“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” – Hopi Native American proverb (apocryphal)
When Facebook announced the latest changes to its news feed in January, its intention was clear: to reduce further the amount of content users see from brands and publishers, particularly what it deems low-quality “engagement bait.”
Across the industry, this latest update has been interpreted as the final nail in the coffin of organic reach. Strategies can no longer rely on short, snackable pieces of content that only seek to momentarily pause people’s attention while they scroll through their feeds. Building your audience wholly (or mostly) through rented social sites isn’t going to produce sustainable results anymore.
Marketers have to produce stories that transcend these ephemeral 15-second cotton-candy spots to create loyalty beyond the “like” button.
So, let’s talk about producing content that your audience not only wants to consume but will seek, content that’s deeply and personally relatable, content that people interact with and share with their networks.
While there are a multitude of ways to create truly memorable and compelling content, I believe documentary storytelling has amazing potential, partly because I see so few brands using the format well. (Full disclosure: I work for a documentary film company so, yes, I am biased but only because I’ve seen firsthand how effective this form of storytelling can be.)
Vans embodies skater culture
In 2001, apparel brand Vans sponsored the feature-length documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, chronicling the early skateboarder culture of Southern California. While Vans funded the project, the filmmakers retained creative license. There are no Vans ads running along the bottom of the screen and no gratuitous shots of major characters wearing Vans outfits head to toe.
Of course, some of them did wear Vans shoes. Or hats. Or T-shirts. But as the brand was already making inroads into skateboarding culture, it felt natural to see Vans apparel in the film.
Flash forward to this decade and Vans is still producing documentary films to capture the attention of its customers. Living Off the Wall is one of Vans’ documentary video series, a series of short films in which we meet punk rockers, skateboarders, tattoo artists, and other young people who not only exist but thrive outside of the mainstream. Vans created the content to both celebrate its 50-year-old “Off the Wall” slogan and reaffirm the brand’s values: authentic, individual, fearless, youthful. The series has attracted almost 300,000 views, while the Vans YouTube channel has more than 348,000 subscribers.
Why is the series effective? Why do people watch it? Everyone wants to belong to a culture or community. People want to see inside the world of like-minded people. Vans customers and non-customers alike watch these shorts to experience subcultures and characters they either identify with or are fascinated by. Though Vans’ first film project was released in 2001, the brand is still creatively knocking it out of the park in 2018.
Essential elements of an audience-grabbing documentary
At the heart of documentary filmmaking is the art of telling a good story, and the best have a few ingredients in common.
For a documentary film to resonate with an audience, it should feel authentic. A brand-made documentary must be honest and true to the brand’s values and culture. Just as importantly, it also has to appeal to the target audience’s interests.
Think of a Venn diagram in which one circle is your company’s core values and the other is your audience’s passions and desires. The story landscape lies at the intersection: a setting your audience can’t help but be curious about or drawn to, and where your company can embody its human side.
A great example of an artfully crafted story landscape is from outdoor-clothing brand Patagonia. 180 Degrees South is a 2014 feature-length documentary that follows a small group of young men on a journey to the farthest reaches of Patagonia (the place, not the brand) in South America. The film firmly resides within that intersection between the brand’s core values – high-quality clothing made responsibly and a commitment…