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“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”
This quote from Seth Godin, the author, entrepreneur, and marketer, provides a baseline for effective marketing in the 21st century. Your product, service, or brand is not enough anymore—and you cannot rest on your laurels. Instead, today’s marketers must harken back to a practice that has been a part of the human race for centuries: storytelling. We are hard-wired for stories—and the emotional bonds we form with those telling them. Through the lens of content marketing, we will explore storytelling as a practice and showcase its effectiveness by relating to our target audience and helping them along the buyer’s journey, supporting our story with data, and building our brand around our organization’s story.
Crafting an effective story starts with the audience you want to reach with that story. Fundamentally, it comes down to answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” To do this properly, you need the right story—a combination of speaking your target audience’s language and mapping the story elements to your buyer’s journey, according to Elise Dobson. Oftentimes, groups of people—no matter how we break them down—have different ways of communicating. There are ways of conveying meaning and ideas that will resonate with them the most—and that will be what you want to focus on as you compose your story. Additionally, in using the words, phrases, and style that conveys to your target audience that you are speaking their language, your efforts to lead them along in the buyer’s journey will have a greater chance of success.
Consider how Danny Devriendt, the Managing Director of IPG/Dynamic, a Belgian marketing consulting firm, lays it out for us:
Good content brings stories to the consumer, with information he can use, discuss, share, and comment. Stories are social at the core, and we are all constantly looking for those stories that bring answers to the questions of our everyday lives.
Allow me to illustrate this concept with an example from my own life. In 2017, I started a company called Run The Money. The product is a personal finance and entrepreneurship blog that also included discussion of running and health and wellness. It was a combination of my interest in money and my love of running. The branding ploy caught the attention of a Forbes editor and I had an opportunity to write for them for a period. More importantly, the brand story I told was one I knew those in my target audience would certainly relate to. In fact, I used a trick I learned from my years of personal experience and research into business building: if you are not sure of your audience, use yourself as your audience. And that is exactly what I did.
For my first Forbes article, I told the story of how and why my wife and I relocated our family from the suburbs of Philadelphia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Before we had children, we both worked. I had a career in auditing with the government and my wife was quickly becoming a top real estate agent in the area we lived. We lived in a beautiful home in wonderful area—and had no debt other than our home. I paid off my student loans and my wife’s wedding ring years ago. We were doing well and loved our life.
Then, things changed. Such is the case for most expecting parents. For my wife, though, the change was even more striking. The first time she saw my son, Davey, on the sonogram—that was all she needed. She suddenly knew her purpose in life: to be a mother. That was all—not a real estate agent, teacher, or accountant—which were the careers she had leading up to this moment. She was to be a stay-at-home mother and that was it.
Clearly, such a 180-degree change would shock even the most devoted of husbands and expecting fathers. To make a long story short, we had many discussions—some heated at times—about what this all meant. In the end, we felt the best thing for our growing family was to relocate to a cheaper area to withstand the drop in income. My job would end up paying me more based on the cost-of-living pay scale as I would now receive the Washington, D.C. area rate. But, the personal and business credit card expenses we accumulated were growing with the decreasing income.
So, what was it about this story that would attract my target audience? Well, consider the decisions and consequences that went into our new life plan. We had to pay off debt, we had to relocate, and we were downsizing so my wife could be a stay-at-home mother. These are all areas that millennial parents are trying to figure out as they navigate their 30’s. It also provided an opportunity for me to discuss the importance of side businesses on the blog because that is what I was starting. The blog I started has paid for a new basement and patio for the new house in Gettysburg—and also helped us pay off credit card debt.
Next, let us explore the second component of reaching your target audience. That is mapping your story to the buyer’s journey. To do so, first you need to incorporate what you know and learned about your target audience. Doing this allows you to create what is called the buyer’s persona, “which includes every shared trait of your ideal customer” (Dobson). According to Dobson, a business-to-business (B2B) buyer’s persona would include details like job title, company size, industry, challenges, and goals and motivations. Having this idea buyer in mind allows you to craft your marketing materials and storyline to one specific person or people. This makes it easier to think about that individual because it is as if you are writing just to them.
With our buyer’s persona in mind, we can now think through the details of this particular buyer’s journey. Hubspot’s Lauren Hintz provides us with the basics of the buyer’s journey, which includes three distinct stages: (1) Awareness, (2) Consideration, and (3) Decision. In the Awareness Stage, buyers are in the process of tackling their problem or challenge. This is an opportunity to help inform your buyer by clarifying the problem and potential solution. Lintz also points out that this initial stage is a good opportunity for companies to ask questions that help buyers understand the consequences for inaction and common misconceptions.
