Storytelling in a digital age

Will marketers need to evolve and reshape the focussing of their brands?

Recently I interviewed a barista to learn how he marketed his café. It started out as a quick chat about how he used social media to connect with customers, which, incidentally, he does quite successfully. The conversation then detoured into a fascinating story about how he had managed to obtain the rights to import coffee from Vanuatu, how he has taken an ethical trading approach to the coffee farmers he works with there and how he will be returning there for the next harvest. “Wow! That’s a great story – it would make a great feature for television!” I noted. The barista just smiled, nodded and said he was talking to some production people about just that. In the space of a half hour, we had covered some pretty diverse marketing subjects: use of Facebook and Twitter, staff engagement in social media marketing, scheduling content for social media, his mobile app, how he uses QR codes all the way to Vanuatu, the philosophy of fair trading and television production opportunities. All this from a barista with one location on the Northern Beaches of Sydney!

It got me thinking. It wasn’t a conversation that would have been possible even a couple of years ago. It was the kind of thinking a big franchise might have entertained, one with a hot, award-winning ad agency and a deep pockets marketing budget. And yet it sounds entirely realistic in 2012. Empowered by no cost social media platforms, low cost tools and, most importantly, a great story to tell, my barista friend is good to go. It is the story that will differentiate his brand from others, not having an agency or a big marketing budget.

I share this story because it seems to me that the rise of storytelling will fundamentally reshape what professional marketers do for a living. With the ever-accelerating ‘digitisation’ of marketing, focus will inevitably shift from process-oriented skills such as producing a magazine ad or conducting a press event to a broader set of skills that is more akin to a brand storyteller. What brands will look for in professional marketers will be the vision and imagination to capture a brand’s story and share it with the marketplace, regardless of method. The better a brand marketer is at storytelling, the more successful they will be. Marketers will be more like movie directors whose vision informs the creative process, and less like movie producers who ensure the business side of the movie stays on track. The pieces of the process – packaging, PR, advertising, etc – will be less important than the sum of the whole brand storytelling experience. If marketers grasp the opportunity this evolution presents to them, they’ll find themselves highly sought after in a world hungry for a great story.

So, the next time someone asks you what you do for a living, consider giving this answer: “I tell stories”. You might get a funny look, but you won’t be wrong!


Agree? Disagree? Tell me! Email me at or comment below.

Patty Keegan
BY Patty Keegan ON 29 August 2012
Patty Keegan is director of Digital Chameleon. Beginning her career in magazines, she was also VP at Carat USA, founder and director of Carat Interactive Australia, founding general manager of the IAB Australia, and is one of the biggest players of Australia’s digital age. Twitter: @pattykeegan
  • JeffBach

    I think your story about the coffee shop owner doing his/her thing with the growers in Vanuatu is a great example of telling a good story. I would expect nearly everyone who finds it to watch, listen and read. Many of those consumers will in turn pass it on. Thus showing the impact and value of social media.

    But in my opinion, critical pieces are being glossed over. Promotion and the unmentioned budget, being those “passed over” aspects of this potential project.

    If the shop owner pays his own travel to Vanuatu, retains creative control of the work, does his own camera work, his own editing and his own publishing then yes a fairly pure social media project happens. It has been my experience that the single store shop owner is rarely ever going to have any budget for content creation and even more rarely the skills in other areas that will allow him/her to do good camera, editing and publishing work.

    Nonetheless, if this shop owner perseveres and creates his story/content, along will come a slow but steady consumption curve as the store owner tells customers about this project and uses the store’s own small-scale resources (including no-cost platforms) to promote this worthy bit of content. Shelling out more money for more “traditional” promotion to broaden the reach of this content is unlikely to happen. Assuming of course that this is a normal independent single store coffee shop.

    Now..if the shop owner gets the aforementioned TV station involved in this venture then many things would likely change. The first of which is going to be a budget (of someone else’s $$) and someone else doing the work of creating the content. Most likely a 2-3 person crew from the broadcaster would go to Vanuatu and capture the content. The shop will almost surely lose creative control/ownership. Happily for the shop much of their risk will evaporate as well.

    The broadcaster who is underwriting this project will also most likely have a piece of the budget saved out for explicit cost-incurring promotion, thus ensuring that the Vanuatu coffee story is watched by many, who in turn pass it on to a far larger number than the shop owner could ever hope to do with his relatively miniscule budget. It is important to point out that it is possible that this story could be branded as belonging to the broadcaster and NOT the original shop owner. Conceivably the store could get nothing out of it.

    If this path is taken, then I would suggest that this is no longer a social media success story. Rather it is about a piece of compelling content that was good enough to go beyond a small store scale of effort and get big budget traditional media production involved. In so doing it becomes a piece of traditional broadcast media and less so a piece of social media.

    my .02
    Jeff Bach
    Quietwater Media