Insights on Marketing & Technology

Online stories show great potential for marketing and branding

When you talk about a good story, you are actually talking about “narrative desire”. The story created a desire in you – and then it satisfied that desire. You want to know more about the characters in the story – and you want to know what happened next. This is the real secret behind movies and TV-series and books. But, strangely enough, the Internet has not had its own storytelling format – at least not yet. For years, we have been copying other media types onto the web and wondering why they don’t really engage the users for very long. The game company, Investigate North, is trying to create this ‘’narrative desire’’ within online stories with their videogame, Cloud Chamber.

  • By: Line Bilenberg
  • Published: 28-04-2015

What we've done with Cloud Chamber is to create an online story form that works on the terms of the Internet. What the Internet does, at a basic level, is to give people the ability to seek their own answers – and to discuss those answers with others. With Cloud Chamber, we created an online mystery story that users must explore and discuss, together. If, for example, you work out what a character has done – and you share that idea with others - then you get social recognition for it. It’s basically a filmed story that works just like a social network.

Cloud Chamber engages users for 40+ hours:
These words come from the 45-year-old CEO and creative director in the game company, Investigate North. Christian Fonnesbech has spent the last four years and 10 million kr. in the laboratory. Combined with 20 years of experience with storytelling on the web (and 35 online communications projects), this has made the Cloud Chamber project a reality. The result is that Christian Fonnesbech and his team have created what many dream of – a story that engages users for 40+ hours. It is this expertise that Investigate North is now making available to the advertising industry.

"Imagine a company engaging potential customers in a story about the company's history, or the features of its products - or the values in its brand … for two whole hours. It's a commitment from customers, clients and ambassadors you will not find anywhere else." Says Christian Fonnesbech – and continues: "Small online stories can create a big commitment. With Cloud Chamber, we had 3 hours of film – and core users spend 44 hours on it. This is unique and something that has not been seen before in branding. Those who dive in are actively discussing, thinking deeply about the underlying rules and values that drive the events in the story. From a branding viewpoint, it's a dream. It’s not just communicating, it’s teaching – and it is creating ambassadors. Users are enjoying being in a social situation online, where they have to communicate what they have learned about your brand to others, in order to move forward and satisfy their narrative desire. Some may choose just to read what others have written – liking and gaining knowledge in that way, and they all become ambassadors for your brand, even pulling friends into the universe and creating even more traffic."

Briefly, Cloud Chamber rewards you in the same way that Facebook rewards you – by giving you social validation. Users navigate between film clips, and join the dots of the story through a collaborative discussion. Just like on Facebook, there are those who discuss and those who watch the discussion. Users move into a haunted database and navigate as "detectives" between the fictional movie clips that have the production value of a real feature film, with excellent actors in the cast, written diaries, diagrams, photographs and even documentary film clips from outer space, delivered by the European Space Agency.

The experience is permanent – simply because old comments in the forums disappear. Simply put, the old “it’s been solved” problem is gone.

As the sequence of events takes shape between the users, they uncover what really happened, when a young physicist betrayed her father and risked insanity to save humanity from itself. With this, the European Space Agency has been able to brand deeply with an audience they would not have been able to reach.

"It was important to us that the documentary clips in Cloud Chamber are accurate shots from space – and that the information the users are fed is strictly based on reality. Only in this way can the social interaction create a real learning experience – and I can promise you this: after 40 hours of navigating and discussing the mystery of space, users have become experts on a number of subjects that would have taken years of schooling to even get them interested in. The desire to see what happens in the story is enough to make you dive into this knowledge and discuss and figure it out with the other users. It’s like being inside a global think tank where the only subject is the one the story is about.”

The secret formula, of course, is that the experience not only has to work on the terms of the Internet – the story also has to be very, very good. And not just 30-seconds-of-advertising-good – it has to work over a period of hours, days and weeks. This, says Christian, is not as difficult as it sounds. The film and TV-industries has developed a large number of talents who are specialized in this. All you need is access to the right talent, the ability to lead them - and a clear process that the advertising customer can buy into.

Navigating Online Stories IS navigating a brand:
Online Tales are brands. Because, according Investigate North, the moment you make a story into something to navigate and something to interact socially around, you also make it into a brand. While learning the secrets of the story, you are in fact uncovering the rules, features and values that a brand consists of.

