February 16th, 2021
With 84 million readers and 55 million social fans across nine media brands, from Bustle to Elite Daily to Input, Bustle Digital Group (BDG) has the largest reach and engagement of any millennial and Gen Z-focused publisher.
BDG has been working with Web Stories since late 2019 and has adopted them across their brand portfolio to connect with their audience of digital natives who grew up on the Internet and spend hours a day on their phones. A major champion of Web Stories at BDG is its editor-in-chief and executive vice president of culture and innovation, Joshua Topolsky. He shared with us his vision for Web Stories and the future of digital content.
When did Bustle Digital Group begin publishing Web Stories, and what did you hope to accomplish?
We started working on Web Stories with Google in December 2019. It was clear that we shared similar goals on pushing storytelling on the web beyond traditional and familiar formats. We knew if we gave our writers and editors the tools to create evocative, mixed-media stories, they’d use those tools to make great things — stories like they’re already telling, but also new types of stories that simply can’t be created in a more traditional format.
Tell us about your audiences, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with these stories.
Our audience is made up of people who’ve been raised online and intuitively understand the frameworks of mobile devices and social networks. They’re hungry for a more engaging, immersive, and modern form of storytelling. Web Stories are design-first, and we wanted to use them to tell the stories that really can only be told when you combine mixed media, interactivity, and traditional journalism all in one place.
How do Web Stories change your storytelling process?
Content creators have been stuck in a groove for a very long time, in terms of how stories are presented, the tools we have to tell them, and the channels through which we reach our audiences. Web Stories let us break out of that groove.
One of the great powers of Web Stories is that you can take familiar content and elevate it to a place that makes people pay attention. Instead of writing 1,000 words, you can combine photos, quotes, videos, infographics, and text to viscerally change the way you communicate with your reader.
Let’s chat about some of your favorite Web Stories from across your publications.
Let’s start with Bustle’s 9 Genius Morning Routines for People Who WFH. This could have been a basic listicle, but instead, we join together visuals and quotes and put them in a format that feels native to people who live on their phones. So something that you might have glossed over suddenly becomes an electric piece of visual content.
For Romper’s How Kristen Bell Teaches Her Kids the Big Lessons, the team took additional content from an interview and were able to slice it into something completely unique that was additive to our feature storytelling.
Then, for Input’s Riding an underwater scooter, we had a videographer and an editor check out this crazy device that lets you fly around underwater. They spent half an hour messing around with it, shooting video, and getting data on it. It didn’t require an intense video edit or voiceovers, because you can mix a paragraph about the scooter with video or data points. This Story feels like a mini-documentary, but it only took two hours to put together.
Lastly, for Input’s Pixel 5 vs. iPhone 12, we used Web Stories to showcase camera comparisons, showing someone flipping through photos on the phones in real-time. This is the best of what happens on social media and what YouTubers do with review videos but compressed into a format that feels a hundred times more native on a mobile device.
Can you tell us a bit about your results with Web Stories so far?
We’ve seen the tremendous performance on our Web Stories. We’ve been able to expose a much larger audience to our content — not only because of how shareable stories are, but also due of where they appear on Google Search and Google Discover.
Our advertisers love that Web Stories give them an opportunity to tell their stories in a different way. They’ve become an integral part of how we help partners tell their stories.
How do you look at the future of storytelling and content consumption more broadly on the web?
Web Stories are a sign of things to come. Beyond text, images, and video, there are other things on your phone today — real-time 3D, interactivity, mobile gaming — that you could experience within HTML and within the browser. From a design perspective, you have a variety of opportunities to add typography, color, and more. The combination of these elements could lead to massively powerful experiences.
Any high-level advice about how to think about the Web Story format as a whole?
The most practical advice I can give is to take this format seriously. We’ve seen stories spread like wildfire across social media, and we have early and positive results that people want elsewhere. This is a new format, a new space — think about it like an open canvas to reinvent your storytelling.
It’s important to ask, “What stories should we tell and how would we tell them if we had different tools?” The limitations are diminishing and the opportunities are increasing. I think the next year or two is going to be explosive in terms of creativity, but in order to tap into that creativity, you have to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.