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What is Storytelling in Marketing and Why Should You Care?

Humans have been telling stories forever and our brains have evolved to love them. How can you use the power of stories to promote your business?

Suzanne Bird-Harris


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Suzanne Bird-Harris

Suzanne Bird-Harris

Marketing via Story

Words matter. Stories engage. A brand strategist and copywriter based in Tulsa, Suzanne helps small businesses and nonprofits grow by marketing via story. Over the past 20 years, she’s helped hundreds of organizations create a crystal clear message and build sales funnels that just plain work.

words "once upon a time" written with old typewriter
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What is storytelling marketing?

Humans have been telling stories forever and our brains have evolved to love them. It’s just a fact.

Need proof? According to studies, telling a story makes information more memorable. We are more likely to remember a fact when it is in a story, according to psychologist Jerome Bruner. When people listened to pitches, either containing facts and figures or a story, only 5% recalled a statistic, but a whopping 63% remembered the stories, according to a study done by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. And the list goes on. (1)

How can you use the power of stories to promote your business? Let’s take a look at what storytelling for marketing means, and then look at why storytelling should be a priority for marketers.

What does storytelling in marketing mean?

Storytelling in marketing means using a story to communicate a message. The goal is to make the viewer feel something that will inspire them to take action. Storytelling in marketing helps consumers understand why they should care about something, and it works to humanize your brand.

Why Storytelling Should Be a Priority for Marketers

1. Stories can be told in a variety of ways, including pictures, written and verbal. And they can be told across all channels – from social media to billboards. Stories can help marketers cut through the noise in a marketplace that’s (by design) distracting, creating advertising that resonates with people… and sticks.

2. Storytelling enables marketers to develop a deeper connection with the audience. Stories unite people and drive deeper connections. As an example, think about Suburu’s ads which communicate “love” through a series of ads that establishes the car brand as a symbol of caring for those you love. Whether it’s a father caring for his son or daughter, or a parent caring for their beloved pet, the series of ads are more about what the brand represents to the family than the horsepower that the car delivers. By communicating the brand through stories, Suburu is able to elevate the meaning of the brand and better convey how it fits into customers’ lives. (2)

3. How a person feels about your brand typically determines whether they buy your product. People who are connected to your brand are more likely to become repeat customers and even recommend your business to other people in their network. (3)  A brand is a matter of perception. When you tell a story that embodies human challenges, you create an experience that resonates with your customers. (4)

Identifying Stories to Tell

Storytelling for marketing is not inventing a story. In fact, the very reason why your business exists, why you have developed products and services, and why you do what you do is filled with stories. And the ways you have developed solutions and a value proposition are all about stories.

Client narratives have the largest long-term impact on brands. The customer should be the main character, with your company serving as the supporting character that offers tools to help them create successful solutions. In other words, your customer is the hero of the story, not your brand.

There is a customer-focused story behind every product and service you offer. Storytelling in marketing gives you a vehicle to tell those stories in a way that cuts through the confusion, makes clear what you offer, spells out how your customer can achieve success, and spurs them to action so they can avoid failure.

Positioning your brand as a supporting character who helps the hero is congruent with what actually happens in a sale. Businesses exist to solve problems. Your products and services solve a problem for your customer. Your business exists to guide the customer to the solution that is right for them.

Identifying the Elements of Story in Your Business

Here are the elements of a simple story:

  • Main Character. Every story has a main character who wants something.
  • Problem. The story doesn’t really get started until the main character runs into a problem that prevents him from getting what he wants.
  • Supporting Character. The main character meets another character who has a plan to help him solve the problem so he can get what he wants.
  • Plan. The supporting character presents a plan to solve the problem.
  • Call to Action. The supporting character challenges the main character to take action.
  • Success. The main character takes action and gets what he wants! Success! Life is good!
  • Failure. The main character fails (to take action OR to solve the problem.) 

This basic story formula works really well for marketing your business.

  • Main Character = Your Customer. Your customer wants something (not your product or service, but something else.)
  • Problem = Something You Solve. The problem is keeping your customer from getting what she wants.
  • Supporting Character = Your Business. Makes sense, right? You don’t have the problem, your customer does. You’ve already solved the problem for yourself and others, so you and your business are the supporting character.
  • Plan = How They Get Your Solution. There may be 27 steps in your process, but that’s too overwhelming for your customer to grasp. Distill the plan into 3-steps that show the customer what they have to do to engage with your brand, buy your product or service, and solve their problem.
  • Call to Action = Buy Now, Schedule a Consultation, Start Your Free Trial. If you don’t challenge your character to take action, they won’t! So issue a call to action. Often.
  • Success = Life after your product or service. Paint a picture of what life will look like after they’ve purchased your product or service and solved their problem.
  • Failure = More of the same problem. Describe the consequences of not taking action to solve the problem.

How to Start Using Storytelling For Marketing

Document the Elements in Your Brand’s Story

Whether you’re just starting your business or you’re looking to grow, I suggest starting with the simple elements listed above. Think about your business as a whole. Yes, I know you may have several products and services, but we’re looking at the 30,000ft view of your business right now. Once you get the story of your brand nailed down, you’ll find it much easier to create the stories you need for each of your products and services using these very same elements.

