Why Storytelling is So Important

I recently wrote an exploration about Transmedia Storytelling as the future of digital marketing. A lot of the thinking behind this piece was related to my work at Limelight Networks and our recent pivot towards becoming the leader in digital presence management. The gist was this: our emerging multi-device behavior coupled with a growing “always on” existence requires that marketing messages are consistent across the devices. Transmedia storytelling is simply a vehicle by which to enable that.

But that brings up the question, “why storytelling?”

A (Brief) Understanding of Stories

Why do we love stories? Why do we like to tell them? Why do we like to listen to them, watch them, and read them? Aristotle believed that they embodied fundamental, visceral responses to our own lives so we watched them as a reflection of us. But he felt that plot, and the ability to create a powerful structure, are more important than character or dialogue: “…every drama alike has spectacle, character, plot, diction, song and reasoning. But the most important of them is the structure of the events” (Poetics). What Aristotle didn’t consider was the personification of the events and the environment. When there is only an event, the event itself becomes the character. In essence, Aristotle had it correct, but he didn’t quite understand why. It is only through decades and centuries of philosophical, neurological, and psychological inquiry that we understand the human need to personify, to make things relate to ourselves (egotistically, of course). And, that is ultimately why we enjoy them. They provide us a mechanism to create connection and, ultimately, shape our own identities (a topic that I explored deeply during my graduate studies and hope to return to for my doctorate). What will throw you for a loop is to consider that everything we do in life, every bit of news, every bit of memory and photograph, is a story that we shape to our own needs (either to support who we are, through both negative and positive connotation, or what we want to do). It goes back to that connection. Whether we watch or act, our brains actively work to create a connection between what’s happening in the story and our own identities.

The Impact of Stories on Marketing

According to Maslow, there is a hierarchy of needs that drive all human motivation. In a commercial economy, those needs are often actualized by purchases. So you purchase base necessities first (the physiological needs according to Maslow) and then eventually luxuries, etc. Although I think Maslow’s work needs a revisit, it’s a fair framework. It’s possible that the digital world upsets those hierarchies and that long-term modification is in order. But, whatever aspect of the hierarchy comes first, influence is critical especially in a highly competitive commercial market (i.e., a global digital economy). There are simply too many products (and too many merchants selling the same products) that without influence, failure is pre-determined.

How then can a marketer create the most influence? How do they stand out from competitive products (and competitive merchants)? Easy. They create an emotional connection between the potential customer and the product/company.

Why the World of Marketing Today is So Different Than Before

The economy is becoming globalized. Plain and simple. Here’s why:

  • E-commerce. Anyone, anywhere in the world can setup a shop online and sell products.
  • Global logistics. UPS, DHL, Fedex. These and other companies have established a worldwide distribution network.
  • Product digitization. Mobile applications, desktop software, music, movies, books.
Because of this global economy, traditional “spray and pray” marketing no longer works. In the past, regional and physical boundaries minimized product competition. There may have been only several product competitors in any given area. That no longer applies. In the global, digital economy, competitors can appear overnight. Boundaries are removed. Companies that once benefited from “spray and pray” in local or regionalized markets find themselves now competing with hundreds of competitors simultaneously. Hoping that marketing messages get heard ensures that they don’t.
Today, marketers are intrinsically worried about the “noise:” all those other messages about similar products, and so they seek any way to set themselves apart. The way to do that most effectively is by creating an emotional connection with the customer. By telling a story.

A Message That’s not a Message

Marketers as storytellers are doing something fundamentally different than marketers of before: they are focusing on establishing a connection between customer and message first and selling the product second. They are telling a story in which the product or service is an element. Perhaps it is the catalyst for change (i.e., a character in the story uses the product and is changed for the better or worse) or perhaps it helps move the story along. Whatever, the product or service only serves a role. The story is primary.

