A tale in everything -- William Wordsworth
Stories have been around since humans began to walk the earth. From cave paintings of a thrilling hunt to Homer's immortal "Odyssey" to today's Harry Potter sensation, stories have shaped who we are, what we know and what we do. Indeed, stories engage us. Want to engage customers? The art of narrative offers time-tested lessons you can apply in new, interactive ways.
As far as official definitions go, the Advertising Research Foundation has developed a working definition of engagement:
Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.
In her iMedia Connection article "Cracking the Engagement Code," Mollie Spillman interprets this definition as an "indicator of the propensity of a brand message to resonate and connect with a prospect and ultimately drive some kind of meaningful action."
What better way to create context and resonate with customers than to tell a story? A story brings a message to life in a compelling way by giving context, adding dramatic action and more. It's the difference between saying that your brand's wireless service is more reliable and presenting the story of a customer whose work or personal life depends on your brand's reliable wireless service.
How stories engage -- and persuade
Let me explain further. I see five key ways in which stories can engage -- and thereby influence -- customers.
1: Giving context, showing relevance
Story elements include characters (who is in the story), setting (where the story happens), plot (what happens) and more. These elements create a clear context that makes a brand message relevant to customers.
For example, Cingular Wireless illustrated its message of "fewer dropped calls" with a series of humorous stories showing the impact of dropped calls in everyday life. In one story, a happy couple is casually talking on the phone when the guy comments how glad he is to be "the only man" in his girlfriend's world. As his girlfriend replies, the call suddenly drops -- as does the commercial audio -- so the guy hears only silence. We watch the guy panic. We also think about all the inconvenient times our own wireless calls have dropped, and the message resonates. In fact, people found the message so relevant they created their own versions and posted them on YouTube.
2: Adding dramatic action
Another benefit of using story elements is dramatic action. Remember that plot structure you learned in English class? Well, it works. Whether or not you can identify the five elements of plot structure (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) you know when you experience it.
One famous example is Apple's 1984 commercial to launch Macintosh. Tapping into the literary classic "1984," the ad's exposition showed a huge TV image of Big Brother brainwashing people -- alluding to IBM and Microsoft dominance. The rising action shows the Thought Police chasing an unnamed heroine (representing the Macintosh) through the dark Orwellian world. The climax? The heroine throws a sledgehammer at the image of Big Brother, destroying its control with a flash of light. The falling action shows the astonished people washed in light, and the resolution is this on-screen message:
"On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"
Although the commercial aired only twice, its drama prompted much media attention and gave the message far-reaching impact.
3: Following natural memory patterns
So let's throw a little science into the mix. Stories quite simply are the way we remember things. Which do you remember more easily: statistics about an Olympic athlete or the story of how an Olympic athlete overcame obstacles to live his or her dream of competing in the Olympic games?
Our minds use stored narratives of past events whenever we plan and predict future events. IBM Research has devoted a project to Knowledge Socialization that explores narrative and intelligence. The project references several cognitive psychologists who identify strong connections between storytelling and memory, such as Robert Schank in his book "Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence."
So if you want customers to remember your brand message for the long haul, turn it into a story.
4: Appealing to emotions and intellect
A story appeals to our emotional and rational sides at the same time and therefore boosts a message's persuasive impact. Stories give context to and impart feeling to facts. It's the difference between memorizing facts about the invasion of Normandy and experiencing it in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
A simple branding example is the MiniUSA website, which weaves the story of the Mini's history -- a tale of addressing post-World War II gasoline dilemmas through innovation and becoming a cultural phenomenon -- into its description of specifications and features.
5: Making the abstract tangible
In an age where brand differentiators may seem more abstract than ever, stories can help illustrate concepts in concrete ways. For instance, when AT&T acquired Cingular Wireless (the second merger), AT&T launched a campaign to promote concepts such as the largest network. Under the theme "more bars in more places," one of the commercials illustrated larger network coverage by showing a montage of different types of customers in remote places using their cell phones. The concept of a large network could be vague, but the commercial makes it tangible.
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