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Adland is drowning under a tidal surge of narrative-driven jargon. Everyone is now a storyteller. Every post is now part of a conversation. I’ve railed against this before but it has been to so little effect, I’m starting to believe I’m the marketing equivalent of the guy who washes his car just before every rainstorm.

 

Storytelling, narrative

We’ve opened the storytelling geyser.

 

The Five Types of Brand Narrative (from simple to  complex).

Seeing as we’re all getting into brand storytelling (at least until we decide we’re getting into the next thing, like, say, artisanal persuasion), we might as well see if we can’t create some sort of order from the chaos.

The First Type: An experience.

This type of marketing is striving to generate a feeling, an emotional reaction. This is really in the realm of branding (more specifically, brand association) and tries to hard-wire a correlation between the appearance or suggestion of a brand and a positive firing of neuro-somethings in your lateral sub reptilian cortex. (I’m sure someone like Rory Sutherland knows the exact medical terminology). This type of communication is subliminal and, over time, the customer response becomes Pavlovian. Think: Reef footwear and girls’ butts. Mercedes and their door-closing thud. Apple and their polished aluminum. A local example here in Singapore is Ion shopping mall and their carefully calibrated scent, continually pumped through the walkways to simultaneously relax and energise the consumer.

Constructing ‘experience’ marketing has traditionally been in the realm of sponsorships and activation, but within the digital world, the most adept practitioners now are probably UX and CX designers. If you are using mainly adverbs to describe your communication, your are probably building an experience.

message, broadcast, storytelling, brandsThe Second Type: A message.

This is a (usually) rational statement, expressed through language in a way that makes it easy for the audience to articulate back to you or, more encouragingly, to each other. That language can be textual (Think Nike and ‘Just do it’) or it can be visual (almost all car advertising; hotels, too). The message can be uplifting (Pedigree and their wonderful ‘We’re for dogs‘) or it can be really quite banal (Walmart’s Everyday low prices.) What’s important to note is that the reader has no role in this message, except to view it and understand it. We are not meant to construct our own meaning. In fact, quite the opposite. Traditionally, almost all advertising operated within this narrative type. Today, most of it still does. If you’re using mainly adjectives, you’re probably making a message.

 

The Third Type: A story.

This is a little more complex, a little messier. A story doesn’t have to necessarily be longer, but it should have some ups and downs. If not for the brand, then at least for the use-case of the product or, better still, for the audience. The ups-and-downs can be as simple as Vonnegut’s man in a hole, as formulaic as the classic 3 act structure or as sophisticated as Truby’s 22 steps, but it must have a range of action, both positive and negative. And this is why most brands can’t handle storytelling: they have no stomach for the negative, the ‘hole’ part of the Man In A Hole.

digital, technology, story, brands

Adding technology doesn’t always improve the story experience.

When you combine the Story format with digital media, all sorts of possibilities begin to emerge, but it’s important to remember that good stories are still linear, even when they are digital, or interactive (and these two things are not the same). If you want to dive into that distinction, the best explanation I’ve heard recently was from The Goggles, makers of Welcome To Pine Point, during their excellent session at SXSW.

Another realm in which technology is bringing new creative potential to traditional storytelling is the arena of Data Storytelling. Several interesting examples have emerged recently, although strictly speaking, these are stories told about data.

The key thing to remember about the Story format is that there is a range of action and emotion (including both positive and negative) and that the reader or audience is allowed some space to bring their own meaning or interpretation to the communication – another reason why some brands struggle to become true storytellers.

Even though stories may allow for some interaction (mainly in terms of navigation and pacing), they do not generally allow for user reaction and input. That belongs to…

The Fourth Type: A conversation.

The defining quality of a conversation is that it is two way. Back and forth. I say something, then you say something. Then I say something that is a reaction to that thing that you said.  Then you might have to abandon your script and think of something different to say that takes into account the thing that I just said.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 9.38.29 AM

The question remains: why?

And this really freaks brands out. Social media is a good arena to pursue a conversation format, but it does not automatically follow that your communications will be a conversation just because it is deployed on social media.

The most common criticism levelled at brands every time they take to a new social platform is that they treat it as a broadcast medium. They talk but they don’t listen. Or they listen, but they don’t respond. Or they respond but show no evidence of having understood what they heard. Or, most egregiously, no interest in understanding what they heard. “Join the conversation” is the classic direct response CTA, only slightly updated for Twitter.

