Marketers have always used stories to share information, change opinions and influence decisions. Now, as people create, consume and share brand stories in new ways, marketers need to go beyond the 30-sec product ad or the 300-word press release, and tell purpose-inspired transmedia stories that inspire, organize and energize people.
Six Trends in Storytelling
Let’s start by recapturing the six important trends that are reshaping how people create, consume and share brand stories:
- Short attention spans: People are consuming news and entertainment in byte-sized pieces, increasingly on smartphones and tablets, often on-the-go.
- Narrow interest graphs: People are selectively paying attention to the topics and sources they are most interested in, and filtering out the rest.
- Social serendipity: People are discovering new content based on what is shared by their networks, or by other people like them, via sophisticated algorithms.
- Community curation: People are forming on-the-fly communities around a shared passion or purpose by curating content around hashtags and trending topics.
- Remix in context: People are remixing photos, videos, art and music and sharing their creative work in the context of a time, place or event.
- Emergent storylines: People are curating their own Facebook or Twitter timelines as work-in-progress stories, with emergent narratives.
These six trends play an important role in the narrative arc we will draw next: from Hero’s Journey to Heroes to Everyday Heroes.
From Hero’s Journey to Heroes to Everyday Heroes
Heroʼs Journey: Storytelling
The Heroʼs Journey is a good example of a monomyth, or a universal story, that cuts across all types of stories, including myths, movies, novels, and ads.
According to Joseph Campbell, all stories follow the same three-part narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey. In “departure”, the hero listens to the call of adventure and leaves the “known world” for the “unknown world”. In “initiation”, he meets guides and allies, falls in love, undergoes a series of tests and trials, discovers the answer and receives the gift. In “return”, he reluctantly returns home, survives a near-death experience, and shares his wisdom and power with the rest of the world.
The Hero’s Journey has been used by filmmakers to create franchises like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Matrix, and by marketers to tell compelling stories about brands, most often through 30-second ad films.
However, the six trends that are reshaping how people create, consume and share brands stories are also reshaping both the nature of the universal stories themselves and the art of how these stories are told.
Heroes: Transmedia Storytelling
First, let’s look at the art of storytelling.
NBCʼs hit TV series Heroes is a good example of transmedia storytelling, where TV shows, graphic novels, video games, mobile applications, ofﬂine experiences and online communities explore different aspects of the same “story world”.
While many transmedia “story worlds” exhibit elements of the three-part narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey, they expand it, by incorporating multi-layered intertwining narratives, complex social networks of characters, and storylines that unfold over hundreds of hours.
In fact, we don’t really consume popular culture anymore, certainly not as a linear narrative. Instead, we co-create it, by deconstructing plot twists in elaborate blog posts, contributing to extensive fan wikis that delve into the motivations of each character, and creating our own parallel narrative in virtual worlds and alternative reality games built around films and TV shows.
As popular culture becomes more layered, brands have had to rethink marketing. Increasingly, ads attract audiences to branded “story worlds”, which try to retain their interest over the long term, and convert them first into passionate fans and then into paying customers, much like movie trailers with entertainment franchises. P&G’s Old Spice Man is not only one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in recent times, but also an entertainment franchise in the making.
Everyday Heroes: Purpose-Inspired Storytelling
Now, let’s look at the nature of universal stories itself.
CNN Heroes in the US and CNN-IBN Real Heroes in India are good examples of purpose-inspired storytelling about everyday heroes acting as change agents, with a clear call for participation and action. The phenomenal popularity of the TED conference is another example of our innate need to celebrate everyday heroes with “ideas that matter”.
These stories about everyday heroes who are changing the world share some elements with the Hero’s Journey, but diverge from it in important ways. First, each one of us is a hero with a different call for adventure, a different journey, and a different reward, which means that the idea of the monomyth itself is problematic. Second, the most important journey is the journey within, into the “unknown world” of our own hidden potential, to search for our own best self. Third, our biggest battles are the ones we fight with ourselves and the only way we can win is by helping everyone else win too.
As people have become better at filtering out the 30-sec tell-and-sell product ad, brands have had to rediscover their reason for being and tell stories that inspire, organize and energize people around a shared passion or purpose. GE’s Ecomagination and Healthymagination initiatives are powerful examples of a brand telling purpose-driven stories that inspire participation and action.
The Storytelling Mandala
The Storytelling Mandala is designed to help brands tell stories that inspire, organize and energize people to participate and act around a shared purpose. The inner circle consists of a new three-part universal story that articulates the purpose of the brand, the change it wants to catalyze and the quest it has undertaken. The outer circle focuses on the art of transmedia storytelling, including the role of content, the sources of content, the role of channels and the role of paid, owned and earned media.