And, because of that, the message sounds more genuine. Although consumers ultimately understand that the message is intended to convince them to buy the product or service, they are emotionally connected to the characters (or the “action” of the story in the event that such action is personified) because it is a story. They see the character as a representation of their own needs (back to Maslow). Because that character uses the product, the need is transferred. Of course, this works in both directions. When there is a negative association with the characters within the message, the character’s needs for the product (i.e., how they are using it) become a reason not to purchase.

Why Transmedia Storytelling Will Be the Most Impactful

Which leads us back to Transmedia Storytelling. In 1964, Marshal McLuhan coined a phrase: “The medium is the message.” Although I won’t go into details here (there are plenty of resource that explain McLuhan’s philosophy), the basic tenant is that how the message is delivered has just as much impact as the content of the message itself. So a message delivered via a movie versus via a written page versus  still images affects the message which is hugely important when trying to create an emotional connection between the customer and the characters in the story. And, mediums are multi-dimensional. So video on a mobile is still different from video on TV just as video on a flip-phone is different from video on a smartphone. It is critically important that marketers understand how McLuhan’s original philosophy is impacted by the digital world. He never foresaw the number of channels and methods by which a message can get delivered.

Why is this important? It goes back to creating connection. Some customers will find appeal in certain messages delivered via certain channels. That’s what McLuhan was truly after. To appeal to the broadest set of customers, then, marketers must craft stories that take advantage of their mediums. Ultimately, you can call it whatever you want. Right now we have Transmedia Storytelling. Tomorrow it may be another term. Regardless of the name, it’s a framework for marketers to tell stories that leverage the medium by which the message is delivered (i.e., TV vs phone) and in which the message is delivered (i.e., videos vs. text vs. pictures, etc.).

Update (11/7/2012):

A great article on FastCompany that drives home much of what I have said here:

Here is my comment on their piece:

I couldn’t agree more with this article, especially with the line, “Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story.” Stories are containers for personal identification. In fact, whether it’s an ad or a piece of fiction, stories help us define who we are by giving us a way to compare ourselves to the story’s protagonist. I believe that effective storytelling will becoming marketing’s biggest weapon but only when the storytelling is the point of the communication. If the product remains the focus, the storytelling falls flat. Businesses have to realize they are selling content. Once the content is “sold,” (once the consumer has made the connection with the story via its actions, characters, or resolutions), the product is “sold” as well.

It is critical for marketers-becoming-storytellers to understand how readers utilize stories to help fashion their identities. That is what creates the connection.

Update (11/12/2012):

Is there neurological research that supports why storytelling is so important (especially in business)? Seems there might:

even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response my triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

Read more at Brainpickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/10/03/paul-zak-kirby-ferguson-storytelling/

Update (11/16/2012):

You can see this in action with Coca Cola’s recent website change. Ditching their old, product focused website, they created “Coca Cola’ Journeys” to highlight stories. Within those stories are characters/actors interacting with the product and, of course, a conversation around it. The New York Times published a great write-up on not only the new site but the reason behind it:

The reorganized Web site will offer articles on subjects like entertainment, the environment, health and sports, including longer pieces given prominence in the same way that magazines play up cover pieces. Interviews, opinion columns, video and audio clips, photo galleries and blogs also will be featured.

There are some great quotes in the article about what this represents from a marketing perspective:

The use of the word “story” is significant because the Web site changes are indicative of the growing interest among marketers in recasting their communications with consumers as storytelling rather than advertising. Just as attention is being paid to developing content to use for brand storytelling, an appetite also exists for corporate storytelling.

“The hot thing is to talk about being publishers,” Mr. Brown said. “We have this belief in great, real content and creating content that can be spread through any medium as part of our ‘liquid and linked’ strategy.”

Update (11/16/2012):

You know when tech-focused publications are talking about storytelling, and not just the warm and fuzzy branding/marketing publications, something is up. Check out this post from TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/28/tech-storytelling/

Note: This is reprinted, with permission, from the blog In The Mind of Jason Thibeault.

- Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy. You can connect with Jason on Twitter @_jasonthibeault.

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