Audience as Characters: the new frontier of #interactivestorytelling

I just wrote an opinion piece for B&T magazine here in Australia on the evolving role consumers are playing in interactive stories. Hope you find it interesting.

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The best brands have always told great stories.  But in the world of real-time social connections, multiple screens and a culture of immediacy, the concept of the brand story is changing.  They’re no longer linear; and they’re no longer told in one sitting. Welcome to the era of interactive storytelling – where audiences become characters influencing the story.

The best brand stories now encourage different levels of participation to achieve maximum impact and scale.  This means designing interactive stories for skimmers (those exposed to the story), dippers (those sharing the story) and divers (those immersing, influencing and advocating the story) is a must for marketers.  Whilst it’s easier to entertain or engage ‘skimmers’, what is interesting is how brands are developing interactive brand stories for the ‘dipper and diver’ audiences –  as these are the most influential groups.

Many brands have experimented with interactive storytelling where the audience becomes the narrator (i.e, Chrysler ‘Steer the Script’, Coke’s ‘Share a Coke’, and many Alternate Reality Games such  ilovebees ARG, The Dark Knight ARG). The other popular strategy has been crowdsourcing the story, where the audience becomes the creator of the whole story. While some brands have done this well (i.e our latest MINI #notnormal campaign in the UK,  Arvo Beers ‘Perfect Lager Project’, Fanta Flavour Lab, The VW People’s Car Project in China, our own digitally customisable London Olympic Mascots) others have missed the mark, (the Raymond Weil’s ‘help design a new watch’ Facebook competition springs to mind) .

But the new frontier for participation branding is putting the audience into the story, as an actual character influencing other characters and the outcome. That is, it’snot just about giving a few people aunique experience (such as the “Best job in the world” campaign) anymore and relying on the online amplification of that (does anyone even remember who won Best Job?), but actually creating multiple stories for the many, democratising the experience so to speak.

To understand this we look to narrative theory – that’s the idea that in any story there are typical characters we identify with – the protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, threshold guardian, trickster, minion etc.   If you think about what’s been hot in popular culture, TV dramas such as the Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad (and more recently The Fall, Luther and Game of Thrones) play around with who’s the hero and who’s the villain. While if we look to gaming, we can see evolving storytelling arcs and different role-playing in games such as Bioshock Infinite, Last of Us, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Heavy Rain, Skyrim and Final Fantasy. Narrative theory has even transcended into the music space, with pop band IO ECHO launching an interactive music video ‘Ministry of Love’ that allows audience to control the band through a series of rooms.

So what’s happening at the more ‘creative’ end of interactive storytelling in terms of the role of the audience?

Audience as the protagonist is still the most common approach (e.g. the character ‘Alex’ in Toshiba/Intel’s “The Beauty Inside”), however brands are now playing with more unusual roles – the most famous of those being the audience as foil in Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ and Old Spice’s ‘Man your man could smell like’. The role of audience as mentors to the community is also becoming a useful tool, some interesting examples being ‘Curators of Sweden’ (where Swedes get to manage the countries Twitter account) and Google’s Build with Chrome collaboration with LEGO (disclaimer: I worked on this one).

At Iris, we’ve experimented alot by thinking about audience as threshold guardians of the story, where fans work with each other to inspire or help the protagonist achieve greatness. For example, our recent adidas #hitthewinner Wimbledon Twitter game inspired Andy Murray fans to predict where he would hit a winner during his Wimbledon matches in real time. Fans won prizes if they predicted correctly, but what they were also doing was playing the role of guardians motivating him to Wimbledon glory.

So where’s the white space for brands looking to experiment with new interactive stories? Thinking about audience as sidekick rather than protagonist is an interesting place to start. Imagine audiences feeling like they are working alongside the brand. Also thinking about ‘groups of heroes’ rather than relying on one main protagonist to engage. We know people seek brands that help them belong, so brands with big advocate communities should explore this approach. The real visionary brands will involve audiences as an antagonist or anti hero as they look to create provocative ways for characters to interact and compete with each other.

So yes, the brands with the best stories will always win, however, if you neglect to think about what role your audience plays in influencing the story outcome, you’re missing a massive engagement opportunity.

Hansel & Gretel Effect: the hidden trail of digital breadcrumbs #m360 presentation

Yesterday I spoke at the Mumbrella 360 #m360 conference in Sydney and I thought I’d share the speaker notes. The topic was social media and youth and I decided to talk about the concept of ‘digital breadcrumbs’ and how youth are expressing themselves and evading parents using social media tools……

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Brands have and will always be playing catch up with youth culture. They’re always trying to stay on the trail.

