Home Marketing Five Tricks from Improv: Make Social Media Stories More Engaging Than SNL

Five Tricks from Improv: Make Social Media Stories More Engaging Than SNL

by Peter Friedman

Storytelling has been marketing’s go-to buzzword for a couple years running. A well-told story that draws on the interests of its audience has the power to connect customers emotionally to a brand and make it unforgettable.

But when it comes to social media, few marketers get storytelling right. Traditional advertising follows a broadcasting model, and that’s how most brands today are telling stories in social—they develop an idea, package it up in a ready-made campaign, push the story out through social channels, and hope people like it.

To fully leverage the interactive, customer-driven world of social media, storytelling needs a new model. That model is collaborative, engaging the audience in the creation and development of the story.

Though it’s foreign to most marketers, there’s already a great existing model for this: Improvisational theatre, or sketch comedy, where stories are created in the moment and often rely heavily on feedback from the audience.

Here are some tips to help you understand the rules of improv so that the stories you tell in social are even funnier and more engaging than those you might find on Saturday Night Live, where the comedians play off each other but don’t involve the audience.

1. Ask your followers questions to drive ideas.

This is a good all purpose-rule for social media, but it can specifically be used to drive storytelling. Ask customers what they’re interested in hearing about. Whose story should your brand tell? Where should the story be set? What challenge will the hero face? Who will get in his or her way? Is there a ticking clock?

This technique can be used as a process of discovery to create and develop campaigns, and also becomes a way to check in during a campaign to adjust the story according to interest and KPIs.

Who Is, Why, and Fill-in-the-Blank questions are great story-starters or check into escalate the story or take it in another direction. Remember the rule of 3 for comedy: set-up, anticipation, and pay-off.

2. AGREE and say YES, AND…

When improv players spontaneously develop a skit on stage, they eliminate “but” and “no” from their thought process. Instead, when another player adds an element to the story, they say, “YES, and …”, then incorporate that new element as they move forward.

As you add elements to a story, listen to your followers and incorporate their feedback with the “Yes, and” model, even (or maybe especially) if it departs from the story outcome you had in mind. Sometimes this could mean using a clever customer comment in your next communication. Other times you might look to analytics to tell you about the audience’s preferences.

If you don’t like what customers are saying, never delete comments or shut customers down. Instead, play with them and engage by saying yes. Of course, you can be selective and ignore some things, unless the noise becomes overwhelming.

3. Establish objectives and values, and then give up control.

You know where you want the story to go, but the story that is being told may not be the story you wanted to tell. That’s okay.

You don’t have to know how the story is going to end—only that it needs to resonate with your brand’s values and the objectives of your social campaign. Let the customers create, stepping in only when they story strays outside that territory or needs an infusion of creative energy.

In short, go with the flow. If you’re listening, saying “yes, and…”, and incorporating what is being said into the narrative, you will learn, influence, and most importantly, truly engage with your customers, even if the communication takes you to unexpected places. They will continue to engage with you as long as the story is compelling.

4. Make Statements. Give your audience something to work with.

Most brands try not to offend their customers, and that’s understandable. But in doing so, they don’t advance the story or show any personality or connection with their customers, characters and audience. They’re bores.

Which of these do you think will provoke a response and invite people to tell a personal story?

  1. People are messy.
  2. Who’s the messiest person in your house?
  3. Men are so MESSY!

5. Reincorporate!

Reincorporation is an improviser’s best trick. When the performers find a bit that gets a laugh, they bring it back a few more times during the rest of the performance, or find creative ways to reference it. They bring it back again and again, as long as people keep laughing.

Remember the Old Spice guy? The brand quickly realized that the videos got the biggest laughs when the guy was responding to what people said in social media—and once they realized that, they played the joke again and again. They never really changed the story arc, they just kept reincorporating the audience response.

In true social storytelling, every customer is a potential character, with his or her own plot and theme in the story. The brand’s social platform—and the brand or even the product itself—becomes a venue for customers to play, improvise, and create. The goal isn’t just to engage them, but to emotionally involve them in a story where they play a lead role. Get that right and you own the room.


About the Author

Peter Friedman is the Chairman and CEO of LiveWorld, a social content marketing company that is a trusted partner to the world’s largest brands, including the number-one companies in retail, CPG, pharmaceutical, and financial/travel services.

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