The other difficult thing about the conversation format is purely a practical matter: it doesn’t scale. Technology hasn’t really solved this issue (just made it slightly easier to manage), because it is not a technological problem – it’s an inherently human one. We know this from real life. A single conversation can hold about four or five active participants before it either breaks into smaller discussions (Think: dinner party) or comes under the control of an active manager (Think: office meeting).

We see this now with the increasing recognition of the importance of Community Managers in executing these types of communications programs, and the pursuit of chatbots or ‘Embodied Conversation Agents’ that trick users into believing they are talking with another person. We’ve had the low-tech version of this for some time now: call centre scripts. Airlines, hotels and telcos have recognised the real use-value of conversation formats and simply added social channels to their existing customer service infrastructure. And it appears to be working.

The Fifth Type: An education.

Now it gets really interesting. And complex. This format works best when the brand has some information, some knowledge, that the audience may find useful. It really works when it becomes clear to the audience that this information is going to improve their life, or enjoyment of it, in some way.

education, brand, narrative, storytelling

Transmit knowledge and you’ll power up a deeper appreciation of your message.

The educational format does require some investment, attention, persistence and generosity (a ‘pay-it-forward’ attitude is a big help) on the part of the brand, but it doesn’t have to be a huge production. Digital is also consistently throwing up incredibly useful and user-friendly formats for education formats (Think: Lowe’s 6 second hardware tips on Vine). It is important to remember that you are placing a huge burden on the audience (Learning new things is hard work), so you need get the value exchange right. The audience has to believe the knowledge gained is worth more than the time and effort required to acquire it (Think: IBM’s NextGen CIO, an MBA-level shortcourse that helps IT Managers move from the server room to the boardroom).

Ironically, education formats can be as broadcast-y as you like, but take a tip from the people who do education for real: try to incorporate some sort of student feedback and scoring, to complete the transfer of learning.

Before I step off, I want to point out that none of these types of communication have been classified as content.

That’s because they are all content. This term was useful when we were emerging from the “advertising and PR” era, but social (in particular), has rendered the term meaningless, beyond a technical distinction between the delivery mechanism (the TV slot, the Facebook feed, the smartphone, the shopping mall aisle) and the thing that goes in those spaces (the ad, the post, the app, the scent). Beyond that, I think the term is now too broad to be truly useful.

Add a comment below if you’d like to join the conversation 😉

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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These are confusing times for brands, and the people charged with growing them. On the one hand, we need to ensure the ROI of everything, while on the other we must pursue constant innovation. We need to be open to new technologies, platforms and networks, but we can’t spread our investments too thinly. We’ve got to stay on brand and on message, but we also need to go viral.

These competing ambitions make it very difficult for marketers and agencies to make intelligent choices for their brands – but it is largely our own fault. As an industry, marketing is particularly susceptible to ‘the shiny new object’ syndrome and, after attending SXSW interactive in Austin, Texas last month, I’m predicting that we’re about to start chasing after two diametrically-opposed aims yet again.

Plug in to everything.

Many of the presenters and panelists gave compelling testimonial that technology might not quite be everywhere, but it soon will be. More to the point, they believe it should be. Once we work out how the make wearable computing look more like clothes and less like, well, wearable computing, it appears inevitable that we’ll all be individually wired up, all the time. The ‘quantifiable self’ movement was also highly visible, arguing that the responsibility for monitoring health will soon shift to the individual – and the battery of sensors and transmitters embedded in our bodies.

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data, story

Expect data everywhere.

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Our homes, shops, offices, cars and skies will be literally buzzing with input/output devices, WiFied to the max and constantly shipping information to the grid. For marketers, this new tide of data will start to drive the automation of more decisions and more executions – we’re practically already there with automated media buying exchanges and personalised recommendation engines.

Easily half of the conference seemed to be welcoming our new Big Data overlords and the relentless efficiency it will bring to our lives, ready or not.

But stay, y’know, kinda human.

The other half, however, were preoccupied with that most human of endeavours – storytelling. There were panels and presentations and seminars and workshops on Product Storytelling, Immersive Storytelling, Content Storytelling, Transmedia Storytelling and on and on it went. The unified message from this side of the house seemed to be: use your marketing to tell human stories to human customers in a human voice, you’ll be able to make your brand appear more, well, human.

I’m being flippant here but some of the storytelling advice was pretty solid: stick to a linear format, don’t be afraid of offering complexity to your audience and don’t try and chase out all the imperfections, visual or otherwise. Implicit in all this advice was the belief that storytelling is an inherently good way to go about marketing.

