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What a Squishy Thing Like 'Storytelling' Has to Do With Business

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A few weeks ago, I spoke at ExactTarget's Connections 2010 event about my favorite subject of Content---specifically: What Stories, Blogs, Video & More Should Be Doing for You (and Your Clients).

The upshot was how to bring content (like stories, podcasts, blogs, and so on) more central to any brand's marketing; I talked to an audience for the first time about some of the concepts C.C. Chapman and I explore further in our book, Content Rules. (That "first time" bit was a cool thing, by the way.)

The following day, a panel of high-level marketers representing companies of all stripes—from the long-established (Kodak) to the cool upstart (Threadless), and a few in between (Virgin America, Benchmark Brands) offered up their take on trends in marketing and business, like: How have social media and technology changed the evolution of marketing? And how do you get people to engage with your brand and the products you sell?

One of the major themes that emerged there was (surprise!) ... Content! And specifically, what stories, blogs, video, livestreaming and more should be doing ... Yeah. Like I said.

It was gratifying to hear some of the same themes I talked about the day before reinforced by the CMOs of some pretty smart companies. I'd like to think it was just because they all attended by presentation the previous day (ha!). But the truth is that producing great content is something so many companies are increasingly embracing; I particularly loved the panel's comments around the idea of "storytelling" as a cornerstone of what they're doing to market online.

So what does storytelling have to do with business?

"Storytelling" is one of those works that I always find impossibly squishy in a business context. For me, it always conjures up more performance art than industry; more fiction than fact.

But the idea of storytelling as it applies to business isn’t about spinning a yarn or fairytale. Rather, it’s about how your business (or its products or services) exist in the real world: how people use your products—how they add value to people’s lives, ease their troubles, help shoulder their burdens, and meet their needs. Think in those terms when producing customer stories, case studies, or client narratives—so that people can relate to them. In that way, your content is not about “storytelling,” it’s about telling a true story well.

Here's how to relate the art of storytelling to your business:

1. Ask, "What are my customers genuinely interested in knowing about?" As the panel said: The job of marketers is to generate new ideas and pull compelling stories out of their organizations by figuring out what their audience is genuinely interested in seeing and reading or knowing about. Think about what you do, how to tell that story, and how to engage your customers through the stories you tell, said Jeffrey Hayzlett, author of The Mirror Test: Is Your Business Really Breathing? (Business Plus, 2010), who left his job as Kodak’s chief marketing officer in May.

That’s critical especially for business-to-business companies, which often sell intangible products or services that aren’t intrinsically interesting, but the way people use them are interesting. At Virgin America, for example, the hallmarks of what the brand is known for—leather seats, mood lighting on its aircraft, wireless connectivity—expresses the story, in part, of how the airline goes beyond the ordinary, added Porter Gale, vice-president of marketing at Virgin America.

2. Tell how your products or services live in the world. Actually---don't just tell: Show. Uncover the real-life instances of how your product lives in the world by looking to your customers for inspiration. “Have their story be your story,” said Cam Balzer, vice-president of marketing for Threadless, a community-driven T-shirt and apparel company. Benchmark Brands incorporates customer stories of how its products help people into its marketing.

If a shoe is meant to help someone with heel pain, Benchmark doesn’t just state that fact, "but we tell the story of someone for whom it made a difference," says Trish Tobin, Chief Marketing Offier of Benchmark, which sells more than 2,500 styles of comfort, wellness and therapeutic footwear through its Footsmart brand.

3. Have their stories be your story. At Threadless, an artist receives $2,500 if his or her shirt is printed and sold in the Threadless store, and his or her inspiration for that design is woven into the site, and, more broadly, into the company’s brand. Tell the story of how your products came to be, or how your customers use them. Even if you’re making something less naturally prone to story than customer-designed T-shirts or therapeutic shoes, “your product can still be content,” Balzer says.

* * * * *

This is only a small bit of what the panel discussed (but it was the best part!)

So what do you think? Has your company embraced storytelling? How?

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, a monthly contributor to Entrepreneur magazine, the author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content (Wiley, 2014), and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012). Ann co-founded, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Twitter: @MarketingProfs and @AnnHandley.

