What does all marketing boil down to? Throw out the advertising, the creative, the offer, the sales team, and the website. If you had to simplify marketing down to its fundamental purpose, what would that be?
There are plenty of ways to communicate. I could show you a chart of different digital marketing tactics – each one of those is a form of communication.
So are interpretive dance and Morse Code. Some types of communication are clearly better suited to specific types of messages than others… though I would love to see a content marketing campaign done in interpretive dance. (Lookin’ at you, RedBull.)
Of course, humans have been communicating for thousands of years. What started out as cave paintings and drum beating is now tweets and emails, YouTube videos and web pages.
Now that the number of communications has exploded, we struggle to get our communications heard. Particularly as marketers, we’re on the lookout for any way to rise above the noise. Our survival depends on it.
Enter storytelling. All the way back to the beginning of language, we’ve been telling stories. It’s the oldest way to explain a series of events, or any idea that won’t fit within a sentence or a hand gesture. We’ve used stories to do everything from entertaining a young child to explaining the nature of God.
They communicate in a way that is far more memorable than a string of statistics. Done right, stories are also viral. Everybody loves to hear and tell a good story. Even a simple joke.
Stories are almost sneaky in how well they communicate. While they’re setting up the storyline, good stories are also bonding us to the protagonist. They’re wooing us into seeing that hero as a reflection of ourselves. We identify with, say, their drive to become better people, their craving for home. Their love for their family.
All that pulls at our heart strings. It makes us care. It holds our attention. A good story is a message with dimension and weight. It’s way more than just a string of words, and more than an ad slogan.
And that’s just the beginning. Here’s a few other ways stories work on us:
Stories hold our attention
Quick quiz: What’s the most important thing in content marketing right now?
Stories are fabulous for engagement. And that’s not just an opinion. It’s a measurable effect. Before writing this post, I had never thought of storytelling as a way to reduce bounce rate and increase time on page. But here’s data from Groove HQ showing how stories can do exactly that.
Stories are viral
Stories are effective on another critical front for marketers: They get shared.
Properly crafted stories are fun to retell to other people. It has to be a good story, of course. Lame stories fizzle.
This tendency to share good stories is one of the engines behind social media. What we share tells a story – especially if we’ve got some content strategy behind it.
Stories need a hero
So how could we craft a story about something … say, a photocopier? The first thing we’d need would be the hero, aka the protagonist.
Is the hero the photocopier?
Nope. If your story is going to resonate with your audience, you need a protagonist who’s like them. Your ideal customer would make a good hero. If you’ve been crafting your marketing around personas, each one of those personas could be a protagonist in their own story.
Your story will succeed or fail based on how strongly people identify with the hero.
There are several other key elements to stories. I’d explain them, but Copyblogger has already done an A+ job:
Stories also tend to follow a predictable pattern. This graphic from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is adapted from Joseph Campbell’s popular book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Enough theory. I bet you want some examples of business storytelling. No problem. There are literally millions of them to choose from.
Videos and advertisements
In the context of selling stuff, short videos are the most familiar format for storytelling. Every one of us has seen thousands of stories told via TV ads. And YouTube is a veritable library of short videos telling stories about companies and products.
Most companies can’t afford the expense of a full-length movie. But some can. The Lego Movie is a prime example.
Fun fact: Some people think The Wizard of Oz was a politically motivated pitch to stick to the U.S. gold standard, cleverly disguised as a children’s book, and then a full-length movie.
Public relations firms have been placing stories about brands and companies in mainstream magazines for many decades. Some types of magazines, like Forbes and Fast Company, are so focused on businesses that they’re basically just collections of stories about companies, products, and services. Some of those stories got there thanks to PR agencies. Some are there because staff writers and freelancers found a story worth telling.
Here’s the most common kind of business story – and one of the most successful. Case studies usually come in as one of the most effective content marketing formats. And storytelling is so fundamental to them that another common term for a case study is a “customer story”.
Online reviews have powerful influence over purchasing decisions. BrightLocal recently found that almost all buyers check online reviews at least occasionally. They use the reviews to gauge how good a business is.
Reviews are indeed stories. They’re just much shorter than case studies. They’re also told by consumers, not the company. And because they are not controlled by the company (or at least are not supposed to be controlled by the company), online reviews sometimes don’t tell a story the company likes to hear. But that’s exactly why these types of stories are among the most trusted sources.
Emails, particularly email autoresponders, are a proven container for storytelling. Most of the master copywriters use automated email programs (aka “drip campaigns”) to tell a story over time.
First, they use the early emails to build trust and offer value. As the relationship grows, they are subtly training their subscribers to open their emails and read them. And then, every so often, they offer something for sale. Some copywriters and email marketers are so good at this approach that they can turn just one email message into $96,000 in sales.
Word of mouth
Word of mouth is just storytelling done offline. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth. It’s notoriously hard to track and measure, but it’s one of the best ways to sell and market anything. In just about any country.
Back to you
Storytelling scares some marketers off. It can sound expensive and confusing. But don’t let that hold you back. You don’t need an agency or a Hollywood studio. You’ve already got all the skills and resources you need to tell a story. You’re a human, after all.
Are you using any storytelling in your marketing? Which formats and platforms seem to work best? Do you think this is where marketing is headed, or is it just another flash-in-the-pan trend? Tell us what you think in the comments.