Here at ECHO, we revere story. Good story not only has a powerful impact on its audience, engendering affection and trust, but can also be a brilliant tool for discovery, helping the story’s teller to uncover and define values and meaning. Story-driven content marketing can do this, too.
Story is cool. Our brains glom on to it. We love story, and we need it. We seek out story, in the hope that there’s something valuable to learn. We use story to transfer information and values. We remember story.
For all of these reasons, brands and businesses all over the world are embracing the promise of storytelling to better connect with their target audiences, whether employees, customers, or investors.
And what’s especially cool for us is the emerging awareness that story can drive results, especially when partnered with disciplines like digital marketing and content marketing.
Storytelling and Content Marketing Defined
To be clear, storytelling on its own is not about an end result. Storytelling connects people, genuinely — partially because interactivity is its essence. As defined by the National Storytelling Network, classic storytelling is “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.”
People and organizations use the tool of storytelling to convey complex ideas; to create emotional impact; to build strong relationships with their listeners, readers, and viewers; and sometimes to deepen communities over time. And certainly, storytelling can be — and has been — used expertly by brands looking to achieve particular business goals.
But storytelling isn’t about selling.
Content marketing, on the other hand, is. The fine folks at the Content Marketing Institute define content marketing as: “a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
It’s right there: content marketing is ultimately about profitable customer action. Content marketing is a business tool. Its goal is to change or prompt a user’s behaviour in a specific way, for example compelling somebody to download an ebook or attend a webinar or read a blog post that will hopefully attract and endear that person to the brand that produced it. The end result: to buy, or endorse, that brand’s product or service.
This distinction between the two disciplines — and the fact that each can make the other stronger, for brands — is precisely why and how they can work so powerfully together.
Content marketing without story is — well, it’s everywhere right now. You’ve seen it. You’ve probably loathed it.
A Story About Storyless Content Marketing
Content marketing without story is churning out 12 bland throwaway blog posts a month rather than one or two lasting posts with thought and soul. It’s making a tiny change in the way your pop-up newsletter promo reads, rather than adding more value to your newsletter for customers. It’s using the bejesus out of the best content curation tool, instead of connecting and partnering with other people and brands in a similar industry or space, and finding ways to exchange or add value.
It’s like the guy at the last networking event you went to, whose opening question to you, delivered with one eye on you and one on his phone as you took your first sip of your first glass of wine, was, “Hi, I’m Brock and my brand, X Co., is all about these values. Who are you and what do you do?”
First, you know that Brock wants something. He’s trying to find out as quickly as possible whether you’re worth his time while literally paying lip service to values. He has a goal of making 20 new LinkedIn contacts before the evening is up. And you know that if you answer the question wrong you’re going to get Brock’s sales pitch — and probably a million targeted emails. You want to run. Now. And online, you do. Click.
Now, we’re certainly not suggesting that Brock would do better by opening with a story. Brock doesn’t care about any story beyond accomplishing what’s on his Asana list today. His agenda is all wrong: he’s made his marketing for X Co. all about data, pseudo-ROI, and ticking items off lists. He thinks that if he acquires you as a customer and then hammers with enough stuff that his research has shown that you want, you’ll eventually cave in and buy something from him. Some people do, after all.
Brands we work with tend to be concerned more with gaining the long-term trust and loyalty of real people — to whom Brock’s approach does not appeal. If Brock were to genuinely connect with these folks, and win their trust, we’d argue that it’d be through story, which would require him to go back to basics. Why, we’d ask, is he in business at all? Who’s he trying to serve? What has he learned from his years in business? Where has he been disappointed? How has he changed? Who’s he most proud of helping? (At the networking event, he’d reciprocate answers to such questions while we both juggled glasses of wine, probing for — and revealing — why each of us was attending, and how we might help each other become more fully, completely ourselves.)
A story-driven approach to any kind of marketing rests on the assumption that your journey, like the journeys of your audience, matters deeply. A story-driven approach assumes that your story will bring as much clarity to your organization and brand as it does to your customers and audience. And it is founded on your willingness to invest the time, and open your mind, to what story can reveal.
Story Discovery and Content Marketing: The Process
Story should lie at the heart of good marketing or advertising. It’s not the marketing or ad itself; rather it’s the foundation on which trust is built, shared experience by shared experience. It’s what makes you feel something about what a brand stands for. It’s the emotional force behind the opt-in. It’s what makes you genuinely want to hear what happens next.
The way it works is simple, too: the process for marketing-focused story discovery is much the same as it is for broad brand storytelling:
- Research comes first
Find out and document all you can about your history, your organization, and your products and services, along with auditing your communications and marketing, and analyzing the stories and messaging you’re conveying now.
- Workshop your story
Armed with research and knowledge, we usually organize a brand story workshop with a client’s team, which zeroes in, first, on discovering business goals and targeted outcomes for the storytelling initiative. The workshop then uncovers organizational values, targeted audience groups, and takes a first pass at desired messaging.
- Draft the story arc
Following — or sometimes in — the workshop, we are usually able to reveal an overarching story arc that is being missed or misrepresented in brand marketing, or that could be used to support that marketing.
A typical story arc, to offer an example, might identify how the protagonist (often a specific persona within the target audience) addresses a specific challenge, and is changed, by their encounter with the brand. With some further digging, we also customarily uncover five or six “pillar narratives” that support that arc, or help to tell that big story.
- Draft pillar narratives
Pillar narratives, for us, are a little like anecdotes one might use to drive home the impact of the main story arc. You can use these narratives to later craft specific messaging. Examples of pillar narratives might include:
- how the brand was created, or evolved over time (incorporating challenge, failure, and trial and error whenever possible);
- a narrative that directly addresses any reasons customers might resist the brand;
- clarity about who the product or service is for;
- 1 or 2 things that are most important for customer to know about the product or service;
- a narrative about the brand’s primary values; and
- the founding story, rich with colourful people and their values.
- Craft your content marketing plan
Now, and only now, can you craft an effective story-driven content marketing strategy that includes the standard core elements: business and content marketing goals, personas, key messaging, content formats and types, operations/governance and measurement/reporting.
How does all this differ from Brock’s brute force approach from back at the host bar?
Your content marketing is rooted in your unique and authentic brand story. You’re not making this stuff up. You’ve taken a deep dive and you know precisely who and what you are. You’re clear on the bigger picture. And you’re well beyond giving meaningless metrics — you can go for something much bigger: genuine connection built on honesty and intimacy, earning trust.
Ultimately, a well-told brand story pinpoints and shares your brand values and passions. It communicates what you stand for, and what you can’t stand or won’t abide. It tells people where you came from, and where you’re going in a way that leaves them nodding, thinking, Yes, I not only understand that, but I like them. It does that because it features a protagonist. It does that because it incorporates conflict and provides a resolution. It has the ups and downs of all stories of human accomplishment. It has pacing. It has structure.
Powered in this fashion, the true and unforgettable account of what makes your brand unique can be told in an infinite variety of ways. And that’s a story people want to hear.