by Michael O'Neill
March 20th, 2015

Speaking at a recent media event in Hong Kong, AOL’s David Shing told the audience: “Content does not compete with advertising. It competes with popular culture.”

Clearly, advertising is not the benchmark for brand publishers. Rather it is the infinite number of stories that your audiences encounter each and every day. But if popular culture is the competition for brand storytellers, where in popular culture should we be taking our cues?

The usual default position is Hollywood and script doctors such a Robert McKee and Syd Field. While this is a great starting point to learn the craft of film storytelling, the lessons for brands are limited. There is, though, another cultural phenomenon where brands should be focusing their attention: the world of the TV soap opera.

Soap operas tend to get a bad rep. Bad acting, crazy plotlines, extreme characterisations and a definite suspension of belief. Yet they are also hugely popular. They connect with their audiences at a personal level, becoming a part of their regular routines. And, in many cases, they are able to run for decades without ever losing that audience.

They do this in large part because they follow a number of very specific story formulas. These formulas carry seamlessly across markets and across cultures. They keep the soap format tight, focused and perfectly targeted.

Brands face a similar challenge: how to tell stories that engage and not annoy. How to tell stories that people share and not ignore. And, most importantly, how to tell stories that people remember and come back for more.

So what direct lessons can we take from the soap formula?

Here are five for starters:

The open-ended narrative

A soap opera, in theory, never ends. This challenges that basic storytelling tenet of having a beginning, middle and end. But within that open-ended narrative, there is a continuous flow of stories that do have a beginning, middle and end.

Likewise, brand publishing is by its nature open ended, yet needs to communicate a sustained collection of interesting storylines. Which leads to…

Concurrent narrative threads

At any one time on any soap, there are several narrative threads in play. One character is plotting a murder. Another is having an affair. It is the same for brands (minus the murder and affairs). Keeping audiences engaged means creating multiple story touch points that are related, but still distinct in terms of their specific narratives.

Repositioned storylines

In soaps, story themes — the love triangle, the jealous mother — are recycled and repurposed, and still audiences remain enthralled. Not every story needs to be unique. The same story can be told in many different ways, at many different times. If it works, it works.

Consistent tone and voice

Soaps are immediately recognizable by their tone and voice. This voice never changes (or at least shouldn’t) from episode to episode. It should be the same for brands. Know you voice and stick to it across all your content.

Frequent scheduling

In most cases, soaps are year-round, sustained operations that live as much as possible in the same world as their audiences. Christmas in the real world is also Christmas in the soap universe. This is another lesson for brands. Publish often. Publish throughout the year. Observe seasonal moments. Behave like you are a part of your audience’s lives and maybe they will accept you as a part of their lives.

Given the competition for attention – both digital and offline – it is key for brand marketers to ensure their content has impact, reach and audience loyalty. And adopting successful story formulas and narrative techniques that have a proven track record in achieving these objectives is not a bad place to start.

This story was first published on Mumbrella Asia. Click here to view.

Michael O’Neill is head of editorial, Weber Shandwick I/O

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