The best advertising tells a story we want to share with others. Or, to put it another way, great ads spark conversation. The true power of terrific ads lies less in the telling and more in the retelling. We converse by telling stories that connect us to others and let others appreciate our feelings, intentions, and dreams.
Information is important, but information alone does not inform. Information has to be shaped into stories to be understood. Researchers like me know all too well that information and data have to tell a story if a research study is going to make a difference.
The reality, though, is that most advertising does not practice storytelling. An ad may be persuasive, but it works because consumers have incorporated that information into some story of their own that makes sense to them. But this can be chancy, with little assurance of getting into the conversation. No surprise, then, that most advertising fails.
New media are poised to transform the practice of most advertising, if only we pay attention. With new media, there is no way to deliver an ad except as the start of, or at least as part of, a conversation. With the old media, the one-way framework of delivery encouraged the perception that effective communication, advertising included, was like a lecture to an audience taking notes. The new media have swept away this framework of delivery, thus putting an end to the fiction of a lecture. Storytelling is now the essence of how ads are delivered, as well as how they work. It's no longer possible to ignore the necessity of getting into the conversation.
When hyperbolic Internet boosters wax poetic about the digital revival of oral culture, what they're invoking is the simple yet profound notion that the new media are more interactive and less mediated. It's certainly not as if our embrace of new media means that we have renounced literacy. It's just that the character of our interaction with new media has many of the same general characteristics as oral communication: peer-to-peer, conversational, protean, experiential.
Broadly speaking, the new media are inherently participatory. Anyone and everyone can share and collaborate in the creation of meaning to whatever extent one chooses. This wasn't the case with old media.
Participation involves an active form of listening. Reaction and reinterpretation are expected. There is no one angle or single perspective that determines some ultimate meaning. A story changes upon every retelling, acquiring new meanings, new depth, new relevance, and new value. The meaning of a brand is in the dialogue about it; it is not wholly or exclusively contained in the text of an ad. The ad is just one opinion.
Participation also involves performance. Persuasiveness comes as much from the manner in which the story is told and retold as from the coherence and logic of what's said. Entertainment has always been important, but it becomes paramount with new media, which require participation, because we will participate only when we think we'll get something out of the experience. Our lecture attendance, so to speak, is no longer required. We will show up to participate only if the experience is worth it.
The struggle most advertisers are going through nowadays is rooted in a failure to appreciate that advertising must do something different. The old objectives no longer apply. More crucial than making advertising work in the new media is the imperative to rework advertising to fit the new media.
Advertising is no longer about being seen everywhere - it's about being talked about by everyone. This means an end to clutter. Relevance, not exposure, is the better measure of efficiency.
The experience of advertising now trumps message playback. This means measuring enjoyment, not recall. The brand itself will often be secondary to the experience facilitated by the brand. Key to the quality of an experience is the ability of consumers to control their exposure to and interaction with a brand.
In short, today's media revolution consists of something more than new forms of delivery. It is a new model of advertising, one in which all ads must tell stories, much like the great ads of old.
J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich, Inc. and the coauthor of three critically acclaimed books, including Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity (2005).