Ah, life. It used to be so simple—when it came to sales, anyway. You shook hands, talked to people, told the stories that made your product or service sound amazing—and then proved them true. And if your customer liked it (or you) enough, he bought it. “There is no sale without the story; no knockout without the setup,” quoth Gary Vaynerchuk, and he’s right. Storytelling is sales’ sweet science.
But modernity had complicated sales, as it has everything else. Where, in simpler days, you went to an agency (the Madmen type), your choices now represent an embarrassment of riches. The essential question remains, however: if you’re a business looking to use brand story to better connect with your audience, to whom do you turn for help?
Chaos in the Kingdom
It’s no simple question. There are storytelling agencies like ours. There are custom publishers. And then multiplatform publishers, digital strategists, and digital agencies. There are brand journalists. And brand agencies. And ad agencies (of course). And don’t forget PR agencies. Or the SEO specialists who ensure that your story gets found. Or the content and content marketing strategists who sort out how best to prompt customer action across multiple platforms. Or media relations folk, media buyers, and yada yada yada (as someone said in the simpler times before social media.)
So, Why All the Specialties for Something ‘Simple’ like Storytelling?
Simply put, the way we communicate has changed.
Whereas print, and then broadcast, once dominated brand and business storytelling, consumers can now consume content—and interact with brands—anytime, using smartphones and channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. In the new rules, interruptive advertising doesn’t play. Such formats are kryptonite to the trust, longevity, and loyalty that most brands seek to build.
In addition, while marketing and advertising agencies once dominated the print- and broadcast-based sales world, digital media and mobile technology have brought with them new capabilities in targeting, reach, and interaction—with new opportunities to measure and optimize all of it. Not to mention selling and distributing on those same channels.
To make life just a little simpler for us all, we’ve taken our best shot at defining the players in today’s story-driven sales and marketing game. These are the players we turn to time and again, in order to execute effectively on a range of client projects.
Marketing: The Big-Picture Sales Story
Anyone who’s studied marketing knows it always boils down to the ‘4 Ps’: product, place, price and promotion. Together, they help define how to represent a product or service for sale. Many brands develop a marketing strategy on their own. If they don’t, marketing agencies, broadly, provide services relating to figuring out those 4Ps, usually with an emphasis on marketing communications (the techniques and channels that deliver the promotional side of the marketing mix).
Some agencies also cover a little advertising and PR, a sprinkle of media relations, print and publicity, design and packaging, sometimes website design and management, customer engagement and retention, and social media. There are, usually, lots of specialists in the aforementioned fields—but a big marketing agency will take them all under its wing. A larger marketing agency, in other words, is an umbrella agency providing a range of services to help brands get in front of their audiences. Smaller agencies specialize.
Branding: The ‘Why’ Behind the Story
Branding specialists help clarify the essence of what’s being sold—and why it will connect with the audience. Seth Godin describes a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” Paul Biedermann, of re:DESIGN, puts it another way: “A brand is the essence of one’s own unique story. This is as true for personal branding as it is for business branding.” Biedermann adds that “the key, though, is reaching down and pulling out the authentic, unique “you.” Otherwise, your brand will just be a facade.” Brand strategists and agencies, then, focus today on defining and clarifying this ‘brand essence’ so that it can be expressed on various platforms, for a multiplicity of sales and marketing purposes.
Advertising: These MadMen Drive to Sale
Technically speaking, advertising has usually referred to the stuff a brand has to pay for to get the attention of its target audience: the making and buying a spot for radio, TV, or online, for example. Advertising agencies used to keep largely away from attention-getting stuff that was perceived as free, like PR, social media and media relations. But now a lot of ad agencies bring those elements into the fold, along with brand-expression work including as logo design, brand identity, and web design. Their defining characteristic, however, is simply that they’re usually independent from the clients they represent, providing an outside point of view to the effort of selling the client’s products or services, gaze fixed firmly on the sales totals.
The Storytelling Specialists: Story Helps Sales
This is us. We use the good work of branding specialists to help discover and clarify a brand’s overarching brand story, and to define a set of narrative pillars that a brand can use to connect with audiences across platforms. We also help brands define the many ways they can express those narratives, within print media (brand books and custom magazines, for example) through to digital media channels (websites and microsites, social media, and more). We like the umbrella thing as well, and approach all of our personal, business and brand work from a story-first perspective, employing the expertise of specialists in content marketing, publishing, web design, SEO and social media to tell brand stories the way they need to be told. Speaking from our own experience, story agencies are rooted in a desire to connect emotionally with the end user, and story is always the emotional driver.
Public Relations: Sparking Curiosity and Conversation
PR experts are dedicated to promoting the brands they represent, and gaining awareness for those brands, too. Unlike ad agencies, public relations specialists don’t directly promote brands through paid means, but rather tend to focus on generating ‘buzz’ and/or editorial coverage. They’re masters at “earned media”: getting a brand mentioned or featured on websites, magazines, TV shows or in newspapers. This is a specialty that has taken on new appearances in the age of the Internet: under the mantle of PR, we can now see specialists in fields like “influencer marketing,” as well.
Content Gets the Story Out There
Content specialists are focused on ensuring that you’ve got the right content to connect with your specific audience(s), whether internal to your organization or external customers. Broadly speaking, content experts provide a range of content-related services, from content strategy to content marketing to content creation, production, distribution and measurement. Content strategists usually zero in on business processes that ensure the effective creation, delivery and governance of content within an organization, while content marketers focus more on driving profitable customer action by creating and delivering the right content to a targeted audience.
Digital and Web: Storytelling on New Platforms
Digital and web specialists and agencies, very generally, sort out how to present your brand and brand story online. They broadly provide creative, strategic and technical services that assist brands in best presenting themselves on screens. Web design and development specialists typically conceive of, and execute on sites and applications, while full-service digital agencies these days often cover the gamut for brands, from cultivating an online marketing strategy to creatively directing specific projects. Finally, you guessed it, they’re changing rapidly too: while digital agencies once were known just for web work, they too have expanded services to include interactive experiences, mobile, software, multiplatform storytelling, video, podcasts, social media and, increasingly, virtual reality, augmented reality, and that new mixed reality thing too.
Digital and Search Marketing: Targeted (and Measured) Story Impact
Digital marketing is a broad term referring to marketing products or services online, for example on the web and mobile, and via display advertising. Digital marketing uses story, too—often to great effect—but the main thrust for digital marketers is to set clear targets, measure and adjust. Once your brand knows the story you want to tell, and has clear strategy, these are the specialists to turn to to ensure that you’re reaching your audiences in the right ways. Specialties such as search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), campaign marketing, social media marketing, and email marketing tend to get grouped under the umbrella of digital marketing, although each is a specialization in its own right.
* * *
And, phewf, there you are. That’s our best take—today—at the pros who can help you tell the stories to drive the sales.
Thoughts to add, questions to ask? We welcome ’em!