A 2017 study revealed that Americans check their phone around 80 times per day, or once in every 12 minutes. It’s been said that we also see or hear around 4,000 ads in a day. Attention spans are shrinking and brands have to work harder than ever to gain and maintain their audiences attention.
We’ve become numb to a typical sale. We can smell BS a mile away and aren’t afraid to call it out; more often than not, we simply ignore it.
The good news? Not all hope is lost. We still are human beings, and we can be influenced. We still like a good story, and once we are captivated we can still become attached to an idea.
Off White proved it by growing through collaborations with the likes of Nike and Adidas. Tesla proved it by creating a frenzied demand for their new Model 3.
We as marketers and creators can learn from these examples. So the obvious question remains- how does an idea manifest itself in today’s culture of mass information and shrinking attention spans?
The answer is the story. It’s all about the story- and telling it at scale.
Setting a Foundation
I’ll be honest- my memory has gotten a lot worse in the past couple years. Whether that be a result of growing older or simply the way I use technology, it seems to be harder and harder for me to retain information.
This shows up in a couple areas but one of the most embarassing is my ability to remember names. I just can’t do it!
If you’ve ever been to a party and been introduced to a bunch of people at once you’ll know how stressful it is. You want to show that you care about the individual people you meet but it just seems that your brain can’t retain the information!
I’ve tried a number of strategies to combat this including repeating the person’s name over and over or even trying to associate them with a mnemonic device. Yet nothing really seems to work. The ironic part is that I have no problems remember everything else about a person.
I’ll have no problems remembering that Bob (we’ll call him Bob because I can’t recall his real name) works for Facebook and lives in Williamsburg but doesn’t really like commuting on the L train and is thinking of moving to Manhattan once it shuts down next year.
But his name? That went out the window.
Humans Need Stories
While my inability to remember whoever Bob really was sounds silly, it’s actually representative of the way we as humans are wired. It’s common knowledge that humans make decisions based on emotion much more than factual information.
We find it easier to retain information that has a story behind it because we can then relate it to our own life. We can contextualize the information because we are using more areas of our brain to do so. As Scientific American puts it:
“Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions. Perhaps story patterns could be considered another higher layer of language. A sort of meta-grammar shaped by and shaping conventions of character types, plots, and social-rule dilemmas prevalent in our culture.”
Let’s do a little thought experiment to prove this point. Think of the number “50”. Repeat it a few times to yourself. What does it mean to you? Probably not much.
Now add the word “car”. Thinking 50 cars might evoke visions of a number of cars together. You may even have a few car brands in mind. Your ability to remember may be improved because you are adding another layer.
Retaining information yet? Let’s take it a step further. Think of your own car. You can probably see the inside of your car, feel the seats on your butt, and smell the empty coffee cup that you forgot to take out. It’s a lot easier for you to remember because you’re using multiple senses to do so.
If story patterns are a higher layer of language, wouldn’t it seem that this is exactly what is necessary to cut through the crazy amount of information we absorb on an every-day basis? The crazy part is that we don’t even need to retain facts anymore, we have them right at our fingertips!
To hammer this point home, consider a recent study by University of Pennsylvania professor Deborah Small on charitable donations. Her and her colleagues found that focusing on an individual person’s story resulted in a much higher number of donations than telling the story of an unnamed population in need. In fact, adding statistics to a victims story led to a decline in overall donations!
Elements of a Good Story
So we’ve accepted the fact that storytelling is a necessity to keep an audience's attention and ‘cut through the noise.’ How do we do this?
Let’s start with a few basic elements of a good story as it relates to building a brand. Not all of these elements have to be present in order to be successful, but they are all certainly worth thinking about.
A great story starts with great characters. You fall in love with some and hate others. You root for them to make the right decision and are disappointed when they don’t. Most importantly- you relate to them and find aspects of your life in theirs.
If I were to ask you to identify a favorite character from a movie or book you wouldn’t struggle for too long. But if I asked you to identify with a brand character? It may take you a bit longer. When you can relate a brand with an individual (or better yet yourself) you find it a lot easier to be invested in their vision.
Part of the reason Tesla is so successful is because a LOT of people have bought into Elon’s idea for the future. While he may not be the best boss, we believe in his idea for the future and are willing to pay large amounts of money to be involved in it.
While Elon Musk has done amazing things, he’s also an enigma. Your company might not have the engaging CEO to back it’s brand. However, you can always outsource that charisma as well!
Part of the reason Off White got so popular is because of its celebrity endorsements. From Rihanna to Kanye West to Kylie Jenner, Off White borrowed the stories of multiple celebrities. When Kylie Jenner’s millions of fans see her wearing Off White, they associate the brand with her story and have no problem forking over their credit cards as a result.
Where does the story take place? Brands can overlook this and the results are usually disastrous. One of the most famous that comes to mind is the United States Presidential Election in 1992.
George Bush, the incumbent, was up against a young and popular Governor from Arkansas. Many posited that Bush was out of touch with the issues of middle class Americans and that idea came to the forefront when a young lady asked both candidates how the national debt had affected them. Bush didn’t seem to understand the question and stumbled while Clinton walked right up to the woman and gave an incredibly compassionate and relatable answer.
What does this have to do with setting? Being empathetic to where your consumers are coming from and their individual issues helps them to build trust in you.
An integral setting is “when the action, character, or theme are influenced by the time and place, setting.” Simply put, you need to understand the world in which your customers live.
The meat and potatoes of the story. A good plot brings you along for the ride while keeping you engaged the entire time. Having a story arc is important because it allows the audience to come to terms with the eventual conclusion.
What is the conclusion of your brand story? If executed properly, it should result in your customers realizing that they need your product or service.
A well structured plot, like the three act structure, is analogous to a typical marketing funnel. Think about how your customers are introduced to your product, get to know your product and eventually purchase your product from a holistic perspective. Are you taking enough time to build your brand in the beginning- or are you trying to force a conclusion?
The best companies introduce their brand, educate potential customers on how it could fit into their life, and inspire them to come along on the journey.
Drama is the center of the story. The thing that keeps the audience on their feet, waiting for an eventual resolution. Having a clearly identified conflict let’s the audience know what the stakes are.
Keep in mind that conflict and pain points are different the same way brand value and product features are. Pain points are what your product’s features solve: losing feedback in email, not having enough time to walk your dog, not having enough access to parking to own a car.
Just as having a brand that communicates simplicity and clarity is an emotional step up from having features that organizes feedback, so should the conflict presented in your brand’s story be a step towards the emotional: feeling overwhelmed at work, guilty for being a bad dog owner, or anxiety for not having transportation freedom.
What are your customers concerns? Do you spend enough time speaking with them and really understanding what they are struggling with? Doing this at scale can inform how you speak about your brand in the future.
What all businesses want is sales. The goal of all marketing activities is the exchange of a customer’s money for your product or service. It is allowing the prospective customer to come to the conclusion that you can provide enough value to necessitate the cost paid.
How do you get to the resolution in your story? By doing everything else to as close to perfection as you can. You need good characters that your consumers are invested in. You need to understand the world they live in like it was your own. You need to give them a good story that keeps them on the edge of their seats and you need to create a conflict that will be resolved.
Successful businesses bring their customers to a resolution again and again. And it’s because they tell a great story.
Bringing it Home
Today we are tasked with a difficult challenge of keeping our customer’s attention in a world where it is being pulled away like never before. It would appear that the odds are stacked against us- and maybe they are.
We succeed when we admit our ignorance and treat our jobs like a great science experiment. We succeed when we learn about how humans tick and then give them what they want.
As we’ve seen before, what humans want is a good story.