There’s a Native American proverb that says, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” Before humans developed systems for writing and reading, the only way to record our history was by passing down stories from generation to generation. Through storytelling in marketing, this tradition lives on.
Stories have been a key driver of change throughout human history – both for good and bad. Good storytelling can evoke emotion and serve as a compelling call-to-action.
According to the 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, nearly half an adult’s day in the U.S. is dedicated to consuming content. Marketing experts estimate that most Americans are exposed to around 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day.
Our brains begin to filter out these messages to avoid information overload. We ignore the ones we don’t have a personal interest in. The pieces of content that stand out and stand the test of time are those that tell a good story that the reader can relate to.
In this post, we’ll take a look at what storytelling in marketing is and how to use it to increase engagement and grow your business.
What is storytelling in marketing?
Storytelling in marketing refers to using fact or narrative to connect a brand to its prospects and customers, with a focus on linking a company’s core values with the values of its target audience. It helps you build trusting relationships.
Values are the character traits that define your company–your company identity. By focusing your marketing messages on your values, you’ll engage the customers who share those values.
Why is it effective?
Humans are hardwired to love stories.
Researchers in Spain have found that stories stimulate our brains and even change how we act in life. Your brain doesn’t make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the very same neurological regions are stimulated.
There’s a large overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with others — specifically, interactions in which we attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.
Scientists call this ability of the brain to create a map of the intentions of others “theory of mind.” Narratives told within a story offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with the characters’ desires and pain points.
Marketers can leverage these aspects of the brain by thoughtfully using storytelling in marketing to evoke emotions from target audiences. Stories help create connection and curiosity about your brand. They can also help with your brand reputation efforts.
What makes a good story?
Companies tell stories every day. However, not many are truly good at it. Here are five key attributes of a great story:
- Entertaining – If your story isn’t entertaining from the very beginning, you’re going to have a heck of a time keeping your audience’s attention. Good stories engage the audience and keep them excited about what will happen next.
- Educational – A good story can serve as a learning opportunity for the listener/reader, sparking curiosity about a specific subject, or your company and products/services.
- Universal – Your story has to be relatable. Otherwise, it won’t tap into the emotions of your audience. Think about how your story will tie into the experiences, dreams or hardships of your target customer.
- Organized – Most stories follow a very specific framework. A hero has a problem, meets a guide who gives them a plan that calls them to action. The guide helps navigate the hero to success. There’s a reason why this framework is used over and over again. It works, particularly with storytelling in marketing.
- Memorable – Good stories make ideas stick. Whether the story is inspirational, funny, or scandalous, providing information through stories helps your message stick in your audience’s mind.
3 components of an effective story
- Characters – Every story has at least one character. Someone needs to serve as the hero. The hero is the key to relating to the audience. If they can put themselves in the hero’s shoes, they’re more likely to be called to action. Case studies accomplish this very well.
- Conflict – The hero in the story must face a challenge. We all face various challenges and seeing your character struggle with one elicits emotion and empathy from the audience. Watching the hero overcome the challenge will feel like a victory to everyone listening.
- Resolution – All good stories must come to an end. But don’t leave the audience hanging. Offer a resolution that wraps up the story, puts it into context and leaves the audience with a call-to-action.
The 7 types of stories
In the book, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories,” Christopher Booker argues that all stories can be categorized into one of seven archetypes.
- Overcoming the Monster – An underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil of some kind. Think David and Goliath. Or a new startup trying to compete in a cut-throat industry.
- Tragedy – A tragedy focuses on a villain, and the audience sees them plunge further into darkness before their destruction at the hands of the hero. In the context of storytelling for marketing, the villain could be an obstacle that a business simply can’t overcome.
- Comedy – A light and funny story with a happy ending.
- Rebirth – A story of reinvention, such as revamping the technology solutions and apps you use to manage your business.
- The Voyage and Return – Transformation via travel and homecoming, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
- The Quest – A trip from point A to point B, à la Lord of the Rings.
- Rags to Riches – This is the classic Cinderella story of someone who comes from nothing and makes something of themselves. Again, like a small business using growth hacks and evolving into a powerhouse brand in their industry.
How can you make your brand’s stories more compelling?
Focus on people – While it may be tempting to wrap a story around your cool new product, resist. People don’t form emotional connections to products, but to other people. Find a way to incorporate a human element into your story, by highlighting how your product makes someone’s life better.
Stick to your core values – It’s tempting to try to craft stories around trending topics. However, your message will experience a deeper connection and greater longevity if you tell stories that align with your brand values.
Leverage data – Carefully placed data points can go a long way to make your story more impactful. Data can inform, optimize, and adapt your story, serving as a proof point for your big ideas, and making your storytelling more effective.
Retell the same story – To make a story stick, your audience must hear it several times, in a few different ways. Today, there are so many different marketing channels, including blogs, email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. To make a real impact, tell your story over time, across channels, customizing it to the requirements of each one.
Listen closely – Good stories are everywhere. All you have to do is pay attention. What are your customers and prospects talking about? Engage in social listening. Find ways to leverage user-generated content in your stories for increased authenticity.
Make your customer the hero – In the book “Building a Storybrand,” Donald Miller reveals a critical mistake most companies make – positioning your company as the hero of your stories.
You are not the hero. The customer is the hero. This is the best way to engage the customer, by inviting them into the story.
Instead, your company should serve as a guide. You’re the Yoda to their Luke Skywalker. You help to guide them successfully through their challenges. This keeps the customer interested by letting them know what’s in it for them and how you can help them to achieve their goals.
Arguably, every great leader throughout history rose to his or her position thanks to the ability to tell a good story.
When it comes to brands, Apple is usually listed as one of the world’s most compelling storytellers. The company manages to take a complex industry like technology and make it accessible by showing how its products benefit its users through stellar storytelling in marketing.
In today’s competitive landscape, creating compelling narratives has never been more critical to marketers. With the growing variety of channels, formats, and mediums available, marketers have countless opportunities to use storytelling to make an emotional impact on their target audiences.
Successful brands differentiate themselves through storytelling. But the most elite brands focus less on telling their own stories, and more on inviting the customer into the story. By giving the customer a vision of a better life, acting as their guide, and helping them overcome challenges, you create significant brand loyalty.
What’s one way you can incorporate more storytelling into your marketing? Share it in the comments section below!