Social Media & The Art of Storytelling.

This was inspired by a recent conversation I had as part of the IAB’s MIXX Spotlight Series during Advertising Week 8.

UPDATE: This post is dedicated to Steve Jobs, my biggest storytelling inspiration.

Once upon a time, we told stories to each other. Stories meant to make us laugh, cry, or just understand the ‘what and why’ of something that happened, somewhere, at some time.

Eventually, we realized that we had to not just tell stories, we had to sell them. We had to make people believe. Religions needed the devout. Kings needed willing minions. Politicians needed the voting majority. And from the moment brands were born, they needed consumers willing to choose them over something else.

The way we told those brand stories used to be very linear. They had beginnings and endings, often told on a page, or in 30 seconds or less. They had punchlines; taglines; slogans; jingles to help us remember them. We crammed emotional journeys into instant coffee commercials and slideshow presentations about slideshow projectors.

For decades, brands have approached linear storytelling with a goal of migrating consumers through what we know as a similarly linear purchase funnel: awareness, interest, desire, and action. If a brand’s story was good (and, of course, if their product was good enough) they could be top-of-mind at the critical moment of a purchase decision, and the handful of steps that led up to it.

Historically, most brands’ storytelling has been used to affect those steps, as a constant barrage of TV, outdoor, radio, print, and even display advertising helped people decide for themselves – or at least make them feel like they were.

And you know what? We got really good at it.

But something funny happened on the way to the decision. The handful of steps grew exponentially. We got CONNECTED.
And because of that, storytelling will never be the same.

As consumers became more connected to information and each other, their decision-making processes changed. They found word-of-mouth, online research, reviews, blog posts, and recommendations more accessible than ever before. Their expectations were raised. A dependency upon truly-informed decisions and the sharing of information with our peers as trusted advisors were becoming as important as the act of searching for information, and a new form of media was born.

Social media.

But after decades of being good at storytelling through two-dimensional, linear media programmed at people, brands became stymied by the uncontrollable four-dimensional social media that had formed between people. Media that you couldn’t buy, in the traditional sense. You couldn’t creative- or art-direct for it. It just happened. With or without you.

You were screwed.

As an industry, we’ve spent the last several years trying to figure out how to tell stories in an age of social media. The problem is that some time ago, probably between the time Napster was launched and when Facebook eclipsed Google in terms of ‘time spent’, we reached what I will call (with apologies to Ray Kurzweil) ‘the advertising singularity’ – the point at which the velocity of consumers’ behavioral evolution outpaced the decision-making speed of marketers. Brand storytelling as we knew it changed forever, as an empowered consumer picked up brand stories from wherever they left off, and told them as their own. Often, with their own interpretation. And those interpretations weren’t always nice – especially if the brand or product wasn’t either.

Social media has given consumers the power to create, distribute, and manipulate content. It has given them the power to organize. To mobilize. To act. To embrace the good stories, and correct the wrong ones. It has made them both the medium AND the message. And it is forcing us to evolve into better storytellers.

Non-linear, trans-media storytellers.

Collaborative storytellers.

Real-time storytellers.

As time goes on, this evolution will have an impact on the business of advertising, as it becomes a polarized trade. On one end, you’ll have the traditional, linear, awareness-driven, impression-based practices, which will focus on squeezing as much performance out of classic advertising real estate as possible. On the other end, will be the much more complex practice of engaging the consumer, where performance will be evaluated upon how well consumers are actively or passively telling the brand’s story, and helping each other make ‘the right’ brand decisions.

This is already starting to change everything we know about the business of advertising. After all, how can we expect the same story to be told both synchronously and asynchronously – and by millions of different storytellers? I will posit that it is impossible for brands and agencies to do both profitably within their existing, siloed models. They will need to change. Traditional siloed approaches don’t help make these kinds of things happen. Silos are for storing. And social media is about sharing.

As media itself undergoes its most rapid changes in its history, social media is becoming the most engaging and intensely consumed (and created) type of media. And because of all of our connections, it isn’t impressions, but *attention* that is becoming most scarce. More impressions are being created every second. But they’re certainly not making any more attention.

In his book Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues that television storytelling is better now than ever before (in spite of reality programming) because it rewards us for paying attention to more complex story arcs. The stories may still be told linearly, but frequent callbacks to events from prior episodes, and even seasons, engross a viewer, turning them into active participants in show communities and advocates outside of those communities. Attention is what good stories are exchanged for, and social media represents infinite golden opportunities to pay it forward.

There’s a lesson to be learned there. If marketers choose to truly engage and involve audiences in non-linear, collaborative, real-time storytelling in an age of social media, they should tell stories that are not just about the product, but the lifestyle associated with the product, and the values the brand stands for. They should be ones that consumers can spin and tell on their own; ones they can share between them. And since the mix of media is as much a part of the story as the story itself, it requires more fluid thinking and execution, more real-time interaction with consumers. Everything is kind of starting to look like everything else as the methods of storytelling are becoming indistinguishable, yet more memorable at the same time.

We must tell those stories with consumers, in real-time, and engage consumers at scales that will actually result in measurable impacts on our businesses’ bottom-lines.

These new, non-linear, collaborative, real-time stories must add value to consumers’ lives. They must make consumers want to engage with each other in ways that make experiences better. These stories must be relevant enough to be meaningful at every consumer touchpoint. They must use digital, mobile, and social media to move people emotionally, behaviorally, and physically.

Of course, we must be able to measure the impact of these stories on consumer engagement and behavior objectively. Brands must first understand what the value to their business is of each kind of consumer engagement that advances the story. And the quality of those stories should be evaluated based upon their ability to be effectively wielded by consumers.

Brands must be comfortable with programming their never-ending stories with consumers. They must find each and every way to ensure that as many of the right people share those experiences as possible, so the story can find its way to as many people, through as many people as possible. Engagement across – and through – social media will demand that these aspects be managed holistically and be optimized towards meaningful, valuable, story-advancing engagement. And as media just becomes irreversibly social, collaborative and real-time storytelling will become even more important.

The biggest difference between historical and present-day brand storytelling is that when the stories were linear, the protagonist was the brand. But when storytelling is collaborative and in real-time, it’s the consumer who is the protagonist.

Evolve your approach to real-time, collaborative storytelling now, and your customers will advocate more, refer more, buy more, and make more, better customers. And you will live happily ever after.


  1. In other words, do with social media what the soaps did for decades. The soaps are fading now because storytellers with more time and money to work with are producing higher-end soap operas. All that’s left to do is figure out the degree and nature of product placement and you’re there.

  2. And people who are active on social media are getting better and better at telling stories too. I’m a filmmaker/storyteller. Sometimes I’m amazed by how much drama and fun people have on Facebook or Google +! You can read about how someone just bought a piece of clothing and took a picture of herself in the store and shared the joy of showing off… It was an odyssey, an adventure! We’re all so damn insanely hungry for great stories. There are brands that encourage their customers to tell their stories. Others, don’t really care. They are fakes, they don’t know how to engage with their fans. I think the key is to place real people on social media who will listen and react to the stories they tell in a sincere, positive way, not getting in the way with their own content, but appreciating the small and big stories coming from the customers. Ian, by the way, great talk this morning at Art Directors Place. Thanks.