Creative meanderings from Nathan C. Ford.

Storytelling Is Not Conversation

No matter how you dress them up, they aren’t much for conversation.

“Markets are Conversations.” Ten years after the Cluetrain left the station spouting these words, many advertisers are still left behind, desperately clinging to the romantic notion that they are storytellers. On the net, though, such ideas are fast becoming anachronisms.

For the last fifty years or so, there were a few ways for a person to be influenced by the outside world (radio, television, printed materials, actually leaving the house)  and advertisers had every base covered with their brand-related stories: a billboard with a smile, a commercial alluding to Orwell’s 1984, an ad that talked about cars like normal people do… each expertly tuned to play on our emotions. With the explosion of the web, a whole new line of communication with the outside world was opened, and advertisers have been scrambling, ever since, to figure out the key psychology of reaching us in this brave new space.

There have been wonderful attempts, but from what I have seen, the advertising world as  a whole has still not fully grasped this problem. Instead, people like Randall Rothenberg, president & CEO at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, insist that we make a massive effort to get this internet thing back under creative control, so that we can give people more of those resonant, emotional brand experiences for which consumers still surely pine.

The Creepiness of It All

Imagine you are sitting around a table with a group of friends, having a conversation. One person says something, another reacts and rebuts, another reacts to the rebuttal, and so on… Thoughts are shared, bonds are strengthened, and the conversation builds in to a pleasing, enriching experience. Everyone gains, as everyone learns from those that contribute.

Now, imagine that a slightly plastic, well-designed facsimile of a person takes measured strides up to your table, has a seat, and, in an aluminum voice, begins telling you of the value of Acme brand shaving products. You try to respond to what this robo-person is saying, but you get no encouraging feedback from the bot; just continued praises of the Acme brand. You turn to your friends, each as bewildered as you, and after a few goofy looks and sarcastic remarks about the new psuedo-entity at the table, everyone continues their conversation, doing their best to drown out the noisy insistence of Acme brand marketing-speak.

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This is internet advertising’s failure, and it happens because of the tired notion that people want to hear a story about the brands they consume. The internet is a social medium, and stories do not make for engaging conversation.

The Internet is Full of Pragmatists

The Cluetrain Manifesto (soon to celebrate its tenth birthday) reminded us that before there was advertising, there were markets, and before there were mediums for advertising, there was conversation. With our new found ability to reach out and share with anyone over the web, conversations are again becoming the crucial aspect of any brand-consumer relationship. On the net, consumers are no longer broadcasted to; consumers can actually join in the conversation, and now give continual brand feedback, both to the brand and amongst themselves (or in the worst scenario: only amongst themselves).

Now I cannot tell you the last time I had a conversation about any specific brand, but I can guarantee you that the conversation was based on product benefit, not on any story that was handed me by that brand. If any stories were related, they were entirely my own.

This is how internet advertising succeeds: by facilitating the sharing of the consumer’s brand-related story with both the brand, and other future/present/past consumers. And, of course, encouraging further sharing.

Who Decides What’s “Creative”?

So maybe this is too boring for an industry full of massive budgets, elaborate photo-shoots, and celebrity endorsements. Maybe it is a bit tough to tie a Ludacris endorsement in to a forum thread, or leverage your client’s NASCAR sponsorship in a Facebook application. Creativity on the web, or anywhere for that matter, is not easy, nor is it wholly centered on well-crafted stories, or expensive aesthetic ephemera.

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The more advertiser’s try to mold the net in to another story delivery system, the less their clients will see any return. Sure, TV advertising is still succeeding, mainly because advertisers have had lots of time to find what works best for that medium. Television also happens to be perfectly suited for delivering stories, as is print. But bringing the story-based model to the web is like airing a radio broadcast on HDTV. In order to fully take advantage of the breadth of experience the interenet can provide consumers, advertisers need to put away the storybooks, and reaquaint themselves with the art of conversation.

Written Contributions Appreciated


Nathan C. Ford — Sunday, March 22, 2009 8:55 pm

Added Note: This just came up on Tech Crunch today:

A more in depth look at more of the ways advertising is failing to adapt to the web.

