Once upon a time, there was a message, and savvy mass marketers controlled that message. Consumers sat in their homes and watched the message, and soon there were more messages. Although viewers often objected to the interruptive nature of these messages—even opting to take breaks to answer the call of nature—such messages eventually overwhelmed their resistance, and helped build the mighty brands that ruled the world of commerce.
In time, however, things changed, as they inevitably do. Equipped with handheld computers and access to an infinite Web of information, consumers rose up and transformed the marketer’s monologue into a dialogue. Kingdoms fell, and others saw a mercurial rise. Thus, the marketing landscape changed forever, and a new era of content marketing was born: the age of storytelling.
The Golden Thread
Why is it that humans like to hear and tell stories so much? Academics have long theorized that stories help us make sense of the world. The case for storytelling in marketing was made repeatedly at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. In a keynote address, Mythbusters star Adam Savage characterized Aristotle’s concept of a beginning, middle, and end to a story as the “hook, the hold, and the payoff.” In other words, a narrative through-line intrigues us, commands our interest, and finally gives us a satisfying thrill, helping wade through information that can sometimes be overwhelming.
Advertisers are taking this principle and applying it in a number of ways. Take the anecdote, for example, in the form of a testimonial. An authentic first-person story can transform an advertising claim that appears to be pure puffery, and turn it into a vignette that is both moving and memorable.
The desire to tell stories is on vivid display in the social networks, where various threads of commonality are woven together to form community. For all the carping about such activity being a waste of time or impinging upon society’s ability to be truly “present” or have true face-to-face interaction, social networks meet powerful and primal needs—the needs to feel accepted, be recognized, validated, and yes, tell stories.
Isn’t a Facebook wall essentially a diary of sorts, on public display, that forms a mosaic of one’s life? And isn’t every life on display representative of a brand that is comprised of one’s opinions and tastes, seeking overlap in each individual’s socially networked tribe? If word-of-mouth is indeed the most powerful form of advertising, then an endless army of brand evangelists willing to recount an advertiser’s story awaits the savviest of marketers. How else can you explain Beachbody’s ability to recruit a reputed 170,000 coaches as part of its multilevel marketing scheme?
Indeed, powerful marketplaces have arisen based upon this desire to be part of the story. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and microloan specialist Kiva feature a ceaseless parade of stories—all really pitches, incidentally—that give anyone the opportunity to become a participant. These narratives climax with the triumph or failure of a dream in which each of us gets to decide whether or not the project is worthy of our endorsement and financial support. “I don’t believe in business plans,” said Mark Hatch, author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, in a session at SXSW. “I believe in launches. Kickstarter is your business plan.” By letting “everybody into your lab,” Hatch suggests, a better and likely more successful end product will result.
The impulse to have a share of voice in the ongoing narrative of our lives was evident in an interview given via satellite with none other than National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Interviewed by ACLU officials Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian with a greenscreen backdrop of the Declaration of Independence, Snowden framed his actions as those of a heroic champion of individual rights, in counterpoint to accusations of treason. What was he selling? His version of the truth—his story.
Call to Reaction
While successful direct response advertisers have long been skilled at storytelling, the idea that every tale must culminate with a defined call to action is no longer necessarily valid. A call to reaction may be the new paradigm. Marketers who want to own the marketplace must provide solid, consistent content that is not necessarily self-serving. Such content gives them authority in the category of their choosing, and that can indeed result in purchase behavior.
Another SXSW session entitled, “Content Changes Everything—Even How We Shop,” featured Mollie Chen, head of content for Birchbox, a paid, subscription-based beauty retailer that uses sampling as a way to convert buyers. Birchbox’s strategy is to use content, engagement, and loyalty programs to circumvent price-shopping. For example, the company might issue a guide to picking the right kind of blush for a given skin type, without trying to sell blush overtly in the same message.
This approach requires a longer view, but it is through such a process that brand equity—and trust—is built. As a consumer begins to identify Birchbox as their go-to for all things beauty, one can argue that the e-tailer becomes a part of that consumer’s personal brand. But does it work? You be the judge: Birchbox has grown from 600 subscribers in 2010 to more than 400,000 this year.
The Voice of Reason
A strong, individual voice can serve as a kind of tentpole that attracts consumers to the Big Top of your choice; call it a reason for being. Think of how the Huffington Post has branched out from the vision of its founder, Arianna Huffington, and an initial focus on politics to being a much broader and successful news site. In a session entitled, “ESPN, Grantland & 538,” veteran sports journalist Bill Simmons discussed his popular sports and pop culture blog with FiveThirtyEight.com founder and former New York Times political columnist Nate Silver, who at the time was busy launching a new version of the site emphasizing his brand of statistical analysis under the wing of ESPN.
While these sites rely on advertising revenues like old-media publications, they offer valuable lessons to marketers attempting to aggregate content of their own. These websites lead with a clear identity and establish a basis for credibility around a topic—for example, sports or politics. Once they establish their authority and foster goodwill with their constituents, they leverage their equity beyond their original areas of focus—in effect, becoming lifestyle brands.
This is no different from Birchbox, which may start out by offering advice on a skin cream, then branch out to sell something as unrelated to its core competency as a Field Notes memo book. The key is that these brands are not trying to be all things to all people initially, but use their targeted point of entry to capture an audience. Once they have the audience’s attention, they can test the elasticity of their brands with aplomb.
The End Is the Beginning
In his keynote address, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recounted meeting Carl Sagan in 1975, when the former was a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx who dreamed of being a scientist himself one day. DeGrasse Tyson recalled that at the end of the day, a heavy snow was falling, and the host of the original Cosmos told him, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family.”
“I already knew I wanted to be a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become,” deGrasse Tyson, the host of the new Cosmos miniseries, said. “He reached out to me and to countless others, inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science.” Who among the audience could possibly not be rooting for his success? This is the power of stories.
Content gives marketers authority in the categories of their choosing, and that can indeed result in purchase behavior.
In his seminal success treatise, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Dr. Stephen R. Covey introduces the concept of an “emotional bank account.” Like a regular bank account, an emotional bank account consists of currency you build up by making deposits over time. In interpersonal relationships, the bank account is what allows you to have a disagreement—a withdrawal—and still maintain a positive balance that allows the relationship to endure and even flourish.
It is no different for marketers or retailers. Content helps build a balance of trust and authority that marketers can use to help close the sale once the consumer is ready to buy. How a marketer goes about doing this successfully is by having a unique voice that creates value and meaning for the consumer. This is not a commitment that’s likely to reap an instant return on investment, but instead, a long-term play that requires genuine vision and the fortitude to sustain the long haul. For those marketers willing to pledge such resources, the result may well be a happy ending. But the “ending” may never come, because the best content marketing has no end. It is recycled and retold again and again, as all the best stories have been since time immemorial.