Since the beginning of time, humans have served as storytellers, passing tales down through the generations in an effort to preserve history. But as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, content marketers recognize storytelling as an opportunity to expand brand reach and strengthen customer trust.
Mario Natarelli, managing partner at MBLM, defines storytelling as "shaping a strong narrative that connects audiences to a brand in emotionally-driven ways, fostering engagement and relevance." Still, resilient narratives should start with a strong brand essence. Natarelli emphasizes that companies must know what they stand for and what makes they unique if they wish to craft an authentic, meaningful narrative. Great storytelling ultimately empowers marketers to establish the voice and personality of their brand, drawing in stakeholders and helping the company rise above its competitors.
Storytelling goes beyond typical content marketing tactics since these tales allow brands to convey the type of experience consumers can expect to have with a company's products and services, explains Matt Langie, CMO of Curalate. Rather than use content to explicitly sell goods, storytelling relies on engaging consumers, ultimately bringing out the human qualities of the company to help marketers establish long-term customer relationships. Storytelling also reinforces trust, which resonates more than any traditional sales pitch, since customers find value in brands that support a shared purpose.
Mike Moeller, vice president of brand and communications at Marketo, also emphasizes that, no matter what story you tell from a content standpoint, it must answer one question: Why should I care?From there, the next most important step is to be consistent with your omnichannel story while being strategic about how to use each channel."You can tell the same story across all channels, but you can't force feed people the same piece of content on each channel," says Moeller. "You have to tailor content for each channel based on what people are looking for when they're using that particular channel and their expectations."
Brands face other challenges along the way, as all successful marketing tactics require companies to strike a careful balance between art and science. Natarelli explains that content acts as fuel or propellant for brands in their efforts to reach, engage, and influence customers. Content marketing pulls to augment promotional messages that push. But as channels and devices multiply, marketers often struggle to determine which types of content are most compelling, while also trying to maintain, sustain, measure, and optimize each channel according to customer expectations. Constant behavioral changes require content marketers to remain in touch with consumer interests, while also developing consistent, seamless stories that support their own mission and appeal to their target audiences.
Although content marketers are well aware of the benefits behind successful storytelling, many have yet to bring these practices full circle. How can brands create content that delivers valuable stories while simultaneously advancing sales goals? The following three factors are critical to effective story development and execution:
1. Establish the Story You Yearn to Share
Content marketers can't tell their story if it hasn't been written yet. Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, recommends that brands should begin their journey by determining the story they want to tell-a story worth telling. "Most brands start with the story around the product or service," says Pulizzi. "This never works. The story is about the audience's needs and pain points, and your differentiated take on that. Narrative must never sell the product. Instead, it needs to have a point of view, must deliver consistently, and must truly fill an audience need."
No consumer wants to be sold to, notes Pulizzi, but everyone likes hearing a story that's relevant to them. However, because brands become so caught up in short-term sales goals, they frequently forget that their customers must come first. Content marketers often falter with storytelling because they tell campaign-based stories over short periods of time instead of developing a longer-term narrative aimed at building loyal relationships. Instead, marketers should look to longer-term initiatives that may very well take years to blossom, Pulizzi emphasizes, since a campaign mentality will ultimately hinder bottom line growth.
2. Understand What Constitutes Great Storytelling
Although everyone defines a 'story' differently, Andrew Linderman, founder of The Story Source and adjunct instructor at New York University, notes that, at its core, content marketing is storytelling with the goal of driving a particular action. Business storytelling, specifically, is a way of connecting an experience, or series of experiences, to a specific call to action. But before marketers can effectively drive business through content, good stories must all exhibit these three key qualities:
- Be Honest: Linderman explains that humans have an innate sense for detecting when someone's lying to them, and dishonesty-especially from a marketing standpoint-can be lethal for the company or the brand. Therefore, content marketers need to tell it like it is to gain consumers' respect, for they will admire the company's candor and authenticity.
