There’s been much discussion lately about the importance of storytelling in good marketing and how we marketers need to embrace it; however, not much has been written about how to properly architect a story for maximum impact. Admittedly, I’m a recovering English major who spent much of my academic life trying to master the short story, so I geek out on story architecture. I also spent 3 years working for Disney where masterful storytelling is the lifeblood of the organization.
The below 5 steps guide my storytelling process. I’d love to hear if you follow the same process or something different.
1. Know your audience
In marketing, one of the first things we need to nail strategically is our target audience. We need to know what they care about, where they hang out and how we can drive awareness that compels them to act.
In effect, we need the audience to be the core character in our story. To that end, I like to develop a specific persona that I’m trying to address. I will create a storyboard with her picture and key facts – e.g. Terry is a mom of 3 school-aged children, lives in Columbus, Ohio; she’s got a masters degree in engineering, works full time, hits the gym on the weekends, enjoys shopping at Nordstrom (especially the sale rack), lives by her Outlook calendar and indulges in Starbucks grande non-fat mochas.
By bringing the audience to life, I can more definitively craft my story to drive relevancy and resonance. You might be thinking that the above is too specific, but I’m sure that each of you can think of someone who resembles many of the above characteristics and can extrapolate accordingly. The point is not to be too specific so as to significantly limit your audience, but provide enough detail that the audience can come to life and guide the rest of your story development.
2. Develop your characters
Once you know to whom you’re speaking, you’ll need appropriate actors to carry out your story. Note that the focus of story architecture and indeed the story itself is foremost on the characters. If you can’t articulate who they are and what they care about, then you won’t be able to put them into a specific situation and have them react.
The characters in your story must be relatable to the audience in the context of your product or service. If you sell cars, for example, you’ll want to think about who Terry might be looking to for car advice and how those characters could challenge her current perceptions, swaying her toward interest in your model.
Similarly, you need to think about how to make your characters more aspirational for Terry, yet still relevant enough that she would believe whatever these characters are doing is achievable. How can you stretch their personas to drive Terry to think in new ways about your product?
3. Insert conflict into your characters’ lives
Conflict. It always sounds more negative than it really is. Without a conflict – which could be as simple as a decision that needs to be made – you don’t have a story. You just have a list of characters and a non-existent audience.
For marketers, the conflict must eventually resolve to the characters choosing our products and services. While that piece of the story is formulaic, how you get there doesn’t have to be. In fact, the strongest conflict and story lines are bred from creating issues that the audience didn’t know they had.
Take the “best in class” ads for Old Spice as an example. The target buyer is a younger male, but the main character is speaking directly to all the ladies out there (noting that they may be doing some of the shopping as well). Prior to these ads, I don’t think there were thousands of woman complaining about which body wash their significant others were choosing. Nonetheless, when the ad creates conflict in these women’s minds that they could be doing better in the partner department, a sense of urgency is created to purchase the product. Again, driving that aspirational response is a key to successful storytelling.
4. Resolve conflict through epiphany
Not to wax total English major here, but one of my favorite tenets of story architecture is the character epiphany. Here it’s a more emphatic way of talking about resolving the character conflicts and taking the story home. In our marketing stories, the key is for the audience to experience that epiphany along with the characters – ultimately leading to a purchase decision, if we’re lucky, but we’ll take purchase consideration and call it a win.
The best stories will challenge the audience to think about the product or service in a new way. Think about the original ads for iPods. We were all stuck carrying around bulky Sony Discmans and suddenly we have 1000 songs in our pockets?! We should aspire to be so simple in elegant in our stories.
5. Know how the story will end
Knowing how the story will end may be a tenet that you want to think about immediately after your character development, but I’ve moved it here to underscore the importance of measurement. The end of the story isn’t just about the call to action.
Once you’ve set your story wild, your audience owns it. If you’ve created a story that resonates with your audience and drives new behavior, your story will continue to live and grow. However, you will have failed if you don’t cultivate the story in new forms through listening to your audience. Old Spice achieved this with aplomb when the brand team set up the response videos. We all should strive to be as ingenious.
I’ve intentionally not addressed distribution models in the above as I think they are secondary to the actual story you’re developing. Without a solid and elegant brand story, it won’t matter which medium you use. First focus on your audience, characters and conflict and figure out later where they will be hashing everything out.
How are you developing your brand stories?