When it comes to communicating who your brand is and what it brings to the table, you have to connect with your audience and cultivate an emotional, visceral reaction that stirs them to action. A list of facts and statistics won’t do this. Neither will an elevator pitch or boilerplate slogan. The only way to effectively engage your target customers and get them excited about your brand is to tell them a story that connects the dots.
Most brands fail at marketing, and it’s not because of a lack of resources or creativity. The reality is that most brands fail at marketing because they don’t understand how to tell stories in a way that evokes an emotional reaction in their audience.
Any time you approach marketing or branding, always remember this one simple fact: People buy on emotion and then justify with logic. Storytelling is all about creating a strong emotional connection that communicates who your brand is, why people should care, and how the reader fits into the story.
In today’s marketplace, compelling digital storytelling is essential to building a successful brand. This guide will provide you with a framework that can be used to architect a masterful story that connects your brand with your audience.
Ready to dive in? Let’s go.
The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Storytelling
Storytelling has been around since the dawn of mankind. And when you zoom out and look at the history of storytelling, there are three distinct phases in human history:
Phase 1: Visual and Oral Storytelling (Circa 30,000 B.C. – 700 B.C.). For most of human history, storytelling was done visually and orally. Civilizations and communities would tell stories, legends, and tales around campfires and in primitive group settings. These stories would be memorized by children. Then when they matured into adults, they would pass the same stories down to their children. Visual storytelling was also popular during this time period (as can be seen with ancient cave paintings and murals).
Phase 2: Written Storytelling (Circa 200 B.C. – Late 20th Century). As technology improved and papyrus and scrolls became available in civilized communities, alphabets were created and written storytelling became the preferred method for documenting, preserving, and sharing stories. The Bible, Shakespear novels, and early works of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle are among the earliest written stories known to man. Fairytales became popular in 17th century France, while modern newspapers followed in the 18th century. Magazines surfaced in the 20th century as a popular mass media outlet for stories.
Phase 3: Digital Storytelling (Circa 1939 – Present). The digital storytelling era officially commenced in 1939 with the launch of network television. Then in 1972, interactive storytelling entered the marketplace in the form of video game consoles. The 1980s followed with music videos. Then came the 1990s and early-2000s, which gave birth to the biggest storytelling platform in history: the internet. (This has led to the rise of numerous web platforms, including blogs, social media, podcasting, online video, etc.)
Spend 10 minutes with any well-educated anthropologist and they’ll be quick to tell you that storytelling is central to human existence. It’s one of the consistent threads between every known culture. And anytime you have two or more people together, stories emerge. We’re constantly looking for them.
“Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature – a face, a figure, a flower – and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information,” author Frank Rose writes. “Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.”
The human affinity for stories is so strong that we even look for stories where none exist. When we encounter something that’s new, foreign, or nonsensical, we demystify the elements by turning them into a story.
In a groundbreaking 1944 study, psychologists showed dozens of participants a short film and asked them to explain what was happening on the screen. The film, which was very rudimentary, showed two triangles and a circle traversing across a simple two-dimensional surface. The only other visual element on the screen was a rectangle, which had one open side and sat motionless on the surface.
Out of the 34 participants in the study, only one saw the scene for what it technically was: A collection of geometric shapes gliding, spinning, and moving across a flat plane. The rest of the participants developed very elaborate explanations as to what was happening. Most people saw the triangles as men fighting and the circle as a woman (who was trying to escape the larger menacing triangle.) And when the larger/bullying man couldn’t get to the woman, he goes into a fit of rage and tears up his home (i.e. the rectangle).
While it’s difficult to reach hard-hitting scientific conclusions based on one study of 34 people in 1944, the point is not lost. We, as humans, use storytelling to make sense of the world around us. And anytime there’s a relationship – whether it’s between two people, a society, or a brand and the marketplace – stories are what solidify that connection and convince people to behave in a particular way.
As a business owner or marketer, understanding the place and prominence of storytelling is the first step. The second step is to figure out how to tell better stories in the age of digital storytelling that we currently find ourselves in.
In terms of brand storytelling, there are really two types of storytelling that you should be aware of. We’ll call the first type the “big brand story.” The second type, which is really a collection of stories, will be referred to from here on out as “little brand stories.” To be successful with digital storytelling, you must account for both.
