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The 10 Commandments of Content

Scott Donaton, who's been an chronicler, judge, and creator of brand content, shares lessons of downright biblical importance for brands looking to connect with people through stories.

The challenge is clear by now: Intrusive, interruptive, self-centered marketing no longer works the way it once did, and its effectiveness will only continue to diminish in the social age. The question is what will replace the legacy model.

There’s a one-word answer: stories.

It makes sense. Finding—or creating—a narrative thread has always been how we as a species find order in the chaos of life. And it’s how smart brands are defining what’s next in the chaos of modern marketing.

What’s the case for content? There are human reasons. Stories are welcome where ads are resisted. They’re shareable and shapeable, constantly changing based on those they touch and those who touch them. They carve the quickest path to the heart and the mind—there’s literally brain science behind how humans interact with stories.

There are also business reasons. Content marketing moves the brand needle, increasing awareness, changing perception, creating desire and driving to purchase. And as stories spread—carried along by audiences—budgets don’t. Stories work.

Here’s another good reason to believe in the power of stories: You have no choice.

The empowered consumer will bypass or ignore communications that aren’t relevant and don’t add value to their lives. Whether through traditional forms such as 30-second spots, or through social bites or feature-length films, brands that want to be invited into the conversation will have to say something that’s worthy of their audience’s time and attention. It’s a truth brands such as Coca-Cola, BMW and Red Bull know intuitively.

After years of observing, creating and judging brand stories, it’s clear that there are some guiding principles behind great brand storytelling. Call them the 10 Commandments of Content.

1. Find your "why"

In the words of cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek, the best brands focus not on what they do or how they do it, but why they do it. Find your why and you’ve found your story. Transcend category by focusing on your role in people’s lives. Compelling brand stories speak to values, to what your brand stands for and why it exists.

2. It’s not (all) about you

Few people enjoy conversations with people who talk only about themselves. Yet for the last 100-plus years, brands have interrupted consumer conversations to make the points they want to make about their attributes and efficacy. That approach no longer works. Content must provide entertainment, education or utility. Stop focusing on what you want to say and start listening to what your audiences want to talk about.

3. Insights inspire ideas

Know your consumer as well as you know yourself. Data-driven insights and intelligence are fuel for creativity, insuring that ideas aren’t just cool but connected to business challenges and relevant to consumers. Intel & Toshiba’s "The Beauty Inside" won the Branded Content & Entertainment Grand Prix at Cannes this year by mining the intersection of a simple human insight and a brand truth: It’s what’s inside that counts.

4. Go all the way

Be fearless (not reckless) in your commitment to storytelling. While many have dabbled in content marketing, it often is an experiment or add-on at the end of existing marketing and media processes, setting the stage for disappointment. Stories should be at the heart, not the tail, of your marketing plan. Once the narrative is decided, it should be surrounded and amplified in all communications channels. Think of your media plan as a content syndication plan.

5. Be social at the core

Brands have to think like editors and act as publishers. Lose the campaign mentality. Putting a story in the marketplace is not the end, it’s the beginning. Consumers want a role. They want to be advocates for the brands and products they choose. Branded content can deliver on the promise of a two-way conversation and deeper relationship that can turn customers into loyalists, and evangelists. Make sure your content can be discovered, shared and shaped. Acting at the speed of social requires a new creative mindset that understands how to create experiences that are social by design and can move rapidly from idea to execution. Stay close to the data and refine, optimize, and retarget your efforts along the way. If you’re unsure what this means, Google "Oreo Daily Twist."

6. Don’t post and pray

It doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one sees it. Sounds obvious, but when pressed most brands will admit they create content without a putting in place a clear distribution strategy. It’s not just about what you say, but who you say it to, where and when. Understand how you will use owned, paid and earned channels to get your message out. It’s not about content vs. distribution; it’s about getting both right.

