Beta USA Today Site Truly Different

The new USA Today Beta website marries a the content and navigation of a traditional news website with the look and feel of a bleeding-edge news app. Poynter has the details of the new site and an interview with its designers.

So far, according to one of the Poynter articles, USA Today staff has loved the new design:

The client has been ecstatic. Their own feedback has been overwhelming. They knew they took a risk. I think they’re super relieved at what they’re seeing.

It looks different, feels different and the ads don’t intrude on the reading experience. So far, I have a number of questions that will be interesting to watch play out:

  1. The site focuses on the desktop experience, leaving the mobile experience not to responsive design, but apps. From a reading/user perspective – will this be the better approach long term? And does zeroing in on device experiences like this better for inovation?
  2. Why aren’t other news organizations (and other industries!) taking more bold chances with their web presence? (The web needs that.)

The Most Important Ingredient to any Interactive Media Project

Earth Illustration

I once wanted nothing more than to fly.

Not just fly though, but to go to space. I couldn’t help but have this dream. I grew up in Cocoa, close to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. I watched shuttle launches live. I saw Space Shuttle Discovery up close on a tour of the Space Center, thanks a family member who worked there.

I was in love with the thought of it all, but as it turns out I had poor eye sight and wasn’t that solid in math or science. Not a good combination for want-to-be astronaut.

But that’s all right. Everyone has their place in the world, and I can still live the dream through photos and video footage. Excellent documentaries on the space program, like Discovery Channel’s When We Left Earth, also allow myself and other want-to-be astronauts relive the story of space exploration. If you check out the website, it does a nice job of providing users with some interactive features. Users can explore a quiz, video clips, photos and audio messages chronicling the memories of people who watched the missions from Earth.

As I watched one of the documentary episodes last night, a line by one of the astronauts reinforced one of the biggest ingredients to a successful interactive media project and its story. The episode told of the tale of one of the Apollo Eight mission, and the first time America viewed the moon.

After Astronaut William Anders took his famous photo, “Earthrise,” he said:

“It’s ironic. We went there to explore the moon and we rediscovered Earth.”

That’s what you have to do with interactive media projects and stories. Never forget to take people where they can’t go. It lets them rediscover things, and live dreams they may not have a chance to live.

Photo illustration by Dimitri_C.

Three Awesome Examples of Interactive Media Stories

When it comes to creating interactive media experiences and websites, finding inspiration is paramount.

Personally, I’m working on several big projects as I approach graduation from my graduate program, so I’m scouring the web, searching for stuff that causes pause, makes me think and want to explore.

Here’s three examples I discovered recently and why they’ve inspired me.

100 Tweets by 9Elements

This site uses HTML5 and Javascript to display 100 tweets about HTML5 in a particle-like way. It has audio and plenty of animation, which make it pretty immersive and something you just want to click on.

To learn more about the project, check out the blog post on it.

In Retrospect: 40 Years Since the Race to the Moon

A Flash-based site created by the Associated Press to highlight the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. My favorite part here is the timeline. It’s created in a way that visually shows how much failure the space program had to endure to reach its goal. I also like the Apollo 11 animation because it shows how incredibly complex the craft was.

Autism: Breaking Down the Barriers – A Weighty Diagnosis

This multimedia project by the Roanoke Times dives into the subject of children and autism. Focused on a family with twins, one who has autism and one that doesn’t, the project raises issues about autism, and why it’s difficult to deal with.

The video does an excellent job of setting up the story and drawing the viewer in. As soon as I watched it I wanted to explore the rest of the media. The reporters combine powerful quotes, words and images extremely well.

I found these links by browsing Favorite Website Awards and Interactive Narratives.

How to Use Social Media to Tell Your Story

Avatars

The term social media has found its way into the buzzword dictionary of late.

It seems everyone is talking about it.

Google has even gotten into the game with its new Buzz, an add-on to Gmail.

