Storytelling is the part of marketing they always forget to tell you about, yet is as ancient and practiced as the concept of community itself.
Between the KPIs and the demographics, storytelling in marketing can occasionally get lost.
But losing the aspect of storytelling in your marketing is what may be causing you to miss your targets, or face a negative online sentiment, or struggle with conversion rates.
Simply put, storytelling is a powerful key to getting people to not only trust you, but to take action – and it's been so for thousands of years.
This isn't just another new media theory – storytelling is ingrained in our biological, cultural, and historical fabric. Our brains are hardwired to enjoy stories. Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been fascinated by the human experience of storytelling. We've studied the emotional, psychological, and cognitive effects of storytelling, revealing their impact on our beliefs, our decision-making abilities, and our shared experience as human beings.
But when it comes to something like marketing, how can something so big, so powerful like storytelling have a place? Is it even possible? I'd like to think it is.
The human memory, according to R.C. Schank, is story based. Information is indexed, stored, and retrieved in the form of stories. It's how we remember those moments in our lives that helped to shape us, and it's also the way we remember brands. The way we interacted with a particular product, or felt when seeing a particular commercial, or experienced a transaction with a business online becomes a story.
R.P. Bagozzi and R. Nataraajan's idea in a 2000 Psychology & Marketing article notes that "people need help in finding what makes them happy, and this is where marketing comes in" is what allows for brands and products specifically to play important roles in our ability to achieve satisfaction through reliving or experiencing a story. We, as marketers, set the stage and dictate the conditions, the plot, and the setting – the audience experiences and then chooses to play a part.
This seems pretty lofty for any business – but I promise, it's not as bad as it sounds.
So, how can you begin to incorporate storytelling into your marketing, bearing in mind that marketers have such a huge responsibility and ability to create stories for their respective audiences? The answer lies first in your ability to think from the perspective of the person you're trying to reach in the first place.
When you were in school, learning about how your body turns food into energy, it wasn't the carefully diagrammed and outlined process in your textbook that made you understand and remember this concept: it was thinking about what you ate for lunch that day. When you find a way to relate something to a personal experience, the message becomes infinitely more powerful.
The same can be said for marketing – and this is the secret you've been seeking for making your marketing more effective. The key isn't to focus on features and benefits: it's to BE HUMAN.
And to be human is to tell stories.
Now the art of storytelling takes practice, but taking the first step and actually trying it in the first place is the only way that you're going to get better. To start with, here are a few easy ways that you can add storytelling into your marketing efforts – some of these ideas will work for all channels. Others may be specific to just a few.
Either way, they're a good starting point for getting in touch with that thread that seems to weave us all together – and everyone loves a good yarn.
7 Ways to Work Storytelling into your Marketing
1. Remember the stories your customers tell.
Listening is the first part of becoming a good storyteller because it >allows for us to get to know intimately what our customers want, need, love, hate, get annoyed by, cherish, find funny, or feel. They give us the information we need to position and tell the right story for maximum impact.
To do this, build out active listening channels – allow for comments in social media, blogs, or in webinars. Take notes on customer service calls. Do whatever you can to record and learn from the stories your customers tell. Next, start creating content that uses insight from their stories (or even their stories themselves, with permission, of course!).
2. Create characters we can connect with – and root for.
When someone is referred to or talked about like a complete stranger or an inanimate object, there's no connection. Develop personas (think characters that embody typical audience archetypes) to guide your content creation.This is the step that precedes creating characters in your own story, because it allows for you to better create stories from your audience's perspective.
Get to know the people you're communicating with, then give them a hero, a mentor, or a villain they already know or can easily identify in your marketing story. For example, Allstate's Mayhem character is a great example of this concept in action.
3. Have a distinct flair and personality.
There's nothing worse than seeing a product marketed solely with features and specifications. Don't be boring. There's no reason for it. People don't buy something because it's made from thin cut aluminum or hand-dyed purple fabric – they buy because of what that product will do for and mean to them. A diamond ring isn't 18K gold and a pear shaped cut – it's a promise of eternal love and romance. A green juice isn't a blend of spinach, kale, and cucumber – it's a gateway to wellness, clearer skin, boosted energy, and that sense of well being that you've been seeking.
