Does traditional storytelling still apply on mobile?
A view from Rob Newlan

Does traditional storytelling still apply on mobile?

Facebook's Rob Newlan asks, is it time to tear up the creativity rulebook and write a new storytelling manual for mobile platforms?

Many of the accolades we pursue in our industry are still geared towards celebrating the traditional TV ad. There’s a reason for that. TV is in the best health it has been in years. But entirely new video moments have been created that extend and enrich TV.

Our audiences are mobile first. They’re watching video while waiting for a bus, sat on a train, at their desk, and passing content round the classroom.

Take Facebook. There are eight billion video views and 100 million hours of video watched daily on our platform. Most of these are viewed on mobile.

It raises an important challenge for creativity and how we’re celebrating it – does storytelling as we know it still apply on mobile, or do we need to tear up the rulebook and start again?

Recently I met with Tim Lindsay, chief executive at D&AD, Adam Smith, director at RSA Films, and Luke Lewis, head of European growth at BuzzFeed, to share our thoughts on what mobile means for creativity.

While the rise of mobile has affected each of our corners of the creative industry differently, we could agree on three things.

Beta forever

Our industry is obsessed with honing something until it’s absolutely right, but the rise of mobile has meant that the search for the "perfect" ad is now redundant. Publishing something is now part-way along the journey for a piece of content, and not the end game.

Lewis spoke passionately about this. BuzzFeed has always had a "test and learn" mentality, he said: "BuzzFeed writers are encouraged to 'multi-variant' test several versions of an article, and to keep track of what does well.

"The goal is to iterate on success constantly. Of course you can't be a slave to data, you need to leave space for creators to be instinctive and weird, but a test-and-learn approach has two profound benefits. First, it eliminates the fear of failure (if everything you publish is an experiment, the pressure is off), and second, it empowers writers/producers to make ever smarter decisions, freeing them from the ‘highest paid person's opinion’ problem."

This freedom allows them to create the best version of every article. This is a business that generates seven billion monthly views – three quarters of which are video – and did not exist ten years ago.

This ability to test and edit live creates huge opportunity, but there’s a balance to be found. As Adam pointed out, if you’re just doing what your audience want and relying on instant gratification, it could end up limiting creativity.

Being able to build on something is incredibly powerful, but we shouldn’t make blind judgements of the numbers either.

The beauty of the constraint

We mustn’t consider the small screen as a lesser experience. As Lindsay said, this attitude hampers creativity before it’s even begun.

If you’re just doing what your audience want and relying on instant gratification, it could end up limiting creativity.

We need to work with these challenges to deliver better creative, whether that’s building for the smaller screen, adapting for a shorter attention span, or creating content that works equally well with sound off or on. How can we have fun with these constraints and embrace them?

"A great copywriting ex-colleague of mine, Adrian Holmes, used to say 'you can't play tennis without a net and some lines.'

"He meant that a tight brief is much better than none at all and that constraints are a positive spur to creativity. This is still true and we at D&AD witness the miraculous effect of the so-called restrictions on creativity imposed by mobile and other formats every year at awards time.

"We work in an industry full of ingenious, restless, determined people. They'll always find a way and the new way will, despite the cries of the Luddites, be better than the old way."

Tim Lindsay, CEO, D&AD

There’s much we could learn from the original silent movies of days gone by, but we have something that they didn’t – the screen in our hands.

When consumers can, for the first time, touch, play, move things around and even experience content in 360 degrees(!), we need bigger, better, immersive ideas for the small screen, not afterthoughts.

How can we use the tactile nature of the mobile phone to tell a story, rather than pretend it’s not there? It’s something we’re passionate about at Facebook, which has recently launched Canvas, a full-screen immersive format built exclusively for mobile.

There are no rules, only good stories

We hear more and more about what does and doesn’t work on mobile – for example, the assumption that bitesize is the only way to stop the dreaded thumb scroll. It’s simply not true.

When consumers can, for the first time, touch, play, move things around and even experience content in 360 degrees, we need bigger, better, immersive ideas for the small screen, not afterthoughts.

As Adam pointed out – a man who has built his career around telling stories with impact – a good story should be compelling enough to work on any screen.

Listeners are willing to stick around if they’re told early on that there’s something in it for them. BuzzFeed used Facebook Live to broadcast what happens when you use rubber bands to explode a watermelon. 11 million people tuned in to watch (807,000 concurrently at its peak) and it lasted 45 minutes. Why did they stick around? Because they knew it was going to end with a bang.

There’s a lot we could learn from exploding watermelons.

With content now literally in the hands and at the mercy of every consumer with a mobile phone, it has arguably forced advertisers and publishers to make work better – more creative, more versatile, and more impactful in order to stand out – and, alongside TV, extend its reach, increase brand resonance and personalise it at scale.

We should embrace this change in the media landscape at full throttle. I am excited to see what happens next.

Rob Newlan is EMEA regional director, Creative Shop at Facebook.

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