There are dozens of posts and blogs dedicated to social media out there, so I hesitate to launch into too much of a how-to here. Mashable is one of favorite blogs on the topic.

But if you’re looking to tell your story, so to speak, through social media – here are three tips to make it easy. And guess what, these three tips tie closely into the first part of this series:

Your story must connect with its audience

That means knowing the users, visitors and customers you’re after. Look to similar sites and personalities in social media for tips and guidance. Listen before you start pushing out your story.

Good stories connect because of tension. People follow it because they want to know what happens next. So keep them craving surprise, but make sure that surprise isn’t completely unexpected.

Try contests. Mark Luckie of 10,000 Words is doing this on Twitter all week, giving away copies of his new book.

Hold weekly question and answer sessions. Allow your followers to have some control over your story. Maybe they select the next new product color?

These events offer expectations, but can yield something new. Be creative.

Create a character (or voice)

The Chicago Tribune created an online persona for its social media accounts, Colonel Tribune. You can too. Or simply engage in a creative way that is you being yourself or your company capturing its essence.

If your company values creativity, make sure that principle gets reflected in your social media accounts. Pictureframes.com, a company that caters to artists, photographers and creators of all kinds, has done this well. Their Twitter account and Facebook feed is full of great resources and thought-provoking posts. (Disclosure: I worked for them prior to going to grad school.)

Offer takeaways

No one likes to get to the end of a story and feel empty. Sure, you may not be able to do this in 140 characters, but make sure the content you’re linking to and/or posting has value. Your customers and followers will desert you if you fail in this regard.

Often, this translates into not just talking about yourself or what you’re selling. We are only interesting when point to why other people, places and things hold our interest.

So you see, social media represents just another way humankind does what we do best – tell stories.

Image courtesy of sxc.hu.

This post is the second part in a two-part series on social media and storytelling. Part one covered three things social media and storytelling have in common.

What You Can Learn About Web Design and Storytelling from eBay

Every website tells a story.

EBay Home Page image

Even online auction sites. Take eBay, one of the original online auction sites, and perhaps the most popular. It engages users in several different ways to draw them into the site and tell story behind the products available there.

It does this in six major ways:

  1. Multiple forms of navigation: eBay has multiple ways for users of its site to dive into the content. Categories, the Buy or Sell landing pages, Daily Deals, Stores and more. This choice of navigation is imperative. No user is alike, so when building complex Web sites, one must cater to all those in the potential audience. In eBay’s case, that’s anyone willing to buy something online.
  2. Clean, crisp headlines: “Free shipping on top picks” can certainly capture one’s attention, especially since free shipping promotions generally attract a lot of potential customers. However, they wouldn’t notice without the simple, clear copy and the color change that helps it stand out.
  3. Photos: Let’s face it. We are a visual society. Crisp copy is great, but no one will ever look at it without some striking images. If you’re a customer, looking to buy something on eBay, browsing that Free Shipping module becomes an exercise in bouncing from photo to photo, not word to word. If you see a photo that interests you, you then connect the dots via the copy.
  4. Call to Action: One sees three major calls to action on the page: Shop Now, Register and Sign In. One could argue four, since the ad for the Narcisco Rodriguez clothes has such a dark background that it stands out against the white background on the rest of the site. Without these, customers may never interact with a site.
  5. Featured Content: And speaking of the Narcisco Rodriguez clothes ad, that’s featured content. They’re attempting to drive people to that particular product, and it works well, as mentioned, because of the color.
  6. Neighborhoods: Let’s say you jump into the site via the traditional route of clicking one of the categories on the far left. I clicked video games. Once there, you can click into Neighborhoods on the right of the page. I explored the Video Games neighborhood. Here’s where eBay is most interactive, especially for those who never intend to buy a product. These communities have conversations, product information and reviews. It’s a growing, ever-changing resource that can engage and attract traffic daily.

Ebay’s Neighborhoods hold the most power in terms of interactive features. Tons of content lives there, much of it not created by eBay staff, which is great from a business standpoint.