As we all know, we’re all leaving traces of our presence across the internet, whether that be through social posts, sharing pictures and videos, or just surfing the web whilst signed in with Google. Think of these as ‘digital breadcrumbs’. So how are digital breadcrumbs affecting the social media behavior of the Internet’s most prolific sharers.. youth (specifically 16-24yr olds)?

I call it the Hansel & Gretel effect, the ways youth are both expressing themselves on social media platforms but also evading parents, marketers when leaving their digital breadcrumbs.

Today’s teens are constantly crafting and curating their online identity. This isn’t a new concept, but the explosion of new visual social platforms like Instagram has turbocharged this behaviour.

Our (Iris Worldwide’s)  recent Planet Hyperconnected study looked at the digital breadcrumbs of 6,000 18-24yr olds across 6 countries including Australia. Amongst other things, we found the average teen is consuming, creating and sharing content for up to 13hrs a day. Yes more than half the day. So they’re creating and leaving a hell of a lot of digital breadcrumbs.

So what are some of the digital breadcrumb themes (both good and bad) we are picking up on right now?

Firstly, we’re seeing the onset of Selfie Obsessed Syndrome – teens spending hours posing for the perfect selfie, or altering it on one of the many free photo editing aps. This is a behaviour that’s celebrity fuelled but also has permeated from youth subcultures driven by fashion and also sports for boys.

Whilst brands have moved away from a focus on image to reality/transparency over the past 5 years, teens are going the other way.

They are trying to create an idealised version of themselves to boost self esteem.

It’s not all fun and games though, there is a real INSTAGRAM- PRESSURE to look your best all the time and have a ‘perfect life’. We’re seeing many teens talk about ‘faking’ checkins at parties or festivals, as they feel the pressure to be seen in the right place.

They’re seeking approval by asking their friends to rate them #hotornot and #rateme on their posts as well as uploading selfies to judgement sites.

Their self esteem and confidence are increasingly being defined by how many likes and comments they get. When you’re a LIKEAHOLIC it’s a constant contest putting an amazing amount of pressure on your appearance.

This girl who we spoke to loves the fact that she gets up to 100 likes when she posts a selfie..for her it’s clearly a sense of validation and confidence.

However, the flipside of the positive validation is that there is an undercurrent of teens with body image issues as their selfies or pics are not perceived to be making the grade.

A week doesn’t go by when we don’t hear another story of a teen committing suicide following a relentless Facebook Bullying campaign by her classmates.

 INSTAGRAM PARTIES

A little cultural trend born in Australia (to my knowledge)

Forget hanging at the local Macca’s or skatepark. We’re seeing Pop Up social media takeovers in the form of Instagram Parties.

Teens getting together, having a party and trying to post enough content to effectively take over Instagram for a couple of hours… Their plan is to #ownthenight

In an era where everything is shared, do teens really give a shit about privacy and do they worry about the ramifications?

Well a global study by Device Research for the Young People’s Consumer Confidence Index found that 68% of 16-24yr olds are not concerned that their social media behaviour could harm future job prospects.

However they are only really concerned with the NOW and those with immediate power over them.

Think about when we were growing up, teens have always wanted privacy – in our day it was our bedrooms with  “no parents allowed” hanging on the door.

For todays youth– the motivations are the same – they still want a place to express themselves away from Mum and Dad, but now it’s a digital hideout instead. They want a place they can call their own and talk their own language.

Comparing todays youth with older generations;

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Their photo albums are now on Instagram

Their MTV are YouTube playlists

Their tapes and CDs are now spotify playlists

Their loveletters are now short sharp Snapchats

Their diaries are Tumblr pages

Their posters are now Pinterest pins

Their playground gossiping happens on facebook…  or at least it did…

Teens still crave privacy, but now Mum and Dad and unwanted friends are now on Facebook following their breadcrumbs.

It’s no surprise that today’s youth are spending less and less time on Facebook. I’ll go so far as to say there’s a movement off the platform by Aussie youth, following the trend from American youth.

There are simply too many chaperones at the party. The average age of a new user is now 47. So teens are getting out of there

So where are they going? Places Mum and Dad won’t find them like Instagram and Tumblr and places where they’re leaving fewer breadcrumbs.

