The true value of storytelling for marketers
Rather like small children, brand marketers tend to have short attention spans. Actually, that’s a little unfair.
Small children have quite long attention spans. Any parent will know all too well the diligence with which a three-year-old will watch hour after hour of Thomas the Tank Engine videos. Or their insatiable appetite to have The Very Hungry Caterpillar read to them over and over and over again.
It’s to the subject of stories and attention spans that I want to turn in this article.
But first, I should clarify my initial assertion. Brand marketers are lively, excitable, passionate and curious souls with a low threshold for boredom. It’s what makes them good at their job. But it also leads them to discard their toys in search of something new while those toys still have, in the parlance, “play value”.
While direct marketers will find something that works (by which I mean bring in a profitable response) and then keep using it until it stops, their cousins on the brand side of the playground are always on the lookout for THE NEXT BIG THING.
Imagine being the parent of such a person.
“Why don’t you get your CRM set out?” you ask.
“I played with it last year.”
“Well, how about your e-commerce platform?”
“Content marketing, then?”
“I got to the end of the game.”
“Well, what do you want to do, then?”
Yes. Storytelling is now firmly in the ascendant (which means it probably has as little as six months to run before it, too, gets tossed aside to join the ever-growing heap of brightly coloured toys cluttering up the marketing department).
Yet storytelling has enormous potential both to keep marketeers entertained AND to generate serious ROMI for its users. Why is this? It’s simple.
Human beings enjoy stories. We enjoy listening to stories. We enjoy telling stories. We enjoy reading stories. Some of us even enjoy writing them. Stories are the default mode that we humans use to communicate with each other.
Get past the trivial “How are you?”s and “Nice weather for the time of year”s and you find that we drop into storytelling mode almost straight away.
“I’m good, thanks. I just met an old friend. We went to school together and now she’s ...”
“Don’t pick up anything in the street, darling, the news was just on and the man said Public Health England are advising us to be super-careful.”
The neurological jury’s out on whether humans are “hardwired” to listen to and respond to stories or whether it’s a cultural adaptation. But guess what? It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we tend to lean in to a story, whereas we back away from a lecture, instruction or command.
The people who I call “super-communicators” know this. They always tell stories. Perhaps it’s instinct. Perhaps it’s a conscious decision. Think of people who have changed millions of minds.
Way back before a certain Atlanta-based fizzy drinks company was spending money on advertising, people were enthralled by a story of a certain Nazareth-born man who could turn water into wine.
Before social media “meet-ups” were a thing, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. swayed the politics of an entire country - by telling stories at rallies. His most famous speech, “I have a Dream”, begins with these words:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
As has been said before, Dr King declaimed, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan”.
Stories work because we are predisposed to find them interesting. They rely on culturally embedded themes that have been passed down through thousands of generations. Stories also evoke emotional responses. And emotion makes what we say both more memorable and more interesting. Both valuable attributes for advertising and marketing copy, which people believe in their guts is only there to shill for some product they don’t really need.
So regardless of whether storytelling is in, or out of, fashion within the confines of advertising and brand marketing, it deserves a central space on the playroom carpet.
Here are my five tips for story-style copywriting:
- A story needs a hero and a hero needs to be a person. As in, a human being. Or, at a push, a dormouse. NOT a brand. Brands are abstract. Heroes are concrete. People have not spent the last 300,000 years gathering around fires, pianos and their grandmas' knees to listen to tales of "What Nike did next".
- The hero needs to WANT something. It could be clean drinking water that won't give them diarrhoea. Or to score more goals next season.
- Something should stand in the way of the hero's fulfilling their need. This tension is what produces the narrative.
- The hero could use something to surmount the obstacle. Their native wit, strength, cunning, street smarts, planet-sized brain or, wait for it, the BRAND. (Yes, it does have a role to play.)
- At the end of the story, the hero should, ideally, be changed in some way. They might be wiser, morally improved, stronger, fitter or have an A-list smile their friends will envy.
Written by Andy Maslen @AndyMaslen