Question: How long can branded stories last in a digital arena?
Answer: As long as you're willing to continue the conversation.

It has recently been argued by several industry sages that in the digital world, storytelling in advertising was not doing a very good job. I have to disagree. The stories are just being told in a different way than they were in the past.

Storytelling in advertising used to be a one-way street: creatives would dream up a 30-second story, put it on TV and cross their fingers that consumers found it funny or appealing. The best case was when people would stand around the water cooler the next morning. Then, if the first spot was somewhat successful, the agency would get a chance to fire another salvo. It was a continuous monologue that treated consumers as targets for a message, not as collaborators or co-conspirators.

Today, we look at any "first contact" with a consumer as the opening line of a conversation that will hopefully be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This is especially true in digital marketing, where the water cooler is built into the system, so to speak. Any activity worth mentioning has some kind of interactivity and dialogue built into it. Think about it this way: Storytelling used to be a closed loop. As Aristotle said: "A story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end." Social storytelling flies in the face of that. It is open-ended. The objective i to tell a story in a way that leaves room for the consumers to fill in the blanks, to add their own tendrils to the main storyline.

The simplest examples of this type of consumer participation are the comments on YouTube. Some of them might be in LOL-speak and fairly indecipherable, but if you take time to read and follow you'll not only learn a lot about the brand you are marketing, but about how consumers perceive your marketing efforts. This feedback loop can sometimes lead to brilliant ideas for your next campaign, too.

A great case in point is the recent EA spot for their Tiger Woods golf game. Someone had uploaded a video of Tiger walking on water inside the game, presenting it as an embarrassing glitch. EA and its agency (Wieden + Kennedy) looked at this video and decided to enter the conversation. They shot a live-action spot of Tiger actually walking on water and stated that it wasn't a glitch in the game, Tiger is just that good. Then they uploaded it as a response to the original video on YouTube. This is the kind of social interaction that earns you tons of respect in the digital world. That the video went viral to the tune of several million views and also made everyone aware there was a new version of EA's Tiger Woods golf game was almost a side effect.

Part of the mandate for any brand marketer should be that the effort is a catalyst for social dialogue. As an example, AKQA created a mobile application for Nike—Nike PhotoiD. It works like this: You take a photo with your phone and send it to a designated number. Nike then extracts the two dominant colors from the scene to create a pair of classic 1985 Dunk hi-top basketball sneakers in those colors, send a picture of the shoes back to you, and gives you the option to purchase them. That's the beginning of the conversation between the consumer and Nike. But the bigger idea, from the social storytelling perspective, is to use this branded utility as an ongoing conversation starter. Once your kicks arrive, someone comments on them and the discussion gains momentum. Not only will you talk about the place you were when you took the picture that led to these sneakers, you'll also talk about how the colors got onto your shoes and how they were created by sending a photo from your phone. Nine times out of 10 that will lead to the other person trying it out themselves, leading to the next conversation. Summing up, here are six checkpoints that'll help get you started mastering the art of social storytelling and invite consumers into the conversation:

1. Look at any marketing effort as the beginning of a conversation.

2. Closely monitor the conversation and be ready to respond to consumers.

3. Provide consumers with tools that help them carry on the conversation for you.

4. Leave room for consumers to interact. Make sure your creative universe is big enough that there are unexplored areas.

5. The conversation is over when the consumers say it is, not when the media plan (or the budget) says it is.

6. Listen and learn from the feedback loop.

Larson note: Stories can be told online in all which ways. IM, blog, twitter, any form of social networking if they converse they could be conversing about you. Tell a story and float it out there, you might just be surprised. You or your company could be the subject of conversation.

Howard Larson
Larson & Associates
Telesales & Target Marketing Professionals for new account acquisition
Making good businesses great and great businesses even better

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