Why storytelling and social media need each other to survive

Simon Mainwaring / Advertising / 8 years ago

Image: Fight pink

As the business marketplace continues to integrate social technology, it’s tempting to say that the arrival of social media is as revolutionary as the digital revolution was ten years ago. It’s also tempting to think that social media agencies will rob traditional media companies, whether they are advertising agencies or PR firms, of a large share of their clients ad spend just as digital companies have done. But such an outlook overlooks one key fact: social media needs powerful storytelling to thrive, just as brand storytellers must now embrace social media. Here’s why.

It’s easy to mistake social media as an end in themselves, but the currency that marketers and communities of all types still trade is emotion. In order for a brand to market itself effectively and to connect deeply with its community, it must tell a story that captures the attention of that audience and allows them to become emotionally invested in it. For that to happen, a brand must define itself clearly and articulate its core values, and then communicate them consistently. But that can only happen if a brand has defined its own narrative in the first place. Only by having defined itself can a brand maintain a compass in a marketplace where technology changes so quickly.

As such I contend that storytellers and social media marketers cannot survive without each other. Too often storytellers schooled in traditional media don’t possess, profess or practice sufficient social technology expertise to adequately serve their clients. On the other hand, social media companies often don’t have the hard won storytelling expertise of traditional ad agencies.

That’s why I believe the most effective solution for a brand today lies in a combination of the two. For a truly effective social campaign, a brand needs to embrace the first principles of marketing, which involves brand definition and consistent storytelling. They must then trade in the timeless currency of emotion using traditional and social media. Finally they must moderate any conversation about the brand even as consumers are co-authoring the stories that brands are telling, augmenting any positive exchanges and tempering the negative.

The future, therefore, belongs to those brands and their marketing partners who offer the best of traditional advertising with the latest in emerging technology. For this reason, advertising agencies are as relevant as ever if they bring the same creativity to bear on technology that they do to ideas. Likewise, social media companies must combine their mastery of the latest in real-time, location based or augmented reality technologies in the service of clear and consistent storytelling. Only then can a brand confidently expect that its community of customers or fans will go to work for it providing that other timeless trait of effective marketing, word-of-mouth advertising.

Do you agree that storytelling is as important to a brand as social media? What brands do you think are combining the two effectively?


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  1. Avatar Chimimimusic says:

    Simon, excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly that storytelling will be the key to the success of social media as an advertising play. You very eloquently state the significance of narrative and brand identity. There is another aspect that should be mentioned.
    In a recent paper published by IBM Institue for Business Value “From social media to social CRM” it is apparent the consumers and brands are almost at polar opposites in why they view social media as important. The most startling fact is that predominant reason consumers interact with brands is for discounts and coupons whereas an equal number of brands use social media to push their brand message. Obviously the two constituents are very far apart in how they use the technology. Consumers use social media to interact with brands to discover tangible value while brands view social media as a means to “push” their agenda with the hopes of generating intangible value.

    The value of good storytelling should never be underestimated however if you take the previous paragraph one step further, stories spread by brands will have to generate tangible value to attract a significant audience.

    In 1977 Joseph Campbell stated in the “Power of Myth” that the last 25 years of the 20th century would be moving too fast for mythology (storytelling) to catch up. Toffler described the world we would be living in a state of ‘cultural anxiety”. Prescient words to be sure. As a culture we are struggling to know who to trust. We have no myths/stories to help us out.

    Humans have used stories to communicate for thousands of years. Relevant stories that help deliver tangible value will be the winners in this new world we live in. Engagement may well be limited to user polls, ratings and the management of online reputation.

    1. Thanks so much and that study is fascinating. I’m surprised how important
      coupons are to consumers but you make a good point that storytelling must
      add value too. I love your expression “relevant stories that offer tangible
      value”. And by value, I expand it beyond coupons to a sense of community,
      social contribution and a measure of hope in the future. Thanks so much for
      sharing this point. You’re spot on. Simon

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  7. Fantastic. Thanks, Lindsey. I will take a loof at the Goodman Center. Sounds
    like an amazing resource. Simon

  8. Avatar rwordplay says:

    Excellent points all, no less for being obvious and therein lies the puzzle. There is no brand without a story that adheres and persuades and motivates and no brand will survive unless it employs all the tools that use the “latest in real-time, location based or augmented reality technologies.”

    I don’t think anyone serious about the business denies this reality. We are of course social beings before we are beings that utilize social media.

    1. Thanks. I think while the message is self evident the market is split
      between social media companies and ad agencies with digital shops in
      between. My hope is that doesn’t lead to a false separartion of skill sets.
      Thx, Simon

      1. Avatar rwordplay says:

        My suspicion is that even as we speak, or more accurately, exchange these notes, the notions of traditional versus digital versus social media are being revised, if not abandoned. Which is to say the lines, arbitrary to begin with, are being erased; erased rapidly by those looking forward, erased reluctantly by those who believe they’ve interests to protect.

        1. Your probably right. Erasers at the ready. Lines starting to blur. Simon

  9. Avatar Craig Pearce says:

    Good point, Simon. Implied (I think and hope) in what you say is that brands can’t simply use social media as a billboard, with snappy one liners and continual (occasional is fine and hopefully fun etc) spruiking. They need to contain a narrative that reflects their values but also provides information, stories etc that have resonance for their stakeholders too.

    Social media is very well suited to this, but pretty facile without taking this holistic approach. One of the challenges, I think, is using (potentially) hit and run platforms like Twitter (especially) and Facebook (often) to actually create/contibute to narratives.

    1. Thanks Craig and I agree. It is difficult to frame these exchanges in terms
      of a narrative when a) brands don’t know exactly who they are b) what their
      core values are c) are not listening to their customers needs and d) are too
      hieracrchical to respond in a human way in real time. I think we’re in the
      early days when we’re working this out and reorganizing companies
      internally. I think interactions will look very different in a few year
      (here’s hoping). Simon

  10. […] experience, the onus falls upon brands to be more defined in terms of what they stand for, their core values and how they communicate them to their community of customers.  While that may sound simple it’s […]

  11. […] the attention of that audience and allows them to become emotionally invested in it.” – Simon Mainwaring, Author: We […]

  12. […] effectively across with others, but also learn plenty more along the way. There have been lots of great write-ups and insightful articles along these terms on the many reasons why storytelling helps make […]