Business storytelling has become a buzzword in PR and marketing, because, when done well, it works. But what some communicators don’t realize is that a storytelling approach can work throughout the marketing journey, from prospecting for customers to closing the deal. I recently refreshed my skills and point of view at a workshop sponsored by Engage, and the session offered food for thought. Here are some quick takeaways and observations based on experience with storytelling for B2B brands.
This runs counter to the typical PR approach used widely by tech startups and entrepreneurial companies. New companies naturally want to make the brand story all about them, and a colorful narrative about a bootstrapped business can be a powerful media pitch in a PR campaign. But the overarching brand story shouldn’t be about the company. If we consider the most powerful archetype to be Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” that hero is invariably the customer. Remember, the customer doesn’t know what you do and probably doesn’t care. The goal of the brand story is to reach and engage her where she lives and works.
PR professionals know this intuitively. Most of us have been trained to engage journalists with the lure of a good story, not a commercial message. But when we take the story directly to customers and prospects in the form of email or content marketing, it often loses that nuance. Marketers want to make sure they take advantage of the time and budget invested in tactics like newsletters, collateral, and paid content, so marketing becomes selling. But that approach will shut down communications. Jeff Loehr of Engage likens the hard-sell storytelling approach to a marriage proposal at a first meeting. It’s bound to be a turnoff. The goal instead is to strike up a conversation that might develop into something deeper and better.
If the hero-customer’s most compelling dilemma is pedestrian, it won’t be powerful. Maybe your prospect is a small business owner who is unhappy with her IT services — a common problem, but one that’s not very interesting. On the other hand, if she runs a wealth management business with access to confidential client information, but her creaky IT infrastructure leaves her business at risk, that’s a more potent story. The point is not to use fear-mongering in storytelling, but to create a credible narrative where the stakes are reasonably high.
To go back to the hero myth, he/she is called on a journey of adventure, undergoes trials, and is transformed in the process. To be compelling, the stakes must be high and the journey must be fraught with real risk or conflict. Take my favorite political ad, MJ Hegar’s Doors. Hegar is an Air Force veteran who’s running a longshot campaign to win a House seat in Texas, and whose video story went viral earlier this year. What’s compelling about the video is that she’s not running on the issues; rather, she’s running on her story. Hegar weaves an irresistible tale about achievement, rejection, and resilience. And, yes, this one’s about her own personal narrative, because her “product offering” is herself, but as a constituent of the incumbent. And I guarantee you that the “door” that slams in her face because of her gender is something that every woman understands.
People don’t read much anymore. So, most marketers are looking for striking images, video, and illustration to hold the viewer’s attention and add impact to the message. We must go beyond the talking head video to feature a customer discussing their pain points or sharing an experience about a business pivot.
Yet visuals don’t always have to be super-slick to be memorable. I recently heard best-selling novelist Judy Blundell speak at a gathering of fans. Her new book is set on the North Fork of Long Island, a narrow strip of beachfront whose location and relationship to the more glamorous fork to its south is key to the novel’s plot. If you want to learn about storytelling, talk to a novelist. Judy explained that she’d been traveling on her book tour. To help non-New Yorkers understand the geography in the novel she used — wait for it — “a sophisticated visual aid,” her two fingers, separated to represent each skinny slice of Long Island’s East End. It’s what I remember about her talk, and it still makes me smile.