Multiplatform storytelling

The writer of this post, Larisa Topalo, won the Miltton Thesis competition of 2016. Her thorough work and insightful analysis charmed the judges. We want to congratulate Larisa once more and let her describe her interesting research in more detail. 

Social media have evolved to become very different from each other in terms of format and type of interaction. Today brands use as many as five or six different platforms to communicate with their audience. How can brands post content across multiple channels in a way that presents a compelling and consistent narrative that encourages positive audience behaviour? The answer, according to my research, is to use storytelling to unite the content, and to let each channel do what it does best to keep it original.

Social media has strengthened the strategic role and importance of corporate communication within organizations, at the same time adding risk and complexity to the communication professional’s job.

Initially, the challenges and opportunities of social media were rooted in the channels’ unique features and huge popularity with consumers. Today, there is an extra dimension – both brands and consumers create and consume content across multiple channels simultaneously. Treating social media as a uniform concept, or suggesting how to use a specific channel in isolation, no longer corresponds to the reality that the channels have evolved to be very different from each other, and that they are used in tandem, not separately.

In the context of this more complex, multiplatform use, the purpose of my thesis (Multiplatform social media storytelling: Case NikeWomen) was to find out how brands can create and direct their content through different social media channels in a way that best serves their audience. The answer I got was twofold: brands need to create an audience-focused narrative, and let each channel do what it does best to communicate it.

Create an audience-focused narrative and use content marketing to support it

While we often think that social media isolates people from each other, the reality is, it enables stories to travel further and faster than ever before, and can be a powerful storytelling tool if used correctly. The key for the brand is to focus the story on the consumer, not on itself. To do so, brands can borrow the Hero’s Journey, often cited as the most successful storytelling formula of all time (just ask Star Wars). Here is how it works: the audience is the Hero on the journey; the brand is the Mentor who helps the audience along the way.

NikeWomen’s narrative, for example, is “we help you run, train and live in style” (instead of “we make the best shoes”). This approach serves as a uniting narrative for brand communication, makes the audience the centre of the story, and sets up a perfect context for content marketing because it positions the brand as an expert and a source of useful information.

Use each channel for it does best: cross promote instead of cross posting

You wouldn’t use a radio advert on TV, and by the same logic you shouldn’t share an Instagram post on Twitter. Social media have evolved to become very different from each other in terms of format and type of interaction. As a result, audiences use different channels for different purposes. This means that if brands simply create a post and click “share” across platforms, they will alienate their audience and miss the chance to take advantage of channel-specific opportunities. Instead, brands should let each channel do what it does best and cross promote their message.

Using another example from NikeWomen, here is how the brand promoted an episode of their online series in one week: posted a video trailer on YouTube, shared a behind the scenes photo on Instagram, posted a GIF on Tumblr, changed their cover photo on Facebook, and ran a poll on Twitter asking audiences to say which character they like best. The result? Content on each platform was relevant and channel-appropriate, while the audience was uniquely informed and entertained regardless on how many channels it followed the brand.

An opportunity to build reputational capital

To summarize, in multiplatform social media storytelling, different channels are used to communicate different elements of the audience-focused brand narrative.

This means audiences on different social media have different pieces of the puzzle and they need to interact with each other to put it all together. It’s exactly the kind of behaviour that leads to high engagement, brand communities, and electronic word of mouth, which in turn can build the elusive but desired online reputational capital.


Larisa Topalo