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Digital Storytelling: What Can Porn and Paula Deen Teach Us?

The Future of Media Turns Out to Be a Return to the Past

By Published on . 4

Meet your new executive producer: the audience.

Ninety-six percent of homes in the U.S. own a television. Yet, viewers are anything but couch potatoes. They not only control their media like never before, but they are a part of the action, either on-screen in the show or on-line—chatting, posting and poking about it.

The future of media turns out to be a return to the past. Think back to an age before mass media and subsequent fragmentation; we had one thing that we could rely on: the story.

We are inherently social animals. Even when we didn't have 140 character limitations and Skype, people communicated with each other far and wide along trade routes. We did it through storytelling—an endless telling and retelling of well-known stories—in a folk or oral tradition where the audiences were very much active participants in the narrative. There was no community without communication. No communication without community.

And that 's where we find ourselves today. Only now, digital records that oral history. People are telling and re-telling the stories they find most compelling and valuable to them, constantly changing and commenting on them to suit their needs. Just think of all the celebrity faux-pas remix videos on YouTube. Think "The X Factor" auditions. Think improv in free Rap. Folk is rampant.

It means that we need brand stories that are not just compelling, but alive. Stories that are as dynamic as they are timeless, changing to greet contemporary audiences, and constantly being reinvented for and by new viewers. Like folklore, brands must tell stories that are colored by the audience, its participation, and its re-telling of the story. Simply, we must let go. And brand architecture and communications must be designed to nurture the age of freedom storytelling.

Pornography's digital story
The pornography industry is a great example of this folk revival. From wall paintings in Pompeii to 16th century books to VHS, porn is an industry that has adapted marvelously to new technologies and media innovations. And in more recent times, to digital. It draws on a basic, limited repertoire of timeless plot-lines, so to speak, but uses digital to make these stories alive for the audience. In other words, more social, living, and current than ever – despite the fact most watch home alone.

A big part of pornography's social dimension is to do with piracy. The media industry abhors piracy. Music, television, and gaming have invested millions in digital rights management, trying to shut it all down. Format innovations like HD DVD are driven by rights management issues more than story-telling.

The porn industry saw differently. In the 90s, it recognized that there was no stopping the free flow of content (fact: today, pornography constitutes an estimated 35% of all peer-to-peer sharing). Instead, this industry embraced piracy, made content easy to grab, and more content got shared. Why?

Because the creators viewed pirated content as sampling, not theft. Or maybe they just lost the DRM battle soonest! Either way, they realized that even with a free sample, an audience might still be enticed to pay for the full experience if you added enough extra value and convenience — especially if that experience was enhanced with social tools and deeper engagement. Ten years before networks like Twitter and Facebook existed, the porn industry set about creating closer connections and communities with its audience. They set up live video and live chat functionalities. They even got their stars to blog. In an age of free and on-demand, the more alive pornography became, it commanded a price tag.

Another force—the powerful rise of user generated content-- prompted pornography to move even faster to embrace digital folk. Porn became the new karaoke as user-generated content blurred the lines among recipient, participant, and content creator. And it was free. It became the jumping-off point for something else: niche-interest communities.

These content distributors sniffed out niche online audiences, feeding them custom content. As they fed and fed off these communities, they linked them to each other. One sub-interest led to another. Less about long tail; and more about long nose: sniff out small audiences, get fed, aggregate and feed them again. Critical mass media was born. It is in this highly inventive interplay of content and distribution strategies (or what we at Digitas dub "audience design") that the porn industry perhaps has most to teach us.

And then Paula…
That said, conservative-minded marketers (and I am one) should not despair. Pornography is not the only example you can lean on when crafting your own digital storytelling. For example, we used a lot of the same elements when creating "The Real Women of Philadelphia" campaign with Kraft and Eqal: social sharing, user-generated content, and niche communities. And at the heart of this program was the story of Paula Deen, the queen of home cooking.

Paula embodied the spirit of folk tradition and classic storytelling. She kicked off the campaign with videos and tweets that encouraged viewers to participate. She focused on the "how", with videos on how to set up your kitchen, how to put on your make-up for the camera, and more. Her voice encouraged home cooks across the country to submit their own recipe videos online.

And Paula didn't stop there. She began discussing the submissions on her blog on the Real Women site, and on social channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. She didn't talk at these women; she bonded with them. The viewers weren't expected to sit back and merely; they received a personal invitation to participate—comment, share, and submit. This digital storytelling created a community, with 12,000 recipe videos and 25+ million views. It's also a community that spent money. Kraft's sales of Philadelphia Cream Cheese experienced their first big sales lift in five years.

Now there's a digital story that 's compelling to everyone.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Beeching is Worldwide Chief Creative Strategy Office for Digitas, responsible for its creative product and strategic planning. As the founder of The Third Act:, Digitas' content development unit, Mark is also charged with creating and driving the company's content strategy globally.
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