Storytelling Is the Future of the Web

Most of the successful marketing campaigns that stand out in my memory all revolve around characters. Some of them are simply charismatic spokespeople, like Geico’s gecko, Nationwide’s “Greatest Spokesperson in the World,” or, I suppose, Burger King’s creepy king. Others keenly represent the intended customer—think way back to Wendy’s “where’s the beef?” lady, or more recently to Apple’s mac and PC guys. In all of these cases, it was decided that a more compelling message could be created by using characters to tell a story, rather than putting the product itself front and center.

Relating to characters and their stories is essential in order for people to make an initial connection with brands. Sure, some brands eventually transcend the need for connection and become themselves defining characteristics of people. In fact, Apple’s “I’m a mac/pc” was somewhat self-referential in that way. But in the beginning, people need to connect with a story in order to believe that a product or service matters to them.

Of course, this isn’t news. This has been established marketing thinking for a very long time. But somehow, the concept of storytelling doesn’t seem to have worked its way down from the worldwide mega-brands to the next tier of businesses in which you and I work. But why shouldn’t it? After all, we’re endeavoring to speak to the very same people they are! So, I’d like to explore storytelling in this post—to dispel the myth that we can’t tell stories on the web and identify some ways we can hone our craft as web-based storytellers.

We’ve heard quite a bit over the past few years about how the web has changed the way we read, even the way we think. In particular, the often publicized worry is that the change has been a negative one—that we no longer read deeply, and that we can no longer focus our thinking as we did before. There are plenty of voices in dissent on this opinion, though they don’t tend to dispute the fact that the web has changed us rather than the judgement that said change is for the worse. As a result, those of us in the digital marketing space are caught up in a quite tumultuous time, seeking out any trick we can find to get people to pay attention to our messages online.

But I don’t think there is any “trick” to be discovered. While I may personally worry about the effects of the web on our brains, the reality seems to be that we do not actually have an attention problem. The problem lies in our failure to imbue marketing with information worth paying attention to.

What We Pay Attention To

No matter what happens with the web, people still fervently seek out entertainment. Every year, more books, television shows, movies, music and the like are created and voraciously consumed. But if that is the case, why do we believe this idea that the web has killed our attention? Perhaps the volume of content is increasing but the demands it makes on our attention spans are less? (In other words, is it possible that the web is helping us to create and sell more books, for example, that people aren’t actually reading?) I decided to take a closer look at the books, movies, and television we’ve consumed over the past twenty years to see if a clearer picture of what’s happening might emerge.

I began by looking at the the top-selling books from the last twenty years, wondering if I might see any trends in length or subject matter. If our attention spans were truly waning, I guessed that shorter self-help books might be the most popular books in recent years. After gathering the top three books from each year, both in the fiction and non-fiction categories (which you can see plotted out in the graph above), I saw that my suspicions were completely wrong. In reality, the bestselling fiction books were longer and outsold the bestselling non-fiction.

One other aspect of this data fascinated me. You’ll notice that there is a gap where data from 2008 should be. It turns out that one of the most popular fiction series of all time, the Harry Potter saga, completely disrupted the publishing industry’s measuring practices such that 2008 remains unquantifiable. Initially, the Harry Potter books’ sales were recorded in a category devoted to juvenile literature. However, it quickly became apparent that the Harry Potter books were transcending that category. Though it’s known that the sales from this franchise eclipse the sales of any other fiction over the last decade, they’ve been weeded out of the available statistics because of the categorical disagreement. Put simply, if the Harry Potter books were included in the above graph, the length of the best-selling fiction books would be overwhelmingly increasing over time, indicating that reader attention has been consistently captivated by their story. I say “story” rather than “stories” intentionally, because the Harry Potter series is one very long story, told over several books. The reader’s perseverance over the seven books published so far, enjoying a story arc written across thousands of pages (note the increasing thickness of the Potter books themselves in the graph above right), demonstrates an unprecedented dedication of attention.

In other words, people are still reading—apparently, more than ever.

Next, I decided to look at film and television industry data from the same perspective. Anecdotally, my sense was that movies were getting longer, but I couldn’t really be sure (perhaps that’s only true of the movies I watch). So, I gathered the top-grossing movies and the top-rated television programs from the past 20 years and looked specifically at their length. Like the top-selling books, the top-grossing movies and television programs are getting longer.

The television statistics intrigued me in particular. In the years between 1990 and 2000, half-hour sitcoms often received the highest ratings. These shows tended to tell stories that were resolved at the conclusion of each episode, allowing viewers to engage with them easily. However, the popular programs of the last decade have been ones that require more from the viewer. With dramas, one-hour programs with season-length (or longer) story arcs have been more popular. Consider how Lost strung viewers along for 6 years promising resolution to one epic mystery. However, the highest-rated program of the last decade has been American Idol, a reality show. With reality programming, the story is even more personal. Viewers watch as contestants develop over the course of weeks, getting to know them and care about them, and all the more so with those that continue to compete as the show closes in on its finale. Reality shows tell stories that matter to viewers in an even more potent way than fiction in that their subtexts offer a new kind of fairy tale—one that many truly believe could be true for them. That, in a nutshell, is the holy grail of marketing: creating a story that is just out of reach enough to be compelling to people, yet just plausible enough to merit them pursuing it. If nothing else, American Idol demonstrates an extremely effective modern marketing model (how I wish we could do the same with things more wholesome than celebrity, but that’s another column…).

We Pay Attention to Stories

It’s clear from the book, film, and television data that we do not have an attention problem. The common thread here is the power of the story. People want to be told stories, and clearly have an ample supply of attention to give them. Fortunately, the purpose of marketing is to tell a story—one that compels people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a match here…

5 thoughts on “Storytelling Is the Future of the Web

  1. Chris Butler

    GC, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I’m with you on the Geico commercials. I’ve seen many of the new campaign on Hulu and have been a mixture of surprised and annoyed. Especially the “we made this in 15 minutes” ads. Those are really hard to watch. Thanks for reading!

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  3. GC

    This is a fantastic piece! That we’re watching more TV isn’t too much of a surprise, but I never would have guessed that we’re on the whole reading more or watching longer films. Seeing the data is really helpful, espeically when it looks so good, btw.
    But I also really appreciate your point about making the messages within marketing more substantial. There’s no reason that we should just settle on advertising for advertising’s sake–this is sort of what the latest Geico campaigns have been about. They don’t say anything about Geico anymore, they’re mostly self-referential, assuming that everyone is familiar with previous campaigns or the brand in general. But the story behind the brand is getting lost. 
    Great points! :-)

  4. Lauren Polinsky

    Great post! I agree that people are drawn to stories but also was skeptical because I thought people had short attention spans due to the instantaneous environment we have created.
    Lauren Polinsky
    palocreative.wordpress.com

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