What’s the story here?

We sell anything to everyone.

Not very inspiring. That’s a dilemma for any retail site with a wide customer base.

I wanted to see if anyone could do it better.

Etsy does.

The site isn’t a traditional auction site, instead simply offering things for sale. However, Etsy has many similarities to eBay, including a major one: it empowers users to sell their products.

With a quick glance of the site its better for a few reasons:

  • The design is cleaner and more pleasing. The photos are more varied in composition, size and color. The colors are bold, but muted.
  • Its featured content relies on unique illustrations for images (something no doubt important and endearing to its audience).
  • It has a chance for customers to vote (interact) on something at the top of the page.
  • It has a featured sellers story, to help engage customers with story.
  • Plus, it has all those things that eBay does.

The story here? We’re like you, and we happen to sell cool, unique stuff we bet you’ll like.

Granted, each site caters to different needs and customers, but if they sold exactly the same products – which site would you buy from?

The story is clear.

Note: This post is a short assignment for my class in Interactive Media Management and Economics about the interactivity of online auction sites.

3 Ways Social Media and Storytelling are Alike

Stop tweeting and facebooking for a minute, will you? Yes, it’s popular and the love of many.

So much so that comedian Conan O’Brien predicts that in the year 3000, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook will merge to create the ultimate time-wasting website called YouTwitFace. See the video above.

O’Brien may be joking, but social media is no joke.

According to statistics compiled by online marketer and “Socialnomics” author Erik Qualman, social media has overtaken porn as the number one activity on the web. Watch a visualization of the statistics here. Many other experts predict that the Internet of future will be much less cumbersome, becoming very portable, allowing people to communicate even easier than they do now.

So how does storytelling and social media relate?

  1. They both have the ultimate goal of connecting to an audience. Without establishing that connection, each becomes irrelevant and pointless.
  2. Both offer the opportunity to follow characters. Admit it, we stick with stories or visit social media profiles because we enjoy seeing what the characters there do next.
  3. Each have the power to inform, educate and encourage debate. All information sources have this in common.

Stay tuned for the next post in this two-part series: How to Use Social Media to Tell Your Story.

This post is the first part in a two-part series on social media and storytelling. Part two will cover how businesses and individuals can use social media to tell their story.

Why New Media Favors the Underdog

Pug laying on ground

Underdogs stories litter the new media landscape.

The creation of Napster turned into one of the web’s biggest game-changers ever, if not certainly for the 90s.

Shawn Fanning created the music-sharing site in June 1999 while in college and the site operated in its original form for more than two years. The music industry succeeded in shutting down the site in July 2001 through a court order, but not before Napster changed the music industry.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in Jobs’ bedroom. Mark Zuckerburg and friends began Facebook while in college at Harvard, initially limiting the site’s members to just college students.

Ideas and Companies Start Small

Technology is full of underdog stories that started somewhere small. People love that type of story. It encourages the kind of thinking that says anyone can succeed with the right idea.

It’s why the idea itself, and the story behind it, is my favorite idea in new media.

Think about it. Without the story behind companies like Apple, Facebook, and even Google, these organizations would have never reached the success they enjoy today.

Dreams in life rely on the power of newfound notoriety and change. We all want to be somebody. Change something. We want to come out of nowhere and build something worth recognizing. It’s why we all identify and crave success stories like these.

That Idea is Fueled by Belief and Story

Sure, these tech giants found supporters and funding, but they all started with just a simple inkling of an idea. However, the founders believed in those ideas and started building the story that goes with them.

All companies start as underdogs. Surviving as a new organization in the technology world will always prove difficult thanks to the industry’s ever-changing landscape and blistering pace.

But that against all odds backdrop will always appeal to news media, tech insiders, the general public and anyone wanting to hit on the next big idea.

Image by Andrea016.

Note: This post is a short assignment for my class in Interactive Media Management and Economics about great ideas in the business of new media.

