Dominic Payling on Social Storytelling

Dominic Payling is the Planning Director at MSL London. His article on Social Storytelling was first published in the People’s Insights Quarterly Magazine Issue 2. The article is re-published below.

Social Storytelling: How brands and organizations are telling stories in streams

“I had to know and understand my own story before I could listen to and help other people with theirs.”
Barack Obama, US President

“Once people make your story their story, you have tapped into ‘faith’.”
Seth Godin, US entrepreneur, author, public speaker

Working recently on a Storytelling workshop with Dr Mark Chakravarty, a client at P&G, he summed up for me its importance in communications:

“[There is] a growing body of research that shows our brains, despite evolution, still look for the story to make sense out of information.”

He noted that researchers Roche and Sadowsky[1] reviewed the most important literature about storytelling and identified four principal reasons underlying the power of story:

First, stories are universal, crossing boundaries of culture, language, gender and age.

Second, they mirror how humans think. All evidence from neurology and psychology leads to the conclusion that humans think in stories (narrative structures). Ideas conveyed in story form – more than concepts explained with logic and analysis – imprint themselves naturally into human minds.

Third, stories define who we are. Our sense of identity is forged by the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we come to believe and those we choose to dismiss.

Finally, stories build and preserve a group’s sense of community. Stories align and motivate by portraying the world in terms that build emotional connections between people and create a sense of shared purpose.

Photo from Adulau on Flickr

As adults it’s easy to dismiss what came so naturally to us as kids. But we are who we are because of our own stories. Perhaps even more so now. As Daniel Pink said in A Whole New Mind:

“Personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent, in a time of abundance, when many of us are freer to study a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose.”  

But what of storytelling and business?

Let’s stop and think about the world we inhabit; 2011 was all about numbers: Eurozone debt (€22.1tn[2], lobal population growth (c.7bn). Peak oil prices $113 per barrel. You may well know that Japan’s national debt is on track to exceed 1 quadrillion yen by March 2012 due to aid and rebuilding following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. (A quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000). But do you understand what this number means, for Japan, for you?

Can you comprehend these faceless statistics presented on their own? I certainly can’t.

Jean Luc Godard offered a solution:

“Sometimes, reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

Let’s now consider attention spans.‘The Economist’ says that we are bathed in information:

 “People choose to read about 10 mb of material a day, hear 400 mb a day, and see 1 mb of information every second.”

Photo from simon_shek on Flickr

Winston Fletcher, the ad guru, used to make the point that most supermarkets sell 30,000 skus and the average basket size is 30. In a world in which marketers only had to contend with a superabundance of choice, his point was that your brand was far more likely to be one of the 29,970 left on the shelf.

But that was a world in which we (the marketer) had the power to organise our audience’sattention for them. These days, audiences organise their own attention.

Thinkbox is the marketing body for commercial TV in the UK. Their members represent over 90% of the commercial UK TV market through their owned and partner channels. The company’s declared aim is: to help advertisers get the best out of today’s TV. Their business is TV and their research is revealing:

  • 52% of internet users search for a brand on a search engine in response to seeing a TV ad
  • Half of online viewers engage in online shopping while watching TV. 27% investigate a brand or ad seen on TV
  • 1 in 3 claim to engage in 2-screen viewing every day; 60% do at least one a week

According to the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA), 80% of Britons are simultaneous media users (use at least two different forms of media at the same time).

We’ve shifted from a linear, synchronous, scheduled world controlled by media owners into one that is asynchronous and controlled by the individual. As Seth Godin said recently:

“Attention from those interested and able to buy is worth more now than ever before.”

It is the premise of Google and Amazon and all those brands shifting ever closer to true social commerce models. I love my Kindle, for instance. Wherever I am, whenever I want, I seek stories. Not just the ones that used to come on paper but the ones that the
reviewers write. Stories of pain, delight, rage, joy, boredom, frustration and tragedy – the stories that I choose to read before the stories I choose to buy.

