How American Express balances storytelling and delivering ROI on social media

How American Express balances storytelling and delivering ROI on social media

Simon Veaney, head of social media and communications, American Express, explains how he balances the tricky task of creating compelling content on social media and...

When you are being measured on depth of message, or some form of ROI, and all at your disposal is a looping GIF or a square photo, you realise there can be a disconnection

It’s fairly plain at this point that social media has not only disrupted the way consumers converse with brands, it has also started to disrupt our brains.

Spending, as I do, the majority of my working week online on Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed and Instagram, I find it increasingly difficult to process any new in­formation unless it features a list, a kitten video or an amusingly captioned screenshot from Futurama. I suspect I am not alone.

At American Express, our approach has always been to be where our Cardmembers are, a philosophy as applicable to social newsfeeds on the train as to weekend breaks in Sicily. However, working at the social coalface has made it impossible to ignore how, over time, consumption of branded messaging has changed in this medium, and the challenges this presents.

Consider the content of a standard social-media post. A bright, vibrant image. Maybe 200 characters of copy. A friendly, companionable message. You could argue that social-media practitioners are creating children’s picture books. But when you are being measured on depth of message, or some form of ROI, and all at your disposal is a looping GIF or a square photo, you realise there can be a disconnection.

Facebook and Twitter understand this, and so they created more clickable (commercial) publishing options for brands designed to drive ROI, while organic reach has gradually given way to almost fully paid reach.

PR is the same. With newsdesks shrinking, the best way to get a story into print is often via the photo and caption. The question is, how much story can you pack into a single photo?

Still, get it right and visual storytelling is very powerful. As John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing: "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak."

Pictures, handled the right way, create a question the consumer has to answer. They need to be solved.

This idea of visual storytelling lay at the heart of a recent campaign we ran called #MySecretCity. We challenged fashion photographer Nick Knight to explore ‘his’ London with just with his iPhone. We then tweeted his series of photos (from flowers at Chiswick House to ponies under the Westway) as a live Twitter photo exhibition, and our community joined in. This thread of episodic content, boosted via a promoted trend on Twitter, allowed us to tell a much deeper story in a way that was authentic to the channel and audience. Storytelling plus media-boosting equalled a campaign reach in excess of 500% of our targets and 120,000 engagements.

At a time when Twitter refuses to rule out moving to a Facebook-style algorithm, and Instagram is forecasting ad revenues of £3bn by 2017, the need to stay relevant with crisp, visual content is paramount. Author (and kitten-lover) Ernest Hemingway was a proponent of "Show, don’t tell". That, ultimately, may prove to be the way to ensure that storytelling remains at the heart of your social-media plans.