How Data-Enhanced Storytelling Is Rapidly Reshaping Both Content and Advertising

Sundance's digital confab focuses beyond the interruptive past

Richard Raddon, co-Founder of Zefr, speaks at Digital Storytelling in Deer Valley, Utah. Photo:

In its inaugural gathering Thursday, Digital Storytelling, a newly sanctioned event of the Sundance Film Festival, ambitiously set out to better link brand marketers with digital content creators as well as discuss how return on investment on that content will grow and evolve beyond interruptive advertising models.

Speaking to a packed room of 150-plus brand marketers, senior technology and platform execs and a brace of YouTube and social media stars and comedians at the Stein Erickson Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah, Zype CRO A.J. Vernet introduced the session as a pitch-free environment where the people leading the charge into the new videosphere could meet to creatively weigh the near-at-hand creative and commercial opportunities.

Vernet conceived of the event nine months prior in collaboration with Todd Barrish, svp of strategic partnerships at Maker Studios, and Chip Russo, svp of media solutions at Zefr.

"What we really wanted to see is custom curation that the audience is passionate about," said Vernet, who partnered with VMA CEO Rick Parkhill to pull the event together.

The program began with an interview, presented by Maker Studios, with Morgan Spurlock, director and founder and president of Warrior Poets, about his new series, What We Teach Girls, as well as his storytelling mission. Spurlock, who has warmed up to the possibilities of branded content since his early fame from directing Supersize Me, said creators are no longer hemmed in by traditional production or platform constraints in the effort to do "beautiful, powerful global storytelling" that tackles tough issues like gender equality in places like Uganda.

"What you guys have is the ability to reach the next generation of connected storytellers," Spurlock said.

Today's Goal: Getting (and Keeping) People's Attention

Leaders behind new content extensions from traditional players like Turner (Courageous) and Fox Network Group (True[X]) used the event as an opportunity to share their plans to create the next generation of branded content.

Otto Bell, vp and group creative director at Courageous, a branded content studio, and Michal Shapira, svp, content partnerships at Turner News Ad Sales, discussed how the craft of journalism and branded storytelling are a powerful combination. "We consider it source reporting for brands," said Shapira.

The ROI question surrounding digital storytelling was tackled hard by Joe Marchese, president of Fox Network Group and founder of True[X].

"The goal has to be less advertising" and moving away from the traditional waste model to a highly engaged and interactive environment, he said. To get to that place, Marchese said the advertising ecosystem has to begin to trade on proper human attention via storytelling that is priced according to the quality of that attention.

"The value of people's attention is at an all-time high," he said, posing the question: what if the ad business got to a place where storytellers define "what a brand story looks like"?

How Social Is Shaping Storytelling

Social and technology as content drivers was also a key theme. Rich Raddon, co-founder and co-CEO, Zefr, discussed the speed of storytelling and how the barriers directors like John Hughes faced to initially connect with audiences have collapsed in the face of technologies like Roku and platforms like YouTube and Snapchat that have rocketed the relationship between creators and viewers well beyond the traditional hurdles established by Hollywood and New York.

To illustrate Raddon's point, Chip Russo, svp, media solutions at Zefr, invited The Bachelorette stars Shawn Booth and Kaitlyn Bristowe, who have a massive social following, to the stage to create a spur of the moment video of the audience doing the wave. The clip pulled 34,000 views in four minutes on Snapchat.

Snapchat, and how creators and marketers use it, was a darling topic of program. Kevin McGurn, head of sales at Fullscreen, pointed to SnapperHero, an original series on Snapchat that Fullscreen co-created with UTA in partnership with AT&T, as an example of a brand tapping storytelling on a new platform that reaches a huge millennial audience. "The creators are the ones that get you there to scale," he said.

"[Shapchat] is the future of where authentic messaging and media comes together," said Dan Altman, co-founder and CEO at Naritiv, the Snapchat network striving to make connections between creators and brands on the platform. "We want them to feel natural," pointing to DJ Khaled as an example of a producer who created an authentic persona on Shapchat that has blown up his career and amassed a social audience often larger than clan Kardashian.

Established digital players like Twitter, YouTube, Hulu and HuffingtonPost were also on hand to discuss how to better connect with audiences beyond relying on tradition and overindexing on impersonal data insights.

The balance between math and magic—head and heart—is a big consideration in putting "the right shows in front of the right people" and level setting the huge amount of data the platform has at its disposal with the emotion and interests of its viewers, said Jenny Wall, CMO at Hulu. "We don't want to become a vending machine that doesn't care why you're watching," Wall said.

"We're not lacking in data, but what we don't have is narrative. There is a dearth of good storytelling," said Roy Sekoff, founding editor of The Huffington Post and co-creator at HuffPost Live. Sekoff added that distinct viewpoints and authenticity are the key hallmarks of modern storytelling. "People don't want the view from nowhere anymore," he said.

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