The introduction of the Facebook Timeline gives brands an opportunity to talk to their customers as never before and to capitalise on our love of a good story

We are natural storytellers, we have been doing it since we lived in caves. Storytelling has always been a fundamental part of design and particularly advertising. Using a narrative to engage our audience is something every creative worth their salt does on a regular basis.

But the need for brands to tell a story seems to have been dialled up. Facebook’s recent raft of changes has suddenly put the spotlight on brands using its platform and asked: what is your story? But this isn’t entirely down to the daddy of social utilities. Our audience has become more demanding. They want to see where your brand has come from, they’re hungry for provenance and they are more aware than ever. So, brands take heed: get your story straight because the world is watching.

Filling in the blanks

From March 30, Facebook introduced (or enforced, depending on which way you look at it), the new profile setting for brands. The Timeline lets marketers retrospectively create a ‘brand story’.
Those of us who have already made the switch as individuals may have gone through the (slightly narcissistic) process of combing through all your old status updates, photos and videos in an attempt to sanitise your story. Rather than taking stuff out, for brands it will be more a case of filling in the blanks and generating their story.

The less nimble brands will have been caught out by this game changer from Zuckerberg & co, but many smart businesses have been quick to embrace it. It could be said that with the Timeline, Facebook has given businesses a platform from which to engage with customers like never before – an opportunity to humanise their brand, endearing customers with a story. Promoting social conversation is seemingly a successful way to inspire and gain trust in your customers. So why not do it around your story?

Another improvement for brands is that Facebook Timeline’s ‘cover photos’ can be big and powerful, giving brands a golden opportunity to say something special in pictures. There are rules about the cover picture: Thou shalt not promote prices or purchase information, display contact information or call to actions such as ‘get it now’ or ‘tell your friends’. While this may appear heavy-handed on Facebook’s part, it’s actually for the greater good. They are asking brands for more engagement and less ‘sell’.

Hopefully brands will see this as an opportunity to be more creative with their cover photo. More so than Mark Zuckerberg, currently featuring his dog, Beast (who, by the way, has a comical half a million likes).

Creative agencies also stand to benefit. The Timeline allows you to walk people through your history, telling your story in a chatty, anecdotal fashion. As a delivery method this is wholly different to the more ordered, sensible form that an agency’s website often takes.

Facebook is offering you the chance to display a more human side. It would be egocentric of me to think that there were fans out there queuing up to get a sneak peak at the chronicles of my company, Holler. As an agency we tell a brand story for slightly different reasons and as an 11-year-old business, we too have an interesting story to tell. Put simply, our Timeline is a celebration, charting the evolution and maturing of a creative agency, all delivered as if from an old mate.

So what is the creative opportunity for brands? Fanta makes a good effort to do something a little more interactive with their Timeline. Fanta characters are ‘lost’ in time (in the Timeline) and can be found in bygone years. This is a novel way of promoting interaction using the device, offering fans the chance to play a role in the brand story. It makes you wonder what else brands could do to ‘gamify’ users’ interaction with their story. It’s worth remembering that brand stories are no longer just about the brand. Fans play an increasingly integral part.

Real-time storytelling

There is surely an opportunity for real-time storytelling. The Economist has been extremely successful on Facebook; its success largely a result of adapting well to the platform. It recently reached 1 million fans – way surpassing its competitors, and showing huge ability to engage with its audience on a specific platform. There is clearly an opportunity to adopt a form of on-the-fly storytelling, reflecting current events or trending topics. I’m imagining a cunning Michael O’Leary planning a cover photo assault on an ailing competitor.

Facebook’s change in policy coincides with a trend in advertising for longer-form story telling. For example, there’s The Guardian’s excellent Three Little Pigs ad:

An award-winning ad for Canal+ called ‘The Bear’:

And we at Holler are currently working with Jamie Hewlett (of Gorillaz fame) on a campaign for Absolut vodka, creating a motley crew of characters to tell the story of The Spirit of London.
Brands are now almost obliged to tell a story in order to sell a product or service and the fact is people are hungry for it.

Facebook’s new Timeline is helping fuel these narratives, sending brands scrambling to get their ‘stories’ in order. But it’s a positive scramble, a great opportunity to promote and leverage history, by creatively emphasising key milestones.

Coca-Cola and Starbucks are two iconic brands that presumably found this a relatively straightforward exercise, both having a wealth of history, having launched in 1886 and 1971 respectively.
Coca-Cola has understood that the Timeline is more effective with images and videos (lots and lots of them), while Starbucks – which was famously not built on advertising – has opted for text-based milestones for much of its older history.

Provenance is a powerful thing however, and Facebook’s new toy looks as if it was conceived with this in mind. But a word of warning for lazy brands; users don’t want a dull history lesson. They want to be engaged with interesting content.

So what of the C word? Content goes hand in hand with storytelling. Shareable content has long been a great marketing strategy but with Facebook changing its advertising model, brands will now be under even more pressure to create engaging content. Social networks are changing with this in mind. As the ad revenue box is cheerfully ticked, the gauntlet is being thrown down to creatives to come up with ever more exciting content and interactive experiences with the aim of getting more than just Facebook Likes. If businesses establish and manage a presence while investing in engaging and shareable content, they will reap the benefits. Red Bull, itself a content king, has adapted confidently to this new social landscape, using it as a rich tapestry of memorable brand moments and assorted video snacks.

Being human

It is some of the fresh-faced kids on the block, such as Instagram (recently bought by Facebook) and Pinterest, that have been busy proving that visually enticing content is loved the world over. While our beloved internet is still arguably a text-based platform, these new-fangled social players are living evidence that people really love the immediacy and shareability of image-based content.
Visual engagement plays a crucial role in mobile marketing too, which is one of the major reasons Pinterest and Instagram have grown so fast.

So is this seismic shift (in social media terms) a good thing? The combination of changes that Facebook has introduced has offered businesses an even more powerful marketing tool. It has given brands the ability to talk directly to customers, an opportunity for brands to ‘humanise’ and take a personal approach.

The advertising model has been significantly tweaked, encouraging brands to share content and promotions with their fans, all as part of Facebook’s aim to help increase engagement with pages. Throw the Timeline into the mix and you have a vastly new and improved platform for brands. Getting hollow ‘Likes’ is no longer the Holy Grail and the gauntlet has been thrown down to brands to create engaging stories rather than invasive advertising.

Arguably Facebook has done them a favour, and those brands that are successful will build armies of loyal fans. Already the stats are telling us that brand engagement is up for those who have migrated over to the Timeline.

So what about the downside? There will of course be the uninformed or just plain lazy brands that just get it all wrong. Brands that don’t have the right make-up might look like a fish out of water – many a mistaken marketer has said ‘we must have a Facebook page’, without actually knowing why they should have one.

There might be those who fail to capture the imagination of potential customers or those who fabricate their story in a slightly deceitful way. Atheists believe that the Bible has been rewritten, added to and amended to such an extent that the resulting script is confusing and contradictory. Will some brands face the same problem with their Timelines?

As for the dark subject of privacy, people’s concerns have largely been around the Timeline turning the platform into ‘stalkerville’, which for a brand would presumably sound like cashback. The fact is brands have a good degree of control over the content of their stories, so I doubt privacy will become an immediate concern. All considered, brands should be cheerfully embracing Facebook’s intervention in The Story.

Will Pyne is executive creative director at London creative agency Holler. He tweets @willy_mix


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