Storytelling for Digital Marketing

Tips on Using Storytelling in Digital Marketing Campaigns

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“Technology is a glittering lure. But there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”    

                                                                                   –Don Draper, in Mad Men

We are all storytellers. Since the time we first stood upright and started painting on the walls of the caves, human beings have used storytelling to share their experiences and make sense of the world. Be it through poetry, painting, literature, music, theatre, film, or just sitting around a campfire, telling stories is an essential part of our humanity, and will be as long as we walk the earth. Stories not only allow us to communicate an idea but, more importantly, to connect with each other on an emotional, empathetic level so that we form connections with each other in a much deeper way than simply transmitting concepts.

So what does storytelling have to do with digital marketing? The short answer is: everything. A recent study by Yankelovich estimated that people living in cities can receive up to 5,000 marketing messages a day. Empty spaces seem to be a thing of the past, and everywhere our eyes can land, an advertisement is there to persuade us to buy something. But when you think back over the past 24 hours, how many of these do you actually remember? My guess is, not that many.  

Stories are different. Stories break through the clutter to touch the deepest, most empathetic parts of us. Do you remember the Airbnb ad about the two guards on either side of the Berlin wall that are reunited through Airbnb? The spot begins, “Berlin, 1987. My father was a guard on the West side of the Berlin wall.” Even from just this simple introduction, we pay attention, we want to know more. This, in a nutshell, is the power of storytelling. It hooks us, activating that primitive part of our brain that wants to connect.  

However, using the art of storytelling as a marketing tool can be tricky business. Do it wrong and you could endanger your credibility as a brand, but do it right and you’ll be able to grab a customer’s attention in a way that only you can—because stories are compelling, and all of our stories are unique. Following, I’ll outline some of the essential elements of an effective story, as well as some of the do’s and don’ts that will help keep you out of some of the traps you can fall into when telling your story.

3 essential elements to include when telling the story of your brand

  1. Values – Above all, a story should communicate what you value as a business, as a brand. In a perfect world, your values will align with those of your customers, so the story you tell will resonate with them. These can be origin stories (i.e. why you created a startup in the first place) that will help your customers see your business from your unique point of view. You can also use the story to demonstrate how your business helps people, so they understand how it can help them.
  2. Emotion – This is, perhaps, the most critical element of all stories. Stories move us, they inspire us, they can make us want to take action. If you can connect with your customers on an emotional level, you’re most of the way there. People remember things that touch them, so if you can do that, you’re already well ahead of the game.
  3. The Benefits of Your Product – After all, the reason products and services sell at all is because they bring some benefit to the consumer. So even the most inspiring or heartbreaking story can fail as a marketing tool if it doesn’t somehow demonstrate the benefit of your product or service.

5 tips to consider when constructing your story

  1. Tell a story that your customers can relate to – This may seem obvious, but it’s absolutely essential, so bears mentioning. Per my first point above regarding values, your story should not only reflect your values, but connect with theirs as well. And in order to do this, you need to know your customers. Research them, poll them, find out what makes them tick, what inspires them to get up in the morning. Then determine where their values intersect with yours, and start there.
  2. Tell a story that connects customers to your brand identity  – This is slightly different than connecting with your values. Every business, to be successful, must establish an identity that separates them from their competitors, just as every person has aspects of their own personality that makes them different from all others.  Where do these identities intersect? Where might a customer see aspects of their own personality in the personality of your brand. This meeting point is where people will respond positively to the story you are telling. Remember, all stories are unique, and yours is too, and no one can tell your story better than you can.
  3. Tell your stories across multiple networks – What’s great about stories, as opposed to many other forms of marketing, is that stories can be told across a number of media and platforms. The same story that works on television can also be told on Facebook, or on the radio, or on a website—though each may require a slightly different way to tell it than the others. When the Wachowski brothers made the film The Matrix way back in 1999, they broke new ground in storytelling by continuing the narrative from the screen to comic books, video games, and anime cartoons—a tactic that became known as Transmedia Storytelling. In the 21st century, we all hop from platform-to-platform in a flash, and your story can do the hopping right along with us.  
  4. Let customers tell your story – Telling your story from your customers’ perspective can also be extremely effective tactic. In the Airbnb example mentioned earlier, note that the company was not telling you why you should use their service, rather they were letting a customer tell her story, and how Airbnb was an important part of it. Testimonials and customer-driven stories have an authenticity that you simply cannot get by having your marketing department make something up because people understand this isn’t just ad copy, but a genuine experience that puts your product or service at the center.
  5. Let employees tell your story – Depending on the business you’re in, it might be useful to have your employees tell your story as well. A very broad rule-of-thumb asserts that happy employees mean happy customers, particularly if your employees constitute a large part of the customer’s experience with your brand. Find out why your employees love working for you, and see if you can leverage those stories into something you might be able to use.

3 Ways to avoid common mistakes

As I’ve said, using storytelling in digital marketing can be tricky, and potentially counterproductive if not done well. Here are a few things to watch out for.

  1. Be truthful – I cannot stress this one enough: make sure your stories are 100% authentic.  Not only can many people detect an untruth from a mile away, but if your “fudging” should ever be exposed, it could could cause serious—even fatal—reputational damage to you and your business.
  2. Watch your tone – This is a mistake I see often, and it’s usually unintentional. Unless a story is crafted carefully it can be perceived in a way other than it was meant.  For example, if your story is meant to be funny, make sure that it’s actually funny. Humor interpreted incorrectly can be catastrophic. Run your story by friends, employees and perhaps even a few trusted customers. Whatever the tone for your story is meant to be, it’s imperative that you’re confident it’s coming across correctly.
  3. Let your story elicit a reaction, not force one – Stories are meant to bring about reactions from people, but the emotions it elicits should come from the person hearing the story, not imposed by the story, and there can be a fine line between the two. We all intuitively know when a marketer is trying to manipulate our emotions, so you should do your best to avoid this. The best tactic is to ensure that your story is authentic and told from a place of wanting to offer your customers something that will truly enhance their lives, rather than trying to get their money. They will undoubtedly be able to tell the difference.

I hope we’ve made it clear that storytelling can be one of the most effective tools in your digital marketing kit, but must be used with surgical skill and precision. If you need assistance getting started developing a storytelling strategy, feel free to contact us, and one of LLD’s Digital Marketing specialists would be happy to help.


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About Heather More from Heather

Hello! I'm the owner of Love Local Design, Heather Strycharz. When I'm not designing and building websites, I'm usually taking pictures and enjoying all that the New Haven area has to offer.

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