I'm a marketer by day, a screenwriter by night. I love storytelling. I practice storytelling. And I’m here to tell you: most marketing content is not storytelling. Hell, most movies today aren't paragons of good storytelling. And, sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Do you know what the Twilight movies, Fast and Furious 5, and Jurassic World have in common? (If you say good storytelling, the ghosts of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, and Blake Snyder will slap you in your sleep.) They are all huge moneymakers because they deliver the exact movie-going experience that their well-defined target audiences expect -- dreamy vampires, fast action, and SFX dino-carnage. You will be hard pressed to find the telltale signs of story well told: transformation engines, character arcs, rising and falling tension, theme, subplot, and well-placed turning points. These are successful franchises because they meet the expectations and desires of their target audience. Period.
There’s a lesson in this for B2B content marketers. Forget about the shiny object of storytelling for a moment, and remember your roots. Marketing is about understanding your audience and delivering what it wants and needs.
Does the CEO of a cable company want to read an emotional story where the hero transforms, or learn how to transform his company to deal with streaming services and a shrinking subscriber base? Does a retail CMO want to watch a funny video or does she want to capture more business from customers who are showrooming (comparing prices via smartphones, and purchasing from online competitors)?
Is there no place for storytelling in marketing? Sure there is. But the style of writing — or level of storytelling you apply — is dependent upon audience objectives and expectations, which has everything to do with place and time. In other words, where and when your audience consumes your message is as important as the message itself.
It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. I pick up the mail and open a direct marketing letter. Which do you think will win? Long setups and an inciting incident for our protagonist, or concise and compelling value proposition? Hint: I’m reading your letter on my way to the recycle bin.
Now let’s say I’m watching TV. I’ve recorded my favorite show, so I’m blasting through your multimillion-dollar spot. But wait. There’s that hilarious one with the monkey. Here, your job as marketer is to get me to stop when I’m expecting to be entertained. So entertain me, monkey. Dance! In this case, the objective called for doubling-down on creative storytelling to get me to watch. But stopping power is not enough. If I don’t remember who spent all that money to reach me. If I’m not left with a positive impression, or act according to your marketing objectives, you’re wasting your money.
It all comes back to target audience and objective. Who are you trying to reach, and what impression are you trying to make? The technique you use — call it storytelling if you like — is entirely dependent upon who you’re talking to, where they are and what they’re doing, and what other messages you are competing against.
Don’t get me wrong. Storytelling is important. But to me, a good story is simply one that resonates with your audience — one it feels on an emotional level. Emotion in business isn’t tapped by using sophisticated screenwriting techniques — that’s for the movies (at least the ones worth watching). If after viewing your content, your customers think, “Oh my god, I need to [insert call to action here] or my competitors are going to eat my lunch,” I’d say you’ve reached them at an emotional level.
Don’t worry about being a storyteller. Focus on being a marketer. Know your audience, what they care about, where they go for information, and the value you provide. Then deliver that information using the only rule of storytelling you’ll ever need: The goal of the first sentence is to get them to read the second sentence. And at the end, leave them wanting more.
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