Marketing Content and the Power of Storytelling

Once upon a time, it was a Mad Men world. Marketers worked by instinct, making enormous up-front investments with no clue whether campaigns would succeed or fail. Agencies grew more based on the thickness of their Rolodexes and their persuasiveness in pitch meetings than on their ability to drive clients’ bottom lines.

Today, by contrast, it’s a world of web analytics. Pay per click. The social graph. Now, marketing’s all about data—bits and bytes, ones and zeros.

Or is it?

According to scientists like Michael Gazzaniga and Michael Pinker, we’re hardwired to respond to stories. Stories tap into something deep in our minds—actually synchronizing the brain activity of storyteller and audience.

Stories are like viruses: They get inside us, and change us. (No wonder we now measure the success of marketing stories by whether they “go viral.”) And when it comes to engaging and persuading, compelling stories trump statistics or bullet points just about every time. The best old-school marketers knew this. (Consider campaigns like American Express’ “Don’t leave home without it” or Federal Express’ “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”)

Smart marketers continue to devote significant resources to content that exploits the power of storytelling—creating case studies, brand and instructional videos, and TV campaigns; developing powerful brand-origin messaging (e.g., Tom’s Shoes); featuring customer stories on their website (e.g., the Cisco home page); and even creating interactive transmedia stories.

So how do good stories work? Let’s take a look at Google’s 2010 Super Bowl ad for some clues. At under a minute in length, it’s a masterpiece of clarity and concision:

It shows rather than tells (“cafés near the louvre”).

It includes telling details (“translate tu es très mignon”).

It introduces conflict (“impress a french girl”), and resolves it (“churches in paris”).

Its protagonist is easy for the target audience to identify with.

It taps into the viewer’s emotions—including sadness (“long distance relationship advice”), humor (“what are truffles . . . who is truffaut”), and joy (“how to assemble a crib”).

And it conveys the underlying brand message—“Google makes it simple to find what you’re looking for”—simply and compellingly.

Want to do a better job of engaging and persuading your target audience? Tell a better story—one that convinces the audience you can help them live (or work) happily ever after.

Need help telling the story of your product, service, or brand? Just ask the Content Bureau.

By Eric Wilinski