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Storytelling in the Digital Age Has Never Been More Important

Gone are the days of good billboard ads getting consumers into stores—now, it’s all about storytelling.

Attention is worth more than it ever has been, and the best way to get consumers’ attention today is to give them a great story, said Bob Bejan, general manager of communication strategy at Microsoft, speaking in a keynote at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference Wednesday.

Calling it the fourth industrial revolution, Bejan said the way the world communicates has changed entirely with the advent of Internet and social media and as such, advertising now needs to be a conversation.

But what’s more, that conversation still needs to be digestible in a way that suits the consumer.

“Today, rather than storytelling, really what you’re doing is story dwelling,” Bejan said.

It’s no longer about putting up an ad, expecting it to resonate and translate into sales, but sharing a message, listening for feedback from the audience and constantly adjusting accordingly.

As Bejan put it, communicating with consumers isn’t about an episode or campaign, it’s about the extended arch of the relationship with an audience, narrative architecture. That narrative architecture, that story, however, can’t be 100 percent complete when the company puts it out, it should maybe be a 60 percent to 70 percent solution.

“It’s a narrative architecture that has enough structure to be clear, but is undone enough or porous enough that your audience can pour into it and make it their own,” Bejan explained. “You’ve got to let people be a part of it.”

Stories may come from a brand or retailer, but it’s the audience, the consumer, that will propel them.

“The currency of relationships in the digital age is collaboration,” Bejan said.

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Though it can’t be collaboration without attention. Brands have to live like a news agency, constantly listening and looking, and at the same time behave like a network, always laying the foundation for the loop of relationship building.

It’s an engagement continuum, according to Bejan.

Brands have to start with a story, listen and respond to the consumer, and then use that response to evolve the story and provide a platform for action.

How to move from storytelling to story dwelling

Bejan outlined six steps for storytelling in today’s world: know your story, know your audience, everything counts, build from insights, keep listening and don’t be afraid to optimize.

First and foremost, companies need to know what their story is and know it so intimately and define it so narrowly that there’s a key mission to address with that story and an outlined audience to receive it.

Speaking plainly to the audience of leaders in sustainability, Bejan said, “In some ways you guys are still trying to boil the ocean…trying to solve it all.” The key is for companies to get very specific about what they want to do and for whom, and know their value proposition.

Brands and retailers need to truly, deeply know their audience.

“It’s lazy to say you want to talk to consumers,” Bejan said. “You have to know who you want to talk to. Who is that first set of people to help you drive your message?”

In today’s world, where once something’s out there, it’s always out there, everything counts.

“You get no second chance because the audience is paying attention in a way they never have before,” Bejan explained. Authenticity must sub for promotion for today’s savvy consumer and many—millennials especially—can sniff out inauthenticity from a mile away and won’t spend their time or their dollars with brands they believe aren’t authentic. “If you’re explaining yourself, you’re losing. You’ve got to be able to tell that story clearly.”

Building from insights gathered from consumer feedback will also be key for brands going forward. This is what allows brands to make the hard trade-offs when building the arch of the story they want to tell, without which they’d end up like peanut butter, as Bejan put it, spreading across everything and resonating with no one.

Companies have to keep listening.

“The days of campaign-like thinking are dead. They’re ineffective,” Bejan said. Though there are certainly still TV commercials, big brands are now using those 30-second spots as the starting point in communications, following them up with online engagement to build that feedback loop.

Finally, brands and retailers shouldn’t be afraid to optimize. Change management has been an uphill battle for many innovators working in well-established companies that have always done things the way they’ve always done them. But many are realizing now—even if slowly—that doesn’t work anymore.

“If you’re really listening and you understand and are building that relationship with your audiences, you have to continuously optimize,” Bejan said.

To move forward, brands should be thinking about DIRT: data imperative response time.

“When you’re listening and being attentive with your audience, how long does it take to get a revised message, that is reflective of what you heard, back in front of the audience you’re trying to talk to?” Bejan posed.

For most companies, that response time has been dreadfully long.

In working with AT&T on its response time, Bejan said, it took 47 days at first to get a new message to consumers based on feedback because this exec and that one had to approve it and legal had to OK it, and all that other organizational excess that holds companies back. By the end of the collaboration, Bejan said AT&T was eventually able to adjust their response time down to 48 hours and it made a sizeable difference to the bottom line.

Often, as one audience member pointed out during the question and answer session of the talk, brands are so married to their message that they have more of an urge to tell than consumers have an urge to listen.

“Just because you’re going through the motions of talking to consumers doesn’t mean you’re actually listening,” Bejan said. “You have to really kind of undress yourself and really listen.”