences’ ability to process them from one channel to the next. According to a Google/Sterling Brands study, 77 percent of TV viewers have another screen directly in front of them at the same time.

We can’t go back nor should we. But that also doesn’t mean we must abdicate the role of narrative. All that’s required is a shift in strategy and focus, one that embraces our expanding digital culture and taps into the wiring our brains already possess.

Layered Narrative Storytelling

The new model isn’t convergence, where different media platforms come together to deliver the same message. It’s about layers – not how media comes together but how it works together, while still retaining the “native” characteristics of the individual media types whether Paid, Earned, Owned or Shared.

This can’t happen with a media-centric or channel specific approach – we must be audience-centric and channel agnostic. Story and audience must sit at the center, powered by digital and social means. This is how ideas spread and ultimately can stand out in a fragmented world.

From this central idea, narrative “layers” cut across channels and forms of media so that we can reach more people at scale. A Layered Narrative allows space for interaction, sharing, collaboration and contribution. Every unique layer makes the source material stronger and the core story more engaging.

And why is journalism essential to this equation? Because (the best) journalism is about telling emotional stories, and it is this emotion that binds the layers together, enveloping the audience and making the story stronger over time, not dissonant. Think of the layers as a series of “sidebars,” all related to the central narrative but each owning a unique characteristic, angle or call to action.

Layers can take many forms, but for the most part are organized in four ways:

  • The “Paid” Layer: search marketing, social ads, native ads, syndication and paid placement
  • The “Earned” Layer: search engine optimization, blogger and influencer outreach, PR pitching and placement (offline and online)
  • The “Owned” Layer: Web sites, e-mail, newsletters, mobile apps
  • The “Shared” Layer: Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/LinkedIn engagement, forums and other two-way media such as live webcasts or chats

Starbucks took this approach with its “Everylove” campaign, a blend of poignant video stories and layers of consumer contributions via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that make the stories richer and more impactful. Mercedes-Benz used layers in its “Impact” campaign about car safety, incorporating video, stories within paid online ads, photos and actual accident reports to create a sense of intimacy and realism.

And because our involvement is essential to a Layered Narrative, the story transcends media fragmentation – emotional connection, the true currency of the Digital Age, takes over and ties the narrative together. We become the “fifth layer.”

A Layered Narrative is no place for “content.” Sure, you can implement this approach on a technical and practical level, but ultimately you need to tell a story and stand for something. You need to be engaged in the narrative for the long haul, not just the product launch or whatever your purpose may be.

The old world of a monolithic mass media is not coming back – but narrative is.

How do we create narratives and decide which layers to use? We’ll show you the Layered Narrative development process in part three of this series.

Gary Goldhammer is Hill+Knowlton Strategies' U.S. Digital Strategist and is based in our L.A. office.