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Is it possible to pull together the threads of story and data for an experience that is accurate and human

Is it possible to pull together the threads of story and data for an experience that is accurate and human?

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 Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

Maybe it’s just a re-imagining of the old above-the-line vs below-the-line marketing split for a fully digitized age, but I believe there’s a real schism developing here. The choice appears to be between a marketing philosophy based on ensuring the absolute accuracy of everything (marketing by algorithm, if you will), and one based on overtly accentuating the human element of communication (artisanal marketing, to borrow an adjective from the hipsters).

Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’.

Yes to being both data-informed and also to being story-driven, which is to say human. Just as we have seen the rise of ‘Data Artists’ in the visual arts world, ‘Data Visualisers’ in the statistics world and, more recently ‘Data Journalists’ in the publishing world, perhaps marketing is about to make room for ‘Data Storytellers’.

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Data Storytelling: patterns stay in the background, humans take the stage.

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This industry needs another made-up job title like a brainstorm needs a ninja evangelist – or like we need brainstorms, for that matter. Real creativity, however, often comes from combining two previously unrelated ideas to develop a new approach and I see real potential in combining these two ascendant disciplines.  A mashup of data analysis and storytelling could result in a new type of communication approach, one that is both accurate and human – and creative in a way we’ve not seen before.

 

This post originally appeared on the Firebrand Talent blog.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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Most of the interesting work I’ve been pursuing for brands over the last couple of years was directly influenced by the things I learned at South By Southwest, where nerds are celebrities and everyone is trying to launch the next Twitter.

With over 800 scheduled sessions, there is a hell of a lot you can learn in 5 days, but for the sake of brevity, I boiled the findings from my last trip down to a seminar called 10 Things Agencies Can Learn From SXSW.

For me, the most valuable thing I took away was a framework of authenticity, content, relevance and utility as guiding principles for creative and strategic development.

2014: we’re back, baby.

SXSW, texas, Austin, BBQ, Salt Lick

The Salt Lick: the other reason Austin is famous.

Thanks to my friends over at Ogilvydo (the agency’s online magazine for thought-leadership), I am fortunate enough to be heading to Austin again, as part of a larger Ogilvy team bringing you trends and insights for brands, marketers and innovators. My particular focus will be on storytelling: how stories are originated, structured, produced, managed and distributed for brands and their audiences.

There are well over two dozen individual sessions, including a handful of long-form workshops dedicated just to this area and I’ll be doing my best to learn from them all. I’m also looking at startups and innovation culture, growth hacking and future publishing. Here’s my schedule of sessions I’m planning/hoping to attend – if you’ve got recommendations or suggestion I’d love to hear from you.

South By South East Asia: Is America’s biggest tech festival broadening its outlook?

SXSW tara talk

Living in an Asian Megacity is the mother of this particular invention

I spent yesterday afternoon interviewing regional analyst and trendwatcher Tara Hirebet, who is based here in Singapore and operates out of the local chapter of The HUB, a global network of co-working spaces for entrepreneurs, technologists and creatives.

If you’re looking for evidence that startup culture is alive and kicking in Asia, I recommend you start here: it was virtually standing room only on a Tuesday afternoon. Tara was selected to present at this year’s SXSW and I got a sneak preview of her session,  ‘How Overcrowded Asian Cities Inspire Innovation’, which is one of several this year with a distinctly Asian focus.

Another is ‘Co-Creation by Design: Asia, Women & Innovation’ from Singapore-based entrepreneurs Grace Clapham and Bernice Ang. Look for the interviews and previews on Ogilvydo in the next couple of weeks.

You look taller than your avatar

One of the real joys of these conferences is the chance to meet IRL the people that you’ve been reading, following, retweeting and upvoting. If you’re reading this and you’re heading to SXSW, give me a shout @BarrieSeppings

There will be no shortage of SXSW advice articles in the next few weeks (and they all say: stay hydrated, wear comfortable shoes and A.B.C.*), so I won’t add to the pile except to point to the web services I’m relying on to get me there and get me through it:

– hitting up Airbnb for accommodation (which always scarce)

– grooving to these Spotify playlists

– getting some “I met you at” cards from moo.com

– pre-registering for a bunch of events with rsvpster

– keeping Uber up my phone sleeve (taxis are also scarce)

– finding a few local spots via ATXThrillist, if the lanyard crowd gets all too much

Despite all the planning and preparation, I like to think that the random talks – and people – are often the best. It’s always good to have a plan, as long as you remember to stay open to possibilities.

