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Beyond breakthrough: 5 secrets of seek and share advertising
How do you create ads that break through and truly grab viewers' attention? Columnist Peter Minnium discusses the key characteristics of ads that people are excited to see and share with their friends.
With the proliferation of content and the rise of multi-device, multi-media multi-tasking, it’s harder than ever for ads to break through to viewers.
Previously, in “Pay Attention! 3 Steps to Digital Advertising Breakthrough,” I laid out the challenging course that communications must traverse to be successful — in being linked to the brand, conveying a message, changing attitudes and driving favorability, persuasion and action.
After creating an opportunity to see, an ad must get the viewer’s attention, which requires passing from the right-brain-controlled sustained attention to the left brain’s focused attention, and then stimulate cognitive processing sufficient to establish a memory.
While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for ads that break through, best practices have emerged over the years. I offered up an assortment to consider in “10 Best Practices for Digital Ad Breakthrough.”
While digital advertising has raised the breakthrough bar considerably, it also offers the potential for advertising that transcends the breakthrough challenge. The new holy grail is advertising that people want to see and share with their friends, to “seek and share.”
What moves advertising into this exceptional category? While some argue that true virality is like catching lightning in a bottle and therefore cannot be planned, there are core characteristics that can increase the odds of advertising reaching this rarefied plane:
Five characteristics of seek and share ads
Insight is the game changer and what sets great communications apart.
“Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive and more useful. They transform our thinking [and] give us a different viewpoint,” according to renowned cognitive psychologist and insight expert Dr. Gary Klein in his book, “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights.”
Seek and share ads are based on brilliant insights that surprise the viewer and tell them something that changes how they understand themselves.
Brilliant insights are ones that have impact — they not only change understanding, they also change how we feel and what we want.
In his book, Klein offers up three techniques to generate insight, based on an analysis of 120 of the world’s most impactful ideas.
Look for connections between your target consumer situation and others — past or present. For example, the Japanese understood how they could successfully attack Pearl Harbor, not by studying Hawaii, but by looking at a Mediterranean battle between the Italians and the British. Out of the 120 insights investigated, Klein found making new connections were the source of 80 percent of them.
Look for contradictions, for inconsistencies in behavior and beliefs in the market. Hedge fund manager John Paulson predicted the financial crisis in the late ’90s by spotting a contradiction between the beliefs of market experts. Nearly 40 percent of insights investigated by Klein involved spotting contradictions.
Look for creative desperation by studying desperate brands that seem doomed but then suddenly do something that reverses their fortunes. Trapped firefighters famously learned to fight fire with fire by setting a new fire to create an escape route.
Sound hard? It is, but uncovering a piercing insight is a necessary first step in creating seek and share ads.
People have a built-in ability to find patterns in the distinct happenings of life and weave these together to find meaning. This is how we understand how the world works.
Archeologists long ago discovered cave paintings showing that we have always made sense of the world this way — with story. And storytelling remains the most important tool marketers have to change perceptions and alter behaviors.
While our stories haven’t changed, our capabilities to tell them have moved on from cave paintings to campfires to social media posts and beyond. And they’ve moved from linear storytelling, e.g., with 30-second television commercials, to systemic story-building — think simultaneous expression of story elements that come together to form a single impression.
Great stories, of course, are ones that are simultaneously about everyone, yet deeply personal and familiar.
No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us… People are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And I here make a rule — a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar. — John Steinbeck (1902–68), “East of Eden” (1952)
Great advertising stories — ones that attain seek and share status — have an additional hurdle to jump over: The brand must have a natural connection or role. The story must include a part for the brand that answers the challenge or tension established by the insight and inspires at the same time.
Once a story has been developed, it is put in the hands of expert craftsmen much like a blueprint is given to a builder. It’s the craftsman’s job to bring the story to life using the myriad tools available with modern communications.
Given the extraordinary advertising clutter and consequent avoidance, the bar is set nearly impossibly high for those who craft today’s multifaceted campaigns.
Viewers of content have become expert at using technology to curate and craft their own media experience on a minute-to-minute level. They expect brands to not only keep pace, but also add value to their handmade content streams and do so on personal terms — wherever and whenever individuals want to engage.
Brands and their agencies must, therefore, master — or employ masters of — a broad range of techniques.
If author Malcolm Gladwell is right, that mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice. This is indeed a high bar, but a bar that must be met for seek and share advertising.
Content that evokes high-arousal emotions is much likelier to be sought after and shared.
In their landmark paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled “What Makes Online Content Viral,” Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman study how content characteristics drive social transmission and virality. They do this in two ways: by examining 7,000 articles in The New York Times and then conducting a series of lab experiments with advertising to confirm the observed findings.
While their work confirms that more positive content is more viral, their results also show:
… that the relationship between emotion and virality is more complex than valence [positivity or negativity] alone and that arousal drives social transmission… Online content that evoked high-arousal emotions was more viral, regardless of whether those emotions were of a positive (e.g., awe) or negative (e.g., anger or anxiety) nature… When marketing content evoked more of specific emotions characterized by arousal, it was more likely to be shared, but when it evoked specific emotion characterized by deactivation (e.g., sadness…), it was less likely to be shared.
Seek and share ads move beyond mere “emotional connection” to a much more intense visceral state of physiological arousal.
This may seem self-serving given that I run a research company, but I can report from the front lines that, in my experience, great campaigns achieve this status with the help of advertising research.
“Copy-testing” has long ago given up its role as an effectiveness arbiter and a gatekeeper to getting on air and is now a partner in the creative process, helping to optimize the work each step of the way — from collaborative big idea sessions to early stage campaign testing to diagnostic rich pretesting and in-market tracking.
Smart marketers and their research agency partners also are enhancing their understanding of what drives ad performance with the additional data sets that digitally delivered media and two-way communications provide (e.g., behavioral and social).
Capturing lightning in a bottle
Creating seek and share advertising is a daunting task, with each step in the process demanding. It’s painstakingly hard to land on a unique, piercing insight, create a powerful story with the brand integrated, bring this to life with craft genius and highly arouse emotions. Perhaps catching lightning in a bottle would be easier.
Nevertheless, brave marketers and their agency and media partners are setting their sights on this new holy grail — and the outsized rewards that seek and share advertising can provide.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.