Why Content Marketing Needs Stories

Sep 07, 2016

Article ImagePicture the bustling JFK airport in New York. When author Elizabeth Gilbert opens her TED Talk, Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating, she describes a humorous moment in that airport. Two women approach Gilbert and ask if she had anything to do with the bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love.

"Yes, I did," Gilbert tells them.

"See, I told you that's the girl who wrote the book based on that movie," one woman tells her friend.

The audience laughs at her tale and Gilbert launches into a poignant comparison of her struggles at the beginning of her career and again when she tried to write a successful follow-up to her breakout "mega hit." In other words, the airport moment Gilbert creates on stage functions as a springboard to her talk's big idea.

Content marketers, challenged with creating a steady stream of content to fill their digital marketing pipelines, can learn from Gilbert's approach. It's a classic TED formula and one I've broken down into the Story Comes First method. You might question whether stories will break through the SEO noise for your content. I'll argue that when you depend on your audience to "like" and "share" your content, stories are the best way to engage their emotionally-interested selves.

Think of it as the secret ingredient that enables automated marketing programs to serve people-centric content. Social media, email acquisition and content publishing tools give brands the greenlight to publish directly to their audiences. Yet a publishing approach requires a journalist's mindset. And that starts with a story based on what the reader cares about, not your brand's message.

Why Brands Should Put Stories First

Here's how it works. Traditional marketing content often starts with a description of the brand's product, service or technology; or it provides a thirty thousand foot view of the market situation and need for a product or service. Case stories, if included, are bunched up at the end or in sidebars. 

Traditional Marketing Infographic

Alternatively, journalism and fiction typically begin with a moment that puts the reader directly into a setting with a character and his or her need.

At JFK airport, author Elizabeth Gilbert encounters two women who reinforce her fear that she’ll never write as good a second book as Eat, Pray, Love –one that inspired a hit movie starring Julia Roberts.

This approach turns the familiar marketing formula on its head by starting with a moment and then backing out to describe the audience need, why the audience has that need, the big idea, and then how the brand’s product or services solve the need.

Story Comes First Infographic

We’re all familiar with how large brands use stories to share their big ideas. GE commercials come to mind. Newer content initiatives such as Coca-Cola Journey and Microsoft Stories feature articles that begin with stories to engage their audiences. However, smaller brands, particularly B2B, can create impact with a story-based approach. For an ebook on a new digital self-service technology, we created a millennial character named, Jessica, and opened chapter one with her morning run to describe the audience need and why millennials expect customer service on demand.

I’ve used the Story Comes First method for B2B and B2C trade books, ebooks, articles, and blog posts. It forces me to drill down into why a product or service matters to an audience and to start the content there rather than with what I, as a marketer, want to tell them. After all, every product, service or technology enables a human moment. This method is all about capturing and describing that moment.

How to Build Stories

How do you find or create moments? If you don’t understand how customers use a product, it can be hard to develop audience moments. Review customer studies, focus group transcripts or better yet, sit in on focus groups and interviews to hear firsthand the details of how a product or service is used.

For B2B, meet with clients or speak with sales reps who talk to them. The only way to build real stories is to hear about them. When I was a consultant, one client wanted a compelling landing page for a new weight reduction app. We spoke with a writer who had spoken with a sales rep who had spoken to the client’s client, thus we were several times removed from the actual customers and how they used the product. Nevertheless, we gleaned enough information to write about a woman who could check calorie counts by the pool on vacation in Bermuda.

In other words, you may need to make the stories up. When I write about emerging technology trends for Smarter With Gartner, the branded journalism site for global research and advisory firm, Gartner, I speak with the research analyst about how a new technology might be used in a business or lifestyle setting. Instead of opening the article, Gartner Predicts Our Digital Future, by describing autonomous software agents and smart machines, I created the scenario of eating in a restaurant where a server adjusts your plate at an angle sure to please the “robo-boss.”

Essentially, we break down how people might use new technologies in familiar scenarios. This shifts the brand tone from tech-speak to human moments.

Use the Story Comes First method to outline short and long form content including blog posts, bylines, eBooks, white papers, and presentations. When you need to create a content marketing article from scratch, the method provides the structure and inspiration to get started. It also reminds you to start with a story, and it can counter the tendency to tell your audience what you want them to know before you have shown them why they should care.