For brands, a little drama is a good thing

For online video, well-structured stories trump big budgets, says Keith Quesenberry, associate professor at Messiah College.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It used to be that big TV ad budgets made a brand. But today, consumers are spending more time watching online video. YouTube has 1.9 billion users each month, is the second-visited website behind Google, and reaches more 18-34 year-olds during prime-time than any U.S. TV network.

So what drives sharing in the world of online video? In a word, drama.

Think about it. What draws you in to view and talk about your favorite movies, TV series or reality shows? It’s the drama created by familiar characters getting into conflicts and facing challenges that lead to tension-filled moments of decision that determine if they succeed or fail.

This is the classical drama framework conceived by Aristotle, used by Shakespeare and illustrated as five-acts in Freytag’s Pyramid.

The structure is: act one, introduction; act two, rising action; act three, climax; act four, falling action and finally act five, resolution. It’s how best-selling novelists and Hollywood script writers develop plots.
A five-part story arc take you on an emotional roller coaster by creating and then releasing tension and produces emotions you want to share with others.

The good news is Hollywood isn’t the only industry that can leverage the power of drama. Brand marketers can use it too.

Our previous research found that five-act stories increased likability and favorability in Super Bowl Ad ratings polls. There was also an additive effect. The more that ads followed the five-part structure, the higher their ratings. But what if you don’t have a Super Bowl-size ad budget?

Our new research published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing analyzed a random sample of a year’s worth of viral marketing videos provided by video ad company Unruly.

We found that telling a full five-act story increased YouTube shares and views. We also found that the size of the company, as measured by revenue, did not influence the results. Small businesses had as much of a chance to produce viral sharing as a large company.

The difference with YouTube, as opposed to Super Bowl TV ads, is the metrics only increased if the videos employed a four or five-act structure. Partial act structures that garnered votes for TV ads didn’t work online.

We found it wasn’t until after the climax in act-three, when the viewer got the satisfaction of released tension, that they felt the videos were worth sharing.

So, what exactly does a dramatic five-act story look like? Always #LikeAGirl was watched more than 90 million times. It was the number two viral video globally and was a five-act drama.

Act 1 introduces an audition where each actor and actress is asked to run like a girl, throw like a girl, etc.. In act 2, conflict arises when we realize these characterizations are wrong. This builds tension as the actors and actresses realize they are being hurtful.

The climax of act 3 occurs when they are directly confronted with questions like, "So do you think you just insulted your sister?" Act 4 shows the falling action of young girls deciding to respond differently with positive actions. Act 5 provides a resolution as the video calls for more people to change the meaning of the phrase.

In our sample of 155 viral brand videos, only 25% were coded as fully developed five-act stories and a 31% were coded as telling no story with zero-acts. On average four and five-act videos gained more than four times the shares of zero to three-act videos, yet 66% of the videos contained zero to three acts.

When it comes to viral marketing, the power of drama can trump company size, but we found that two-thirds of marketers are missing out.

Keith A. Quesenberry is associate professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. and the author of Social Media Strategy: Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations in the Consumer Revolution.

Michael K. Coolsen, professor of Marketing in the John L. Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University. His research interests include consumer psychology, the consumer–brand relationship, and social media marketing.

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