The Big Brand Story
Every brand has a big brand story. This is the overarching story of the brand, why it exists, what problems it solves, and why it matters. The big brand story is the foundational story of your brand. It permeates everything you do in marketing, advertising, sales, innovation, etc. Without a big brand story, it’s impossible to communicate a consistent and convincing message to the marketplace.
Over the years, there have been countless frameworks for storytelling. But if you want to tell a convincing story that brings your brand to life, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. All you have to do is study your favorite movies and you’ll see that almost all of them follow the same basic formula.
Branding expert and best-selling author Donald Miller is famous for uncovering this story and putting it into the context of business branding. His book Building a StoryBrand is one of the top books on branding, as it lays out a simple yet profound framework that’s designed to make marketing a breeze.
As Miller explains, “Story is the most powerful tool in the world to captivate the human brain. When you learn to use story in your brand’s communication, your customers will finally pay attention to what you’re saying. You can learn to use story to clarify your message.”
The StoryBrand framework looks like this:
A character has a problem and meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action that helps them avoid failure and ends in success.
That’s it! The character is the customer, your brand is the guide, and your products and solutions are the vehicle they use to avoid failure and experience success.
As you’ll notice, this framework paints the customers as the hero (not the brand). This is something most businesses get backwards. They see the brand as the hero, when the customer really only wants a guide. If you’re humble enough to recognize this distinction, good things will happen.
Here are some examples of what this could look like (courtesy of Click Results):
- Used car sales: “Nobody likes to haggle with a car salesman, so we removed the salesman entirely. You can choose and test drive a car hassle-free, so you have a peaceful experience getting the car you want.”
- Financial advisor: “Most people can’t get their heads around their financial future, so we created a financial map that puts all of your info on a weekly dashboard, giving you peace of mind about your finances.”
- Pet store: “Pet owners are concerned about what their pets are really eating, so we source our food from trusted, local vendors, which ensures your pet stays happy and healthy.”
While the framework stays in-house (it’s not a mission statement that you share with the public), it has a way of guiding all of the customer-facing content and brand assets that you create. But most importantly, it influences all of those little brand stories you tell on a daily basis.
Little Brand Stories
If the big brand story is the overarching story of who your brand is and how it helps people solve a specific problem in a way that ultimately makes the customer feel like the hero, little brand stories are the thousands of small ways you tell this story on an ongoing basis.
Every piece of content you post is a little brand story. The same goes for every interaction and engagement you have with a customer. Some little brand stories are as short as a tweet, while other little brand stories are as long as a 60-minute webinar or 5,000-word blog post. You only have one big brand story, but you might have thousands of little brand stories. At the end of the day, they all work together to provide the marketplace with a cohesive and consistent image of who you are.
In the remainder of this article, we’re going to discuss some of the powerful ways you can tell little brand stories in the digital age. In doing so, we hope that you shift your perspective of what it means to communicate your brand’s purpose and value to the right people at the right time.
Digital Storytelling Tools
The beauty of digital storytelling is that you have a variety of tools available at your disposal. The more of these tools you use, the louder and more engaging your story will be. Here are some of the top digital storytelling tools that exist today:
1. Social Media Platforms
Social media has become one of the most powerful digital storytelling mediums of the 21st century. And perhaps the most interesting part of social media is the fact that every individual platform has its own unique flavor, style, and function.
Social media is best thought of as a toolbox (rather than a tool). It’s a collection of tools that serve distinct purposes. You may use some or all of them to transmit your story. Here’s a brief breakdown:
- Facebook: Who Are You? Facebook is the elder statesman of social media. It’s no longer the sleekest or sexiest platform on the web, but it serves its purpose. Every brand needs a Facebook page to explain who they are and where they’ve been.
- Instagram: Where is Your Passion? If brands wear business casual on Facebook, they’re free to strip down to a t-shirt and shorts on Instagram. This is the platform for showing what you’re passionate about. You can let your guard down a bit and tell creative stories through visuals.
