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USA TODAY has big plans for immersive storytelling

January 14, 2021 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Many publishers have experimented with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), but few have gone beyond test projects into longer term developments. However, as mobile devices have become more advanced and social platforms have started integrating AR technology into filters and tools, audiences are warming up to using AR as part of their everyday lives. This presents an opportunity for publishers.

USA TODAY was among those running early experiments. Now, the publisher has a team dedicated to emerging technologies. They’re exploring how stories can be told using virtual reality, augmented reality, data visualizations, and more. It’s a way for the publisher to enhance their storytelling capabilities, as well as drive users to spend more time in USA TODAY’s native app. 

“As AR technology became embedded natively into mobile devices, we saw an opportunity to really adapt,” said Ray Soto, USA TODAY’s Director of Emerging Technology. “People were really interested in the new technologies, and our audiences were starting to seek out different experiences.”

The publisher’s Emerging Technologies team achieved “exceptional engagement” across their immersive stories in 2020. From interactive guides on germ spreading to an AR graphic novel on the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, USA TODAY boosted its total views of interactive content 288% year over year. Their interactive experiences have been viewed by more than 1.3 million people over the past 12 months.

On the back of such strong metrics, Soto spoke to us about what makes USA TODAY’s  AR content a success. He also discusses their plans to further develop immersive storytelling approaches. 

Explore and discover

There are no restrictions on the subject matter of an AR story for USA TODAY. They have produced interactive experiences on topics from science and technology to history and entertainment. However, the type of story matters. So, the team work from the outset to ensure it’s one that their audience can spend time with, digest, and can come back to.

“We encourage all our reporters and all our editorial teams to reach out when they’ve got a story that they feel AR could be a great component of,” said Soto. “We don’t want to replace the existing story that they have. Rather, we want to use it as a form of storytelling that provides a different perspective.”

His Emerging Technology team sits with the editor. Together, they brainstorm what type of enhancement would be appropriate for the story, from traditional video to AR, or even 360 interactive widgets on the web. The core question they bear in mind at all times is one of value.

“We need to make sure we’re leveraging AR in a way that adds value to the story and ensures that we’re not treating the technology as a gimmick,” Soto emphasized. “We really don’t want to do a ‘one hit’ type story. It comes down to two words: explore and discover. And we have to feel very strongly that interactive AR storytelling is a great path forward.”

Development and collaboration

The timeline for turning around these kinds of stories can vary, according to Soto. For long-form and major editorial initiatives like their “Women of the Century” project, development can take from six to eight weeks. These types of stories involve collaborating across the business, with reporters, editors, designers, graphics researchers, narrators, and others contributing.

However, the team has achieved faster turnaround times with more news-driven stories. Some of USA TODAY’s Covid-related interactive content was developed and released in days. These were among the brand’s most engaged with pieces in 2020. 

One example, “Flattening the curve: An AR guide to social distancing” was developed as a gamified experience. Users were offered a series of behavior choices relating to social distancing, in order to help teach users safe practices. The experience, developed in just five days, was viewed over 164,000 times.

AR and social media

At present, much of the AR development has been done on USA TODAY’s own app. One of Soto’s priorities for 2021 is to expand beyond the publisher’s native platforms. He plans to further explore Snapchat, Instagram and other social platforms, not just on the storytelling side but from a marketing perspective as well. 

“We are looking to expand because for us, we see an opportunity to learn,” he said. “What does social engagement look like for an AR story through Instagram or Snapchat? Where are they at with accessible storytelling?”

Strengthening their AR experiences on social media will be a valuable way of introducing new audiences to the publisher’s stories. Native app users are valuable. However, social media users are more likely to share stories and experiences that resonate with them. This, in turn, helps build trust in USA TODAY’s journalism. 

Visualizing the future

Soto also has data visualizations and 3D interactives in his sights. He’s also thinking about how they can apply AI to visualizations. “What is really exciting for me though is the convergence of all these technologies,” he explained. “How can we work with 5G, AI and AR? How can we leverage that conversation with our brand from not just the storytelling, but also from a product perspective?”

For now, the technology for VR hasn’t advanced to the point where enough people have the devices to make significant development on those platforms worth it. However, Soto is optimistic about these technologies becoming more accessible and cost-effective.

Mobilizing monetization

The success of the team’s work in 2020 has set them up for a strong year ahead. The primary focus at the moment is on growing audience confidence in engaging with the stories, as well as increasing the time spent with USA TODAY’s content. As these metrics increase, they are beginning to explore opportunities across the business to test the viability of AR storytelling as a revenue stream, such as branded content.

“There is a lot of interest, which is fantastic,” Soto explained. “We’re very fortunate to be able to share our numbers like we did for 2020, which shows that our audiences are going to [the app], they’re spending quite a bit of time there.”

“We’re focused on making sure that it’s a nice user journey, from the native app into the story, and then following whatever CTA [call to action] we might have embedded in there. So we’re beginning to explore those revenue opportunities.”

A path to profitability may not be clear yet. But as the technology evolves to enable faster and cheaper development of immersive storytelling, publishers like USA TODAY, who are spending time refining their approach, will be at an advantage.

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