THE BLOG
09/26/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Encourage Customers to Tell Their Stories in Social Media

End radio silence in your social channels

Storytelling is the oldest form of marketing, whether on cave walls, on chairs in a general store, or in those 30-second scenes we call TV commercials. But for thousands of years, storytelling in marketing was participative. Everyone could add to the story and enjoy the thrill of taking it forward. Then during the second half of the twentieth century with the rise of mass marketing, the stories became one-way, broadcast via TV. Social media finally brings back the participative model--and it's a good thing, since it's harder than ever to capture your customer's attention.

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It helps to keep in mind that "storytelling" doesn't have to mean that you invent a fully imaginary character or world. You can tell stories and cast customers as characters in events that are happening in the real world, with your brand or in the broader cultural landscape. Just as you do anytime you're developing content, ask yourself: What do we have to work with? How does our brand naturally become a character in the everyday, real-life drama of our customers? Then, how can we engage our customers to tease those stories into conversation?

In successful social storytelling, every customer is a potential character, with his or her own plot and theme in the story. The brand's social platform--and the brand or even the product itself--becomes a venue for customers to play, improvise, and create. The goal isn't just to engage them, but to emotionally involve them in a story where they play a lead role. That requires changing your perspective: The brand doesn't control the story. The brand gets the ball rolling by getting customers' attention and engaging them enough that they take ownership of the story.

Here are some suggested frameworks that my company has used with clients to inspire customers to contribute.

1. Launch a creation contest: Challenge your customers to tell a story in words
or images about how your brand figures into their lives; set guidelines that help
add structure to their task. A great example of a successful customer-creation contest was Lego's three-week Holiplay campaign in 2012. According to the agency, Konstellation, the aim of the campaign was "to create brand awareness and show an emotional connection between the Lego brand and key family moments during December." The approach wasn't just to show that connection, but to create a storytelling game that actively engaged families with Lego play during the holidays.

Spreading the word through social, Lego asked fans to create five specific Lego characters, and they make their creations unique by photographing them in fun and surprising locations. People from 119 different countries participated, submitting videos that stunned Lego and fellow fans with their creativity. The best photographs became part of a short film that used the characters and images to tell a holiday fairy tale.

"But I sell vacuum cleaner bags, not Legos," you say. "No one wants to take pictures of vacuum bags." Sure--but your customers are just as involved in the holidays as Lego's. Find a way to connect to that.

2. Create a character: Customers, employees, even the product or brand itself can
become a character. The most well-known example of a character embodying a brand
is the Old Spice Guy, "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," according to the campaign's tagline. His story generated upwards of 1.8 billion impressions, as the CEO told BusinessWeek, and led to P&G reducing traditional ad spend in favor of social media. Five months after the campaign launched, AdWeek reported that "overall sales for Old Spice body-wash products [were] up 11 percent in the last 12 months; up 27 percent in the last six months; up 55 percent in the last three months; and in the last month, with two new TV spots and the online response videos, up a whopping 107 percent."

The brand created the Old Spice Guy character, but he came alive primarily through real-time dialogue with customers through Twitter and Facebook. And suddenly Old Spice itself was sexy again.

3. Involve customers in a brand story: What's going on with your brand or the space that it plays in that customers could become a part of? For example, in 2013 the MTV European Music Awards gave eight superfans the chance to announce the nominations in a particular award category.

You can also work on developing your core brand narrative, and use it to look for ideas around how to include customers in that ongoing story. Having a very clear story that embodies your values provides important continuity as stories and messaging are adapted for, or co-opted by, different groups.

4. Use prompts: As part of your day-to-day content, ask your followers questions that encourage storytelling. Fill-in-the-blank questions asking who? or why? are great story starters or check-ins to escalate the narrative or take it in another direction. Bold, declarative statements can also get a conversation started. For example, which do you think is likely to provoke a response and encourage someone to share a personal story?

1. People are messy.
2. Who's the messiest person in your house?
3. Men are so MESSY!

The last statement, #3, is specific and extreme enough to create controversy
among those who disagree with it, and sharing among those who are living with
a messy, messy man.

5. Try reincorporation: Reincorporation is a trick used by actors in improvisational comedy, in which performers develop stories in real time with help from the audience. In improv, when the performers find a bit that gets a laugh, they bring it back a few more times during the rest of the performance, or find creative ways to reference it. They bring it back again and again, as long as people keep laughing.

Reincorporation helped the Old Spice Guy's story develop. The brand quickly realized that the videos got the biggest laughs when he was responding to what people said in social media--and once it realized that, it played the joke again and again. The brand never really changed the story format, it just kept reincorporating the audience response.

6. Plan content calendar arcs: As your brand builds a social presence centered on customer conversations, you are building content over time. In aggregate that content tells a story. It's likely to be a very disjointed story--unless you plan your content calendar and daily interactions with the principles of social storytelling in mind. Use themes to create a narrative arc for your messaging. To use a really simple example, for December's content, a brand might use the theme of "holiday chaos," following a customer as she plans and executes holiday events--encountering either disaster...or success!

These are story frameworks that we've seen work, but your creativity is the only limit in developing others. Your storytelling ability expands dramatically the moment you realize that you don't have to create in a vacuum. Draw your customers into that process--either literally or by looking at them under a microscope--and the ideas will start popping.

This is an adapted excerpt from The CMO's Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World, by Peter Friedman, the CEO and Chairman of LiveWorld. To read more, download a free PDF version at http://besocial.liveworld.com/CMOSMHandbookOrder, or buy the hardcover or ebook via Amazon. @PeterFriedman