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How storytelling can relieve the goldfish factor

Technology & Data

How storytelling can relieve the goldfish factor


Rob Shwetz says effective storytelling is the key to engaging audiences.

Fairfax Staff Portrait of Rob Shwetz sws

The humble goldfish, famous for its short memory, now has a proven attention span greater than that of humans.

Surprising? Just watch people on the street, on the tram, on the train, or at a concert. Yes, you read it here first – evolution is winning, and the winning team is goldfish.

In just 15 years, our attention span has plummeted by 45% to just 8.25 seconds. Goldfish outrank us with an attention span of 9 seconds, with the often cited 3 second memory measure proven to be incorrect.*

This makes marketing today a rather tricky business, not only to get someone’s attention but to hold it, at least for longer than a goldfish. That can only be achieved by delivering a great experience.

I read a recent statistic in Harvard Business Review: ‘More than 90% of smartphone users look up information while they are in the middle of another task.’

This means that the traditional marketing funnel no longer exists.

It’s become the proverbial anthill of schizophrenic decision making processes, constantly interrupted by the disease of the 21st century – FOMO (fear of missing out) – with no linear guidelines for which we can plan, interrupt and talk to our audience.

But we can still anchor our approach into what really matters for your customers – the customer experience (CX).

Have you ever been to what you thought was a mediocre restaurant, but had the best time because you had the most hospitable waiter? It’s all down to the experience. Now think about translating that experience into the digital and online world.

CX is critical to consumer engagement and can be won and lost with the swipe of a screen or the touch of a button.

The key to crafting great CX is great storytelling; stories created by your organisation, your teams are empowered to tell, and that your customers tell through their own social media channels. The result is that your customer becomes your ultimate brand advocate.

Storytelling is the optimal output of any customer experience that excels, exceeds and positions you above your competitors. Stories have the ability to connect with both the rational and the emotional side of your customers.

In the (g)olden days the advertising model and customer journey was simple and linear. Tell the story in 30 seconds, broadcast it out to your audience, reap the benefits. Very Don Draper.

But we all know that the environment and the buyer journey have changed. Digital technologies have allowed for innovation in format, distribution, structure and audience.

Every brand has the opportunity to become a storyteller and they all have a story to tell.

The language of storytelling has also changed – to emojis, 6-second videos , infographics, long form content , and even 6 word stories, such as “Joining the President is his husband”, which can drive powerful narratives and emotions. Storytelling has the ability to deliver potent human emotions and create a connection over and above an 8.5 second attention span.

An effective storytelling – or content – strategy bridges what the brand wants to talk about, and what the audience wants to hear about. Powerful storytelling and customer advocacy can come from the most unusual places. Like Mara Rose from Melbourne, who posted a story on Facebook after accidentally locking her baby daughter in her car and was given the runaround from her roadside assistance company when she called for help. The baby was rescued by the RACV a short time later, even though Mara Rose was not a member (she is now!). When Mara asked about payment, the response she received was “It’s a courtesy call. RACV will never ever allow a child to be locked in a car.” Mara Rose’s story on Facebook generated 10,259 shares, 73,000 likes and 2,500 comments – and publicity that money cannot buy.

Content marketing and storytelling are fundamentally intertwined. Without great stories, there is no content marketing strategy. Storytelling can also have a successful commercial impact.

Fairfax’s campaign for South Australian Tourism Commission successfully married great storytelling with data analytics and allowed stories to be created around audience interaction points. Across the path to purchase, the campaign saw significant increases in awareness, intention and consideration.

The most powerful stories are created from the experiences that customers have with your brand. This starts with the brand being interested in what their customers are interested in.

As we approach 2017, storytelling for brands will evolve in five key areas: The needle will move from stories and content about a brand, to stories and content for the customer; from content for social, to stories at the core; from disconnected customer experiences to customer stories created from their experiences; from campaign-driven content, to a culture of continuous content and stories; and from evolving metrics to a ‘return on stories’ engagement measurement.

Storytelling is an age old craft. Applying the power and beauty of storytelling to the world of digital and brands will capture the attention of your audience, and then capture the attention of their wallet.


* National Centre for Biotechnology Information, US National Library of Medicine, 2015.


Rob Shwetz is director, client strategy at MADE by Fairfax media


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