Using “real stories” for your campaign? Remember these three things

A still from “Golden Stories,” a piece we made for Erie Insurance.

Something about using “real stories from real people” as an approach to marketing feels incredibly right for the moment we’re living in. It could create a campaign that’s authentically human, diverse, emotional, inclusive and in general less egocentric than what most brands are doing these days.

Just look at this “Give the Gift of Home” story and try not to be inspired. Even better, look at the YouTube comments under the video and try not to be jealous of getting those reactions to your advertising!

And then there’s the other side of the coin: How many campaigns have you seen that actually pull this approach off, versus the number of campaigns that try it and end up being the exact opposite: inauthentic, cheesy or totally ignorable?

So what gives? What makes the real stories approach work for some, and not at all for others?

When we’re working on researching and producing real stories for brands at Makeout, here are the three principles we follow:

1. Prepare to make people care

When you set out to make a typical commercial or video, you’re hyper-aware of people’s habit of totally ignoring branded videos unless you truly grab them with something powerful.

But when it comes to a “real story,” sometimes that story seems so good that you become convinced people are just going to fundamentally care. It seems inevitable. But that’s far from the truth.

Here’s something helpful to remember: Until a few years ago, most people thought documentaries (aka, real stories) were boring. And do you know why we’ve started to care about them? Because some of the best artists and storytellers on earth have started to make them — not because we’ve evolved into a more empathetic race of patient, curious listeners.

Even though the story might be amazing, it still requires an immense amount of creativity, artistry and hard work to bring that story to life in a way that will make people care.

2. Figure out the crux of the story — and don’t assume it’s your brand

Here’s a fun paradox: Even though the brand is the whole reason this story is being told in the first place, it’s not the most important part.

Because you know what’s endlessly more compelling in a story than any brand on earth? The human spirit. A determination to survive. The love of a parent for their child. A vision of how the world could be different. Idiosyncratic personalities and unexpected perspectives.

Your first step in telling your real story should actually be a step backwards. Sit with this question: Even though I loved this story because of how it portrayed my brand in a real person’s life, why is a stranger going to love it? What were the stakes for this real person who went through this experience? Who are they as a person and why should people care about them?

If you’re doing it right, at some point along the way you might have a panic moment about where your brand actually fits in here. I promise, you’ll find those places. But even if the logo or product isn’t plastered in every shot, remember:

  • You chose this story because it’s inherently linked to your brand and its values
  • The tone and spirit of the story itself will embody you
  • Your brand will be on the titles, can absolutely appear in shots (so long as you allow it to be contextual), and will be the one posting the video

In other words, people will know that it’s you. And even more, they’ll respect you for having the confidence to share a REAL real story as opposed to using someone else’s story for your marketing goals.

3. Show, don’t tell

We learned “Show, don’t tell” back in school, and somehow we’ve all forgotten about it — especially when telling a story.

Translation: Don’t start your video with a talking head. Just don’t. And in general, don’t use one at all unless you’re using it for a specific reason beyond “we don’t have anything else to put here.”

A talking head is the epitome of telling someone a story. What you’re trying to do is make people feel the story. So even if you layer in a bunch of b-roll into a talking head video, you’re still working from a framework of bullet points about the story: who, what, where. Boring.

But if you’re truly dedicated to bringing the crux of the story to life, you’ll be focused on how to capture the essence of this person, their world, their challenge and their lifestyle. Those things aren’t b-roll — they’re the whole point! They may even drive the audio track, with documentary-captured narrative.

And speaking of audio: The audio portion of your video should be produced more like a podcast than a standard video. Podcasts have figured out how to make these incredibly tight, emotional, action-packed audio experiences. Aim for that in the audio track of your story in the same way as you’re thinking about it with your visuals.

(Bonus: My favorite “real stories” may never even show a single talking head shot. It’s a good creative challenge, if you’re brave enough to try it.)



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