Storytelling is essential, especially in the digital age, when capturing the attention of time-starved consumers is even more vital.
Google is a company that is exceptional with data, and for Google’s creative director, Ben Jones, data can be used to find out how well stories do and how ads tell those stories.
That’s what a discussion at SXSW on Sunday (March 12) aims to uncover – the art and the data of storytelling in a time-crunched age. The talk, “From Six Words to Six Seconds: How the New Age of Storytelling and Innovation Intersect,” features Jones, plus Sebastian Tomich, SVP, advertising and innovation, T Brand Studio Lead, The New York Times, and Myra Nussbaum, SVP/group creative director, DDB.
Jones started a program within Google called Unskippable Labs, which experiments in content, “essentially bringing a hypothesis- and prototyping-driven approach to how stories work, how ads work,” said Jones. “We've been exploring essentially the way that people respond to content in really directed ways.”
Those ways involve forming a hypothesis, then deliberately designing assets to explore that hypothesis and putting them into the market to see what happens. That’s the most basic way to explain a complex issue. Unskippable Labs has done roughly 25 experiments over the last year around the world in all different industries, mostly concentrated in CPG “like the most traditional hardcore old school advertisers and movies. The movie studios are super aggressive, which is really fun – which you might imagine because they've got a $140m content-based startup launching every weekend. So they've been great partners,” said Jones.
Jones sees a bifurcation between the ad and content sides of the storytelling space. He thinks that ads should be just that – frontloading your story, having the logo up and being simple and clear about your purpose.
“I think that people who are sort of running away from ads are struggling. And on the content side, if you're going to be content, you should be content, not content that looks and feels and sounds like an ad. People who are trying to sort of split the difference are struggling,” he stated.
The classic example he gave is of the traditional 30-second ad, that it will be retired because users won’t tolerate it and generally have a negative reaction to it. If advertising is going to be forced on people, they would rather have a shorter experience.
“15 seconds or six seconds is exploding for us right now, in really fun ways. Or they can choose, then they want longer and they'll watch a lot longer. A minute, two-minute, three minute – they want a story that they want.”
Google has learned that ads aren’t truly the problem, however – bad ads are the problem. People will watch branded ads, but the bar for storytelling is much higher than it used to be.
That’s especially true in the movie industry, which is more about watch time than completion rate, which has blown up the conventions of the trailer. Trailers are designed for a movie experience, and online that doesn’t translate as well.
“They've had much more luck just dropping you into a scene with no prelude and no sense. You see this thing and it's a great, exciting, interesting scene and then people watch as much as they want to watch to get a sense they would like the movie, but not necessarily watch to the end. I think that's been a big adjustment. As a storyteller you have your arc of the story and you want to get somebody where you want to get, deliver your punch and I think you’ve got to jab all the way you can,” stated Jones.
Don’t just splice your content – make it deliberately shorter
Jones said one of the least successful ways to approach the new shortened attention span would be to cut down a traditional 30-second ad. You might be able to get a workable :15 but trying to get a meaningful :06 generally doesn’t work because you’re trying to wedge it in and rush the process. The new short-form creative must be approached as its own beast.
“You don't have to tell the whole story so do you tell a piece? Is it a taste, is it a facet? It may be more helpful to think of it more as a print ad on steroids or a suggestion, a tease of another thing. I think that in the constraint, then, there is freedom,” he said.
Regarding six-second storytelling, most creatives don’t make just one. They make three, four or five of them, which becomes interesting as the viewer can look to see how they relate to each other, which builds an incremental story in a different way than traditional ad stories.
“I've been delighted, surprised and delighted, to see a lot of creative enthusiasm for it. We did a project at Sundance where we invited filmmakers and ad creatives to do six-second storytelling, exploring how they can tell amazing stories in six seconds. They did great stuff, it's super fun, super interesting – some somber and serious, some hilarious, some political, and so I think we've seen a great enthusiasm.”
Brands as powerful storytellers?
Brands may be hit-and-miss when it comes to storytelling, but Jones sees it as a creative problem.
“Cameras were sold for years on specs until there's GoPro and now people are paying them to be in their ads. There was a Dutch funeral insurance company that did a campaign to tell people what they need to do before you die – that's a category, insurance, and a subject, death, that you wouldn't think would ever be great storytelling and it's amazing and moving,” said Jones.
The challenge for creatives is the bar gets higher and higher. It’s not just about telling the best story in a category, like banking. It’s about telling the story better than brands known for great storytelling, like Nike and Lyft, because all that content is available to consumers at the touch of a finger. Jones sees that there is plenty of room for improvement and for brands to move to the top, but no real safe place in the middle.
“I think there is an interesting conversation going on now about how brands are built, like Byron Sharp's How Brands Grow. He believes it's all about mental salience and it's not about being persuasive. And in that kind of structure, six-second storytelling is great. Here's my product 100 times over and when you go to the store you'll remember it. I'm not sure I believe that, but it's interesting to see people in the market pursue it,” he added.
Stories that truly work
A great story Jones remembers is that of Under Armour and Michael Phelps working out before the Olympics in a long, endless pool, training until he was exhausted and then eating a huge stack of pancakes.
“You didn't know at that point if he was going to flame out or be the greatest Olympian ever. I saw that ad and a beautiful piece of craft – I would've watched a much longer version of that. They ran a :30 on TV and then 90-second online and then if you watched that there was a film of him and his fiance expecting their first child watching it and he starts crying. You have to be dead inside to not feel that and plug into that. Then, of course he had such an amazing performance. I thought that that was really astonishing.”
“I think it's a really neat combination of brand and timeliness and messaging and the way that they have build a friendly, accessible, politically active, inclusive brand in contrast to Uber. I think if you went back 12 months and said, "Where will these brands be?" You would not have picked where they are. I think a lot of that is storytelling from Lyft, which started out as a wacky brand with a big pink mustache. Now it's an aware, engaged, fun and friendly brand,” Jones stated.
Jones hopes the SXSW panel stokes two sides of the storytelling conversation. One is that there is no safe space, so he says take the risks and be brave and push out. Two, he says there has never been a better time to be telling stories.
“I think people say, ‘Oh, we've got the attention spans of goldfish and they can ad block us and so on.’ There was a Nielsen study last summer that said we've added an hour of screen time a day in the last twelve months. People have never been drinking in stories more with more of their time, more richly, they've never watched more videos. We just hit a billion hours a day of watch time. So if you're a storyteller, you're where people are. People are dying for this thing that you're making – they love it, they can't get enough of it. I think it's exciting because it's never been easier to reach a bigger audience if you've got a great story. Just tell great stories,” he concluded.
Additional reporting by Doug Zanger