What should advertising be? A new (old) model, perhaps.

Its probably of little surprise to you that one of the few “digital marketing” areas that I have any interest in talking about is original “content” (although like many creative people, I shudder at the overuse of that word.)

So, as I’m clearing out my RSS feeds, I stumble upon a three-year-old post on Podcasting News that really nails how I feel about it, and have for some time.

The headline is “Advertisers Shouldn’t Compete For Your Attention; They Should Sponsor Your Attention.”

This is exactly right.  For too long, advertising (and marketing) have grown and grown into beasts of ego (really? awards shows for commercials? please.), vying for more and more active attention, and sucking up some of our greatest creative talents to create manipulative capitalist claptrap with budgets that would never be afforded them, had their output also not been intended to sell cars or crackers or credit checks.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been into old-time radio from the 30s and 40s.  Comedians like George Burns, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and others helped shaped my view of humor (including puns…sorry everyone), how one could tell a story that sparked the imagination without any visuals whatsoever (which has become a core focus of what I’m working on now, but more on that later), and the effective role of sponsorship in the creative process.

Old-time radio was structured around the sponsor.  Texaco Star Theater and The Colgate Program were mainstays of popular radio programming.   They were set up so that the sponsor would get an advertisement beginning of the show framing it so that they were “bringing you the entertainment” rather than having a bunch of commercials in between segments from the bunch of different sponsors vying for your attention. In this way, there is a much stronger, more up-front association between brand and content, in a way that defines the relationship to be more about ‘we are making it possible for these people to be creative and bring you stories that you love’.

Shouldn’t that be the model, rather than a bunch of broke creative people going out on their own with no resources, or a bunch of creative people taking a lot of “creative” notes from non creative people with the money? Shouldn’t financial folks spend their money to position themselves to be ‘powered by Intel’ rather than spending their own money on 30 second spots that are increasingly fast-forwarded through (here’s a good rule of thumb: when theres a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to working around ever having to experience what you’re doing, it’s time to rethink.  I’m looking at you, banner ads.)

I think that we’re starting to see some of this come back in things like Kevin Pollak’s web show, and some of the sponsors of larger podcasts who seem to “get it”, and I hope this patronage model continues.

Telling a story doesn’t take much at all

Some may tell you that all online storytelling requires a lot of resources.  A video crew, post-production editors, content strategists, design, a dedicated website, affiliate links, a marketing team, and on and on.

I say it takes so little to make a emotionally resonant story… you only have to tell a really little bit and people will fill in the rest.



…linking to…


It really doesn’t take much.


Oh and you can find out more about the Pulitzer-prize winning image taken by Todd Heisler above via rockymountainnews.com, since I know you’re interested.

The difference between a message and a story

In communications, there are those who think strategically and those who think tactically.  At my job, we’ve even named our blog Thinkers and Doers to reflect both sides of the coin.  Ideally, both sides inform the other.  No tactic lives out there on its own (“We need to have a Twitter account because people are talking about twitter!”) without some kind of strategy (or valuable reason for existing behind it).  In the same way, having a clever strategy without any specific toolsets identified can languish in ‘thought leadership land’.

Historically, many companies have focused on a ‘message’ as the core unit of visibility.  “Just Do It” is a message. “Made From The Best Stuff On Earth” is a message.

Nike Project
Image by Jellymon via Flickr

Those are all well and good (and have had their time), but these days the opportunities for telling a story are vast.  “Just Do It” may not have any meaning on its own (aside from “I know that, thats the Nike tagline”), but pair it with images of Michael Jordan dunking from the free throw line with room to spare, or Tiger Woods—well, maybe that’s a bad example. I would argue that its the story behind the message that has caused “Just Do It” to remain in the cultural lexicon.

The great thing for business is that the internet has opened up an almost infinite opportunity to tell stories to deepen the experience that a person has with a brand. Through the use of video, podcasts, blogs, conversations, and especially by empowering and encouraging those who are already on board to be a part of the storytelling process on behalf of your brand, you have the opportunity to build a story ecosystem for very little cost beyond earning the trust of your customers online through real interactions.

