Lessons from grumpy cats and BuzzFeed about digital storytelling


What can your news organisation learn about storytelling from a picture of a grumpy cat? If you attended the Guardian Changing Media Summit recently, you’re well aware of how feline photos can, indeed, improve your digital storytelling.

In fact, pictures of cats were so abundant during the summit that Robin Hough, editor of Guardian Media Network, tweeted: “Interesting stat – 99.9% of all presentations at #GdnCMS have begun with/included at some point a funny pic of a cat.”

It might not be what you expect from a distinguished publisher like the Guardian, but if you also attended the Changing Media Summit last year, you could see it coming.

In what must be considered the most entertaining presentation of the 2013 Summit, Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, explained our fascination with cute animals. BuzzFeed has quickly built a successful – or at least very viral – media brand on the combination of cute animals and investigative journalism.

“If you are saying, ‘I’m a very serious, tough-minded journalist. I didn’t go to journalism school to do stuff about kittens, and I don’t care that BuzzFeed mixes that kind of content,’ the truth is, you don’t have a choice, because social is the new starting point.

“People are getting news and information from Facebook and from Twitter. And if you look at your Facebook news feed, it has the cute animal next to the long-form journalism next to your friend getting drunk.”

Peretti fiercely defended why BuzzFeed can publish a scoop about President Barack Obama’s secret trip to Afghanistan alongside a story such as, “33 Animals who are extremely disappointed in you.”

His answer was that publishing has become like a Paris café. You show up with a copy of Le Monde and start reading. Then there is usually a dog under a table. Bending down to pet the dog doesn’t make you stupid. It makes you human.

“So we (at BuzzFeed) said, ‘Let’s embrace everything that makes us human, even if that is sometimes diverse and contradictory content,” Peretti continued. “Social media has already created that Paris café experience, particularly for younger readers.”

At this year’s conference, Simon Fox and Malcolm Coles from Trinity Mirror, which has taken a page out of the BuzzFeed book with the launch of  Us vs Th3m, gave a few tips on virality.

To get away from just “doing cat GIFs,” as Coles put it, Us vs Th3m has tried some new approaches to news stories. When the United States and the U.K. were about to bomb Damascus, usvsth3m.com launched a quiz: “Can YOU find Damascus on a map?”

Some 400,000 people took the quiz – 65 of them from the U.S. Department of Defense. 

“Only 57% of them got within 200 miles,” Coles said. “The Washington Post wrote an op-ed about us, which was nice since we’d mostly been doing cat GIFs up until then. They said, luckily the maps of the Department of Defense are labeled… That kind of put us on the map, so to speak.”

The point of the experiment for Us vs Th3m was to see if they could make socially sharable content. “And we showed that we could,” Coles concluded.

Here’s how to do it, according to Coles:

  • Hire the right people, put them in the right environment, and trust them.

  • Just do something.

  • Iterate. Learn. Stop.

  • Do it even if you think it won’t work.

  • Mobile. Mobile. Mobile. “If you don’t think mobile, you’re probably throwing away more than half of your audience.”

  • Shareability and clickability. “If people see something they like, they will share it with their friends.”

  • Facebook. Facebook. Facebook. “There are three times as many people on Facebook as on Twitter in the UK. We think a lot on how our content looks on Facebook.” 

Adam Lawrenson, creative director at Digit, shared his view on how you can tell a story across multiple screens, devices, and browsers and tackle the complexities of online storytelling.

“Unlike a film, a book, a TV show, an article, these self-contained narrative vehicles, telling online stories is really complicated,” Lawrenson said. “Creating stuff for specific people in specific situations on specific devices, it’s really, really complicated.”

His foundation for telling great stories online is for the stories to be designed for the Web and to be part of the Web.

“You need to understand the way things are built for the Web. But more importantly, you need to be part of the Web. You need to understand the tone, the language, the subtleties of that Web, you need to be connected to it.” 

Keys to designing for the Web:

  • Bite-sized: Units of information that can be easily snackable.

  • Non-linear: Allow people to get into the content in multiple ways.

  • Personalised: A narrative for an individual based on what or who they follow, when they visited last, and what they were looking at.

  • Enabled: You need to be enabled by the hardware and software that predominately exist on mobile.

Keys to being part of the web:

  • The medium is your subject: The medium, the Web, is the story, not the story itself.

  • Speed is everything.

  • Subvert the channel: Unexpected places can be great places for stories. Get out of your comfort zone.

  • Subvert the narrative: Tell something people don’t expect from a story, like when beauty blogger Lauren Luke posted a tutorial on how to cover up bruises from domestic violence with make-up.

  • Take risks: The Internet responds well to risk.

  • Understand the language of memes: Why is it that cats, Superman, and such characters are so popular?

  • Let the audience in, but keep a strong voice.

Last but not least, Ben Huh, founder and CEO of Cheezburger, preached the gospel of being funny and entertaining in a connected world, where the average American consumer is approaching 15.5 hours of media consumption out of 16 waking hours – per day! 

“Our mission is to make people happy for a few moments a day, but we actually make money by helping brands tell better stories,” he said. 

Why humour? he asked. Because it’s among the most widely shared content on the Internet, according to the Cassandra Report. The New York Times did a study on what types of video clips people want to watch on the Internet. At the top of the list was funny video clips, with 52%.

And – at the end of two-day conference abundant with pictures of cats – Huh concluded his presentation with an explanation of why cats are so popular on the Internet:

“Because we’ve been breeding them for 10,000 years. We take a cat that we like, and we take another cat that we like. And then we breed them, and we get the result, a kitten that we like better. We’ve been breeding them like that for 10,000 years, so it’s not a surprise we go, ‘Oh, kittens and puppies. They’re really cute.’ ”

Huh has created “The Kitten Photo Test” to see if your content stands a chance against all the competition online.

“If you are going to create content, spend money on marketing on the Internet, this is what you have to beat – you must be more engaging, thoughtful, entertaining than a photo of a kitten.” 

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