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David Mills
By David Mills on February 12, 2016

What is story-based marketing? Plus, four best practices.

Story-based marketing is a growing, dramatic change in the way that brands are connecting and building loyal relationships with their customers. This approach is more powerful than you might think. It's developed beyond simply including stories in the sales process. Four characteristics help define the difference between traditional and story-based marketing.

A common (but dated) definition of story-based marketing goes something like this:

You and your business are the storyteller. Potential clients, volunteers, or donors are your audience. Through the interaction you have with that audience (in any medium) you are telling the story of your business.

The problem with this definition is that it fails to include the big new developments that have propelled the change. Here are two big shifts: our organization is not the primary storyteller, and the story is not about us.

We are not the primary storytellers of our brand.

The new storytellers are consumers and employees. In this sense, story-based marketing isn't really marketing at all, but rather an augmented form of earned media. Our story is told by the people who experience our products, employees, and business. Our role is to shape a brand story by building quality experiences around quality products or services. Business and nonprofit leaders may author or share the story too, but they aren't the narrators.

True story-based marketing is measured by whether it is shared by consumers and employees who believe our value and include us in their personal story stream. That's the storytelling that we want to cultivate. The importance of this reality is one reason that customer reviews and customer generated content have become so powerful in determining which goods and products consumers purchase.

The story is not about us.

The new story is about customer experience. When our canoe, micro-brew, carpet cleaning, or medical service is valued by consumers, their experience is our story. They take it with them into their lives and share it on their social networks. They mention it at the dinner table, with other parents at the PTA meeting, or with coworkers at the water cooler. If they don't take it along then there is no story at all, just a concept. Brands that are drawn from the needs, interests, and conversations of customers are most likely to fuel story-based marketing.

Story-based marketing is sharing customer experiences that include our brand. It is conversational because we constantly connect with customers to learn about their needs and how our product serves them.

What they say about our brand, is the story.

In story based marketing, we share the ways that people experience our brand, and we empower employees and customers to take our story to their own networks.

It is our customers and employees that define the story through their experience. They are our primary storytellers.

Practically speaking...

Story-based marketing feels authentic to the consumer, and features the experiences and stories that real consumers are telling. Your customers should see themselves in your marketing—they should see their story in what you publish. You might use a model or an actor in your media, but all of your media should be expressing how your product enhances the customer's life.

Four keys for your marketing.

Is your current marketing...

  1. Baked-in or Bolted on? Is the story-based approach the basis for your marketing, or are your trying to make it an add on after the fact? The story-based approach changes the essential nature and impact of your marketing, but only if it is the underlying principle upon which you build. It's not just "telling stories," it is about connecting to the story wiring in the human mind, and that isn't simply a technique, it's more fundamental. Check This: Can you find your brand story woven into your website and being echo'd by your customers in their social feeds?

Learn more about baking-in the key elements of story-based marketing 

  1. Designed for multiple narrators? Marketing should be both easy to share and worthy of sharing. It must be interesting enough that people would pass it on to others. Check This: Look for evidence of sharing. Do you have emails that are being passed around, videos that people are watching and telling others about, or social posts that get lots of shares?
  1. Visually rich? Stories attach to the images of our lives. Journalistic photography, short video, and other creative forms are the kinds of things that help us tell stories effectively and quickly in a world where more people scan than read. Check This: Since people are drawn to faces and eyes, count how many pictures are in your social, web, and print media show people close enough to see their face. Do you have rich colors that are consistent throughout?
  1. Authentic-feeling? Real stories aren't usually polished when told by regular people. Check This: If it feels "salesy," it probably isn't story-centered, and consumers have become frightfully distrustful of the hard sell.

A great way to build your story marketing muscles is to look at social postings by other businesses and nonprofits to see if a story is being told—and how it’s being shared. Does the message contain something that describes the experience of a customer, client, or participant? It is being passed around by consumers? Do great images tell the story, without needing words? How fresh does the story look and feel? At you look more closely, you may be surprised at the ways we continue to push traditional marketing messages when we should be sharing engaging stories.

How to Capture Your Brand Story

Published by David Mills February 12, 2016
David Mills