Last night, at a monthly New York Tech Meet-up, Linda Holliday, founder and CEO of Citia, a kind of Cliff’s Notes publisher for “high-velocity reading,” took the stage to talk about storytelling. This might appear an odd topic for the purveyor of a service for the ADD crowd that promises to “shorten and spotlight an author’s big ideas” by reorganizing books on to “virtual index cards,” with the idea to make reading “faster,” “easier,” and “more efficient.”
Before 900 tech enthusiasts, Holliday unveiled the Leap Motion Controller, which let her use hand gestures to guide her through the on screen entertainment. And who was the entertainer providing this entertainment? Why, somewhat past-his-prime rapper cum business mogul Snoop Dogg, who, Holliday claims, was looking for a way to not only engage with fans but also “monetize his brand.”
The genius of Citia is that it gets how our own web experiences have been changing our view of story. If you look at your own story, when you get down to it you are all bits and descriptive fragments that are spread across the Web and over Facebook and Twitter. There are times in the public sphere that who you are – or, more precisely, how others view you – comes down to a “like” you clicked on Facebook or a “retweet” of a friend’s gross joke on Twitter. Perhaps you left a comment on an article or somehow you’re tagged in a friend’s photo so the world will now knows you wore a morosely ratty sweater in college. There’s your incomplete LinkedIn profile, a blog post from 2011, your abandoned Pinterest page – all of these pieces say something about you. Put web and social fragments together and you have a person’s partial life story.
Let’s get back to Snoop Dogg. If you wanted to know more about him, where would you start? You might Google his name, then head to his Wikipedia entry. Head over to Youtube to watch him perform at the 1994 MTV Video Awards then maybe stream some of his music over Spotify. Check out what he tweeted yesterday, scour pictures on his Facebook page, mosey on over to Pinterest, where Snoop offers categories like “my ish” (products with his name of them), “Fliccs” (appears to be profile photos) and “shit I like” (no explanation necessary). If you hunger for even more Snoop you could go old school and read a bunch of articles.
Being a celebrity/brand requires managing multiple platforms, and so does being a fan. It means accepting new forms of storytelling where the reader chooses his own path through a story. Brands (like Beyonce and Procter & Gamble) have to let go. The information is out there. The best strategy is to put it all together so that it offers the brand’s most positive reflection.
This is how Citia works: Through its app it offers a template that resembles a 3D flashcard on which content creators put text, photos, videos, voiceovers, and what have you. It kind of sounds like DVD extras – material not good enough to make it in the original package. Where some see detritus Snoop Dogg sees revenue. You want to join Snoop’s clubhouse of friends? That will cost you. He’ll throw in behind-the-scenes pictures of his tour on one virtual card, a video interview on another, and get you a sampling of his latest song. Also, in a pull advertising strategy, users have the option to flip over the card to purchase the latest product Snoop Dogg is hawking. If people want to skip the ads, they just keep on trucking through the cards. Besides having access to this content, users also have the capability of sharing it across social media channels.
As Holliday stood onstage, she used motion control hardware from Leap Motion to flick, flip, and stack Snoop’s soon-to-be launched app (its official release is during SXSW).
As with the other presenters like How About We and Shelby.tv, people sat in silent as she provided her best impression of Tom Cruise in Minority Report, her hands grabbing at the screen, twirling around the various features, maximizing the text, pushing the button to play the video. Once the demo was complete, the crowd let out loud claps, people whispered next to each other, and Holliday moved up to the event upstairs where people praised her innovation.
Last night’s unveiling was a big shift from what Citia originally set out to do, which was help people ingest books faster. She developed the original concept after being unable to find the time to finish a great non-fiction read — she didn’t have 10 hours to devote. She figured she wasn’t alone and devised a plan for “deconstructing and reconstructing” books. So, instead of 500 pages of dense reading, the main concepts were organized into a stack of virtual cards, allowing people to have control of what they read and how they read it — simply called non-linear format. The 10 hours of reading turned into one.
Citia’s success is by no means assured. “The challenge is they are really creating a new thing and this is a little cumbersome for the licensing operations for publishers,” Mike Shatzkin, a book publishing consultant who once counted Citia a client. And if fans can access troves of material online already, can Citia’s celebrities count on being able to entice them to pay something for access to more?
Holliday hopes so. She has been bootstrapping the business with the proceeds from the sale of her previous company, MBS (now Digitas Health inside Publicis), “moving money from one nest egg to another,” and plans to look for outside financing.
Besides providing one-offs for bigger companies, she is hoping to one day create a template anyone can use — be it a blogger or a huge international company.
At least, that’s Citia’s story so far. It could change, though.