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Back in 2013, in a very tongue-in-cheek entitled post This Just In: A Lot Of People Don’t Trust Advertising, I shared the findings of research which revealed, among other things 76% of respondents said ads in general were either “very exaggerated” or “somewhat exaggerated” and 87% think half or more cleaning ads are photoshopped.
In a post last year which ran on CMS Wire, Tom Stockham, CEO of Experticity said “across the board, marketers are overvaluing traditional advertising and not placing nearly enough emphasis on actual people who, it turns out, are what actually impact consumers most.
The context of his statement was research that his company had completed which showed that less than half (47%) of consumers trusted brand advertising.
Let Me Tell You A Story
In a 2015 post I penned entitled “4 Benefits Of Using Storytelling In Marketing,” the opening paragraph went something like this:
Brand storytelling isn’t a new concept, as Susan Gunelius wrote back in 2013. Brands of all sizes realize the need to entertain their customers and prospects via the age-old method of storytelling. And just as Gunelius wrote back in 2013, “the opportunities to tell stories as part of direct and indirect brand marketing initiatives have become a strategic priority.”
In the post I identified four benefits for brands who utilize storytelling as part of their overall marketing strategies:
- Convey Your Personality
- Bring Your Brand In Front As The Lead
- Hit The Emotional Quotient
- Keep ‘Em Coming Back For More
All of the above are very important benefits for sure. But the one thing that drove former Disney exec Rob Maigret to launch Popularium, a community of powerful stories, written by everyday people about their relationships with products? The truth. Maigret’s belief is that personal and inspiring stories from real people, involving real products, are the true decision drivers.
We Don’t Actually Relate To Products
I sat down recently with Maigret to discuss storytelling, the good and the bad and why Popularium is different.
Steve Olenski: Lots of people have been professing the power of storytelling for brands for years. Why is telling a story such a great way to engage and connect with consumers?
Rob Maigret: As humans, we don’t actually relate to products. We relate to each other, and we tend to do so best through the sharing and re-sharing of interesting experiences. Since, forever, we’ve been telling one another stories, in one form or another. Cave paintings, smoke signals, drums, art, books, plays, poems, film, television, social blurbs – you name it – humanity has been figuring out the best way to transfer information from person to person, and generation to generation.
And that’s all been accelerated with technology. Now we’ve got all kinds of messages coming at us in all sorts of different formats, and marketers are trying to figure out which of these formats resonate the best. Technology is helping us understand the relationship between the message someone receives and how their brain is stimulated when they receive this message.
So if you’re the person responsible for creating a relationship between a consumer and a product, you’re going to want to ensure that the consumer is in a state of interest – more specifically – a state of what could be described as ‘curious empathy.’ Stories have been scientifically proven as the most effective method of stirring such empathy, and we believe we can achieve that with the right 1,000 words or 2 minutes of video.
Olenski: What are the most egregious mistakes you see brands making when it comes to storytelling?
Maigret: The core problem is that brands don’t necessarily know what makes people buy their products. Marketers, including myself, have typically taken an additive approach, trying new things, seeking a better recipe for success. And half a decade ago we had traditional marketing: print, television, physical display. Then the Internet opened everything up, starting with display. That then led to wave upon wave of new communication patterns, and brands have been bravely willing to try each.
Throughout this journey of discovery, no one has been willing to pull any of the legacy methods, as we’re not really certain which is working. Also, just because something is a good and simple communication method doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good marketing channel. For example, with something like Snapchat or Instagram Stories, no one really knows how that information is retained, or if it even is, beyond the moment.
Our theory is that there are some very simple guidelines for telling a great story. It’s not rocket science. Make it real. Make it relatable. Give it stakes. Create a connection. Hit the reader / viewer in the head, in the heart, in the groin. Move them. Be honest. And you know what? Sometimes that takes more than 15 seconds. Sometimes that takes some work, by creators and the audience. And that’s okay. Because attention spans aren’t getting shorter. They’re getting longer. People are getting smarter.
I realize that might sound crazy, since there is so much hype around social microformats right now- photos, 140 characters, 15 seconds of video – and if you listen to what you’re being told these days you might believe these are the only ways people communicate. And people do, in part, communicate this way- but it doesn’t mean microformats are how we actually absorb information, how we digest, how we reach a state of curious empathy.
Could a television program like Game Of Thrones have existed 20 years ago? I suspect not. We didn’t yet have the mass patience and desire for serialized television. But now serialized television is the greatest thing ever. We binge watch a lot of programs. And this is in part because we’ve got more patience, not less. We’re whores for deep and complex stories. HBO took a chance with The Sopranos and it paid off in spades. For a number of reasons, we connected with Tony and the rest of the characters.
The other thing that has occurred is that suddenly brands are paying 18 year old “influencers” to promote their products. Now, I’m sure that there are some credible people in that group, but I have to question if some 18 year old who is famous for being famous knows a lot about a refrigerator – they probably don’t even own a house. The consumer reaction is to run instead to peer recommendations – Amazon reviews, Yelp, etc. – and search for reviewers that are relatable and credible. So why it might offer a flashy introduction to a product or service, it does not foster a personal connection.
