Social Media and the Importance of Old-Fashioned Story Telling

A year ago, I was telling folks that sooner rather than later, there would be several thousand social media marketers out there and that this still wouldn’t be enough to service the needs of businesses large and small seeking to tap into social media marketing as an integral part of their company’s 21st century marketing strategy.  It’s safe to say I was right, but that was an easy one to predict.  The same phenomenon happened in the mid-90s when every company realized at some point along the way that they needed a website, only to find thousands of web designers from which to choose from.  Many call this era the “Internet’s Wild West,” where anyone who could put together some HTML code was able to charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, often for the same quality of website.

Where we’re at with social media marketers is being compared to that era quite often nowadays, and it comes back to me where friends and potential clients are asking me to describe in more detail how my approach is right and everyone else’s is not.  I could take the easy way out and simply throw a few key social media marketing terms their way and call it a day, but I decide to take the more challenging path and explain in more detail how it’s quite possible most of these new social media marketers might be right.  Now if someone promotes “Get 1,000 new Twitter followers in 30 days”, I tell my clients to run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit and find someone who “gets it!”  But fortunately, most clients are bit more Internet savvy today than they were back in 1995 and they have a better sense of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to social media marketing.  Thus the question posed to me… what makes my style right?

I explain that in the world of social media marketing, it’s all about the “story” you tell about your company’s product or service and that in reality, there is NO ONE RIGHT WAY to tell that story.  If you think about it, this makes total sense… back in the early days of advertising, the “story” revolved around a single newspaper ad designed to convey both a tone and a message.  Billboards and magazines soon followed suit, and the advertising medium of choice had to tell the story in one full-page picture, in the form of an ad.  Thus, “advertorial” was much sought after but rarely given from a quality publication.  Radio advertising extended that story to the 30-second audio format, and it worked wonders until television turned that audio story into a 30-second video and became the advertising medium of choice for most top marketers for the past 50 years.  A good ad was simply a really good story, and some ads even took the story line a few steps further in the form of those famous Maxwell House commercials done in a weekly mini-series, or perhaps like Procter & Gamble owning daytime soap operas to tell the ultimate dramatic story with only their commercials woven in.

The Internet did take the media world by storm, by both democratizing a company’s access to tools for creating their story online and finding an audience willing to pay attention.  Using anything from basic HTML to a high-end Flash website, an audience for a company’s message could be found using Google search or perhaps by buying a banner ad or e-mail campaign with a popular website or two.  But in many ways, not much had truly changed… it was still the company (aka the advertiser) speaking directly TO their audience, broadcasting a message for their audience in some form of story or another.  It wasn’t until blogs came on the scene a few years back where things really started to change, and thus set the stage for where we’re at today.  Blogs allowed a message to be heard, sometimes by a few hundred and in some cases ( and as two examples) by many thousands.  But blogs offered something a traditional website did not… the blog offered a way for readers to talk back, and what was discovered was that the readers didn’t want to talk back to the original author as much as they wanted to SPEAK WITH the other blog readers.  Thus, the first truly interactive online story was born!

Fast forward to today and the blog, in its original and simple format, is the top content tool used by companies large and small in getting the word out about their company’s product or service.  The blog is the ultimate tool for storytelling, and going back to our premise that most social media marketers have probably gotten it right, there is NO ONE WAY of storytelling that is right while the others would somehow be wrong.  One marketer could decide the best way for a company to tell their story is in the form of a “documentary,” laying out the facts cleanly and clearly in a series of blog postings that combined, form the basis of the company’s story.  Another marketer could come up with a blogging strategy that has a “fictional thriller” set as its cornerstone, and it’s then up to the creativity of the writing team to make that story come to life.

Blogs are interactive, but social media technology makes them shine!  Blogs have all of the advantages that traditional online content did not.  Blogs can be commented on.  Blogs can be easily shared.  Blogs can be subscribed to.  And most importantly, blogs can be automatically integrated into the world of social media today, providing full and rich content, in the form of a story line, to Facebook, Twitter, a LinkedIn Group, FriendFeed, Google Buzz and so much more.  It’s the blog’s RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed which makes this possible, and is the same basic technology that allows content in the form of photos (from Flickr and Picasa) and video (from YouTube) to be commented on, shared, subscribed to and integrated in the very same way.

By being integrated in social media, the blog’s story can develop a life of its own.  Every time a person reads the blog and shares it with his or her friends on Facebook, and comments on it, the story takes on a new life of its own, and enters into the world of “word of mouth” marketing that is dominating social media today.  Also, every time a person shares or comments from Twitter on a blog entry that has been converted into a micro-blog (status update) with a direct link to the full blog, this story takes on a life of its own as search engines begin to notice that the blog is “trending” and might be more relevant in search results and thus appear in the “first 10 search results.”

So thus we’re back to the “story to tell.”  Companies learning social media marketing will often ask “well, how should I speak in the world of social media such as Facebook and Twitter?”  I reply that they should speak as they normally would if they were out networking and meeting potential clients, talking about their company’s product or service.  They’ve all been so trained that company communications must fit the rigid rules of traditional PR that they are nervous about having to learn a new format that, at first blush, appears even more confusing than what the PR textbooks had taught.  More and more, they are realizing that they’ve held the skills to communicate their company’s “story” all along, as most of them have been doing it since they started with the company they’re with now.  As long as they all understand the company’s chosen “story to tell,” whether a documentary, a thriller, a mystery or a Western (ok, that’s a bit of exaggeration now), they can easily get behind it and support it through their company’s social media channels with great success.

Assigning someone as the “lead storyteller” or hiring an outside consultant or writer to do this for a company is the next logical step when looking at social media marketing as a company’s lead strategy for promotion.  I predict the world of freelance writers and journalists will grow by leaps and bounds in this new social media world.

Going a step beyond the primary “story” in a company’s social media outreach, progressive companies understand the power of this new form of communication and actually allow their employees the freedom and latitude to express themselves on behalf of the company in this “wild, wild world of social media.”  Some companies are answering customer service complaints publicly and in a 1st person, normal human being tone of voice, not corporate “legalese.”  Other companies are expanding beyond customer service and using social media tools to promote and market their companies, again in the 1st person and told as if speaking from one person to another.  Those companies which still hold on to a more traditional approach and make their “story” sound like it was cut and paste from their product catalog or an old-fashioned press release are the ones that find social media confounding and not a productive use of their company’s time.  The simple reality is that people don’t want to be communicated to by PR speak, hearing about a “state of the art” product that is “robust” and “a paradigm-changer.”  They want to hear what it’s like from a normal, human point of view, whether that is their friend or simply a message delivered by a company they trust.   And thus, the power of storytelling, in all of its incarnations, will continue to expand and take a lead role in how we choose the products and services of the near future.

Article appears in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of Echelon Magazine


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