One of the most profound shifts that have taken place in modern times is that people are no longer interested in being passive consumers of media. Most of us grew up in an age when all mass media was fixed, inalterable, and one-directional. Think of books, radio, film, and television: audiences had no choice but to sit back and read, watch, or listen, with no role to play in the narrative, no opportunity to fully engage all the senses.
Then the Internet arrived—the first two-way mass medium in history—and with it, people suddenly had the ability to engage with content, to share it and give feedback. This ushered in the new wave of social media, where people could not only comment on and share content but also create their own. And the bar just keeps rising. People’s expectations now are for much greater engagement than simply commenting or sharing. People don’t want to be told stories—they want to live them. They want to become what Janet Murray, in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, calls “interactors,” with the ability to coauthor, to have agency, and to be the heroes in their adventures.
This is why I’m so extraordinarily excited by today’s new generation of technologies—tools like virtual and augmented reality, haptics, eye-tracking software, natural user interfaces, sensors, and artificial intelligence—and the immersive, multisensory “living stories” we can create with them. Because instead of keeping us in what I call the “passive flatland” of the printed page—or, for that matter, our TV, computer, or smartphone screens—they’re letting us have full-bodied, personalized and participatory, three-dimensional experiences that fully engage us and actually mimic the way humans have evolved to intuitively interact with our physical world and each other. Now, instead of sitting back and listening to someone talk about an adventure, or watching one play out on a screen, we can step outside our everyday lives and physically experience what it’s like, for example, to battle Darth Vader, or rescue a princess, or rocket into the cosmos. And because these living stories activate multiple senses—not just sight and sound, but often taste, smell, and touch—they also succeed in being more powerful, memorable, and emotional. By letting us walk in someone else’s shoes, they have a chance not only to stay with us but to change us for the better.
Living stories and the technologies that drive them also have the potential to transform how brands tell their own stories—but it first means rethinking how they position themselves and their customers in their narrative. A common mistake brands make is to think of themselves as the protagonist, or hero, of their stories, with a temptation to show off product features and statistics. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually conducive to eliciting an emotional reaction from customers. Instead, brands need to make the customer the hero, really understand who they are and what they value, and create a brand “world” that has multiple points of entry and gives them an active role to play.
A common mistake brands make is to think of themselves as the protagonist, or hero, of their stories, with a temptation to show off product features and statistics. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually conducive to eliciting an emotional reaction from customers. Instead, brands need to make the customer the hero
With the experience economy on the rise and a growing hunger among consumers—especially young consumers—for meaningful, authentic, moments, brands should be embracing living stories and the technologies that help bring people back into their bodies, inspire them, and show them what’s possible.