Has technology killed storytelling in advertising?

If you look at some of the most famous and best remembered ads of the last 30 years, most have one thing in common.

Whether it was the Oxo family’s nightly dinner (pictured above), the Gold Blend couple’s romantic liaisons or the antics of BT’s house-sharers, each brand has succeeded by telling a story.

Stories are important. They are the units of culture we use to communicate our ongoing narratives. But stories are also changing, and that has a big impact for the way we do marketing.

The classic marketing stories of old were phenomenally popular. An Oxo ad could reach perhaps 60 per cent of UK TV viewers in one swoop. But, whilst the story of life around the nation’s kitchen table was compelling, that story was rather one dimensional.

The truth about narrative is that there are ebbs and flows. And the same is true of consumers. One month, they may do no cooking whatsoever, the next they may be the household’s appointed chef.

In the world beyond TV, advertising is fundamentally different. In the last couple of years, data-driven techniques have become the dominant trope of our industry – so much so that it is now more common to see Maths Men paying lip service to creativity than number-crunching.

For good reason. Targeting efficiency is not storytelling. And the kinds of lazy digital tactics that have grown up lately have prompted the massive resentment we are now seeing toward online advertising. In this playbook, buyers decide that after a consumer views their website, they will bombard them with ads until kingdom come.

It’s about as far removed from spinning a yarn as you can get. So it’s time we got smarter. Fortunately, it is technology which allows us to do exactly that. Let me introduce you to three technologies that go to make up what I call The New Storytelling:

  1. Moment marketing – using information about a user’s environment to serve relevant messaging.
  2. Machine learning – combining consumer data points to understand what resonates with individuals.
  3. Emotional measurement – tracking beyond the click to see real human resonance.

If they sound less to do with stories than characters, conflict and conclusion, let me explain…

Storytelling, by virtue of being narrative-driven, is a multi-component arc comprising several key parts. Likewise, the marketing funnel is made up of several critical stages, from discovery to purchase. When harnessed in this new age, stories are more than just creative devices designed to lure us in to a product – they are the tools brands can use to reach a consumer at the right moment in the journey.

If you want to reach someone at the beginning of exposure to a brand (your “introduction”, if you like), that is a very different kind of messaging from reaching them just before the point of purchase (your “epilogue”).

That “right moment” is different for every consumer. An expectant parent may be in-market for a pushchair, but a dad with new twins on the way will likely be seeking out a people carrier. A single, one-size-fits-all marketing message may be lost on these consumers. That is why delivering individual messages at points that cater to consumers’ own story can unlock increased resonance.

In this way, marketers can create very personal messages for unique consumers, an audience of one, that are enabled by knowing those consumers intimately. Infinitely measurable and adjustable, the online world is a petri dish for the rest of the media mix - if certain parts of the story work best for particular groups online, a brand could re-apply those same activities in a different media.

In other words, in the new age, your story is more than just words, more than just the content of a message; it’s shaped by the time and context in which the consumer is making a decision, the point at which your relationship has matured.

We can achieve the return to storytelling that more in ad-tech are coming to realise the need for. But it does not have to come at the expense of advanced, data-driven practices. Now, that’s a story worth telling.

Ben Humphry is chief commercial officer at iotec

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