Photo from seandreilinger on Flickr

People now actively ‘manage’ the way they consume content. They choose how and when they engage with stories, and how they talk about and share them online.

This could be saving up a favourite drama series until they can ‘binge watch’ three or four episodes in a row. Or it might mean ‘snacking’ on Twitter or social games during a commute. It might mean watching an online video whilst eating lunch at their desk, or clearing a weekend so they can attend a festival with friends.

Understanding these new patterns of attention allocation and being able to listen and engage with audiences about their own personal stories, is the first step to being a competitive, 21st century company. The most forward thinking organisations go a step further and are building marketing and communications strategies that actively encourage, amplify and reward customers’ stories, rather than assuming that the company is the only entity capable of telling stories about a product. They know how to translate the process of storytelling into a valuable outcome and ensure their own stories are being listened to.

At MSL London, we work with the highly talented Matt Locke who runs and we think his perspective on ‘new patterns of attention’ is well worth listening to. The explosion of new digital platforms and devices  has created a plethora of new ways to tell your story, and the old tradition of peak time viewing has morphed into a 24/7, always-on world. Deciding where and when to tell your story is not just a matter of taking traditional planning techniques to new channels – it requires an understanding of the different kinds of attention we have in different contexts.

One way of thinking about these contexts is as three different categories – Schedules, Sites and Streams.

SCHEDULES are traditionally planned channels for stories, where the context and timing of the story are defined in a top-down way from the channel owner. Attention in these channels is very predictable, as audiences have to plan their time around the strict timing of the schedule.

Anything that is published to a regular timetable – television, radio, cinema, printed newspapers and magazines – has this pattern of attention, where the audience has to wait for the publisher/ distributor before getting the story. Schedules tend to produce synchronous attention, with the bulk of the audience getting the story at roughly the same time, producing a huge spike in buzz and conversation.

SITES are channels where the location of the story is more important than the timing. Outdoor advertising, point of sale, location-based mobile content and destination/portal websites all count as sites for content, sharing the same patterns of attention.

Sites tend to produce asynchronous attention, with the audience coming across stories over long periods of time, perhaps with some peak traffic but far more dispersed than scheduled content. Conversation and discussions are equally dispersed over time, with a significant ‘long tail’ as audiences come across the content on physical or virtual journeys.

STREAMS describe the fast-moving, dynamic contexts of social media, recommendation services and other sites defined by networks and algorithms. Stories appear in these contexts as part of a never-ending stream of messages that the user can order according to a range of  options, including time, relevance, size, location or pretty much any feature they choose.

Unlike the previous two contexts, streams are organised by or for the user, depending on the sources of information they follow, or the data used to personalise their stream. Telling stories in streams is a really complex task, as many different unpredictable patterns of attention can emerge, from slowly building audiences around a story to sudden spikes as users share stories around the globe in a matter of minutes.

Photo by markjsebastian on Flickr

Where  will your story exist? Will it be in a schedule, a site, a stream, or a combination of all three? Will it be an online game, a blog, or a magazine article?

How can consumers assess the probability of an uncertain event like whether to buy a new brand? People increasingly must rely on a limited number of heuristic principles essentially storytelling techniques, which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations. And it is our role as marketers to help them construct a continuous sequence of narratives that allow them to do this.

Working with stories comes naturally to us. They help us to develop, they help us make sense of our life and they socialise us. Just consider the power of uniting these elements to support your brand. And what is a great brand if not an epic story in its own right, constructed over time from many chapters of communication driven by a series of marketing directors, like an expensive
game of Consequences. Things have changed, but the power to direct has now transformed into an opportunity to collaborate.

The stories remain as important, but who tells them, what motivates that telling and how are they told is very different? We have entered the world of transmedia storytelling. Managing this process sums up the complexity of 21st century

[1] Loick Roche and John Sadowsky, “The power of stories: a discussion of why stories are powerful,” International Journal of Information Technology and Management 2003, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 377

[2] Main player Eurozone debt as of Nov 2011


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