5 ways to inject storytelling into your campaign

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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.

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Eli E. Cohen
Eli E. Cohen August 13, 2009 at 9:13 AM

Corey, I basically agree with everything you've written except the total nixing of banner ads. It is true that they are not engaging, overlooked (a politer form of ignored) BUT they are picked up by the reader, even if subconsciously. If brand name awareness is needed, (and in today's uber-info age it surely is), banner ads, much like billboards are an important part of the media mix.