What Is Scrollytelling? (+Its Impact on Digital Content): An Interview

Malin Pettersen Malin Pettersen  |  October 30, 2019

We have entered an era where the visual internet is no longer what it used to be.

The once-revolutionary H1, H2, paragraph text, and one single image placed to visualize your story, is now a saturated format. We now want responsive storytelling with full-size photographs, parallax scrolling, and maybe a few data-heavy animations to top it all off.

Not only do we want to be convinced by the words of the stories we are told, but we also want them to be brought to us in the most interactive, exciting ways. Naturally, publishers and brands alike are now experimenting with formats that can engage their audiences.

The Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvius, stated in De architectura that all structures should adhere to these standards: soundness, utility, and beauty.

In ‘On the role of design in information visualization,' Andrew Vande Moere and Helen Purchase suggest that these standards should be applied to visual storytelling.

Good visualization should be sound, meaning the design should be appropriate for the information it describes. It should be useful, enabling the viewer to derive meaning from it; and of course, beauty, it should have an aesthetic appeal that attracts the viewer’s attention and provides a pleasing visual experience.

Visual storytelling

Image: Visual storytelling in the form of cave drawings 
These – in Argentina – painted 13,000 years ago.

Visual storytelling is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around since people took pigment to stone and drafted out stories on cave walls. However, scrolling stories, visual storytelling in its modern, scrolling form, has most definitely advanced due to factors such as technology and visual storytelling tools. 

The portmanteau: Scrollytelling 

By definition, visual storytelling is the use of images, videos, infographics, presentations, and other visual elements, to craft a story. It is a way to draw attention to content in the age of infobesity.

Scrollytelling, the portmanteau of ‘scrolling’ and ‘storytelling’, is a way to dynamically tell multimedia stories that unfold as you *drum roll* scroll. Scrollytelling is a good way to engage and actively keep your audience ‘in touch’ with the story they are consuming; the scroll gives them a sense of control, exploration, and discoverability.

The Scrollytelling format is often, but not limited to, used by commercial departments and content studios for branded content, for long-read editorials, native advertising, content marketing, brands conveying their message through storytelling and even in reports.

Research by Microsoft suggests that scrolling has become a pervasive and powerful technique used in data-driven storytelling. The most innovative stories out there employ scrolling in creative ways, and advancements in web-based visualization technology continues to cultivate this dynamic, online scrollytelling format. 

There are many innovative scrollytelling examples out there on the web, some more memorable than others. One of my first memorable encounters with published scrollytelling was The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Cocainenomics’, a highly interactive advertisement for the Netflix series Narcos, which outlined the story behind the Medellín cartel.

concaineomics


Fast Company said it featured all the reporting, graphics, photos and videos you would expect from an elaborate interactive piece calling it ‘pretty damn interesting editorial snack’. It ticked all the boxes of Vitruvius too; it was sound, it was useful, and it was beauty. 

Cocainenomics was not the first of this format, nor will it be the last, as Scrollytelling is a concept that is here to stay. Harvard’s Neiman Lab anticipated in its 2019 report that ‘vertical stories will be on a rage’.

What scrollytelling means for digital production teams

So what does it really mean to digital production teams when there is a rapid development in concepts like Scrollytelling, advancements in technology, and a higher-level interactivity expected from the viewer?

To gain an even deeper understanding, I asked Nelly Gocheva, Global Editorial Director of T Brand Studio International (an industry pioneer who has won many awards for their Scrollytelling efforts) a few questions about what Scrollytelling has meant for their digital production team. 

Q: What has the emergence of ‘Scrollytelling’ meant for the digital content team at T-Brand Studio? 

A: We’ve been using the format since the early days of T Brand Studio, as by the time we launched, The New York Times’s newsroom was already quite used to 'scrollytelling'. It can facilitate the page navigation and simplify the user experience without compromising the interactivity of the creative and overall engagement.

It’s especially helpful with long-form articles or generally builts where you need continuous scrolling. This is where different scrollytelling techniques come handy – for example it can activate an animation, automatically play a video, or can move the reader through different steps or segments of a data viz.

Here is a favorite early example of 'scrollytelling' where the scroll is incorporated in the continuous transition of the content and specifically data.

cities energized

Q: What changes have you noticed in the skillset of digital producers since the Scrollytelling format has become a high-drive business model? What talent and resources should one look for in order to deliver high-quality Scrollytelling? 

A: I think the design and development should go hand-in-hand from the very beginning of the ideation process, as they can’t function separately. Therefore, to me, it’s crucial to work with a designer or creative lead who is aware of the possibilities (and restrictions) of dev and execution and respectively, you need a developer with design sensibilities.

At the end of the day, you want to ensure a seamless user experience with a sleek design and this can’t just happen in silos.

Q: The information age has fundamentally changed how we consume content. What advice would you give to new and up and coming 'scrollytellers' and digital content teams? Is more interactivity always better, or 'less is more'? 

A: I’d say the level of interactivity – or the complexity of it – depends on multiple factors. For example, are you creating a mobile-first experience, or are we talking desktop – as people interact with content differently on different platforms and devices.

But at the core of it all is the story you’d like to tell, what is your content strategy, target audience etc... And from here, you can decide on the creative execution, formats and level of interactivity, if any. I'm a true believer of the good old ‘form follows function’. 

Design and development, a love story

Scrollytelling can be a mighty visual storytelling tool if done right. As this format is becoming more omnipresent, technology and digital content teams have to adapt. The best examples of scrolling stories are crafted through collaboration between content creators, designers and developers.

The perfect match is where design and development intertwine. As specified by Nelly Gocheva, ‘design and development should go hand-in-hand from the very beginning of the ideation process’.

With the right team, resources and technology, Scrollytelling could be a scalable, exiting affair. There's no doubt: with the endless effects and creative outlet a Scrollytelling format can offer, it can for sure be sound, useful and beauty to its many stakeholders. 

If you're interested in experimenting with such high-level means of digital production, you need to start with the proper web design software. Find the right one for your needs and waste no time getting started. 

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Author

Malin Pettersen

Malin Pettersen is Head of Partnerships at Vev, a premium web design platform for professional teams building digital products at scale. Except for passionately helping brands build a more visual www, with a project manager-wired brain, Malin’s drive is moving ideas into concepts and experiences. The Oslo-born, now Toronto-based, also considers herself an advanced foodie and beginner hobby poet.

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