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How to Become a Social Storyteller

"Storytelling" has been marketing's go-to buzzword for a couple years running. And rightfully so. A well-told story that draws on the interests of its audience has the power to connect customers emotionally to your brand and make you unforgettable.
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"Storytelling" has been marketing's go-to buzzword for a couple years running. And rightfully so. A well-told story that draws on the interests of its audience has the power to connect customers emotionally to your brand and make you unforgettable. But when it comes to social media, very few marketers are getting storytelling right.

In March at SXSW in Austin, Texas, Mark Williams, LiveWorld's Creative Director of Social Strategy & Content Programming, held a workshop focused on how to tell stories through social. The response showed us beyond a doubt that marketing folks are hungry for guidance: It immediately sold out and had to be moved to a lecture hall, where we filled 90 percent of the seats. The SXSW folks tell us this was the top workshop of the show and second only to the two major keynotes.

Just days before the workshop, Facebook, whose profile feature is now called the Timeline, a place to share "the stories of your life," announced that it had acquired Storylane, a social network focused on storytelling--news seeming to proclaim that social storytelling is here to stay.

There are plenty of tactical best-practices for storytelling in an asynchronous, interactive medium. But most companies aren't even ready to hear those because they're still getting the most basic principle wrong. Their focus is on broadcasting content created by their marketing team, pushing it out through social and then hoping for applause in the form of fans and comments. Indeed, most social media marketing today isn't social at all. It's just traditional advertising, PR, and digital marketing shoved through social channels. True social media marketing and engagement is about dialogue and relationship building.

In a past column, I wrote that companies who want to thrive in social need to move away from a command-control-compliance cultural model, and toward Triple I: Inspire, Involve, Imagine.

What I see is that only a few companies are taking the Triple I approach when it comes to social in general, and particularly in how they tell stories in that medium.

For starters we should be asking our customers to tell their own stories--creating with them. That process is organic and requires you to give up some level of control. In true social storytelling, every customer is a potential character, with his or her own plot and theme in the story. You inspire customers to contribute their own imagination to develop your brand story, and in fact, your product itself. Customers aren't just engaged with the brand, they're emotionally involved in a story where they play a role.

At LiveWorld, we call this social-authorship model 360-Degree Storytelling. It's reality TV-meets-improv-theatre, with social dialogue blended into the mix. In other words, it's nothing like the old broadcast storytelling model at all. The brand provides structure and context, moderates the interaction as moves along, and eventually curates and edits to deepen meaning and "archive" the story for future audiences.

What It Looks Like

The Sprint-Suave In the Motherhood campaign (2007-2009) is a great example of successful social storytelling. The brands built an online community for moms [ LiveWorld was the social media partner providing social strategy, technology, moderation, and engagement] and then engaged them in producing storylines for a web series called "In the Motherhood." The brand then professionally produced the webisodes with the customers having a social experience around them. The series was so popular that it was ultimately picked up by ABC as a network television series. Suave increased its brand share over the course of the campaign by half a point and Mindshare, the company who devised the campaign and produced the web series, won an Effie Award.

In 360-Degree Storytelling, the brand's social platform--in fact, the brand itself--becomes a venue for customers to play, improvise, and create. It's still a fairly radical proposition. To be truly social, we have to let go of traditional marketing and content models. Then again, social storytelling isn't that much different from an age-old tradition of sitting around a campfire exchanging and enhancing stories as they are told. The companies who clear the way to sidle up next to their customers around the campfire will have the distinct advantage.

Peter Friedman (friedman@liveworld.com) is the Chairman and CEO of LiveWorld , a social content marketing company that is a trusted partner to the world's largest brands, including the number-one companies in retail, CPG, pharmaceutical, and financial/travel services.

LiveWorld provides moderation, insight, and engagement with a human touch scaled by technology that creates value out of user content, along with big cost savings. Scaling human review of user content and human touch points, the LiveWorld solution offers competitive advantage through management of user content in sheer volume, resulting in amplified brand presence, actionable insight, and increased customer loyalty.