The move toward more sophisticated digital storytelling in the field of higher education communications is opening up new career opportunities. In 2013, the University of British Columbia hired Margaret Doyle for the new position of digital storyteller in the marketing department to help reorient the institution’s web communications toward what she calls a more “story-centric” approach. In April 2014, UBC launched a redesigned website including a series of multimedia feature stories. For their efforts, Ms. Doyle and the UBC communications team were recognized with the 2015 Grand Gold award for best overall institutional website at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Awards (District VIII). University Affairs spoke with Ms. Doyle about her job and what she looks to for storytelling inspiration.
University Affairs: What is story-centric design?
Margaret Doyle: We wanted a place where we could tell what I like to call “a living narrative” year-round. People really want to engage with quality content. They want to engage with stories. It’s really a way to create a relationship. It allows for empathy, it ignites imagination and it shapes behaviour. We don’t look at websites and digital media anymore as static places that hold information; they’re places where we have conversations and we engage.
UA: What kind of content are you creating and publishing with this approach?
Ms. Doyle: It’s a mix of user-generated content and stories we produce in-house. We’ve introduced a [publishing] tool called StoryBox, which allows anyone working with the university to submit a story for publication on the site. In-house, we produce our own episodic series: student-oriented series like A Quick Study; faculty-based series like What are you working on?; a leadership series called One-on-One – a written Q&A with senior executive members at the university in the style of Vanity Fair magazine’s Proust Questionnaire; and Talk and Tour – a look into different campus spaces.
UA: What’s your role in this process?
Ms. Doyle: I produce the in-house content with my team and I’m also the managing editor for most of the content [on the UBC stories website]. I write all the features and come up with most of the ideas, which I pitch to our managing director. But it wouldn’t be possible without my team (which includes a UX – or user experience – designer, a web developer, a design manager, a photographer and videographer). We’re always pushing each other to do something more creative, something bigger and better every time.
UA: Storytelling isn’t necessarily new to university communications. What are you doing differently?
Ms. Doyle: We’re really fixed on the idea that UX design plus storytelling shapes the experience that our audience has with our content. We really think carefully about load times, navigating the site, and ease of use on mobile. For instance, if you look at our research stories, I’ve constructed them so that there are many stories within each larger story that are easily shared on social media. Four stories will give my social media strategist 50 days of content. That’s how we design it, with the whole arc in mind.
UA: What makes for a good digital story?
Ms. Doyle: A good story engages your emotion – it creates a sort of empathy between me and the subject, because if you have empathy you’re not only engaged, you begin to care. In terms of digital, I think it’s really about trying to engage all of the senses. I talk often about the layers of a story: the audio, the video, photography and text. But there’s another layer in digital storytelling and that’s IRL – the “in real life” layer. To make a good digital experience you actually need something to then happen in real life. A classic example is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. What made that so great is because it actually [impacted the world] offline.
UA: What are some of the real-life impacts you’ve encountered with stories you’ve produced?
Ms. Doyle: The Ripple Effect sustainability campaign we ran in 2013 had a complete transmedia approach. We created a character called Emily, a fictional sustainability student at UBC who appeared in online Q&As, on radio and in a video. She became quite famous at UBC. It raised awareness [of this issue] in our target market of undergrads up to 58 percent.
UA: What kind of experience did you come with to this job?
Ms. Doyle: I did an undergrad in theatre with a specialization in directing, which has proven to be invaluable in the work I do. I worked for many years in theatre as a director, designer and stage manager and learned the craft of live storytelling – once you have that down, it gives you a foundation for your entire career. I also studied PR at the University of Victoria and digital marketing with New York University. I have my own consulting business, What Is Your Story?, for story architecture and creating a story culture. I taught social media for many years at Royal Roads University and developed and managed social media for their school of tourism and hospitality management.
UA: Some of your stories are a clear homage to something happening in pop culture: The Smartest Coffee Talk You’ll Ever Overhear is a nod to Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; The Faces of Research recreates Annie Leibovitz’s iconic Hollywood covers for Vanity Fair. Where else do you find inspiration?
Ms. Doyle: I’m sort of a storytelling addict. I’m really inspired by transmedia stories – media stories that are really told and distributed across multiple platforms. I was inspired recently by Seven Digital Deadly Sins by The Guardian and the National Film Board. I love The Last Hunt and Bear 71 by the NFB. One that’s quite morbid and awful is Prison Valley. It’s several years old but it was really ahead of its time. They call it a web documentary about the prison industry in Colorado. It is mind-blowing the work that was done on that one. They have a strong IRL layer – the documentary is the spine of that project but they have tonnes of great digital content.
UA: What are the challenges you’ve faced in rolling out this new approach across the university?
Ms. Doyle: We are a decentralized institution, so it’s challenging because you have a core communications and marketing team but we have very large faculties and they have their own stories to tell and distribute. A really big challenge is the quantity of stories coming at us. Everyone wants their story to be told, but there’s only one storyteller. That’s why we use StoryBox. We can publish more stories because I don’t have to write them.
UA: What skills do university communications professionals need today?
Ms. Doyle: I think that the landscape is shifting so fast. Our audiences increasingly expect us to have media that’s relevant and timely. Really understanding social media is a requirement now – I call them social storytelling skills. Waiting a month and posting something in your newsletter isn’t OK anymore.