We’ve said on this blog that great content informs, entertains or inspires. But we never fully explained what makes a piece of content informative, entertaining or inspiring.
So that’s what we’re gonna do.
To be informative, content needs to be staked in reality. There needs to be a setting and a situation for which this information would add value – a conflict and a resolution. How do you build that context? Storytelling.
To be entertaining, content needs to somehow leave your audience feeling fulfilled. You’ve satiated their curiosity, tickled their funny bone and captivated their interest. How? With a good story.
To be inspiring, content needs to fuel the imagination and expand the sense of what can be achieved with the right resources. How do you demonstrate the possibilities to your audience? Again, with storytelling.
Storytelling in marketing is how you package your message so it comes across as more than just another thinly veiled sales pitch.
All marketing is, at its core, storytelling.
People remember stories better than information
Think about a story that really resonated with you. Regardless of what tale you chose, there were most likely:
- Stakes – things to be gained and lost.
- Lessons learned.
- One or more characters you could relate to.
- Familiar feelings.
- Conflicts and resolutions.
- Illuminating insights.
Human beings are not like computers. They make sense of the world in ways that are impossible to quantify. That doesn’t suddenly change when they take on the role of B2B client or B2C consumer. They still respond to empathy. They still appreciate the emotional connection of a great story.
And unlike computers, humans aren’t adept at remembering exact information. But they are good at remembering information when it’s a detail in a story. In fact, cognitive psychologists believe that people are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it’s presented as a key part of a story.
I can illustrate this with an example. Let’s compare two versions of the same core message.
“Our special line of dog food is made from salmon and is formulated for pups with sensitive bellies. It’s made with all-natural ingredients to reduce digestive distress and skin irritation.”
Example 2 (a true story):
Kiko the pup was waking up after midnight and becoming sick on the rug. In the hours following, he refused to sleep or drink water. He just sat and stared at me with his big brown eyes as if to say “make it stop.”
The vet gave him a clean bill of health and advised us to try feeding him rice and chicken for a while to see what would happen. Several weeks of jasmine rice and canned chicken breasts later, and we’re at it again, me cleaning the rug, him giving me that sad look, me wondering “what gives?” him pleading “make it stop.”
Through some ongoing trial and error, we learned that our special boy has a sensitive tummy, and is especially intolerant to chicken. It’s been four months since switching to a salmon-based kibble made for dogs with delicate bellies and, these days, the only pleading look Kiko gives me is as if to say, “can I has more kibble, please?”
The first piece of copy is perfectly fine, but it’s a canned statement (pun intended) that could apply to just about any dog food brand.
By going with the story, you achieve several goals:
- You tell a relatable story that a potential customer can easily associate with your brand (“you know, the company that made Kiko’s belly better”).
- You potentially capture keywords from concerned dog parents scouring the web for answers.
Every story is a human story
Even when you’re writing about something seemingly lifeless and dull, there is a human story in it somewhere.
For instance, we’ve worked with clients in the past that employ a technology called “robotic process automation.” Basically, little software robots – kind of like macros – complete boring computer chores like moving a bunch of data from one spreadsheet to another.
So, how do you humanize something as inhuman as an invisible robot?
Ironically, you focus on how it helps a person be more human. Talk about how it cuts out all the overtime wasted on mundane tasks, so they can put those hours back into their family. How it gives them a chance to reallocate clerical tasks to creative thinking. How they’ll never miss another birthday because they were working late.
There lies in this example a fundamental truth about great storytelling: The best stories are about the people reading them. Humans are really into themselves. Their struggles. Their triumphs. Their adventures. Their experiences.
If you’re focusing on your product capabilities in the bulk of your content instead of what they’ll help your target audience achieve, you’re telling the wrong story.
Examples of great storytelling in marketing and why they work
“Apple at Work – The Underdogs”
Why it works: “Apple’s Ad About a Scrappy Group of Co-workers Is Honestly Better Than Most Sitcoms,” AdWeek wrote. You just can’t buy that kind of press. What makes this so interesting is that the characters are relatable, and they’re facing a believable problem. You’ll notice plenty of Apple products are peppered in, but they never eclipse the focus of the narrative – a scrappy team of designers working against the clock to seize a rare opportunity.
Why it works: Remember how we said people like stories about themselves? Every year Spotify releases a big data story all about the music you’ve listened to the year prior. The report uses data storytelling to show you how many hours of music you’ve listened to, which songs and genres you favored, your musical age and other fun, personalized information.
“The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People” (Podio)
Want to develop a better work routine? Discover how some of the world’s greatest minds organized their days.
Click image to see the interactive version (via Podio).
Why it works: This is the perfect example of the “how” in storytelling overshadowing the “what.” A different content creator had actually come up with the idea of showing how creative famous people spent their day, but there was no easy mechanism for comparison. Podio recreated the idea (you can see the original here) so you can, for instance, see how much less Sigmund Freud slept compared to Vladimir Nabokov. A true clinic in visual storytelling.
“Bertha Benz: The Journey That Changed Everything”
Why it works: Brand storytelling is not easy. (And no, a brand story is not just one single tale about your company; it’s your entire collection of stories that illustrates your company values, its history and its growth.) Mercedes-Benz does a few things really well here. They use visual content (video) to bring a true story from 1888 back to life. And rather than focusing on Karl Benz – the inventor of the car – they focus on its first evangelist, Bertha Benz.
Effective storytelling is a habit
I can tell you from personal experience that the longer I go without writing, the harder it is for me to put pen to paper.
Storytelling is not the outcome of flashes of inspiration. It’s sweat – and as unglamorous as that may sound, the greatest storytelling skill of all is hard work. I’m talking about dedication to honing your storytelling technique(s), to setting time aside to practice your craft and experimenting with new ways to capture your audience’s attention.
This is true whether you’re writing a simple how-to blog post, a long and meaningful case study about how your brand helped change a customer’s life or your debut novel.
Whatever the case, the resolution is worth the slog. Great stories change minds and spur action, and that is, at the end of the day, what marketing is all about.