Social Media and Storytelling Part 2: Back to the Future

Image from Flickr user renatodantasc.
Image from Flickr user renatodantasc.

The following is the second of six blog posts adapted from a speech by Cameron Uganec, Hootsuite’s Director of Marketing, given at the Marketo’s 2013 Summit Conference in San Francisco. The first post, “Why Storytelling?”, can be found here. The third post, “Creating Content That Gets Shared”, can be found here. The session, entitled “Social Media + Storytelling = Awesomesauce” can be watched in full here.

Reverting to the origins of storytelling

With social media and storytelling, in a way we’re going back to the future.

In the insightful book Winning the Story WarsJonah Sachs  makes a compelling observation that with the emergence of social media, humans are going back to our storytelling roots. In the table below he compares the oral tradition, which is most of human history, the broadcast era, which is the past 100 years, and the digitorial era – driven by growth of social media and mobile – which is what’s emerging today.

The evolution of storytelling has come full circle from the oral period through the broadcast period and into the digitorial era. Image from Jonah Sachs' The Story Wards.
The evolution of storytelling has come full circle from the oral tradition through the Broadcast Era and into the Digitorial Era. Table from Jonah Sachs’ Winning the Story Wars.

Look at each of these eras in terms of how ideas or concepts were shared: in the oral tradition when we were sitting around fires telling stories, everyone who heard the story now owned that idea; in the broadcast era, ideas were exclusive property of their creator; and now we’re getting back into the initial stage where everybody owns an idea. You can use that idea, mash it up, share it, curate it, create a meme, take it for your own and do something new and interesting with it. In a way we’re coming full circle.

In terms of messages, in the oral tradition messages moved through social networks. I told a story to someone, who passed it on to others who passed it on again, so on and so on. In the broadcast era one person or broadcaster shared the message out to many. We’re moving back to the era where messages are shared through social networks, but it’s now happening at a wickedly fast pace, as messages now transfer from many people to many people, almost instantly.

The concept of “the survival of the fittest”  is important for marketers today. During the oral tradition, if you told a compelling story, that’s the message that was shared. If your story sucked it didn’t live on. In the broadcast era, it was the battle of the richest. If you spent enough dollars, you could get your message out to the masses regardless of the quality. Anyone who has been involved in social media recognizes that we’re back to “survival of the fittest” era. The Twittersphere or Facebookers will decide whether it’s a compelling message.

We see this at Hootsuite time and time again: I’ve run the numbers and quality content that is story-based gets shared. When we get lazy and create mediocre content it doesn’t get shared. The crowd decides, it’s that simple. This has huge implications for marketers, today, you can’t just buy people’s attention, they will block you, skip you, fast forward you or ignore you. We need to spend more effort, time, budget on creating awesome content that people want and less budget on a media buy (although a paid component is still critical – more on this in upcoming post).

Various iterations of our “Social Media is Sweet” have received over 185,000 combined views.

Lastly, we know stories dominated in the oral tradition. In the broadcast era there were lots of ways to speak to the captive audience. (Although the best marketers and communicators have always told stories.)  What is different today is we are in an era where stories dominate again.

Social media and storytelling can help brands communicate with their customers in a more human way. The brands that excel at social media embrace this concept; it’s simply people sharing stories with other people. The technology facilitates and accelerates the process but it is not the key to the power of social media. We need to stop obsessing about the technology and get back to the telling compelling stories to each other.

Want more on the power of storytelling? Jonah Sachs gave a compelling TEDx on the topic:

In the next post in the series, we will explore the psychology of sharing. How do you use the principles of social media and storytelling to increase the virality of your content.

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