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Making Stories Matter: Why Brands Must Create Content Not Ads

Making Stories Matter: Why Brands Must Create Content Not Ads
Making Stories Matter: Why Brands Must Create Content Not Ads
Making Stories Matter: Why Brands Must Create Content Not Ads

This year was the first time I was able to attend the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity. I was inspired by Randall Rothenberg’s talk about Direct To Consumer (DTC) brands prioritizing storytelling and using content as a differentiator, and I’m happy that I could add to the discussion.

We received great reaction to our master class presentation about creating content with publishers, so I wanted to follow up with some highlights, because I know firsthand that content is becoming the centerpiece for effective brands in the 21st century.

Exchange Value

I believe that all brands must prioritize mission-driven storytelling that gives their audience value and portrays the brand as relevant, responsible and caring. Brands are now selling the experience they offer as much, if not more, than their products or services. As you will see, this fundamentally changes a brand’s approach to marketing.

People are gravitating to brands they feel are aligned with their interests and beliefs. This is why it is advantageous for brands to embark on storytelling that adds value to the audience they want to reach. It is this value exchange that  creates the most significant brand exposure, and it’s a sea change from how brands have thought about engaging with their audiences in the past.

So what is of most value? It could be messaging that is informative, inspiring, entertaining or a mix of the three, but it must always be relevant. And it primarily depends on one’s target audience. Determine what matters to them most, then what emotive response you’d like to achieve and that will help inform the best story to generate those feelings. Ultimately this is about creating an authentic sentiment about your brand, one that people want to buy into and care about.

Be Authentic

One note of caution: it’s important not to lose sight of how authentic this idea conception and execution has to be. People are naturally skeptics. If your content feels disingenuous, they will likely skip or ignore it altogether. The more that the economy shifts to favor DTC brands, the more that all of this will become essential. There are three basic approaches to creating authentic content:

  1. Be an expert
    This is a very natural way to own a topic and a logical starting point for brands.
  2. Highlight an initiative
    If your brand has initiatives addressing societal issues, you can authentically create interesting content exploring those topics.
  3.  Align with brand values
    Does your brand stand for innovation? For quality? For inclusion? Delve into the overlap between your brand’s values and your audience’s interests to create organic, relevant stories that strengthen your desired image.

I understand that this may feel counterintuitive. But we are at a place where we need to rethink the sales funnel, with things like TV advertising at the top and DTC marketing further down. The relationship has to be viewed as a whole, and we are increasingly going to have to make and measure the connection between the two.

Make Content Instead of Ads

Some brands struggle to understand what it means to create content versus creating an ad and get confused between the story and the tactics used to tell the story. Because the whole point of content is to create a brand experience that gives value, rather than an ad which directly promotes your product or service, the first step should be identifying the story. If you jump over finding the story and go right into tactics, you are not going to have a strong foundation, and your content may end up feeling false, shallow and irrelevant to your audience.

Partner with a Publisher

Publishers are experts at finding story angles and have the best understanding of their audience. Collaborating closely with the publisher will help solidify your approach. Here are some best practices that can lead to creating better content:

  • Bring the publisher studio in to meet with your experts. This is the best way to help them understand the nuances of your brand and how to create content that you can own authentically.
  • Rely on their best practices. They know their audience, and have their finger on the pulse of what is most effective.
  • Work in the moment. At The Washington Post for instance, we can query the newsroom to see which headlines are trending and engagement performance, and then use that to figure out which stories to focus on.
  •  Continually refine what you do. Look at how your stories are performing and feed that learning back into your ideation and production to be more effective with each iteration.

Embrace the Process

I understand that this will be a new process for some of you, but I believe that it will bring you much closer to your consumers than you’ve ever been before. It will also create opportunities for you to connect and sell in ways that you may have never thought possible.