by Michael O'Neill
June 28th, 2013

With an increasingly vibrant and crowded media landscape it has never been more important to understand how to cut through the noise that is vying for consumers’ attention from the moment they wake until the moment they go to sleep.

One of the key elements of engagement is the ability to get the story right – those brands that have a clear story and demonstrate that they live that story every day are the very same brands that achieve the highest levels of engagement. The right story gives people a reason to care, to think and, crucially, to engage.

Today’s media landscape has evolved in such a way as to break down borders and democratise the communications environment so that access to the means of communication has passed from the few — journalists, broadcasters or publishers; to the many — anyone with a smartphone or access to a computer.

This democratisation of the media has led to an increase in the need for brands to tell great stories whether they are practical, emotional or aspirational, in order to connect with their audience in a meaningful way. This change means that your audience now feels able and entitled to question and challenge the messages and stories they are exposed to every day in a much more immediate and impactful way than ever before. The flip side though is that if you get the message right, they can also choose to endorse you, like you and tell their social network about you. This presents a fantastic opportunity, but only when the message is right or the story convincing.

Yes, on the surface it has never been easier to reach consumers, the channels are almost endless. The reality, however, is that it has never been harder to take them on your journey with you, to use your service or buy your products. In short, to engage them.

The first and, it could be argued, most important step is to understand exactly who you are talking to — and to do it before even beginning to think about what it is you want to say. How can a brand engage successfully if its view of its audience that may be misguided, out of date or at worst, jaundiced? Yes, there is an understanding of the need to engage on multiple levels but if assumptions are made about audience attitudes that do not accurately reflect reality, the message is unlikely to land effectively.

Whilst it’s true to say that stories and storytelling won’t provide a panacea for the problems we face as communicators – having the right story may prove to be the most powerful tool in your arsenal. And at the heart of the greatest stories there is a fundamental truth, or moral, that represents the brand and the core of its communications strategy which will fuel campaigns and drive engagement. However, that truth must be something that is both understood, and be robust enough to be challenged by an increasingly cynical, and often suspicious, audience.

Take for example brands like Nespresso whose stories all revolve around a clear quality and affordable luxury narrative; or Carphone Warehouse which prides itself on always delivering simple impartial advice; or Nike whose truth is that we can all strive to be the best that we can be. All three know what their story is and have the confidence to use it as the source code for all of their communications activity.

There are two common threads that run through these examples, and indeed through every story that works, and they are simplicity and credibility. Ensuring that the message behind the story is simple enough to convey your vision whilst being believed and embraced by your audience, is anything but simple. Boiling down a myriad of competing internal messages and priorities to a single proposition – or moral – takes time, effort and conviction. It is also crucial that a company or brand does more than tell its story: it has to live it too.

So, why will stories continue to grow in terms of relevance and importance for all of us working in the communications sector? To begin with, communications today probably owes more to the traditions of Beowulf and Aesop than at any other time in the recent past and, although the channel has changed from word of mouth around a campfire to a digital network, the principles remain the same – great stories passed from person to person, often embellished or added to, but with the fundamental truth still intact.

It is a method of communication that is hard wired into our psyche. It is how we teach our children right from wrong, or excite and amuse our friends over a glass of wine. The reason that so many fairy tales and fables are present in so many cultures is because they work. They deliver a simple message clearly and effectively, whether it’s that liars won’t be believed or beware of grandmothers with sharp teeth and whiskers!

The phrase ‘let me tell you something I think you’ll find relevant’ is more inclusive than ‘listen to me, I want to talk about myself’ – an over simplified example, I grant you, but one that represents a significant shift in the way we consume media.

The challenge is that looking for an easy, one-size-fits-all solution will result in disappointment. The key lies in understanding what the desired outcome for any story might be. This approach represents a move away from; ‘what I want to say’, towards an outcomes focused technique.

Stories may have been a part of our social and cultural make-up for generations, but for brands getting the story right so that it leads to positive engagement is not for the faint hearted.

Every time a message is tweeted or Facebook page updated, everyone seeing it — either first, second or third hand — is receiving a tacit invitation to take ownership of that message and in doing so, brands are willingly giving up an unprecedented degree of control over how that message is disseminated and to whom. But rather than run from this, we need to embrace it because once that message has been set free and takes on a life of its own we know it’s succeeded. It’s not been deleted, forgotten or relegated to spam. Instead it’s been shared, ‘liked’ and commented on. It has engaged people.

Nick Rabin is head of Strategic Services, UK, Weber Shandwick.

This article appeared originally as part of Weber Shandwick’s 2013 Trends Report Thirteen

 

 

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