Chief digital officer interview: Day in the life of Penguin’s digital storyteller

Publisher's head of creative for digital and emerging products talks about how she's future-proofing stories through technology and why digital innovation is all about audiences

Penguin Group’s innovative spirit harks back to its founder, Sir Allen Lane, a maverick of his time who disrupted the book publishing world by producing high-quality paperbacks that made reading affordable for the masses. But what does that culture and thinking look like in a digital context?

According to the publisher’s head of creative for digital and emerging products, Kylie Robertson, digital is about taking great stories to readers no matter where they happen to be. Robertson joined Penguin four years ago as its first creative digital director after building a career in transmedia storytelling using a combination of technologies and platforms.

“It became immediately clear we’d need flexibility to meet changing reading behaviours,” she said during the recent Chief Digital Office Forum in Sydney.

Robertson describes her role as “future-proofing stories” and one which touches four main areas of the business: Partnerships, platforms, products and experiences. Although she and her technical innovation lead sit within the marketing function, she operates as an internal startup, working across marketing, sales, publishing development and in-house IP teams to foster digital thinking through a creative and distribution context.

“I never set out to work in digital and I still see myself as a storyteller,” she said. “I discovered a hybrid space for storytelling and was inspired by games, and telling stories by using keyboard, mouse and screen.”

Robertson’s first effort in 1998 was the ‘Girl Friday’ series for mobile devices, which secured her a distribution deal with Telstra for the launch of its mobile TV service. Customers would receive customised SMS messages and emails from the character based on their interactions with the site. From there, she started a digital production company and worked on redefining the way stories are told across multiple channels.

For Robertson, digital at Penguin is about expanding the opportunities for creating, commercialising and delivering stories.

“The character, plot and theme – all these connections are threads that give a story its DNA,” she explained. “All these properties come together to create a storyworld… which we can mine and interact with audiences in new and revolutionary ways on any device or platform.”

As an example of how digital has changed the way Penguin invests in storytelling, Robertson pointed to a recent project with Lance Weiler, called ‘Lyka’s adventure’, about a robot from outer space coming to learn from children how to save her planet. The project tapped into multiple platforms to deliver an interactive and educational story to children across Australia including chapter books, a mobile app and a plush toy that could be activated by inserting a smartphone into its heart.

Lyka visited primary schools across five states through the publisher’s travelling education lab, and children were enlisted to help the character collect information, figure out the people and places to visit, and design a way to get home. To do this, Penguin’s young readers division and teachers academy partnered to develop the initiative for the Australian education system.

In the last 18 months, Penguin has also launched its ‘Dial-a-story’ initiative, involving two phone booths placed in physical locations and hooked up to Raspberry Pi devices. These are used by consumers to dial into one of five authors’ stories, as well as can leave their own story for an online archive of Australian stories.

“It’s a unique way to engage with a story through a real-life and familiar object that took away digital screens,” Robertson said.

“Developing out content through story DNA allows you to surface your brand and story to all audiences. When any new device or tech arrives in the market, you should look at the core human behaviour it speaks to and understand why people use it, and whether it’s beneficial to your story.”

Fostering digital thinking in the Penguin Group

Speaking to CMO following her presentation, Robertson said her role at Penguin was created to expand the focus of digital from ebooks to a wider canvas. Another major focus is disrupting linear storytelling in favour of more interactive engagement with content.

“Having such a long history of marrying technology with audiences and storytelling has given me a unique position on this,” she said.

“Technology has traditionally sat with IT, but it’s actually a very creative field and we’re seeing that more and more now through the startup culture, for example. I can translate and apply that thinking to an area of storytelling. But I also know how to commercialise products and I’m realistic about what you can and can’t do in digital.

“Books are not dying, and sales are still strong. These things we’re working on are running in parallel, serving both the book and author brands.”

With digital delivery crossing over all aspects of the business, from marketing, product development to distribution, Robertson agreed questions have been raised as to who is responsible for what.

“You start to question how you build out the infrastructure to support some of these ideas, thinking and platforms. So it definitely challenges traditional marketing models,” she said. “And it has an impact on the types of roles that can service these new ideas and products.”

The Lyka and dial-a-book projects, for example, are both marketing activities and storytelling in their own right.

“Marketing is product is marketing,” Robertson continued. “When you start to look at this digitised content, you can’t separate them. Some of the work I’m looking at currently is tying together these multichannel networks for kids and adults. I’m looking at content distribution, experiences, and it’s a combined effort between the marketing and product teams.

“That’s where the story ‘DNA’ comes in as well. But it is a blurry line – our ‘True Stories’ initiative, for example, is a standalone product of self-contained stories but also markets the book products.”

What underpins all of these efforts is audience engagement, Robertson said.

“Every piece of strategy I work on is focused on audience, because that allows us to remain adaptive and nimble as things change underneath us all the time,” she said. “It’s about audiences and finding connection points to distribute content to them and engage in a two-way conversation.

“People see publishing as a slow moving beast, but our marketing, publishing and business development teams know their audiences so well. They know their authors, work with creative content and understand the space. When you start talking in terms of being more focused on audience and how to reach them, it takes away the fear associated with digital and technology.”

Robertson’s advice to organisations looking to tell their own brand story as digitisation transforms the way they interact with audiences is to retain authenticity.

“You have to remain true to your brand,” she said. “You can’t have a scattergun approach in the way you tell a story, it has to be a concerted effort across each piece of the audience interaction and however you carve up your demographics.

“Be mindful of the platform you’re communicating that on, and be as open and transparent as possible.”

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