Laura Duggan, a Consultant in our UK MSS practice explores storytelling as a way of maximising product engagement in the digital age.

We all love a good yarn –  whether it’s a juicy piece of office gossip or the latest ManBooker prize winner, a good story well told is interesting, compelling and, most importantly, memorable. Storytelling pre-dates advertising but persists in advertising today, now more so via digital channels.

In the beginning….

Storytelling is the precursor to advertising.  Prior to the advent of recorded language, it was one of the best methods of ensuring that people received and remembered vital information and is extremely effective at creating memory.  A recent study in New Zealand has indicated that Maori children’s childhood memories reach back to when they were two years old, versus four years old for their European counterparts; a fact attributed to the storytelling ability of Maori mothers.

In fact, our ability to try to understand the world through stories is so ingrained in our psyche that it can persist in cases of extreme physical trauma. Dr. Michael Gazzinga’s research into split-brain patients – a situation where the right hemisphere has been severed from the left, meaning that there is no longer an automatic understanding of the thoughts and actions generated by the other ‘half’ of the brain – shows that their story telling centre, located in the left hemisphere of the brains tries to compensate for the problem by creating a story to explain behaviours generated by the right brain.

The fact is that storytelling is a part of human nature, and most significantly, its has an ability to make us remember which has long been understood by advertisers using non-digital channels; for example in the UK we watched the OXO family grow up and leave home, but always come back for a hearty meal (accompanied by OXO of course).  This idea was so successful that the campaign ran in various guises for 23 years. BT has recently resurrected the idea by creating the ‘BT Family’ – BT’s products help a modern British family through the trials and tribulations of their lives together. All of these examples are trying to do the same thing – get the public to buy into the story, emphasise with (and trust) the characters in it, and consequently, buy the product.

With ever more digital channels becoming available, have advertisers missed the story-telling element?

A list of recommended social media KPIs used by digital marketers includes top 5: Alerts; Bookmarks; Comments; Downloads; and Fans (i.e. becoming a fan of something on facebook/a follower on twitter)

The key to successful advertising is to engage with your customers, and to convert that engagement into sales of your product or service. Digital media, and particularly social media channels make it extremely easy for users to ‘Like’ or ‘Tweet’ about a product or organisation – but it can also be very transient and engender a transactional relationship between you and your customers.

So how then to bridge the gap, and create ‘OXO Family’ product engagement for the digital age?

In the US Mattel recently attempted to re-ignite the romance between Barbie & Ken through the use of digital media (specifically facebook). Ken attempted to woo Barbie back through a series of extravagant gestures  – alongside which Mattel timed the release of various teaser products– this culminated with a vote as to whether Barbie should ‘take Ken back’ – the results coinciding with  a larger Valentine’s day Barbie & Ken product release. In a similar way, BT recently made the storytelling link between traditional and digital channels, allowing its audience to vote on ‘what happens next’ in the story of the BT family.

A recent study by BlogHer indicates that 20% of American female social media users will buy a product based on the opinions of a blogger that they know and trust, and, once they have bought one product, they are also more likely to go back to the same source for opinions on other products, and to share their own opinions of their purchases. More generally, 47% of US blog users tap into blogs to find out about new trends or ideas, and 35% to get recommendations on a product that they are considering purchasing. Why do people take the recommendation of a blogger over, say, that of a celebrity endorser? Because the blogger has created a relationship with the customer, the customer has bought into the story that the blogger is telling, they empathise with and trust them, and consequently they trust their opinions on the product.

This effect is not limited to the more traditional written internet blogs – YouTube is a video bloggers paradise, and is teeming with opportunities for both advertising campaigns and product endorsement from bloggers. YouTube has already proven successful in providing ROI to advertisers – in Cadbury’s recent advertising campaign, YouTube advertising showed a £3.71 ROI for every £1 media spend, versus £0.60 for TV, and £2.01 for other online channels.  It has also proven itself a powerful word of mouth vehicle, with YouTube music stars getting record deals off the back of their success, and even songs of dubious musical quality becoming ironically big hitters – see Rachael Black’s Friday

Both traditional and newer blogging methods represent an opportunity for advertisers to re-create story-telling advertisement in the digital age – but, looking back at the list of 35 recommended KPIs to measure customer engagement in social media, blogging and blog endorsements do not appear on the list in any form. Could this reflect a missed advertising opportunity to use digital media to tap in to mankind’s oldest way of advertising?

The End.