A Short Story About Stories

How Marketers Lost Their Way, But Are Finding Their Way Back Home

By: Tod Loofbourrow

Loofbourrow is CEO of ViralGains, a pioneer in digital video advertising solutions. You can follow him on Twitter at @todatmit.

“Conversation in verbal storytelling is alive and well today. But most media in the modern world is not in the oral tradition. We may have left a few things behind as we invented new media.”

PROLOGUE

If you are a marketing professional — or marketing technology professional, like me — no doubt you know a thing or two about the art of storytelling.

You probably know the adage that every good story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The classic three-part structure brings both clarity and rhythm to a story, whether it’s told in pictures, words, or song.

You may also know that what drives the three-part structure is something known as “the hero’s journey.” Corresponding to the three parts — or three “acts,” because so many stories are told in dramatic form — are purpose, conflict, and resolution. It’s the dramatic, emotional arc that makes a story worth listening to.

What you may not know is that the core of a good story is what happens to the hero between conflict and resolution. Most good stories are about the positive evolution of the hero, who with the help of others, accepts her gifts and then resolves to bring them back to the world from which she temporarily withdrew. In the end, all good stories are about transformation.

Marketers too are storytellers. We take the story of a company, a brand, a set of values, and we work to interest consumers in our story. In the hands of marketing professionals everywhere, storytellers and storytelling are themselves on the brink of a transformation.

ACT I: PURPOSE

The art of storytelling evolved in the pre-historical era, that is, before we wrote things down. Anthropological studies show evidence that in our early days as hunters and gatherers, we assembled around a fire each evening, and took turns telling stories to one another about the trials and tribulations of the day. Some of these ceremonies involved an instrument called a talking stick, an intricately carved speakers staff which passed between storyteller and listener, allowing only the person holding the stick to speak. As the staff passed from one person to the next in turn, each person had their say as stories of adventure and community were shared.

The talking stick served both as tool to pass down stories about the community’s shared past, and, more importantly, as an instrument that allowed a one-way communication to become a two-way conversation. It gave power to the storyteller, whose narrative was supported by the group’s response. It also gave power to listeners who got the opportunity to make their voices heard.

This dynamic — known as “call and response” — is one of several things that have survived in modern-day oral storytelling traditions. Think of the verbal interchange between pastor and parishioner at a Baptist church; between counsellor and counselee at Weight Watcher check-ins and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; between performer and audience in live theater; between teachers and students at college lectures; between politicians and voters at town halls and “listening tours.” Conversation in verbal storytelling is alive and well today.

But most media in the modern world is not in the oral tradition. We may have left a few things behind as we invented new media.

What happened to the two-way power of great storytelling?

ACT II: CONFLICT

Starting after 3,500 BC, the first writing systems evolved in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Several big things happened after we first began putting chisel to tablet.

The Big Shout

The first change, of course, was that the new medium — writing — amplified the power of storytellers to reach a mass audience, but it left the conversational elements of story behind. As a medium for telling a story, it was fundamentally a one-way communication system. Written media was great, and in many ways greater than oral storytelling, in passing down the stories about the community’s shared past, but it didn’t allow the recipient to take part in the conversation.

As written media evolved, stories were ripped out of shared context, became more asynchronous, and centered less on conversation. The talking stick remained firmly in the hands of the storyteller. A key element of great storytelling was lost — giving people who are listening an opportunity to react to the storytellers, and to say what they think.

Storytelling had effectively moved from two-way conversation to one-way broadcast. The key casualty was engagement by the audience. It was as if the entire world of media had adopted the terrible old British Empire dictum: “If the natives don’t seem to understand you when you speak English, just speak louder.”

Wave Upon Wave of Platform Change

The second big change happened in the past 100 years, and it happened in repeated waves — big media rapidly experienced a number of major platform shifts. And with each successive shift, we have struggled to understand and utilize the storytelling properties of each new platform. Early radio was like print; announcers would read stories. Early TV was like radio; actors sat stiffly in front of the camera with a big microphone, speaking, but not quite knowing what else to do. Even digital at first mimicked older media platforms. The first years of the World Wide Web saw staid, unimaginative web sites that looked a lot like printed corporate brochures. And the first wave of digital video advertisements were nothing more than repurposed TV ads.

At some point during each platform shift, we adapted to the properties that made each one special, and began to tell effective one-way stories again. Even so, the conversation hadn’t resumed. Conversational storytelling could have been lost forever, were it not for the still unrealized promise of digital.

Crisis: The Stalking Problem

And here’s where our story turns. A crisis, if big enough, might force people to seek a change. It’s been 20 years now since the digital revolution, and we still haven’t gotten digital storytelling right. In fact, it’s beginning to feel like we are doing something very wrong. The problem: We’ve forgotten about story and speaking with people, and instead have fallen in love with data and speaking at people. In fact, we now tend to think of people in terms of data, and conversation in terms of better targeting.

Marketers gather data by following people around in secret as they go about their business, watching them as they surf the web, interact with apps on their phones, buy things on their credit cards, and even walk around their stores, all the while pooling their data with other marketers in the hope that this massive cloud of creepy stalking gives insight into a person’s hopes and dreams.

The average consumer today may have up to 4,000 data points that advertisers crunch to follow the consumer’s movement around the web with advertising, a practice known by the unattractive term, “retargeting.”

A few weeks ago, I took a look at a pair of shoes on a popular e-commerce site. I disliked several features about them, and I decided to pass. But now those same pair of shoes are following me around everywhere that I wander on the Web. “There is a reason I didn’t buy those shoes!” I want to shout. But nobody asks. This kind of online stalking — mistaking data for insight — passes for innovation in digital advertising. We’re not telling stories, we’re throwing them at people without even asking for their input, while blinded by the numbers we think make up a person.

