Stories play an important role in how our brains store memories and organize information. As science and artistry become ever-more entwined in our marketing efforts, its time for digital advertisers to sit up and take stories seriously.

We all love stories. We all know that. But few people have realized quite how important stories and story-telling are to our development until recently.

As a species we immerse ourselves in stories. It's to do with how we process information.

"Stories appear to be a fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical and memorable manner,” says Jonas Kaplan of the University of Southern California, who published a study revealing that real-time brain scans show that stories that force us to think about our deepest values activate a region of the brain once thought to be its autopilot.

Adds Kaplan:

"Stories help us to organize information in a unique way."

In 'normal human' beings a story will always engender some sort of emotional response - be it love, laughter, fear, anger or even boredom. The story will create an emotional response. It's why all the very best advertising tells a story. And connects with you.

Very few things can do this. In fact, without experiencing something yourself - almost nothing else can. A story is what makes us human. To enjoy a story you need to:

a) Picture yourself in the story, imagine ourselves to be in a certain place or experience, and

b) Have some emotional empathy to the participants of the said story.

Smell is often associated with memory and emotions; but what does a smell actually trigger? More often than not its a smell that triggers a memory, which triggers a story.

"When people read stories we invoke personal experiences. We're relying not just on words on a page, but also our own past experiences," says Raymond Mar, Associate Psychology Professor at York University, Toronto, and author of a study published in 2014 on fiction and its relation to real-world empathy, cognition, and behaviour.

“We often have thoughts and emotions that are consistent with what's going on in a story. Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships.”

Memories are stories, and stories are simply ways of accessing stored emotions. Where there is human emotion there is always a story.

How we build our personal stories day-to-day

Every minute of everyday we are writing our own narratives in our heads, consciously and subconsciously. For every posed selfie, Snapchat or Instagram of a meal we take - the conscious creation of a very public personal narrative we want to show the world - there are 10, 20 or 30 subliminal stories taking place in your day-to-day lives.

We just don't recognise them often. What goes on your feed is the self-edited, copy reviewed story we like to project to the world. But every minute of everyday we are living out our narratives - and whether we know it or not - every decision we make is in part our decision to ‘tell’ the story of our lives. This is why, as a species, we like stories so much – and why marketers have always tried to convey their messages via stories.

We very rarely live in the moment

We are always planning for the future or analyzing a past event - and we imagine all of this via storytelling. And how do we decide whether an idea or course of action is any good? How do we decide whether or not to buy that product or service? We use our imaginations to create a story of the what, how, when nature of the problem the idea is perceived to solve and imagine us 'winning' the story.

It's the same process your customers go through when you present to them your advertising messages. The story it imparts and the emotions it triggers are immediate. Are you telling a good story with your advertising messages? Have you triggered the response you want – and need to achieve – for them to interact with your brand?

You don’t actually need to write a story literally – there’s too much painting by numbers content marketing out there already – but you need convey an emotional story in your messaging.

I recently published an update around this famous, six-word short story, supposedly credited to Hemingway:

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’

I used it as an example of how to tell a story using very few words. I challenged others to come up with other stories –  and have so far received about 300 attempts - many of which you can read (and add your own) here and here.

There are some really good attempts there, others less so.

Native advertising helps digital embrace story-telling

To many creatives and creative agencies the above is everyday stuff. But dig deeper into the digital ad eco-system and it’s obvious that this is not the case.

As a performance driven medium, the first 20+ years of digital advertising have been mostly about ROI for advertisers. What can we do for better advertiser performance? How can we squeeze more value for the brand? Performance metrics – clicks, impressions, dwell times, shares, leads, sales - are the criteria for success or failure. The story has nothing to do with it.

As James Galpin, Head of Media & Digital LATAM at Millward Brown states in their Digital & Media Predictions 2016 report, treating online and mobile like uniform media has led to an over reliance on behavioural metrics such as clicks, visits and interactions.

‘These provide a narrow view of online and mobile as purely behavioural response channels. This overlooks the full potential of these platforms as brand building and demand-driving communications channels.’

Creativity has generally come in second place to performance. The value exchange and narrative story between the consumer and the advertising formats themselves was never, or only lightly, considered, and got lost somewhere in the blur of intrusive ad formats, conversion KPIs and analytic metrics.

The corresponding decline in display performance and the increased prevalence of content marketing and native advertising distribution formats has led to a long over-due re-evaluation of that value exchange, which is continuing today, with story-telling very much at the forefront of this change.

Stories are back in digital advertising. But with native advertising now the defacto distribution method for good content - the science, psychology and business case to back up their power is there for everyone to see too. So what's your brand story?

For Advertisers, Agencies and Trading Desks


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