It’s been called the most valuable business skill of the next decade. A scientifically-proven way to enthrall audiences and get them to do what you want.
But if you mention storytelling to some business owners or marketing managers, you’ll often get a blank look in return. Maybe even a frown.
Why the resistance? There are a couple of possible reasons:
When many of us think of storytelling, we think movies, books, and big budget commercials ‒ projects that require massive budgets and big ad agencies and conference rooms full of “talent.” It seems like something that’s out of reach for small companies.
But … storytelling is actually one of the least expensive marketing tactics. You’ve already got the expensive equipment: your brain. That’s the story generator. A blog, or a video camera, or even crayons are all you need to communicate it.
“It’s a fad.”
Storytelling can sound like just another marketing fad … until you’ve gotten the proper introduction to it. Because storytelling is actually the oldest marketing tactic ever.
You know the story of Adam and Eve, right? Well, let’s view that as a marketing story. The message (this is a dumbed down version of the story, as I am not a Bible scholar) is to obey God or bad things will happen.
You may strongly disagree with my interpretation of that messaging, but there’s no way around it: That story sends a message about how we should behave. It aims to persuade us to behave in a certain way, though it does not overly come out and tell us so. But boy, do we get the message anyway.
Do you see the similarities between this and marketing? Marketing is, ultimately, about delivering a persuasive message. Stories are a fantastic way to do that.
Armed with that information, most business owners are far more receptive to trying some storytelling.
But, how, exactly? Should they break out the parchment and the fountain pen, and begin with “A long time ago…?
They should try a few things like this:
1. Tell the story of how you started your business.
Let’s start with the easy stuff first. Every business has some kind of a story about how it came to be. These are called “origin stories” in the worlds of filmmaking and books. Some origin stories are more exciting than others – think “Batman Begins” versus “How ABC Accounting Was Founded.” But both of those are origin stories.
Here’s an example of a B2B business origin story. They’ve stripped it down a lot and used a timeline to show their progression.
It’s not a bad start, but there’s more that could be done here. For instance, a short two- or three-minute video of the founder talking about how the company came to be might be far more compelling than this. It would give the company a human face, for starters, and would let the viewer vicariously share in the excitement and anxiety that goes along with launching a brand new business.
That would give viewers a way to share the founder’s experience, which is an effective and engaging strategy. This is the very acme of storytelling – to let others share in our experiences.
It turns out that when we hear a good story we live it for ourselves to a certain extent. This shared experience is what makes storytelling so effective. Our listeners identify with us far better after they’ve heard the story. They feel that they know us better and thus are more willing to trust us and our company.
While videos are ideal for storytelling, if you can’t get your founder in front of a camera, there are plenty of other options. Try to get some photographs that represent the company’s start. Even a photo of the proverbial garage or the house that contained the first home office will do.
Images of the company’s early days show an enormous amount about who you are as a company. They are part of your story, but also part of your company brand. They shape your company’s vision.
You don’t have to use an office photo, either. Here’s the first van that the adventure company DeTourVegas bought. They paid $6,000 for it, used.
DeTourVegas bought all the equipment they needed second-hand, actually, because the company had a real commitment to living frugally. They didn’t want debt to force them to be totally profit-driven; they wanted to be able to put customer happiness first.
They held to that goal, and it says an enormous amount about them and their “brand.” And it evokes the independence and ingenuity you’d expect of adventurers.
2. Share your customers’ stories.
These are, of course, known as case studies. They’re real-world examples of how your products or services have benefitted real customers.
Case studies are exceptionally effective. If you don’t have a few in your content arsenal already, it’s time to get some.
Here’s the cliff notes version of how to do that:
- Develop a list of 3-7 customers or clients who’ve gotten particularly good results from working with you. These should be people you’ve almost become friends with – customers who are happy and probably willing to help you out.
- Consider what kind of payment you might give them for helping with the case study. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be anything. Other times, a discount might be appropriate, or maybe access to a special product or feature you know they’re interested in but aren’t quite ready to pay for yet.
- Try to avoid direct cash payments. They tend to result in case studies that seem stilted, and the company giving the case study may feel differently toward you afterward.
- If you do a lot of promotion of the case study, the exposure for their brand might be enough to convince your partner company to do the case study for no “payment” … though they’re basically taking payment in the free advertising they’ll get from participating.
