The year for sharing stories

Advertising Feature: The challenge for marketers in 2013 will be not just to tell stories, but to encourage their audiences to participate in the storytelling process, says Rebecca Grant, managing director consumer UK & EMEA at Cohn & Wolfe.


According to the Chinese calendar, 2013 is the year of the snake. But from the perspective of earned media, we believe 2013 will be the year of the story.

Stories are powerful: they create positive feelings towards a brand, which increases purchase consideration, encourages recommendation, creates brand loyalty, and builds brand equity (particularly important during times of crisis).

Rebecca Grant
Rebecca Grant, managing director, consumer, UK and EMEA, Cohn & Wolfe

Since the digital explosion, there has been recognition that brands and businesses can finally enjoy a direct, two-way conversation with their consumers and wider stakeholders. Now the challenge for marketers lies with how best to encourage participation. Recently the PR industry has moved away from the traditional structure of one-directional messaging and embraced the art of storytelling. There is a compelling rationale for creating a story, which places the emphasis on brands communicating with their audiences, using a vivid format that evokes emotion and creates impact.

But at Cohn & Wolfe, we don’t believe stories should be told, but shared.

Story sharing, not storytelling: it’s a subtle difference, but an important distinction. Unlike storytelling, story sharing does not focus solely on what the brand wants to communicate, but creates an invitation for audiences to contribute to and participate in a conversation. We believe this not only makes stories have more impact, but makes them more likely to be remembered, shared and retold.

It’s a long-standing principle to consider not just what we, as brands, want to communicate, but to be mindful of what the audience wants to hear and the wider context in which the story will be heard. With an increasingly distracted audience of consumers, stakeholders and employees, story sharing transforms audiences from passive listeners to active participants, co-creating stories alongside brands. In today’s digital world, story sharing between brands and their audiences is richer and easier than ever before, with stories shared and viewed across multiple formats and platforms – via articles, blogs, tweets, status updates, posts and Facebook ‘likes’.

Gabrielle Lovering, our head of digital, who joined C&W recently from BBC Worldwide, is a firm believer in the resulting effect of driving brand loyalty. She involves consumers in the early or beta stages of content creation, and asks them to invest their time and effort to co-create the finished output. Perhaps this trend is best observed in the popularity and loyalty towards Wikipedia, where contributors invest significant time, completely anonymously and without financial reward.

So, how do we create stories that can be shared?

1. Create a story framework

The principles of creating a good story have remained consistent throughout generations. The rules below are as applicable to fairy tales, parables, novels, songs, operas, film scripts and celebrity gossip as they are to businesses describing themselves.

– Opening attention-grabber: designed to immediately prick the interest of the audience.

– Establish the situation: root the story in a situation and provide context.

– Characterisation: create human interest with vivid characters that inspire empathy.

– Conflict: illustrate and dramatise the issue.

– Resolution: show how the conflict is resolved.

– The take-away: a memorable outcome.

2. Encourage story sharing

– Be authentic: In the entertainment industry, an audience might be more prepared to suspend its disbelief, but in a business context a story framework has to be authentic and true to the brand.

– Keep it simple: At Cohn & Wolfe, we keep the story framework as simple as possible. We ensure a simple, impactful structure that encourages the audience to participate in the story creation by adding in its own details and colour; rather than trying to remember and retell by rote. A simple story framework also ensures content is easily translatable across platforms and channels.

– Think long term: keep the conversation sustained over time – allowing it to evolve and continually stay fresh – by encouraging consumer contributions.

– Be collaborative: We believe stories should be collaborative during creation – so we work alongside storytellers and scriptwriters from the entertainment industry, as part of our story-sharing workshops for clients.

Scriptwriters, in particular, are skilled at telling stories that incite an emotional response and sustained interest from their audiences. Also present at our workshops are digital experts, whose expertise lies in creating story content that is easily shared across a multitude of platforms and formats. Finally, if possible, invite a small group of passionate consumers or advocates to co-create alongside internal and agency ambassadors too.

– Go international: Keeping Britain Smiling, an award-winning brand equity campaign, turned smiles into pounds to raise money for children’s charity Barnardo’s. Mums swapped jokes, smiles and funny stories as they collaborated in a broader story for Colgate, but it proved so successful as a story format, that many other countries are now Keeping Smiling, from Italy to Australia.

As stories gain momentum and the number of story sharers swells, it will be interesting to observe how brands recognise and reward their contribution. Will it be through acknowledging their collective or individual support, making product adaptations based on their conversations or naming individual contributors and inviting them to become part of their organisation? Perhaps that’s a trend for the future and we’ll see 2014 become the year of the reward.


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