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* Always Be Charging

SXSW Interactive runs from March 7 to 11.

Tara Hirebet is an Asian Trend & Innovation Consultant & Ex-Head of Asia Pacific, trendwatching.com. She will be delivering “How Overcrowded Asian Cities Inspire Innovation” on Monday March 10 at SXSW, Austin, Texas.

Ogilvydo will be covering SXSW Interactive 2014, focusing on trends and insights for brands, marketers and innovators.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

Even then, they are still kind of dopey. Ok, dopey is a bit harsh. At best, they are an imprecise measure of a spectacularly subjective quality, which is, ironically, ‘quality’. At worst, they can totally warp an agency’s culture and turn relatively normal people into career dickheads. Irregardless, it was welcome news to learn that both our China team and our Sydney team were handed silver trophies from the DMA Echo Awards last week.

When we’re talking about demand generation in particular, the Echos are the creative awards you want to win, because of the fairly significant and reasonably rigorous effectiveness component of the judging criteria. The work has to be good, it has to be real and it has to have worked.

What was really interesting was that the two pieces of work were for the same client, reaching the same (basic) audience, entered in the same awards category to produce the same awards result: silver. But the 2 pieces are radically different from each other – in form, strategy and tone.

The Ogilvy China team produced a branded content film called Parallel Paths for the Notes productivity suite, which told the story of two young and hungry salesmen climbing the corporate ladder, and let the Lotus information flow naturally throughout the story. This piece picked up a similar coloured trophy from Spikes just a few weeks earlier.

The Sydney team were tasked with convincing CIOs to outsource parts of the workload and resources they would normally consider to be the domain of ‘their department’. The approach here was to appeal to the audience as people, not roles, and draw a parallel (see what I did there?) with their own workloads – in this case, mowing the lawn.

DMA echo, award, Ogilvy Sydney

It’s hard to ignore the fact that someone just sent you a load of grass.

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The “Grass Pack’ as it became known is particularly interesting, as it’s almost retro in execution: a completely analogue, dimensional mailer. It was particularly effective, I believe, because of the contrarian approach the team took to delivery. The average IT manager’s inbox is overflowing with messages, while their in-office pigeon holes would be lucky to see more than the occasional leaflet. If you want to stand out, move away from the crowd, which is part of the reason why a piece of artificial turf outperformed a dozen email campaigns, combined.

I don’t like to say “I told you so”.

I love to say it. Which is why I’m going to point out that I called Direct Mail “The comeback kid” a couple of years ago, and I think the assertion is still valid. There are a lot of fundamental disciplines that classic DM can offer to digital campaign planning (the importance of the list, the creative opportunities of segmentation and personalisation, the advantage of perceived value versus actual cost and so on).

But if you treat the desk space (rather than the desktop) as media space, the reach and frequency of creative mail can be spectacular, especially if you are selling into a ‘buying cell’ of multiple stakeholders and decision-makers.

I don’t think these pieces are good because they won (I think they are good and they won). We’ve had other great pieces struggle in award shows this year, I believe, partly because the complexity of the solution slowed them down. We’ve even had pieces rejected by awards show entry co-ordinators for being in the wrong category, only to be rejected again in the categories suggested to us by those same co-ordinators, again for being in the wrong category. At that point, you know it’s time to walk away from that particular casino.

Again, congrats to our China team for creating entertainment from email software and to our Sydney team for cleverly moving against the herd.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

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How do you find out what your audience is thinking?

Start by thinking like a scientist.

Our recent post on the ongoing tension between global brands and local audiences prompted some requests for advice on finding and developing local insights – the sort of deep audience understanding that lets you tune a global strategy for more effective local activation.

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focus group

Focus groups: everyone acting like clowns and delivering completely random returns.

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At Ogilvy, we’ve developed a simple approach for ‘bootstrapping’ your way to local insights, one that doesn’t require the time and money of traditional audience research methods, such as the dreaded focus group. This approach was developed specifically for some of the global brands we work with here at Ogilvy, but can be easily adapted to most brands and situations.

customer insights

We call it The Relevance Engine, but that’s just a nifty title for a serve of common sense, spiced with a dash of curiosity and simmered over a little bit of actual work. Like most things in this business, it’s not rocket surgery.

