Digital Storytelling Best Practices


Kaplan Higher Education shares student motivation and success with YouTube videos.

Today, there is a lot of hype in the communications community around the concept of storytelling as well as the importance of leveraging digital platforms to engage users. Combining these trends, we’re seeing more and more organizations incorporate forms of digital storytelling in social media campaigns as well as larger web strategies. Given my background in higher education, I recently partnered with a fellow DePaul Grad student (s/o to Kelsey Peters) to explore how colleges and universities are using digital storytelling to talk about college experience, success and affordability.

Before going into some top examples with regard to message, voice and mode, it is critical to first define digital storytelling. While concrete parameters do not exist today, the medium primarily emphasizes a personal experience narrative conveyed with photo, audio and/or video. In our research, we came across many success stories presented as third-person text essays littered with key messages and mission statements. This does not reflect the inherently raw and engaging spirit of the digital storytelling practice.

Rather than picking apart what does not fit digital storytelling criteria, let’s focus on shining examples from the higher education community. These examples are presented alongside four best practices for your consideration in the planning and production phases.


Appeal to Diversity
Examples: UCLA We, The OptimistsProvidence Vantage Points

One of the great things about college is exposure to diversity; however, many institutions struggle with displaying diversity in an authentic way. Personal narrative collections allow viewers to hear a range of perspectives – from the first-generation student to the college athlete and the barrier-breaking alum. Many appeal to the idea that you may have a difficult road ahead, but you’re not the only one. Digital storytelling encourages identification with the subject or narrator.

Along with diverse voices, it’s also important to consider a range of story topics. Most prospective students are looking for more than just academics from a higher ed institution. Schools can explore institutional ties to the arts, sports, medicine, causes, community work, religion and study abroad opportunities. UCLA’s We, The Optimists tells stories of people who have changed the world in a variety of ways and fields. What’s the common denominator? A tie to UCLA.

Speak in an Authentic Voice
Examples: Kaplan Success StoriesUND What They Say

During our review, it quickly became clear that a story was more engaging when it was told in the first-person. In this case, students speaking directly to students. It was even better if the story branched beyond the institution to cover biographical details. This contributes to plot development and shows the subject’s growth rather than blatantly stating it. A great example of this is Kaplan Higher Education’s Success Stories, which are individual YouTube videos that focus more on the student’s life decisions rather than isolated views of the school experience.

Along with having the subject tell their story, encourage a conversational tone and avoid jargon. Specifically looking at financial aid, which can be a dry and complex topic, it’s easier to understand requirements and process when they are described in layman’s terms. The University of Notre Dame illustrates this technique with the What They Say story collection.


Leverage Available Resources
Examples: Cornell Life on the HillOberlin Stories Project

Several institutions have put in the time and funds to create high quality videos, which is not necessary per digital storytelling criteria. In fact, digital storytelling encourages production using static images and low-cost software like WeVideo. You also don’t need to hire outside writing staff if you are able to tap organization staff or clients for stories. Cornell University created Life on the Hill, a collection of uncensored student blogs, to share the Cornell experience with prospective students and parents. Cornell provides a small monthly stipend for a select group of students to post regularly via their chosen blog platform.

Oftentimes, creating a storytelling community doesn’t even require a stipend. You will see online buttons and portals encouraging readers to “submit your story.” As for driving traffic to stories, demonstrate your organization’s value of stories by placing a link on the website’s home page and calling out the effort in social streams and newsletters.

Consider the Viewer
Examples: USC Financial AidSNHU Success Stories

For optimal accessibility, it’s important that your digital stories are presented in a mobile-friendly format, like USC’s Who Receives Financial Aid. Along those same lines, attention spans are shortening so it’s critical to keep stories and videos brief but interesting. Some of the best examples we found offer different storytelling elements all in one place. For example, University of Notre Dame’s What They Say stories also include pulled quotes – the main highlights of the videos – next to the video imbed.

Finally, the content of the digital story is likely encouraging action, but be sure to help viewers take that next step. Add share buttons, a comments area and links to additional resources like program information or how to apply.

Now this is by no means an all-inclusive list of digital storytelling best practices, but these four points will help you initiate  necessary conversations as well as analyze your storytelling strategies. Feel free to share your experiences and advice to those interested in digital storytelling below.


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