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Manulife have been airing ads in Canada that leave viewers hanging as to how they conclude, driving them to a website to see their finale.

When people sit down to relax and watch a little TV, they are usually not in the mood to think about retirement planning, or the cost of raising kids, or what happens when their parents can no longer take care of themselves.

But we are hard-wired to respond to stories. And that has solved a problem for Manulife Financial Corp.

The insurer and financial services firm has taken a new approach with its latest advertising campaign, after seeing the strategy pay off in the United States. The campaign, which launched south of the border late last year, and in January in Canada, tells stories with cliffhangers that require viewers to go online to see the endings.

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Those include a woman receiving a surprising phone call; a man wondering why the boss has called him into the office; and a woman who tells her husband, "We need to talk."

Canadian-specific information was added to the American-made ads and additional Canadian-produced spots launched this week.

Manulife's invitation to viewers to find what happens in each story has proven more effective than past ad campaigns inviting viewers to find out how the company can help them with their financial needs: With more than a month left, the campaign has surpassed previous company records in driving traffic to the website. That traffic has jumped fivefold.

"They are googling 'Manulife advertising,' which doesn't happen that often," said vice-president of branding, Jeronimo De Miguel.

And when they arrive at the company's website, visitors are spending more time there: more than three minutes on average, compared with an industry average of closer to one minute. Each story's ending drives home a point about financial planning. When the man's boss gives him a promotion, text on the screen says that "only 38 per cent of Canadians receiving a raise say they would increase their retirement savings." When the woman on the phone hears of a friends untimely death, viewers see how many Canadian households have individual life insurance (43 per cent.) When the couple finds out they've been approved for adoption, there is a tally of the average cost of raising a child up to age 18: $254,000.

The storytelling is driving people to look at other information on the website as well. Downloads of PDF documents with Manulife product information have doubled since the campaign began on Jan. 26.

"It's not as interruptive, or intrusive, as other types of advertising," Mr. De Miguel said, since the choice to pursue the story endings is in the hands of the viewers. "When you look at prior campaigns, we've looked at more specific scenarios tied directly to products – whether retirement, or banking, or insurance. What we're trying to do here is look at life scenarios, which could involve a number of solutions."

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The strategy is working for online pre-roll video ads as well: 60 per cent of traffic to the website is coming from online sources and social media.

Because Web traffic plays a crucial role in helping companies sell their products and giving consumers more information, the line "Visit our website" frequently appears at the end of TV ads. But how many people actually follow a URL they see on TV?

For travel accommodation website Booking.com, taking a chance on that well-worn tactic paid off.

For years, the Amsterdam-based company did all of its advertising online. It was a Web-based service and had not considered marketing offline.

"You can imagine the cultural resistance," said chief marketing officer Paul Hennessy. But after seven years of business, only one in 10 consumers surveyed in the United States had heard of the brand. And even though the company was aggressive about search engine marketing, few people would click on those ads because it was an unfamiliar name. After it launched its U.S. TV campaign in 2013, brand awareness jumped, and so did bookings. That success is the reason Canadians began seeing Booking.com ads on TV here. (They have also launched in other markets including the U.K., Germany, and Australia.) Canadian bookings have also risen and brand awareness more than doubled.

"We said, 'If trust is what we need, and storytelling is what will ultimately build that trust, the best way to tell customers who we are is through a TV commercial," Mr. Hennessy said.

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Television is still a powerful medium to create mass awareness. But for those that already have high awareness, a change in approach can make a big difference. Mr. De Miguel describes the appeal of Manulife's campaign as a type of "choose your own adventure" storytelling.

For Participaction, however, a counterintuitive approach helped achieve the same purpose.

For its latest campaign, the nonprofit promoting physical activity encouraged families to unplug and go outside to play. And it saw a major increase in online engagement.

Last year, when the organization ran its "Bring Back Play" TV campaign, traffic to the website jumped roughly 56 per cent, as people sought out health information and exercise tips. In the same period this year, unique visits are up 344 per cent.

One of the big differences in this year's ads? They cheekily conclude with the line, "Don't visit our website."

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