Lessons on creative storytelling from Buzzfeed Germany and WeCreate

From the slow grind of investigative reporting to the short, sharp hit of a TikTok video, the penultimate webinar of this year’s Digital Innovators’ Summit looked at ways to create and deliver captivating content.

Joining FIPP CEO James Hewes and John Wilpers, senior director USA at Innovation Media Consulting and co-author of FIPP’s Innovation in Media World Report, to discuss contrasting approaches to journalism were BuzzFeed Germany Editor-in-Chief Daniel Drepper and Adil Sbai, CEO of WeCreate, a company that combines data management, artist management and agency work centered around TikTok.

An investigative journalist for most of his career, Drepper has been the ideal person to run Buzzfeed Germany’s investigative team – a quartet of reporters tackling issues they believe the German media aren’t covering fully, including abuse in the workplace and Me Too issues before the movement started.

Daniel Drepper, Editor-in-Chief, BuzzFeed Germany

“I really like to convince people to tell me stuff they shouldn’t,” he told delegates. “It’s a great feeling to know something is coming out that has not seen the light of day before. Also, you learn a lot because, to uncover something, you have to know everything about a topic and then you know what’s new. It’s about correcting the public narrative.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Buzzfeed Germany is keeping audiences engaged during longterm investigations without having the resources to produce daily content. With the unit covering a large range of issues, from climate change to police brutality, they work with local organisations to get the word out and keep the public interested.

The fact that Buzzfeed Germany was recently bought up by Ippen Digital also helps the investigative team to amplify the reach of their stories, with reports appearing in the German media group’s newspapers and on its websites.

“Having our stories of the front page of a big daily paper with a national reach creates a circle because sources get in touch and want to reveal something to us, which is very important,” said Drepper.

Hitting the mark

Drepper and his team have done some extraordinary work, in one instance exposing how people suspected of being part of the Chechen mafia have trafficked Ukranian women to Germany. The fact that Buzzfeed published the names of criminals meant reporters themselves were in the firing line. “Police said don’t publish names because they will come for you,” revealed Drepper. “Luckily they didn’t.”

Another Buzzfeed report looked at a man who has harassed and stalked gay German teenagers for years. “It was a story told through one of the victims,” said Drepper. “We paired up with a German public TV channel for young people who publishes on YouTube called Funk and they had a million views. That solidified our brand as a media company that looks into issues of the LGBTQ community.”

For Drepper one of the secrets of the team’s success is intrinsic motivation. “I’m not a fan of micromanagement,” he pointed out. “I see myself as someone who helps people do their best work. In general I try to empower our three reporters to be experts of their beat, have the freedom to dig deep, come back with story ideas and have enough time to talk about it with me. We only have meetings once a week and try and have as much time for the actual work.

“We also create the brand around being an investigative outlet so a lot of people come to us with lots of ideas for investigations – freelancers who pitch stories. We really like to make clear that we know what we are doing.”

Protecting the protectors

While Drepper believes a need for original stories means investigative teams will always have a place within media organisations, protecting these units against litigation is crucial.

“The big problem is – are there enough institutions that are big enough to protect the big investigations?” he said. “Everyone can take three months, dig into something and reveal a scandal if they know how to do it, but can you stand it if people fight back? There’s Der Spiegel in Germany, there’s public radio and TV with generous funding and a one or two daily papers, but then there is not that much more.

“It’s very hard to build these institutions. If you look how big corporations in Germany are and what can happen if you make a mistake, then having a budget of say €3 million is not that much. These big institutions are really important for this sort of journalism so that’s what worries me.”

For investigative stories to have a maximum impact, the media has to ensure there is public trust in their reporting – something that’s been in decline in recent years. Drepper believes journalists could do more to improve reader confidence.

“Things like publishing original documents or, if you’re going to reveal a source, saying whether you called them, met them, whether they sent you an email, whether it’s original reporting or was curated,” he said. “It’s tiny steps but it adds up and people don’t really understand what’s happening on your website if you are not transparent.

“In Germany there is also a big movement to educate young people about how the media works, going to schools and talking about it. That’s really important because you have to start with the basics since a lot just isn’t known. People need to understand how the work is produced.”

Stories from BuzzFeeed Germany’s Research session

Ticking along nicely

In the year since it was created WeCreate has grown to 30 team members spread between Vienna and Hamburg. The company, which was the first in the world to do TikTok data analysis, works with huge brands like Disney and Mercedes Benz and generates €500,000 in revenue a month. The remarkable growth spurt is a testament to the mammoth success of TikTok, which is available in 150 countries and now has over 1 billion users.

Adil Sbai, CEO, WeCreate

“TikTok more than ever offers creative potential,” said CEO Adil Sbai. “The architecture of the app distributes the content only if it’s really interesting to the audience. That is bad if you have bad content but a lot of followers but good if you don’t have any followers but have good content and still might get millions of views. That is something no other platform has offered before and is the charm of TikTok, to not only for creators but brands.”

For brands thinking of using TikTok to do product launches and campaigns, Sbai has an important piece of advice – get out of the way of creators and let them do their thing.

“Creators know how to play TikTok,” said the CEO, whose company manages 15 creators with a combined total of 60 million followers. “For them it’s easy and natural to understand how their audience reacts and what the trends are.

“As a brand you have to step back and ‘debrand’. You should play the platform like a creator, which means that you have to work with creators unless you have very talented employees. You have to give them the freedom to present things in their own way and phrase it in their style.

“If you have too strong a corporate identity the generation that’s super dominant on TikTok (Generation Z) will immediately spot it and punish it by not reacting well. That means not watching the video and the algorhythm understands no-one is interested. Or they give bad feedback in terms of comments. You have to find the right language, wording and give creators freedom. That’s the only way to crush TikTok.”

The rise of the ‘Sinnfluencer’

Above all, when engaging with media-savvy Generation Z brands have to ensure they entertain audiences first, before sharing information.

“You have to offer real value,” said Sbai. “It’s information but in an entertaining format. Even if you are a loved brand like Disney and Mercedes Benz you still have to start with value first and then communicate your new product launch or whatever in a very subtle, native way that it doesn’t feel like ads.”

According to Sbai storytelling has gotten a lot stronger through social media because it allows a variety of different messages with Generation Z becoming more potent in the advertising world.

“They think differently to previous generations. In Germany there is a term ‘Sinnfluencer’ (Sense or purpose influencer), which means they want to understand what you stand for. It’s not just about lifestyle and being cool anymore, you really have to have a message and values.

“That has an effect on how advertising works. Generation Z understands that you are doing ads so we don’t even try and make them think this is not an ad. We say – this is an ad and it still might be cool.”

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