Secondly, we have the Consideration Stage. This is where buyers “have clearly defined the goal or challenge and have committed to addressing it,” says Hintz. This is where people are doing their due diligence, so any guidance you can offer in this stage is key. A good example of how companies attempt to help a buyer in this second stage is with Facebook retargeting advertisements. You may see this with other social media sites as well. You are looking at a pair of sunglasses on one site and then you keep seeing different advertisements for the same sunglasses on Facebook or Instagram. That is the Consideration Stage at work—as the company attempts to win you as a consumer.
Lastly, it is time for the Decision Stage. Here, buyers have selected a choice for their solution. The question for any company here is twofold: why did they—or did they not—choose us? Hintz has companies think about what customers like about their offerings versus alternatives. If someone is shopping on Amazon, this is where they are reading reviews and ready to click the “Buy” button. You need to convey to the buyer ready to click why your product or service is superior.
How do you bring the buyer along in their journey? One of the best ways is with a story that relates to—and educates—them along the way. I worked with a client named Stephen Scoggins as part of my new venture as a public relations freelancer. Stephen is a fantastic entrepreneur and started many successful companies. In working with him, I became well-versed in his story. I was tasked with helping him get covered in various national publications for his company, The Journey Principles, which helps individuals live their best life. It is Stephen’s own story that resonates most with his core audience—one that details his life from homeless to millionaire. People who become aware that they need to change, then consider the possibilities, and ultimately decide on Stephen’s consulting do so because of the “relatability factor” of his inspirational story.
The next area we need to explore to make our storytelling effective is the use of data. In my days as an auditor and accountant, I often talked of how my life consisted of spreadsheets—and making sure the numbers in the rows and columns checked out. We used spreadsheets for data analytics and keeping track of our sample testing. It could be tedious at times, but the data was fundamental to being able to support our findings and what we wrote in our audit report. My supervisors often talked about how we need to “tell a story” with the data—and that was the basic concept of our report writing efforts.
Having data to support the storytelling in our content marketing is no different. Bad data or poorly-supported findings hurt anyone’s credibility—from the veteran reporter to the newbie blogger. Here is what Dobson has to say on the matter:
Once you’ve found the perfect way to tell your story, let your audience know you aren’t the only one who’s experienced it by explaining how other people (your customers) struggled with the same thing.
She provides examples of how to do this including, using case studies, referencing industry statistics, and having influencers in your industry provide feedback (Dobson). For my blog, Run The Money, I put together an article on saving for retirement. I included the relevant data on how much someone at different age intervals needed to save or start saving to reach their retirement goals. The information I provided was from a credible source—J.P. Morgan—and I updated it to reflect the most current data. This one post provided data I could use to help educate my target audience and link to in other articles to support my writing.
For our last piece of the storytelling puzzle, we turn to the overarching story of our brand. This is the story that we keep telling—and one that keeps our customers coming back. A great example of this is from our class textbook, Annual Editions: Marketing, which discusses Patagonia’s “conscious-consumption” holiday campaign (Bahnan 51). At its core, Patagonia strives to be an example of sustainability to its customers—and encouragers them to “think twice about the environmental impact of buying any product” (Bahnan 51).
What does Patagonia’s story and shared values do for its brand? It gives them a framework to use when communicating with current and potential buyers. Their story is interwoven throughout everything the company does—right down to the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” promotional campaign. It works because by the time Patagonia launched this campaign it already put in the legwork to develop its story—and connect with consumers on a deep level.
To incorporate a company-wide brand story effectively, Neil Patel, a top entrepreneur and digital marketer, reminds us of one very important element. Patel says that customers are doing more than buying a product. Rather, “they are buying the brand story…” and now the “customer owns the story…they trust it. The customer is now part of your story. They’ve bought into it. Literally.” As a company, at the end of the day, that is what you want. A consumer base that is so dedicated that they want to become part of your story—and keep coming back for more.
There you have it. This is how to effectively include storytelling in your content marketing strategy. By identifying your target audience and encouraging them along their buyer’s journey, you will have the tools to inform potential customers. Then, with data in your storytelling to highlight your main points coupled with your brand story, you will have the opportunity to create customers for life and increase the value of those customers to your company. In closing, I think Patagonia’s former VP of marketing Rob BonDurant sums up the concept of storytelling in content marketing best with this:
It is not just enough to make good products anymore. There also has to be a message that people can buy into, that people feel they are a part of, that they can be solutions-based. That is what the communication efforts are really all about (Bahnan 53).