Marketing and communications professionals alike are increasingly thinking about themselves and their everyday work as acts of "storytelling." Often, though, this is said in a vacuum, with little thought about how lessons learned from professional storytellers in the media industries might apply to the stories companies tell.
Recently, I've been reading Lynn Liccardo's e-book, As the World Stopped Turning. Liccardo (who contributed to the Survival of Soap Opera, a book I co-edited) provides a personal account, as both fan and critic, of watching the gradual deterioration of a soap opera which had been a staple of the U.S. daytime lineup for 54 years.
In her focus on the particulars of As the World Turns, I see several key lessons that corporate storytellers should take to heart, lest we (once again) live out the cliche about those not studying history being doomed to repeat it. Here are a few of those themes:
- Listen to and empathize with your audience. In As the World Stopped Turning, Liccardo describes a show where the executive producer told fans not to bother with sending in fan mail because it wouldn't be read, and where a churn in management led to years of decision-makers who were disconnected with what the As the World Turns brand meant to its audience.
Both media producers and marketers alike run the risk of spending more time measuring audiences than listening to them, and even more risk of focusing on what they want the audience to think or do, rather than looking at their brand or content from their audience's perspective. Neglecting to foster the ability to see things from your audience's eyes is one of the most vital dangers companies face, as the disconnect between the corporate vision of the brand and the audience's lived experience of it grows over time.
- Don't squander your reputation. Liccardo catalogs the series of frustrations that slowly led a "brand proselytizer" for As the World Turns to become ambivalent and—by the show's demise—in many ways relieved at the series' cancellation. For media and marketing storytellers alike, her account shows both the degree to which brand equity leads to a supporter sticking with an entity despite some missteps but also how that equity only stretches so far. Companies regularly disregard the cumulative effect that little breaches of the audience's trust slowly builds, slowly chipping away at the very relationships the organization worked so hard to foster.
- Believe in your company. Liccardo describes a soap opera industry where people are moved in and out of corporate positions in ways that have little logic and where people end up at the helm of shows where their knowledge about and passion for the programs they manage pales in comparison to the audience's dedication. What's worse, many of these leaders seem to subsequently look for every opportunity to replace actors with deep history on As the World Turns with talent they'd worked with on other shows and other networks. One could see, for instance, the constant turnover in CMOs and agencies alike at many companies in the same light—demonstrating little interest in continuity. And, worse, such turnover reflects a belief that storytelling is a craft in which practitioners can apply their skills to any product or service, with little need for either passion for or knowledge about the brand they steward.
- Don't neglect the connection between internal morale and external positioning. Liccardo describes an environment where the network loses faith in a program long before it goes off the air, the production company seems to eventually abandon its support, the executive producer gets beaten down by years of frustration, and the show's cast shows up to deliver their lines and go home. Many of her essays connect those glimpses at the internal atmosphere of the company with the dissatisfying product created by those working in such an environment. The lessons for any team dedicated to storytelling is clear: that a toxic internal culture not only affects the quality of storytelling but often implicitly becomes apparent to the outside world.
- Play to the strengths of what makes you different. Liccardo describes a soap opera in which new producers sought to distance themselves from the history that made the show successful, where the executive producer believed no one wanted to see a soap opera anymore, and which tried to replace the ongoing serial narratives that define the soap opera format with short-term, self-contained stories that sound more like a prime-time episodic form. In short, the people running As the World Turns turned away from rather than embraced the differentiators that defined their show and their genre. Too often, companies do the same, focusing on trends and competitors while losing sight of what sets their brand apart.
- Have a long-term strategy for building your brand. Liccardo describes a range of short-term decision-making that does little to take into account long-term storytelling implications at As the World Turns. She describes a series of isolated story arcs, disconnected from one another, that eventually creates a fractured show, with little continuity or connection among its various stories. One can see the "campaign-based mentality" of marketing and communications in this light as well, with corporate stories that frequently don't align or even contradict one another.
Recently, I wrote about how many lessons can be learned from an area—library science—which at first may sound irrelevant. That's precisely why I recommend marketers and communications professionals read books like Liccardo's, which arguably have more to teach us about our craft than all the "how to" marketing tactics guides you can ever wade through.
—Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.
[Image: Flickr user Michael Himbeault]