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Why stories matter, and technology doesn't

Why stories matter, and technology doesn't Andy Robbins

As the third installment in the Twilight Saga, "Eclipse," continues to build buzz and is primed to dominate the box office with its June 30 premiere, I'd like to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of digital marketing in the current media landscape.

"Eclipse" has activated a vast network of promotional touch points, brand partners, and digital tools to make the film's opening a success. But what will make the "Eclipse" marketing campaign successful is marketers' emphasis on telling the beloved characters' story. Their adept use of the latest technology to market the film online is also important, but without the story, that technology would be useless.

Consumer behavior is contingent upon being able to spark the interest of an increasingly jaded audience in a brief interaction -- whether that is a 30-second trailer, a 10-second promo, a banner alongside someone's Facebook news feed, or a YouTube video you hope will someday go viral. It's easy to throw the word "viral" into a web strategy, sit back, and think the job is done, but utilizing a laundry list of buzz words does not an effective campaign make. Before you start talking "mobile social this" or "viral app that," you need to figure out what your story is.

Recent campaigns by Microsoft Xbox for Project Natal or Old Spice ("Look at me. Now look at your man. Now back to me.") demonstrate this perfectly. At the core of those campaigns is an amazing story, beautifully executed. These campaigns cut through the clutter, not because a viewer can like it, but because they want to. Give the people something that moves them and from there, viral takes care of itself.

Conversely, just because a technology or digital experience exists doesn't mean that it is right for all properties. Having a Facebook page or a mobile app won't automatically make a brand interesting. It is important to first develop a compelling story and then identify the platforms that can enhance that story. But many times brands approach it from the opposite position. How many times have you heard someone say, "We need a Facebook strategy?" or, "We need a mobile app," and then fuss over which round pegs might fit the identified square hole?

Consider the short-lived hype of Chatroulette. Sure, the voyeuristic video site gave some nice PR buzz to the first couple of brands to use it as a marketing tool -- such as Travelocity and French Connection -- but its 15 minutes ran out pretty quickly, without doing much to help convince consumers of Travelocity's value or French Connection's fashion sense. All the technology in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans without the right narrative resonating at an emotional level.

Another example: Second Life. For a moment there, if you weren't in Second Life, you didn't have a digital strategy. Brands rushed to get in, and spent truckloads on their Second Lives only to find out that no one really cared. Why? Well, brands forgot that just because you build something doesn't mean anyone will come. They forgot to tell people why they should really care. They didn't realize that it's the story they are telling that people relate to -- not the technology -- and some stories aren't necessarily meant for virtual worlds.

Yet, it is important to experiment with the new offerings in the advertiser's toolbox, whether that is the latest location-based social media or a paid search campaign on Twitter. It is even more important, however, to make sure that all of these activities help tell a story and contribute to a brand's business goals.

Certainly, the marketing tools at our disposal in the digital age allow for creative interaction with potential viewers. My company developed an interactive site, VampireRecruiter, for the Canadian distribution of the blockbuster "Daybreakers." The strategy was to connect with people in a way that was personal, memorable, and thrilling. That led to the development of a customizable experience that stems from the heart and soul of the movie plot -- people "turning vampire." The site enlists fans to recruit their friends to the vampires' dark side with a personalized video message, customized down to what kind of car you drive and the neighborhood in which you live. Not only is the site a fun way for friends to prank each other, but it also shares clips of the film and helps tell the story of the appeal of the vampire way of life.

A compelling story has always been the foundation on which good advertising campaigns are based. Why? Because stories are what our culture is based on. The use of ubiquitous new social media verbs like tweeting, liking, YouTube-ing, and checking in doesn't change that. Technology is a shell, a vehicle, a container. A story is the heart and soul. I don't think that will change until our children approach us and say: "Daddy, tell me a technology."

Andy Robbins is COO and EVP, interactive, at bpg Advertising
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As head of the Interactive group for bpg advertising, a full service creative advertising agency, Andy has spearheaded successful campaigns for some of the leading brands in television and film including USA, History, Showtime, Sony and Disney to...

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