"It doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery, a love story or a historical drama … The answers are always about the essence of the fictional universe. Why did they do it? Why does she love him? Which circumstances led to this thing happening? To get those answers, users don’t just have to watch – they have to understand. And in order to do that, they have to delve deeply into the topic, brand or product that the universe is designed around," says Fonnesbech and brings up the following examples:

"I’m just shooting from the hip, here, but imagine the challenge is to brand a car manufacturer – it could be Volvo, for example. One solution could be to create “car mystery”. Was the car the only witness? Was the car the only thing, left behind? Whatever it is, the trick is to create a series of dramatic events, with the crucial pieces missing - and then to fashion the missing pieces into dramatic questions that the community can ponder, discuss and research, together. The story must be designed in such a way that the answers lie in the exact advantages and/or values that this car brand represents. In Volvo's case, the answer to what happened could lie in safety features, in fuel economy, in the high tech features of the latest model - but it shouldn’t be communicated directly: the brand values and/or features should be the cause of the events, rather than the result of them. The things that Volvo does best are the answers to the mystery, and in each network of friends that come into contact with the story, those who figure it out will be the ones who are rewarded socially, by their own friends. It is up to the users to delve into the Volvo Mystery and find the answers and discuss with other users what happened – because that is the only way they will find out what really happened.

Or take a pension company, with a proud history of service. In this case, the historical perspective and the effects of the company on the community could lend all the human drama, we need. Look at the circumstances as they change around the company. Look at the major events in the corporate history. Find the human angle, find the narrative – and then remove the answers, and make the solutions into riddles that only a community can solve. Discussing what made something work, what made it special for the people involved? This is a new kind of story – and a new kind of branding.

Another example could be a municipality. What are the defining features, here? Is it the people? The past? The future? The geography? The services? The great thing about a place is that you can put ANY kind of story into it. It’s all about giving the users an emotional relationship with this place, as they uncover what happened. Could a story like Romeo & Juliette have played out here? Did the young couple sneak out at night and meet in this park? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Did they die – or are they living happily ever after, in one of these houses? Suddenly, the desire to know what happened – to know these characters and to know this place – becomes an emotional doorway into the municipality and everything in it," says Fonnesbech and smiles – he’d clearly like to make this story, some day.

For the advertising industry, this could be a new beginning. Investigate North is clearly looking at the whole picture, and not just the content that is their specialty. Fonnesbech points out that online stories offer an amazing level of engagement – but they still need to be combined with traditional PR and marketing, as part of an overall campaign. At the center of the experience there is the story, where the discussions and sharing happens – around this there is the PR stories about what is happening in the story, the banners and the marketing of the experience. In many ways, these tools are just as powerful as the engagement at the center. “You don’t have to be there, to understand what is going on.” he says.

Experience will be passed on:
"We have learned that we are content specialists. For our work to get out there and reach a large audience, we need to work with advertising agencies, media bureaus and more. We’re offering online storytelling at the exact point, where Hollywood meets the online gaming industry – and this will work for companies that already have a brand as well as for companies that need to build it. The best situation for us is to work closely with advertising and media bureaus and to forge an integrated campaign. It doesn’t need to cost 4 million - less can definitely do it. We can do it with Hollywood level film – or we can do it with pencil drawings from fans. But the medium is clearly best suited for business-to-consumer simply because of its emotional nature. I think B2C can be done – but it has to be done very carefully to be effective.

Another thing we finally cracked with Cloud Chamber, was how to make online content last. With this format, you will still be able to access or download the experience 1, 2 or even 5 years after launch – and get the same experience out of it. This makes the content much more valuable, as it makes you able to improve the way you bring the audience in, and it makes you able to truly build a community, while continually improving your conversion, retention and – not least – your branding. As you learn which segments enjoy what, you are able to tweak and improve the experience in a number of different ways – as well as being able to upload new content to renew and reward the most loyal users.

This is also crucial for another reason: the current media landscape is constantly changing – and it is very, very important that your content is platform independent. When we started Cloud Chamber, there was no ipad – when we finished the game, everybody had an iPad. The great thing about using filmed content of high quality is that film travels to any platform: it looks good everywhere, even in VR.

Lastly, I would emphasize that it is - pardon my French, here – it is f*cking fun to make this stuff. Working on prjects like this, with film stars and drama and gameplay and social media – it just becomes this huge team building exercise build the universe and find the mystery and the drama inside the client company and the brand. There’s so much energy in this kind of creativity – it’s like getting your workday coated with stardust."

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Line Bilenberg
Line Bilenberg is a journalist and is currently working as a strategic PR-advisor for several Danish companies, executive managements and primarily the entertainment industry. Line Bilenberg is a former radio and tv-presenter, reporter, editor in chief and specializes in message- and media training of sports athletes, film directors, business CEOs, politicians etc. She has a shorter MBA in communication and management.

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