Humans are programmed to find a story in everything we see. Every picture, word or sentence, no matter how simplistic, is imbued with deeper meaning. This hardwiring helps our brain understand, contextualize and retain details about the world around us.
For that reason alone, it is only logical that good stories can also function as potent strategic business tools — ways and means to communicate marketing ideas, change perceptions, forge emotional connections, and alter behaviors.
But in recent years, the term “storytelling” has become overused and overprescribed by marketers. In reducing this powerful mechanism to an industry buzzword, it simultaneously became the de facto answer to nearly every challenge faced in digital advertising and an excuse to avoid responsibility for solving those problems.
At last year’s Advertising Week, I noticed the rampant jargonization of “storytelling” and started to jot down each instance of its use. By mid-morning on day one, my hand was sore, well before storytelling was called upon to fix ad blocking, low CTRs (click-through rates), ineffective branding, and viewability.
Cave paintings in France 30,000+ years old depict men being chased by bulls; oral histories in Australia date back 10,000+ years; and the great Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is over 4,000 years old. We have always made sense of the world with story.
While our capacity to tell stories hasn’t changed, our capabilities to tell them have moved on from cave paintings to campfires to social media posts and beyond. All advertising should strive to tell a story, but without a sturdy foundation built upon a fundamental structure, storytelling quickly becomes another empty construct.
In a paper published in “The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice” in 2014, marketing professors Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen conducted a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. Their findings indicate that the structure and complexity of an ad’s storytelling were actually what inevitably predicted its success, independent of the ad’s content.
Furthermore, ads using Freytag’s Pyramid — a theory describing the typical five-part dramatic arc as it was employed in ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama — were the most popular.
So what is “storytelling” when you’re trying to sell a product instead of a play? The most important thing for us marketers to remember when we tell stories is that they take on many forms — they can be long episodic epics or six-word sentences; something that the viewer participates in or passively absorbs; they can be read, heard, or seen.
A story is simply a narrative structure that describes an event or sequence of events.
That being said, the difference between a bad story and a great one, or even a good story and a great one, is so vast it cannot be quantified. Great campaign stories are not only well-crafted, but also draw from these four key elements, which every marketer should strive to incorporate:
A beginning and an end. Any writer will tell you; the key to hooking a reader is to get them invested in the storyline as quickly as possible. Create a tension (or problem) and then, over the course of the narrative, give it resolution.
Most often in marketing, the problem is one that can be resolved by the product being sold (click here to purchase!). The “beginning” and “end” can be contained within a single element (e.g., a video) or can be stretched across the entire flight of the campaign.
Emotion. Initiating an emotional connection through sympathy, envy or intrigue not only pulls an audience into the story but creates emotional memories about your product far more powerful than facts or truths that are committed to memory. From there, moving them from one emotional state to another as the narrative unfolds only increases a powerful connection with your product and brand.
Authenticity. The story needs to speak a truth to the brand it is representing and the audience it’s speaking to.