How can advertisers use search and social media to effectively communicate brand narratives? These current trends in storytelling can optimize your digital marketing strategy.

Storytelling has been part of advertising since the 1920s, when Burma Shave pioneered using sequences of road signs to tell short, usually humorous stories in incremental chunks.

The result was a campaign that ran for almost 40 years - until the higher speeds allowed by superhighways made the ads impossible to read.


Today, digital marketers can use a variant of this technique to create more interesting campaigns with better performance metrics.

Let's look at just a few social media and search-based storytelling tools we have available right now.

1. Search-based storytelling

PPC marketers may not think of the ads they create as storytelling units, but they're perfectly suited to this purpose. The standard process for setting up a sequential narrative is to identify keywords associated with each stage of the buy funnel – from awareness, to interest, to desire, to action - then tie each group to an ad unit designed to move the user further along this process.

Because it serves as a central hub for a multitude of Google products, AdWords gives marketers enormous flexibility to build storytelling campaigns. For example, marketers may elect to use the Google Display Network or YouTube for awareness-building, a remarketing campaign for the mid-funnel, and perhaps a product ad for the action stage of the buy funnel.

Remarketing Lists for Search (RLSA) offers another way for marketers to identify users who've exhibited enough prior behavior to establish exactly where they are in the buy funnel, and serve them custom creative designed to move them to the next phase of the journey or narrative.

The downside of all of these options is complexity as well as the requirement to spend enough (Read more...) develop sufficient data to test and optimize the campaigns – a situation that tends to favor marketers with large search budgets.

2. Social media storytelling

Facebook has been busily promoting sequential storytelling ad campaigns for some time, and published a study this past August demonstrating their superiority over conventional campaigns.

The hypothesis states:



Two storytelling methods were highlighted in the study - funnel-based and "priming and reminding" storytelling. Each delays the call-to-action until the final stage of the campaign, when the user has been "warmed up" by prior exposures to the brand.

However, the study found that sequential ads best articulate a brand's story, as this tended to incite more conversions.


Twitter's been pushing storytelling as well. Just last week, it introduced a new Collections API that "turns multiple Tweets into a single story with a single Collection ID, which can be used to edit, update and publish that story from any of the tools in our ecosystem."

While it's too early to say how another new Twitter feature, Promoted Moments, will perform for advertisers, it's also an exciting development that will be watched and tested in the next few months.

3. Online and offline storytelling

Using the digital footprints left behind on abandoned shopping carts, a start-up called PebblePost recently began offering a way for marketers to target cart-abandoning shoppers with customized postcards, offering them discounts for the same items they almost purchased.

Tying online and offline together in this way provides immense storytelling opportunities - perhaps even a revival of the Burma-Shave poetic school of sequential messaging:

The fact you left our cart behind
Could never make us mad
So here's this postcard,
Bright and fine
A discount, not an ad

How should marketers use these insights?

Marketers can leverage this arsenal of tools by incorporating these best practices for storytelling into their strategies: 

1. Make quality a top priority 

Storytelling is effective, but not everyone will respond to it. Obviously, the quality of your creative and the quality of your brand's story has a lot to do with the success of any storytelling campaigns you undertake. Without compelling imagery or a compelling narrative, the only reaction you'll get will be "so what?"

2. Diversify your narrative

You also need not worry about messaging everyone the same way. For instance, Geico used the Cavemen effectively, but they still ran other advertising creative to tell the Geico story.

3. Test your content

It's generally best to select your most responsive and active prospects as a test bed for your digital storytelling efforts. This is where Custom Audiences - which I've discussed at length in the pages of ClickZ - can serve as your ally.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all offer the ability to upload first-party CRM data to create such audiences, and also to create "look-alike" audiences with similar characteristics but broader reach. By limiting your campaign reach to those loyal consumers that are most likely to understand your story, you'll be in a better position to enroll more people in your brand's unique narrative.

In conclusion

While the fundamentals of effective storytelling through advertising may not have changed, the mediums that support the communication of these narratives are continuously evolving and marketers have to adapt in order to survive.

Ensuring this survival is contingent upon testing and exploring every platform that you suspect is capable of acting as a vehicle for your brand's story in order to successfully engage with audiences and ultimately generate conversions.

Homepage image via Flickr. 

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