7. Be authentic

Live the stories that you tell. A brand narrative should serve the same role as the product it promotes. Coca-Cola doesn’t just talk about sharing happiness; it delivers experiences that allow people to do that, such as a can that splits in two or a vending machine that allows someone in India to buy a Coke for someone in Pakistan. MasterCard ‘s Priceless Cities brings its brand promise to life. Your brand has a personality and a point of view that goes beyond bragging about how great you are, and your audience knows when you strike a false note. Be transparent and true to your story.

8. Be the expert

This speaks more to education and utility than entertainment, but is fertile ground for content marketing. Your brand has expertise in a topic that can add value to people’s lives. Think Rogaine and confidence. Nike and physical fitness. L’Oreal Paris and self-esteem. Brands can be trusted information providers to audiences. It’s okay to have an agenda; all storytellers do, from the authors of the Bible to Steven Spielberg, Daft Punk to Macy’s. The audience is okay with that as long as the source of the information is clear, and the content is relevant.

9. Loosen your grip

You’re no longer in (sole) control of how your brand is portrayed and perceived. Gone are the days of the 100-page rulebook of what a brand mascot will and won’t do. Whether by creative partners or consumers, your brand image is influenced by multiple sources beyond the brand manager or creative agency. Embrace that reality to build credibility with audiences. Brands still need to look after their interests, but the reality is that a brand is poured through multiple filters, including those of fans and detractors. Jimmy Kimmel’s BMW tie-in, in which the brand bought out all the ad time in an episode and then gave it back to the show’s host to program as he pleased, is a great example of a brand winning by letting go.

10. Expect results

Forget the idea of non-working media dollars. Storytelling must be accountable marketing. Define clear business objectives going in so they can be measured coming out. Don't invest in content because it’s cool or opportunistic. Invest in content because you believe it can be a powerful and effective part of the marketing mix and help achieve business goals. UM’s proprietary research shows that custom content is 92% more effective than traditional TV advertising at increasing awareness and 168% more powerful at driving purchase preference. Make sure your approach to storytelling is strategic, disciplined, and connected to real KPIs.

While there’s no one path to success, putting story at the heart of your marketing is your best shot at a happy ending.

Scott Donaton is global chief content officer of UM. The author of the book "Madison & Vine," Donaton served as president of the Branded Content & Entertainment jury at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity in 2013.

[Image: Flickr users Andrew, Michael Johnston, Justin Scott Campbell, Matt MacGillivray, Simply CVR, Mike Bailey-Gates, Craig Cloutier, and Arne List]

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  • Talk about a powerful post. I'm sharing it everywhere I can given most businesses fail at just about every commandment. I get your second point on how people do not like rude brands barging in to their lives. Can you share any ideas or another post sharing tips on the best ways to go about listening to our readers?

  • Excellent article @ Scott.

    The three loudest commandments for me are:

    "Be the expert", "It's not all about you", and "Don't post and pray"

    They say so much about how small business owners can capitalise on the long tail marketing opportunity with clever, well planned strategic content marketing.

    Is the presentation available as a SlideShare?

    My small biz customers will like this piece. Thanks for sharing

  • Defining the Why aspect of a brand can be overthought. I believe many agencies can and do hit the target regularly, but there are those who simply try too hard, attempting to tell a single story when the diversity of the demographics requires multiple versions. McDonald's is a perfect example of a successful story told many different ways in order to increase and hold brand awareness.

  • @presensing

    These also apply to designing, creating & delivering learning for adults. The eleventh commandment I'd add is #attitude. Respect who you're addressing & come from a place of confident appreciation for the brainspace they're gifting you. Storytelling with instead of talking at people.

  • Robert Humphries

    I love this article. Your perspective is spot-on, and I even want to thank you for validating something I've believed for YEARS as a content aggregator and copywriter. Nice to see someone else who "gets it".

  • Full Tilt Consulting

    Love this piece, Scott. I certainly
    agree, especially with your point that it’s not (all) about you. You’re right,
    rarely (if ever) does anyone actually enjoy a conversation in which the other
    person only talks about themselves, without tuning out and planning their escape
    route. Building on your advice to stop focusing on what you
    want to say, it’s important for brands to understand that your audience wants
    to engage with you in a certain and specific way,
    and that is where your expertise lies. If you don’t provide them with the
    entertaining, thought provoking, helpful content they’re
    seeking, they too will tune out and find it elsewhere.