The starting point is the audience – you really have to be able to at least name them before you start. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown persona (although that wouldn’t hurt), but at least some sort of pen-portrait of the audience your brand has, or the one it would like to have, in a particular market.

You can’t just shake an audience and expect an insight to fall into your lap. This is where I believe a lot of marketing-focussed ‘big data’ investments are going to go absolutely nowhere – massive systems will be constructed to collect terabytes of data without ever being asked a single pointed question.

The Relevance Engine asks you think like a scientist and requires you to be a little disciplined: you need to start with a hypothesis.

This hypothesis should relate to your audience and maybe even your brand (or at least your category) and be something that you think might be true. The hypothesis might be something likeEntrepreneurs in our market expect some form of government assistance” or “Parents in our market are very competitive about their children’s progress, but realise it is now socially unacceptable to display it.”

Once you have your hypothesis (you can call it a hunch, or an assumption, or an idea, if you like), you then use The Relevance Engine to test it, to prove it to be either true or false.

In the version we use, we place the hypothesis in the middle of a circle and then, around the edge of the circle, we have eight different categories of data that we could potentially test the hypothesis against:

1. Global Brand Guidance

This sounds contradictory, but you really should see if there’s anything in the existing or supplied materials that answers your question first. Your local market may not be as different as you first thought. The global guidance also might contain something relevant, hidden away in a support point, or an explanatory section or an appendix. First rule of research is make sure the research hasn’t already been done.

2. In-house research

This one is not always so easy to tap into, but the company behind the brand has almost certainly conducted some research around their product and the intended audience: a feasibility study, a competitive analysis, product history, category survey etc etc. If you have it, go back to it. If you don’t, ask the marketing department to share it. If they don’t have it, ask them to ask the sales people, or the product people, research people, lab, finance or whomever. A lot of global brands have dedicated research departments or teams. Find them, use them. Nothing is more compelling to a client than findings based on their own research.

3. Publishers

Do you remember back when magazines where printed on paper and when you read them, little subscription and survey cards would fall out? Publishers have always spent an enormous amount of time maintaining an intimate understanding of their readers. Digital publishers are getting even more intimate. Find a publication (print or online) that targets the same audience your brand does and then ask them about your hypothesis. If your brand has a marketing budget, I’ll bet the publication will tell you the answer over a nice lunch, which is what this industry needs more of. Seriously.

4. Channels & re-sellers

If your brand allows it’s products to be sold via other means (retail stores, affiliates, representatives, agents, re-sellers and so on), go and test your hypothesis with them. Drop in to their outlet, call them up, buy them a coffee or a beer or a steak sandwich or a bowl of noodles and have a chat. They’ll know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their customers.

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insights, science

Disclaimer: The Relevance Engine won’t turn you into an *actual* scientist (like this guy).

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5. Salespeople

Every global brand has a sales department or team or function. Whether these people sell directly to end customers (in the case of big b2b and technology brands) or to a distribution network (financial products, retail, travel, entertainment etc), they’ll also know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their commission and, therefore, the car they drive, their kid’s education, family holiday destination (you get the picture).

In many large organisations, the disfunction between sales and marketing can actually work to your advantage here: coming in as a neutral 3rd party (agency or consultant) often allows sales people to share more than they would inside the company structure. At the very least, they are usually surprised and pleased that someone is asking their opinion about a topic in which they regard themselves an expert.

6. Digital newsfeeds

Ok, so Google reader is dead. And missed. But there are alternatives, and some of them are very, very good. (Flipboard, we’re looking at you, you saucy little neo-digital-magazine-minx you) Regardless of what you use, the basic premise here is simple: ask your computer to test your hypothesis for you. Using an RSS reader of some sort, tune your digital/mobile/computing apparatus to your desired audience and hypothesis (use a few logical keywords and phrases) and have the magic of the internet stream a constant feed of articles, opinions, stories, alerts and trends past your eyeballs as you go about your daily life. Before long, something utterly relevant to your experiment is going to show up – clip it, file it. Done. Great job, internet!

7. Social Media

An increasingly increasing portion of the web is now composed entirely of people opinionating. If you can’t find your audience (and, by extension, what they’re thinking about) on social media, it is quite possible ur doin’ it wrong. Go find the prominent voices and influencers for your audience on social networks, find the groups and chatrooms and discussions, find the blog posts and tweetchats and hangouts and slideshares, and LinkedIn groups, and pinterest boards and tumblrs and webinars and oh god, I’m getting fatigued just trying to keep up with all the fabulous new ways we’ve invented for people to bloviate online. My recommendation? Quora. Go post your hypothesis there, as a question, and see what happens. Failing that, try Reddit. Feeling brave? Ask 4chan.

