In search of the value of a story

Ask any PR or advertising professional about the value of having a story to bring a campaign to life and it’s recommended that you be seated comfortably, ready to listen, with a very sympathetic look on your face.

Whereas authors and journalists have the pleasure of starting with the story and then working towards a conclusion, communications professionals often find themselves with things presented the wrong way around.

The time-old tale of creating a campaign will play to something along the following lines:

Enter client, stage left.

“Here is our latest [project, product, service] and we want it to become the next best thing since… well, our last [project, product, service.]”


The goal is simple and clear-cut, elementary really: “stimulate desire!”; “amplify awareness!”; “change perceptions!!”


As the script inevitably goes, the next question is how?

  • What is the compelling hook that will make people want it?
  • What is the pitch that will change peoples’ minds?
  • What is the story that people will tell for ages to come?

Exit agency, stage right, not to be seen again until act 3.

Fast-forward several months and, ultimately, the campaign does exactly what was intended. Measurement – key performance indicators… numbers – prove exactly how well the campaign delivered. How perceptions were changed and how it all affected the client’s bottom line.

But, what about the story? Unlike authors who can measure the “value” of their story based on book sales, the value of a PR story has only ever been indirectly measured by the global success of the campaign. If the campaign was a success, then the story must have been great.  The fact is, though, calculating the unique value of a story was simply never done before.  Until now.

Joshua Glenn, Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, and Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, have been able to measure the value of a story through a quasi-anthropological experiment, based on the hypothesis – “Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.”  The experiment is called Significant Objects and their conclusion is quite astounding:

The value of a story is 2,776%. Why percent and not Dollars or Euros? The answer is in the experiment itself:

  • They bought objects considered to be of little to no value from garage sales, thrift stores and eBay.
  • They then asked a selection of writers to bring each object to life create in the form of a fictional story about the object’s past.
  • The object is then put back up for sale on eBay with the fictional story written out instead of a factual description.
  • The lucky purchaser is shipped the object and a hard copy of the story that sold the object and the proceeds go to the author.

How did they reach 2,776%? SO v1 – the first batch of 100 objects – were bought by Significant Objects for $120.  Through a complex price adjustment scheme over 19 weeks to neutralise Duration Factors, the final profit on all objects sold came to $3,612… for a total mark-up of 2,776%.

As far as quasi-experimental experiments go, this is an incredibly heart-warming example. And it may also go a long way to helping communications professionals in recognising, if not calculating, the value of their own stories.

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