When we look at the very best content, it’s almost always about telling a story. . From memorable TV adverts that run like a romantic mini series to sophisticated modern content campaigns that draw on the user community for experiences, the straight narrative provides the kind of emotional connection that builds a great brand. Storytelling marketing for your brand
Learn how to develop your storytelling skills to elevate your brand and connect to your audience.
Develop your storytelling skills
Websites in particular can benefit by placing storytelling and narrative techniques at their heart: this allows an emotional connection where otherwise the user is just reading information on a screen.
If the organisation you are working with already has a strong brand story, or even their own marketing department, they will likely be full of ideas for compelling content to go on the site; but even if you’re working with a small local business or a start-up, you can help them by incorporating narrative techniques into their site and encouraging them to develop a story.
Building a narrative for the business or brand you are promoting elevates a website from shop window to company headquarters. It places the site at the centre of the business’ drive for customers, and can even help focus its own goals and direction. Naturally, narrative elements are an excellent way of incorporating text into a site for SEO and other purposes.
Everyone loves a story
Everyone loves a story, so how can even basic sites incorporate narrative elements that ensure eyes stay on the page a little longer?
Storytelling marketing is useful because stories that are authentic and inspired are arguably the most compelling and avoid the pitfalls associated with being caught out with a fake story, which, in these days of social media, can be fatal. And anyway, why look further?
Most business were founded for a reason and their owners and staff are dedicated to what they do. Encourage them to look within, or just get them to tell their story and figure out how to present it.
Storytelling is art
Not a process, method, or technique. Storytelling is described as an art … the “art” of storytelling.
And — like art — it requires creativity, vision, skill, and practice. Storytelling isn’t something you can grasp in one sitting, after one course. It’s a trial-and-error process of mastery.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, and rightfully so because storytelling has become a crucial component of the most successful marketing campaigns. It sets apart vibrant brands from simple businesses and loyal consumers from one-time, stop-in shoppers.
It’s also the heart of inbound marketing.
Storytelling is an incredibly valuable tool for you to add to your proverbial marketing tool belt. That’s why we’ve compiled this guide, to help you discover and master storytelling and weave gorgeous, compelling tales for your audience.
Pick up your pen, and let’s dive in.
What is storytelling?
Storytelling is the process of using fact and narrative to communicate something to your audience. Some stories are factual, and some are embellished or improvised in order to better explain the core message.
While this definition is pretty specific, stories actually resemble a variety of things. This graphic from ReferralCandy helps outline what stories are and are not.
Storytelling is an art form as old as time and has a place in every culture and society. Why? Because stories are a universal language that everyone — regardless of dialect, hometown, or heritage — can understand. Stories stimulate imagination and passion and create a sense of community among listeners and tellers alike.
Telling a story is like painting a picture with words. While everyone can tell a story, certain people fine-tune their storytelling skills and become a storyteller on behalf of their organization, brand, or business. You might’ve heard of these folks — we typically refer to them as marketers, content writers, or PR professionals.
Every member of an organization can tell a story. But before we get into the how, let’s talk about why we tell stories — as a society, culture, and economy.
Why Do We Tell Stories?
There are a variety of reasons to tell stories — to sell, entertain, educate or brag. We’ll talk about that below. Right now, I want to discuss why we choose storytelling over, say, a data-driven powerpoint or bulleted list. Why are stories our go-to way of sharing, explaining, and selling information?
Stories Solidify Abstract Concepts and Simplify Complex Messages
We’ve all experienced confusion when trying to understand a new idea. Stories provide a way around that. Think about times when stories have helped you better understand a concept … perhaps a teacher used a real-life example to explain a math problem, a preacher illustrated a situation during a sermon, or a speaker used a case study to convey complex data.
Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. Taking a lofty, non-tangible concept and relating it using concrete ideas is one of the biggest strengths of storytelling in business.
Take Apple, for example. Computers and smartphones are a pretty complicated topic to describe to your typical consumer. Using real-life stories, they’ve been able to describe exactly how their products benefit users … instead of relying on technical jargon that very few customers would understand.