  1. Identify who your customer is and what they want as it relates to what your business offers.
  2. Identify the problem they have that is preventing them from getting what they want. (Forgive me for being so obvious, but this should be a problem you actually solve!) 
  3. Your business is the supporting character. (That was easy!)
  4. Define your Call to Action. Define the one thing you want customers to do: Buy Now, Schedule a Consultation, Start a Free Trial. (Hint: The call to action leads to revenue, so “Learn More” isn’t it.
  5. Identify what success looks like.  Get your verbal crayons out for this one! Describe what success looks like for your customer. How is life better after engaging with your brand? Think benefits. Think positive difference.
  6. Identify what failure is. More than just a continuation of the problem, sometimes things get worse if no action is taken. Get really descriptive and use emotional words.
  7. Define your plan. The purpose of the 3-step plan is to reduce the friction a customer feels when they’re about to buy. You want to boil what they need to do to something so simple, even a child would understand.

Easier said than done, I realize.

So let’s go through an example, yes? Let’s pretend you’re a book editor. Here we go:

Identify who your customer is.

My customer is an entrepreneur who’s written a book and wants to self-publish.

Identify the problem they have

The problem is their book needs to be edited, but they don’t know any good editors and don’t want to waste their time or money on the wrong one. 

Your business is the supporting character. 

My business is editing books!

Define your Call to Action. 

I want to talk to everyone I work with first, so my call to action is Schedule a Consultation.  

Identify what success looks like.  

Finally, your book is published and you are seen as an authority on its topic. Friends and colleagues are recommending your book to their friends and audiences, your mailing list is growing like crazy, and consulting appointments are filling your calendar. You might even have to create a waiting list! It feels so good to have all that hard work behind you, and you’re really proud of yourself for completing the project! Especially all those times you wanted to quit. Now you have yet another example of doing a hard thing you were sure you couldn’t do and all the confidence that brings! You’re happy, have a full client roster, and you’re doing work that you love. Life is great!

Identify what failure is

Your book project is on hold. Days and weeks pass. You wonder if you were cut out for this book writing stuff. Why is finding an editor so hard?! You’ve tried to edit your book yourself, but you just don’t have the objectivity needed to make good decisions. You had a dream of being a published author and now that dream is dying a slow, painful death. All because you don’t know where to find or how to hire a good book editor.

Define your plan. 

  1. Schedule a consultation.
  2. Submit your manuscript.
  3. Publish your book.

A word about your Plan.

Obviously, there are more than 3 steps involved in working with a book editor to get your book ready for publication. Boiling the whole process down to just 3 steps simplifies the process enough for your potential customer to consider taking action. 

Often, and in this case, the call to action is step one. So this plan outlines the steps you’ll go through when working with the business. When step one is the call to action, step three is almost always some form of the success they seek. Step two, then, is the one that will be tricky to define. In these cases, I like to think of the three steps as dominos, meaning each one starts a chain reaction of other activities/events in the process that we don’t have to talk about specifically.

This plan represents the three things the customer has to do to get to a published book:

  1. Potential customer schedules a consultation to discuss the project. This is the step that will result in a quote and hopefully the payment of a project deposit. Or, the project won’t go forward because it wasn’t a good fit for some reason.
  2. Potential customer submits their manuscript. This step not only starts the editing process, but is the critical service the customer was seeking. 
  3. Potential customer receives the edited copy of their book and is now ready to submit it to the publishing platform they are using and publish their book!

Create a Better Answer for “What do you do?”

If I was a book editor and someone asked me what I did, I could just answer, “I’m a book editor.” But that doesn’t pique much interest or keep the conversation going. A better answer would be Character + Problem + Success, or, “People who write books and want to self-publish have to find their own editors. I edit their books and make them ready to publish!”

Adjust Your Homepage Header to Win More Customers

Use Character + Problem + Call to Action in the header of your home page so site visitors can quickly identify three things: what you offer, who it’s for, and how to get it.

Rinse and Repeat

Once you’ve identified these elements of story for your business overall, it’s time to get more granular and identify them for each major product or service you offer. 

Often, you’ll identify more than one problem your customer has, or more than one thing they want. That’s ok. Choose the one that has the most impact or the one that most customers have in common for your main message. The others you identify can be used in a variety of ways to support your brand message and create marketing assets that are interesting and diverse, yet related.

Technology allows us to better understand our customers, their patterns and even the human emotions that trigger the need to buy. At the end of the day, we buy from brands that we like and trust. The power of story continues to help companies establish and nurture their customer connections.

(1) Source:askattest.com (2) Source: forbes.com (3) Source: fabrikbrands.com (4) Source: i-scoop.eu

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Suzanne Bird-Harris

Suzanne Bird-Harris

Marketing via Story

Words matter. Stories engage. A brand strategist and copywriter based in Tulsa, Suzanne helps small businesses and nonprofits grow by marketing via story. Over the past 20 years, she’s helped hundreds of organizations create a crystal clear message and build sales funnels that just plain work.

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