Every night, in children's rooms around the world, the words "tell me a story" precede tales that amuse, educate, and engage. The art of storytelling has transcended time, culture, even medium, taking the form of carvings, paintings, the written word, television, and film.
It is also beginning to live on the web. Consider the "digital fiction" that's being produced by book publishers like Penguin Books in the U.K. Its most current feature is told entirely through Google Maps. New applications, tools, and technology are allowing authors to tell vivid tales for consumers on the web.
As marketers, we can do the same.
Our job can be bewildering, though. As we focus on the minutia of web and banner ad development, it's easy to get caught up in the execution of our projects and forget there's something behind all of that: the story of the brand. Think of a website or online ad campaign as a book. If you were writing that book, you wouldn't jump directly to the ending (or in marketing terms, your ultimate objective). You would progress through the chapters one by one and dutifully craft a procedure for how to take the reader there.
In storytelling for interactive marketing and advertising, it's not about the destination. It's about the journey.
Storytelling in cross-media campaigns
Sometimes, that story is a journey in the true sense of the word. Think about the Banana Republic holiday ad campaign that ran a few years back. Consumers were invited to watch fictitious stories like "Lost Mitten" (which incorporated the brand's winter apparel) unfold through print ads. The ads acted as teasers for a microsite at holidaystory.com, where consumers could go to find out how the narratives played out.
This year, the brand launched a new series of stories to promote its spring line. Through its new "City Stories" campaign and related microsite, it delivers audio and video clips of up-and-coming musicians, and tells the true accounts of how each artist -- clad in Banana Republic clothing -- is inspired by the city in which he or she lives.
The stories told by the American Egg Board's new campaign are also true, and highlight the health benefits of its product as almost a secondary mission. The cross-media campaign and new section on brand site incredibleegg.org tell incredible stories of people like Luke Myers, world record holder for sport stacking, and Luci Romberg, a gymnast, free runner, and stunt woman. The site also invites consumers to tell their own stories of incredible physical and mental skill, and participate in skill-testing online games.
Message in a website
Not all marketing stories are so literal. Much can be inferred about the essence of a brand and how it relates to its customers simply through web design. Even the smallest element, such as a phone number field on a form page, tells consumers something about your company. Allowing the user to input numbers however they'd like and taking care of the formatting for them, for example, sends a subtle message: "We'll make this easy for you -- just like we make it easy for you to get what you need from us."
Similarly, omitting useful information like a contact phone number from your site also relays a message. This time, it's a story of indolence and lack of consideration that potential customers can't help but presume extends to your customer service efforts and products.
A tale of targeting and advertorials
From an advertising perspective, one way in which stories can be told is through ad placement and targeting techniques. The automotive industry, with its cut-and-dry purchase cycle, is one place where this approach is commonly used. On an automotive research site, for example, an opportunity exists to walk users through a sales-oriented narrative.
Upon visiting the site's home page, a consumer may first be delivered a general brand awareness message. This banner effectively tells the consumer what to buy: a specific make and model of car.
Digging deeper, users land in the research section, where the auto brand's banners are now regionally targeted, based on zip code or IP address. At this stage, ads typically also offer a region-specific promotion, such as a limited time discount or incentive. This chapter in the story effectively tells the consumer when to buy.
As the site user begins to peruse local inventory, banner placements no longer promote the automotive brand, but rather the individual dealerships that sell its products. This tells the consumer where to buy, and launches the final chapter of the story: making a purchase offline.
Beyond banner ads, placements that offer the ability to tell a brand story in more depth can be another effective way to connect with potential customers. One recent survey -- conducted by Opinion Research Corporation and sponsored by content developer and ad network Adfusion -- found that internet users are more likely to notice and react to article-based ads that relay information about a brand than e-mail, paid search, banner, and pop-up ads, which are so often product- or offer-specific.
Indeed, incorporating your brand into a lifestyle article that showcases its benefits combines the appeal of offline storytelling with the reach and measurability of the web. The fact that more site publishers are now willing to blur the lines between editorial content and advertising makes advertorial-style placements an opportunity for marketers across demographic targets and verticals.
The social story and importance of choice
The growing popularity of social media makes storytelling online both more exciting and more challenging. Like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that have children selecting a story's outcome from multiple possible endings, establishing a presence on social sites like Facebook and Twitter invites consumers to contribute to how your brand is presented and perceived.
The ending isn't always a happy one. We all know what happened when Mars-owned candy brand Skittles invited consumers to contribute to its site content with the help of established social media services like Twitter. The day after the site launched, the Twitter feed was pulled from the home page due to an inordinate amount of unrelated -- and even profane -- tweets.
This and countless other examples demonstrate the dangers of giving consumers too much control over your brand story. By all means, encourage consumers to participate through social media, but guide them through the process. Those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books don't require their readers to establish the plot, but they do encourage readers to contribute to it.
The same rule applies with social media. For brands, it's often best used to elicit answers to specific questions, as opposed to enabling -- as Skittles did -- a general discussion. Frame brand discussions that play out in the social media space with a defined context by offering consumers choices: the opportunity to name a new flavor, for instance, or to rate their favorite flavor. The latter is the chosen approach of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, which connects consumers with its brand through the "Our Flavors" page of its website and its clever "Flavors Connection" tool. The tool allows consumers to become fans of their favorite flavors and write comments about them, then publish the information to their Facebook profiles.
What's the moral of the story? Take advantage of web technology and social media to tell yours, but don't do so at the expense of your brand. It takes great skill to tell a story well. Internet media can help you reach your happy ending.