Stories Bring People Together
Like I said above, stories are a universal language of sorts. We all understand the story of the hero, of the underdog, or of heartbreak. We all process emotions and can share feelings of elation, hope, despair, and anger. Sharing in a story gives even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community.
In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them … Stories make us human.
TOMS is a great example of this. By sharing stories of both customers and the people they serve through customer purchases, TOMS has effectively created a movement that has not only increased sales but also built a community.
Stories Inspire and Motivate
Stories make us human, and the same goes for brands. When brands get transparent and authentic, it brings them down-to-earth and helps consumers connect with them and the people behind them.
Tapping into people’s emotions and baring both the good and bad is how stories inspire and motivate … and eventually, drive action. Stories also foster brand loyalty. Creating a narrative around your brand or product not only humanizes it but also inherently markets your business.
Few brands use inspiration as a selling tactic, but ModCloth does it well. By sharing the real story of their founder, ModCloth not only makes the brand relatable and worth purchasing, but it also inspires other founders and business owners.
What Makes a Good Story?
Words like “good” and “bad” are relative to user opinion. But there are a few non-negotiable components that make for a great storytelling experience, for both the reader and teller.
Good stories are …
- … entertaining. Good stories keep the reader engaged and interested in what’s coming next.
- … educational. Good stories spark curiosity and add to the reader’s knowledge bank.
- … universal. Good stories are relatable to all readers and tap into emotions and experiences that most people undergo.
- … organized. Good stories follow a succinct organization that helps convey the core message and helps readers absorb it.
- … memorable. Whether through inspiration, scandal, or humor, good stories stick in the reader’s mind.
Power of Storytelling there are three components that make up a good story — regardless of the story you’re trying to tell.
- Characters. Every story features at least one character, and this character will be the key to relating your audience back to the story. This component is the bridge between you, the storyteller, and the audience. If your audience can put themselves in your character’s shoes, they’ll be more likely to follow through with your call-to-action.
- Conflict. The conflict is the lesson of how the character overcomes a challenge. Conflict in your story elicits emotions and connects the audience through relatable experiences. When telling stories, the power lies in what you’re conveying and teaching. If there’s no conflict in your story, it’s likely not a story.
- Resolution. Every good story has a closing, but it doesn’t always have to be a good one. Your story’s resolution should wrap up the story, provide context around the characters and conflict(s), and leave your audience with a call-to-action.
Now that you know what your story should contain, let’s talk about how to craft your story.
The Storytelling Process
We’ve confirmed storytelling is an art. Like art, storytelling requires creativity, vision, and skill. It also requires practice. Enter: The storytelling process.
Painters, sculptors, sketch artists, and potters all follow their own creative process when producing their art. It helps them know where to start, how to develop their vision, and how to perfect their practice over time. The same goes for storytelling … especially for businesses writing stories.
Why is this process important? Because, as an organization or brand, you likely have a ton of facts, figures, and messages to get across in one succinct story. How do you know where to begin? Well, start with the first step. You’ll know where to go (and how to get there) after that.
1. Know your audience
Who wants to hear your story? Who will benefit and respond the strongest? In order to create a compelling story, you need to understand your readers and who will respond and take action.
Before you put a pen to paper (or cursor to word processor), do some research on your target marketand define your buyer persona(s). This process will get you acquainted with who might be reading, viewing, or listening to your story. It will also provide crucial direction for the next few steps as you build out the foundation of your story.
2. Define your core message
Whether your story is one page or twenty, ten minutes or sixty, it should have a core message. Like the foundation of a home, it must be established before moving forward.
Is your story selling a product or raising funds? Explaining a service or advocating for an issue? What is the point of your story? To help define this, try to summarize your story in six to ten words. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a core message.
3. Decide what kind of story you’re telling
Not all stories are created equal. To determine what kind of story you’re telling, figure out how you want your audience to feel or react as they read.
This will help you determine how you’re going to weave your story and what objective you’re pursuing. If your objective is to …
- … incite action, your story should describe a how a successful action was completed in the past and explain how readers might be able to implement the same kind of change. Avoid excessive, exaggerated detail or changes in subject so your audience can focus on the action or change that your story encourages.