- Twitter: How Do You Treat People? Twitter is a short-form, rapid-fire platform where you get to interact with individual people….while everyone else observes and chimes on. At its very core, Twitter communicates the story of how you treat people. Are you kind, polite, humorous, ironic, sarcastic, witty, or professional? It’ll shine through.
- LinkedIn: What Do You Do? LinkedIn is definitely the most buttoned-up social networking platform on the web. However, it serves a very distinct purpose. It helps you communicate what your brand does. The best brands use LinkedIn as a place for making connections and building authority.
- Snapchat: What’s Really Happening? Snapchat is the most casual social media platform around. It’s often used to show behind the scenes content and tell stories of what’s happening outside of the normal customer vantage point.
Most brands can get away with only using two or three social media platforms. However, it’s helpful to keep the function of these platforms in mind as you think about storytelling and branding.
Email is a highly effective storytelling medium. It can be used in a variety of capacities, including:
- Cold email campaigns to new prospects in an attempt to indoctrinate them into your brand’s vision, purpose, and value.
- Drip email campaigns to past and existing prospects as a way of staying top of mind.
- Sales and promotional campaigns to generate a quick influx of sales.
- Market research/survey campaigns to gather information that can be leveraged to further enhance your innovation and branding.
- Weekly newsletters to help your email list stay on top of the latest trends in the market.
These are just a few ideas. Truth be told, email can be used in dozens of capacities as both a storytelling medium and a direct sales mechanism. The clearer you are about what your story is, the better your email strategy will be.
Your website copy and blog posts are extremely important digital storytelling tools. They give you a dedicated place to tell your story in a way that’s clear, thorough, and uncensored. You’re in charge of your website – nobody else can dictate what you do.
Every brand has its own content strategy, but today’s most successful framework consists of a combination of pillar content and spin-off posts.
If you think of your onsite content strategy like a meal, pillar content is the main dish – it’s the meat. It’s a massive piece of long-form, high-value content that provides visitors with a substantive resource they can use to gain clarity around their biggest problems and challenges. Pillar content tells your big brand story using a combination of text, graphics, and other mediums. (It’s usually 2,000 to 5,000-plus words in length.)
Spin-off posts take individual elements that are touched on in the pillar post and further flesh them out. Every spin-off post links back to a pillar piece. This creates a web of content that delivers a cohesive story to your audience. It also has the added benefit of a strong linking strategy, ensuring you get the right amount of links to help you rank.
Podcasting, in its present form, has been around since the early 2000s. However, it’s experienced more growth in the past five years than it did in the previous decade-plus.
Podcasting is unique in that it’s all audio. There’s no text or visuals. In some sense, this takes us back to the storytelling of our ancestors, who were reliant on sharing stories around campfires and hand-built amphitheaters.
The power of podcasting is that you’re able to reach people in “dead” moments that are otherwise impossible to take advantage of with blogs, videos, or social media. Dead moments include working out, driving to work, mowing the lawn, or cooking dinner. It doesn’t matter what the individual is doing, podcasting gives you a tool for telling your story in an immersive way. There’s a lot of power to be extracted from wielding this tool.
5. Visual Content
Attention spans are shorter than ever. (One study suggests goldfish can now hold their focus for longer stretches of time than the average human.) So while blog posts and other pieces of long-form content serve a purpose, they should be supplemented with shorter and punchier storytelling mechanisms.
Visual content plays to the strengths of the human brain (which is known to process visual content at an exponentially faster rate than text-based content). Examples include pictures, graphs, charts, memes, gifs, short-form videos, etc.
Win Big With Digital Storytelling
Storytelling plays a core role in the history of humanity and civilization – and it plays a significant part in digital branding in the modern age. If you want to crystalize your brand’s message and communicate a compelling set of ideas to your customers, it begins with knowing your story. And once you know your story, you have to share it with the marketplace. Hopefully, this guide gives you an idea of how to tell your brand’s story in a way that’s both compelling and powerful.
Digital storytelling doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you’re looking to grow your brand and reach more people with your message, you need to take a comprehensive approach to marketing.
At Website.Design, we specialize in helping brands scale their organic traffic with the highest quality content and links. Want to know more about how we can help you share your story with your audience? Simply contact us today and we’d be happy to discuss our link building and content marketing services!
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