How to make your marketing more effective by using a storytelling formula

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Getting people’s attention, keeping it and getting them to buy something from our businesses certainly is getting harder and harder. Consumers are showered with so many messages per day that it’s hard to even pay attention. Leave alone remembering the message or even considering buying something.

That at its core is what marketing is: Get people to pay attention to us, understand what our company does and considering buying our services.

We can use all the help we can get. Telling good stories of course is one way and also a topic of my Content Performance Culture book and the Business Storytelling Podcast.

J.J. Peterson
J.J. Peterson

JJ. Peterson, author of “Marketing Made Simple,” joined me on an episode of the podcast to discuss how organizations and people can do that by following a formula.

Creativity matters in your storytelling and marketing, but choosing clever over relevant and formulaic storytelling can confuse customers.

At the end of the day, your brand must solve somebody’s problems for them to buy your product or services. If they don’t see the problem or your brand as the solution, there’s no sale.

J.J. mentioned some other definitions and strategies that are worth remembering and understanding.

What’s messaging?

Messaging is when you are out there explaining what your product does, but most importantly how that relates to your customer’s problem.

Messaging is especially hard when companies can’t explain their product succinctly or the explanation doesn’t make sense or resonate with the target audience.

An example that we discussed on the show was a company that was messaging a product in the “action” category but when I dug deeper into the product it could be described as more in the “relaxation” category.

Why entrepreneurs and companies must tell better stories

Every so often I run into entrepreneurs and innovators.  Some are inside of traditional organizations and are attempting to create a new product or service line within an existing structure. Some are starting their own business.

As an authentic storyteller I’m naturally curious and want to know their stories:

  • Why did you start doing what you are doing?
  • Is it scary?
  • How do you find customers?

A million more questions come to mind. Usually, I just ask two in one:

What are you trying to do and why?

Sometimes – many times, really –  I get this answer:

It’s hard to explain…

And then they hop into a lengthy explanation filled with lots of jargon. Really, it doesn’t make any difference. Many listeners tune out when they are told it’s “hard to explain.”

Innovators, founders, anyone really who is creating new products, services or businesses need to be able to explain it simply, clearly and concisely.

If those people can’t explain it, how can anyone else understand it? Or why would they even want to?

I’ve been there myself. It can be hard to explain what we are deeply involved in. We are so deep in the weeds, that we want to explain every single weed to anyone who is standing a bit away and is really just interested in the big-picture view.

You might wonder: Is he talking about an elevator pitch? Kind of, but don’t think of it as pitching. Not everyone is going to want to bat. Just tell them your story. Simply.

Stories come down to:

  • What are you trying to do and why?
  • What are the barriers and which ones have you overcome already?

Some questions to consider as you are thinking about your response the next time somebody asks about your innovation:

  • What do they already know? (If they know nothing and you just met them, chances are they are not going to learn everything in the next 10 seconds.)
  • At the simplest level, what is the innovation for?
  • How is it different from other existing products?
  • What problem is it solving? (Being able to say “I’m working on an app that allows you to avoid long lines at the grocery store” can get the attention of somebody who is facing that problem quickly.)
  • What is your product similar to? (Comparing it to something – or maybe a combination – that people already are familiar with can paint an immediate picture.

The way you tell your story can build or destroy a business or career. No pressure.

Tell it simply!

What’s branding?

Branding is when companies are running ads or get content in front of people that remind them of their brand. J.J. explained that branding campaigns work quite well for the Apples, Coca-Colas and other big brands of the world. But most of us know them. Coca-Cola doesn’t need to explain what their product is.

The problem is when smaller and newer brands jump right into branding-only. They haven’t shaped and shared their story enough, yet.

The formula for better marketing storytelling

Don’t just be clever, but be about the customer being successful, J.J. explained. Here’s the formula that every story needs to deploy. Some call that “making the customer the hero” of your brand story.

Have a character with a problem

This would be the customer. If there’s no customer with a problem that your product will solve, there’s no story.

J.J. shared the story of somebody sitting on their couch. Everything is going great. They are living a great life. There are no problems. Everything is going fantastic.

Who wants to read that story? Nobody. It’s also hard to sell something to the all-around happy customer.

This is where your story should start. Many brand stories start farther downstream though.

Meet a guide that can help the character

The guide could be a thought leader related to the brand or the brand itself. Somebody that is trustworthy and that is actually helpful. As discussed in more length in this podcast episode I’ve seen an increase in content that gives the solution to a problem as only the company’s product.

Certainly, our brand stories should lead the character of our story down toward the purchase, but there’s a fine line between being actually helpful and really just being an ad.

Read next: How to find better brand stories

Have and show a plan

The guide also presents a plan on how the problem can be solved. Let’s use the area of marketing automation here as an example. (There are certainly enough marketing automation companies out there that are trying to solve our problems.)

The problem is that marketing is getting more and more complicated and if we were to do everything manual, that’s a lot of work. Unnecessary work really. We don’t have the time. Automating process can solve that problem.

But marketing automation also has its challenges. You still need a strategy, implementation know-how, oversight and meaningful measurements.

Plus, many companies wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, just jump out there and buy a new SaaS tool if nobody has been trained on the basics. The basics can include:

  • The strategy
  • The goals of what we are trying to do
  • Gaps – for example, if you don’t have an email list, yet, why spend $100,000 on a top-of-the-line marketing automation tool to send emails? First you have to grow the list.
  • Then at some point staff has to learn how to use tools
  • And how to measure results
  • And update strategies based on what they’ve seen

Some SaaS companies, including Drift, have started publishing self-guided educational content and even certificates. For example, Drift has termed conversational marketing as a strategy to marry automation with conversation and human intervention at the right time.

Drift offers software services but also education. For example, I took their conversational marketing course and even received a certificate in conversational marketing. That’s the plan to making me proficient in conversational marketing.

While learning about the discipline of conversational marketing I also learn about the problem it’s trying to solve and guess who is top of mind when I need conversational marketing software? Drift, of course.

Have calls to action

To sell something and to move your characters with a problem through the funnel requires calls to action. Make sure they are relevant. Consider adding them:

  • inline
  • as call-outs
  • at the end of content
  • at the beginning of content

All these have advantages and disadvantages.

Calls to action at the beginning can tune audiences away if they don’t know your brand well yet. I’m thinking of podcasts that have three minutes of ads and CTAs before they ever get to the story. If I’m already familiar with the brand and ready to take the next step, this may work. If I’m not, it may not. Having CTAs early does ensure everyone has to see them.

Inline CTAs often show up in the form of links within context. I’ve seen them to work at times.

Call-outs look like this or similar:

Need help with your storytelling? Book a 30-minute meeting with me here.

I have lots of CTAs at the end of content (just scroll down). Usually, you can buy my book there, merchandise, register for a conference and more. The problem with CTAs after content can be that many readers may not scroll that far.

Show what success and failure look like

This is where testimonials can be helpful. Share the story of people whose problem was already solved by you -the guide.

Showing what failure looks like is also a good strategy, but please don’t be overly dramatic. Just be helpful.

Listen on Spotify here. 

Storytelling is a differentiator. Telling stories that are helpful and relatable is an even bigger differentiator. Following this formula can help your brand do just that.

This article was written and published in 2020 and also uses some content originally published on this blog in 2015.