2012: The year of brand storytelling

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When the year-end wrap-ups come in, 2012 is sure to be labeled the year of the story.

Although we're not yet at the halfway point, it's unlikely a marketing trend will emerge that is as important as storytelling. The idea of content is not new, but the definition of the word is rapidly expanding and evolving in the social media age, and CMOs of all stripes are taking note.

New platforms are empowering consumers to create communities, shape narratives and share stories. Traditional, intrusive forms of marketing are becoming less effective. Competition for consumers' attention is growing even as their attention spans shrink.

As these factors converge, marketers are embracing the idea that they must act like publishers in how they bring together, communicate with and respond to audiences.

The biggest sea change for many brands can be labeled the “Great Migration from One-Offs to Always-On.” Over the last decade, most brands that dabbled in content did exactly that — they dabbled. Content was typically defined as high-production-value, Hollywood programming delivered via TV or Web video. It was expensive, took a long time to develop, and was often created and distributed outside of broader marketing plans. It was typically treated as an experiment, and it was difficult to define or determine ROI.

Today, brands are coming around to the notion that content can't be relegated to a side role. It must be integrated into everything they do. It must also be defined as almost any form of brand messaging or dialog with consumers. It's a box that still contains original video and pricey “tent poles,” but it now also includes Tweets, updates, curated news feeds and consumer experiences.

As brands create always-on programming strategies, they must do more than think like media companies. They must also think and act like direct marketers in terms of their ability to deliver concise, precisely targeted messaging that can be refined on the fly based on consumer response.

Content is being upgraded from a nice-to-have tactic to a scalable, measurable, accountable marketing discipline.

That's a good thing, but it's not without its challenges. The more broadly content is defined the more danger there is that the word will be washed of all its meaning. If everything is content, how can you have a content strategy? As a wise man (aka my boss) said recently, “I worry that content is being over-used as a word in the same way that digital was a few years ago.” Or even a few hours ago.

There are plenty of other risks in the content space. Brands aren't always sure that what they have to say is relevant to their audience, or are uncertain what customers want to hear. They don't know how to budget for narrative content, which agency to oversee its creation, or how to account for its performance. The list goes on.

But it's clear that these issues are less about pitfalls than about questions that need to be addressed. Brands cannot afford to be scared away from the content space. As they seek to engage, entertain and inform audiences, brand storytelling is an effective weapon — one that can work across media forms. It transcends products and categories by helping brands express the role they play (or hope to play) in people's lives. It can establish rituals, showcase product benefits and generate excitement.

It's a good story. The story of the year, you might say.

Missed Scott's column (“GOP candidates teach me targeting 101”) last month? Click here to have a read.

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