by Mark Hayes
September 12, 2018

Okay, big confession – this article isn’t really ALL about storyselling. Or rather, it is, but it’s also about how the hell we can get rid of some old marketing notions and make storyselling a bigger part of what we do as marketers.

How can we step into a future where digital marketing has an even bigger impact, and stale, pale males don’t stop that from happening (confession #2 – I am a pale male but hopefully am avoiding the stale part…)

The myth behind the marketing department

In too many companies, people refer to the marketing team as the ‘colouring in department’ – there’s an unfortunate belief that marketers don’t drive sales, instead just mucking around and not adding any value.

But the reason that belief is so prevalent is because marketing has never been attributable. Until digital came around, a sales team couldn’t see how the marketing team had done its job to drive awareness and bring leads to the company.

Now though, you can track everything. This is great news on several levels – not least in that it’s showing us what works and what doesn’t in marketing.

One thing that without a doubt works (at least for a lot of businesses) is storyselling.

What is storyselling?

I’ve already done a pretty intense deep dive into storyselling in another article, but the basic deal is this: storyselling is using human-driven stories, that communicate how your customers feel when they use your company, as a key part of your marketing. It’s combining the art of storytelling with the equally challenging art of selling.

So why do we use storyselling? There are two pretty big reasons – stories provide context and – perhaps more importantly – they use emotion to connect.

According to one study, stories with an emotional hook or trigger literally change our brain chemistry. When watching a video about a little boy dying of cancer, and his dad heroically pulling himself together to make Ben’s last days happy, participants’ brains produced a high level of oxytocin – the very neurochemical that fosters trust, empathy, and openness.

These people turned out to be more giving, and more supportive of a charity, than those who saw a second, less emotionally compelling video.

And hey, we know that it works – customers are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it’s wrapped up in a story, and people retain 65-70% of information the information that stories share versus only 5-10% of information conveyed through statistics (that’s how I know that you probably won’t remember these stats!)

The cool thing is, it’s not just something that happens subconsciously – it’s actually something that consumers WANT, with 92% of people wanting brands to make ads that feel like a story.

By telling a story, you connect with potential customers and sell your brand far more effectively than the average ad would.

Why storyselling is just good marketing

Consider Allbirds. This Kiwi company has become a global phenomenon not just because of their use of unique materials for making shoes, but also because they’ve crafted a story around making shoes in a better way – for you and for the environment.

Combining great imagery with strong, story-focused Facebook campaigns, it’s actually just good marketing – but that’s because, good marketing IS about storytelling. It’s about crafting a story that connects with your audience and drives them to engage.

Weight Watchers– they could have all the statistics and before and after photos in the world, but their most effective campaigns have been customers (both famous and not-so-famous) sharing their stories about their previous failures, their successes with Weight Watchers, and how amazing they feel now. Everyone who’s gone through Weight Watchers seems to remember which story got them convinced to give it a try, and everyone has a story of their own. “These days I don’t have any joint pain” or “Weight loss enabled my wife and I to start a family” – these are the kind of stories that tap into people’s emotions and convince them that you’re the brand for them.

Dollar Shave Club is now a behemoth across the States and the world thanks to their irreverent take on shaving. By building a strong story around who they are and what their customers get out of it, they’ve won over millions of “genius members” who like the simplicity and the personality of the brand. Who doesn’t love a founder who proudly proclaims that “Our blades are f***ing great” and then introduces a worker while riding in a kids’ wagon? They’re creating a fun brand that makes you laugh – meaning your brain releases endorphins and you end up feeling awesome.

Chatbooks are owning this comedy approach too – their famous ‘Chatbooks Mom’ relates to virtually every parent everywhere. She’s exhausted, overwhelmed, and not remotely in control of her kids. “My family’s life is insane, and I want to hold onto every single freaking stupid, stressful, beautiful moment,” she says.

With a slightly crazed laugh, and calling out the “freak mom” who has the time to format photo books, she connects immediately with other overworked, overtired, over everything mothers – Chatbooks’ exact target market.

The problem with group storyselling

Ever heard the saying that a giraffe is a horse designed by committee? I think if hell was a place on earth, it would be a committee all giving their opinion on a new marketing campaign.

Too often, instead of letting marketers do their job, you’ll end up with a C-suite all pitching in, from a CTO asking ‘why can’t we say it this way?’ to someone’s ex-wife Shelley getting involved with why Jet Li would be better than Chuck Norris (believe me, it’s happened). You end up with a Frankenstein of a story with all the emotion removed and none of the appeal left.

Dan S. Kennedy, who wrote the book No B.S. marketing to the affluent, talks about the four key factors of successful storyselling as:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Authenticity
  3. Visibility
  4. Relevancy

The problem is that as soon as you get too many people involved, all those things go out the window – things become more complicated, get overthought and therefore less authentic, and often far less relevant. Visibility’s about the only factor that you might be able to keep up.

When I was still working in the corporate field, the company I worked for came up with a really exciting, revolutionary product. The marketing manager got incredibly excited and came up with branding and campaigns to match the revolutionary feel. We were amped for great things, knowing that this revolutionary theme would stand out in the crowd.

Unfortunately, the rest of the management team got involved. Slowly we watched as the campaign was watered down and watered down some more until all that was left was a boring, vanilla campaign that looked the same as that of every other product. Sure enough, when we launched it, the interest was just average – no-one saw the campaign as revolutionary and so no-one saw the product as revolutionary.

Get out of your own way to sell with stories

So here’s my advice to CEOs keen to make storyselling part of your marketing strategy – let your marketers do their job. How about, instead of agonising over whether a word is right or not, you allow your marketer to just tell a really good story?

And hey, if you’re really worried, then get them to put out the story and the more generic ad – do some AB testing, see which one works better, and adjust it from there. Storyselling might not be right for absolutely everyone, but I think in most cases, you’ll see a big impact – and that should convince even the most traditional board member that stories are here to stay!

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