For the BBC, the British public service broadcaster that has an extensive digital publishing operation, Facebook has become a focal point for innovation in "graphical storytelling" to reach younger audiences. Publishers should take note of its recent research and development work.
This month, the BBC News Labs, an in-house technology incubator started in 2012, demonstrated in a blog post how its editorial, social media and engineering teams created software tools to automate the process of making stories more visual for Facebook and its sister app, Instagram.
BBC News has more than 15.3 million followers on Instagram, making it the most popular news account on the photo-sharing app, the organization claims. Many of those readers are 25 or younger — and have certain expectations of what they want to see in the app.
“We wanted to see if we could reach this audience with content that isn’t jarring within their social feed ,whilst also fulfilling the BBC’s remit of informing and educating everyone," according to the blog. "The problem is that creating such content is typically extremely time-consuming.”
The BBC's team spent more than a year working on "graphical story editor" software that would automatically suggest a variety of ways to illustrate the key concepts of a story using a library of comic book-like images.
"Over time, this tool began to wow our internal audience as it successfully detected quotes and percentages in stories and rendered different types of smartphone screen-sized panels, based on the structure of a paragraph of text it was scanning," the BBC said.
Through a process of trial and error, its developers and designers created a platform that focused on creating visual stories most efficiently, instead of bogging down its journalists with the task of editing graphics. The next steps will be to add animated graphics to the editor and integrate with its content management system under development.
With advertisers and publishers looking to create "thumb-stopping" graphics that engage Facebook and Instagram users with their content, the BBC News Labs' experiments are especially insightful.