Opinion: Using ephemeral content for episodic storytelling

If your social media browsing behaviour is similar to the five hundred million users who use Instagram and Facebook Stories every day, there’s a good chance that you’ve spent more time flicking through Stories than scrolling through the feed. It’s certainly the case for me, and this shows the stickiness of ephemeral content.

Ephemeral content is defined as content that lasts for a set time period before it disappears from the public space. It gives audiences a small window– typically 24 hours –to engage. This limited-time approach works really well for social media platforms because it encourages users to check their social media accounts more than once a day to avoid missing out on content their friends or favourite influencers are posting.

It’s a proven fact that this works: Instagram has seen tremendous growth of its Stories feature, with almost 500 million daily active users, while Snapchat – another ephemeral content platform – has about 300 million daily active users.

The numbers above speak for themselves about the popularity of this feature and the benefits that it’s returning for the platforms, but the question on my mind is whether brands have truly leveraged ephemeral content to its maximum potential, or are we barely scratching the surface?

Common ways to use ephemeral content

I often see brands using ephemeral content for its interactive elements, running polls, doing Q&As with their audience, running brand campaigns to increase recall, or running ads for products or services. These are great use cases of the latest features available, but if we strip them down, they are more or less the same mechanism under the hood.

That said, there are brands which have used platforms such as Instagram Stories creatively. I would recommend following The Woke Salaryman, which is a financial literacy account, to observe how they are engaging with their audience through bite-sized personal finance advisories. The account runs weekly ask-me-anything sessions based on a specific personal finance theme (e.g. stocks, CPF, bonds, cryptocurrencies) and doles out really good advice – not just from themselves but their community.

What else could we do with ephemeral content?

This episodic or thematic approach to content on a weekly basis reminds me of one thing that hasn’t gone out of style despite the pandemic: drama series! Based on the number of new shows that get released on streaming platforms every month, we can see that this storytelling medium continues to work despite having been around for decades. A number of Singapore’s most popular shows on free-to-air TV are also dramas, showing the genre’s enduring popularity.

I’m bringing this up because ephemeral content is by default consumed in a chronological storytelling manner. In contrast, content in a social feed may not be displayed chronologically, i.e. users may see the more engaging posts first, even if they have been posted a while ago. I’d love to see brand storytelling using ephemeral content mimicking the episodic drama storytelling patterns that you’d find on some of our favourite drama series like Game of Thrones, which usually have multiple dramatic turns and end on a cliff-hanger. These storytelling techniques, while commonly known, still work and keep audiences coming back for more.

Using characterisations for storytelling

However, this means that brands would likely need to move away from product or campaign-based storytelling and think of their audience as characters. I’ll go back to the example from The Woke Salaryman, whose main character is a regular Singaporean with lots of questions about personal finance. Having a character (or characters) as the main storytelling vehicle through which all narratives flow enables the audience to journey with the character. This, in short, is the essence of drama-based storytelling —audiences follow a series to know how a character’s narrative unfolds, and that’s what keeps people coming back week after week.

By using this technique, I believe that brands can turn their ephemeral content spaces into ongoing narratives centred on their audience, their world, and how the brand helps them get through the many challenges, or grasp opportunities, that the world throws at them. This narrative framework is known as the Hero’s Journey. It’s pioneered by Joseph Campbell and is a narrative technique that we use for content planning with brands.

Once you have an audience-centred narrative and a character (or characters) to focus on, it’s easier to move into creating weekly, fortnightly or monthly episodic stories on their journey. You could then use the same storytelling techniques – such as plot twists, unexpected turns, appearance of allies or enemies – to keep the storytelling exciting and keep your audience coming back for more.

If you’re looking for inspiration, I’d recommend this account in Malaysia called @dontlikethatbro, helmed by Malaysian comic artist Ernest Ng. He creates fortnightly comic strips (albeit on the Instagram feed and not the Instagram Stories platform) that humourise the development of COVID-19 and political situation in Malaysia. He uses inspiration from real-life events to develop his episodes and characters, with clear storytelling techniques being used to keep audiences laughing along, but from the comments you can see that audiences are also keen to know what the next instalment will look like.

Doing more with ephemeral content

This is just one suggestion on what we can do to get more mileage out of our ephemeral content, and I’m sure there are more ideas the creative minds in our industry can think of. The characterisation and dramatisation approach works for both B2C and B2B marketing, because it turns the focus on the audience, and every customer is a person who wants to be meaningfully engaged.

The writer is Julian Chow, head of digital, Archetype Singapore.

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