Are you sitting comfortably? Use cases from great digital marketing storytellers

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton July 11, 2016
Telling compelling, powerful and truthful stories to your constituency is a critical brand requirement for organizations in the digital age. Here are some thought-leaders in this respect.

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Storytelling is a huge part of how organizations market themselves today via digital channels and social platforms. So how do successful storytellers do it?

Endemol Shine UK is one of the world’s biggest independent TV production companies, the name behind marquee names such as Big Brother, Peaky Blinders, Broadchurch, Masterchef, and Humans.

Storytelling is at this company’s heart, therefore, but how does it use digital channels to tell a very different story: what it does as an organization?

Aaron Eccles is Endemol Shine’s Head of Social Media and Digital Marketing. He says:

We’re not hugely public-facing, although everyone knows our TV shows. But every brand is different; every one has a different tone of voice, a different story to tell. So we try to embed digital as early as possible in all of the conversations: we go to the early meetings, the pitches with the broadcasters, and so on. We want to know as soon as possible how each show is developing. We can then plan and get the tone of voice right from the start, across all of our digital channels.

But as a TV production company, we know that the world is always changing and we need to think about where we put our content. Young people are watching TV differently now and consuming more on mobile. Let’s say we have a show with a young audience: we can’t just clip that up and put it on Facebook, because the audience might not be there. So the challenge for us is how do we get great content on Snapchat, for example, that will bring more people to the show?

Emerging technologies need to be planned for now, adds Eccles:

Virtual reality (VR) is set to be a huge thing for us too. It may take a while for everyone to get headsets, but what we can do in that space, and how our TV shows may have a place in that world, are all things that will form part of our story as an organization.

Endemol has more ways to engage with its audience(s), other than simply creating and sharing great content online? Eccles says: 

We work with the talent, with the celebrities – if they’re the right people, the right influencers – and we get behind-the-scenes content, we shoot vertically so it’s right for Snapchat, and so on. The point is you’ve got to get the right content for the right channel for the right audience, and know how it will work there for that audience.

TV content takes a long time to get to the point: a climax at the end of every episode. We can’t use that, so we have to front-load our content so that it grabs people’s attention in seconds.

But arguably, this is one of the ‘big picture’ problems with social, mobile, and other digital channels: the shift away from long-form content towards whatever communicates instantaneously. It’s a problem because it favours noise over signal, surface over depth, and speed over quality.

Post truth

In digital marketing and advertising, of course, instant communication is a boon, but as the worlds of marketing and editorial content (for example) collide, noise sometimes replaces conversations that have greater depth and integrity: witness the UK’s recent debate over Europe, for example. Some commentators have called this the ‘post truth’ world.

Yet running parallel to that is something else: greater transparency. As more and more organizations open themselves up via social platforms, the increased level of public scrutiny means that people can check whether an organization’s story, values, and behavior are all aligned. An organization’s story can’t be a smokescreen anymore, because sooner or later customers will start to tell their own stories about it, using the same social channels.

One organisation knows more than most about the importance of depth and integrity in its storytelling. Paul Gill is Head of Digital Engagement at international aid charity, Oxfam. He says:

Lots of people have heard about brands such as Nike trying to create ‘missions’ around their brands, but we’ve been doing that since 1942. We don’t have a problem with the idea of trust in terms of our stories, because we research and evidence those stories and the work that we do, and there’s a very detailed sign-off process.

As our world gets smaller in technological terms, and our perspective becomes more global thanks to social platforms, it can be a shock to discover how parochial our local politics can be, and how some organizations have to defend themselves for having a global perspective in the first place. Gill says:

Where we do have a trust issue is in our relationship with the media. Certain sections of it don’t like what we do, don’t like our global perspective, and the fact that we’re trying to help people outside of this country. Sometimes media companies try to eradicate trust in us as an organisation – and not just Oxfam, but other large charities too. So we often use our storytelling to defend ourselves.

Going beyond our own digital channels, we place stories in The Express and The Daily Mail, where we always explain the human side of our campaigns, as opposed to the type of narrative that readers would normally get from those titles.

