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The Content of the Form: A Revolution in Storytelling

How organizations tell their stories is undergoing a revolution.

As recently as a decade ago, organizations seeking to build their brand identity had to settle for conventional branding tactics like fancy logos and superficial taglines together with traditional advertising and events. Organizations whose brand was rooted in ideas and expertise had even fewer options. Publishing books, articles, and white papers took time and money, and only a select group of institutions—including McKinsey & Company, Harvard Business School, the Mayo Clinic, National Geographic Society, and The Smithsonian Institution—had the foresight to embark on major publishing programs in the 1980s and 1990s that established them as genuine thought leaders in their fields.

Then along came Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, followed close behind by the smartphones and tablets that made them accessible anytime, anywhere. Organizations, prodded by a generation that was quick to embrace these new technologies, now rushed to get out the word(s). Yet even as content marketing has become an established branding tool, the social media revolution seems to have taken many organizations by surprise, including the publishers, advertising agencies, and media companies that should be in the vanguard. The result is too often shallow, superficial content that robs organizations and their brands of what makes them interesting in the first place: their depth and complexity.

In fact, several elite institutions have shown us a different way: how new technologies—and the creative reimagining of old technologies—enable us to communicate a deep, rich narrative in ways that engage and inspire.

A feast for the eyes

If the Gray Lady recognizes the need to tell stories in new ways, then perhaps the rest of us should pay attention. For decades, the op-ed page of a newspaper has provided a safe space for pundits to express their opinions outside of the editorial strictures of the newsroom. By 2011, The New York Times realized that the traditional printed op-ed piece, its impact already at risk with the decline in print readership, was also too narrow for the range of ideas demanding expression.

So NYT editors introduced Op-Docs, a series of short, interactive documentaries covering history, current affairs, and contemporary life. Since then, more than 200 Op-Docs films have been posted, making NYT one of the most acclaimed and influential destinations for online documentaries. Recent accolades for Op-Docs include an Oscar nomination, a Peabody Award, two News and Documentary Emmy nominations, and a World Press Photo prize for interactive documentary, as well as official selections at Sundance, Telluride, SXSW and the New York Film Festival.

It isn’t just newspapers that are adapting to decline of print readership and the rise of new technologies. Even the vaunted New Yorker recognizes that the possibilities of the screen for telling stories and organizing ideas, with the added benefit that such visual stories are often more easily accessible than their print-based cousins. So it has recently launched its own series of documentaries and short narrative films, leveraging the identity it has built since 1925 through publishing authoritative journalism and fiction.

A twist on the web video is virtual reality (VR), something the Columbia Journalism Review calls “the next frontier.” VR, embraced by The New York Times as well, can be used to reconstruct events, recreate old worlds (bringing the past to life), and put viewers in the middle of the action for an interactive viewing experience. Many media outlets are uncertain about how they can monetize such products: for now, the audience is limited, and news and journalism moves faster than VR production. Still, the attraction of VR is too great to be ignored, and it won’t be long before this platform is a common tool for journalists, historians, and freelance writers—and marketers.

Objects of wonder

Narrative isn’t the only way to tell a story. Consider the object-driven approach.

In January 2010, the British Museum, in partnership with BBC Radio 4, launched A History of the World in 100 Objects, a series of 100 15-minute radio segments (later published in book form) that took audiences on a tour of world history by way of humankind’s material goods. Written and presented by the Museum’s director at the time, Neil MacGregor, the series showed how we decode our past as much through objects (from everyday items such as pots, utensils, and money to valuables such as art and jewelry, all from the Museum's collection) as through texts.

A History of the World in 100 Objects was a distinctly original approach to communicating the human experience. But for the British Museum, the project was much more than a groundbreaking exercise in public history. It also expressed the Museum’s identity as a place where objects gain rather than lose meaning through constant interpretation and reinterpretation by new audiences. A History of the World in 100 Objects, as one reviewer put it, was “probably the smartest advertisement for a museum ever devised…Without ever saying so, MacGregor has provided a persuasive affirmation of why we need great encyclopedic museums, such as his own: as places where, uniquely, the interconnections between humanity’s experience, across continents and millennia can be viewed, appreciated, and understood.”

In 2014, the Imperial War Museum adopted a similar object-driven approach with its book, A History Of The First World War In 100 Objects, by John Hughes-Wilson with Nigel Steel. One hundred years on, the First World War and its impacts can seem distant and difficult to comprehend. Broken down into individual narratives, though, they become more accessible. From the extraordinary to the mundane, from the terrifying to the humorous, each object has its own important tale to tell, one that may inspire audiences to seek out a deeper understanding through more comprehensive narratives.

The future of content marketing

What does this mean for organizations and their content marketing strategies?

The more that digital technologies broaden our access to information, the more we crave the depth, meaning, understanding that comes only from sustained engagement with ideas. In this environment, effective branding and fundraising depend on the ability to popularize a complex institutional story—all the more so for organizations that are (or aspire to be) defined by their ideas.

The new technologies, and the creative reimagining of old technologies, gives organizations the tools they need to present substantive content in engaging ways. And as the organizations profiled here can attest, nothing builds the organizational brand like deep, rich storytelling in all its forms.


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