A few months ago I saw a random tweet pop up on my feed that has stuck with me – for negative reasons. It was a quote from a presenter at a digital media conference that said something along the lines of, “Great storytelling is the future of marketing.”
If you’re like me, you might need to read over that sentence a few times to grasp its meaning. Let me save you the effort – that sentence says nothing.
I’ve increasingly seen statements like this pop up more and more often. I’ve seen it in blog titles, infographics and tweets from similarly themed conferences. They all drive me crazy.
Since the inception of advertising and marketing, “Storytelling” has been important – it just hasn’t always been talked about in these terms. In the case of these presenters, they’re latching onto a new buzzword for an old idea. All they’re doing is focusing on the use of new technology and trends (like Snapchat) by big brands (like Old Spice) because it feels like an industry shift and it makes for good copy. What Old Spice is doing to tap into youth culture on Snapchat may be a new content delivery method for reaching an audience (a tactic), but using stories in marketing is hardly a new, trailblazing strategy.
These presenters are also framing the “storytelling” method around big brands with the budget and time to fully invest in these forms of messaging – and the audiences who actively use these content and social platforms.
But what about smaller companies here in the real world? If you’re a small business trying to sell an industrial cleaner to busy managers who don’t spend much time online, investing your time and money in trying to tell these kinds of “stories” probably seems like a very distant and much lower priority.
So what to do you do if these tactics don’t make sense for your business?
Focus on Narrative
Rather than “storytelling,” try instead to think of your business’ content as a narrative. The switch here is subtle – narratives are stories, after all. Instead take a global view and think of your narrative as an overall collection of phrases, images and the general feeling your audience gets from engaging with your content.
As an example, think of yourself as an editor of a magazine. As an editor, you need to make sure every article and advertisement that goes into the magazine fits your guidelines. This includes subject matter, grammar and writing style, imagery and ad space. Nothing goes in without conforming to your editorial standards, ensuring the magazine you put out is cohesive and well thought out.
That’s basically what you want to do with your business. All your content, white papers, web copy, client testimonials, social posts and more are essentially the pages of your magazine. They work in collaboration to present one narrative to your customers – one that should compel them to relate to and actively engage with your business.
To stay with the magazine comparison, think of the popular magazines that have stood the test of time. Examples like National Geographic. We all know what their narrative is – nature, exploration, etc. The Atlantic; deep dives on politics, culture and so on. People… stuff about famous people.
Whether you like these publications or not, you know what they stand for and have an expectation of what you’ll receive from them. Having a brand narrative that people know helps businesses grow. It’s like a more intrinsic mission statement. It’s a feeling people get from your content.
The narrative you build expresses itself in many different ways as well. It could be deciding to take a certain tone, or going out of your way to appear transparent to customers. Or it could be trying to educate customers on the environmental benefits of your products so they really understand how much you care.
Whatever form it takes, it’s all about crafting a narrative that is consistent with the brand you want to put out there in the world.
Here are a few tips for how to develop a narrative that will resonate with your customers.
1) Make a list:
What do you and your employees value the most about your business? Hold a meeting and take ideas from everyone. Ask when they think about your company, what services or commitments are they most proud of? Customers will only feel strongly about your business if they sense your passion for it. By figuring out where you and staff have the most common ground, you can start to build a narrative that you believe in.
2) Messaging guidelines:
Before you share your narrative, develop an internal document that provides guidelines for how to appropriately communicate what your business stands for. This house style guide should touch on everything from terms to use, the tone your messaging should be communicated in, and a process for approving outward messaging. You’ll also want to include samples of preferred imagery, ideal social media engagement with customers and any other form of messaging you see occurring often.
3) Be authentic:
When you’re all set and ready to start actively promoting your new business narrative, remember to sound as authentic as possible. After going through these prior steps, you should have a firm idea about what you’re most passionate about and want to discuss. Don’t hide this; share your excitement and enthusiasm! We’ve previously shared some tips for how to sound authentic in your promotional language; use these guidelines to connect with your audience.
4) Don’t forget who you are:
Most importantly, remember what your strengths are. You’ve done all this work to build a narrative you can be proud of, so don’t second-guess yourself. You can’t be all things to all people, so instead be the best at what you are. Even if it’s deciding which features and benefits to emphasize, maintaining a strong narrative and identity is much more important than halfheartedly shifting your messaging to fit an audience’s perceived wants.
What I’m really getting at with these suggestions and the magazine example is to encourage you to take ownership of your narrative and content. Your audience will recognize when content is cohesive and well thought out. Throwing differing messages out that don’t adhere to a strategy or narrative comes off as poorly thought out and, in the worst case, as though you really haven’t considered your audience at all.
And the next time you see a statement similar to “storytelling is the future of marketing,” ignore it. Because stories and narrative have always been a key part of good marketing, no matter what anyone says.