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Ah, the campfire... it conjures up fond memories of toasting marshmallows, strumming guitars, and, of course, telling stories. Today, stories have gone far beyond the realms of campsites and fiction; they are at the core of what creates powerful marketing campaigns. Without them, campaigns languish, off to the side and in the dark, unnoticed by consumers seeking warmth and illumination.

Stories are an essential part of marketing today because consumer attention spans are shorter than ever before. The human of 2015 has an attention span of eight seconds, shorter than that of a goldfish, according to a recent Microsoft study. That's because consumers are now bombarded by marketing and advertising.

Carrying a mobile device means receiving messaging when you are in bed, in the bathroom, at work, or on a weekend getaway. There is no escape, and consumers are growing increasingly frustrated by and uninterested in advertising. Millennials in particular do not trust content that does not seem "authentic," and they are more interested in more genuine relationships with brands.

For all those reasons and more, stories have become a vital component of marketing. Stories help brands cultivate a personality and convey authenticity. They also grab—and, more important, hold—people's attention. The content becomes no longer a nuisance but instead fits into all the other content that a user is consuming, such as news articles, photos on Instagram, or YouTube videos.

Smart marketers are now channeling storytelling as a powerful tool to create the most authentic connections possible with customers.

Images and user-generated content are a couple of the best ways to create that emotional and personal connection with customers, so let's take a look at how marketers can optimize their storytelling, particularly via visual media.

1. Tell an actual story

Stories tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story is structured around a narrative arc that introduces the consumer to the subject, creates tension or progression, and then concludes with a resolution. For customers to feel that they are a part of the journey, it's important that you connect the dots.

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image of Jake Athey

Jake Athey is VP of marketing at at digital asset management (DAM) software provider Widen Enterprises, where he has worked with CRM, campaign management, DAM, email, blogging, and social media management platforms.

Twitter: @JakeAthey

LinkedIn: Jake Athey