  • GodGivenRights

    Thank you Scott for the insightful perspective on these tenets. They clearly offer a perspective and context for marketers to get a sense of where they are in the vast, foggy ocean of 'social media marketing,' and where they need to be heading going forward.
    I also agree that using stories more deliberately as a new tactic to create awareness and lasting communication with consumers is a great suggestion and will be effective if done smartly; stories with human empathy have always been the key ingredient in even the oldest of the iconic great campaigns e.g. Mean Joe Green from Coke in the ancient 1960's era.
    Now if I may add some additional thoughts, in particular following Kevin R Foote's point on the shift from Brand as Authority, to Brand as Storyteller to Brand as Dialogue Enabler, or more specifically as Brand as Consumer Content Stimulator, for your readers to consider...
    The evolution in how marketers get their brand seen, heard, considered and actually purchased is clearly shifting steadily toward consumers, who with mobile and ubiquitous technology, apps and tools, have full freedom to create and distribute (publish?) their own 'content' about a product, when, where and to whom THEY choose.
    But what is this content and the ensuing stories about? Why is content so valuable that marketers who want to track it and share it? Where does this content get its power to impact sales? Why is it that today 'content is king' and earned consumer generated content is the Holy Grail?
    And more importantly, how can marketers stimulate, capture and direct this 'content' as part of a planned brand or NEW PRODUCT support program that can be measured to directly impact sales growth, without bastardizing it into 'paid media' content? 
    Rather than marketers and agencies fretting over the loss of control of their brand's message and its delivery, and trying to find new 'engagement' tactics within the newly morphed social media channels, they can add a single program element that trumps all social tactics, by simply getting 'personal' (and, yes, I am suggesting that a major shortcoming of today's social MEDIA tactics is that they are digital and 'impersonal.')
    What is the difference between, for lack of  better terms, Personal Social and Impersonal Social marketing tactics? It may be subtle but is fundamentally huge:
    ---Impersonal Social is essentially the delivery/posting of product and brand content via media channels; it is electronically delivered, digital in nature, typically consumed on a delayed basis, and 2-D flat screen images or text. An example of Impersonal Social is a person seeing a banner ad, online (or even cable) video, or Facebook or Twitter 'share' from a friend to click on a coupon to enter a contest for the new Ford Fusion.
    --Personal Social simply means face-to-face, in real life experience with a product (or service). In the Ford example, Personal Social is the live, hands on the wheel month-long test drives set up across the country that created instant indelible, unforgettable, sensory/emotional thrills, pre-conversion, and a gushing of enthusiastic, prolific product reviews, recommendations and word of mouth to dozens of friends, family and colleagues. Did I mention a record breaking, immediate sales success! (This was all done before the big budget ad spend took full effect in a sort of jumpstart way.)
    Because of its ever increasing influence, embracing social media from listening, curation and repurposing content is mandatory for marketers today, no doubt, but without Personal Social, or what I refer to as Live Product Advocacy, they are left in a reactive role unable to actually drive and trigger authentic consumer created specific reviews, comments and recommendations about their products. They are left with consumer inspired, paid Branded content which falls into the less trusted camp.
    Getting Personal puts marketers in the proactive, content enabling role, but keeps it all as truly 'earned.' The product is the marketing stimulus, and marketers can 'schedule' widespread yet local one-on-one personal product experiences from several renowned vendors, some able to create hundreds of thousands of local, live, individual hands-on experiences within a 4 week 'launch' window. A strong case can be made that Personal Social tactics should become a staple in the marketing mix where 'consumer generated content' is expected to be the key sales driver.
    Personal Social marketing is not a brand image building tactic per se, but rather it is a new trial tactic for a specific product. Repeat purchase is the other critical piece, and a marketer using Personal Social tactics insures high levels trial, and the benefit of tons of word-of-mouth, and sales if the product really delivers. Together, advertising, promotion and social media are effective in building broad product awareness, but it is when a marketer makes the effort to have their product physically enter, interact and 'dialogue' with the consumer, in their everyday real life existence that real social marketing power is unleashed. This is where the fabled and revered 'word-of-mouth' happens yet most marketers missed the point in the recent rush like lemmings to trigger and collect thousands of Facebook 'Likes.'
    As further enticement for marketers to add Personal Live Product Advocacy tactics to their brands support plans, recent research by Keller-Fay Research ( highlighted in their recent book 'The Face-to-Face Book, 2012) confirms that despite the growth of social media channel and user base, 90% of ALL product specific word-of-mouth comments and recommendations still take place face-to-face, in real life, between known and trusted friends in their everyday lives. Face-to-face, in real life physical hands on experience with the 'product' is the most powerful trigger of the most sought after 'consumer generated content.' Without actual use, a consumer cannot, and generally has no motivation to, create product word-of-mouth. Physical touching, tasting, trying, and using the product is the touchstone marketers need to stimulate.
    So maybe an 11th commandment can be added, to paraphrase Kevin R Foote above and renaming the third wave of marketing as 'Brand as dialogue enabler/product content stimulator:'
    11. Use Live Product Advocacy, which is the physical product experience by real, live consumers, as a marketing tactic to create a Personal Social bond with a new product that organically triggers a steady flow of  authentic, non-incentivized, enthusiastic and long lasting 'earned content' that accelerates authentic word of mouth, rapid new product trial and accelerated sales growth.
    A mouthful but hope it makes the point. Comments and thoughts please.

