Innovating to Enable Storytelling in a Digital Age

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A screenshot of Beneath the Ink’s “Bink” enhancement feature for digital reading.

The CEO of Beneath the Ink, a former Time Warner Cable executive, delivers lessons learned from the digital transformation of the cable industry.

By Sherisse Hawkins

Sherisse HawkinsSeven years after the advent of the Kindle eReader, it is no surprise that “digital,” has rippled through almost every aspect of the publishing experience. The questions we face about the future of publishing are no longer as simple as paper versus pixel. As I see news stories about the clashes of Amazon and Hachette or debates about subscription versus pay per title, the more I am struck with a sense of déjà vu. Right now, I identify as the CEO and co-founder of a digital publishing startup, but for years, I was an executive at Time Warner Cable, riding out the waves of change during our transition to digital video. Digital media has so completely transformed our “watching” and “listening” lives, it was only a matter of time before it would come to change our reading lives as well.

Just as video (TV, Movies, or the more recent advent of self-produced videos) has been completely transformed by technological innovation, reading, too, is undergoing a great transformation. The strongest common denominator between the two is that technology succeeds or fails based on its ability to support the art of storytelling. The strides made in video-based storytelling and the proliferation of elegant software tools have made it possible for creative talent to endlessly think and rethink the art of video and what it means to communicate through that medium. Due to never-ending advances in computer processing power, cheap data storage, ever-present network connectivity, as well as wide distribution and low cost for production tools, we now face a landscape in which almost anyone can attempt the storytelling avocation.

Beneath the InkTo date, the primary impact of all of these technological advances have been on the ability to read books and stories on computer-based devices. Much of the technology product excitement of the 1990s was in making the reading experience on a screen as similar to the aesthetics of that experience in the printed form. The 2000s saw the development of hardware, particularly, powerful, flexible e-reading platforms. Overall, all of the technological focus up until this point has been around obtaining, transporting, and storing digital stories. When you think about it, even the most basic e-reading devices now have more computing power, storage, and graphics capability than the NASA engineers of the 1960s and ’70s, but the reader experience has not fundamentally changed from the experience they get from a traditional physical book.

This is not to say that experience is “wrong,” “bad,” or even less desirable. Indeed, the unique imaginative journey that the tactile experience of a print book can provide the reader with should be lauded, not disdained. The point is that the digital e-reader experience can, like in the video media world, allow another facet for creative expression; another type of “storytelling.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Digital Disruption

1) “The Good” – The rise in dedicated reading devices and applications which can run reader apps equates to greater potential reach to readers, faster distribution, and more people reading than ever before. Reading digitally is convenient. Convenience trumps a lot. This is analogous to cable wooing subscribers with DVR’s, offering movies and TV series on demand, and providing program via Pay-Per-View. Each of those offerings required innovation, as well as acceptance of trends in consumer behavior. For example people did not care to watch shows only when the networks aired them. Bottom line: the content didn’t change, but how easily it was delivered and consumed became more convenient.

The digitization of content and convenience of consumption was exciting for consumers. Standard resolution for video was no longer good enough, and HD became a mandatory offering. BluRay disks were being offered through DVD kiosks in fast food restaurants, and subscription video mail order programs got in on the On Demand game! Video lovers had more choices than ever, from enjoying a 3D experience in a plush seat with in the theatre, to renting a top grossing movie for a buck.

The world would never be the same.

2) “The Bad” – People began to expect content to be cheap. But it cost just as much, if not more, to create a film with CGI or in 3D. Content was becoming a commodity, and the content producers were courted by all the distribution channels. High supply and demand meant that high quality, innovative video, which cost so much in manpower, ran at a very low cost. That CGI laden film was not any shorter or less compelling because you got it from Red Box, and ultra high speed internet made streaming video, which was once frustratingly inconsistent, smooth as silk.

This innovation and convenience thing was starting to hurt a bit.

3) “The Ugly” – Consumers began to disregard early release windows and pre orders, and they were reluctant to pay premiums for these options. Self-produced content began to flood the market with new channels on You Tube and other streaming services. People started watching content outside their homes, streaming video on tablets and even phones.

It was clear that the distribution, timing, sales, and advertising model had completely changed, but we noticed something else very important; consumers were watching video! Hours and hours of video. We learned, not surprisingly, that people watched more video when it was more convenient. They paid more for services that were innovative. They traded up to fancier DVR’s, paid extra for new features, and were giddy about watching content on the new tablet they got over the holidays.

So what did we learn?

The Ugly wasn’t that ugly. The Bad wasn’t that bad. By acknowledging the need to meet consumers where they are, not being afraid to innovate and create new solutions to fit the lives of our consumers, a funny thing happened: new opportunities arose.

Can we make it easy for college students to watch HBO on their phone or tablet? Yes.

Is it possible to allow commuters to binge watch a past season of their favorite show on the bus? Of course.

Is it ok to let people time-shift or pause a show to work around their busy lifestyle? Absolutely.

We thought about consumers throughout their lifetime and what their needs would be at each stage so we could “meet them where they were” and be the most convenient yet high quality option available.

Reading is a very different experience than watching some sort of moving picture. The time spent with a book is 2 to 6 times more than the typical length of time needed to view a television show or movie. However I believe that the approach to engaging and delighting consumers is similar: provide high quality content that is convenient to access; recognize that consumer needs and habits change over their lifespan; leverage innovation to create new forms of engagement. These lessons are universal.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.