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Become an interactive storyteller

Colleen Jones
Become an interactive storyteller Colleen Jones

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.

Defining engagement
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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Stories that brands tell
A story has the potential for great influence on customers. But what is the right story for a brand to tell? While the exact story will depend on the brand's attributes, the message, and the targeted customers, I've identified two common types of brand stories:

Customer success or satisfaction
Customer stories provide context and relevance by showing specifically how your brand's product or service makes customers' lives better. These stories can be simply dramatizations, like Cingular's dropped call ads, or real customers' testimonials, like Apple's more recent iPhone commercials. The latest series of iPhone commercials showcases real users explaining a situation in which the iPhone saved the day. In one example, a pilot recalls how he looked up the weather on the iPhone to help his flight avoid a three-hour delay.


Brand history
Brands that have been around a while or that have an interesting past benefit from sharing their history. Sharing brand history enables a company to share rational facts in an emotional context of nostalgia or credibility. For instance, 3M, a company focused on innovation, tells many stories of its inventions through its brand history on its website. Another example is Hershey's. The website shares the company's history and the founder's history. Additionally, the headquarter attractions in Hershey, PA feature a museum of those histories.


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Interactive narrative: storytelling at the next level
Once a brand knows what story to tell, the next challenge is deciding how to tell it. Certainly, traditional print and TV ads will always be in the mix. But with the growth of interactive, we have more ways to tell stories than ever, such as web microsites, photos, videos and more. We also have more places to tell stories: brand websites, social networking sites, mobile and virtual worlds. Picking the right format and location, of course, depends on a keen understanding of the brand's target customers.

The power of interactive also has the potential to change storytelling as we know it. A brand may not always tell the story but may help customers tell their own stories or create story experiences. What do I mean? Think about the interactive potential as a scale that ranges from observing to participating in to immersing in the story.

Observing the story
Customers watching or "being told" the story is what most of us expect. In the interactive world, we can tell the story through a variety of formats. For example, Apple offers its storytelling commercials as videos on its website. Additionally, CNN.com tells most stories through the three formats of text, video and images, available through the tabs labeled Read, Video and Photos. 

Participating in the story
The next level of interaction enables people to participate in the story. I see at least two types of story participation:

People share their own stories
While many brands offer some sort of "customer success stories" on their websites, they are carefully developed and controlled by the brand. In the interactive world, user-generated content -- blogs, social networking and more -- give more storytelling control to the customers. For example, in the case of Cingular's "fewer dropped calls" commercials, customers related so strongly to the dramatized stories that they shared video spoofs with their own experiences on social networking sites such as YouTube. Another example is Amazon.com and most major ecommerce websites which allow customers to share and rate their experiences with a product.

This loss of brand control over the story is mostly good because stories directly from customers seem more credible -- and therefore more influential -- than customer stories crafted by the brand. Whether you view it as good or bad, this loss of control is now a reality to factor into any brand effort. While a brand may not be able to control what stories customers tell, a brand can influence the direction. And if the stories are not always favorable, a brand can heed the frank feedback to improve its product or service.

People provide feedback that affects a story
Phenomenon such as "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" exemplify another type of participation. These shows are essentially stories that enable viewers to vote on the plot and, ultimately, the resolution. Who will be voted off this week? Who will win it all? The addictive power of this type of participation is obvious in the success of these shows and related endeavors (tours, singing careers, etc.). A nice interactive touch is that viewers can vote through multiple channels and formats -- by phone, mobile text message or online.

Immersing in the story
Still another level of interaction to watch for in the future is immersion. Think about your favorite video game (or your teenager playing a favorite game) and feeling so completely engaged you're in another world. That's immersion.

Influenced by gaming, immersion offers all five benefits of storytelling I've described and is already being used in compelling ways. For instance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborated with Whyville, an online virtual world for kids, to create a remarkable flu campaign. Whyville created a vaccination booth where kids could use their avatars to learn about the flu and get virtual flu shots. Then, Whyville released a virtual flu bug. Avatars that had received the shot carried on as usual. Some avatars that had not started to sneeze and cough, and news of the flu bug spread through the virtual world, encouraging more kids to get their avatars vaccinated. Because children were not just told about the importance of a flu shot but dramatically experienced it, the message had strong impact.

To increase customer engagement, brands need to reap the time-tested benefits of storytelling to make messages memorable and relevant. Brands also need to tell stories in new, interactive ways. You can take a small step, such as posting TV commercials with customer stories on your website and YouTube. Or you can make a leap, such as collaborating with virtual worlds to create a story experience. The pay off? Customers who remember, relate to -- and ultimately use -- your brand.

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Colleen Jones is senior user experience architect, Spunlogic. Read full bio.


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