Digital Essays 2017: Beyond performance: the age of digitally powered storytelling

By Daniel Solomou, head of performance and search, Serviceplan Middle East, and Suparshv Chopra, director for digital media, Mediaplus Espresso

Overall the marketing industry is in a very healthy place. Innovations in ad tech and the rise of advanced data science have helped bridge the gap between marketers and consumers like never before. The modern marketing objective is to deliver customised messages to the right consumers at the right time, and the ability to do so at scale has no doubt revolutionised the way brands communicate with their audience.

However, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the communications industry is suffering from a type of existential crisis. We can’t help feeling that we are moving further and further away from the type of impactful communication that made power brands so loved in the first place.

Before the age of intent-based marketing and advanced segmentation, the role of brand communication was not to fit itself into the story of the consumer, but instead to create a story that the consumer chose to fit into. Advertising sought to create

culture, rather than play into it. Coca Cola’s dedicated Christmas campaigning, adopted as early as the 1920s, not only made the brand synonymous with the joy and togetherness associated with the festive period, but also changed the story of Christmas as we know it.

The jolly, slightly plump, bearded man we have to come to accept as Santa Claus was actually first imagined by illustrator Haddon Sundblom in 1931, after being sent a brief by the Coca Cola company. Such was the vision and ambition of the brand’s marketing efforts at the time.

Yet, a quick online search for “Christmas” related terms does not unearth any content that breathes new life into the association the brand had worked so hard to build. It seems the same ambition of story ownership didn’t match up to the challenges of new technological advancements.

In a consumer world of increasingly shorter attention spans, data signifies that short-term tactical messaging is the key to success. But what about building long-term brand equity? What happened to the story telling?

The problems that can arise from competing agencies working on the same campaign project are quite clear. Considering, for example, the growing reliance of search marketing on content promotion channels (mainly the support of social media), a lack of integration between strategic teams will usually result in a number of fragmented messages that work against rather than support one another.

To achieve a truly cohesive marketing ecosystem, however, stronger cooperation between multi-channel teams is not quite enough. We also face the dilemma of continuously evolving consumer challenges, such as media fragmentation fuelled by multi-screen interactions. The challenge for digital planners is to decipher the role of each channel in the consumer’s purchasing decision through a multi-touch attribution (MTA) model.

Content interaction is one of the most important parameters here, so seamless brand messaging becomes a core to supplement all the marketing efforts. It aids both channels where ROI is measurable and the non-measurable channels by creating a sense of affection for the brand among consumers.

It’s clear we need to compete for long-term consumer loyalty, as opposed to just short-term consumer attention.

The growing divide between new-age digital natives and more traditional brand advocates comes down to the science: clarity of brand positioning, as opposed to a data-driven response to consumer engagement.

For example, one camp could argue that insights around attention spans indicate a five-second video with a call to action in the first two seconds is the best approach to video marketing. The other camp would argue that you need at least a 20 second video to truly portray a strong brand message. Neither would be wrong, but both would be missing the point.

In today’s online economy, it’s not enough just to have the right answer; you need to have the right vision. Truly integrated marketing does mean multi-channel cooperation; but it also means data integrating with creativity, emotional relevance integrated with new technology. It’s the art of long-term storytelling made up of smaller moments of engagement.

For a great example of seamless online storytelling, accommodation giant Airbnb springs to mind. Due to the nature of the service, customer experiences have always been at the heart of the brand and this is perfectly communicated across its entire digital delivery.

Through its rebranded “Belong Anywhere” online platform, the brand shared stories of joyful customer experiences. On social media, a series of short films displayed the customer-centric approach of the brand storyline. Search ads were created using positive reviews from real people. Programmatic media buying focused on forums and communities of relevant audiences.

With a strong long-term philosophy in mind, the brand uses articles, video, and imagery across all digital channels to show that Airbnb hosts are normal, interesting people, just like the people who stay with them, helping to put the minds of potential guests at ease.

The data cannot be ignored. Strong performance marketing relies on search-intent and we are fortunate to finally have the tools that allow us to better understand consumer behaviour.

But in a world cluttered with a never-ending stream of ads and distractions, a compelling narrative can cut through the clutter and make online brands memorable long after the digital moment has passed.