Digital storytelling is an umbrella term for immersive, interactive content published to the web.
Typically, digital stories use techniques like scroll-based animation, rich media, and parallax scrolling to grab and maintain the attention of the reader. One great example is the Sky News story Brexit by numbers, which tells the story of the real impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom.
Pioneered by preeminent media brands like the New York Times and the BBC, digital storytelling is now used by leading content teams across every industry, from higher education to professional sports.
Some digital stories are built by teams of developers and web designers, while others — including all of the examples in this guide — are made using no-code (or code-optional) platforms.
Is digital storytelling for me?
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You’ve built out a content calendar. You have the resources you need to execute on the calendar (more or less). So that’s what you do: You publish well-written, professional content, week after week.
But despite your best efforts, your content just doesn’t perform.
Your bounce and exit rates are too high.
Your time on page is disappointing.
Your content isn’t helping your business achieve its strategic goals.
And your content isn’t doing any favours for your brand reputation. It isn’t special in any way. Frankly, it looks like every other piece of content on the web.
Some of your content performs ok, but most of it sinks like a stone.
Why most content fails
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most content on the web fails, most of the time. Most blogs plateau.
This doesn’t mean that you aren’t producing good content. But your content is competing for attention across multiple fronts. You’re facing:
- Dozens of other, similar pieces published by content teams in your field;
- More prominent and attention-grabbing genres of content, including breaking news updates;
- The slot machine of social media feeds; and,
- An extremely time-poor readership.
This means that, even if you manage to get someone to click on your content — an achievement in itself — you're facing an uphill battle to keep them on the page. This uphill battle becomes even steeper if you want your readers to take action, such as join a newsletter or sign up for a trial.
Given these structural challenges, it can seem like a miracle that any sort of content succeeds these days.
Digital storytelling exists to face these challenges. It gives content teams the tools to create great content that performs at scale. Because, as most content teams already know, good is no longer good enough.
Digital storytelling features
So what are the common features of a digital story? Rather than give you the laundry list of technical features offered by digital storytelling platforms, we’re going to focus on the features that your readers will notice. It’s the use of these features that separates great content from content that is merely ‘OK.’
Digital stories are built to capture and keep the attention of the reader. That is, they are immersive.
This is different from most content on the web, which often aims to drag the reader’s attention away, using intrusive side menus, pop-ups, and modals — not to mention poorly implemented, hugely distracting ads.
Digital stories are built to sustain the reader’s attention for the length of the story. This is good for the reader, who gets a break from the usual desperate attempts to capture their attention. But it’s also good for content teams, who find that their content performs better on the metrics that matter, including time on page and bounce rates.
In this way, digital storytelling can be seen as a concerted (if selfish) attempt to make the web better for readers — and, ultimately, better for content producers.
Scroll-based animation (or scrollytelling)
A typical feature of digital stories is the use of transitions and animation effects between images. Sometimes known as ‘scrollytelling,’ these effects are incredibly effective at capturing the attention of the reader.
Sometimes, these effects are produced using custom development. But, with digital storytelling platforms, they can usually be created with nothing more than two or more static images.
In some stories, scrollytelling techniques are used to produce evocative transitions between images.
In other stories, they are used for interactive data visualisation, with the transitions controlled by the scrolling reader, such as this story from Stuff on the changing demographics of Aotearoa New Zealand.
As browsers and devices become more powerful — and internet connections become faster — it’s become increasingly common for web content to include high-resolution media. Generally, though, this is limited to an image in the title section and embedded photos or videos.
Digital stories typically make more sophisticated use of rich media, with transitions, galleries, media embeds, and attention-grabbing effects. A powerful example comes from the BBC, with their story The inferno and the mystery ship.
Most content on the web is responsive these days — especially more generic content published to a standard CMS. But this is not always the case for bespoke, ‘experiential’ content built by developers and designers. This content often looks amazing on desktop monitors, but simply doesn’t work on small devices.
As a bottom line, digital stories work on all devices. The bells and whistles of digital storytelling that we’ve mentioned above — the immersive presentation, the scroll-based animation, and the sophisticated presentation of rich media — must work on everything from small phones and tablets, to laptops and wide-screen monitors.
Examples of digital storytelling
Odds are, you’ve come across a digital story in the wild. Over the years, tens of thousands of digital stories have been published, by everyone from the BBC and the University of Cambridge to Honda and Peloton.
You can see some of our favourites in this roundup of 15 impressive digital stories.