Daniella Cross
Daniella Cross 20 February 2013

The time for stories and how to tell them online

If you can get past the horsemeat headlines, you would have seen that the movie awards season is in full flow. While global pop culture pauses to congratulate itself on its storytelling skills, Carla Faria, solutions director at Say Media UK shares the secrets behind a good story, and how brands can tell tales to their advantage.

Since the 1920s when silent film actors found a voice, 90 minutes in the dark in front of the silver screen was perhaps the ultimate experience in immersive storytelling. TV might have been the dominant media channel of the 20th century, but cinema could offer something lacking in other media: cinema demanded exclusivity of attention. While you’re watching a movie you’re not doing anything else – or at least you shouldn’t be!

Film studios and brand marketers were quick to realise this, and it wasn’t long before brands and films formed a (mostly) healthy relationship. Everything from product placement to full-blown branded content projects found their way to the big screen.

Today, just like all other media, cinema has to compete for attention. The home-view market makes up a significant and growing proportion of film revenue, so just like print, TV, radio, outdoor, in-store, direct mail and all the rest, film is competing for our attention. And when it comes to commanding attention, telling a good story has never been more important.

But when it comes to advertising, we’re conditioned to ignore and avoid brand messages.
We fast-forward over commercials, ignore billboards and pay for commercial-free radio and film-brand tie-ins become a series of promotions at fast food restaurants. The only way to reach audiences is to create media that’s entertaining, informing and engaging.

The truth is that audiences won’t spare 30 seconds to be interrupted, but they always have 30 minutes to hear a great story.

Storytelling is an art. Actually, strike that, it’s part art and part science – which doesn’t make it easy for brands trying understand storytelling techniques. Content is important, there’s no doubt about that, but the idea that content and the channel through which it is shared are two different entities is misleading. Think of a comedian telling a funny story. The audience derives as much humour from the material as they do from the way it is delivered. If you were to read a transcript of a comedian’s performance, you would still spot the gags, but they wouldn’t pack the same punch. Like the late, great Tommy Cooper once said, “It’s the way I tell ’em.”

So what does this mean for today’s brands? Well once we accept the idea that all brands have a story to tell, which by definition makes them storytellers, they can build this idea into their marketing campaigns and use the giddy array of media at their disposal to tell different parts of a single campaign story.

Stories are the emotional glue that connects your audience to your brand, some brand stories come from a rich heritage, or compelling production background. What McLuhan teaches us is that any story can be made engaging, if we find the right way to tell it. When stories are well told, they can create contagious enthusiasm. For a brand like Red Bull, the story that embodies the brand is what drives all their marketing executions, including events, sponsorships, contests, games, apps and branded communities.

Of course, our favourite stories are our own. Many brands now let their fans become part of the brand stories, featuring them in their marketing. It’s no wonder that more and more brands are pulling back on their paid budgets and investing in owned and earned media, creating content that helps convey their own brand story, content so good that it compels audiences to engage and share.

Job titles and entire departments have been renamed to reflect its importance in today’s marketing mix. The bumper sticker phrase “content is king” makes for a good soundbite for conferences and blog posts, but it does a massive disservice to the role content has always played in effective brand communications. How marketers choose to put their story in front of their audience is down to how campaign results have been measured traditionally and this is something that urgently needs to change.

Stories need to have context. The ideal content experience allows a brand proposition to reveal itself through the actions of the viewer. Uncluttered online environments are proven to deliver better engagement results. There’s still an old fashioned idea that online ad units are small – but expandable units like AdFrames have proven that this is no longer the case, even on mobile screens.

Storytelling is part art, part science. This doesn’t make it easy for brand marketers trying to get a handle on storytelling techniques. Content is important, but instead of being revered and admired, it should instead be put to work, and hard. Audiences might not have 30 seconds to be interrupted, but they always have 30 minutes to hear a great story. The attention span of every viewer has a breaking point, and advertisers get no reward for trying to challenge this threshold.


Carla Faria is Solutions Director at Say Media UK. (@SayMediaUK)

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