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May 23, 2019

By Hamish McCollester, SVP, Group Creative Director, RAPP LA

Most brands understand that content is king, which is why many are scrambling to produce it. But often, they’re churning out content without understanding what it is that makes certain branded content pieces more compelling than others. They may overlook the use of timeless storytelling structure and techniques or ignore the way content intersects with today’s digital devices and content consumption habits.

Not surprisingly, why branded content works depends on how it’s executed. Most brands realize that every piece has the potential to be associated with that brand for years to come. But while they may work to ensure their content isn’t offensive, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are providing a great experience for their consumers. Just like with movies, television, and novels — storytelling forms that set the bar for compelling content — boring is bad. Half-baked is bad. Run-of-the-mill is bad. And just to add to the challenge, brands should always strive for their content to be not just interesting and entertaining, but also useful.

Additionally, a brand needs to have a unique voice that carries over into all content. So if your brand’s voice is irreverent, then even your how-to product videos need to be irreverent. Companies like Purple Mattress do a great job of using their voice consistently — from YouTube ads to instructional videos. They’ve taken the time to think through the way their voice should come to life, develop their content accordingly, and execute with consistently high quality. This is the type of thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and dedication it takes to build your brand with branded content.

Why Your Content Should Tell a Story

These days, corporate America has hijacked the term “storytelling,” often using it as a catchall buzzword to describe everything from how one might put together an internal financial spreadsheet to how a challenging project schedule should be communicated to a team.

But when I talk about storytelling in relation to branded content, I am talking about the time-honored framework that presents dynamic and meaningful information in an engaging way. And in particular, I’m talking about creating content that engages potential customers through both a macro and micro level.

On a macro level, storytelling employs elements of classic dramatic structure such as conflict, rising action, a problem to be solved, obstacles to be overcome, and a triumphant victory that solves the problem and eliminates the obstacles. On a micro level, storytelling utilizes the above elements on a smaller “scene-by-scene” level, serving the audiences a continuous stream of large and small changes in their experience. These “changes” can and should happen in both the beats of the narrative, and in the way the narrative is actually presented, through changing visuals, audio, etc.

While you may shy away from adding overt conflict into your content, you don’t necessarily have to. Conflict can be part of a problem-solution sales pitch. It’s all in how you frame it up for your audience/consumer. At the very least, branded content needs to serve up a steady stream of change to keep the audience engaged.

A great example of this is the Snow Fall piece by The New York Times. To tell the story of a back-country skiing avalanche, the Times created a masterful web content experience using different layers and transitions. The story is told through a series of visual changes independent of the narrative itself. Throughout the piece, surprise nuggets of content (videos, cinemagraphs, interactive maps) were served up inline so readers were continuously “rewarded” with something unexpected the more they scrolled down the page and engaged with the content.

How to Build Your Brand With Branded Content

The way we interact with content today and our ever-shortening attention spans have changed the way we judge what is interesting or engaging. When Snow Fall came out in 2012, it was fine to serve up an interesting surprise (or change) every 30 to 45 seconds in the experience, but today, that time interval has likely shortened. Nonetheless, the techniques remain the same.

Branded content needs to take the audience through an experience that is dynamic and changing in order to hold its interest. This is why brands are increasingly turning to videos. At their most basic level, videos constantly change right before our eyes. Eyes, at the most animal level, have evolved to detect change. Therefore, moving imagery is inherently compelling to us. (Just think about the last time you were at a restaurant and a television was in your line of sight. It was probably a challenge to ignore the screen.) Add to that imagery some enthralling sounds and an entertaining story, and people will be hooked.

The key storytelling principles brands should remember to help create compelling content are:

  1. Audiences crave change.Human eyes, ears, and brains have evolved to pay attention to any change that’s happening in front of them — changes in images and sounds, changes in the direction of a story or character, changes in a problem/solution equation, changes in the medium they’re engaging with. All content needs to serve up some kind of change.
  2. Brands need to maintain their own voices, no matter the medium or subject of the content. Every bit of content a brand produces will be a reflection of that brand and it should all work together in service of consistently building that brand.
  3. Stories follow a framework. Just because you aren’t creating full movies based on a three-act structure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t utilize the same techniques on a different level wherever possible. If your product or service solves a problem, you can use dramatic structure to tell the story of your offering. Keep in mind narrative techniques such as a rising line of action and look for ways to apply them — such as in relationship marketing communications — to bring people through the sales funnel.

At RAPP, we try to utilize these storytelling techniques wherever possible. For instance, in Toyota’s Wilderness Therapy site for 4Runner, what could have been a static brochure site comes to life and serves up a constant stream of change, surprise, and interactivity throughout the experience. The site invites exploration, and the more someone interacts with it, the more it changes right in front of them. It’s no wonder the experience garnered very strong engagement metrics when it was launched. It’s a powerful example of why branded content works.

Storytelling is a powerful tool in any marketer’s arsenal, and the digital formats we use to convey messages today give us more opportunity than ever to capitalize on this time-honored framework. If you want your brand to stand out among the fray, resolve to start telling compelling stories today.

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