Snapchat and storytelling

I was at the BBC College of Journalism in Bristol recently where I was participating in a CIRCOM Training the Trainers course. As part of it I had to deliver a complete training session to a group of 11 people who work in media organisations across Europe, the challenge … it had to be done in 30 minutes. In the past I’ve trained people mostly in social media and web publishing and for people with limited skills in these areas you need more than 30 minutes to get up and running on most platforms.

It’s a good challenge to see what skills you can transfer in just 30 minutes. I decided to train the group on Snapchat Stories. For the unfamiliar, Snapchat is a photo messaging app especially popular with people under 23 years of age. Users send each other ‘snaps’ (photos or short video clips) either to one or multiple recipients. The photo or video clip can only be viewed for ten seconds or under, the duration is set by the sender, before it is deleted both from the recipient’s phone and Snapchat’s servers. Where it gets interesting for media companies is Snapchat Stories, introduced late last year. I wrote about it in my review of 2013 and suggested it and other messaging services are going to be a growth area for media orgs. Snapchat stories stay on the platform for 24 hours and they’re visible to everyone following you. Each new snap you add to your story is included in the sequence of snaps that followers see.

By the end of the 30-minute training session, working in groups everyone had learned about Snapchat, they were on the platform and had uploaded a snap. It’s such a straightforward platform. Moreover, after showing them some of the ways it’s currently being used (NowThisNews, Washington Post Politics, Mashable etc), the group were thinking about Snapchat as a really interesting storytelling platform even for hard news.

In particular, I love what NowThisNews is doing with Snapchat (in general, NowThisNews, which is focused on storytelling, does interesting things with platforms, especially Instagram). Here’s NowThisNews’ Snapchat Stories output for 24 hours:

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It was the day after the Oscars, so naturally there is a lot of Oscar-related coverage. The entire sequence is 40 seconds long and aside from the Oscars (and Oscar-related news) it covers six other stories: a 65-foot crack in a Washington dam, the ongoing cold weather in the North East, the death of a US Marine Corps pilot in Nevada, a Gold Fix study on bank manipulation, Google’s plans to give free bus passes to San Francisco kids and a deal that enable LGBT groups being allowed to march in the Boston St Patrick’s Day parade. It’s the news, but delivered like Perez Hilton had a hand in it.

There are drawbacks. You have to work for every Snapchat-er, this is not a viral platform. Also, if you’re not creating your Snapchat using the platform itself you’ll have a problem with screen sizes. I’ve screengrabbed the above images from an iPhone 4s, but I’d say they were made with a 5 (or larger screen) in mind.

The most important thing with Snapchat is not to treat it as a lesser platform. It would be easy for news organisations to treat it more casually than some of their other channels, but NowThisNews and others have set the current benchmark for Snapchat as a storytelling platform. There is a lot more news organisations can do with the messaging app,  especially if Snapchat enables users to create Stories with other tools or makes more complex tools available for news orgs and brands. There are also opportunities  around audience-created content.

In some ways this type of storytelling reminds me of scanning the headlines and photographs in a newspaper, I think we underestimated how much news we ‘absorbed’ scanning across a page. Snapchat is quite passive, all the user needs to do is hold a finger on the screen and watch, but unlike scanning a paper it’s a mobile messaging platform and it feels a lot more personal.

If you’re on Snapchat, add me, username:  blathnaidh

From IPO to email: Reflections on social, community and content in 2013

I gave a guest lecture earlier this week in DCU to final year and masters’ multimedia students . For the lecture, I decided to take a look back over 2013 and pick out some of the key things that happened in social, community and content and how they have affected, or might affect, media companies. Thought I’d share some of them here also:

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2013 was another huge year for video. Media companies with any sense made it a large part of their strategies. I could easily write a half-dozen posts just on video and the major developments, but here I’m only going to talk about the trend towards shorter videos.