Question 1: The Universal Story
To inspire, organize and energize people around a shared purpose, brands need to tell their story in three parts, in sequence: why (purpose), what (change) and how (quest).
- Why (Purpose): Who are we and what is our reason for being? What is our shared purpose, our Social Heartbeat, that can inspire people?
- What (Change): What is the change we are trying to bring about? What does change mean for individuals, communities and the world?
- How (Quest): What is the journey we must go through to catalyze positive change in the world? What if the only way we can win is if everyone wins?
Even when brands want to tell purpose-inspired stories, they inevitably find it difficult to abandon their tried-and-tested benefit-driven tell-and-sell claims. Therefore, it’s critical to build a bridge between the benefit-driven claims that move units and the purpose-inspired stories that move hearts.
Question 2: Role of Content
To tell their story in a compelling manner, brands need to create three types of content, each with a different role: long form tent pole content to pull in people, short-form content pegs to push out stories to people, and ongoing two-way conversations.
- Tent pole content: Long-form content like minisites, apps, reports, games or ﬁlms to showcase the full story in one place and pull in people.
- Content pegs: Short-form content pegs like blog posts, infographics and video clips to highlight and push out different aspects of the story.
- Conversations: Ongoing two-way conversations to push out the content pegs to pull in people to the tent pole content.
Think of a tent. The content tent pole holds up the tent and attracts people to it. The content pegs hold down the tent and support the content tent pole. The tent needs both the content tent pole and content pegs.
Now, think of a movie. The movie itself is the content tent pole, while the trailers, interviews, announcements and reviews are content pegs, leading to different types of conversations like buzz, gossip and rumors.
Question 3: Sources of Content
Brands need to recognize that creating content requires time and resources and tap into three sources of content: create original content, crowdsource content, and curate conversations.
- Create original content: Brands need to create a critical mass of compelling original content, including almost all the tent pole content like minisites, apps, games, films and reports and at least some of the content pegs like blog posts, video clips and infographics.
- Crowdsource content: If brands are able to create compelling original content, they can use it as a provocation to crowdsource content pegs from influencers and community members, often by running crowdsourcing contests.
- Curate conversations: Finally, brands can curate conversations around their content tent poles and content pegs into timelines (Storify) or collections (Pinterest), and use them and content pegs, and even content tent poles.
Marketers and agencies are increasingly hiring journalists and filmmakers to create original branded content. Marketers are also creating contests to crowdsource everything from personal stories to Super Bowl ads. Finally, most media companies, and many marketers, are curating conversations and using them as content pegs.
Question 4: Role of Channels
Once brands have created, crowdsourced or curated content, they need to organize them across channels, knowing that some channels work best for content repository, some for content aggregation, and some for content distribution.
- Content repository: Channels like YouTube, SlideShare and Flickr are typically used for storing videos, documents and photos respectively.
- Content aggregation: Websites, blogs and Tumblr (and increasingly social and mobile apps) are typically used for aggregating content and conversations.
- Content distribution: Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn are typically used for distributing content to community members and influencers.
The purpose of the content repository channels is to pull in people deep into the content archive, while the purpose of the content distribution channels is to push out the latest content and create conversations. The purpose of the content aggregation channel is to link pull and push, stock and flow, content and conversations.
Question 5: Role of Media
Finally, brands need to intentionally use paid, owned and earned media in sync to attract strangers, convert them into familiars and then into promoters.
- Paid Media (for strangers): Targeted display, search or social ads to attract people who don’t know anything about the brand, and seek their permission to join an owned media platform.
- Owned Media (for familiars): Private or public online community platforms, social networking groups, or events to organize people who have given permission to the brand to share regular content with them.
- Earned Media (for promoters): Ongoing conversations with community members and influencers to trigger participation and action and energize them to become promoters.
However, even as brands are investing to build permission-based owned media assets, they are realizing that familiars and even promoters sometime lapse into strangers and even community members sometimes need to be reactivated with the help of paid and earned media.
Purpose-Inspired Transmedia Storytelling
In summary, brands need to tell new types of stories, purpose-inspired stories, and tell them in new ways, via transmedia storytelling.
If brands do this, they will inspire, organize and energize people to participate and act around a shared purpose; build permission based owned media assets that will increasingly look like entertainment franchises; and thrive in a world in which media is fragmented, content is cheap, attention is the biggest constraint, but storytelling can still win over hearts and minds.