It’s been nearly a decade since the content frenzy took hold, yet truly effective brand storytelling remains elusive. Further complicating matters is the emergence of ‘wow factor’ technology — interactivity, altering reality and platforms like Alexa that not only speak to you but listen. But communicators say all this wizardry isn’t what reaches, engages and motivates consumers. Rather, the real genius is more about the stories being told across those platforms.

Erica Iacono is managing editor for Insider Studios, the branded content studio for Insider Inc., parent company for Business Insider and INSIDER. While the studio works with companies across all industries, currently finance and tech make up the largest part of its client portfolio.

“What's really cool about the work we're doing is that it's expanded so much in the three years I've been here,” she said. “When I first joined, the majority of what we were doing was articles and the occasional infographic or video. In the past two years we've expanded into multimedia and interactive formats, as well as increased social video.”

Brands who use the content studio work closely on creating the content including offering input on outlines, storyboards and first drafts — and they ultimately have final approval over the finished product. This process has yielded some notable brand content hits, like a Facebook Watch Series for Marriott Rewards by Chase and listicle for Brighthouse Financial.

“My best advice to PR people is to think of a piece of sponsored content in the same way you would an article idea you pitch to a journalist,” Iacono said. “We have had success with company profiles, but at the end of the day it has to be an interesting story in its own right. The company has to be doing something that solves a consumer or business need for a profile to work. Otherwise what works best is aligning with a certain topic so that they aren't the focus, but still mentioned.”

The Power of Purpose

For many communicators that third option — aligning with a topic — is seen as the most effective way to create bonds with consumers.

“Now it starts with who you are, what your vision is, how you were founded and what that means to consumers,” said March Communications EVP Jodie Petrie, adding that the more “predictable” road map of pitching product over purpose or consumer experience has been “thrown out that window.”

The way Petrie sees it, that approach has both yielded high-profile blockbuster campaigns — the likes of REI closing on Black Friday (“They knew who they were talking to,” she said) — to strategic moves that breed results.

“The secret sauce comes before the content, knowing who you are as a brand, deep understanding of your audiences and then tailoring content and experiences to them,” she said.

All of which are behind the soul-searching exercises brands, B2B as well as consumer, are currently undertaking, often at the behest of their agency partners.

Take for instance, Nuance Communications, which has been a major player in voice technology for pushing 20 years and serves the likes of automakers, hospitals and ticketing services. Nuance’s leaders are in midst of doing a cerebral deep dive into the organization as part of its plans to switch-up its communications tactics.

Rather than continuing with its traditional approach, comms leader Richard Mack is spearheading a far-reaching effort to turn its efforts inward, which includes identifying and amplifying the company’s narrative and values — and trusting its 8,000 employees to spread the word.

“It’s seeking a real authenticity and genuine approach to the story we’re trying to tell, and there is an internal belief system that’s in place around our purpose, our reason for existence that is going to support that,” Mack said. “When you buttress this belief and this purpose with engagement across employees, then it becomes very real and believable and very authentic.”

It also is very humanizing — an ingredient that communicators from traditional storytellers to digital hot shots, say is an imperative component of content that’s the right stuff.

Egami president Cheryl Overton said that her firm, as much as any, parses data down to the micro-level to scientifically figure out what form of storytelling and on which platform is going to reach hallmarks of success, like going viral. But getting it right, she said, still boils down to “a little bit of heart, a little bit of soul and a little bit of mind.

“It has to start with something that is grounded in reality and in something that matters and something that absolutely is relatable on a human level. When the story is rooted in that that’s when you get heads to nod, people to lean in and want more,” she said.

Case in point: “The Talk,” the widely lauded campaign P&G did with support from Egami centered around a video showing parents discussing with their children what it’s like to be black in America, which Overton notes “is nothing new in African-American households.” That the ad focused on parent and child, not some consumer identified by age or, say, income, also boosted its heartfelt appeal. “Viewing the whole human in that way was one of the thing that resonated and made people want to share it,” she said.

The ‘Wow’ Factor

None of which is to say how you deliver those stories doesn’t matter. Whether those narratives do, in fact, resonate with audiences does depend on how and by what means they are produced and distributed. When it comes to showcasing brand content to a wider audience, many have opted for commercial partnerships with third-party media entities, like Insider Studios. The trick is developing content that mirrors the tone of the sites, Iacono says.

“In general, when brands and agencies are thinking about working with a publisher's content studio, they need to remember that we're the experts in what we do and we know best what works for our audience,” she said. “We sometimes get pushback from clients (agencies and brands) who want to make an article or video overly promotional. Or clients will want a headline that sounds more like a press release or outright ad than a BI or INSIDER headline, and that ultimately affects performance.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Beringer, Golin’s head of global digital, said that, at the moment, responsive storytelling, content sourced from consumers and immersive experiences are behind many of today’s most successful campaigns. Those platforms have reaped work like an AI-enabled online bartender, which serves up cocktail recipes based on users’ requests; turning social content into mass campaigns; and using features like augmented reality to give consumers multi-dimensional experiences with content rather than just showing them pictures.

“We need to rethink the way we are telling our stories and go in a different direction … how our stories can be told as a response to the questions real people are actually asking,” Beringer said.

Bob Peterson, who heads Ketchum’s video content team, said the advent of tech like drones, mixed reality and interactivity has also fueled a resurgence in leveraging video of all sorts and capabilities in storytelling.

Still, if you were to ask Hal Vincent, an Elon University strategic communications director, he would say that while all of that is well and good, and likely to build buzz when used creatively, the dizzying array of storytelling options and opportunities won’t work without the compelling storytelling and human voices that rally people.

“No technology can overcome an average story or an average execution or telling of that story,” he said.

Additional reporting by Aarti Shah.