Content Marketing and the Difficult Art of Storytelling

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These days, you probably read a lot about the importance of telling stories as it relates to marketing in general, and to content marketing in particular. For our part, we find this trend mildly amusing — in the way it gets overused — but sometimes downright annoying, for the same reasons. The fact is that if you get advised to turn every other piece of content into a story, then you should know that it is in fact very hard to put this into practice. So let us look briefly at stories in general and how this all came about.

Stories are patterns

The fundamental hook of a story is that it uses repeatable, identifiable patterns to create a stream of emotion triggers. Stories are patterns composed of actors, relationships and events distributed along a linear timeline. Humans are wired to recognize these patterns and to respond emotionally to the changes that occur in the relationships. The particulars, such as the identity of the actors, the nature of the relationships and the importance and sequence of events, can vary dramatically from one story to another, but they do so without affecting the overall efficiency of the entire pattern. Ultimately, the structure of any story can be reduced to a graph like the one below.

story structure diagram

Telling a story is one of the most effective way to ensure that your users (readers, viewers, listeners) will relate to your content, remember you and ultimately associate you with what they felt when reading, viewing or hearing the story. It all “works” because in the course of their lifetime, most adult human beings have already experienced an array of relationships and challenges that closely resemble those that are depicted in the story which is being told — either through actual experience or through empathy. In fact, a simple snapshot of a relationship in context is sufficient by itself to pull the same triggers as a full story, often with even more dramatic effects. Humans are prone to reconstruct events from static snapshots and inject plots and timelines, even where there is none.

engagement in tunnel

Products don’t tell stories

Businesses don’t tell stories. Brands certainly don’t tell stories either. People tell stories. Stories are told by, and are about, people. To connect your product, your business or your brand to a story, you need to inject it into the timeline as a static element, a prop that gets associated with the emotions that the story triggers. This injection process is as close to an “art” as can be: the longer the exposed timeline, the more difficult it becomes to execute this process effectively. Here’s an example, where we (rather clumsily) inject an iPhone or two into the story:


As it turns out, our prop is a good example of the effect of storytelling in the marketplace. While hugely popular, Apple and the iPhone don’t tell stories, nor do they have any way to do so. The company and the product have no story of their own; at least, none that anyone who uses an iPhone cares the least bit about. Steve Jobs, the father of the product, certainly had a personal story which has been told many times; but it is one that, in and by itself, isn’t particularly relatable — unless you happen to have an affinity with bossy individuals who often act like assholes just to get things done. The story of Steve Jobs doesn’t help selling iPhones: at best, it’s a story that is a part of the Apple’s overall brand and cultural image.

Steve Jobs doesn’t sell iPhones: Apple stores and their employees do. But most of all, iPhone users sell iPhones. They do so to their friends, to their relatives and to their co-workers. They are actors in a story that develops in the customer’s own timeline. Though the product itself is but a prop, it is a prop that is now omnipresent in our collective, ongoing story.

Photo of people together looking at their phone

It is very unlikely that you are sitting on, or in charge of marketing, a product that has the same kind of cultural and market penetration potential as the iPhone. To make your product, your business or your brand a part of the ongoing story of your target customers, you will have to inject it in a way that makes it significant or relevant enough so that it becomes part of that story: their story. Remember that nobody cares about you or your product. Nobody cares unless one or the other has a significant impact on them. Make it so. With or without an explicit story.

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