Narrative Marketing, Memes, and the Battle for Crypto Attention

Crypto is a battle for ideas and attention. To be successful, projects have to understand how the story they want to tell relates to the narratives driving the conversation.

When I’m not curating Long Reads Sunday or streaming or generally yammering on Twitter, I help crypto companies with communications, the outputs of which are strategic (messaging and positioning) and tactical (content production). The approach I take is something I’ve come to call “narrative marketing.” Enough people have asked me what I mean by the term that I’m writing this as a reference point.

In short, narrative marketing is an approach to communications that recognizes that no marketing happens in a vacuum. Every piece of copy or content a company produces will be engaged with on the basis of the larger narrative context of the industry or sector that company operates within.

On the one hand, this is obvious. Of course communications has a context. Of course what the industry believes matters in terms of how communications will be received.

On the other, in practice, most companies I engage with haven’t previously spent much time considering larger market narratives as they plan their content, much less try to optimize that content relative to those narratives.

So what does narrative marketing look like in practice, and why does it matter in crypto? Actually, let’s start at the beginning: what’s a “narrative” in the first place?

Narratives are how we explain and make sense of the world

Every market is a complex set of interests and incentives interacting and competing with one another in a constantly changing landscape. These forces are so numerous that it is impossible to pin them all down and track them all at the same time.

In this context, narratives become shorthand for understanding and making sense of what’s actually happening. In the absence of the ability to perfectly understand the interaction between every actor and force in a market, we rely on narratives to ground our understanding and identify patterns.

Narratives, in other words, are memes.

They are over-simplifications of vast patterns of information that rely upon and resonate based on our sense that they are true.

Narratives can be informed by data but are more often driven by the gut

The relationship between data and narratives is an interesting give-and-take.

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Some narratives rise from people and machines crunching data and simply interpreting the results. More often, however, narratives arise from a shared gut-level sensibility about patterns that comes from observation and participation in the social discourse of the market. In that case, data can then be used to affirm or deny those sensibilities, but it isn’t a pre-requisite for the narrative or meme to form.

Indeed, even when the information would start to suggest a meme is wrong, data is not always, in and of itself, enough to shift a narrative. While data itself may be unbiased, choices of which data to interpret and how to interpret are made by inherently biased people.

In fact, here are times when narratives are actually powerful enough that they call data into question. A good little example of this comes from a recent conversation between Alex Kruger and Matt Odell (two people whose perspectives I value significantly).

Alex posted data suggesting that Twitter chatter about Bitcoin was the lowest it’s been since 2015. Matt dropped some skepticism, pointing out how little engagement tweets from major voices in crypto were getting back then, to which Alex pointed out that he was just reporting data. Ultimately, in this case the differential between the data and the sensibility seems to be rooted in a larger shift away from using hashtags (the data was about #bitcoin specifically, not the word in general). The point, as it remains though, is that our gut often over rides data when it comes to the narratives we believe.

What’s more, even when a narrative is anchored in data, it is still a narrative. Deploy all the advanced machine learning and AI in the world and what comes out will still, inevitably, be simplified to a catchy meme to explain the world that people have an inherent sense is true.

Narratives compete with one another

XKCD549

Any one who has spent time in the crypto & Bitcoin community can attest to this fact: narratives compete for people’s affinity and devotion.

Take for example the answer to what should be a question of “what is Bitcoin?” Is it P2P payments? Is it a store of value? Is it free speech money?

The narrative competition around this question has led not only to vicious Twitter debates but actual hard forks of the protocol with billions of dollars in implications. In this form of narrative competition, multiple narratives compete to explain the same thing.

Another form of competition that is in many ways even more relevant for crypto companies, however, is when unrelated narratives compete for the same mental space; compete, in other words, to capture people’s limited attention.

Take, for example, the narratives being advanced by the wave of emergent layer 1 platforms. Each of them, is, in their own way, telling a slightly different story about what should matter to developers who want to build and users who are going to ultimately use apps in those ecosystems.

Should we care about the governance model, and whether things will devolve into plutocracy? Is transaction throughput the most important factor? What about emissions schedule, consensus algorithms, or philosophies about base layer privacy?

These are all different narratives or memes competing to explain what people should care about from layer 1. Which of these narratives resonates most strongly is likely to have a significant impact on which base layer protocols you engage with and pay attention to.

Which brings us to the key point…

All marketing interacts with narratives, whether those marketers recognize it or not

And thus we get to the crux of the narrative marketing philosophy: all marketing interacts with narratives, whether marketers recognize it or not.

Let’s take the example above of what narratives or memes the community cares about with regard to base layer protocols.

