Content & Engagement
By Mark Bembridge, CEO & Founder


During an insightful IAA UK Digital Transformation event in March, an attendee commented that content led advertorials and contextual advertising have been around since the start of the online advertising industry and were nothing new. The combination of branded content and context is by no means a new phenomenon, yet technology has recently evolved to the extent that the next generation of online advertising can combine brand stories and automate their contextual placements to open up a whole new world of sophistication and performance.

Within online advertising it should come as no surprise that focusing on storytelling unlocks spectacular results.

The great Scott Galloway recently mused in his weekly ‘No Mercy / No Malice’ post: One query I get often is "What class/skill would you suggest our kids take/learn to compete in the modern economy?" Or some-such. I think most expect me to say computer science, STEM courses, or some bullshit about the wonders of a liberal arts education that foments curiosity. But hands down, the skill I would grant my boys is singular: storytelling.

Reynolds Price observed that ‘a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo Sapiens - second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.’ From the earliest recorded cave drawings in Lascaux over 30,000 years ago to today, the evolution of our species can be clearly mapped to the human need to communicate. Whether we are creators or recipients of stories, they are fundamental in powering our narrative, ultimately defining us. Stories are creative vessels through which we can enter new worlds, learnings and experiences.

In 2009 a NYT journalist, Rob Walker, famously set out to determine if storytelling is the most powerful tool of all by purchasing 200 ordinary items on Ebay. Each item averaged $1.25 and he invited 200 professional authors to participate in his Significant Object study by writing a story about each one of the objects. These were then auctioned on Ebay, but this time with the stories added to the description. After selling all 200 items it was quite evident that the stories transformed these ordinary objects into something of greater value and meaning. In total, Rob spent $197 on all the items and he sold all of them for almost $8,000 - a mark up of more than 6,300%. Rob's project shines light on the sheer impact a simple story can make and how giving something meaning can also give it value and importance.

Storytelling exists on three main levels; to inform, to entertain and to build relationships.

In the first place storytelling is a means to educate and impart knowledge. As humanity evolved from neolithic farming to early civilizations to smart cities, so too did we learn from others how to write, heat water in pipes for our homes and pioneer aeronautical engineering. While the speed of communication increased with the printing press and went into overdrive with the digital revolution, knowledge transfer still remains the key mechanism for societies to advance.

Stories have the power to put our emotions into overdrive and entertain. Compelling research at The University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that one of the key neurochemicals that is released from our brain when we are told a story is oxytocin - responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. As social creatures, this has allowed us to cooperate and bond with others to create a sense of community and commonality. Telling a good story can educate as well as making audiences feel both the good and bad; this is what ultimately inspires, motivates, drives opinion, decision making and builds relationships.

So if we accept that within advertising, storytelling is the fundamental key to unlock brand value, our position at Smartology is that those brands who impart their expertise to the best effect with well honed copy, valuable insights and a healthy dose of passion will drive far higher brand impact than those who fail to grasp this.

However great your storytelling is, an amplification strategy is of critical importance in today’s competitive online landscape. SmartMatch™ is the contextual glue that makes brands more desirable and relevant by illuminating a brand’s story through rich, high-impact content led ads matched to relevant and compelling publisher stories (articles) in the right environment.

Meanwhile, as Scott Galloway observes, ‘the arc of evolution bends to good storytellers’ and at Smartology we can’t think of a better skill to teach our kids…

Our upcoming blog series will build on great storytelling to focus on how AI powered contextual amplification adds a new layer of value. Further instalments will cover our position on zero party data solutions, sustainability focused advertising, brand safety and suitability, the importance of fact checked, trusted journalism and content led contextual performance, adding up to how we can move the dial of how brands best connect their content with their audience. SmartMatch™ goes beyond display advertising, and moves us towards a genuine value-based marketing service for brands - not one based purely on transaction of space.

Stay tuned!