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Tell Me A (Digital) Story

Business Week -- Management

Tell Me a (Digital) Story

Companies build brand by allowing customers to share their product tales online

You are listening to the shaky, unrehearsed voice of South Carolina housewife Barbara Wagner. She is telling you, in her own words, how her attempt to bite--then chop off--the head of a frozen chocolate bunny landed her in the emergency room.

This is not The Oprah Winfrey Show. Instead, Wagner's voice issues from the speakers attached to your computer monitor. Within seconds, you hear ominous violins. A series of half-animated, half-photographed images appear of Wagner, her kitchen, her frowning husband, and a bloody cutting board--the spot where she gouged her hand instead of the rock-hard rabbit ears she was trying madly to devour. "The lesson in all of this?" asks Wagner at the end of her one-minute story, The Easter Bunny Diet. The answer is not what you expect--nor is it meant to be. "Next time, I'll use a hammer," she says, wryly.

Straight from Wagner, it's an amusing story--and painfully real. Who hasn't snacked between meals only to pay for it later? But Wagner is no actress reading a company-generated script. She's one of dozens of Oxygen Media users who have shared their highly personal stories about everything from bad blind dates to Valentine's Day heartbreak. In the process, they've helped the Manhattan media startup engage customers, build brand recognition, and boost repeat visits--no small feat for any online venture competing for the hearts and minds of fickle Web surfers.

Back in the old days--pre-1995--the success of a brand could be as simple as a top-notch ad campaign. But success on the Internet requires far more. "Now you need to establish far deeper, interactive connections with customers if you hope to keep them," says Eric Almquist, an Internet expert with Mercer Management Consulting Inc. So digital storytelling--which marries the power of multimedia technology, the global reach of the Net, and the emotional appeal of personal stories--is one of the hottest trends in e-business marketing. "By listening and sharing with your customers, you're essentially having them co-write your brand. And they're doing it for nothing, or next to nothing," says Kit Laybourne, chief of Oxygen's digital storytelling project and husband of Oxygen founder Gerry Laybourne.

How is it done? Not all companies harvest digital stories the same way. For example, Oxygen producer Kimberly Mercado mails out digital cameras and recorders to people whose stories she wants to produce and distribute to customers online. People read their stories into a recorder and then photograph or videotape aspects of the tales. Back at Oxygen, Mercado puts it all together, sometimes adding music and animation, and then posts it online. Coke, on the other hand, hires digital storytellers--the Web equivalent of TV ad producers--to go out and record, produce and make customer stories Web-ready. Either way, the aim is the same: to harness the creativity, interactivity, and low-cost distribution power of the Web to get closer to customers and build brand awareness.

To be sure, advertisers have always used stories to help sell goods. But this is different. Unlike TV, where company-contrived stories are used to pitch products to customers, digital storytelling aims to build customer communities. By letting customers share their brand experiences with each other, stories become more authentic and interactive than just another ad. And they let customers become part of the marketing experience. "Stories are both ads and content for Web sites," says Bob Johansen, director of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, an Internet think tank.

Who knew the Internet would supply companies with the kind of material TV copywriters would have killed for, and do it for free? And who would have guessed that this Internet-Age approach would gain appeal beyond the dot-coms? Older companies, from McDonald's Corp. to Ford Motor Co., are starting to query customers and dig into their corporate archives for customer stories that can be digitized. The Coca-Cola Co., for example, not only posts digital stories on the Web, it also features the best ones at the company's digital-storytelling exhibit inside its Atlanta headquarters.

Iris Bell's tale about her father, Kevin, is a doozy. When Kevin left the family's Oaktown (Ind.) farm the day after Christmas in 1944 for the World War II battlefields of the Pacific, he took six bottles of Coke with him in his duffel bag. The first time he got homesick, he drank one. He shared four more with fellow soldiers in Burma. And the last bottle? He never opened it. Kevin carried it back to the farm, where it sat for more than 30 years on the mantel in the living room. When the farmhouse caught fire in 1990, Kevin--by then an old man--rescued it from the burning building, the only material possession he fought to save.

Kevin has since passed away, but Iris keeps the bottle on her kitchen counter. "Daddy always said it was a good-luck charm," Iris says, her voice trailing off in nostalgia. "My daughters will get it when I'm gone."

Marketing folks go hog-wild over this stuff. "You simply can't buy advertising as emotionally potent as this," says Coke chief archivist Phil Mooney. Of course, Coke didn't have to. All it did was send artist and digital storyteller Dana Atchley to Indiana to meet Iris, record her story, and film her telling it. "Digital storytelling helped us to pop the lid on a lot of emotional ties that we just hadn't been able to capture in our marketing before the Net," Mooney says.

The digital-storytelling movement started in the early 1990s with performance artists such as San Francisco-based Atchley. But the technique is just beginning to take hold in the world of e-business. At last fall's national Digital Storytelling Festival in Crested Butte, Colo., nearly half of the people signed up represented corporations. "The stories that people are telling on the Web around corporate brands are astounding," says Atchley. "Knowledge is best shared and remembered through a good story, and companies are just starting to catch on to all that this can mean."

If so, digital storytelling will only become more popular. High-speed data lines are linking more people to the Web, computer prices continue to plummet, and computer power is soaring. And most critically, as bandwidth expands, so will the use of digital storytelling, says Joe Lambert, director of the new Digital Storytelling Center at the University of California at Berkeley, which teaches storytelling as a marketing and communications tool.

It's working for Oxygen. According to Media Metrix, digital stories like Barbara Wagner's help Oxygen site traffic climb an average of 14% immediately after they're posted. Coke, too, says visitors to its Atlanta Center for Digital Storytelling are inspired to add their own stories when they see those of others, though Coke says it's too early to measure the impact of these tales on the company's image.

Not all digital storytelling projects, however, have a happy ending. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, initiated a storytelling project aimed at calming employee jitters following the firm's recent merger. PWC's Chief Knowledge Officer Lynn Knapp sought to produce a series of digital stories to remind employees about the company's history, its values, and its post-merger goals--as told through its leaders. The plan was to zap these stories to employees' desktops via the firm's in-house network. But the project was put on hold, the victim of internal squabbling.

Still, companies who experiment with digital storytelling come away from the experience knowing more than when they started. Long Haymes Carr, a Winston-Salem (N.C.)-based advertising agency, for example, is using digital stories to demonstrate to its clients that their perceptions about customers can sometimes be off the mark. The agency is collecting tales about Thomasville furniture, one of its top accounts. "Seeing customers talk about the product and what it means to their lives helps our brand managers and clients learn things about them and their values that they never would have picked up in a PowerPoint presentation of raw facts and numbers," says LHC creative director Frank Campion.

That's certainly the case with Jenna Williams. When Oxygen ran her story about a date who paid for dinner with a pillowcase full of wet coins--he made her help retrieve them from a machine at his car wash--Williams and Oxygen got dozens of e-mails about it. "Oxygen gave me a chance to share that story, and I'll never forget that," she says. Now, that's the kind of story that Oxygen Media and other digital storytellers want to online

For a Q & A with Dana Atchley, see Marcia StepanekReturn to top

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