International expert on audience, innovation, entrepreneurship and visual journalism, Symbolia founder Erin Polgreen shares her secrets.  

Imagine that you’re walking past your favourite coffee shop. The sidewalk-facing wall is polished smooth and gleaming. It doesn’t glint under the rays of the sun, but by LED lights under the touch-screen surface. Its interface tells you the temperature, houses for sale in the area and events taking place in the community. It’s like a street-art tablet brought to life.

This is the future that Erin Polgreen imagines. As the founder of Symbolia: The Tablet Magazine of Illustrated journalism and an internationally recognised media strategist, she knows a thing or two about what the digital media landscape might look like in the future.

However, when we talk to her, she’s dealing with a decidedly low-fi problem – squirrels have gnawed through her Internet cables – meaning we’ll have to speak sans video on Skype because of the sketchy connection. While we can’t see her, Australian audiences will have the chance for audio and visual interaction when she hits Sydney this August for the Walkley Foundation’s Storyology: Ideas Write Now.

‘I’m looking forward to talking about what it takes to build a news enterprise from the ground up and what it takes to bootstrap an audience into existence, as well as how far you can go with experimental products and not a lot of capital,’ her disembodied voice says through the black computer screen.

The limitless real estate of the Internet means that new media organisations are being built weekly. But just because there’s space for a foundation doesn’t mean they’ll last long in an arena as competitive as the coliseum. The attention of eyeballs is hard to capture, and Polgreen will be sharing her secrets on audience engagement.

But before that, it’s worth noting that she knows a thing or two about bootstrapping an organisation into existence. In 2004, Polgreen began working as an associate publisher at a Chicago-based political magazine, but at the same time, she also worked in a comic book store.

‘They’ve been the two parallel loves of my life,’ she explains. ‘A couple of years ago I noticed that there were all of these great cartoonists telling amazing stories using really fantastic reporting techniques. Not only did I want to spotlight their work, but further the field. I thought it was a fascinating way to engage people in a story through creative content that puts the reader in a new environment.’

She’s talking about what inspired her to create Symbolia. Though experienced with news organisations, Polgreen was interested in a product apart from the usual journalistic fare.

‘I think with the rise of things like Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, people are thinking more and more about how to creatively tell stories using visual components,’ she says. ‘There’s something about a hand drawn image that is immediately arresting and eye-catching than something computer generated.’

Just because it’s illustrated doesn’t mean it brushes over hard-hitting issues. While the current issue Heroines includes an article on the life of a bellydancer in contemporary Cairo, it’s not Betty & Veronica, and also features an interview with a survivor of human trafficking in Nepal, and a story on two female veterans who served at Guantanamo Bay.

While she champions comic-reportage, she also doesn’t ‘think it’s the next rising wave’ of journalism, but believes ‘we’re entering a phase of journalism where experimentation is key and figuring out ways to tell stories that delight and have a sense of play is going to be more and more important’. Judging from the American media landscape, visual reportage in general may be under threat.

Two weeks ago in Chicago, where Polgreen sharpened her journalistic skills, one of the major dallies, The Chicago Sun Times, sacked all of its photographers. ‘I was devastated when I read that,’ she reveals. ‘To me, photojournalism is really the heart of narrative. You can have text but to tie it to artistically composed images is just so valuable. You can reach people of many different levels of literacy and different facilities with English.’

While that’s bad news for news, the bells aren’t tolling for photography, or illustrations or images in reportage. Though the major newspapers are suffering shrinking ad revenue and resources, which is undoubtedly linked to a growing preference for online content, eyeballs are increasingly gazing upon parallel media like Symbolia.

Yet it’s not all about flicking media onto new platforms like tablets. ‘For all the technical innovation, there’s also something to be said for that human element or that relationship focussed element,’ Polgreen posits. ‘People spend a lot of time online and looking at devices, anything you can do to give them an emotional connection is really critical. It makes us better human beings as well as better citizens.’

Imagine the story of Meera, the survivor of human trafficking in Nepal featured in the current issue of Symbolia. While a carefully crafted text-only story might give you the who, what, when and where, the images in the article brim with pathos, the artist’s interpretation presenting that human element Polgreen mentions.

‘Looking at an artfully constructed illustration of something that happens in real life, you create not only an identification with the place itself, but an experience where you’re trying to understand what it must’ve been like if you were there,’ she explains. ‘You also enter the mind of the artist. It’s really an expansion of horizons when you’re able to experience the world through someone else’s artistic vision.’