Another example is: we are much more likely to ask our friends what they think of a specific doctor because we trust our friends, and we can translate that information based on the person’s particular personality, authority, and taste. It’s harder to do that with Yelp reviewers. Plus, we’d never ask the health care provider for advice on what doctor to see. We don’t trust them. And this is all very telling.
Soon “influencers” will have to state when their message is paid for by a brand. Perhaps no one will care, or maybe we’ll start to question the message. My money’s on the latter. It’s like politics – we want to know who’s paying our politicians. And our medical care – we want to know which drug companies have our doctors on their payroll. Because we are directly affected by this information.
Olenski: What makes Popularium different from other platforms when it comes to storytelling?
Maigret: We’re asking Storytellers to share real stories that involve products. And definitely not reviews, because, to be honest, reviews can be really boring. Do we really need another tech review site? We don’t think so.
Speaking of reviews, maybe that’s why a lot of traditional review-focused publications are struggling, because we as consumers ultimately need to relate to the reviewer to trust them. If we can’t, if they are anonymous, or we don’t think they are interesting, or don’t have something in their arsenal we want to emulate – whether that be in terms of the way they think or live – it doesn’t speak to us.
In fact, we’re cutting the review part out completely. We publish real stories, with the goal being to get you to feel and to connect. It just so happens that a product is a participant in the story.
We’re not assigning products to people to write about, nor are we taking orders from brands. There are no “product talking points” for our Storytellers/Creators to hit. You have to trust that the audience already loves great products. Products have become a part of our life experience, especially here in the U.S., and there is nothing wrong with that. We are consumers of products. They’re also very much a part of our own personal brand, even if we are not always aware of the association.
Unlike a review site, Popularium doesn’t try to tell anyone what to buy. We just edit and publish compelling stories the best way we can. There is no hard push. And what we see happening is a desire in the reader to want to know more about the product, even though it wasn’t presented as an ad in the traditional sense. The product isn’t the star. The star is always the narrator, the circumstance, the experience.
At the same time, and this is important, Popularium has an opinion that we want to resonate in the stories. We believe that people are ultimately good, adults should have fun, and we should all be very tolerant of one another’s differences. So yeah, we don’t push particular products, and this isn’t a soapbox platform – but be cool, talk about experiences, and tell a great story.
Olenski: You told me you believe “truth is next evolution in the advertising and media industry.” That implies that heretofore truth was non-existent in these industries. Are you implying that it’s been all lies up to this point?
Maigret: Not entirely, but we’ve all been guilty of attempting to manifest all kinds of feelings around various products. It’s the business we’re in. We try to buy emotions, and we have been ruthless in our attempts.
What if I told you we’ve reached a tipping point? Bear with me: I saw this young guy listening to an actual record album for the first time, at EFA in Berlin last year, and you know what he said afterward? “I can hear the piano!” Think about that for a second, he’s probably been listening to digital music on a smart device for most of his life and only now he realizes that he is supposed to be able to hear the actual instruments. It’s supposed to sound like real music. That’s messed up.
Imagine that, in that moment, his whole world broke. He had probably paid over 100 Euro for the headphones he had with him that were supposed to be the best thing ever, he has near infinite amounts of music via his phone from a number of streaming services, and yet they all sound like shit compared to this archaic piece of technology called a record player and a proper set of headphones.
He’s not alone. The number of young people who are diving head first into vinyl is staggering. But tell me, when’s the last time we saw a mainstream advertisement for a record or a record player? It’s not just records: Classic cars, old motorcycles, board games, wine, cannabis, and so on. All on the rise, to further my point. These are all high-quality experience verticals with a physical connection to the consumer.
Imagine that kid tells the story of how he discovered “real music” to whomever will listen to him. He loves music, he has an amazing and broad range of tastes, and now everything is different because of this record player. That night he goes out to clubs and starts to really listen. Suddenly he’s going crate diving on Friday nights and holding listening parties on Saturdays with his friends. He buys an old McIntosh amp that becomes his pride and joy, and he hands it down to his kid someday.
We might say that this one moment has changed his consumer trajectory. And we might also say that this would make a powerful Popularium story.
But back to the question – look, I know that saying brands are buying our emotions with lies sounds like a really aggressive statement, but it’s true. The truth is also that product quality is often compromised to cover massive marketing budgets. The system, as it stands now, is quite flawed. We want to change that by being real.
It’s a hard time to be a consumer. It feels like there are more cheap disposable products being pumped out of questionable factories than ever and it is becoming harder and harder to find quality. And yet, there are an incredible amount of evergreen entertainment experiences available – from old bikes to board games to an amazing locally-produced bottle of bourbon. There are products with stories and rich histories that you can emotionally connect with.
You can find an amazing sounding amplifier on E-Bay. You don’t need a new car every four years, nor a new iPhone every year. The records bought in the 80s still play just fine. People can enjoy an amazing story about a product in a thousand words.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.