8. Live events

We’ve written at length about how to make live events work for brands in the digital arena but what about flipping the equation for a second: how can you use an event to listen to an audience, rather than just talk at them? You could try just going to one and listening, for a start: Walk the floors, eavesdrop. If it’s an event you have presence or permission at, try interviewing people, running a survey or getting a presenter to ask the question and get a show of hands. I’ve seen video confession booths, incentivised surveys – all sorts of stuff. One thing that’s true of all events, everyone wants to offer an opinion. Use that opportunity.

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insights, customer

Leave no stone unturned in your search for insights.
Or, you could do it the easy way.

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Tired now

That seems like a metric shit-tonne of work, right? And it would be, if you were crazy enough to interrogate all 8 data sets listed here. (There are plenty of others available, but these are the most accessible).

No need. The Relevance Engine may require a bit of discipline, but it doesn’t demand complete masochism. Just pick 3. You can even pick the 3 easiest ones if you like – although we’ve designed the whole thing to be relatively easy to complete from your desk with just a couple of afternoon’s worth of work (even less if you delegate).

The results are in

What does a successful ‘scientific result’ look like? I’d say 2 confirmations from 3 different sources is a positive: take a few choice quotes & a handful of stats, put them into a nicely-laid-out ‘research deck’ and hey presto: local insights, backed by science. Any global team worth it’s salt will allow a local team to pursue a genuine insight if they’ve done their homework.

Now take your local insight, turn it into a value proposition (if you need help doing this part, you can get it here), put it in a brief and off you go: you’re got most of everything you need to create locally relevant work for your globally-powerful brand.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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The growing tension between global brands and their local audiences.

Globalisation means different things to different brands. McDonalds has a long-held strategy of standardising the flavour profile of its products, so that your first bite of a Big Mac in Beijing will be essentially the same as in Buenos Aires. Partly, that’s a function of quality control and standardisation of sourcing and production methods, but it’s also a recognition of the fact that the first moment you put something in your mouth is a pretty memorable brand experience.

They’ve also pursued some experimentations in localisation, with specific menu items in India, New Zealand, Brasil and other markets to cater to local palates. If you put the product aside for a moment, however, the branding and messaging is absolutely standardised across the globe, and that is increasingly true of many truly global brands.

Wanted: attractive models with obscure mixed ethnic background

This is often a function of economics: the cost of producing and managing 10 different TVCs, for example, to run in 10 different markets (an absolute quantifiable figure), is generally seen as higher than the benefits of improving relevance by tailoring those same TVCs for those 10 markets (virtually impossible to predict and even harder to calculate as an ROI). The worst example of this process are the lip-synced pan-regional shampoo ads, featuring vaguely pan-regional-looking actors in immaculate homes of unearthly whiteness. Ultimately, these ads look like they were created in outer space, or planet ProctorLever.

local relevance, brands, globalisation

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The middle of where

So the reflex action from a lot of global brands is to develop a single campaign in a centralised hub – sometimes this is done at the centre of the advertising world (Manhattan or London) or in a centre of cost arbitrage (Bangalore) or geographic proximity to the bulk of the market opportunity (Hong Kong, for a North Asia market, for example). Agencies operating in this model spend a great deal of time playing ‘brand police’, creating brand bibles and managing the approval process.

However, as ’emerging markets’ start to gain confidence and sophistication, demand is growing for brands that talk to local audiences in a way that is authentic, believable and relevant. It’s not to say that local audiences don’t see value in big global brands, but that the brand experience is now expected to become more personally (and locally) relevant. We want these global superstars to come to our house party, but we want them to talk to our friends and sing karaoke with us, not just sit in the corner looking cool, surrounded by minders.

Follow the pendulum, follow the money

Over time, most global brands swing between the extremes of ‘country first’ localisation and ‘global only’ centralised standardisation. The first is expensive and, ultimately, unmanageable at scale – satellite television and social media have effectively ended the idea that messaging can be quarantined to specific countries or even regions. The second tends to result in ‘average-ised’ campaigns that are efficient to produce and work ok in most places, though rarely spectacularly well anywhere.