- … tell people about yourself, tell a story that features genuine, humanizing struggles, failures, and wins. Today’s consumer appreciates and connects to brands that market with authenticity and storytelling is no exception.
- … convey values, tell a story that taps into familiar emotions, characters, and situations so that readers can understand how the story applies to their own life. This is especially important when discussing values that some people might not agree with or understand.
- … foster community or collaboration, tell a story that moves readers to discuss and share your story with others. Use a situation or experience that others can relate to and say, “Me, too!” Keep situations and characters neutral to attract the widest variety of readers.
- … impart knowledge or educate, tell a story that features a trial-and-error experience, so that readers can learn about a problem and how a solution was discovered and applied. Discuss other alternative solutions, too.
4. Establish your call-to-action
Your objective and call-to-action are similar, but your call-to-action will establish the action you’d like your audience to take after reading.
What exactly do you want your readers to do after reading? Do you want them to donate money, subscribe to a newsletter, take a course, or buy a product? Outline this alongside your objective to make sure they line up.
For example, if your objective is to foster community or collaboration, your call-to-action might be to “Tap the share button below.”
5. Choose your story medium
Stories can take many shapes and forms. Some stories are read, some are watched, and others are listened to. Your chosen story medium depends on your type of story as well as resources, like time and money.
Here are the different ways you can tell your story.
- A written story is told through articles, blog posts, or books. These are mostly text and may include some images. Written stories are by far the most affordable, attainable method of storytelling as it just requires a free word processor like Google Docs … or a pen and paper.
- A spoken story is told in person, like a presentation, pitch, or panel. TED talks are considered spoken stories. Because of their “live”, unedited nature, spoken stories typically require more practice and skill to convey messages and elicit emotions in others.
- An audio story is spoken aloud but recorded — that’s what sets it apart from the spoken story. Audio stories are usually in podcast form, and with today’s technology, creating an audio story is more affordable than ever. (For a great story-driven podcast, check out The Growth Show!)
- A digital story is told through a variety of media, such as video, animation, interactive stories, and even games. This option is by far the most effective for emotionally resonant stories as well as active, visual stories … which is why it’s also the most expensive. But don’t fret: video quality doesn’t matter as much as conveying a strong message.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper and start crafting your story.
With your core message, audience objective, and call-to-action already established, this step is simply about adding detail and creative flair to your story. Read more about our storytelling formula to help you with this step.
7. Share your story
Don’t forget to share and promote your story! Like with any piece of content, creating it is only half the battle — sharing it is the other.
Depending on your chosen medium, you should definitely share your story on social media and email. In addition, written stories can be promoted on your blog, Medium, or through guest posting on other publications. Digital stories can be shared on YouTube and Vimeo. While spoken stories are best conveyed in person, consider recording a live performance to share later.
The more places you share your story, the more engagement you can expect from your audience.
Storytelling is a trial-and-error process, and no one tells a story perfectly on the first try. That’s why we’ve collected these resources to help you fine-tune your storytelling skills and learn more about the different ways a story can be told.
For a written story
For a spoken story
For an audio story
For the digital story
Over To You
Storytelling is an art. It’s also a process worth mastering for both your business and your customers. Stories bring people together and inspire action and response. Also, today’s consumer doesn’t decide to buy based on what you’re selling, but rather why you’re selling it. Storytelling helps you communicate that “why” in a creative, engaging way. Plus, isn’t storytelling more fun?
Find the Company’s Story
How did the company start? What problems did the founders seek to address? The foundation myth remains as popular now as in the days of Romulus and Remus, and is equally effective for long-standing traditional brands as it is with alternative and ethical start-ups.
Swiss watchmakers and Belgian brewers love to advertise their medieval craft origins. On the other hand, new organisations can tap into a sense of excitement and entrepreneurship with genuine personal stories that make the founders the stars of the brand.
Traditionally this is done through the ‘about’ section, like popular eyewear brand Warby Parker. Or through a compelling series of blogs highlighting the founder’s passion for the cause, such as US recruitment start-up Zaphire, which has been highlighting owner Divan’s journey from Indian childhood to American entrepreneur.
