When I was about six years old, my parents got me my first library card. It was a small plastic circle covered in stickers of stars and smiley faces with the words “Children’s Pass” written across the front. Though it only allowed me to check out books from designated shelves in the library (which, of course, were also denoted with smiley-face stickers), I considered it to be my most precious possession because it granted me access to the holy grail of children’s interactive media of the day: Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Ranging from slim, eighty-page stories to occasional three-hundred-page tomes, the Choose Your Own Adventure series transported me from my bedroom into epic journeys beneath the earth, to deserted islands, to the edge of space. There was a feeling of excitement that came from stories that demanded split-second decisions that could mean life, death, or the arduous toil of flipping back a few pages. For years, this artificial urgency coupled with a freedom of choice that few six-year-olds are afforded, kept me coming back to the library until I had finally exhausted their smiling shelves.
At the most basic level, I was just reading. I had been duped into learning.
Interactive storytelling has changed considerably since Choose Your Own Adventure, but many of the principles remain the same. For the brands that have found a way to incorporate it, there is fertile ground for success. But with many marketers concerned about the fundamental shifts that this type of content can mean for their team, the field remains comparatively vacant of competition—but new research suggests that this may not be the case for long.
For many of us, the words “interactive media” makes some deep, budgetary part of our soul cringe. From videos to custom websites, the options are wide, varied, and frequently expensive. Often, this means that teams have to outsource some (if not all) talent necessary to produce this work, and it’s causing a visible shift in the way we do content marketing. A study from TeamPeople recently found that executives from audio-visual companies now make most of their interactive content for the purpose of content marketing (43 percent), taking the top spot away from internal videos for the first time in years. Further, more than half of these executives sighted trimmer budgets and more efficient business practices as their main priorities for the coming years. The demand and interest in interactive content is clear, and so is the cost.
So what does this mean your brand’s marketing team? Do you need to hire an in-house production company, a full staff of internet developers, and a troupe of branded circus performers to stay with the curve? Thankfully, no.
For brands interested in jumping into interactive content, there are generally two approaches to take. The first is a “top down” approach that turns your team into its own mini marketing agency. Paying for full in-house creatives and their respective equipment is often too costly to justify unless you can demonstrate ROI that would support the team into the future. So for those first “test” projects, some consultants recommend that upper-level creatives be held in-house—those who direct vision and strategy—while lower level creative execution can be outsourced on an as-needed basis. This is a great model that gives brands new to the space leeway to try many approaches before settling on a permanent team.
The second approach, comparatively, can be thought of as re-tooling. Rather than bringing on additional freelancers or defining a new creative structure for your team, re-tooling tasks your current team and creatives with finding ways to make your existing content more interactive. Where top-down is a conservative way to shift a whole marketing engine to new content, re-tooling is a method of analyzing and reorienting your existing content into a new space.
Though many digital marketing channels have seen huge adoption by marketers in the past decade, brands have been experimenting with interactive content for quite a while.
Take for example Chex Quest, perhaps one of the most successfull—and arguably, strangest—interactive marketing ploys of the nineties. In 1996, General Mills decided to capitalize on the popularity of Id Software’s first-person shooter game, Doom, by hiring a small team of developers to create a modded version of the game that was suitable for children and incorporated Chex products. The result was Chex Quest, a sci-fi romp through an alien infested base where healthy, balanced breakfast items could be found strewn among various forms of firepower.
From a commercial perspective, the project was an enormous hit, generating a 295 percent increase in sales volume. But perhaps even more telling is that an audience of players still exists today who play, mod, and continue to develop the story of Chex Quest, even twenty years later. It’s a trend that has since translated into the modern day with companies creating relatively simpler online games to correspond with their brands (for example, Adult Swim’s constantly growing collection of online content based off of its shows).
Many brands don’t have the bandwidth to create standalone video games, so some content creators have found ways of turning their written material into interactivity of its own. In an homage to the favorite books of my youth, The Onion-affiliated website “Clickhole” has had enormous success from its own collection of humorous “adventure” content. For them, interactivity is only so difficult as creating a system of pages and links to match user decisions—a practical note that just about any marketing team should presumably already be equipped to handle.
There is no exact playbook for how to create interactive material, but the overall goal of interactive media should be to make your content “touchable.” Does your audience feel tied to the outcome of your story based on choices they get to make? Do they feel empowered to act by your brand? This touchable aspect doesn’t extend to CTAs or typically any action that involves buying; like many kids, I never read the brochures in the back of my adventure books that hawked box sets and collector’s editions. Rather, touchable is a way of thinking about your content that asks whether your audience has been given their own place in your content’s story. If they haven’t, then no amount of choice is going to make your material more engaging. But for those brands that do give their audience a touchstone through their material, loyalty becomes a metric right alongside leads.