Image credit: Abhi Sharma
Once upon a time, there was a content strategy that didn’t use any narrative structures. It stuck to the facts, hoping that would be enough — but it never sufficed. To achieve its potential, it had to embrace storytelling… so off it went, on a journey of self-discovery.
Content marketing is a core part of the modern-day marketer’s toolkit. There’s only so far they can take traditional advertising (such as banners, whether physical or digital), especially given how much people dislike blatant promotion. Content, meanwhile, affords them countless opportunities to curry favor, whether for products, services, or brands themselves.
But content marketing is as challenging as it is promising, so you need every edge you can get. How can you get ahead of the competition and get your content converting? Well, I strongly recommend that you embrace storytelling. It might feel like an odd fit, but it really isn’t. Allow me to explain why your content strategy needs elements of storytelling.
It allows incredible creativity
How do you stand out in a digital landscape that’s incredibly rich in content? Even the most humdrum businesses have blogs, social media profiles, and YouTube channels. The average Facebook or Twitter feed is a non-stop procession of fresh updates featuring content of all types of lengths, so anyone without anything interesting to say is going to get lost in the mix.
But the basic blog post formula is fairly dull. Here’s something from the news. Here’s a recent company event. Here’s a quick guide on how to perform a particular task. Pieces along these lines can be useful (particularly when built well-using something like the process HubSpot describes here), and pick up traffic as a result, but that’s where their value ends — and unless you can achieve exceptional quality, you might struggle to compete with existing content.
Storytelling, though, gives you almost unlimited scope to get creative. You can tell real stories in whatever way you want: create podcasts, use serialized blog posts, release videos, or feature interviews. And then there’s the option of inventing stories. Instead of just listing product features, tell a story about someone using the product. Use your imagination, and remember that you don’t need to have studied writing to become a strong writer.
The cliffhanger is a powerful tool
Armed with the central ideas and characters of the story you’re trying to tell, you can spread it across numerous distinct pieces of content. This even works if you’re telling a factual story, because it’s all in the framing. Think about this common marketing story structure:
- Part 1: A potential customer encounters a problem that hugely frustrates them.
- Part 2: They try different solutions but can’t seem to get anywhere.
- Part 3: They finally give your solution a try, and get great results.
- Part 4: Using your solution, they go on to great success.
This potential customer can be real or imaginary. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that each part culminates in a cliffhanger. What’s a cliffhanger? The Independent has a great list of familiar TV hooks that will give you some idea, but let’s also look at an original example:
The hero climbs to their feet, exhausted but somehow confident. “It isn’t over”, they say. “There’s one trick still up my sleeve…” After an agonizing beat, the credits roll. Want to know how they’re going to dodge death? You’ll need to tune in for the next episode. A solid cliffhanger can keep readers coming back, and you can use cliffhangers to make your content must-see.
Sound confusing? It isn’t actually all that difficult. You’re essentially doing the same thing as a writer trying to sketch out the acts of a book, with each act culminating in a cliffhanger to keep the reader hooked. You just need the key ingredients in a list of bullet points, and Jericho Writers has a great breakdown of classic plot structure: set out the distinct stages, going from challenges to resolutions, and you’ll know where to place your cliffhangers.
Stories make people root for the protagonists
Have you ever had a coworker you instinctively disliked? Something about them just bothered you in a way you couldn’t clearly define, and every encounter with them slightly soured your mood. Then one day, you overheard them talking about their life, and it all suddenly clicked for you. Their personality, their nature, their hopes and dreams.
Consequently, you couldn’t continue holding that disdain, because you’d stopped viewing them as an intruder in your world and started seeing them as an individual worthy of empathy. Their story made you relate their life to yours, and you can use that power to your advantage. There’s a great word that springs to mind, and that’s sonder (coined on a whim in recent years, but no more or less real than any other word) — that occasional moment in which you really remember that everyone you meet has a rich inner life just like yours.
It’s more important than ever before that you cultivate a strong brand image — people are being very careful when choosing the brands they want to associate with, all because they care about ethical business and have plenty of options. If they don’t like you, they’ll go elsewhere. By telling stories about your business, you can show some humanity, and drive people to see you as worthy of their attention, custom, and support.
When you produce and distribute content, you’re trying to get people to care about what you have to say, believe the points you make, and want to support you. Storytelling is the best way to do it. Let people learn about the story of your business, and tell them stories about how you’ll help them. That’s how you’ll get ahead.