Vine was introduced to iOS users in January with an upward limit of six seconds. Its simple format uncomplicated video, making it easy to shoot and even easier to upload. Soon after it launched, media organisations started to try it out as a distribution platform. One company that has been using it well is Ireland’s RTÉ, which has been leveraging the platform to showcase its archives. Archive material can be inaccessible but using Vine brings it to a new audience. Here’s an example: buying the Christmas turkey in Ireland, 1964. A month after its iOS launch Vine was used to cover a news event when reporter Tulin Daloglu used it after the bombing of the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey. In many senses Vine was just the catalyst as it was Instagram that took the ball and really ran with it.

In June, Instagram added video to its product, enabling users to create clips of up to 15 seconds. Smartly, Instagram allowed users to upload videos shot outside the confines of the app, which meant media organisations could edit and produce content before uploading. I really like what mobile news start-up NowThis News has done with Instagram as a distribution platform in recent months. Here are a few examples: Syria, the UN and chemical weapons, ice rink opening in Tehran, photos of winter storm Dion from the community.

On the news gathering side, Storyful’s Malachy Browne recently wrote a good blogpost on Instagram as a source of news video, it’s worth a read.

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We really began to experience the impact of Facebook’s 2012 IPO this year. A week didn’t go by without a new headline about a possible or confirmed change to the social networking site’s ad platform or its News Feed (this week it was auto play videos in the News Feed). Facebook is clearly pushing hard to generate revenues and keep investors happy. A lot of page managers had anecdotally talked about organic post reach falling, but Ad Ages’s story earlier this month seems to have confirmed this. This change certainly affects brands marketing products, but it is likely to also have an impact on news sites that built large audience numbers on their Facebook pages (often spending to do so) as a way to drive traffic to their sites. Facebook wants pages owners to pay to reach the audiences they have built. This is definitely something to watch in 2014 as Facebook continues its experiments with the News Feed.

2013 brought Twitter’s IPO. Like Facebook, we’ve been hearing a lot about changes to Twitter’s ad platform with users receiving emails every week encouraging them to advertise to build audience. It’s early day yet, but it’s inevitable that the public nature of the company will mean an increased focus on revenue-driving measures in 2014, which will have knock-on effects on users, brands and media.

It is worth noting that both platforms invested in reaching out to big media companies this year.

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Content created with social in mind (like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Distractify, ViralNova) boomed in 2013. Upworthy, which launched in 2012, had a huge impact this year. According to Newswhip, which analyses and ranks publishers in terms of social sharing, Upworthy didn’t feature in the top 40 social sharing websites in 2012, but by 2013 this year it had charged into the number 5 spot above The New York Times, the Daily Mail and the Guardian. It’s a feat that is even more interesting when you consider that, on average, Upworthy only publishes 250 stories a month, substantially less than its social-sharing-focused competitors. There are some good practices within Upworthy – most notably that staff members write 25 headlines for each piece of content they post (good explainer on this here). I also think its tagline is so simple: ‘Things that matter. Pass ’em on.’ In just six words Upworthy tells users what it is and what it would like users to do. I’m not sure exactly how long the Upworthy formula can sustain but we’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

Buzzfeed’s announcement that its partner sites received a huge boost in referral traffic from Facebook is significant. Traffic from Facebook referrals to Buzzfeed’s 200 partner network sites are up 69% from August to October of this year. Facebook is placing a premium on, and rewarding content that is entertaining, funny and valuable.

There are some drawbacks, of course, to this. Firstly, let’s not forget what happened with content farm Demand Media, which is now valued at a quarter of its peak value. Demand Media created content to appear in multi-word searches. However, Google’s shift in its algorithms made content from websites like Demand Media’s a lower priority, drastically reducing traffic to its site. I think it’s a cautionary tale for sites that hitch their wagons to platforms like Facebook relying on them for almost all their traffic. Bryan Goldberg wrote an interesting piece on why viral content is a bad business model, it’s a must read.

With Facebook’s algorithms placing an emphasis on content created for a social audience it’s likely going to lead to smaller markets becoming even more competitive and it will become more challenging for straight news sites to get traction on these platforms.

