Stories are the oldest form of human engagement, so marketers love them.
As the morning’s speakers told the audience at VentureBeat’s GrowthBeat conference today in San Francisco, you can put the story into the pitch, you can put the pitch into the story, or you can make the brand’s data a part of everyone’s stories.
Yahoo chief marketing officer Kathy Savitt talked about how her company experimented with putting the story into the pitch.
A key reason for the investment, she pointed out, was that Community “had a built-in audience [of] the fans, the people who cared about Community and loved the show.” By the time the acquisition was announced, she said, Yahoo could build on millions of social posts.
One new direction that Community creator Dan Harmon and Yahoo decided to explore was, essentially, creating a series of episodes that were a witty, long-form commercial. Most of the sixth season, Savitt pointed out, takes place inside a Honda, a series sponsor.
She said it generated 4x brand lift for Honda, and disrupted the form by mocking “product placement within the show.”
The short clips I saw suggest it’s a one-off experiment. Brands can use emotional involvement, humor, and plotlines to tell their story, but when you’re engaged with a set of characters on a weekly basis and they essentially collaborate to pitch a product, however wittily, it risks making you feel like you’re being manipulated.
For Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky, the framing device for promoting her brand is the importance of home real estate. She told how the founder, Rich Barton, approached her ten years ago on her first day of work and announced he wanted a million visitors within six months of their upcoming site launch — without spending any money.
The site went on to accomplish that goal within its first few days. In fact, she said, for the first seven years the site didn’t have any ad budget. The key: positioning the Zilllow house value estimator and its data within as many public and private conversations about homes as possible.
In other words, Zillow the brand became a participating character in countless stories about selling or buying a house.
The company encouraged this trend, she said, by creating data packages that could be used in real estate-related journalistic stories or in everyday conversations between homeowners and realtors. At one point, a Zillow-sponsored event with President Obama took online questions about home buying and trends.
This use of data built the brand organically, she said, and brand awareness is “a tide that lifts all boats.” In other words, promote the brand and you promote the brand’s products and services.
“A good data scientist is probably the best marketing hire you can make,” she said.
Pizza Hut head of digital engagement Jenna Bromberg and social agency Shareability CEO Tim Staples gave pointers they learned from their wildly successful viral video about the dangers of selfie sticks — which, parenthetically, referenced the large size of Pizza Hut’s pizzas. The video generated over four million views organically, and Bromberg said it led to an astounding 4,000 percent increase in site traffic.
“The goal is entertainment,” Staples told the audience, adding that it’s “always about value for the audience.”
“The days of beating your chest [as a brand] are over,” he said. “It’s all about the audience.” He noted that the brand-related part of the video was about 10 seconds out of nearly two and a half minutes.
Pizza Hut’s example, of course, is the opposite of Community‘s experiment with Honda. Instead of putting a TV show inside a long-form commercial, as Yahoo did, it put a tiny brand mention inside a parody. It’s essentially product placement, compared to Yahoo’s story placement.
“If you start with the brand,” Staples said,”you’re doomed before you start.”
“If you start with the audience [and the story], at least you have a shot.”