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By Thomas Hobbs

October 14, 2019 | 6 min read

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In a truly digital world, it’s easy for marketers to get lost analysing spreadsheets filled with consumer data. But the best marketing campaigns are the ones not driven by data but built around stories that come from the heart, according to Susie Donaldson, European marketing director at camera giant Canon.

Shutterstock Story Times Event Panel 1

The first panel at Story Times event in partnership with Shutterstock: 'Tell me a story'

Speaking on a storytelling panel at The Drum and Shutterstock’s Story Times conference at London’s the Barbican last week, Donaldson said too many marketers are letting data dictate their creative output. The panel was moderated by The Drum senior reporter, Rebecca Stewart.

That ‘gut’ feeling in the age data

“Data only really tells you one side of the story,” Donaldson said. “But it doesn’t always tell you whether your story was truly interesting. Quite often, that’s something you’ll only really know in your heart and gut instinct will tell you if your campaign is authentic and original much better than an algorithm can.

“At Canon, we’re by no means sophisticated with data,” she confessed.

“In fact, we often only look at it afterwards. I guess, for us, we trust the idea that you only really know a good story when you see it. First and foremost, it’s about human judgment.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Snap's head of client partnerships Hannah St. Paul, who added: “If you don’t feel like a campaign is going to work in your heart then that’s something worth listening to.”

Yet she also admitted analysing data is integral to Snap, when it comes to getting closer to its customers and understanding what they want from the social media app. “Data can give you a really clear understanding of how consumers interact with different platforms. Like, people go to Twitter for news or YouTube for entertainment, so only advertise there if it truly makes sense," she explained.

“We use data to understand our audience and how they use the platform daily. We’re constantly learning the behaviours of our users and then taking those learnings to improve our services.”

If advertising is a dirty word, how do you stand out?

The panel was also asked how brands can stand out in such an overcrowded marketplace. One “definite no”, according to Marianne Bunton, director of global product marketing at Shutterstock, is not clearly marking branded content for what it is.

“Advertising is such a dirty word right now so it’s very important you find a healthy balance for user experience and advertising,” she explained. “We found from our subscribers they were happy to have branded content so long as it was in the right format and it was clearly noted. It comes down to the quality of story, ultimately, as even if something isn’t high in terms of production value, it can be captivating if it’s shown in the right moment.”

Standing out is always easier for brands who prioritise originality and don’t just chase trends, according to Al Young, creative partner at FCB Inferno. Referring to the successful This Girl Can campaign by Sport England that his agency worked on, Young added: “That campaign worked as it wasn’t afraid to be different.

“You need to start from an original place. If you can give people something fresh to play with then they will pick it up. It’s also about starting with a truly original story. You have to ask yourself whether you’ve ever seen it before and that brutal honesty will be the starting point for an original idea.”

How to tie ROI, KPIs and other metrics to storytelling

The panel ended its discussion by debating how brands and marketers can ultimately measure success. For Donaldson, it’s still primarily a sales-led journey. “It’s about nudging consumers down the funnel to buy from me as if they don’t buy our cameras then we won’t exist. I need to work out how to demonstrate to my stakeholders how marketing is creating new business. Good marketing should bring new customers to a brand who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.”

However, St. Paul claimed sharable content could be well be the most important measure of success, with it proving that a campaign has really moved someone into taking action. “We look at engagement and how much time our users play with brands. If they are wiling to share a filter with their friends then that means they aren’t ashamed to endorse a brand.”

However, Young was keen to stress participation remains the “holy grail”. He concluded: "The consumer not just being in receive mode, but participation mode too, has long been the holy grail for marketers.

“You don’t want to just fire messages at your audience but for them to participate too. If you want an audience, it all starts with a good story. It’s just a shame so many of the stories out there are so dull.”

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