Don’t Stalk, Talk

Storytelling and building a relationship with a prospective customer is really about talking with them, not at them. Don’t stalk, talk. In the digital world, many seem to think that engagement is somehow about better stalking, while missing the essential human insight that engagement comes from conversation. And there are two problems with this focus on stalking over talking.

For many industries, it doesn’t quite work because, frankly, it’s creepy. Imagine asking a customer this question. “I’d like to talk to you about a new car because I’ve been following you and know what you want?” Now imagine asking this: “I’d like to talk to you about a new car because you’ve told me what you are looking for.” Which question is likely to get engagement and a good response?

Second, it doesn’t quite work because it’s probably inaccurate. Just because we can track someone doesn’t mean we know what they are thinking. And I suspect that it’s this particular problem — and not the creepy factor — that will move marketers to make a change. Recently, in the days after the presidential election, marketers and media professionals everywhere weighed in on the phenomenon that practically all the pollsters and number people got things wrong. Howard Fineman, editorial director for the Huffington Post, posted a short rant about the media’s failure to listen to voters:

“There was way too much number crunching going on, way too much data. Well, big data is big data, but people are individuals, and they make individual decisions.”

A marketing colleague of mine gave a talk at a university the day after the election. He summed it up this way: “Big story trumped big data. And life for marketers will never be the same.” I agree.

ACT III: RESOLUTION

For many marketers, the election was a rude awakening. Not because they were happy or unhappy with the outcome, but because they weren’t able to predict it. Like the talking stick which vanished in the transition to written storytelling, the marketer had lost his way. But losing one’s way can present itself as the opportunity to turn, transform oneself, and go down the right path.

Here’s what I am beginning to hear from some of the smartest minds in science and advertising: We have failed to recognize the true properties of digital video. Unlike everything that came before it — with the exception of live storytelling — Digital video is fundamentally a platform for storytelling as conversation. The potential for two-way conversation is built into the platform. Just as we had to reinvent advertising for the TV age, we need to reinvent it yet again for the digital video age. While some marketing tech people seem to understand this — especially those in social media — it continues to escape mainstream marketers who continue to talk at, not with, their customers. They continue to bombarding prospective customers with mass reach, impressions, and frequency that are neither welcomed nor effective. Ad blocking is but one symptom of the ineffectiveness of this “just talk louder” approach.

There is a second aspect of the digital video experience which fundamentally changes how practitioners should use it. Online video is a storytelling platform that enables leaders to design intimate, in-unit experiences. Think of it this way — the ad is not just an ad, the ad is an app. You have all the tools that an application developer has at your fingertips when creating a video story. Use them. Marketers can build not just great video stories, but great interactive experiences within the video ad unit itself. Companies can create customer journeys which move a prospective buyer through a series of storytelling videos, interactive questions delivered to customers who watched and loved a great story from a brand, and interactive experiences which invite a sense of play.

If the conversation stays “inside the room,” so to speak, there is less need to stalk the customer after she’s left the room. A prospective customer engaged in conversation welcomes further communication, because they were listened to, not shouted at.

From where I sit — as CEO of a digital marketing firm — the biggest opportunity today lies in evolving the ad unit that holds the greatest promise for conversational storytelling: video. Because of it’s ability to deliver stories — with the timeless dimensions of sight and sound — video may be poised for the biggest transformation yet — the reunification of story with conversation.

Here’s an example from a great iconic brand — Kawasaki Motorcycles. Perhaps you saw the video — or, should I say, a version of the video. Not long ago, Kawasaki decided to run a series of videos launching a new motorcycle based on seven different creative concepts, each representing a different reason why people ride — the freedom of the open road, how easy the bike was to handle for a smaller rider, and more.

They distributed the videos in highly engaging placements while measuring brand interest, brand affinity, and purchase intent via an inside-the-video-unit sentiment survey. Each video found its audience, and engaged that audience in conversation about their interest in the bike. Pretty soon, Kawasaki had a sophisticated understanding of seven different reasons why people ride, the audiences who were most attuned to each, and the reasons which most drove purchase intent and brand affinity for this particular bike. Storytelling became conversation, and a brand engaged a whole new set of potential customers in dialogue moving towards purchase.

Using real-time consumer feedback, Kawasaki prioritized the videos that resulted in the most powerful positive sentiment. It then compared results of the exposed group to a control group of people to measure a lift in purchase intent. Not surprisingly, storytelling as conversation worked.

It’s still in it’s early days of evolution, but already video is becoming more conversational. With tools like sentiment surveys, sequential messaging, and customer journey management, many other leading brands are using digital video to connect with consumers, and test how they actually resonate. In turn, this enables them to create video ads that actually work, fewer ads that don’t, and to find the audience for different aspects of their brand promise.

And there’s perhaps an even greater change that comes with conversational ads. Video continues to be the preferred vehicle for engaging customers around brand values. But unlike TV ads that tend to reach only general audiences, digital videos have the potential to connect precisely with the right audiences.

Fewer bad ads, and better alignment between companies and customers who share their values. That, to me, sounds like a better world and a more effective use of advertising dollars. I suspect that this is just one many changes we’ll soon see in the larger world of storytelling, inside and outside of the ad industry. My advice is this — Pass the talking stick. Share the story. Relationships are built on two-way conversation.

As I suggested at the start, it’s going take a lot of “heroes” — people willing to make the journey — to make all this change happen. And like all stories, this will require the help of others. And by others, I mean you, whatever you might do for a living. This story, I hope, is just the start of a conversation.