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Email newsletters have, of course, been around for a very long time, but for a lot of news organisations they were farmed out to someone very junior to write or pulled direct from the RSS feed. I don’t know why organisations bother sending these mails, they are so ineffective.

However this year there have been some changes to the once humble email newsletter with the likes of Quartz, Circa and recently-launched Ampp3d leading the charge. This is mostly for two reasons they’re writing emails with mobile users in mind and secondly the mails sound like they’ve been written by a human (a simple thing really, but how many email newsletters do you get that feel like they’ve been written with you in mind?).

Quartz sends its email in the morning (it has three regions for users to select from), emails are around 800 words long and are perfect for a commuter, containing links not only to Quartz stories, but other links to stories on other sites that people should watch for, things that happened while readers were sleeping, matters for debate, Quartz’s obsession interlude and surprising discoveries. I also like that the emails tell me to have a productive day – it’s a nice sign-off for a business-focused website. The email is good set-up, digest for the day and one that is clearly worth reading. A recent column from the Monday Note shared an insight that Quartz’s daily mail goes through four people, including two editors, before it is sent.

Circa sends only one email a week on a Friday evening with a pick of its stories curated from the week. The most important point about the Circa mail is that it’s designed (like everything Circa does) with mobile in mind. Ampp3d, the new data-driven spin-out from the Trinity Mirror group, also has a very nice email, it’s probably the most ‘human’ of the three examples.

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Organisations and their audiences have been working collaboratively now for some time. User generated content projects from the BBC and CNN are seven/eight years old. However, I think this year we saw some interesting steps towards proper collaboration between news orgs and audience.

In particular, I think Storyful’s Open Newsroom project is a great example of collaboration between a news org and the wider community. There are more than 460 confirmed members so far. Anyone can watch the process, but only verified members can contribute – thus keeping it open but reducing excessive noise and confusion. In August, the Open Newsroom played a key role helping Storyful to verify videos emerging from fresh protests taking place in Cairo. This project has shown great potential for how organised collaboration can produce really good results, especially considering the other conversations we have had this year and the backlash that happened following the Boston Bombings.

I thought BBC News Director James Harding’s remarks earlier this month were interesting and telling about where big news orgs are at when it comes to audience: ‘When we talk about “our stories”, I hope that will mean not just the work of the 8,000 people who work for the BBC, but the information and ideas of the 300 million people who use it.’

Hopefully 2014 will prove to be a more collaborative year.

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Finally, for this post, I’d like to talk about the growing importance of private. Of course when I talk about private I mean privacy in a non-private sphere. Most people will have noticed the trend of teenagers and people in their early 20s making their Twitter and Instagram accounts private – some even deactivating their Facebook accounts for short periods to avoid being tagged in photos or checked in to a location. The rising popularity of photo messaging service Snapchat with its 350m photo messages a day has lit a fire under both Twitter and Instagram (don’t forget Facebook offered $3bn to acquire Snapchat, which it turned down) with both announcing significant changes to their platforms to include a private photo messaging element in the last few weeks. Twitter users can now send photos in direct messages, while Instagram offers its users the option to send photos to one follower or a small group of up to 15 people.

News orgs (and brands) are already trying to find their feet in this new environment. I’ve started to receive Snapchat messages from Ampp3d in the last week. It’s early days but it’s definitely a space to be experimenting in! When it comes to private vs open I don’t think it’s a competition – we’re always transitioning and this is another part of the transition both are going to be a part of our lives in 2014, that’s for sure.

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This is not a definitive list of the major things that happened this year, but it’s my reflection on some of the interesting changes, events and trends. I think we’re heading into somewhat uncertain waters with Facebook and also with Twitter. However, that said, there are lots of opportunities ahead for 2014. It’s shaping up to be another interesting one.

Here’s to a good 2014!

Blathnaid

Image credits: clasesdeperiodismoclasesdeperiodismoGuudmorning!, Grizdavecroland