3 Stages of the web as a storytelling medium for brands

The best brands are built on stories. No-one huddles around the proverbial water cooler and talks about Product XYZ’s incredible new feature. But they will talk about Nando’s “The Last Dictator” ad, or Coca-Cola’s “Reasons to Believe” campaign.

For decades, there’s been an assumption in advertising that if you want to tell a grand story for a brand, then you do it in a TV commercial. But all indications are that this could be changing, and the web might be the next medium for great brand stories.

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The best TV ads have always had the ability to move audiences, get people talking and even penetrate popular culture. And yet, we know that the traditional TV commercial is also in decline: thanks to PVR devices (not to mention an increasing number of people who are cutting the cable on live TV and getting their content through on-demand services), it’s become easier than ever to skip TV ads completely.

This is great for viewers, because — clearly — not every commercial is a good commercial. It could be argued that as it becomes easier and easier to avoid ads, content creators are forced to work harder to make their content so good that people actively seek it out. This baiting, rather than interrupting, technique is a natural fit for the user intention powered internet.

In recent years, we’ve seen some powerful examples of brands experimenting with the web as an avenue for storytelling. You can view this as a series of stages towards fully web-based stories:

1. Brands placing their TV ads on the web
There aren’t many brands these days who haven’t experimented with uploading their commercials to YouTube. Although this doesn’t augment the actual story in any way, it’s an effective way for TV commercials to extend their reach past the 30 second slot bought on live TV.

However, brands doing this need to approach the experiment with some humility: in the absence of any online advertising driving traffic to the commercial, it’s unlikely that an ad will get more than a few hundred, or perhaps thousand, views. This should tell you about the success of the ad — if people aren’t searching for it and sharing it organically, then you don’t have a great story on your hands. Try harder. Tell better stories.

2. Extending TV ads into online experiences
The next step in this evolution is when brands start extending a primarily TV-based concept onto the web, where there is some added element of interactivity. However, at this stage, interaction is essentially trivial, and doesn’t feed into the substance of the story itself.

3. Web-native, fully interactive stories
These are some of the most memorable stories being told in the modern world: stories where the viewers become active in shaping the brand story from the beginning. Three great examples spring to mind: The Dark Knight viral campaign, the Inside Experience and the Old Spice Response campaign.
Some of the most interesting examples in this space will increasingly come in the form of gaming, which looks more and more set to be the prime storytelling medium of the future.

Why is the web such an exciting place for us to tell stories? Because it’s interactive, personalisable, on-demand, shareable and scaleable — users can experience stories that they control, they can dip into them or spend several hours interacting with them and they can bring their friends into the experience. Users can immerse themselves in and become a part of these brand stories, and those are stories that are going to stick with viewers longer than the classic 30 second TVC ever could.

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