Remember the reason why someone would even want your product and service. Then, tell your story with flair. Use personality to make it engaging. Use language that's easily accessible. Use characters and concepts that are relatable. Do it all in a way that's unique to your brand. (Hint: want to see this in action? Just look at Modcloth and their product descriptions.)
4. Make sure you tell them why.
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL STORIES EVER TOLD, DO NOT JUST TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU DO – TELL THEM WHY YOU DO IT. There's a brilliant TED talk by Simon Sinek on this idea. Please, please take the time to watch it and know that people don't by what you do, they buy why you do it.
When you tell your story of why in every interaction, every channel, every tweet, every video, you make it clear who your brand is and why it's so compelling. Plus, it's important to keep in mind that every interaction your brand has with someone (intended audience or not) has a ripple effect. Each interaction, from the colors you choose to the font you use to the blog posts you write to the signature in your email has a profound effect on perception.
5. Find the right story.
Sometimes, it takes testing to find the right story (which is always a good idea for new forays into storytelling!), but a good rule to follow is one that they teach in Journalism 101 – What makes a story newsworthy? The answer: timing (it's current or correlates with something currently happening), significance (people are affected by the story), proximity (the story hits close to home, literally and figuratively), prominence (it features something significant, important, well-known, or famous), and human interest (it appeals to emotion).
From there, create the content that you know will inform, engage, and entertain.
6. Tell the truth.
Even when it's ugly. This is something that we've been taught time and time again through every PR crisis. The truth, in marketing and in life, can often set you free – and it makes a huge difference.
In a report on global brand ethics from Cohn & Wolfe, half of consumers surveyed would stop buying a product or a service if they found the company did not reflect their personal values. 30% would encourage their friends and families to do the same and 25% would go even further and support a boycott of the company. Transparency and trust are truly everything.
In storytelling, these factors may matter even more. When we hear stories from authoritative figures (think teachers, spiritual leaders, family members, or community heads, for example), we place trust in what they have to say because of our perceptions of influence and trust. In today's world, everyone has the potential to be an influencer (thank you, Internet!), so every interaction matters.
When communicating with your audience, in any medium, be truthful and genuine. As people, when can see and feel when we're "being marketed to." The goal is to make it not feel that way and to have a genuine interaction and conversation. Be honest, open, and responsive to feedback. A two way dialogue between you and your audience is well worth it. Some may even argue that transparency may even be the new marketing.
7. Have a clear goal your characters are working toward.
Everyone has a problem they'd like to solve, something they'd like to achieve, a tribe they want to be part of, or a movement they'd like to see grow. It's the whole reason why they want to buy something from you in the first place. Clearly define what you want someone to do, or what you desire that person to know, and then design a story around it.
Calls to action are usually the thing most forgotten in stories – we get tripped up by the details. But even in oral tradition, morals and lessons made stories live on past their original incarnation. If you have something to teach, show, or incite, then your story becomes more worthwhile – and actions can follow. And, in some cases, your story can become an full blown experience or phenomenon, like Small Business Saturday by American Express.
In Jason Thibeault's article, Why Storytelling is So Important to Marketing, he made a few powerful points that sum it up best:
- Create a connection between the customer and the message first and sell the product second.
- Remember that some customers will find appeal in certain messages delivered via certain channels.
- It's not just important to tell a story, you have to tell the right story. That means stop talking about yourself.
- Start talking about your customers. Start letting your customers tell you their stories.
As marketers, we have a duty to create better messages, to play better parts, and to tell more stories. Now is the time to start. After all, we're only human.
Is storytelling part of your marketing strategy? If so, how do you convince, convert, inform, and engage using this ancient yet fundamental skill?
Mandy Boyle gets her daily fix of copywriting as the SEO Team Leader at Solid Cactus. She is also a published freelance writer , co-founder of NEPA BlogCon and was probably a baker in another life. Cupcakes, anyone?