Toronto-based “visual storytelling” platform Storybird has garnered a large and engaged online following around the simple premise of enabling users to read, write, and share their own picture books. The platform allows users—from young children to professional writers—to write and share stories, and has been widely adopted by parents and educational institutions as a way to encourage reading and writing in a supervised, family-friendly environment.
We spoke to Mark Ury, Storybird’s CEO and cofounder, about reader trends, monetization, user experience design, and more.
BNC: What’s one interesting or surprising thing you have to keep in mind when you’re designing a reading platform with children as the primary target audience?
Mark Ury: It’s complicated! And hard! First, we’re a writing AND reading community, so as much innovation (or more) has gone into the book and poetry editors as the readers. Second, our age spectrum, although concentrated from 8–15, goes as low as 3-year-olds making and reading picture books. Creating a UX that’s as clear and predictable to an adult as it is to a kid who’s learning to read is always challenging, as the teams at Apple will tell you.
But, for me, the most intriguing and challenging part has been trying to push the boundaries of the platform to feel and behave as open-ended as possible while simultaneously keeping it moderated and safe. We have literally tens of thousands of comments from our members about how Storybird feels like Facebook or Twitter but doesn’t have the bullying or creeping that girls (and boys) experience online. That we can both empower and protect our members during such a vital time in their growth is something of which we’re all proud.
Storybird has recently launched a longform format for stories, after initially focusing on picture books and poetry. Since the longform launch, have you noticed any interesting behaviours or trends among writers or readers as they interact with the new format?
Our main demographic is 8–15-year-old girls who love to read and write. For them, longform was an overdue format that they immediately favoured over picture books for the reasons you might expect: longer stories, less specific art requirements, serialization (which builds engagement), better access on phones, and, generally, a more “grown up” format. Many now focus almost exclusively on longform.
I say “almost” with reason, though. While they love longform, they still use the picture book format from time to time when they want to express themselves in shorter, often poetic, strokes. We’ve often debated not calling it a “picture book” because it creates a pejorative among the tweens and teens who think of picture books as something for kids. And while they are, sometimes, “something for kids,” they’re also just a container that lets you mix words and pictures in artful ways. In fact, I’d say that only 25% of the time is the format used for something we’d consider a classic picture book.
Naturally, this is what happens when you turn a publishing platform into social software—the use cases fracture into the thousands, from classic storytelling to “creative communications.” And we expect this same multiplicity to apply to longform. Already we see it used for poetry, blogging, and journaling as much as we do storytelling. But then, storytelling is multivariate. Stories are everything.
BTW, longform is still in beta and not yet available in our school footprint (we expect it to be integrated over the summer). With over 300,000 schools using the platform, it’ll be intriguing to see how it’s used within the curriculum.
In other interviews, you have mentioned plans to use reader data to identify up-and-coming writers. What are some data points you’re particularly excited to be tracking?
The most obvious ones are attention signals: how often and quickly a story is read; followed by reposts, hearts, and comments. Eventually, when we enable commercial transactions on stories and artwork, sales velocity will be another data set.
We also have a great initial signal: our Storyspotters. Storyspotters review all stories that are shared in our public library. They’re one part moderator, one part slush pile reviewer—and they have the power to fast-track a story for our editors to feature. So we’re man and machine; algorithms and eyeballs.
Monetization is obviously a big issue in the publishing community, and you’ve found an interesting way to monetize Storybird while keeping the interface free for the average user. Can you tell me a little about that?
We initially built Storybird with two planks in the revenue model: ecommerce (where we sell books and art merch) and subscription (special tools for creators, a curated story collection for readers). But as we grow into tens of millions of users, we’re increasingly of the belief that a marketplace model is the right approach. Which is to say, let the platform participants drive the economics in the same way that they drive the editorial agenda: creators sell their books and poetry, artists sell their art and merch, teachers sell their lesson plans and stories, and affiliates sell any and all of it.
Aside from providing creators with an integrated stack (make, distribute, and commercialize your work), marketplace mechanics are ruthlessly efficient at sorting out platform dynamics, which is important to us as we shape the product vision.
However it’s achieved, the net result will always align with our vision of providing a safe, beautiful community to families that is mostly free; and a rewarding experience for creators/creative teams who have the talent and moxy to create great stories and art for kids, tweens, and teens.
You come from a user experience design background, and Storybird is clearly engineered with user experience in mind. How important do you feel a clean user experience is to your success?
A clean UI and a UX that is as friction-free as possible is always helpful to any software, but it doesn’t matter as much as you might think. What matters primarily is how much power you create for your members. If you look at the great platforms of the last 20 years—Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, etc—they didn’t have clean UIs or frictionless experiences. In fact, some had downright hostile UX. But that was all forgivable because they ultimately gave something transformative to their members, and, in turn, their members put up with the mess. So while all of us at Storybird are life-long Jobsians and prone to use the word “elegant” more often than we should, we try not to be too precious and remember that our value is directly related to the value that our members can create using our tools.
That said, there’s an especially powerful example of design thinking at the core of our business. Originally, my plan was to have members both write and draw their stories and we spent a few months exploring online drawing tools. It was my cofounder Kaye Puhlmann who, in a moment of exasperation with the available tech and the resulting UX, pivoted on the idea of *creating* art to simply *using* art—and our artist marketplace was born. Instead of forcing people who couldn’t draw to use crappy online tools, we instead swarmed around the idea of curating artist images that would inspire and set the tempo for a story. That design decision essentially formed the soul of our company and how we see art as an integral part of the storytelling experience.