The Art of (Brand Messaging) Storytelling in the Blogosphere

Guest post by Jory Des Jardins (jory@blogher.com) of BlogHer.

Earlier this year, my company started discussions with a client who was contemplating working with us on a word-of-mouth campaign around a new, launching product involving blogger reviews. In the background meeting we learned that the product had once been recalled. The client initially thought that this information should be suppressed but eventually came to agree with our approach to disclose this information.

I could understand the client’s initial rationale: For many marketers a “win” consists of seeing their message adopted by a media outlet, and ultimately by the customer– if not word for word, then at least positively. By providing bloggers with any negative information that would invariably be mentioned, the message is at risk.

And with social media there are many ways that a message can be misinterpreted; for instance, a blogger may overemphasize the product recall and not mention the new version’s value at all. Multiply this by the many formats currently available to customers, and you could see your misinterpreted message show up as a scathing blog post, unappealing photo, snarky poll item, dismissive tweet or overly simplified text message.

This week, while searching for examples of how social media users portrayed major brands online, I went to the photo-sharing site Flickr and searched for well-known P&G products. Under “Swiffer” I found a pictorial how-to for converting the packaging into a photography soft box. One user took a much more entertaining take on the product and photographed herself, wearing soap suds and posing with her dutiful floor-cleaning tool. On-message? Hardly. Useful to the brand? Depends.

For many of the marketers I meet with, the morphing of a message that can happen in a social media context is a waste of marketing dollars at best and possibly fatal to a brand. I don’t disagree that brands could blow up in the Blogosphere or elsewhere. And I don’t recommend what some of the more rabid proponents of social media espouse-to let go of all corporate inhibition and let the chips fall where they may.

But I do think that it’s arrogant to presume that the whole story-the good and the bad-won’t be learned anyway, or that a new, even more inspiring, story couldn’t be created by the public without your help. Through the free flow of information, pictures, and random opinion, a brand is exposed, yes, but to both misinterpretation and tremendous upside. Story threads can develop about your brand that is far more creative and advantageous than anything you or your marketing team could possibly have dreamed up.

Reading through Mommy blogs I read a post about how a woman, when faced with stress at home, would get the kids in the car and wander around Target-it just made her feel better. Her commenters (read: the target market, pun intended) could relate-even if the Target communications team might not-and develop ties to the brand.

At our recent BlogHer conference, Sesame Workshop received enormous kudos for a re-creating the iconic Sesame Street onsite and the appearance of beloved SS characters Grover and Abby Cadabby, accompanied by their puppeteers. Many bloggers taped segments of themselves with the Muppets and showed their videos to their kids and on their blogs, and in the process mentioned Sesame’s new site for parents-marketing goal accomplished. Though my business partner, Elisa, our marketing head, shared that the most memorable, moving post she read about the exhibit was from a childless woman who related the experience of seeing Grover to happy childhood memories.

Was there mention of Sesame’s new site launch in that post? Nope. And she wasn’t even a Mom! But the shared association of past memories was invaluable, highly credible, very viral, engaging to her community-including moms-and the key differentiator for the brand in an ever- crowding marketplace of parent-themed Web sites.

Playing out the campaign for the recalled product: If we’d allowed the suppression of background information, a blogger, doing her diligence on the product, would have found out about the recall. The resulting story on her blog would be one of deception, told from the angle of a big, bad brand trying to fool the innocent public. Learning about the recall up-front, she gets to test the product and write a story of redemption, or of indifference but without the taint of suspicion because she has been given all the information. The brand benefits from disclosure.

Today, most companies generally comply with disclosure policies such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA) Ethics Code regarding consumer-marketer relationships. This is a good general guideline, though it should also be noted that it is the marketer’s responsibility to require disclosure, not just accede to it when a blogger insists on it. Too often, brands leave it to the bloggers to set limits and criteria for disclosure and inadvertently damage the credibility of the viral resources they were trying to tap. General Motors avoids this by requiring all bloggers writing about their products as a result of their outreach to disclose that they were provided with travel, vehicles, etc.

Some organizations, like my own, model their editorial policy on traditional media guidelines. Bloggers are just like compensated freelance writers and can be paid or comped to review, not endorse, events, products or services.

These guidelines are in place not to suppress brand messaging, or put your brand at risk, but rather to free your brand to the most powerful form of advocacy that exists—messaging that a customer creates herself.

Thank you to Jory Des Jardins, co-founder and President of Strategic Alliances for BlogHer, for writing the first-ever Guest Post on Hard Knox Life.  Since co-founding BlogHer in 2005, Jory has developed strategic relationships with Fortune 1000 brands and led innovative campaigns to integrate contextual marketing and advertising into communities of women interested in every topic, from food, health and family to business, finance and technology. As an author and media strategist, Jory regularly writes on women’s business issues, blogging, relationships and pop culture for such publications as Fast Company, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Inc. Magazine, and her blog, Pause.

Comments

  1. says

    Jory,

    It’s so interesting to see the use of storytelling to deliver brand marketing messages. I’d be interested to know how you can/will utilize storytelling tools in order to best proliferate the message of the brand.

  2. Jory Des Jardins says

    David,

    My first thought is that Digg-like tools that show popularity of posts can bring stories to the top. I don’t want to be too literal with Digg, since they are largely Tech. But there are plug-ins that allow readers to vote on favorites. The best stories rise to the top.

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