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 engagement process. Four characteristics help define the difference between traditional and story-based marketing.
A common (but outdated) definition of story-based marketing goes something like this:
You and your business are the storytellers. 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 creating 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 story. When they include our brand in their lives, we become more visible to prospects.
In story-based marketing, we share the ways that people experience our brand, and we empower people to experience that story even before they've become a customer.
It is our customers and employees that define the story through their experience. They are our primary storytellers.
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 story 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 echoed by your customers in their social feeds?
2. 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?
3. 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 reading. Check This: Since people are drawn to faces and eyes, count how many pictures are in your social, web, and print media to show people close enough to see their faces.
Story marketing helps the customer to find themself on the website.
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? As 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.
Putting Story-Based Marketing to Work Online
It's easy for us to think about a story being told in three ways: a book, personal sharing, or in a movie. The challenge with putting stories to work for your business is that most people don't discover you in any of those ways - they are exploring online. If you could build your business solely on the personal referrals (stories) of customers it would be great, but it's hard to scale that way. Most people experience much of your brand story on your website - that's where your story marketing has to live.
What won't work in Story-based marketing
The process of taking a marketing story and translating it into a website experience takes more than:
- Simply applying general story principles to messaging
- Coming up with some simple text for your home page
- Making sure your website headline tells what you do
If people are going to experience your brand story in your marketing, they have to experience the story online, not just read it.
How to add story marketing to your website
The story that people actually care about is not yours, it's theirs. They have to see their own story on the pages of your website. The more it feels like their story, the more they will engage and dig in.
Use these four steps to start the translation of your brand story into the place people need to experience it most (your website):
- Go deeper in understanding the needs and drives of your customers. Ask: "Why do they have interest in my business?"
- Go deeper in understanding specifically what brings people to your website. Ask: "What were they looking for when they visited online?"
- Shift the language on the website from being all about your business, to focus on the customer and their needs.
- Look at the experience on the website through the lens of the story. Ask: "Are the most engaging elements of a story (struggle, hero, villain, success) something that people can actually experience on your website?"