Instagram and Snapchat: How Social Storytelling Became The New Brand Marketing

Benjamin Shepardson
by Benjamin Shepardson on March 26, 2018

Instagram and Snapchat: How Social Storytelling Became The New Brand Marketing

Famous marketer Seth Godin recently opined, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but the stories you tell.”
The world of marketing has changed. Companies like Snapchat and Instagram have risen to prominence. Social storytelling has become the new brand marketing.

How Did Snapchat Become Popular?

Snapchat gained popularity because it wasn’t Facebook. The same is true for Instagram. When Facebook started, it was mostly adopted by the younger crowd. As time marched on, the older generations started to jump on Facebook too. Moreover, this gave parents more opportunities to spy on their kids, which is something young people find rather distasteful. As a result, younger people migrated to Snapchat and Instagram, platforms that their parents weren’t on.

The Palmy Days of Brand Marketing: Network Television in the 1950’s

To understand new brand marketing, you need to understand old brand marketing. To comprehend why social storytelling works, you need to comprehend why the marketing tactics that came before it worked. At risk of stating the obvious, marketing was a lot different in the 1950's. At that time, television was a new medium, and it was extremely friendly toward advertisers.

For one thing, television didn’t have much competition. There were only three channels, and remote controls weren’t invented yet. That means viewers were far less likely to change the channel during advertisements. Also, there were no blu-rays, DVDs, VHS tapes, or TIVO. If consumers wanted to watch TV, then they had to watch it live. Additionally, there weren’t any smartphones, YouTube videos, or portable video games. As a result, advertisements received a lot more attention back then. The entire landscape was radically different from today.

Snapchat Looks to Gain What Network TV Lost

Why does television in the 1950’s matter? How does it relate to social storytelling today? Let’s take a look at why Snapchat became popular. First, Snapchat (and Instagram Stories) are the social media platforms that most closely imitate real life. When someone says something to you in real life, that moment is typically not recorded. Conversely, when someone makes a post on Facebook, it stays there until you erase it. Snapchat is refreshing because it mirrors organic conversations.

When network TV was in its prime, it was a juggernaut. However, recently TV hasn’t been able to engage people the way it used to. There is a cornucopia of reasons for that. First, TV lost its novelty. Something can stay fresh and original for only so long. Second, as mentioned earlier, a bunch of new rivals appeared. Cable TV rose to prominence in the 1980’s and satellite followed after that. A handful of channels suddenly morphed into hundreds of channels, changing the landscape forever. There was less and less reason to watch commercials. This was exacerbated by the remote control, as people could now change channels with the push of a button.

Also, more channels meant higher expectations from audiences. This led to the fall of native ads. In the early days of TV, people like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope would advertise brands at the beginning of their segments. As TV quality rose, this fell out of fashion. Furthermore, younger people started to leave network TV for “shiny new toys” like cable TV and Netflix, and it became harder to appeal to young people. As old brand marketing tactics failed, marketers knew they needed to find new ways to market.

The history of TV is not tangential to the rise of Snapchat. It’s not tangential to the importance of social storytelling for brands and advertisers. Over the years, the attention span of audiences has fallen. In the early days of television watching 2-3 minutes of commercials was typical. In recent days, people look at their phones during commercials, or they fast forward through them. Therefore, modern brands have to be entertaining, and they have to be concise. This is where social storytelling comes in.

Telling Stories With Filters

Social storytelling is about telling stories that fans want to hear. For example, Gatorade offered a special filter that simulated Gatorade being poured on your head. Serena Williams, along with many other influencers, popularized this feature. Gatorade baths are synonymous with winning a close game or an important game. This filter lets fans experience some of that joy (without getting all sticky).

Gatorade isn’t the only brand that mastered social storytelling. Taco Bell shattered records on Snapchat with their lens that allows people to turn their face into a taco. They ended up getting 224 million views in one week. It was a massive success because it’s lightweight and humorous. Likewise, Lilly Pulitzer, a fashion company for trendy young females, offered geofilters that matched their vibrant prints. One of the taglines they used during the campaign was “when your dress matches the filter.” This encouraged people to snap in their stores, and it enhanced the enjoyment of shopping in the store.

Using Snapchat Stories to Entertain and Delight

Geofilters (and other filters) are great, but perhaps the best ways for brands to tell stories is via Stories. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so you can often tell a great story with fewer pictures and videos than you’d think. 

For example, one Snapchatter uploaded a snap of a Dunkin Donuts coffee with a smile on it. He wrote a caption saying, “today will be a good day.” His next snap was a picture of the coffee spilled all over his car, alongside a caption that said “nevermind.” This proves Snapchat Stories don’t have to resemble a lengthy Charles Dickens novel. Sometimes less is more.

There are other great examples too. For instance, Cisco uses their Snapchat to make their brand more accessible to the public. They share narratives and stories from their employees. They started a series called “A Day in the Life of an Account Manager.” One of the stories featured an account manager traveling back to Florida so they could connect with a colleague. Together they helped the Hurricane Irma relief efforts.
Cisco isn’t the only brand that leverages the power of their employees. The MLS was able to grow their account by using Snapchat Takeovers. Basically, they let famous soccer players take over their account for one day. These stars promoted the takeover on their own social media accounts, profiles that have quite a bit of buzz. This allowed the MLS to get a tremendous amount of additional exposure. Account takeovers work because social storytelling isn’t just about telling your story. It’s also about telling stories that your fans want to hear. Bringing in an influencer to take over your account isn’t a good idea if their audience and your audience don’t overlap. However, in the case of the MLS and star soccer players, the confluence couldn’t be any more organic. In cases like these, it’s a slam-dunk.

Social Storytelling and Brand Marketing

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, television was the place to be. Young people were glued to the screen, engaged with the ads. As time went on, that kind of advertising became stale, particularly with the tech-savvy crowd. Brands threw pots of money at traditional outlets, but they still couldn’t reach certain demographics. Right now, Snapchat and Instagram are perhaps the best ways to market your brand to a younger demographic. However, traditional ads don’t work on these platforms. You need to tell engaging stories that will keep their attention. This game-altering shift is why social storytelling became the new brand marketing.

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