Storytelling In The Digital Media Age

Editor’s note: Dr. Carl Marci is co-founder, chairman of the board, and chief science officer of Innerscope Research and the former Director of Social Neuroscience for the Psychotherapy Research Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is a former Visiting Lecturer at the MIT Program in Media Arts & Sciences.

I often get asked why a Harvard neuropsychiatrist spends so much time talking about emotions and the brain in front of media and marketing research experts. The answer is that we live in an increasingly competitive world, and relying on what consumers tell us is incomplete, and in many cases just plain inaccurate.

Brand managers must understand how consumers engage on an emotional level in order to accurately predict whether their advertising or any other media content will truly resonate.

This is increasingly necessary with the new wave of young consumers. Recent studies have shown that attention spans for millennials – those who have grown up in a digital world – are 60 percent shorter than previous generations when it comes to media. They’ve essentially emerged from birth staring at smartphones and tablet computers – with endless entertainment options just a screen away. As this attention span continues to shrink, brands must identify new ways to break through the clutter and establish meaningful emotional connections with their audiences.

During my training in adult psychiatry and mental health at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, I began studying the interactions between patients and their doctors. I became fascinated by the idea that this relationship – independent of other factors like medication or surgery – had genuine healing power.

To better understand what biological forces were at play, we began to use some of the first wearable sensors to map the physiological responses associated with doctor and patient interactions.

We’ve seen how people use multiple media screens to regulate their emotions – never letting themselves get too low or too high.

We clearly noticed patterns in their biometric responses that looked like empathy – moments of meaning when one brain understood another brain. We could measure these moments as the physiology of the patient and clinician lined up and became indistinguishable from each other. It was incredible, really, how two minds were coming together to co-create meaning and understanding.

Why is this important? It underscores how we, as humans, are wired to empathize and emotionally connect with each other. And as powerful and important as this ability to connect emotionally on a non-conscious level is to raising our children and organizing our social relationships, as well as to our political and educational institutions, it isn’t very discriminating. We also powerfully connect with media and entertainment content as well as brands, products and services on a non-conscious emotional level.

In fact, people are becoming more comfortable interacting with media than they are interacting with each other.  While we are communicating with each other more than ever, we are doing it through technology: texting and email, Facebook and Snapchat. We do it in business meetings, in classes, on dates and around the kitchen table with our families. I often reference a quote, from a 16-year-old, in a 2012 New York Times article: “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

With so much content, so many platforms, we always will have multiple digital options to satisfy our need for emotional engagement. These days, there is always another screen, social media app, or game that will be the antidote for boredom. When we do this, we are unknowingly searching for the same feeling of connection and empathy through media – and we have many, many options to do so at our fingertips. In our studies, we’ve seen how people use multiple media screens to regulate their emotions – never letting themselves get too low or too high.

These behaviors and the ever-evolving media landscape in which they occur have profound implications for brands. Whether brands are using traditional media platforms or looking to integrate new digital platforms to market themselves, the bar is higher than ever to engage viewers. As attention spans shrink and distractions increase, brands have mere seconds to make their cases for consumption.

Importantly, the increased competition for viewer attention impacts how stories are told. We’re not just sitting around a campfire quietly listening to stories anymore. With new digital platforms emerging every day (who would have connected Rand Paul with Snapchat?), more and more people and companies are telling a story across several different platforms, abandoning the common “linear” unfolding of a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Part of a story might live on a primary screen like the television, with unique extensions across digital channels, and further amplification across social channels. It’s not an either/or, but an opportunity to effectively integrate audiences in a way that amplifies and sustains emotional engagement.

Everyone can be their own media channel, equipped with the technology to start conversations with anyone, anywhere or anytime around the world.

A few brands have done this really well. Taylor Swift’s app surrounding the launch of her music video “Blank Space” was brilliant in the way it extended the story. Oreo has completely reinvented its image, turning from an old-school advertiser to a creator of interesting, relevant content, highlighted by that famed Super Bowl tweet a couple of years ago. While all these platforms present creative directors with the opportunity to connect deeply with audiences through storytelling in so many innovative ways, it poses the challenging question of when, where and how to send certain messages for maximal impact?

Really understanding the intricacies of how people emotionally respond to content online and on mobile devices versus in their homes on a TV is critical for getting this right. I personally grew up in a world where the TV was an entertainment device, the computer was a productivity device, and the phone was a communication device. There is no distinction today. With the ease of technology, viewers have become producers and directors of their own experiences. Entertainment “devices” are no longer linear. Now it’s the expectation that every screen is a vehicle for all three.

The upside is that, today, everyone can be their own media channel, equipped with the technology to start conversations with anyone, anywhere or anytime around the world. For those brands that can navigate these treacherous waters and establish an emotional connection with their consumers, the payoff can be enormous. And I’m fascinated to see how all this change is going to impact the hearts, minds and brains of future generations.