When "Leave It To Beaver" premiered on CBS on October 4, 1957, the American audience had only one screen to watch and there were only three channels available on that screen. Advertisers had it pretty easy.
Imagine if that 1957 audience had what today's audience has -- computers, TiVo, iPhones, Xbox, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, and about 100 digital channels of TV programming, many of them advertising-free. CBS and the Cleavers would have had a hard time finding their audience. Advertisers would have been struggling to figure out where best to put their messages to reach that audience -- much like they are today.
It's no secret that consumers are now migrating away from traditional advertising platforms to new digital social networks and ad-free, watch-it-when-I-want delivery systems; technology is quickly changing the way the game is played. In this digital revolution, advertising agencies that have been lingering in the comfort zone of the traditional advertising model are going to be left behind.
To complicate matters further, the recent economic downturn will speed up this migration as marketers become acutely more budget conscious and ROI focused. Movement from the old to the new model is difficult for agencies that have consistently profited from charging a mark-up on producing and placing 30-second spots.
Surely the buggy-whip makers were not embracing the advent of the automobile; traditional agencies have every reason to fight change if they can continue to make money the old way and aren't quite sure what to do with the new way. But if advertisers want to keep their audiences (and if agencies want to keep their clients), they better come up with something and fast.
Hence the scramble to crack the code on what agencies must do to engage digital-faring brands. Most have realized that reliance on unwanted interruption of the consumer's media experience with a brand message is not long for this industry: There are too many alternatives, too many media and too many ways for consumers to avoid it. Consequently, brands and agencies need to develop their messaging in ways that actually attract the consumer -- and ideally call for repeat performances.
The simplest way to gather an audience -- dating back to ancient times -- is good storytelling. And when the story is popular, make it longer and add to it. To clarify: "Good storytelling" is a story that makes people sit up and listen. It is worthy of their attention, worth remembering and retelling. It can be as short as a joke or as long as Homer's "Odyssey," but the storyteller must engage and captivate an audience. It must be entertaining. You can spot a good storyteller in any crowded room. He or she is the person surrounded by a group of captivated listeners.
While Madison Avenue has been able to spin a few good 30-second yarns in the last 60 years, consumers have turned to Hollywood when they want to be entertained. With a greater focus on story and content, brands should even be able to connect with the consumer unlike ever before. Content that attracts -- and does not interrupt -- consumers establishes a far more positive relationship.
Because consumers can shut out advertising and choose what they want to watch, the quality of branded content is crucial. The best content can flow from one medium to another seamlessly, captivating the audience through the emotional attraction of the story and not the technology distributing it. This, if exploited, develops the brand-consumer relationship far more than the TV model ever could.
Once you have entertained your audience -- with comedy, with drama, with story -- you have made a connection, and the better the comedy, the drama, or the story, the stronger that connection becomes. It is no longer sufficient to deliver a message -- audiences don't care about the advertiser's message. They want to be entertained, so a smart advertiser must now embed the "message" within entertaining content.
Remember, however, that even the great television networks and movie studios had as many flops as they did hits -- even Seinfeld only became popular through promotion and network tenacity keeping it alive the first year.
Making quality content requires risk taking and investment, because good storytelling is like lightning in a bottle. It's not easy to find, duplicate, or mass produce. Studios, networks, and publishers pay a lot for good storytelling and they minimize their risk by aggregating -- that is, paying high salaries to a large number of good storytellers in the hopes that one or more of these stories will hit it big with the audience. And even with all that quantity and quality, they often make mistakes -- big, expensive mistakes.
So advertisers who want a story to connect with their audience cannot reasonably expect to do that by hiring a single storyteller and expecting viral results with the first story. The upside is today's technology provides ever increasing analytic feedback: more precise feedback earlier in development can quickly determine which campaigns will resonate and which should be killed.
During this year's 2009 NBA Playoffs, a series of shorts emerged on broadcast networks and the internet parodying the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Lebron James, who were projected to go head to head in the finals. Each weekly "episode" satirized a different feud between the two basketball stars, played by puppets. The rabid NBA, Lakers, and Cavaliers fans understood this and found the serial strikingly entertaining -- Kobe and Lebron fans alike were able to laugh and enjoy the poke-fun-at-Kobe antics while the same applied for the Lebron jokes.
Furthermore, the nature of the content reached non-NBA fans as well, meaning that the viewer didn't have to be an NBA or team-specific fanatic to get the jokes and enjoy the content. Rather than TiVo through the episodes, viewers would stop to engage and be entertained by the well-written, well-produced content. Subtleties of Nike branding were discreetly strewn throughout each episode, whether it be the Nike logo on a t-shirt or a simple Nikebasketball.com link at the end.
This campaign, created by Wieden + Kennedy, brilliantly produced high quality content that resonated with the audience while promoting engagement and return viewership. This gave the client, Nike Basketball, a good reason to continue episode development through the end of the season.
Such is the power of a good branded entertainment property. If brands and advertisers want to survive in this evolutionary climate, they are going to have to embrace quality content creation and good storytelling techniques. Wieden + Kennedy is an agency that is paying attention to the current climate and adapting accordingly.
To summarize, if you are a brand or an agency looking to evolve with the times and create storyline-rich content that resonates with an audience, I'd suggest the following tips when producing content:
- Consider technology. The influx of new media platforms is dramatically affecting who is and, more importantly, who is not watching your content. Because of social networks, mobile phones, TiVo, etc., consumer viewing patterns are drastically changing. This is obvious, but so easily forgotten by a brand manager or account director trying to "check the box".
- Promote quality storytelling. Anyone can write a story, but not everyone can write a good story. Make sure your writers know what they're doing. In the 20th century, good writers went to Madison Avenue, but great writers went to Hollywood; the market pays for quality. Start producing assets that consumers will want to consume and interlace brands that make sense from there. Again, the above Nike case study demonstrates an example of good story interwoven with a brand message; better yet, as we learned from the Nike case study, brands, themselves, should create storyline-rich, entertaining content that speaks to their specific demographic.
- Take risks. Don't expect every branded content campaign to be a break away viral hit. How many stinkers does Universal produce to get one break-out hit? Why do film studios spend tens of millions of dollars in promoting each film? Invest in numerous campaigns, see which work, and then promote the hell out of those with further development and media support.
- Avoid banner ads. Like filming a billboard and broadcasting it on TV. Banner ads are not a viable option in today's market because they do not promote interactivity nor engagement -- so don't use them. Now is the time to streamline advertising efforts to maximize ROI. Think of banner ads as the equivalent of radio static. Advertisers continue to throw money into this abyss, but my advice is to avoid banner ads, and re-allocate the saved ad dollars towards developing engaging and interactive content that will resonate with the audience.
- Track and maximize engagement. Focus on building and developing a rabid fanbase centered on good content, rather than on "good advertising." Good content can become the "good advertising," but that equation is rarely reciprocal. Note for the CFO: Whoever finances content development and subsequently owns the IP -- client or agency -- opens up the business model for a whole other discussion.
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