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It’s about the story.
Whether it’s in internal branding, external branding, or (content) marketing, music, movies, teaching or convincing someone; it’s about the story. About emotional response. About recognizable struggles; tension, and the release of tension.

Humans have been telling stories for as long as we have existed as a species. Be it in person, orally, or via some symbolic representation of the spoken word. Sharing great stories is a big part of what makes us human: it’s the way our brains work. We understand, relate to, and remember things that are expressed in the form of a story. In fact, we remember things that are expressed in the form of a story up to 22 times betterthan dry factual information alone.

The challenge digital technology poses to publishers and creatives

Technology has always helped us, in leaps and bounds, to improve the ease with which we shared these stories. Until the age of digital technology. Until the age of today. Today, technology poses a very real challenge to the sharing of stories, although with different historical advances in communications technology, people have certainly claimed the same. Of course there’s two sides to the book of technology, every time.

Regardless, today, not just people in the field of written words, but also people in the field of music, film, and graphic art have to figure out a way to deal with digital. We’ve seen how all of these industries have been impacted, and in some cases turned upside down, while the dust has yet to settle and new business models have yet to solidify.

The challenge that technology poses to creative industries is threefold:

  1. Digital technology makes it really easy for everyone to share content, and thus to share stories, with everyone. Which leads to:
  2. Content and stories are everywhere. People are flooded to the extent that ourcollective attention spans have dropped to a staggering 8 seconds. Does anybody ever read anymore? This is a funny question to ask myself, as an online marketer who specializes in copywriting.
  3. People expect to find great content everywhere online, for free or practically free.

The problem now, for publishers and creatives or writers, becomes a problem of cash flow. How can we curate, produce, and fine-tune great content, great stories, when less and less people are willing to pay for the finished product? How do we fund the creation and distribution of great stories?

The challenge of digital becomes essentially this:

How do you get people to pay for what they know they can find online for free?

The answer is: you don’t.

Making a real connection with your audience as a brand

This is where content marketing comes in. For years marketers have been hearing the mantra that they should “start thinking like publishers”. More and more, this is what they are trying to do, at least to some extent. Over the past few years we have seen the rise of content marketing, storytelling, corporate journalism and branded content.

In fact, storytelling and the related concept of content marketing have become such hyped marketing concepts that it’s starting to annoy people in the industry. That’s probably why these last few years we’re even starting to see blogposts with titles along the lines of “the end of content marketing” or “storytelling is dead”. But there’s a reason why these concepts have gotten so popular.

People are smart; no matter how pretty your online video looks or how emotionally captivating it is: they know when you’re just trying to sell something to them. That’s why marketing and brand managers worldwide are struggling to find great quality content with which they can engage with their online audiences in a meaningful way. Survey report after survey report has shown that these are some of their primary concerns. They have the digital channels and reach. They have access to these social media spaces in which their target audiences live and share amongst themselves, every day. They just have a hard time making a real connection with them there. And that’s where the problem for brands and marketers lies.

The answer: Branded content as a new avenue for creative expression and marketing

We sure have seen some pretty awesome examples of content marketing over the years, though. Where the stories and the content shared were as little about the brand or the product itself as these marketing managers could afford them to be. I’ll discuss a couple of those later. In the meantime; as an online marketer myself, I can attest to the fact that:

A. creatives really can and should embrace the concept of using their talents for marketing, and
B. it’s a lot of fun and challenging to take telling the story of a great company to the next level.

I love what I do. At Motion10 (Business productivity consultancy in the Netherlands,Microsoft partner, country partner of the year 2015) we tell stories, and I am the one who gets to write them. Whether it’s case studies, whitepapers, or e-mailings: we tell the story of what our technology services mean in human terms. What problems they solve, what practical and emotional outcomes our projects have. Like in the case ofTMZ healthcare (case study written in Dutch) where an implementation of portals and a mobile app led to elderly people in the final stages of life receiving more attention from professional caregivers. And it led to these people having their families and loved ones more involved in this important phase of their life, thanks to the interactive app that would let them know when and how they could help.

Telling the story: connecting on a human level

I work at an IT company, we deal in business productivity, integration and business intelligence primarily. Would anyone ever expect our marketing to be even a little exciting? I know I wouldn’t have, before I ever started working in the fields of marketing and IT. And yet it’s the most amazing thing to see what the technology actually means in human terms. To understand that story. And it’s an amazingly fun job to tell that story, as well as you can.

And we’re not the only company that’s focusing on the connection on a human level in our marketing. Not by a long shot. Over these past few years we’ve seen some great examples of socially responsible marketing for instance, as in the case of Heinekens “Dance More, Drink Slow” campaign, where the brand is nominally less important than the message itself. Nominally, that is, because the branding in this one is still very strong!

Or, more recently and more content-driven: The partnering of OK Go with Honda to promote the UNI-CUB: a self-balancing unicycle. The music video for “I Won’t Let You Down” is filled with balancing and umbrella-but-also-UNI-CUB-based choreography. Is the video truly complementary to the song? Or is it still essentially a corporate video? The product itself, and the fun you can have with it, is right there in the spotlight, center of attention.
Still, I think it’s a great example of the strides the industry is taking toward truly putting the brand and the product in the background, and reaching the (online) audience more organically.

So, in my view, to some extent, content marketing and digital storytelling within the realm of marketing have created a new business model for creatives and for the creative industry. And for brands to create value beyond their core businesses in selling products and services. Just not to the maximum extent. Just not yet.

The next steps in storytelling and digital marketing

I wonder what the next step in storytelling and digital marketing will be. How the two might come together, perhaps to create something as content, emotion and engagement-driven as the soap operas, documentaries and dramatic series that arose from the content platform that the TV created.

I can’t wait for the first marketers, the first entrepreneurs who will build a concept or a digital platform where companies sponsor the telling of stories for the sake of telling stories first. Where the engagement and connecting to the target demographic occurs organically, and the branding is all the way in the background, as something of an afterthought almost. Where brands sponsor artists to tell stories for the right reasons. To provide honest (artistic) value. Telling stories for the sake of telling stories. Because that’s what humans do.

I can’t wait to see the first companies making that push. The first CMO that’s ready to put their brand all the way into the background, to sponsor the creation of truly grass-roots art. Art, content, stories from the heart of the community they’re trying to connect with.

Technology poses challenges, but it also creates opportunity. With digital technology, almost everything is possible. It’s not about the technology. It’s about the way we use it. Let’s use it to keep on sharing great stories.

I’d really like to hear from my fellow digital marketers: What do you believe the next step will be?