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  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Oct 4, 2010 via blog

    Ann, nonprofit marketers have employed storytelling to "sell" their missions for some time. Their stories are always about the real people or conditions that donor money has helped to change. Since the addition of online tools, they're actually at the forefront in social media, gaining followers, brand ambassadors, and participants in viral marketing campaigns. What hasn't come quite yet is the fundraising revenue from this channel.

  • by Ann Handley Tue Oct 5, 2010 via blog

    Thanks for the comment, Elaine. Stories are understandably a more seamless fit for nonprofits, for the reasons you point out. So many businesses -- especially in the B2B space -- could be inspired by nonprofit efforts there.

  • by Phil Dunn Tue Oct 5, 2010 via blog

    I always like going back to the case study as a good format for thinking generally about storytelling... And this format owes a lot to Hollywood (and Shakespeare, for that matter). Classic structure, really.

    There has to be a great challenges/pain/need/issue/drama set up. That's the key.

    The thing is.. it's not easy to do.

    If you make that first part sing, you have a great hook and a captured audience.

    The solution/resolution part is even tougher to do, though. Those that make it really compelling (and uniquely mapped to those original challenges) are the masters.

    You see this with Hollywood movies. Many screen writers can get the hook part .. they do really good set-ups. But they fumble with acts 2-3.

  • by Tom Kuplic Tue Oct 5, 2010 via blog

    Thanks for the post on an area near and dear to my heart. I worked at non-profits and trained folks on storytelling after doing a lot of academic study on the topic. It was the most powerful way to connect with donors. Now in my work with social media and PR, I see how much work needs to be done in considering the audience and the context for storytelling. Your post points that out nicely. Thanks for putting the emphasis on the people who matter most, the ones listening.

  • by Courtney Tue Oct 5, 2010 via blog

    Great points! It's exciting to see marketing take a turn for the more personal, more connected and (hopefully) more honest and engaging. It also helps make my transition from fiction to copywriting make more sense! :) Bring on the age of the story!!

  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Oct 6, 2010 via blog

    Very true, Ann. The challenge for B2B marketers is to find something emotive or a good story about their products or services. And, that can be difficult for businesses in certain specialty areas. Sewage removal companies? :)

  • by Ann Handley Thu Oct 7, 2010 via blog

    So I know you were being kind of flip there... but the truth is that I would imagine that there would be lots of stories to be told by sewage removal companies: Stories of people's homes salvaged by quick response? Precious belongings saved? A high-profile museum or other institution who relies on the service, or has? How decontamination helped a business get back on track faster? You get the idea.... :)

  • by Mathew from Video Traffic Mon Oct 18, 2010 via blog

    "But the idea of storytelling as it applies to business isn’t about spinning a yarn or fairytale. Rather, it’s about how your business (or its products or services) exist in the real world..."

    I agree with you that 'real life experiences' connected to the actual creation or use of a product or service are compelling stories for customers and are good materials for developing ads.

    But you seem to imply that fiction stories have lesser value. However, I find these 'creative fiction stories' to be strongly compelling to customers and sometimes more so than real stories because they capture the imagination, produce excitement which people want to be part of, or draw out strong emotional reactions that the product or service stays in-front of people's minds. Creativity (which we demand from marketers) make what is 'real' more visible.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Oct 18, 2010 via blog

    Hi Mathew - Thanks for your comment. I'm intrigued - can you point me to an example of what you mean by "creative fiction" in business? I'd love to see it.

  • by Mathew from Video Traffic Wed Oct 20, 2010 via blog

    Hi Ann,

    How about this John West Commercial: It got people's attention and helped with brand recall. Since people today are more knowledgeable about the health benefits of fish, it's a better way of getting the consumers' interest than going the traditional route of highlighting the health benefits of salmon/tuna as a great source for OMEGA-3 or for being good for the heart.

    Geko was also good for making an insurance company more relatable or tangible. And maybe creative ads will be better for marketing services that do not have much differentiation. Just a thought.

  • by Shawn Murphy Wed Nov 3, 2010 via blog

    Ann, Bravo! I've seen a trend in the value of storytelling in business. It can be a "Huh?" in the context of business when we talk about storytelling. I learned some new perspectives on storytelling from your post. I'm intrigued by storytelling as a tool for leaders when sharing about changes in the business. Thank you for expanding my mind on this invaluable ability for today and tomorrow's leaders.

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