Storytelling marketing can elevate your brand
Tap into the Community
Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to interact with a business’ customer base and draw out their stories. How do they use the product or service? How has the organisation improved their lives? There are many great examples of modern brands built entirely on what their customers say about them. Airbnb, the internet firm that links homeowners with space to rent and travellers needing a room, is nothing without these twin user bases. The company made their very human experiences of sharing a home into a compelling content campaign.
On a simpler level, a good set of client case studies fulfils the same function for a B2B targeted website. Case studies offer the twin benefits of illustrating the product or service and confirming success; they are great for SEO and potentially allow a business to do a bit of cross advertising or social media work with their clients. What’s not to like? A nice set of case studies is an easy way to improve a boring website that struggles for copy because the product or service is technical and business-oriented: it’s also an ideal up-sell for a web designer.
Get Sporty or Join the Struggle
Big brands piggyback on stories by buying into the success of a sports star or celebrity—that’s likely out of your client’s budget and beyond your scope as a web designer. However, if your client sponsors a local kids’ soccer team, that narrative is at least as powerful to their audience as anything Roger Federer can bring you, so get a page built and make sure it’s prominently displayed, with suitable pictures of the happy youngsters, and a few choice words to tell their story.
Recently big brands have also adopted a parallel tactic that be a great way to get your brand noticed, and that is to champion a cause. However, here authenticity really is key and only a real relationship will yield a viable story. Take Nike’s Equality campaign: it features women and athletes of colour. The site itself has evolved with the campaign: it originally featured a video telling the story of tennis star Serena Williams.
On the face of it, it seems a risky strategy—corporate America trying to piggyback on the fight for race and gender equality. But it works because Nike has built career-long relationships with athletes, and has a track record: its minute-long tribute to Michael Jordan on his retirement is still lauded as a masterpiece in storytelling as advert.
A cause-based approach will appeal to ethical businesses, and of course will be a natural fit to any charity’s website.
Just Tell a Tale
Despite the pitfalls, it is possible to simply promote a brand based on a fictional story. Providing this is clear, the approach is not ‘unauthentic’. In fact, if you do it well and build upon it, your brand can become strongly linked to the fictional characters you created. Take Swiss brand Nescafé’s Gold Blend couple: the adverts featuring a man and a woman gradually bonding and flirting over a cup of coffee were so popular in Britain in the 80s and 90s, that the company is still associated with them, and was able to revive the series years later to give its brand a boost.
Perhaps surprisingly in an age where authenticity is lauded and demanded, even fake foundation stories can be successful. On its menus, the restaurant chain Frankie & Benny’scarries a fictitious story of one of the eponymous founders leaving his native Sicily at the age of 10 and working in the family restaurant in New York’s Little Italy: arguably, this is just part of the chain’s cosy and family-friendly theme, and the tall tale doesn’t appear on the company website.
On the other hand, the clothing brand Hollister faced a bit of a consumer backlash after it became publicly known that John M Hollister was a made-up founder whose story supported the 1920s California-style branding. The brand—actually founded by parent company Abercrombie & Fitch in 2000—rode out the controversy but has gradually moved away from the story, and even the sepia tint to its photos has now gone.
If nothing dramatic is forthcoming, it is better to build a narrative website on relatively little. A sense of place can be enough: everyone comes from somewhere, and everywhere has a story. This gin distillery in the middle of Scottish whisky country has built a beautiful website based on the inspiring natural environment on its home island of Mull. It’s a good example of how narratives don’t have to be wordy: indeed, they can be very visual and fit in with the principles of modern minimalist website writing.
The Power of Storytelling marketing for your brand
Perhaps it is not surprising that storytelling is such a powerful tool for marketing and brand building: humans have been described as ‘story-telling animals’, whose ability to build a compelling narrative has been instrumental in the rise of civilization. Primitive societies would have forged common bonds over campfire tales, and these gradually morphed into the epic tales that underpinned early religion and nationhood.
In the modern world, the Internet has very definitely supplanted the campfire, but people are still circling around looking for a tale to listen to. Sometimes, all you need is the narrative technique: This New Zealand winery’s award-winning website has all the elements you would associate with a standard approach, but is set up so that the visitor scrolls through a series of pictures and captions. Sometimes, it’s all in the telling…