Be a Storybuilder, not a Storyteller

Be a Storybuilder

Building stories with your audience


Once upon a time, we were storytellers.

We had messages to deliver, about brands and products, services and destinations. We used our creative prowess to wrap these messages in a narrative that would touch consumers and win them over to our cause. It was a wonderful thing, and we thought "surely, it can't get any better than this!" Then along came technology to prove us wrong.

"Beyond Storytelling: Storybuilding" was one of the first sessions at Advertising Week 2012 and it was the ideal way to kick off the week by focusing on something that is so central to successful advertising. Barely ten seconds into the session, moderator Matt Williams (EVP/GM, The Martin Agency) set the tone perfectly by explaining the distinction between storytelling and story building:

"Storytelling is a one way thing. Storybuilding should be a dialogue between our brands and our consumers, in a way that we use the power of technology and consumer engagement not just to tell a more compelling story to our consumers, but to engage them in helping us build it."

Williams added, "When you have cocreators of a brand story – people who help you build it – you get the advocacy and all of the things that marketers pay a premium for."

Welcome to the Story Age

This concept of engaging the target audience to help craft the story of the brand is something that was largely out of reach until the explosion of social media and nearly universal Internet (and mobile) access. Now, via tools like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, people routinely bring their stories, observations and insights to a global audience.

New technologies not only enable consumers to share in the storybuilding process, they actually encourage them to. Perhaps no company understands this better than tech behemoth Google. As Kevin Proudfoot (ECD, Google Creative Labs) puts it, "Google is about technology – tools that let people do things and create their own stories and their own experiences. A lot of times we'll see the story of a particular platform evolve over time depending upon how people use it." You can see these "platform stories" illustrated with rich detail in Google's own ad campaigns.

Different ways to build a story

The new stories that we build with our audience can be like sculptures – a seamless shape that doesn't show the fingerprints of the many hands that made it. Or they can be like mosaics, with each piece bringing its own distinct color to what is still a powerful, coherent piece. Or sometimes, they can be like a ballet, where we have choreographed the entire piece, but allowed the audience members to play the parts.

Theda Sandiford (VP, Digital, Universal Republic Music) shared her technique for building the story of a single or an album by distributing story components to different groups based on their level of fandom. Giving key pieces of the story (inside access, VIP meet-and-greets, behind the scenes videos, etc.) to the most hardcore fans, she not only pulls them even closer to the artist, but she also gives them the opportunity to carry those story elements to the masses (something superfans love to do).

"We basically infect our message that we would like them to spread."

Enabling great storybuilding

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a great story. When you are going it alone, you can lock your team in a room overnight and come out the next day with a finished story. If you want to bring the audience into the process, you have to allow the time and space for them to participate. Peter Jacobson (Dr. Taub from TV's House) pointed to the difference in potential audience interaction between a movie and a TV series. The gaps between episodes and seasons (and the extended writing process) allows time for audience feedback and reactions to seep in and contribute to the direction of the show.

As important as it is to invite the audience into the process, proper storybuilding doesn't involve taking your hands off the wheel and walking away. The best creations are not at the extremes. They are a blend of participation and creative guidance. You need to maintain a level of control over the process and the grand vision, even as you flex and respond to the outside input.

There's another benefit to carefully filtering the interaction. Giving the audience a little bit of ownership is awesome, but giving them too much creates a visceral reaction that can backfire. If they go from feeling like they are helping you with YOUR creation to feeling like you are "messing" with THEIR creation, they can hold you hostage in your own story. In other words, don't give away the keys to the castle.

Prepare to live happily ever after

The great magic of storybuilding is the energy that the audience can bring to the process and the end product. As we prepare to invite them on stage to become a part of the brand, it's important to set that stage for the most impact. As you craft the background and those early messages, you have to think to yourself "what am I giving people that they can work with?"

Once upon a time we were storytellers. It was hard work (and often times lonely work) but it was rewarding. Then one day we discovered that we didn't have to be alone, and that our stories could be bigger and greater when we invited everyone around the bonfire to take part. And we all lived creatively ever after.

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