Gill adds:

Someone once said that social media is a like a great big party and everyone’s having fun, but charities are in the corner of the room, distant from the conversation. So what we’re trying to do is bring ourselves into the centre of the room and take part in conversations, and bring people a little bit closer to what we’re trying to achieve.

For one company, creating a global platform for local stories is paramount. Luisella Giani is founder and CEO of ExpatGenius, a startup social platform that links ‘new expats’ to old expats in a whichever country they’ve moved to.

The company is in prelaunch phase (it goes live in September), and so the story it tells today will form the organization it becomes tomorrow. But ExpatGenius is typical of many platform-based businesses in that it is creating a community that tells its own story, via 100 per cent user-generated content.

Its motto is ‘Home is wherever you arrive’, a tagline that has unexpected resonances in our politically divided 2016. Giani says:

That message is something personal to me. I was an expat myself – I lived in six countries and 13 or 14 cities, and so I think that where I arrive is my home. More and more of us are becoming more nomadic, because we can work remotely and decide where we want to live, and we have a level of freedom we’ve never experienced before.

Of course, political divisions on either side of the Atlantic have demonstrated that this positive, open, egalitarian idea is threatening to some of the more disenfranchised members of our society, who find themselves lost in a socially globalised world they don’t understand. How to engage those people in the future will be a challenge for every type of organization, whether private, public, or third sector.

No blank page

But not everyone can start with a blank page. Jason Wills is Marketing Director of the Charles Wells brewery, a company in a hyper-competitive sector that increasingly favours stories about history and heritage. But these aren’t always the answer, he says:

Consumers are certainly looking for ‘real brands’. A lot of it has to do with authenticity, and many people agree that brands need to be more transparent, and digital and social platforms certainly give you the opportunity to do that.

But if you don’t make a heritage brand relevant to today’s perspective, then you end up being irrelevant to customers. So our challenge is how to combine a history of brewing 180 years ago when that doesn’t necessarily mean that much today. There are a lot of brands telling the same story, so what’s critical is how you stand out from the crowd.

One organisation faces the opposite problem: a long and impressive story that many longstanding customers simply don’t know. In January this year, B2B communications and data company Thomson Reuters rebranded itself as ‘the answer company’. Kelvin Lee, Director of Social Media Marketing for Financial & Risk, one of its business units, explains why:

The feedback we got from customers last year is that they didn’t really know what we do. We’re one those companies with a thousand brands, with customers who have been paying us for 20 years who didn’t know that the brand they use is part of Thomson Reuters. So we wanted to elevate our story.

The way we think about storytelling within Thomson Reuters is that, beyond market data, we also sell trust, so our challenge is how can we convey trust in the brand via our storytelling. Our key priorities are the empowered customer, the fact that younger, millennial customers expect us to be on all of the digital channels that they’re on, and we want to make everyone in the company, whoever they are, a voice for the brand.

So how can organizations ensure that their message, their values, and their behaviour, all come from the same place, and are shared by everyone from the CEO to the receptionist? Lee says:

It’s not an easy task. One thing is having an agreed strategy from all of your key stakeholders, your leadership teams, your sales teams, and so on, and giving them all a voice. I do believe in the democratisation of organizations. It’s less and less about the marketing team or the social media manager in the corner of the room, and it’s more about listening to the voices of the other departments, and there are great tools out there to help you aggregate that.

My take

It’s clear that storytelling online isn’t about spinning a fantasy about what you think and do and hoping that people believe it. (Or it shouldn’t be, as that betrays real contempt for your community.)

It’s about telling the true story of your organization, of why you do what you do, and getting everyone within the enterprise to believe it through positive action and affirmation. You can then leave them to spread the good news organically.

But to create that level of collaboration and integrity demands leadership and a top-down cultural movement within the organization, one that aims to empower employees to empower customers. Simply throwing technology at it isn’t the answer: that’s the final piece of the puzzle, and on each of those channels the content has to be right, and targeted at the right audience.

So: are you sitting comfortably? Now you can begin.