The Complete Guide to Using Storytelling in Content Marketing (No Matter How Boring Your Business Is)

Content Marketing 19 min read

What do brands like Kiehl’s, Whole Foods, and Dyson all have in common? Does something, in particular, stand out when you think of these popular names? Here’s what connects them - All three of these brands have their entire marketing based on rock-solid storytelling.

These are some of the names that come to mind immediately when one thinks of brands that have made a mark. They were the ones to sway the minds of their target audience in their favor simply by telling a powerful story.

Whole Foods appeals to our conscious selves because we’re guilty of indulging in refined, preserved, and processed foods and are desperate to switch to a seemingly healthier alternative. Since it makes us feel good about what we feed our family, we don’t mind paying a few extra bucks for it.

Kiehl’s, on the other hand, used exclusivity to win over their target audience who didn’t just want to settle for skincare everyone was using. These young consumers wanted to be a class apart, away from the ordinary and hence didn’t mind paying a premium for a brand that made them feel so.

Similarly, Dyson’s story was based on leveraging technology to revolutionize home improvement products, thus making them the preferred choice among younger buyers - something that set them apart from their competitors.

The bottom line is that instead of using facts, figures, features, and data to tell the world why their products are better, these brands harness the power of storytelling to reach their respective and very specific target audiences.

In a world where content is the very cornerstone of all marketing activities, standing out is important to reap its true benefits or you end up being one of the many names that consumers hear about. And storytelling helps you do exactly that.

By helping you create a voice for yourself, storytelling allows you to truly connect with consumers and appeal to their emotional and human side as opposed to making a tactical argument as to why your product is better, which rarely gets the desired attention.

What Is Storytelling In Content Marketing?

Put simply, storytelling is the art and science of using a fictitious or non-fictitious narrative, character, and plot to convey a message that indirectly markets your product or category of products.

Why storytelling is such an important pillar in content marketing is because it makes your content way more engaging and compelling as opposed to marketing communication that is based strictly on facts and figures.

Humans are built to connect with a story, empathize with characters, and react to a narrative.

Therefore, the clever technique of presenting a marketing message that is wrapped in an enticing narrative is referred to as storytelling in the world of marketing.

Such stories usually comprise a protagonist (based on your brand’s target persona), a conflict or a problem they face (your target audience’s pain points), and finally, the solution they discover (closely tied to your offerings/products) - all of which are tied together with a narrative arc.

But Then, Doesn’t Storytelling Require Your Product/Service To Be ‘Interesting’?

No, you do not need a conventionally interesting product to leverage storytelling for your business. That’s one common myth that keeps marketers from exploring storytelling for their marketing communication.

All you need to do is to effectively craft a narrative around how the usage of your products or services can potentially positively impact the end-users’ lives.

The nature of your business or the category of your products is completely irrelevant, and whether or not you are able to trigger a positive response from your audience depends entirely on how you tie together the three crucial elements of a story - the protagonist, the conflict, and the solution with your brand messaging without simply replying on facts and product features to win over customers.

Stories work not only because they are easier to retain than information or statistics, but research has proven that they also cause oxytocin release which in turn affect consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and decisions.

In fact, there is research that talks about how the auditory cortex of the brain activates upon engaging with a story. The same research also states that stories are easier to retain. The brain activity triggered by storytelling can last for days.

The human brain can filter out noise from the story being told. That’s why one should be extremely careful of how it is crafted. Avoiding jargon, cliches, and complex words, to name a few.

impact of storytelling
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So What Makes Is Good Storytelling?

Feature a relatable protagonist

Your target audience is only going to relate to your story and find it relevant if and only if the central character is someone they can relate with.

More importantly, they are only going to empathize with this character if they relate with them. If you cannot get them to empathize with this character, they are not going to be able to step in their shoes, and hence wouldn’t care about your story. Your story is simply as good as the relatability of the protagonist.

Therefore, make sure you spend enough time researching your ideal target persona - their likes, dislikes, motivations, aspirations, and pain points so you can condense all the relevant attributes into your story’s protagonist and create one that your target audience instantly connects with.

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Keep it real, keep it authentic

“Fake it till you make it” is probably the worst piece of advice anyone can give you when it comes to storytelling in marketing.

Being fake or unauthentic is absolutely not an option. The last thing you want is for your story to sound like an overtly fabricated and cliched narrative that readers can totally see-through.

So, no matter how hard it seems at the beginning, make sure you use a fresh idea, a unique perspective to craft your own story that doesn’t appear inspired by millions of others or even run off the mill.

