A quirky experiment proves the value of story-drive content

A quirky experiment proves the value of story-drive content

How much is a $3 ashtray purchased at a yard sale worth? Trick question. What if the same ashtray is sold on eBay but includes a short story by William Gibson? Then it’s worth $101.

Still don’t believe in the alchemistic powers of a great story? Then you need to read Significant Objects, a new book that details a quirky literary experiment that set out to prove that “stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” And as coauthors Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker discovered, whether a famous author or an up-and-comer wrote the story didn’t matter.

By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of insignificant objects for a combined total of $3,612.51.

Once Upon a Newsletter

Although Significant Objects is a fun reminder of the value of fiction, that doesn’t mean you should turn over your newsletter campaign to the staff of the Paris Review. But anyone looking for a reminder of simple but effective storytelling can learn a few lessons from the makers of the Pebble smartwatch.

As part of my Kickstarter pledge for Pebble, I now receive regular updates via email. And although the emails are occasionally long and geekish, I’ve been impressed at how the Pebble founders are able to tell a natural and compelling story about their watch in progress.

A recent update promised, “We’re looking forward to sharing all kinds of cool things with you during the next few months, including updates from the factory, links to developer information [and] screenshots of the iOS and Android app as they take shape.” It’s a birth narrative, except for a watch instead of baby. The updates even contain some narrative tension—how soon will Pebble be able to ship watches to eager backers who were promised a September deadline?

Even though I’ve already paid for the watch, this behind-the-scenes tour is increasing Pebble’s perceived value by making me emotionally invested in its development. This process is almost identical to the literary experiment that Significant Objects conducted, except that Pebble is telling a nonfiction story.

As a bonus, by the time Pebble’s founders are ready to sell their watches to the general public, they will have generated a rich, coherent product and brand story via their updates.

Telling Stories for Fun (Not Profit)

As the intro of Significant Objects notes, the experiment proves “the value-adding power of narrative.” But not every brand or product story should have a monomaniacal focus on selling customers something. As Significant Objects coauthor Rob Walker recently noted on DesignObserver.com, telling a good tale is more than just a tool or tactic: “A good story is not a means to an end. It’s an end. It’s a thing of value, all on its own.”

That lesson is especially critical for consumer brands that use a content-marketing approach for their social media campaigns. Last year’s series of Coca-Cola Content 2020 videos illustrated (literally) a multiyear commitment to dynamic storytelling. The goal, according to Jonathan Mildenhall, vice-president of global advertising strategy and creative excellence at Coca-Cola, is that “every contact point with a customer should tell an emotional story.”

Does that mean every one of Coke’s stories will end in a call to action? Hopefully, not. Will every story link back in some way to the overall Coke narrative? Hopefully, yes.

Raiders of the Lost Story Arc

The goal, then, is to map out the long-term story that your company or brand is planning to tell. HBO shows are particularly good at doing so. Each season of The Wire focused on a particular institution (civic politics, the school system, print journalism) while the show itself told a five-season story about Baltimore’s ongoing attempts to deal with a rampant drug problem.

As you can imagine, such an approach requires a substantial amount of up-front thought and planning. But once you determine your brand arc, you can much more easily ensure that every piece of content you develop—newsletters, videos, tweets, or Facebook posts—is contributing to your overall story, one image, video, or sentence at a time.

Once Upon and Once Upon Again

We have no shortage of blog posts and books that remind us how humans are natural storytellers. Joan Didion, a master of the literary essay, called one of her nonfiction collections We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

But traditional marketing approaches and templates, such as the lifeless press release, either push story to the margins or eliminate it altogether. To overcome the constraints of tradition, you’ll need to encourage all of your employees to practice storytelling on a regular basis. Here are four easy ways to practice your gather-’round-the-campfire skills:

  • Brainstorm a new marketing campaign by starting with the phrase “Once upon a time…”
digital innovation shop

4 tips for working with your digital innovation shop

We see more and more big companies seeking out firms like ours that specialize in digital product and service innovation.

These engagements usually focus on conceiving and creating one of two things: an extension to an existing product or service or an entirely new line of business. In either case these companies are looking for a new and uniquely digital perspective on their business.

Odopod has successfully completed a number of these collaborative innovation engagements. Along the way we’ve learned a few lessons that may help you avoid common pitfalls to get more out of these collaborations.

digital innovation shop

1) Be un-brief. Immerse them in your business.

In the first weeks of the engagement your partner’s team will want to absorb an array of essential information. Preparing a brief might be your first instinct.

Relying only on a brief to initiate an innovation engagement can be counterproductive because it editorializes information prematurely. The typical brief has been shaped over many years by the needs of communications initiatives. Its extreme focus is designed to convey a concise set of product characteristics to a specific audience.

In contrast, innovation is driven by insight which can come from many sources — observing users, talking to employees or applying new technologies. To feed this process augment the briefing process with experiences that provide a more complete picture of the business, including its culture.


