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The 5 Essentials of Digital Storytelling

Fresno Pacific University doesn't always have the opportunity to explore an alumnus's chocolate factory. But when it does, it produces rich Facebook and Instagram stories with results that were pretty sweet.

"The response, engagement and shares were overwhelming," Lisa Alvey, FPU's associate director of social media, shared during CASE's Oct. 10 #casesmc chat on digital storytelling. One takeaway, according to Alvey: in digital storytelling, strong visuals from an intriguing place are key.

During the chat, Alvey, fellow social media professionals and moderator Liz Harter, social media manager at the University of Notre Dame, explored what makes digital narratives effective. Here's what chatters cited as the essential ingredients of strong higher education or independent school stories.

Great digital stories are:

Priority-aligned. Great stories highlight an institution's strategic objectives or campaign priorities. For instance, the University of Notre Dame's stories site, launched just a few weeks ago, includes video and written pieces on research, international issues and student life-university priorities, says Harter.

Emma Gilmartin of the University of Glasgow, agreed.

"We also align [stories] to overarching university strategic objectives, profiling our research in accessible ways and building a sense of community (#TeamUofG)," she tweeted.

Stories should be part of a balanced mix of ideas sourced from across campus, too. Harter and Alvey say they brainstorm with "story teams" comprised of representatives from multiple departments, including communications, athletics, enrollment, academics, media relations and the magazine.

Platform-specific. Stories should take advantage of the unique strengths of each digital platform—Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, video, long-form narrative—offers.

"Let the story tell itself," advised Harter. "What works for one platform might not on another. Know your key points and build around those."

For instance, she explained, University of Notre Dame long-form stories are paired with two-minute videos that air on TV and fuel six slides for an Instagram story.

Storyboarded. Intentionality in stories (even in shorter pieces) is key, Harter emphasized. The University of Notre Dame doesn't use Snapchat, but its Instagram content is planned, she said.

"Our Instagram stories are storyboarded and designed to be a little more on brand," she tweeted. "It seems backwards considering that Instagram Stories are meant to be more of a ‘Here's my day,' but our audience is really responding well."

Chat participants shared that they use Snapchat templates, Adobe Premiere and After Effects to storyboard.

Highly visual. Digital storytelling relies on strong visual elements that capture moments. For long-form stories, coupling strong images with visually compelling design helps readers engage with the content. (Adobe Spark can help with design, suggested several chat participants.)

The University of Georgia, explained Jamie Lewis during the chat, adds an "at a glance" section at the top of longer stories to summarize the piece and give quick takeaways.

"I really like this, especially for features of a person! Give people the most important info at the beginning," offered Harter.

People-focused. Great stories feature resonant human experiences, several chat participants noted. Winners of CASE's Circle of Excellence Awards for web writing, for instance, include human interest pieces on a veteran who started a farm, a theater program for inmates and engineers who create prosthetic limbs for kids.

Plus, giving students and alumni a voice—by pulling story ideas from their social media feeds, highlighting their experiences, or giving them the opportunity to do Instagram or Snapchat takeovers—helps stories feel real.

"Ninety percent of our Snapchat content is student generated so it offers an authentic view of student life and experiences," tweeted Gilmartin.

Featuring student and alumni perspectives also help keep stories about recurring events—move-in, orientation, final exams, commencement—feel fresh and new.

This article is from the October 2017 BriefCASE issue of BriefCASE.