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Melt Digital
December 9, 2014

What is digital storytelling and does your brand need to tell stories?

Alexander Knights for Melt Digital, 9th December 2014

Everyone’s talking about the value of digital storytelling in content marketing.

This will invariably be evoked with the prehistoric origins of story, or scientific analyses of the brain’s receptivity to stories, and generally spoken of with an aura of mystique or magic. Or, more prosaically, brand storytelling may be defined as the process of a business communicating a narrative.

And often we get larger-than-life character-led campaigns with sociopathic jingle singers, I’m-mad-me raconteurs and super-cute talking animals (or a combination of all three, with a dash of irony). They may be (annoyingly) memorable first time round, but when this initial success leads to further chapters in their story it is surely met with rising irritation or diminishing interest from the world at large.

You can spend a lot of time and money on creating a character that sticks in the head, but is their story really a reflection of your brand’s proposition? Nevertheless, without a memorable character you might as well swap ‘story-telling’ for ‘message-telling’ and you’ll be a lot more focussed about your brand-building strategy.

And yet, as a story writer in the more traditional sense of writing fiction, I’m very aware that a story can bring narrative and character together with an appropriate style to evoke emotion and empathy in an audience.

Find a good character, tell a memorable story, make it feel personal, and you have the power to connect with people and make them care.

Do you need to tell a story?

When you’re working on a content creation strategy, ask yourself: does the primary message that I want my customer to remember lend itself to being told through a story?

In a recent brand storytelling survey, Apple was voted number one, which is not surprising given that Apple is one of the world’s mightiest brands, but is maybe surprising in the context of the brand as storyteller. Apple is the master of design with an ethic perfectly embodied in crisp advertising and a clear message. If you look at the content around the new iPhone 6 campaign, it’s all comparative specifications: ‘bigger’, ‘better’, ‘larger’ – this aspirational design message doesn’t need be told through story.

Each piece of content that you create should have a purpose that’s aligned with your audience and your primary message, and as much as you may wish to entertain or even provoke your audience, consider whether they may be better served by content that gives them access to the facts and specifications around your sales proposition, or instructs them how to use your service, or informs them about their areas of interest. These types of content can all clearly convey your message, persuade your audience of your brand’s edge and raise your visibility to convert your customers’ passions, needs and interests into leads and sales.

What kind of stories can you tell?

With a high budget you can afford to be clever about creating shareable story content. For example, mobile phone network EE recast a handful of the most viral internet memes in as short cinematic films, in sync with the message that films on your phone can be ‘more epic’ with a fast network connection. Meanwhile, Samsung have produced a ‘Companion Stories’ set of films, most notably telling the tale of guitar-playing Grandma Mary who was helped by her grandchildren to upload her story to the world.

But if you’re on a budget…

Consider what your company does to create the product or service that you offer. Are there members of your team who carry out processes, have technical know how or conduct research? Could their story – how they get, or got, from a challenge, through adversity, to a resolution – be described in a way that personalises the passion and vision behind the brand? It doesn’t just have to be the story of the founder of the brand – your team could be your greatest advocates. You have the material and the characters right there in your company, so why not engage your customers by creating a blog, or a set of articles, that tells the stories behind the scenes?

What kind of stories can your audience tell?

Apart from your team (hopefully), the people who are most passionate about your brand are your audience.

A well-devised audience-targeted hashtag campaign across social platforms like Twitter, Vine and Instagram can get users to share why they are proud to own your product or what experiences they have had using your service. The recent #mininotnormal campaign capitalised on the ‘big personality’ of Minis and the loyalty of their owners. These fans were encouraged to celebrate their ‘not normal’ status as Mini owners and were challenged to share inventive photo tributes their cars. The most characterful interpretations were then shared via digital advertising in the later stages of the campaign.

Charities are often particularly good at finding the real life stories, using social channels to gather stories around a particular event that means a lot to their audience. For example, Macmillan Cancer Support’s campaign inspired people to tweet three words about their dad with the hashtag #thatsmydad on Father’s Day.

These examples may not be narratives in themselves, but they are good techniques for finding brand advocates with large personalities and deeper stories. Jack Daniels has taken a further step, creating a ‘Bar Stories’ microsite with audio and video clips of its audience’s best drinking tales. It’s a well-executed soft sell of the brand as a companion to friends enjoying nights out at the bar, and it works as a platform for a targeted audience to share memorable stories.

It takes time and a creative approach to find stories from your audience that will resonate with your brand – to create, or facilitate the creation, of content that allows your audience to share memories and passions. Central to this approach must be the question of how will you use these social platforms to generate leads and conversions.

A story has a life of its own

As a story writer, I know that it’s easy to get carried away with narratives and characters: they begin to have a life of their own and they may start going in unintended directions.

Equally, in a brand context, is your primary message at the heart of your stories? Are the stories consistent with all of the other content you’re creating? Are they appropriate for what your audience is searching for? Have you set benchmarks to measure engagement and conversion so that you can calculate the return on the work that’s been put into them?

And, after all, maybe there is an element of the mystical and the magical, because as much as your stories should meet your audience’s needs, values and behaviours, a story well told should also surprise and delight.

Alex is a digital editor, blogger and short story writer who you can follow at @knightswrites

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