12 to 18 months ago, it felts like every protocol was advertising its throughput. 1,200 TPS! 5,000 TPS! 40 gigabillion TPS, seriously just read our white paper!

Today, if a protocol took a TPS narrative to the market, it wouldn’t make a dent. First, there were simply too many projects talking this way, which crowded out the space for people to care and made it feel commoditized. Second, there was a broader shift away from and growing antagonism towards narratives of “Bitcoin, but better in this one technological way!” Third, for many there is a sense of inevitable feature parity based on open source technology.

On the other hand, Grin’s implementation of Mimble Wimble was able to attract a huge amount of attention based on the narrative/meme of a “fair launch,” privacy-centricity, and a forever-fixed inflation schedule. That fair launch idea in particular — no founder’s reward, no pre-mines, no pre-sales — got the market excited.

In the wake of that launch, however, Grin has also been exhibit A in the challenge of developer incentives. In the absence of a pre-mine or founder’s reward or a pre-sale to investors, key developers were left to run crowdsourcing campaigns to fund their work. Surprise, surprise, this turned out harder than expected.

This has now created narrative space for projects to argue that some amount of clearly articulated structure that aligns developer incentives with broader project stakeholder incentives — perhaps something like the Zcash founders reward — may be the right way for projects to support themselves in the early days.

This last part hasn’t become a narrative per se, yet, but it is a new narrative space that has opened up based on the the challenges of Grin and a larger emergent focus on incentives.

Which brings me to the key point for companies who are thinking about their messaging and marketing.

The only “wrong” way for your market to interact with narratives is to not recognize that it does

As should be clear from the example above, narratives are extremely fluid, and in their competition with one another are constantly shifting in terms of how they index for dominance.

For marketers that recognize the importance of narratives, this should be a source of incredible excitement. What it means is that your communications are not limited to just affirming the existing narrative, but could also offer an alternative for people who just aren’t buying it.

A new project could, for example, launch now and argue that a reasonable founder’s reward is the best possible answer to aligning incentives between developers and other stakeholders. In this way, it would be running counter to the “fair launch” narrative and towards the “importance of incentives narrative.”

Alternatively, a project could double down on “fair launch,” believing that there is still significant momentum behind that narrative, and simply provide a different answer to the question of funding early dev contributions. In this way, they would be providing an updated version of the existing fair launch narrative.

Either of these could be successful — or at least resonate with the portion of the market that tends to agree.

While it might be easy to think that the narrative problem for marketing would be when marketing accidentally runs against the narrative that isn’t actually the case. Narratives never have 100% agreement, so being intentional about offering an alternative can be a great way to build an audience.

In reality, the bigger problem for projects that don’t consider narratives is marketing against themes that no one cares about. Controversy because you’re offering a counter to the dominant narratives is often good. The disinterest, boredom, and irrelevance that happen when you don’t understand the dominant narratives never is.

Narratives are especially important (and especially volatile) in frontier markets like crypto

Narratives have a particularly important role in a frontier market like crypto.

A decade on since Satoshi’s white paper, and with the vast majority of participants getting involved within the last few years, crypto simply doesn’t have a long history of data and experience for people to draw on in terms of knowing what they should be paying attention to.

In that context, the memes and narratives that dominate public discourse have an outsized impact shaping where people spend their limited attention. They become filters about what to care about and what to ignore.

This creates a dynamic where every project isn’t just competing against others doing similar things, but against every other crypto project and company who are locked in a battle for attention. Everyone is competing for the thing they’re working on to be something that people care about.

Put simply, crypto is a battle for ideas and attention.

For now, the crypto community has the attention span to engage deeply with ideas through content

There is some good news for projects in the space.

At the moment, the part of the crypto community that remains — those who have made it through the ICO mania and back down into the bear market — have radically more attention than the average consumer market audience. They not only make space for but enjoy the battle for ideas.

This means they read long form essays. They listen to podcasts. They watch long-form live video conversations.

I have said before that crypto is a learners paradise. In many ways, crypto is like a giant self-directed open source university, where everyone is educating themselves using the content available to them.

This creates an incredible moment for companies to use deep, thoughtful content to capture attention and build affinity.

This won’t last forever

Inevitably, the markets will turn, prices will rise, the tourists will come back, and much of the space now occupied by deep content and thoughtful discourse will be crowded out by squawking price chart amateurs and manic street private group preachers.

Right now, we’re in an early adopter cycle of “I haven’t (totally) made up my mind about what’s important; convince me.”

There is no better time for narrative marketing.

Thanks for reading! Hit me up on Twitter @nlw if you want to chat about these ideas further.