Why Storytelling is Such a Powerful Marketing Technique

    By Ali Luke
    Published: May 19, 2014
Writing your brand's story

When did you last watch a TV show or film?

Chances are, you did so within the last week. And you almost certainly didn’t watch it for the special effects, the scenery, or even the great acting – you watched it for the story.

Maybe you just wanted to spend more time with the characters. Or maybe you just had to see what happened next.

If you think back to your schooldays, you probably don’t remember many of your lessons. But think of your favourite book as a child, or that gripping / funny story one of your teachers told. That’s stayed with you all these years.

Stories are incredibly powerful. They’re not only more memorable than bare statistics and facts, they’re much more emotionally engaging too.

By framing your content as a story, you can get readers on board and hold their attention. In fact, “storytelling” has become a bit of a buzzword in marketing. So why do these stories work – and how can you make sure that yours are destined to succeed?

Why stories work in marketing

How then can a marketer create the most influence? How do they stand out from competitive products (and competitive merchants)? Easy. They create an emotional connection between the potential customer and the product/company.Jason Thibeault, Rethink Everything

When you use stories well, you can:

  • Help prospects to feel that they know and understand you
  • Position your company within a crowded market
  • Get emotional buy-in from your prospects
  • Create content that people want to share, comment on, and engage with

Simply giving the facts – “this is what our product or service does” – isn’t enough. You need to keep people’s attention, and get them to choose you with their heart, not just their head.

Stories create significance and meaning. If you’re not convinced that they can result in monetary value, take a look at the Significant Objects project – you just might change your mind.

Warning: it’s not about you

One easy mistake to make when you start thinking about storytelling is to focus on your company’s story.

Unless your company has a genuinely remarkable story to tell – like Tom’s Shoes, perhaps – then you shouldn’t make your own story the basis of your marketing material.

This is the same principle as writing “you” more often than you write “we” or “I” in your marketing materials. A powerful story puts the reader at the centre, not your company. (And by showing the reader that you understand their problems and can help, you’ll do much more for your credibility than you would by simply listing the highlights of your company history.)

How to build your story

You may already have the basis of a story within some of your content. Whether you’re starting for scratch or looking for ways to modify what you’ve got, here are eight elements you can use:

Characters. People fascinate us – and as charities know, it’s much more powerful to talk about individual people than about statistics. One of those characters should be…

A hero. This is someone with a problem, who’s going to overcome it in the course of the story. Remember, this isn’t your company, it’s your customer:

To tell a compelling content marketing story, your customer must be the hero. And what defines a hero? The hero of the story is the one who is transformed as the story progresses, from an ordinary person into someone extraordinary.Sonia Simone, Copyblogger

A mentor. That’s you! Your company exists to help the hero get past their problems. That could be through actual mentoring (e.g. coaching or consulting), or through a product or service that empowers them to go forward on their own. For more on the hero/mentor relationship, see this great TED talk from Nancy Duarte:

A plot. Every strong plot revolves around conflict, with the hero overcoming an obstacle of some kind. What challenge is your customer facing right now? What pain has it already caused them – and how will they feel when they overcome it? Dramatise this in your story.

Past failures. Every character in a novel has a “back story” explaining how they became the person they are, in the situation they’re in. Your customers may well have a history of failing to beat their main problem – perhaps because they’ve bought low-quality products before, or because they’ve been given bad advice. They may be afraid that they’re doomed to fail: help them realise they’re not.

Dialogue. There’s nothing stopping you using dialogue in blog posts, sales pages, infographics, and other content you create. Whether you use real-life quotes from customers or employees, or come up with your own  dialogue, it’ll help keep your reader focused.

Truthfulness. Your story doesn’t necessarily need to be “true” in the sense that it’s happened – you might be using an analogy, or creating a composite story from several customers’ experiences. It needs to “ring true” though: it should express the same values that your company lives by.

Details. Specific, concrete details mean a lot more than abstractions. Instead of writing Janet enjoyed life much more after losing weight, explain exactly what changed, and use her words if possible: Janet says, ‘It’s great being able to shop on the high street again.’  There’s a great section on using the “ladder” between specifics and high-level concepts in Telling Stories: Five Successful Marketing Examples (Christopher Ratcliff, econsultancy).

A call to action. You might think of this as the moral of the story. Get the customer reading it to take a specific action – like joining your email list, or buying your product, or signing up for a membership plan. You’ve shown them how they can overcome their obstacles – now it’s time for them to act.

How long or complex should your stories be?

Your stories don’t need to be multi-volume epics or masterpieces of literature … in fact, it’s usually better to keep them simple and straightforward. Some of your stories could be just a few lines long.

You’re probably already using some stories in your content marketing. Think about:

  • Quick anecdotes that you use to introduce a blog post, a talk, or an email newsletter.
  • Satisfied customers’ mini-stories on your “Testimonials” page or the sales page for your product.
  • Detailed case-studies that show how a particular client went on a journey, overcame their obstacles, and lived happily ever after (in business terms, at least!)
  • Analogies that help explain an abstract or tricky concept in terms your readers can understand. We love the analogy James uses to explain content marketing in How to Convert Window Shoppers into Buyers.

Could you make more of these stories? Perhaps that means developing an analogy that you can use throughout a series of blog posts, or a downloadable guide. Or maybe you could highlight your customer’s stories more prominently (and encourage them to give testimonials that explain the problem they had before you helped them overcome it).

Tell a story today

If you’re just getting started with using stories in your marketing, here’s a challenge for you. Create a blog post or email newsletter that starts with a story.

Try one of these:

  • A quote from a satisfied customer sharing their story (choose one that will sound familiar to a lot of your prospects).
  • A short analogy explaining a concept – you could begin with the word “Imagine” like James does.
  • A story that positions the reader, “you”, as the hero and shows empathy for their problem or situation – e.g. “You’ve tried over and over again to solve [problem] – but nothing seems to work for long.”

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