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brands, global, local

Standby to receive official global brand broadcast, which you’re just going to love.

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Global agencies make most of their money managing this ongoing tension between global consistency and local relevance for global brands, re-organising and re-staffing as they follow the swinging pendulum between to two ends of the spectrum.

Does the ‘dinosaur medium’ have a plan for the future?

But what if you could build a hyper-efficient globalised/standardised marketing and messaging distribution system that still leaves room for local insights, and relevant local expression? What would that look like? Where would it be based?

Sorry to get your hopes up, but I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure many global agencies do. But we have been working on some smaller-scale prototypes that steal the idea of global ‘formats’ from the television broadcasting world (y’know, the one that the internet is apparently destroying?).

In particular, we’ve been looking at properties like the singing and cooking shows that dominate the world’s screens. There’s some real operational genius going on here – they are built from the ground up with the intention that certain aspects will be (nay, have to be) modified for local markets, but also with structures and processes that must not and cannot be fucked around with.

Probably

If you look at the ‘Idol’ format, there’s always a set number of judges and archetypes that must be followed (the encourager, the eccentric and the bitch), but the individuals in those roles are chosen to be extremely relevant to the local market. The number of shows required to cover the qualifications, eliminations, finals and ultimate winner are also set, but the choice of songs and music styles is, again, completely local. The blue neon logo looks the same everywhere, but the costumes on Israeli Idol are very different to those worn on Brazilian Idol.

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They didn’t come to cheer your incredibly well-translated global strapline.

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So it’s got more flexibility than a franchise model (McDonalds is not going to let you re-design the menu in every country) but still retains a cohesive brand experience (the narrative of rags-to-riches talent discovery, audience voting to determine the ultimate winner, for example) in all of it’s 46-and-counting global markets. Another key ingredient worth noting in this approach is the use of local production partners and an IP licencing, rather than head-hours fee, remuneration model.

Importantly, from a creative and strategic standpoint, although there are things you can’t change when you work on one of these global formats, there are plenty of very satisfying levers you can pull, which helps attract quality local talent to work on these global formats – a very real issue in the agency world.

As we start to see real business benefits coming from global brands offering locally-relevant experiences, there may well be a change in the way agencies operate to deliver these formats: less of the command-and control of the McDonald’s/Starbucks globocorps and more of the adaptable formats & partnerships approach of Fremantle Media or Endemol.

The recent acquisition of a stake in Droga5 by LA-based talent agency William Morris shows that it’s probably already happening.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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If people don’t understand what brand journalism can be, I think it could go sideways and end up being derided as another ‘failed journalism experiment. I’m bound and determined to see that that doesn’t happen.

Brock Meeks, editor of Ideas Lab: curated and operated by Atlantic Media Strategies but owned and paid for by GE.

Advertising is dead. Messaging is dead. Branding is also dead. Or maybe it just has an inoperable tumor of some sort. At least that’s the ‘story’ according to the content marketing military industrial complex as it rolls out the ‘brand story’ juggernaut.

And I’m not here to argue the imminent resurrection of the 30 second spot as the ultimate form of persuasive creativity. Far from it. You can mark me down as a fan of branded content (when done right) and of brand utility in particular. These were definitely the themes I witnessed in 2010 when I was lucky enough to get to SXSW and saw ‘brands as publishers’ emerge as a dominant ambition amongst marketers and agencies in attendance.

No story, straight to bed.

The more recent shift, however, is from brands as publishers of stories in the journalism sense of the word (an analogy that worked well for the PR/social practitioners in the house) to a place where brands now must cast themselves as authors or narrators of stories in the fictional sense of the word.

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Now we're all publishers, all the time.

Now we’re all publishers, all the time.

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As you’d expect, TED talks (and their audiences) are going apeshit for this kind of metaphor. Which means that agencies and marketing departments are going apeshit for it too.  Every brief is now a challenge to “tell our story”. The objective is now to “get users to engage with our story”. The desired outcome is to get users to “share our story” (more sophisticated than saying “get more ‘likes’ on facebook, but essentially the same). It’s all gone a bit story crazy. I’ve even heard the borrowed-jargon double-whammy of ‘curate our stories‘ more times than I’d care to count. I think brands telling their stories is kinda bullshit.

The medium is the massage parlour.

Sure, it can be seen as a welcome evolution from producing and distributing a broadcast message, but in practice, the current format of brands as storytellers is often just a slightly more complex and technologically driven expression of the old political tactic: stay on message. Generally, we’re  just giving our core brand massage a bit of a social rub n’ tug and calling it transmedia storytelling.