Just imagine the possibilities, of what you could do with that kind of evangelical content, coming from people with no financial stake, just out of love for some aspect of what you do. Just imagine what message that would send to people who could potentially be interested in your product, service, campaign, charity, country.

Just do it.

Focus on the bridge: A framework for emotionally engaging storytelling.

In any exchange and especially in storytelling, there are two ‘islands’: the listener and the subject.  A great experience will put the focus in between them, creating a bridge by which the listener can cross to connect with the subject.

One of the examples I’m most proud of is the Thrillercast series I worked on with Joe V. for Sony last year. I don’t think we knew it at the time, but this became the perfect example of the bridge concept in action.

Identify the goal. Capture the long-standing affect that Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller” and associated videos had on the world, through interviews with people who were a part and those who were influenced.

Define the lanes. Identify the areas where “Thriller” had a major influence – Music, Songwriting, Production, Choreography, Dance, Video, Radio.

Define the pillars: Identify the events or items common to each of the lanes that we want to make sure are touched upon throughout the stories.  In this case, the songs themselves became great pillars.

Place your pillars. Figure out how to arrange the stories so that the overall story arc is tight and compelling.  Whether it’s grouping episodes together by topic, walking the listener through chronologically, or some other organizational system, the grouping of the content will ensure that the listener is taken on a smooth journey.

Find your storytellers for each lane. Cast people who are passionate about telling their story and whose stories can serve as a bridge between the listener and Michael.  We new almost immediately whether someone had something to say or would just be going through the motions, and that informed whether we pursued them or not.

Capture bridge stories. When interviewing, keep the tone anecdotal rather than empirical. Anyone can sit there and list the various awards received and the number of copies sold.  Those are things about the subject, and do not belong on the bridge.  Remember, all those achievements happened because of the bridge elements.  We encouraged people talk about their experience with “Thriller” from within their area, the influence it had on them, and how it changed affected the landscape as a whole.

So, when telling a story (be it a bedtime story, a podcast, a twitter stream,  a presentation, a mix CD, anything), ask yourself: Does this experience build a bridge?  If not, you’re not done.

The story is the results (so don’t try to tell it yourself!)

This past weekend I was honored and privileged to co-lead (with Joe Vella) a discussion about Storytelling in the podcasting world at Podcamp Boston 4.  What I learned during the course of the discussion, and what I tried to put out there in some of the other panels I sat in on, was this:

When you tell your own story, its hype.  Other people telling your story is better.

In the 300 episodes of content that I helped to create while at Sony Music, very few of them (with the exception of Yo-Yo Ma) were focused on the artist talking about themselves.  This was by design, because stories told by people’s stories  to the music and the affect it had by coming into their lives definitively resonates more.

The danger with talking from the position of the creator (or your company, or your product) is twofold:

1) It’s increasingly difficult for your audience to believe you can be objective.

2) We all tend to severely over-edit or severely under-edit.

A question came up in another panel (run by @cc_chapman) about what non-profits could be doing better in the SocMed space, and I suggested that what may be lacking is an effort to truly document the stories of those that are affected by contributors donations.  If you have a charity that delivers shoes to poor kids in Africa, you’d better believe you’ll get more donations if you shoot a FlipCam video of the kids unwrapping and trying on shoes for the first time than if you point that same camera at the founder of the organization and let them talk about how much they need money to get those shoes over to Africa.

The Tom’s Shoes AT&T commercial is a perfect example of results-based storytelling, and finding that rare balance of focus.

Enabling the broadcast of passion and stories of people who are affected by what you do, or the product you put out, or the service you provide, whether it be  through podcasting or even just a comment section on your websites pages is the most powerful and effective way to show potential buyers/donors/fans/friends the value of what you bring to the table.

So my advice, when working on that new product strategy, that Social Media tone assessment, that podcast, your resume:

The story is the results, the results are the story.