Last week was National Storytelling Week. Cue lots of blog posts urging us to embrace storytelling as a content marketing cure-all.
There’s no doubt that the emotional, structural and psychological cues at play when you tell a good story can transform traditional branded content into something far more engaging. But too many blog posts imply that this technique can be easily mastered by simply deciding to ‘tell more stories’.
Yet for people marketing dry, complicated products and services – often with limited time, budget and resources – adjusting to a story-led approach can be a complex process. Here are the 5 most common barriers to b2b brand storytelling we hear about and how to get past them.
1. 'No one gets what you mean by storytelling'
Storytelling was one of last year’s content marketing buzz phrases. Along with agile, programmatic and adaptive, the term was bandied about liberally in content workshops and shoehorned into many a seminar. And, rather like the S in SClub7, storytelling can pretty much mean whatever you want it to, because a story can legitimately take so many forms.
So challenge number 1 is to nail down just how your organisation is going to approach storytelling (and possibly just as crucially, what you won’t do). Start with a workshop to win hearts and minds round to the technique. Gather examples of brand and corporate stories good and bad and discuss them. Ask people to share their thoughts on what makes a compelling story. Brainstorm the processes that can be put in place to uncover any compelling narratives behind your own business.
There is a huge amount of advice available on this subject to inspire your workshop agenda. For example, the brand storyteller’s reinterpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, discussed here by the CMI. Campbell famously argued that stories through the ages mostly follow the same basic pattern and this can be a useful structure to explore with your content team. Also on the CMI website is a nice blog post outlining 6 questions corporates could ask themselves before storytelling, each of which would make good discussion points.
2. 'We haven’t agreed the core strategy behind the stories'
For this kind of content to succeed, it needs a strong core strategy at its heart, fusing all the elements together. The same is true of storytelling. Without an underlying messaging strategy, brand storytelling can collapse into a self-indulgent mishmash of advertorial, boasting (usually about company achievements, new offices and account wins) and thinly-veiled product promotion.
Many of the famous b2c brand owners practice what is known as adjacent storytelling, where the story takes centre stage but consumers are left with a strong sense of the link between the brand and the brand values being illustrated. A good example is the Proctor & Gamble 2012 ‘Best Job’ campaign, which told the story of how the mothers of Olympic champions contributed to their success. The strength of this campaign is that it’s a set of genuinely touching human-interest stories and yet also utterly on-brand for P&G ‘proud sponsor of Moms’.
To increase your chances of creating stories that engage users but also communicate something of value for your business, agree and document the core message/s all your brand stories must support. For example:
Our stories will position us as champions of small business owners
Our storytelling will leave the underlying message that our company is ethical in its conduct
Our brand is playful and fun: this tone comes across in our stories
GE likes to humanise its complex offering whenever possible through stories. The boy who beeps is a lovely example of a compelling tale about a boy who can talk to machines, designed to relay the underlying message that GE’s expertise helps businesses harness the true power of their tech.
3. 'I say let’s tell stories – they give me testimonials and case studies'
So many times we start out to tell a story and end up with what is basically an embellished case study or ‘customer story’. While these – along with reviews and testimonials – can be hugely valuable content marketing assets, they are not necessarily great examples of brand storytelling.
It is generally agreed that the bedrock of a good story is a compelling narrative. Engagement is heightened by a combination of emotional hooks: characters, scenarios and dialogue. We’re often told the best stories are interactive and highly visual. But this should not necessarily be taken literally – the interactive and visual elements could be the emotions, thoughts and images provoked in the minds of your readers.
See how Jack Daniels weaves the factual history of the company into a ‘story about independence and craftsmanship’.
While we may not all have a history as rich as Jack’s, this technique of restructuring company and product information into a human-led narrative is one that can be copied by most brands.
4. 'I’m secretly hoping that calling it storytelling will magically make our content less dull'
The problem with storytelling is that there are no short cuts. Our tolerance for disappointing clickbait diminishes every day. B2B stories need both crafting and the ability to create empathy and/or interest in an audience – and not everyone has that skill.
One of the biggest crimes in storytelling is to call something a story which clearly isn’t. Thanks to True and Good for pointing out this Waitrose example:
Dell is another offender here. The inviting headline promising the ‘story behind the solutions’ is soon weakened as we ascertain this means ‘learning about Dell’s corporate initiatives through company insights’. No inward-facing set of corporate messages will ever be transformed by the mere promise of a story.
However, inspired creative thinking and a commitment to building an interesting narrative can work wonders – even on self-indulgent subject matter. An announcement of a new account win is largely self-interested but see here how brand24 hooks our interest with a humorous and intriguing escapade.
5. 'We’re now obsessed with storytelling but our product pages are awful'
There was an illuminating report published by Harvard Business Review a few years back called ‘Stop trying to delight your customers’. It shared the results of a global survey revealing that customer loyalty is not as much linked to incentives or flashy marketing initiatives as it is to the level of effort customers have to make to resolve basic issues. Not being able to find clear information on company websites was one of the scenarios repeatedly cited as high-effort.
Brand storytelling is a wonderful technique to master and a great content marketing strategy. But beware of nudging out the practical information needs of users. There’s nothing more frustrating than a website chock full of the shareable, viral and emotional, when someone needs your phone number, fast.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t meet basic information needs in an interesting way. You can even put a narrative to dry market data to make it more engaging, like Worldpay does in this infographic.
In many ways you could argue that b2b marketers stand to benefit from storytelling far more than b2c brands, if they can crack it. It’s easy to make someone emotional about going on holiday, or buying something for their home. How much harder to make an inspiring story of how your engineers approach ecological air travel. And yet how well does Boeing stand out for having done it?