The thing about stories (in the fictional sense of the word) is that they aren’t generally neat or straightforward. Hell, they generally aren’t particularly positive of uplifting. Even the ‘happily ever-after’ variety of story needs to go through a few rough patches if it is to have any dramatic tension or connect with the reader.

The best illustration of this comes from Kurt Vonnegut and his ‘Shape of Stories’ theory, reproduced as an infographic here by visual.ly

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Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

Infographic by mayaeilam.  Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.
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You can’t handle a ‘man in hole’

This is a problem for most brands. In practice, their tolerance for anything that is below the midpoint of the ‘happy’ axis is minimal. Can you imagine receiving a brief that states a brand wants to pursue a “man in hole’ storyline? And their reaction when you present back to them a public fuck-up of epic proportions for the second act (the hole) so that the brand (the man) has something to climb out the other side of and into redemption? No, I can’t either.

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Is that your brand at the bottom of that hole?

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So perhaps the idea of a ‘brand story’ is best taken as a metaphor rather than a set of instructions. To that end, Scott Donaton (global chief content officer of UM) did a solid job of pulling the threads of the ‘story as metaphor’ story together to offer some good advice to brands embarking on content. His point of it being ‘not all about you’ is a particularly good one.

I’m not trying to be a literary purist about the word ‘story’ and reclaim it for novelists and screenwriters everywhere, but I do want to sound a note of caution (and realism) as brands rush to become storytellers:

You are probably not your story.

You are more likely to be a character. Or a location. Or a plot device. Or maybe a chapter. But the real protagonist (the person we care most about in any story) is likely to be the person you’ve spent years describing as your audience. And there’s the problem – the person we’re working so hard to tell the story to, is actually the person we should be telling the story about.

Instead of thinking about controlling your brand narrative (still a useful construct, but much more applicable to the world of PR, particularly in the realm of crisis management), think about defining the hole that your brand is pulling the protagonist out of? What are your brand’s main character traits? What actions are believable? What’s their motivation? And perhaps most importantly, how do we as a brand help the protagonist answer the Major Dramatic Question?

So, should brands be authoring stories? Doesn’t really matter what I think, because it’s happening regardless. I would argue, however, that the bulk of marketing activity happening under this terminology isn’t storytelling at all.

It might be a subtle distinction, but I believe brands would be better served if we worked out creative, relevant ways for them to be in the stories being written every day by the artist formerly known as the audience.

At least that’s how I’d cast it.

This post also appeared on the Firebrand Talent Blog

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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“first we build the stacks, then we understand the patterns, and then we can make some money” 

Matt Locke, director of www.storythings.com on how the next era of the content industry will play out.

Make it easy for speakers to keep sharing the content and feedback from their sessions

The speakers you have chosen to present at your event were probably selected for several reasons: expertise, experience, presence and their ability to draw a crowd. That last factor is probably also true in the digital space, perhaps even more so than in the real world. Many speakers work very diligently at growing the quantity and cultivating the quality of their online following.

This can be used to your advantage even after an event has passed, as speakers will generally be on the lookout for new content, in interesting formats, that they can share first with their followers.

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Your speakers want to stay connected with their audience. Give them a hand.

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So think about how you can help these speakers reach their goals first. Pay it forward and the benefits will automatically begin to flow back to you and your event. Ensure they have priority access to the content from the event – particularly the content they may have created or participated in. Capture their reactions to or commentary on the event as a whole. This gives a whole new texture to their presence and will extract more value from their appearance.

There can also be a cumulative effect to be gained from encouraging speakers to interact with each other online, particularly if they have audiences that don’t necessarily overlap, either in terms of topic specialty, geography, preferred social platform or some other characteristic.

Before you get carried away, make sure you have permission to amplify your speaker’s work. Be totally transparent about what you plan to do with their content and make sure your agreement with them agreement covers it.

This is the tenth and final installment of the series: 10 ways to leverage digital for better B2B eventsWe recently ran an audit of the various tactics, strategies and recommendations we’ve developed @ Ogilvy for using digital to improve the live event experience (for the audience) and performance (for the marketer) – this advice is a summary of what we found to be true and useful.

If you’ve discovered a new way to boost your B2B event with digital, share it with @barrieseppings 

< Previously in this series: #9 Ongoing digital communities

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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