There is – still – a widespread assumption that modern audiences have shorter attention spans than is optimum for publishers. When it comes to Millennials, it seems like many people assume their attention spans are slightly below that of goldfish.

If that were true, it would provide almost insurmountable problems for publishers and advertisers working together on delivering narrative-based ad campaigns. Fortunately, there’s a lot of research that suggests audiences’ attentions haven’t been drastically reduced by technology. Instead, it’s been fragmented among many devices.

While that comes with its own set of problems, it means that marketers can still deliver story-based ad campaigns to consumers. They just have to be smarter about how and where they tell those stories. 

As moderator of AdWeek’s panel on cross-screen storytelling, consultant editor of the Content Marketing Association (CMA) Dominic Mills noted that at the centre of the multitasking phenomenon is “the connected screen”.

He referred to the ability to target a single audience member across multiple devices as being the “holy grail” for marketers, but also that as consumer behaviour changes the holy grail is constantly in flux.

A place for stories

The contention of the panel discussion at AdWeek was that the storytelling techniques that underpin entertainment media and ad campaign hasn’t changed as rapidly as the technology we use.

Vasha Wallace, EVP of global acquisitions and development at FremantleMedia began by saying that effective engagement with audiences is still predicated on long-form narrative:

“You’ve got to give them something really compelling to watch and a way to engage. They are still really interested in longform content and in narrative arc and in story.”

Anna Rafferty, director of product, content and creative at Pottermore, believes that cross-screen publishing is best used to supplement a long-form narrative rather than as a replacement for it:

“If you like the story and there is the heart of a story you connect with and it has resonance with you then you’ll consume it in longform narrative, but you will also love the cats on skateboards aspects of it.”

As a result, Torie Chilcott, co-founder of Scoota believes the role of the creative is less about being manager of a specific product i.e. a single television programme, and more about managing the entire narrative:

“I used to sell to a programme commissioner. I think now we’re looking at brand commissioners. Whatever you can do to supplement your universe, there are so many opportunities to make your story massively interested. The principles of a story are exactly the same.”

She also notes that the media furore over finding a way to connect to Millennials is – in addition to being needlessly reductive – reliant on tailoring content to the platforms on which it will appear:

“At the moment there’s a real appetite and excitement for finding the right way of communicating with Millennials because it’s so innate to who they are. Instead of saying ‘this is the one distribution method [so] I have to do that’…. You can create an exciting story across all the platforms.”

Design through data

But it’s easier said than done to create a single, consistent narrative for advertisements across multiple screens. For one, many consumers still use their devices in isolation, or share multiple devices among family members. That can lead to audience members being shown the same ad multiple times, or a vital step in a user journey being delivered to the wrong person.

Jamie West, deputy MD at Sky Media, noted that the solution to that issue – highly accurate data across devices – is only available to a privileged few:

“Joining up those campaigns is ever important, because it’s never been more important to serve the right message to the right person at the right time with the right contextual ad.

“We are the only organisation in the UK that has that level of data and understanding. Whether it be the Sky ID, the platform ID…. That enables us to understand that customer journey.”

The hazards of getting those joined up campaigns wrong and failing to deliver a consistent narrative  were elaborated on by Data Xu’s SVP Chris Le May, who noted that failing to do so can lead to brand damage:

“Around 90 percent of consumers in the EU are using at least two devices at the same time. Those consumers expect to have a single user journey the whole time. You could be hitting all consumers at all devices at the same time, and you’re creating a bad consumer experience and a bad brand experience.”

He also noted that, while data and technology are the ultimate enablers of cross-screen campaigns, it also requires a cultural shift within an organisation and the dissolution of silos that keep each individual channel in isolation.

So even as publishers improve their ability to tell consistent narratives across different platforms, they still require access to hugely accurate user data if they want to be able to convert those audiences to paying consumers.