Telling stories on social media.

By Emma Chaplin on Feb 03, 2021

Storytelling opinion piece

What did people do before Instagram? TV? Books?

They told stories; passed on through generations, by the fireside, at the village well. In 2021 we still tell stories, there are just a lot more ways to do it now, and the village is a lot bigger, because it lives online.

Social media was first invented as a way to connect with people (although Mark Zuckerburg envisaged more of a hot or not kind of playing field) and create community. Its evolution eventually sought to involve and platform brands, integrating their offers so seamlessly into your regular feed of cat videos and #hotdogsorlegs content so that you’d not just ‘like’ you’d buy. Influencers also now help brands to do this. They look, for the most part, like us – only better. And we can be better too, if we buy all the stuff they’re #ad-ding. But recently we’re all becoming a little more fatigued by influencer content, and ads showing up every 4th post. So how do brands earn their keep here?

They certainly can’t expect that customers will fall at their feet and declare their undying love and loyalty. For the most part, brand loyalty is earnt by offering a good product and service and in more recent times, demonstrably solid and consistent ethics. But to keep followers (and therefore customers) engaged on social channels, added value through entertainment is key.

Entertainment needn’t be funny, or even fun. But it must engage. Most of us are usually on social media to fill a boredom gap, which is seemingly all the time now in lockdown-world, so variety is definitely the spice of life. Some brands inherently align better with humour, others with learning and knowledge sharing. Storytelling is a great way of keeping people engaged, sticking around for the ride, and ultimately finding that illusive affinity with you.

As with any good story, you need a beginning that will sink its claws into you, it needs to promise you a good time. In 2017, The Guardian published a post around the death of the long song intro. The average intro is down from 20 seconds in the 1980s to just five seconds today, belying the way that streaming apps such as Spotify have intensified our need for instant gratification. If a song, or a Netflix preview, or a video on Instagram doesn’t grab us immediately then we’re much more fickle, much more ruthless. The sheer choice we have dictates that we needn’t waste precious time on content that doesn’t entertain us.

That’s perhaps why apps such as TikTok are so resonant. Content there for the most part is snappy and bitesized. The duet function on the app facilitates users to create content specifically designed to be participatory. One of the most popular formats of content includes the storytelling prompt where a user asks, “Tell me about a time when…”, encouraging other users to share their own stories and experiences. These range from the more wholesome “…You knew your partner was the one” to the absurd “…You knew aliens were real” …pick your poison. Content is responded to, mimicked and parodied, passed onto the next person, perhaps changed slightly every time. Sound familiar? Just like ancient cultures passed on stories by word of mouth, so too does TikTok.

To take a brilliantly on the nose example, is the Sea Shanty phenomenon that has emerged on TikTok (look it up). Sea shanties traditionally kept Seamen all working to a common rhythm, scrubbing decks and hoisting sales, all while telling tall tales of fair maidens and sea monsters. It’s no surprise that the likes of TikTok users have picked up on this age-old call and response and resurrected it though Apps and Air pods.

A word to the wise though. Brands must be hyper-aware of their own role within these bright but fleeting moments. The trend has since been officially declared ‘dead’ since TikTok themselves created an ad off the back of Sea Shanty madness. The internet has now eaten itself and we should perhaps move onto a new story.