Stay true to your brand values and principles and use them to deduce your own voice and tone which sets you apart from your competition. Remember that your audience is smart enough to differentiate the two narratives. They will immediately realize if your story or idea is not unique. That’s because a typical internet user is exposed to at least 5,000 campaigns a day.

Use emotions to connect with your audience

Your story is absolutely futile if it doesn’t evoke the intended emotions in the readers.

This could be anything - fear, anger, joy, thrill, surprise, or any other emotion that either motivates, moves or makes the reader feel something and connect with your brand.

Emotions are what make your story real and humanly so without them, your message would be just like another elevator pitch.

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Avoid digressing; stick to the point

Your story shouldn’t be a huge fairytale where readers have to wait for you to get to the point.

In fact, storytelling in marketing works only when the story you tell is succinct and absolutely to the point, without digressing even a bit. You want to keep your audience engrossed, not lose their attention.

So, keep the unnecessary details and boring plot points out of the way, and craft a story that simply grabs readers’ attention, makes them feel something, and then leaves them thinking about it.

In the end, you want readers to imagine themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and think about how using your products could actually turn their lives around, and not be left with a narrative that leaves them confused, bored, or unmoved.

Throw some facts and figures to support your story

Well, this might sound counterintuitive because this entire while, we’ve been talking about how storytelling has an edge over facts and figures in marketing.

However, using storytelling to put your message across does not mean that you completely ignore hard facts. You cannot skip the research and you do not need to let go of all that you’ve done before.

Storytelling only means sharing that research with your target audience with a narrative. And not a bullet-point list of facts that they can get on the internet. This makes your proposition far more compelling.

Once you have crafted that story, don’t shy away from using the data from your research to support or back your story to add to its credibility.

Relying on facts and figures now wouldn’t be such a bad idea considering you’ve already got the reader hooked and once they find out that your claims are supported by research and actual data, they are only going to be further lured into giving your products or services a chance.

Finally, a worthy cliffhanger

You don’t want to give it all away. Instead, leave readers wanting more.

Try not to have an explicit, definitive ending to your narrative, but leave it either open for interpretation or at a cliffhanger.

This will intrigue the readers, leave them with something to think about, and/or ensure they come back to find out more. Either way, you’ve found yourself a genuinely interested potential buyer that you have a huge shot at converting.

How Can You Make A Good Story For Yourself?

Get clarity on who you want to be perceived as

The first step to nailing the perfect story is what you want to be known as if your brand were to be personified. Do you want to be a friend to the reader who casually suggests what’s best for them or do you want to sound more authoritative like a mentor and educate them?

If you want to be the reader’s friend - are you the kind who knows it all and people go to for advice or the one who’s just fun to hang out with?

Once you have decided upon what your brand persona is, the tonality, lingo, attitude, and every other aspect of your story will be easier to zero in on without which you cannot get started.

Get to know your customers

Spend enough time researching your target audience. It wouldn’t be wise to get started without all information on your prospects’ interests, likes, motivations, aspirations, and other attributes as you wouldn’t be able to build a narrative that caters to their worldview.

Get to know what they want to be perceived as among their peers, their day to day challenges and struggles, things, solutions they need, and so on.

So, whether you have a huge customer pool or just a few beta users, make sure you conduct enough interviews, run plenty of surveys, and do thorough secondary research to create the ideal prototypical customer profile. Once done, use all the information gathered to stitch together a story that aligns with your target audiences’ worldviews and interests.

Set a goal for your story

You need to be clear about how you intend to conclude your story from the very beginning. Establish a clear CTA and ensure your story gradually leads to it.

Do you want your readers to sign up for your services or do you want to simply educate them? It’s only when you have absolute clarity on what the end goal of your story is, can you create an impactful one.

Include visual cues

A story needn’t just be huge chunks of text. In fact, far from it. A verbose story is only going to bore readers and reduce its impact. Including visual cues in your story will ensure you capture readers’ attention from the very beginning and have them glued.

Visual cues could be anything from images or illustrations to self-shot or animated videos, they simply need to support your story and add to the readers’ overall experience. Since visuals are credited for having way higher retention than text ever will, including them in your story will ensure your audience remembers the critical aspects of your story.

Improvise your story along the way

Since you’ve done your research and laid the groundwork, you should be able to craft a story that’s evergreen and keeps getting the desired traction for your brand, right? Well, as it turns out, not so much.

Storytelling is not a one-time job. Once you have put your story out there, you must constantly optimize and improvise along the way to improve its performance.

