Six Characteristics of Great Storymaking

Takeaways From Brands That Illustrate the Art of Storymaking

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It's easy to call storytelling a cliché, but how exactly can one move beyond it when storytelling is entrenched as the epitome of what defines great marketing?

In previous Ad Age columns and during the Ad Age Digital Conference this April, storymaking has kept coming up as a way to describe the shift away from the broadcast-era mentality of storytelling to a new approach where marketers build on stories that people share with each other. Yet storymaking needs to be dissected so that anyone can identify it, learn from it, and engage in it themselves.

At the Ad Age conference, I moderated a panel with some stellar storymakers in their own right: Visa's chief brand and innovation marketing officer Chris Curtin; Burger King's CMO Eric Hirschhorn; Fullscreen's head of content Ashley Kaplan; and Adobe's CMO Ann Lewnes. Some examples and insights they shared further illustrate the art. Here are six characteristics of great storymaking.

1. Participatory: One clear sign of a story that's told versus one that's created with its audience is that the audience must be able to add to the story in some way. Beautiful stories can be told in 30-second spots, but it's impossible for a 30-second spot alone to be considered storymaking. Storymaking requires some effort from its audience.

2. Fan-inspired: Sometimes, marketers create new experiences that trigger storymaking, and there's a place for that, especially when launching a new product. Yet marketers are often getting into storymaking precisely because they're seeing what their fans are already talking about and sharing. Like any kind of socially-driven marketing, it's advantageous to have an existing base of fans to draw from. Adobe's Lewnes said, "Brand love leads to storymaking. Fans must be engaged and very attached to you; otherwise it is difficult to make stories."

3. Decentralized: If all the stories are designed to live in a central hub that the brand or publisher owns, then it takes away from what people can do on their own channels. True storymaking taps into any channel people want to use, online and offline. Sometimes this involves working with content creators and influencers to reach consumers. Fullscreen did this by promoting the movie "Ouija" with a stunt where it made teenage internet celebrity Kian Lawley disappear. His multi-platform efforts to tap his fans to bring him back led to more than 7 million Twitter mentions about the movie. Fullscreen's Kaplan said, "The creator is core to everything we do since they are the ones with the relationship with their audience."

4. Unpredictable: Because storymaking shifts the focus from the brand's story to people's stories about the brand, it opens the door for others to take the idea in new directions. When Visa Checkout sponsored Odell Beckham Jr.'s successful attempt at setting the Guinness World Record for one-handed catches, it inspired others to try to break the record. Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Tevaun Smith seemed to do so (though it wasn't certified by Guinness), generating a new wave of coverage for the stunt.

5. Reciprocal: If you want people to run with a brand's stories, there has to be something in it for them. For Visa Checkout and Fullscreen's "Ouija" campaign, the brands entertained and surprised people. Burger King listened to customers' pleas and brought back chicken fries to its menu, and fans in turn spread their love of the product through chicken fry emojis that the brand created. In Adobe's case, the marketer showcases its customers' work in its marketing for Photoshop, Creative Cloud, and other products, as almost all artists love getting more exposure for their work. The value exchange is usually clear in every great example of storymaking.

6. Authentic: The clearest sign of storymaking gone awry is that all the stories created are positive. If marketers embrace their lack of control over where stories go, it means some stories won't be ones that any brand would tell. Yet as Hirschhorn noted, that's less risky than covering one's ears. He said, "I don't think negative sentiment towards a brand is a terrible thing. Operating in a world where people have a positive opinion or negative opinion is a much richer territory than telling people to feel one way."

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