This assertion aligns with Polgreen’s opposition to relying just on the tech stuff. ‘Art and design are so, so important to how we think about the future of media. When we created Symbolia, we wanted something that looked the exact opposite to a very cold or sterily designed website – something that didn’t look like a bachelor’s pad. It’s been really rewarding understanding how people respond to art when it’s combined with technology in a very harmonious way.’

Depending on new technology, and believing its implementation equals success, is something Polgreen believes media organisations should be wary of. While interactive media loads across our screens, harnessing technical innovation isn’t everything. When I propose that more interactivity might limit engagement with users, especially those with limited access to technology, Polgreen answers ‘absolutely’.

When testing Symbolia, Polgreen found that people would ‘drop off’ if there were more than three interactive pieces per screen. ‘They don’t know where to go because of the abundance of choice, they get lost.’ She also says that interactive needs to be ‘really short’, between 20 and 30 seconds, otherwise people will switch off.

Aside from considering this during future content creation, Polgeen also developed a simplified PDF version of Symbolia that can be sent to people that don’t have tablets. This demonstrates the importance of respecting your audience, and knowing what they want.

She highlights how VOX Media implement multimedia components orientated towards ‘super specific audiences’.

‘They really think holistically about what it’s like for someone to actually sit down and work through content and what are their needs and how they can reach somebody interested in audio or video, creating specific story packages.’

But then how do you know what your audience wants?

Polgreen points out there are endless reams of data that media organisations can use to figure this out, but it’s largely esoteric without the proper analysing. ‘You can grab data from how many Twitter followers you have to what is your ratio of tweets to retweets and things like that. That’s easy data to pull, but measuring the depth of engagement is something that some outlets need to unpack.’

There are other considerations that Polgreen will no doubt touch upon through her involvement at Storyology, but she does reveal that what the good organisations are doing is ‘engaging people around content production’.

‘So having [the audience] be part of making the story happen, but also a real commitment to in-person events and a real commitment to authentic relationships and relationship building.’

So while Twitter and Facebook are invaluable in reaching audiences, they’re not a substitute for face-to-face interaction, meaning media companies need to remember to step away from the keyboard and shake hands.

She also implores organisations to ‘create a two-way channel with the audience and listen as much as you’re speaking to them. That’s very helpful and can inform the kinds of products and content that you create’.

By having this more genuine relationship with users isn’t only valuable to increase engagement, and thus money, but keeps organisations from falling into the old methods of media engagement.

‘Journalism organisations used to be able to have this mentality that they were the watch dogs and they were reporting from a tower where they were looking out over the landscape and picking what people need to know and how they needed to know.’

She offers BuzzFeed’ as an organisation that has figured this out. While this could possibly be a nod to the fact that Scott Lamb, the editorial director of BuzzFeed will share the Storyology stage with her, Polgreen asserts that they’re ‘doing a great job figuring out a core audience around a specific type of editorial product and really tailoring that to fit their needs’.

If you’re familiar with BuzzFeed, you’ll know that their content is engineered for higher virality than Ebola. They proudly claim to produce the ‘hottest, most social content on the web’ and feature ‘the kinds of things you’d want to pass along to your friends’. Not everyone wants to know what the ’10 Creepiest Photos Found on Reddit This Week’ are, but BuzzFeed’s audience, who loves a good LOL, probably does, demonstrating how they’ve customised their content to their audience. Considering BuzzFeed has 9.8 million visitors a day, taking note is probably wise.

But back to that tablet wall I mentioned earlier. Polgreen is excited about exploring that kind of innovation in workshops, informing audiences of ‘how they can start to play off those concepts and think about what the use of those products might be in the future’.

Included in this discussion is wearable technology. Where she lives in San Francisco, people sporting Google Glasses have started popping up, a technology she ‘can’t wait to see what news services do with’. Picturing Blade Runner, I wonder what it’s like seeing people walk around wearing them.

‘It’s so bizarre, it’s so weird,’ my computer screen chuckles. ‘One of the things I love about my job is that I feel like I’m in a crazy science fiction movie all the time.’

Storyology: Ideas write now! will be in Sydney from August 6 to 9, 2013. Visit www.storyology.org.au for more information or to register your interest.

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