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The What and How of Telling a Brand Story Online

  |  April 11, 2013   |  Comments

Branded storytelling is becoming so prevalent online that consumers are starting to look for it, and it behooves marketers to meet their expectations.

YouTube. Vimeo. Vine. From social media to marketing mainstays like movie trailers and product demos shot for the web, businesses are using online video and espousing the virtues it holds for their brands. No matter the method of delivery or the nature of the message, every good campaign has something in common. Each tells a story: of your brand, of your products, and of their role in your customers' lives.

Those stories have value. Just consider "Significant Objects." A literary and anthropological experiment that spawned a book by the same name, the project was the brainchild of writers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, who had a theory that "the effect of narrative on any given object's subjective value can be measured objectively." In other words, if an everyday object - the kind of trinket you'd find at a thrift store or garage sale - came with a tangible backstory, consumers would reevaluate its worth.

Walker and Glenn asked published authors to flesh out the narratives and posted the objects and fictional stories on eBay. They were originally purchased for $128.74. Ultimately, they sold for a total of $3,612.51.

The Face of Your Company, and Your Fans

If you're a media planner or buyer and you don't think that storytelling extends to your work, think again. Every ad message is part of your client's brand story. Branded storytelling is becoming so prevalent online that consumers are starting to look for it, and it behooves marketers to meet their expectations.

Stories have a place in paid placements resulting from media buys, media that is earned, and media that's owned. The latter includes videos placed on your brand or e-commerce site, and might look a lot like what you'll find at Threadless.com. The community-driven company has started featuring "Artist Stories" - two-minute videos that delve into the lives of some of its t-shirt design contributors.


Besides providing interesting narratives and a sneak peek behind-the-scenes at the company, the videos serve to embellish the story of Threadless: the brand. It's a brand that cares about the artistic community, and that's dedicated to producing quality products for its customers. This message comes through loud and clear, even though it's being delivered not by the brand itself, but by its dedicated partners.

To increase exposure, Threadless also posts its videos to YouTube. Denim brand Tellason puts its assets on Vimeo. It recently produced a series of "mini-documentaries" about its customers called "Tellason Stories" that highlight individuals with an interesting story to tell, and indirectly illustrates how Tellason jeans fit into their lives. For a unique brand with equally unique customers, this storytelling strategy is ideal.


Crafting Your Brand Story

There's a line between storytelling and straight marketing, and it's one that brands must be careful not to cross. A message - whether about your brand, your partners, or your customers - must feel authentic or it's likely to come off as salesy and trite. In this sense there are many similarities between book publishing and content marketing. Most readers can spot a weak story easily, and won't hesitate to divert their attention when they do. They won't always know why the story doesn't work, but they're aware that something's off.

To avoid this, brands have to adhere to the same tenants of good storytelling that guide authors. Distilled, these include theme, character, intent, and action. Another key element of good books is conflict, but this is perhaps the one component you can choose to omit. While it should be included in long-form branded content like sponsored articles, web series like "Green Housewives" from Clorox Green Works, and short films like "The Lego Story" that depict the history of the brand, there isn't much room for it in a banner ad or two-minute video clip.

Watch for these elements in the branded content you see online. See how other brands are manipulating them to meet their needs. There's leeway in each one, as well as the potential to make a story that connects consumers with your products in an exciting, informative way.

Audience Distribution

How you distribute your story online is up to you. It could play out in a YouTube video or a series of social media ads. You could include it in your iPad app or send it out by email. You don't have to manage the process yourself: marketing companies are offering campaign management services geared toward branded online videos. Preview Networks, part of video company Rightster, has a media distribution product called Brandcast that allows brands to edit and syndicate video assets in a single online platform. In addition to placing the videos on the brand's owned sites, users can tap Preview Networks' network of publishers to earn editorial features and PR mentions.

If you're working with a brand that already has video assets at its disposal, disperse them throughout your ad units in a way that sends a cohesive message overall. They're about the best ad content you're likely to find.

Marketing is based in storytelling. You tell the story of your clients' brands through the ads you place and the marketing content you help to produce. Digital marketers now have at their disposal countless platforms through which to tell a tale.

Your audience is ready to hear it.



Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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