How To Use Storytelling In Marketing

Storytelling in MarketingFrom traditional TV advertising to social media, storytelling is a hugely important part of marketing. Stories work as vessels for a message that really stay in the mind of the audience. They can get a message across in a tangible way and can be repeated and remembered easily.

Many psychology and marketing writers have highlighted the importance of storytelling including me (of course) and (spoiler alert!) Jonah Berger in his bestselling book ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On‘ which highlights the key elements of viral content. Fables have been used over the years in a similar way, to get an important message across and spread in a way that is effective.

In their book ‘Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck‘ authors Chip and Dan Heath explain the results of a ten year study to find the core elements of something that is memorable. They go into detail about what makes things stick and what makes things less easy to remember and (another spoiler alert!) stories is one of the main elements here too.

So stories help us to remember and message and make it easier for us to share it. This is why storytelling has been such a big part of marketing for so many years. We’ve seen famous advertising campaigns such as Subway’s (although now unfortunately controversial) Jared campaign to highlight the healthiness of their sandwiches. We’ve also seen Blendtec’s popular YouTube videos with the simple story of ‘A man tries to blend an iPad. And it works!”

Each year, retail giants like John Lewis and Sainsbury’s bring out a Christmas TV advert with an emotional story at the centre. These high budget campaigns are remembered and talked about all over the country, but storytelling doesn’t need to be high budget.

What aren’t stories?

Before I explain what I mean by stories, I feel I should explain what stories aren’t. They aren’t products. Saying you have a new product isn’t a story and explaining the product specs to your customers isn’t storytelling. If you went to your kids’ room to read them a bed time story, saying “I bought you this new book. It has 30 pages and a nice cover” wouldn’t cut it.

What are stories?

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a narrative and something happens in them. That is what makes a story, but of course you really need to know what makes a good story.

When I spoke to Paul Smith, author of ‘Lead with a Story’, he told me that the primary foundation of a great story is

  • A hero that’s relatable to the audience
  • A goal that the hero considers worthy
  • A challenge that your audience is likely to encounter themselves

I should also add, in good storytelling from a literature point of view, it is important that the protagonist is able to adapt with the story, so their experiences change them.

How do I find stories about my products?

I’ll admit, this can be tricky. However, you can always speak to your customers, find out how they used your products and listen out for any stories they can tell. Find out about the difficulties they had to overcome and if you can’t use their stories, then you can always create a similar one.

Think about your customers’ emotions. What are they feeling when they need your product and what are they feeling when your product solves their problem?

Sometimes the stories don’t even need to be about your customers or a character related to your customers. There are some occasions when you need to think about what they care about. A great example of this is companies that sell animal-friendly products, for example organic milk and dairy. Sharing the stories of the cows and chickens, showing them as being happy, compared to the lives of the animals in factory farms can be a great way to get a message across, and if you can mould it into a narrative then you may have a winner on your hands.

Keep it simple

Another spoiler alert here: In Chip and Dan Heath’s fantastic book ‘Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck‘ they discuss the importance of simplicity.

You won’t be able to hold the attention of your audience for long, so you need to get to the hook of the story as quick as possible. A 2 hour Hollywood epic-style lead up may result in your audience switching off. Try to boil your campaign down to the key elements of your story. Let your audience know that this is something they would be interested in as soon as you can.

Think about the storytelling method too. Some stories are best told in words, some in video, some in image. If you can get the message across in the simplest, yet most compelling way possible, choose that channel. Measure the results, and compare it to stories you’ve told through other mediums. For example, did your audience respond best to your video stories or your blog posts?

Stories are great

Don’t you just hate it when you look at a Facebook stream and they have nothing but promotional messages? A bit of storytelling can add such a great element to any social media marketing campaign and it doesn’t need to be costly. If you can’t afford to hire a video team, use text or images. Stories can be told in a Tweet!

Initially it may be tricky coming up with ideas if you’ve not taken the storytelling approach before, but over time you’ll find that you notice stories, you think of stories and you appreciate stories much more when you’re on the look out for them. Whether you need to boost your social media, your advertising or make your website more effective, storytelling is key.

About the Author

Patrick is a digital marketing consultant with around 10 years' experience, covering SEO, PPC, social media, email and user experience.

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