What are the secrets of great storytelling on social? And, in such a rapidly changing digital world, how can brands and marketers make sure they get it right?

Here, our Executive Creative Director (and D&AD Masterclass trainer) Gareth Leeding shares his top tips on social ideas, platforms, and formats.

Look for the untold stories
The best stories in social media are the untold ones. New stories, old ones told from a previously unheard perspective. Ultimately, if it’s already out there and has been told to death, move on.

The best stories have emotion at their core. Things that you and your audience really care about - these are the stories that really resonate. Brands have an opportunity to unearth the things that really matter. Start or change a conversation, never finish it.

The first few seconds are crucial
It’s important to start with a tease, revealing where the story might end up, building anticipation of the reveal later. People want to decide if they’re willing to commit to 30 seconds, two or ten minutes and the first ten seconds are the most important in that regard.

A “what the fuck” element in your narrative is what’s going to make it shareable. Did you see that? I can’t believe that happened? That was unexpected? These moments will drive your content further. And if you want to keep people hooked, don’t give them everything at once - drip feed the good stuff after you’ve reeled them in.

Social stories don’t have to be short
Stories are like food for our brains. It’s so much easier to remember a story over a string of stats. Throughout time, every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative. Cinema, TV, print, Internet and now social. Each one of those mediums has their own nuances. However, the principles don’t change.

On social media, you need to figure out how to tell compelling stories in formats ranging from 6 seconds to 10 minutes. There’s a common misperception in audience understanding that “Gen Z have shorter attention spans”. That’s bullshit. If your audience is falling away, it’s your storytelling that’s letting you down. Adidas can deliver 40minute online documentaries that are watched from beginning to end. It’s about finding the right narrative for your audience.

But a word of caution - long-form isn’t easy to master. If content is overly descriptive without a clear point, or long for the sake of it, you will lose people. For example, at the one minute mark when a feed video drives viewers to continue watching on IGTV, you need to have the viewer hooked on your feed - or left it at a narrative cliffhanger - so that they choose to go through to IGTV to watch the rest. It’s nuances like that you need to be aware of when constructing a story on social.

Build a platform-specific narrative
Know the role of each platform in your storytelling. Is one platform the lead in a mixed-media storytelling approach? Is one platform only used for audience engagement? You have to expect that your audience will touch your story across different formats so this has to be a nuanced approached - you cannot just cross-post the same story told in the same way across multiple channels.

Format and length are key. You immediately need to know the length of the story you are telling, along with the constrictions of the platform.

Understanding vertical and horizontal storytelling is increasingly vital. The rise of mobile usage over the past 15 years and the growth of vertical platforms like IG Stories and Snapchat has led to a change in the visual language of storytelling. Everything from framing to shot length has changed how you approach the creative, shoot and post-production process.

Play to the platform’s strengths
On YouTube, you have the opportunity to build an engaged community through a series, with both long and short formats. Having an overarching narrative structure in the form of a series brings together stories of differing lengths.

Check out the show ‘Tango Squad FC’ by adidas Football on YouTube. 

Instagram Stories pushes you to think about how you can communicate in short 15 second max chapters. Consider how you can jump to different chapters at the tap of a screen. It also allows you to drive people somewhere mid-story rather than the end. In the Instagram Feed you can be a lot more crafted. You tell a longer story with rises and falls. But be careful not to go too long. Just because there is a 1m video limit does not mean your video content should always be 59 seconds - don’t let the media dictate your narrative.

The New York Public Library’s campaign to reinvent books for Instagram Stories is a great example of this.

It’s easy to think of Twitter as more broadcast in its storytelling approach. However, you can create threads of content; interweaving content from different places to create a story told from lots of different points of view.

For example, Disney+ used a Twitter thread to detail almost its entire library of movie content, which was then due to be released on its platform on November 12th.

Storytelling on TikTok is so new. But you could argue its a platform that’s driving user interaction, storytelling through doing. It’ll be a great one to watch evolve from this perspective.

Don’t fly post
Don’t take the same story or chapter and plaster it over every platform - create bespoke content for each. You don’t want to bounce between social accounts and see exactly the same thing. But you can allow for a fragmented storytelling approach across different platforms.

Therefore, you need to understand how and why each social platform is different. Staying on top of platform trends will help you stay one step ahead of the competition - if you are the first to tell a story in a different way on an existing platform it will get cut-through, so be agile.

Social media shouldn’t be a broadcasting platform. Definitely don’t just take what you’re broadcasting on ATL channels and put it on social. If you build a community that’s interested in your brand, then you’ll know who they are, what they love and what they want to engage with. Storytelling then becomes a conversation with your audience.

The trick I’ve found with social is to think of it as an intimate space. You mostly interact with social through your phone and that phone is the closest thing you hold to your face besides your toothbrush. It’s a media that’s based on intimacy.

Ultimately, there’s no set formula for great storytelling on social media. The platforms are diverse, the formats and tools vary from place to place. At We Are Social, we believe the best ideas are powered by people. Great ideas can live anywhere and creating work that people want to talk about and share is the first step to success. But to take this to the next level, to truly capture people’s attention, you should know the platforms inside out. Putting these two things together is how you win.

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This article was originally written for D&AD as part of its Masterclass series.