- Be Personal: Marketers should develop content that establishes the consumer's stake in the outcome of the story, a.k.a. the success of the product or service being sold. Linderman highlights that, by creating campaigns in which the characters in the story have clearly something at stake, consumers will begin to engage, for the more personal something is, the more people will care and interact.
- Be Specific: Marketers must be explicit about what's possible as a result of using their company's product or service. The product or service is an extension of the customer experience, as well as the company's values-the central idea of the brand. As such, every "story" should communicate these values to maintain brand consistency and help future marketing endeavors.
3. Engage Customers' Emotions to Deliver Value and Relevance
Emotion stands as the primary pillar of successful storytelling because this element permits marketers to create intimacy between customers and the brand. Most purchase decisions depend upon emotion on some level, as consumers usually gravitate toward brands that share the same values and better their everyday lives. Jennifer Sullivan, marketing executive at Allego, notes that one crucial attribute-authenticity-empowers marketers to embed emotional elements into their storytelling and engage their audience at a much deeper level while reinforcing the corporate brand. Successful brands address customer pain points by telling stories that connect with consumers and satisfy their needs.
For instance, Sullivan points to Procter & Gamble's Swiffer "Golden Couple", Lee and Morty Kaufman, real people who demonstrate how these products have changed their lives. These two 90-year-old lovebirds from New York talk about the "Swiffer effect" in every day life and do so as real people carrying out real lives. Audiences have become smitten with the couple. Besides being adorable, they are relatable as people for both men and women. The commercial tells the story of the couple using the Swiffer and adds in elements relevant to both genders, making them even more memorable because there's an authentic appeal in their interactions with each other and with the product.
"Allow your content to be emotive in the sense that it gets to the emotional aspects of the problems or issues that your audience has to contend with," says Sullivan. "Then explain how your product or service can directly address their pains by telling a story. An engaging and 'real' or 'authentic' story will give customers pause to consider what you're offering."
Sullivan also notes that good content often begins with some question or thought-provoking statement-Imagine a world where...-because such phrases invite customers into the story. Ultimately, customers want to be engaged. They want to be part of the story, and appealing to their emotions lets them become part of the story. Everyone wants to feel like they're part of something greater than themselves and by bringing customers into the fold, brands can gain their trust, which inevitably translates to improved loyalty.
Dove and Dawn Blend Storytelling and Social Justice to Capture Attention
Tapping into consumers' emotions usually means brands must appeal to their sensitive side. For both Dove and Dawn, however, successful storytelling relies upon tugging at consumers' heartstrings by embracing social issues that go beyond the scope of their given products. Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, for example, plays off the company's long-standing reputation in the health and beauty industry, while connecting with women on an emotional, personal level. These campaigns don't try to sell soap or shampoo. Instead, they promote self-confidence and inner beauty by telling the stories of real women and real customers. Dove remains true to its brand promise by tearing down societal conventions and endorsing personal wellness.
Here's one of Dove's most notorious campaigns, in which women recognize that they're often their own worst critics:
Similarly, Dawn reaches beyond dish soap by demonstrating other uses for its products. Dawn focuses on how wildlife rescuers use their soap to safely clean animals that have been threatened by oil spills and other man-made disasters. In fact, Dawn has helped rescue and release more than 75,000 wild animals over the past 30 years. By buying these products, consumers know they're part of something greater because each purchase helps the brand support future efforts to protect animals in need.
Here's one of Dawn's most recent advertisements, in which Deborah Heritage, wildlife volunteer, demonstrates how Dawn dish soap helps her rehabilitate vulnerable ducks and sea birds:
Compelling storytelling, at its center, doesn't aim to sell products or services by blatantly revealing the benefits. Instead, as proven above, effective stories come from the heart. Content marketers should embrace these opportunities and understand that honest emotion and authentic stories resonate more than direct marketing campaigns, thereby building brand advocates in the process.