DDM Story Lab: Creating a culture of creativity

Chris Jones | Director, DDM Story Lab, DDM | @ChrisJonesDigi | September 8, 2016

Content. What an ugly word. So hollow. So dry. And yet, in this content-driven industry, we use it all the time: content strategy; content producer; content stream; branded content; content, content, content.

It’s a useful word in that it elicits the idea that great content is more than just articles. Content is a catch-all for other media types, such as video and images, including memes and GIFs.

But my children never ask me to read them bedtime content. They ask for stories. Stories are at the heart of our best, most shareable, most impactful pieces.

With that realization, just a few short months after launching the DDM Content Studio, our team quickly rebranded itself as the DDM Story Lab. Our goal is the same — to explore new ways of telling stories, thus becoming a hub of innovation and creativity serving our brands and a number of media partners globally. We strive to take the amazing work our fellow DDM content teams are creating and think of new ways to enhance, repackage or distribute to new, larger audiences — often in a visual format.

Let me give you a few aspects of how we try to reimagine storytelling.

Creative mindset

We are a lab. We experiment, we learn and we pivot.

Last quarter, our team took on the goal of publishing five separate story types by the end of the quarter. We were already delivering lots of articles to our brands and partners as well as humorous memes for one of our Facebook pages.

We had no idea when we set the goal what the remaining three new types would be or how successful one of them would instantly become.

Having noticed a rise in short, animated videos in his social feeds, Matt Sanders, our senior director, suggested we explore creating something similar. Kelsey Down, our Story Lab manager, did a little searching and found a service that would allow us to easily create videos with a free-to-cheap editing tool, and suddenly story type No. 3 was published and checked off our goal list.

Little did we know the impact it would have on our reach and engagement. Within the first three months after publishing our first illustrated video, these little-videos-that-could had garnered 67.2 million video views on Facebook. That came from posting just one video per day in English and Spanish, Monday through Friday.

Our strategy has been to create illustrated videos based on the 250 best-performing articles on FamilyShare.com. The idea here is simple: If the article did really well on our site, a fun little video gives us a chance to breathe new life into it through social media.

We’ve also expanded the concept into videos for other DDM brands. Here’s an example of an illustrated video coupled with an amazingly well-presented Deseret News article. You’ll probably notice a difference in the tone as we attempted to be more aligned with the Deseret News’ journalistic voice, compared to the more playful, first-person tone in the video for FamilyShare.

You might be surprised to know that although we have a small team of talented video producers working with our Story Lab, they’re typically not the ones producing these illustrated videos each day. Because our process for illustrated videos makes them so quick to create and requires little actual video editing skills, a couple of our design interns, along with Kelsey and I, have taken on the joyful task of creating them. This cross-training frees our Video Lab to focus on bigger, more demanding and more polished projects for our brands and partners.

Despite the fortunate success of this particular media type, we haven’t lost focus on our goal of discovering new ways to tell stories. Digital media is a funny business. What works today often doesn’t work tomorrow (I’m looking at you, Facebook algorithm). We don’t expect illustrated videos to be commanding the same views they do today even six months from now, so we’re already working toward the next thing.

Creative rhythm

Meeting is another ugly word, unless you’re attending a Story Lab meeting, where we focus on creativity, learning, delivering extraordinary results and improving lives (the latter two being values our team has especially taken to heart from the DDM mission).

Idea jam sessions

Every day, our team gets together briefly for what we call idea jam sessions. These are short team gatherings, usually lasting fewer than five minutes.

They are kind of a blend of stand-ups, which we also do daily, and other newsroom morning/afternoon meetings that many of our other teams hold daily. The main difference is that we’re not as concerned with making coverage assignments as much as we are coming up with fresh ideas or improving existing ones.

These jam sessions are mobile in that we literally move from desk to desk to view each other’s work (memes, infographics, videos). Our jams are fun and energetic, especially when we’re critiquing memes destined for our Facebook humor page. We give honest feedback and make adjustments where needed.

Attending an idea jam you hear comments like, “this would be a great video for them,” “that would make a really engaging quiz,” or “I’d click on that article.”

Also, these jams are open to the rest of the company so any content team can work through ideas with us or request our services. For example, the manager of our local native advertising product comes to the lab almost daily to brainstorm campaign ideas. Other teams, like DeseretNews.com, set aside time every other week to take us through the different articles they’re working on. We then bounce ideas off each other on how we might enhance them, especially visually and sometimes with interactive elements.

Everyone thrives in the collaborative, creative exercise of the idea jam.

Weekly Story Lab meeting

We also hold a weekly Story Lab meeting. Each agenda item can be classified in one of four ways: learning, brainstorming, mission and inspiration or reporting. We strive to make sure everyone in the meeting is involved and engaged.

We not only showcase our best work from the week (one way to ensure everyone’s involvement), but also share others’ amazing content — pieces we’ve found from other sites and organizations we admire. Many of the examples we share have little to do with the types of pieces we create, but each has elements that inspire us, whether it’s the storytelling, the vibrant colors or the exceptional music. Sometimes it’s the web design or interactive elements that really catch our eyes. Teammates recently shared this example, and this one, and this one and this one. Just thinking about it makes me excited to see what gets shared this week.

We end the 90-minute meeting with some sort of skill-building challenge. One week, we might take 30 minutes to each find a story and turn it into a video. Another week I’ll present a handful of memes we’ve posted recently and see if we can guess the reach numbers for each and, once revealed, discuss why we think it got the results it actually got (good or bad). Another week we might explore and experiment with new tools.

Creative environment

Our Story Lab is physically separated from our other content teams, presenting us with both a challenge and an opportunity. We’ve taken care to design the space in a way that’s conducive to creativity and inviting to other teams.

Most of the walls in the lab are painted as whiteboard walls so our creativity literally becomes part of the surroundings.

We tore out the drab gray cubicles we inherited and now sit at long, open tables, thus fostering interaction and collaboration. And the whole team is right there, even leadership. We converted the four formal offices into uniquely furnished meeting spaces, each with some creative element (kinetic sand, adult coloring books, 3-D puzzles, etc.).

We’ve begun to decorate the lab with cardboard cutouts of some of pop culture’s great disruptors: Han Solo (he helped take down the empire with a Corellian freighter. A freighter!) and Harry, Ron and Hermione (I mean, who would have guessed Ickle Ronniekins would help thwart the Dark Lord?).

Does all this sound like silly toys and décor for should-be professional adults? Well, yeah. But these little gimmicks have genuinely contributed to the fun atmosphere, culture and remarkable productivity. Through all the fun we maintain a high level of professionalism.

Nuts & Bolts

Story Lab 2.0

So what’s next for the Story Lab? Onward and upward, we expect. We continue to take on more and more projects for our internal brands. We also continue to grow our partner network, adding new BrandForge clients each month. We're creating videos, infographics and articles for them and their clients. We’re expanding our language capabilities and reaching across new borders.

Whatever that looks like in the end, it will surely be filled with clever ideas, great storytelling, and new ways of reaching and engaging our growing audiences.