Bewitching Buyers

by , Sep 12, 2011, 3:26 PM
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Bewitching Buyers

Storytelling in a hyperconnected world

In 1998 I joined four friends in Orlando, Fl., to produce what started out as a traditional independent film project and ended up as The Blair Witch Project. Bringing to life the legend of the Blair Witch across various media - film, Web site, tv special, book, comic-book series and pc games - was the most unusual and incredible storytelling experience of my life.

There was a perpetual adrenaline rush in telling the story online in real time to an expanding audience. Even in those early days of online community, before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we developed a deeply meaningful connection with fans clamoring to see the movie months before it was complete. We drove fan behaviors that were far more valuable from a business perspective than clicking a "Share" button: ultimately, fans called local theater managers and demanded Blair Witch, pushing us from the tiny art-house release we had planned into a mainstream summer hit on 2,500 screens. The experience of making and marketing The Blair Witch Project opened my eyes to the power and possibilities of storytelling in a hyperconnected world.

Fast-forward thirteen years. Hyperconnectivity has given scale and visibility to consumer behaviors that were previously overshadowed by mass communications. We've witnessed the emergence and spread of social networks and memes, the democratization of news, the rise of the online influencer, mobile technology, cloud computing and the "Creative Technologist."

But, hyperconnectivity isn't just about technology, media channels and networks. At heart, it's about the power of word-of-mouth and new applications for the oldest of oral traditions - storytelling. In the heyday of the 30-second spot, advertisers used stories to educate and convert a captive, attentive consumer. Today, hyperconnectivity has led to fragmentation. Audiences are conditioned to receive information whenever and wherever they want it, across multiple screens, in 140 characters, in countless newsfeeds editorialized by their friends.

This is disruptive for marketers focused on using the newest technologies to tell a carefully controlled and curated brand story. But it is possible to take advantage of the shifting pathways of hyperconnectivity. The first step is creating a robust world within which a brand's story can unfold authentically - no matter what direction it takes or who tells it. This type of storytelling can best be achieved through experience design and worldbuilding.

For a marketing campaign, this means creating and facilitating multiple consumer experiences, using as many channels as appropriate, online and offline. Give people the raw materials to piece the brand's story together in their own heads, in their own ways and in their own words.

This approach inspires shareable, spreadable brand stories in the personalized language of each customer. It also represents a bold but rewarding shift in control of the brand's voice, from the marketer to the consumer.

Whereas 30-second spots and print ads were about telling brand stories to passive audiences for absorption, an experience design approach to marketing is about giving people a story to tell.

The result is that the brand's world lives in the mind of a consumer. From an agency standpoint, building multiple experiences that make up a brand's world is complicated, but campaigns must be simply perceived and clearly understood by consumers.

Building a brand world that lives in someone's head goes beyond look, feel and carefully crafted messages in a cmo's brand book. It is accomplished by creating the rules for the world, identifying the communication channels and designing separate experiences that enable the story to take shape organically. However, the campaign must be crafted with the understanding that consumers don't have to and won't participate in every experience.

So what does this look like in practice?

To ensure that the first season of HBO's new fantasy series, Game of Thrones, became a mainstream hit, my agency, Campfire, evoked the world of a show that didn't yet exist. We designed a series of sensory experiences that invited people to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the world of "Westeros," as well as conveyed the types of dramatic stories in the series itself. The campaign began with mailing intricately designed scent boxes to online influencers, and culminated in a food truck curated by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio on the streets of New York and Los Angeles. We brought the show to life in the minds of curious fans, turned them into evangelists and helped build an excited audience that made Game of Thrones one of the season's most anticipated and successful new shows.

Curiosity is an extremely effective tool for driving consumer behavior. Whether it's tracking down a "stolen" Audi A3 from the New York Auto Show, collecting "Real Facts" from under Snapple Caps or deciphering letters written in dead languages as an introduction to HBO's True Blood, curiosity motivates consumers to actively seek out the experiences that make up the brand world. It also gives them a reason to share what they've learned with friends.

This type of marketing campaign is highly immersive and allows for different layers of engagement with different types of consumers, from the merely curious to the fanatics. For the marketer, it's a tightrope act that requires consistency and continuity across all pieces of the marketing mix. If a consumer has an experience with a brand that doesn't fit within the world the brand has created, it will ring as inauthentic and the brand's story will not stick.

That's why this approach to marketing requires a deep understanding of the fans and sub-cultures that drive a brand's business. While Facebook has popularized the word fan, truly understanding fandom is what converts casual observers into customers who want to engage and explore a brand's world, not just to click a "Like" button.

At Campfire, we immerse ourselves in the fan sub-cultures of our clients' brands to identify "divers," "dippers" and "skimmers." Divers live and breathe the brand world, dippers casually interact with it and skimmers infrequently pass through. Reaching each group separately and fulfilling their needs is not just about covering all the bases.

Thanks to our hyperconnected world, each group influences the other, and understanding this ecosystem provides the insights needed to expand a brand's reach on a mass scale. By engaging the "divers" (niche audiences) in your brand world first, you will generate word-of-mouth that will in turn create a ripple effect, influencing the dippers and ultimately the skimmers and mainstream consumers.

Regardless of interest level, when consumers envision the brand's world in their heads to make sense of multiple experiences across platforms, they develop a sense of ownership over the brand. The connection to the brand is personalized, creating a lasting emotional bond.

Hyperconnected storytelling isn't easy, but it's crucial to marketing success today. The currency of the social Web isn't content but stories. Engage and excite people in your brand world, and they'll help spread your story.

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