Why Every Story Needs a Revision

Failure and success crossroads sign

We all create stories that need help. A lot of help. Major revision help.

You might call it failing. But sometimes, if we’re smart about it, we can turn failure into success. Or use it as a teaching tool and momentum builder for the future.

Completing a rough first draft of a story, whether it’s a storyboard for a promo video, copy for a retail site or a multimedia journalism piece, is not the end of the world.

Why?

Because with a good story, it’s all about creativity and change.

Embrace the Word Revise

No matter what kind of a piece you’re working on, you must go through revisions.

When someone gives you feedback says they want to see this or that different in your story – don’t see it as a failure. See it as an opportunity.

A Chance to Grow

Each revision represents a chance for you to make yourself better. If you have to take a piece through six revisions, then you have a prime opportunity take the skills you’re using to the next level.

Yes, clients and the people you trust to give you feedback may not always give you the type of criticism you want, but that happens to us all. Many people see this criticism as failure.

Don’t.

No matter how many storyboards, photo edits, text edits, design layouts, etc. you go through, expect and accept revisions.

Once you do, your final story will become much more satisfying and failure will cease to exist. And in the end, not only will your story be better, but you will too.

Image by Cobrasoft.

The Most Important Connection You’ll Make

Audience Illustration image

Websites have become a more important aspect of multimedia storytelling than ever before.

Fancy websites rule.

Not just the ones with clean design, crisp copy and useful information. But the ones with buttons to push, videos to watch, games to play and places to leave comments. Who doesn’t want control these days?

You’d be surprised. Perhaps the answer is your audience.

Companies and individuals should embrace new media for the possibilities it offers, but they should also be mindful of the people who buy their products and services or consume their content.

Do they want to watch the videos, play the Flash games, exchange with you via social media? The most likely answer is yes and no.

Everyone is different. Know that and know your audience. They are the most important connection you’ll ever make in the field of interactive media, and storytelling.

We all use interactive media, so keep that in mind when designing your websites and projects. Also, bend to the will of your fans. They matter.

Chances are, they want some control, but maybe not constant control. Do some research. Ask them. Maybe they love slideshows, but hate videos. Be willing to find out and enjoy getting to know them.

Brian Clark over at Copyblogger has some great advice on listening to your audience, if you even more information.

In interactive media, it’s all about choice. We usually give our audience plenty of choices. They can click on some photos. Read some text. Listen to a podcast. Watch a video. Play a game. The list goes on.

Don’t forget to give your audience a choice to be passive. Maybe they just want to soak it up and enjoy what you have to offer.

Your audience isn’t just your audience. In today’s evolving World Wide Web, they are audience architects, building something special along with you. Don’t get too fancy on them.

Image by Takie.

My Three Favorite Viral Videos

Videos have become a bigger part of the world wide web.

According to a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, online adults who view videos on video-sharing websites has nearly doubled since 2006. The report also states that more Internet users rely on online video for their television and movie viewing.

With stats like these increasing, especially on a yearly basis, videos with strong stories will become more important than ever.

Here’s my top three viral videos.

Keep in mind, these represent my absolute favorites. I’m not going by stats, categories or anything else like that. You might call this list the most memorable videos – to me.

Enjoy!

1. Randy Pausch gives his last lecture – “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
This video is more than an hour long, well above the short viral video standard. Yet, it has more than 10 million views. Why? Superb content: a wonderful story and lesson combine for the perfect touch. Watch it. Now. 🙂

2. J-Mac: A Hoop Dream.
This video tells the take of Jason McElwain, an autistic teenager who captured the hearts and minds of millions when he went from basketball team manager to hoops hero in just under four minutes. What can I say? I’m a sucker for big dreams. There are several different videos of this story out there, but I like this one the best.

3. There’s something funny about a Font Conference.
If you’re a graphic designer or web designer, this video is for you. Wildly creative and full of characters, the world of fonts comes to life.

I look at these and I can tell that I, at least, love videos with a story and characters.

What are some of your favorites and why?