  • Jared

    As I look at many brands in my space, storytelling is almost epidemic (not in a good sense). At what point does storytelling alienate consumers and create distrust? Being authentic, as you mentioned in #7, is a good start. I would add genuine, truthful and transparent.

  • Customer Service

    Thank you for this. It truly is the 10 commandments and needed to be written. for brands of all sizes and all industry segments. Excellent.

  • Patrick Garmoe

    Where did this quote come from? Why even use it if you aren't going to quote the source? Custom content is 92% more effective than traditional TV advertising at increasing awareness and 168% more powerful at driving purchase preference. 

  • Chris Tucker

    On the other hand ...
    "Successful publishers have a strong point of view. TMZ and Perez Hilton can snarkily tear down celebrities at every turn on the red carpet, but could brands like Chanel and Pantene ever call out even the tiniest flaw in Heidi Klum's outfit when it's their turn to comment on the Oscars? Not a chance ... Few marketing departments have even long odds of being able to handle the pace, volume and risk profile of publishing ... Try reading Oreo's current Twitter feed: you'd have to really love Oreo shtick to want to subscribe. Since the Super Bowl, Oreo's been tweeting little mini-ads once or twice a day, cute and benign and edgeless -- and so hopelessly devoted to itself."

  • Dave Martin

    Great article, Scott.  Of all of these, the one I think we see most often disobeyed is "DON'T POST AND PRAY."  Lots of brands seem to get the content right, but they have no idea how to get eyeballs on it.  Strange how it all boils back down to creative and media.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Excellent!  When you make it personal- it changes everything! You will forget the content but REMEMBER the story.  Great post Scott!

  • Jarvis Emerald

    Great article, thanks. Always good to get back to basics. you should run this article about once every month.

  • Kevin R Foote

    Thank you for the fine synopsis of great practices in the creation of brand content and storytelling.  

    An area that I'd recommend greater emphasis, is the conscious effort to go beyond content/brand entertainment and move towards real-time, active dialogue.  As we know, the advertising model continues to evolve from brand as Authority to Brand as Storyteller; the natural next step is (and vital in engaging today's consumer) is Brand as dialogue enabler. Best practioners beyond those you list include GoPro - almost all of their brand content is generated by customers and shared and discussed by even broader audiences. GoPro is the real-time curator and facilitator.