I’m not a New Year’s Resolution maker. I get nervous about committing to one set of goals for an entire year. I know I can always adjust them as I go, or extend a deadline if I need more time, but the whole proposition still stresses me out.
When it comes to content strategy, I feel much the same way. At Ceros, we review our strategy every 8 weeks and adapt our approach as we go. In the startup world, this type of “nimble” strategic mindset is pervasive on both the product side and the business side. The thought of developing a strategy and not changing it again for 365 days just does not compute.
But… (You probably saw the caveat coming.)
There’s one content strategy I would commit to for an entire year. In fact, it’s a strategy that forms the foundation for all content marketing strategies—and it’s one you should be adopting for your program if you haven’t already.
I’m talking about brand storytelling—that is, telling interesting, relevant stories to your audience in order to drive loyalty (and ultimately sales) for your brand.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen brands small and large totally change the way they approach marketing. Instead of products or services, stories are now taking center stage in brand content. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how storytelling is being used to drive engagement and results using a variety of digital marketing tactics.
Storytelling & Advertising
Advertisements, whether they take the form of a banner ad, commercial, or billboard, have fallen out of disfavor with consumers in recent years. At best, they’re viewed as a clever diversion; at worst, they’re viewed as a lame and desperate sales pitch.
Recently, however, brands have taken a totally new approach to advertising—one that’s much more akin to filmmaking than traditional product messaging. Great advertising now racks up millions of YouTube views and social shares, driving brand awareness and affinity through the power of meaningful storytelling. Two of my favorite recent examples of story-driven advertising are:
John Lewis: Monty the Penguin
This sweet story about a boy and his penguin, Monty, who yearns to find true love is captivating and touching. It’s about as far away from traditional department store advertising as you can get. The video ad scored numerous industry awards, but it also performed extremely well with consumers: Monty the Penguin’s Twitter account currently has over 28,000 followers. Not bad for a fictional bird created by a British retailer.
Beats: The Game Before the Game
This cinematic commercial is framed by the story of a father giving his son, Brazil’s superstar player Neymar Da Silva Santos Jr., a pep talk before the World Cup football match. The video features a montage of fans getting ready to watch the match all over the world, other players preparing before the match, and that tension-filled moment right before Neymar Jr. steps out onto the field. While Beats headphones are featured in several shots, the product doesn’t take center stage—the story does.
Video & Audio Storytelling
Brands have been using videos and audio for decades to communicate with their audiences. Video commercials and explainer videos are littered around the web by companies of all shapes and sizes. Radio advertising, once the primary marketing mechanism for brands around the world, still plays a big role for local businesses.
While brands today are still creating video and audio content, the approach is very different. Instead of waxing poetic about competitive advantages or product features, brands are now crafting media for pure storytelling purposes. Some of these stories are for entertainment, some are for education, but the common thread is that these stories have little to do with brands themselves.
In the past year or so, I’ve seen two specific trends start to catch on:
Brands are now investing in documentary films that bring together the stories of clients, industry thought leaders, and other smart people with interesting things to say.
Prototyping software company InVision announced its first documentary, Design Disruptors, in fall 2015; the film compiles interviews with designers at innovative brands like Google, Pinterest, Netflix, and Dropbox.
The Content Marketing Institute also released a documentary in 2015 called The Story of Content.
The film examines the shift from traditional push marketing toward today’s content-centered marketing approach, and features interviews with Joe Pulizzi, Jay Baer, and other leading marketers.
Between 2015 and 2016 podcast listening grew 23% and 3.3 billion podcasts were download in 2015 (Pew Research Center Survey). Marketers are taking advantage of this popular media format by producing their own branded podcasts. Two of my favorites are:
- Variety Pack: Productivity software company Slack covers a wide array of topics relevant to the workplace or life in general. They always have a great selection of stories in each episode.
- The Message: Megabrand GE partnered with Panoply to produce a series of highly intriguing podcasts about decoding messages from space. Over the course of 8 episodes, scientist Nicky Tomalin explores the process of decrypting and interpreting the messages.
Neither of these podcasts talks about the products or services each brand offers. It’s purely focused on telling interesting stories targeted to their audiences.
As a consumer, I’ll be the first to say that I’m tired of the same old boring PDF eBooks, product guides, and whitepapers that companies are producing. I’d much rather read a story than wade through pages of dry, boring how-to content or buying tips.
Brands are starting to listen to their consumers and adjust their long-form content accordingly. For example, Land Rover did something completely out-of-the-box this year and developed a robust microsite called The Vanishing Game.
The story unfolds over the course of “chapters” and includes video, audio narration, written text, and photos. While Land Rover vehicles feature in the story, they serve as window dressing rather than consuming the narrative.
Another great example of long-form storytelling is Cision’s PR Manifesto.
Rather than writing a standard, straightforward eBook about PR best practices, they decided instead to partner with writer Brian Solis and the illustrators at Gaping Void to develop a compelling, story-driven piece of educational content on relationship building.
Data can be a powerful way to inform and persuade your audience, but traditional marketing was more focused on using data to sell rather than using data to tell a story.
Today, marketers are getting smarter about data visualization and finding ways to wrap their stats in a compelling narrative that resonates with their audience. While infographics are all the rage, the company doing some of the best data visualization out there today is Google. Their Google Year in Search 2015 is one of my favorite data storytelling examples.
They do a fantastic job of organizing information. The site makes it easy to explore specific topics and make sense of trends within each topical area. The narrative around the data and the visual presentation emphasize a story instead of just data points.
The Bottom Line
Even if you’re commitment-phobic like me, committing to storytelling in your marketing program is a no-brainer. Your content will be more engaging, more effective, and—perhaps most importantly—more exciting. Consumers are growing tired of interacting with the same old, same old sales content from brands and businesses. Stories are a way to ensure that your messaging remains highly relevant and unique.
Ashley Taylor Anderson was the former Director of Content at Ceros, and is currently content marketing lead at Oscar Insurance. She’s a writer and marketer who’s spent her career knee-deep in the B2B technology space. In previous professional lives, she worked as a science textbook editor, interactive media producer, and pastry chef. When she’s not in front of a computer typing, you can usually find her nose-deep in a book, strolling a museum, or cursing at her sewing machine.