#Marketing with Storytelling

Dang! Just when I was getting ready to post something on storytelling, Katja Gagen sent me this post for the SVIABC blog. She’s the President of SVIABC, whose blog I manage. And since I don’t always get guest bloggers and I can post mine next time, here’s hers…

Katja Gagen

Katja Gagen

by guest blogger, Katja Gagen

VP Marketing at General Catalyst Partners, President – SV-IABC

You may not remember the processor speed, memory capacity or other technical facts about the original Macintosh personal computer — or any other computer for that matter. However, people who were watching, remember “1984,” the iconic Apple ad that appeared during the XVIII Super Bowl broadcast. And if you weren’t there — or aren’t old enough to remember — it was a ground-breaking, watershed moment for advertising, (Clio Award ’84) subsequently landing on Clio’s Hall of Fame (’95), and on Advertising Age‘s list of top fifty commercials.

The Ridley Scott commercial, depicting a sledgehammer-wielding woman bursting into a meeting room and smashing a video screen where a sinister-looking leader addressed an audience of drones, is widely regarded as one of the most effective marketing initiatives ever. In fact, the commercial’s 30-year anniversary was celebrated this year by Geek Magazine, whose article said, “It’s incredibly difficult not to include the ‘1984’ Apple ad with the best in advertising and science fiction / totalitarian narrative. On the week of its 30th anniversary, the commercial spot has lost little of its impact and influence on advertising and commercial film-making on both the big and small screen.”

At Cisco Live 2012, Rob Lloyd, President at Cisco, likened the 1984 launch of the Macintosh to the way that technology is opening up ever-increasing choices, freedom and personalization of users’ experiences today. According to Lloyd “with this launch for the first time we had technology in which the user experience came first.”

Alas, despite the legacy of “1984,” technology marketing in the 21st Century is still dominated by dry recitations of lists of facts — camera megapixels, download speeds, unique visitors and the like. Venture investing can be similar, with user growth rates, size of ad networks and burn rates taking precedence over compelling narratives.

But if “1984” hasn’t changed marketing, neither has the profound advantage of storytelling over the listing of facts. People today are not that far removed from the species that for millennia exchanged information by telling stories around the fire, and storytelling is still the most powerful way to tap into basic human emotions and needs.

If anything, storytelling is more necessary today. The strong, steady increase in exposure to marketing messages in media new and old, from social networks to billboards, makes it harder than ever to bring a message to the attention of customers and investors. Emotional engagement is one of the most effective and still underused techniques for cutting through this information overload.

One reason storytelling is less used, especially in technology, is that making a list is more straightforward than telling a story. We already use lists of features for designing products and planning marketing. They are familiar — and easy. But we shouldn’t rely on them as much as we do for reaching hearts and minds. Fortunately, storytelling itself can be understood as a list of essential features. Since talk of the iconic “1984” has hopefully aroused your narrative function, let’s take a look at this brief list of marketing story requirements:

1)    A sympathetic protagonist. The audience must be encouraged to have sympathy for the main character. This character will often be identifiable as a typical member of the audience.

2)    A compelling need. The protagonist — about whom, remember, the audience cares — must have a need or problem that requires a solution. Resolving this tension provides the narrative force propelling the story.

3)    Indirect exposure to features. The marketing narrative must lead the audience to experience the features and benefits of the offering by empathizing with the protagonist in his or her search for a resolution of the problem. Don’t list ‘em, show ‘em. Or, as they say in beginning writing classes, “Show. Don’t tell.”

Those are the major features. You may want to have an antagonist. Your technology or brand may play a starring role as the solution. There often is action and there may be a sort of moral at the end, typically something that helps cement the technology, product, brand or company as a go-to source for solutions.

While storytelling is a powerful marketing tool, it’s not infallible or equally suitable for all situations. For instance, recent advertising research shows that a female audience is more likely to be affected by dramatic ads that emphasize story and character rather than by vignette ads. Female audiences are also more likely to respond to dramas featuring romance, beauty and even sadness. More masculine audiences lean more toward vignette presentations, or drama ads featuring emotions such as happiness and fun, according to these findings.

A more general limitation of marketing stories is that they only work if they are perceived as true. That is, the tale being told, as well as the role of the product or service in helping resolve the need, has to conform to the audience’s own experience. There may not actually have been a woman who was chased away by storm troopers after disrupting a lecture, but it can work extraordinarily well if the audience feels it to be a true representation of their reality.

So next time you’re preparing a presentation to potential investors or board members, or strategizing about a theme for a customer marketing initiative, ask yourself: Three decades from now, will anyone remember how speedy my chip was or how many leads I claim to generate? If not, consider trying to tell a story that will present your offering as an avenging angel bent on saving the world (or at least your audience). That’s how you may become the next “1984.”

Thanks for reading Katja’s post, K.T.



K. T. Taggart, Writer, Ringmaster, Smartnet Marketing


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