Telling Stories or Delivering Messages: What Inspires You Most?

I was deep in an Excel spreadsheet, building an online advertising model to determine reach, click-through, visit and ultimately vote goals for an experience we were developing for a client. They wanted to know how much they should spend on paid social to drive 1,000 votes on the mobile microsite.

The model cascaded from addressable market to impressions through the funnel all the way to the key conversion of a tallied vote.

I made a lot of assumptions.

Weeks before we had been laying the groundwork. The team had compelled hundreds of teachers to submit their environmental education projects and needs, to share the stories of how the projects would teach their students about their regions and about the interdependency of animals on each other. It was the stories that drove the early success of the campaign.

I double checked the model and provided a final spend recommendation. The proposal was accepted, and we set up the site, built the segments, completed the ads and got started. We planned to post organically to start to make sure everything worked and to see how far we could go before spending money. We wanted to let the teachers and students spread the word; we wanted the stories to lead.

While I had tried to conservatively account for sharing and the incremental boost to awareness and conversion, the initial posts were being shared far beyond goal rates and the votes began coming in.

We let the campaign run. After three weeks we were done, having vastly exceeded impression, site visit and vote goals.

We spent $500 on advertising, a tiny fraction of the recommended budget. We gave back the rest.

Different Ends of the Spectrum

In many ways, these approaches are at opposite ends of the marketing spectrum. Traditional marketing and advertising are primarily focused on taking a message and using money to deliver it to key audiences. In this model, we start the creative process developing “manifestos”, trying to get to tag lines and pithy ad copy. Once we have that big idea, the positioning, and “the message”, we then begin to add dimension by thinking about channels, placements, formats and context. This is where the ideas come alive. Finally, as we develop the media plan, the campaign comes together.

On the other side of the spectrum, when we start by developing stories that influencers are likely to find compelling and share, the creative process is very different. We usually set out in search of a “master narrative”. We look to brand experts, consumers and even the influencers we want to reach to uncover the conversations they’re participating in and the stories they’ll find compelling. From there, we apply our creative process in an effort to find interesting ways to spark, participate in, or influence the conversations that matter most. Instead of sourcing inspiration from our creative teams, we source it from the people we want to distribute our story.

Additionally, what we’re trying to distribute is different. Traditionally it was copy-driven narrative, today “storytelling” is anything from a 140-character tweet to a 30 second video. While it was once enough to develop stories for specific publications, today’s communications professionals must think more like advertisers and reformat and customize stories for the audience.

Lastly, on the story and influence side, the smart money is used to boost organic reach, develop compelling “native” advertising and pay influencers to develop content on behalf of the brand to drive organic reach among their fans.

I’ve spent a good bit of time on both sides of this spectrum and ultimately believe that the best campaigns contain a bit of both approaches and meet each other in the middle. It’s not easy and usually, one end must lead, but the emergence of social media has forced all marketers to adapt to real time, two-way communications with advocates and haters alike. That said, the vast majority of digital dollars are still spent on the message and money side.

Integrated Communications Marketing

The benefits of the message-driven approach are that it’s primarily about scaling reach and it forcing simplicity. Have you designed a banner or billboard recently? I’m not saying it’s easy, just that the formats tend to be simpler.

The benefits of the story-driven campaign are the level of depth explored and the deeper engagement with audiences that can result. This approach also tends to focus on consumer, influencer or even brand heritage and product insights at its core and instead of broad creativity as its fuel, it prefers authenticity.

Maybe it’s because the traditional structures and processes are so strong, maybe it’s because the new media landscape is so young and dynamic, maybe it’s because we’re not creative enough to find new ways, but today, it’s usually one or the other, but rarely both truly integrated. What would that even look like?

Interestingly, both approaches tend to start with consumer insights, and it makes sense that we must know who we’re talking to. I believe that starting with a well-defined target audience (start with one, you can always add more later) and really understanding the conversations they’re participating in can have a profound impact on the development of your creative. 

I’m not suggesting we abandon the message and money approach. As I shared, tremendous value can be extracted this way, but as the rate of change accelerates in the media landscape and we find ourselves relying more and more on the brute force of things like programmatic advertising and trying the crack the code on reaching and engaging on mobile, that we begin to try new approaches to new challenges. Understanding the spectrum is step one, it’s real and the experts are all around us. Hacking your process is step two.

What if you started at story, conversation and influence and didn’t think about applying ad spend until all the sharing has slowed. How would this change your creative process, your media plan and most importantly, your impact on the business?

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