- Get very specific about what you want the case study to cover. Usually they’re about 2-3 pages long, maybe 500 to 1,000 words. You’ll want to get at least 3-4 direct quotes from the customer, so you’ll need to do an interview. You may also want to get reports or some visual data that shows the before-and-after story of how you helped them. You’ll also need a couple of photographs of the company and of its employees.
- If the information you’ll be getting from the company could be considered confidential, consider concealing the identity of the company. This is less than ideal, but many firms are very protective of their data and inside processes. They may not agree to do the case study unless they can protect company secrets.
- Give the company a chance to review (and have the option to make changes to) the case study before it gets published. You don’t want any surprises and you definitely don’t want to make them unhappy.
Want a few examples of case studies? We just happen to have a few.
3. Share customer experiences on social media.
User-generated content is one of the most interesting things in marketing right now. It’s trusted more than brand-created content, and is often far more effective at generating sales than brand-created content.
The user-generated content you’ll get probably won’t be a traditional, fully fleshed out story, with a beginning and a middle and an end. What you’ll get will be like a frame of a movie instead. But it’s enough – we humans are fantastic at filling in missing information about other people’s stories (almost to a fault).
So if you show just one moment of someone’s story, you can trust your audience to “get” the rest.
You can also share stories from people who aren’t customers, but whose stories support your company values. Kind of like curated “newsjacking”:
4. Share stories of your employees or of your company culture.
“People do business with people.” You’ve heard it a thousand times. Here’s how to apply it: Use the stories of how you do business to show your company culture.
This is much more effective than just claiming you espouse certain attributes. So instead of saying “We encourage our employees to take risks,” tell the stories of how employees took risks.
You can also tell stories about your own employees. For example, when Karrie Sundbom (our Content Marketing Manager) joined Act-On, we published a post about her background and why she came to work here. You could do this for almost any employee if your company is small, or just for senior staff if you’re mid-sized.
Bonus benefit: These types of company stories are great for attracting prospective hires. The more you can share about what it’s like to work at your company, the better. It will help you attract people who would be a good fit, and can also help people who won’t be a good fit know that early on. Both things save HR a lot of time.
5. Write better press releases.
Want some free media exposure? Who doesn’t? And yet, many press releases are about as compelling as cardboard.
So turn it around. Make your company’s latest product launch, or new location, or whatever, into a story.
There’s always an angle for these things … there’s always some impetus (even if it’s just a new executive’s project). Tell that story. Include a few details about the crucial players who made it happen. Sprinkle in a bit about what challenges they faced. Share some specifics about key turning points or evolutions of the project.
Editors and journalists are far more likely to respond to information like that. Especially if you suggest your company’s particular tale might tie into, say, the theme of American business. Or the theme of creative use of resources … or almost anything else.
This theme element is another core attribute of a good story. It’s the answer to the question, “What is your story about?”
The real answer to that question isn’t: “It’s about our new location” or “It’s about how our new CEO wants to change the company.” A theme is broader. Like: “This is about reinvention.” Or: “This is about living outside our comfort zone“.
Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication. Going way back in human history, as soon as we could string together a couple of words we started developing stories.
Even those early, primitive stories made assumptions about the world. And their purpose was to help us understand the world, according to the assumptions of the story.
Stories explained to us that if A happens, B is likely to follow next. So if we heard a growl in real life, we might remember how the hero heard a growl in a story just before the lion attacked.
While the plots of those stories were advancing, certain messages were woven in (it’s good to help the tribe; lions tend to attack from behind). Those messages helped to entertain us, sure. But they also persuaded us to behave a certain way.
It’s not so different now. Instead of lions, we’re talking about business competition. Instead of helping a tribe, we’re trying to help our company, or our town, or our cause. But the messaging – the marketing – still gets woven into stories.
Where we go wrong with storytelling is where we try to editorialize or push our agendas too hard. Agendas make for boring stories, just like sales pitches make for boring content.
But if you can step back from the short-term goals of agendas and opinions and the like, and let the story naturally embody those views … well, then you’ve got your marketing encoded into your business storytelling. Then you can use whatever medium you’d like to tell the story – video, text, images, social shares. Maybe even sticks or interpretive dance.
Back to you
How does your company use storytelling in its marketing? Do you have any favorite examples of storytelling used as marketing? Tell us about them in the comments.