Snapchat is the mobile app of the moment for youth … posts, pics and videos are sent and then selfdestruct within 10 seconds. They use it for meaningless fleeting interactions. It’s either silly selfies or sexting. Youth see it as failsafe way to share, communicate and interact without ever getting stung by mum and dad. As one teen said

‘It’s a way to connect with friends when you don’t really have anything to say.” Anonymous teen

However literally this week sites such as Snapchat Leaked and Snapchat Exposed  have popped up where people are screen grabbing naughty Snapchat pics and sharing them.

 CODED BREADCRUMBS

Another new behavior we’re seeing is youth leaving “coded breadcrumbs” online.

Teens are doing this by creating and sharing Cryptic Content as a form of privacy protection in the digital age. Academics call it social steganography where they control the meaning of content.

This is content that has layers of meaning, and hidden messages. To the untrained eye it can look like an innocent, vague facebook post, insta pic or vine video, but to those that know the inside language, it has pointed meaning.

Pew’s recent study on teens social media habits found that 64% of teens admit to using inside jokes and subtle cultural references to hide what they’re really saying.

As Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd states, ‘The more they share in public, the more they are hiding in plain sight

A recent example of a brand that’s tapped into cryptic content by creating a new language with hidden meaning is Puma with their Dance Dictionary.

So marketers today must be highly perceptive and agile, able to quickly spot and act upon the digital breadcrumbs the Hansels and Gretels of today are leaving behind them.

I think there are several types of brand action to consider when engaging youth in the social space:

CURRENCY

Start with what will give teens social currency in the digiverse, conversation is king. It requires shifting the participation focus from message to cultural relevance that will get people talking.

Brands need to act at the speed of culture, real time marketing is an imperative  – think like a newsjacker,  being able to tap into relevant cultural memes or events and respond with social ideas at speed. At Iris we call it Urgent Genius and creating conversational currency must be a key tenet of your marketing program.

CURATE

Trying to navigate through 13hrs of content a day is hardwork, at a minimum brands need to play the role of curators. Think less about what content you can create (remembering Youtube cops 72hrs of new content every minute) and how you cab make their life easier by being a curator.

Aggregating, organising and sharing ‘best of content’ created by others to add context, narrative and meaning to it.

Coke’s doing this really well at the moment.

 CHALLENGE

Todays youth get a kick out of discovering the underlying meaning, and knowing what others don’t. Challenging youth to discover the hidden meanings and mechanics through gamification. Motivating and then rewarding them for deciphering ideas.

Our Iris team in London recently launched Adidas NEO fashion label using Justin Beiber, our ‘Find my gold shoes Adidas NEO’ idea generated participation by hundreds of thousands of Beliebers, with reach social reach to over 300m people on Facebook. If the reward ‘Bringing Justin the gold shoes you found online’ is motivating enough, people will participate in droves.

 COLLUDE

Finally and most importantly we need to continue to look at ways in which we can collude with youth. I purposely use the word collude over collaborate as I think collaboration is the most overused word in marketing. Collusion is much more about giving youth something special, making them feel like they have the inside track, letting them put their fingerprints on ideas so they can share as their own…in secret without broadcasting to their parents..just to their friends that will give them cred. It’s a word shift, but one I think is critical.

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So yeah it’s harder than ever to keep up with youth culture, but understanding the digital breadcrumbs and the needstates is the key to engaging youth in the social age.

5 ways to #Outsell the competition #Outsellers

At Iris Worldwide, we recently put together a global study on the latest retail innovation. Word to my fellow planners at Iris Worldwide in the USA and UK. Titled ‘The Outsellers’ it looks at the key principles and trends that marketers are deploying to enhance the shopping experience and build customer value throughout the customer journey.These are the 5 trends we identified and below are a few quick links to brands & ideas that are delivering on the trend. Hit us up if you’re keen to find out more.

Friction Free Shopping

New Balance ‘The Line up’

Sportsgirl mobile shopping

Lancome Taxi Shops

Perx

Aisle 411

Real Time Value

ThinkNear

Fopping.com

Service Based Selling

Taxi Treats vending machine

C&A Fashion ‘Like’

Brayola.com

The Power of Inspiration

Pano – Plaza

Perch Displays

Ted Bakers Drawing Room

Pave Bicycle Store

Branding the Value Proposition

Starbucks Rembrandt Square

365 Ecobar Indonesia