How creative storytelling can expand in a world of 1s and 0s

Google's head of creative agency development asks how we can translate the right data points into springboards for richer, more relevant creative stories.

"Maybe stories are just data with a soul."  —  Brene Brown 

Our industry is grounded in amazing storytelling. It’s at the heart of memorable and moving advertising. When done right, stories can connect a brand with an audience in a way that feels not only meaningful but personally relevant, as if the story was created for them

In theory, that kind of super-relevant storytelling should be getting easier, as it becomes more accessible to gather information about our audience and their needs, desires and preferences. In practice, however, I continue to hear from our creative agencies that through all of this data, it’s hard to always know what to look for...and specifically what can spark new creative direction. We find ourselves overwhelmed in the 1s and the 0s when we should feel more empowered using data to build stronger and more personal stories. 

In today’s marketing ecosystem, how can we translate the right data points at our fingertips—the signals that previously may have been viewed with more of a media lens—into springboards for richer, more relevant creative stories? Here are 3 ways:

Going beyond the demo: your audience is already telling you what they want
With their views, searches, clicks, your audience is signaling what interests them. For example, it may be obvious in certain circumstances and much less obvious in others. We were recently looking to find out more about a certain age range in the market for a premium credit card and while diagnosing the data, found that segment have a strong affinity for sci-fi. Not relevant to a credit card conversation...or is it? All good data should feel unexpected. What are the behaviors of a sci-fi fan that you could leverage here—attention to detail, interest in clues, appreciation of science? As a creative, it’s unanticipated correlations like this that inspire exciting new creative routes. 

If we make a hypothesis that a sci-fi fan likes the details of the journey, is curious and likes discovering things, then creatively, we could recommend sequencing the ads in their campaign, to reveal content in a "chapter-like" way to build drama, rather than simply present a one-and-done story.

What are the unexpected attributes that you anchor on to build out your stories? 

The context markers: turning interruptions into expectations
What time of day is it? What device is someone using? What’s the weather like? Just some of the signals surrounding context that provide creatives the opportunity for tailored, in-the-moment messaging. If you’re a coffee brand, why not create different versions so that if it’s an unseasonably hot weekday morning in the city, your audience on mobile passing the commute time will see the one shouting out the cold brew and closest store. 

A contextual content opportunity: if you knew what type of video someone was about to watch, create a pre-roll message that directly addresses it. Netflix did this in launching "Narcos" Season 3 last year. Running in front of business news, you’d find a trailer highlighting Narcos business tips, or if you were about to watch sports highlights, you’d see a trailer around Narcos pressure defense strategy and so on.

YouTube’s Director Mix is a new tool that allows for customization at scale and the ability for agencies to create tens, hundreds or even thousands of versions by organizing layered elements like titles, background and product shots. This means more people can begin to see messages tailored for them.

In what context is someone viewing your ad and how are you showing up to connect in a more relevant way?

No ends, only beginnings
Creative agencies spend significant time on strategy and creative development, and less time is often spent on creative analysis. Yet there’s so much richness in understanding how people respond to work in market. Where are they dropping off in a video? Are they viewing mostly on mobile? The more we gather the evidence they leave behind, the more we can optimize the work for the future. Taking the time to understand what made an impact shouldn’t just be seen as the end of one campaign but the inspiration for the beginning of the next.

We recently took a look at retention curves for a longform video where the brand was aiming to deliver five different key points. We quickly realized there was a ton of dropoff early on—people were abandoning after only the first two points were messaged. The agency reworked the creative, cut 6 seconds to supplement those other three points, and watch time and brand lift results went up.

How are you listening to and acting on the evidence people are leaving on what they like (or don’t)? 

These are some ways to make your stories stronger than ever in the age of data
The marriage of data and creativity doesn’t always come easily—it takes sifting, learning and doing. It takes a fresh look at the creative development process and the incorporation of new tools and data sources to strengthen the approach and unearth new creative routes. It requires change, but the payoff is huge. We can and should do more today to take creative advantage of the 1s and 0s at our fingertips. Signals around audience, context and creative listening will enable us to tell richer stories than ever before—stories that will not only be more relevant, but will catapult brands and businesses forward. 

Sadie Thoma is Head of Creative Agency Development at Google.

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