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Digital Agencies And The Age of Storytelling

by Anthony Bontrager on November 18, 2012

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”     ― Brandon Sanderson


Today, as always, agencies are in a state of transformation – moving from simply the art of ad creative and tech driven branding efforts and optimization to one of messaging, engagement and storytelling.

Driving this current phase of transformation includes Facebook’s hegemony over online attention spans and the leveling of the technological landscape.

For example, one of the most significant statements made in the last 18-months came from Nielsen, which said, “people visit 2.9 sites a day, and one of them is Facebook.”  This is significant because the Passe-Partout we as an industry have been chasing is based on the notion that you can find and engage with consumers using a targeted ad, wherever they are on the web, and not have to pay a gatekeeper premium to get to them.  However, if those people are all on Facebook, we’ve got a big problem don’t we?

Regardless of where the consumer happens to be, the simple fact is over 90% of Internet advertising is largely being ignored.  The market has spoken and consumers are telling brands they don’t want to be “marketed at.”

Thus, agencies need to start engaging customers in an ongoing dialogue – educating, informing and entertaining them instead of marketing “at them” – thereby leaving the marketing message as secondary to the overall experience.  As more and more people find relevance in the story being told, the more likely they are to engage with the brand and its content and the stronger the ongoing dialogue will be.

What this means is that marketers have to reach consumers with engaging creative (content, web portals, applications, etc.) that “tells a story.”  Something you simply cannot do with a standard commoditized ad unit – whether on Facebook or elsewhere.

From a technology perspective, tech driven branding efforts – portal development, site analysis and optimization, SMS campaigns, e-commerce systems, etc. – historically required separate, and sometimes expensive, software systems and tools along with pricey systems integrators to get everything working together.  Few agencies had the stomach to build and maintain this expertise and fewer still had the scale to do it profitably.  And this was as recent as five years ago; well before the widespread adoption of mobile applications.

Fast-forward and the current school of thought is “the more the better” in order to address the increasing need to continue to engage consumers – whenever and wherever they are in the purchase chain.  What’s more, the increasing availability of mobile applications, SaaS based CMS solutions, e-commerce portals, and customized API’s, etc. has leveled the playing field for smaller agencies, giving them the same level of access and technological capabilities of larger rivals.

However, the challenge for media agencies is not in how many digital tools they have access to, but how they are utilizing them to extract the best brand performance for their customers.  Can they define and apply the right mix to engage, convert and measure the efficacy of these initiatives across an omni-channel branding environment – video creative, mobile application, e-commerce portals, etc.?  Only through continued iteration will the digital agency remain relevant and avoid being viewed as a simple a tools shop rather than a trusted brand manager for the customer.

And let’s not forget social media in the broader context.  With more and more people having access to newer, cloud-based platform technology and creative story telling coming to the forefront, social media is now the new challenge for digital media agencies.

In fact, many thought the increasing dependence on social media would be a boon to the digital media agency.  Unfortunately this has not been the case as much of the social media focus for brands has been with their own PR firms, who have been challenged to build and maintain the brand’s social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.  The net output of which has been a strategy largely focused on attracting “friends,” getting tweets, and “likes.”

However, many brands are now learning that nobody really wants to “like” a brand, or be its “friend” either.  While the bragging rights have been nice, little measurable ROI, drive to purchase or loyalty has been correlated with these actions.  Thus, this type of social media strategy has become the modern version of the .03% click rate: lazy marketing.

The successful digital media agency’s greatest attribute has been and always will be adaptability. The best ones are already building the tools and expertise to help brands navigate through these times – and partnering with technology companies that can evolve alongside them.  As an industry, we have moved beyond the “like” and now must (a) focus on the conversational aspect of social media and what that means for brands and their relationship with their customers; and (b) how we can leverage social media to drive consumers back to the brands on web experience in order to deepen the relationship and deliver more value to the consumer.  The key is ensuring that the brand remain relevant, trusted, engaging and entertaining for consumers.

Net net, digital agencies can put themselves once again in the drivers’ seat by making creative content that focuses on the story and which engages the consumer at a personal, almost emotional level.  While difficult to quantify from an ROI perspective, the “emotional quotient” to brand-centric storytelling is critical to ensuring the content is not only engaging and relevant to consumers but that they find such significant value in it that they are willing to share it with others – which is measurable and should give brands a solid understanding of how they are perceived by their customers.  Finally, through increasing access to new technology platforms and toolsets, digital agencies can take a more active role moving consumers through the story and to the point of interaction and ultimately transaction.

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