  • Allocate extra time at the beginning of the engagement to immerse the team in your business
  • Look for unorthodox, experiential ways to introduce them to the business
  • If your factory is state-of-the-art, take them on a tour and introduce them to the operator
  • If your product is edible or drinkable, set up a tasting with an expert
  • If your hiring process is unique, have a few of them interview
  • If your customer service is excellent, have them listen to customer support calls
  • Don’t hold back — share the pain points, known opportunities, competitive pressures, and aspirations that are top of mind for you, encourage others to do the same
  • Expand the standard stakeholder interview process to include non-stakeholders that can help the team understand the business more fully
  • Introduce them to your language: offer a crash course in the vocabulary and recurring topics

2) Draw a small box. Define the territory you need to explore.

While you don’t want to constrain the briefing process you will want to clearly define the territory for exploration. The innovation process can be applied successfully to both a broad problem space, like identifying new lines of business, and to a narrow one, like incremental innovation for an existing product.

Some clients want to avoid bounding a territory for the engagement. They are concerned about limiting the potential of the engagement and feel as though important ideas might be missed if they articulate boundaries.

While the instinct to keep all potential areas of exploration open is natural, it can dilute your results by creating lack of focus with your partner’s team and spreading them too thin.


  • Define the territory you’d like your partner to explore in terms of what you need from the engagement for it to be considered successful
  • Collaborate with your partner before the engagement begins to further refine the territory
  • Don’t worry about the box being too small. The best firms always push at the edges. It’s built into the process

3) Preserve some independence. Don’t integrate internal and external teams.

It is increasingly common for companies to have internal innovation teams or “labs” that are responsible for running external innovation engagements. If you’re in one of these groups you probably know that close collaboration with your partners can be especially productive.

That said, the desire for close collaboration may lead you to consider fully integrating your internal team with your partner’s team — uniformly sharing responsibility for key activities and deliverables. You may want to reconsider.

Integration can present challenges in aligning the pace, organizational structure and working style of the teams. Trying to reconcile differences may lead to inefficiency and detract from the desired outcome.

In addition to the operational challenges, you also run the risk of losing some of the fresh, objective perspective that you get from an outside team.


  • Don’t make integration of internal and external teams a requirement. Instead look for ways to collaborate closely
  • For projects that demand integration be sure to allocate time before work begins to design a working relationship both groups believe is viable

4) Contract flexibly. Describe scope as modular, changeable priorities.

These engagements sometimes take unexpected turns based on learnings from user research or in response to early stage work. The good news is that the turns are usually towards more fertile territory.

For obvious reasons the legal documents that govern most client-vendor relationships are not designed for flexibility. They are …

What should we watch? Part I: Before the TV

The connected world is changing the way we live. In order to offer our clients accurate insights into what’s next, it’s crucial that we understand consumer needs and behaviours, and how they are impacted by digital technology.

Recently at the Nurun Lab, we’ve been studying TV and movie viewing rituals. Never before have we lived in a world with such a complex and diverse media landscape. We have so many more options in every regard – the content, the location, the platform, the time and with whom. Inevitably the obvious question arises: how does a viewer select media content to watch?

To clear up the mess we decided to take a look back at history – which always seems simpler – to compile three comparable consumer journey maps. Our first map delineates the main influences that led people to watch a movie, like Gone with the Wind (1939), in the 1930s.

Over the next week we will post the two subsequent journey maps to present the explosion of the influence of TV in the 1970s and the proliferation of the Internet in the 2010s.…

social media

The return of word of mouth

What if we were to stop thinking about social media in terms of likes, followers, pins, re-blogs and ROI $ and instead thought of it as a storytelling tool or a customer service platform?

Thinking of social platforms as a meeting place for like-minded individuals (‘fans’) to discuss their common interests (‘the brand’) enables companies to not only enhance their commitment to each individual customer, but also to inadvertently facilitate the storytelling process. Giving people a place to share their stories not only generates rich brand-inspired conversations, but plays off one of the greatest marketing techniques of all time: word of mouth.

In the age of social media, consumers are the true brand owners; what they have to say about a brand will ultimately shape its reputation both on and offline. A positive review on Amazon or Yelp can be much more influential in determining a brand’s success than any PR or ad campaign. By leveraging their online communities, companies can use this grassroots marketing movement to their advantage.

One company that’s getting this right is Steam Whistle Brewery. I recently had the opportunity to speak with their community manager, Marina Arnaout, about the company’s consumer-centric approach to social media.

Much like their do-one-thing-really-well approach to beer making, using social channels to connect with consumers is a natural extension of the Steam Whistle brand. “For us, social media is about engaging in transparent, two-way conversations with Steam Whistle drinkers. It’s never been about finding a way to put a numerical value on a consumer,” said Marina. “At the core, social media is really about customer service. It’s real-time, it’s constantly on, and it’s definitely the future of our industry,” she added.

This fan-centric approach – focusing on fan engagement levels instead of ROI $ – has helped Steam Whistle cultivate a passionate community of brand ambassadors both on and offline. Want proof? Check out Trip Advisor, where fans of the brewery have ranked it as one of the top ten tourist attractions in Ontario.…