Craig Brewster — Friday, May 8, 2009 1:29 am

Hi Nathan,

I recently came across Unit Interactive and wanted to compliment you on your work. I think it’s creative and inspiring, particularly your site development for Of Many Colors. I love the full-color photo background that gently emerges.

I’m a seasoned print designer attempting to make the transition to web design. As somewhat of a newbie to the web world, what skills are a must-have to be successful as a front-end developer/designer. And if you don’t mind sharing, I’m curious as to how much design time a website typically affords. For instance, how much creative time was spent on a site like OMC?

I appreciate your time.

Kind Regards,

Nan Patience — Thursday, July 16, 2009 8:40 pm

Great post. I hope more creative people will net more from the net someday, but conventional thinking seems to be holding up the works. I would go so far as to say that there is a stagnation throughout our entire society as people hold onto the past and stand in the way of progress. Too many people seem to feel absolutely paralyzed by change and scared to death about what will become of them.

E-Learning » Blog Archive » My Big, Fat Marketing-Storytelling Synthesis: 10 Observations, Part 2 — Tuesday, November 10, 2009 9:52 am

[...] of the Custom Publishing Council Blog. But hark! Here’s an opposing view of that point from Nathan C. Ford on Art=Work, who asserts that advertising has failed on the Internet “because of the tired notion that [...]

Darryl — Thursday, November 4, 2010 6:29 pm

Perhaps I’m not grasping the crux of your argument, but titling your post ’storytelling is not conversation’ had me scratching my head. Oh but then ‘markets are conversations’? How about this one: conversations are conversations. You need at least 2 sentient beings to carry on a conversation. But saying ’storytelling is not conversation’ is well, like saying chemical engineering is not football —these seem like arbitrary comparisons.

The notion digital advertising nirvana lies with a strategy primarily centered around brands attempting to socialize people, in the same way the analogy of the plastic facsimile of a person tries to enter the conversation among a group of friends, is a generalization of the tactics exploited by the advertising industry.

In a broad sense the challenges faced by digital advertisers are really no different from other mediums. The Web just seems to crop up more often (lately) as the topic of scrutiny because of its rapid evolutionary rise over TV, print and radio as the dominant consumer platform of our time.

Great advertising—digital or otherwise—does not necessarily need to enter into conversation with prospects to be successful. A great AD only needs to be memorable and resonate with the audience on a emotional level I would gather to be considered effective. Storytelling only enhances the message—whether an interactive banner or a static magazine spread—ultimately we all have the capacity to ignore or engage with what’s presented to us.

Nathan C. Ford — Thursday, November 4, 2010 6:42 pm

Hey Darryl.

Thanks for you thoughts here!

As you can see from some of the comments here, this post was written in March of 09 (I am such slacker, I know). My main goal here was to attack the execution of the strategies you speak of. In my experience and observations, I had seen brands mainly trying to manipulate the web medium to support their tired notions of captivating stories selling products. Not a brand story, which I understand should be compelling… but literally trying to translate ad ideas from the TV on the web. Thus the launching of a thousand Flash sites (per day).

Since I wrote this post many things have changed. Ultimately, though, the more conversational the medium, the less that one story matters.

Ikehata — Friday, August 8, 2014 12:15 pm

opws k na ‘xei, etsi einai o kosmos k xhomisopiirse ton pros symferon sou. protimotero o pinakas na eixe poulithei se mia dimoprasia k ta xrimata na eixe karpothei to ellhniko dimosio, para na eixe klapei. kati tha eixe piasei afou oloi to brand koitane… h epeidi h pwlhsh tou pinaka tha htan hthiko atwpima (pwpw ti rude oi ellhnes na poulane to dwro…) tha mporouse lew egw, na eixe stalei ws daneio se ena mouseio ths allodapis (e ti na ton kanei to metropolitan, ton thelei omws ena eparxiako mouseio ths finladias…) wste na kanoume k diafimish!alla egw nomizw oti h merkel edwse entolh na klapei. nai, nai gia oles tis klopes oi germanoi ftene. oi ellhnes ekanan poly kala th douleia tous. alloi ftene pali!