You cannot expect to hit the jackpot in one go. You are bound to make some mistakes, miss out on a few subtle details, not cater to a certain customer segment, or even end up with a story you thought was gold, but didn’t get the desired engagement.

Either way, if you publish your story and forget about it, it will get stale with time. So, you need to regularly revisit it, watch the numbers to see how your various customer segments are engaging with it, do multiple further rounds of research to improve on it.

The ‘Not-So-Interesting Brands’ That Are Getting Storytelling Right

If you think storytelling is not for you because of the nature of your business which tends to be conventionally boring, think again.

Here’s a look at some of such brands who have knocked it out of the park with their exceptional storytelling despite the constraints pertaining to the nature of their business:

Salesforce

Soon after its launch in 1999, Salesforce, the world’s leading CRM platform, went on to outsell its competitors - SAP, Oracle, and IBM. So, how did one of the world's first SaaS companies go on to challenge some of the industry’s behemoths? The reason for Salesforce’s incomprehensible success is storytelling (no brownie points for guessing).

Since the very beginning, Salesforce had established itself as the new-age software provider with a mission to democratize technology and make it accessible to everyone 24*7. By offering software over the internet, Salesforce launched the very first cloud product that anyone had ever heard of, a CRM tool that reinforced the idea that business software solutions didn’t have to be complicated.

Back in the early 2000s, Salesforce launched what has been established as one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in the history of SaaS - “The End of Software”.

The campaign challenged and protested against the existing state of software delivery by industry giants. Protesters were hired by the founders at Salesforce to gather in front of a conference conducted by Siebel with large banners, posters, and signs with anti-software messages and chant anti-software slogans in front of the attendees.

They made it abundantly clear that Salesforce was here to stay with their loud and clear messaging, thus illustrating the power of stories and storytelling.

storytelling by salesforce
how to use storytelling for boring brands

Drift

A B2B SaaS company, Drift has been known for its chatbot solutions that help businesses simplify digital buying experiences. However, that’s not how Drift has positioned itself in the industry. Drift has created an entire category of solutions from their offerings and called it “conversational marketing” and “conversational sales”.

They have brilliantly jumped upon the hyper-personalization bandwagon by having their content strategy centered around the idea of how conversational marketing can deliver personalized experiences that customers crave.

And they don’t just simply preach it. Their authority on the domain is completely validated once you browse through their digital assets. So instead of specializing in a particular niche, Drift has created one for themselves.

how drift uses storytelling for marketing

Ikea

Let’s face it. Buying home furniture was never this interesting until Ikea introduced us to their dreamland that turned things around completely. Ikea made something as basic as home improvement, aspirational.

Think about it. Do you visit Ikea because of the quality of the wood they use or the longevity of the products they promise? No, right?

You visit Ikea for how it allows you to reimagine your living space and transports you to a land where you have the freedom to redesign your home the way you want. You visit Ikea for the shopping experience the stores offer and the story they have you believe that this is what your home could look like. They allow you to experience what you are putting your money behind and truly soak in the look and feel of the furniture.

Rather than using unnecessary jargon in their marketing communication, they keep it simple and elegant. Ikea believes in staging immersive experiences and not hiring pushy salesmen to do the talking.

Take their recent augmented reality initiative, for example.

Given that furniture shopping is also slowly moving online, shoppers often find it difficult to figure out the right size, perfect color, and ideal material for their pieces. In order to make online shopping a seamless and delightful experience, Ikea launched an in-app feature called “Place In Your Room” wherein users could experience what the particular furniture item would like in their homes.

how ikea uses storytelling for marketing

Cred

Indian credit card payment facilitator that rewards its customers for paying their credit card bills, Cred has always been popular for its unique tone of voice.

Being in the inherently boring personal finance space, Cred has not only tried but excelled at using storytelling to keep their customers hooked.

Whether it is their email marketing, blogs, in-app messaging, or social media communication, they have created their entire brand story around the central idea that it pays to clear your credit card dues in time.

All their customer communication is built on the theme of rewarding Cred users for being prudent about their finances. Here’s a look at their homepage, which clearly says just that:

how cred uses storytelling for marketing
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Here’s a look at one of Cred’s emails where they simply inform users about fixing certain bugs in the app. Take a look at how brilliantly it is crafted:

cred app marketing update content

Cisco

Cisco’s recent campaign centered around the theme - “There’s never been a better time to…” invited its customers, employees, partners, and influencers to share their real-life stories and views around how technology is here to change the world for good.

From transforming nations and bringing people closer to saving lives and providing livelihoods, Cisco’s campaign is a reminder of how digital transformation has touched human lives, and the best is yet to come.

The stories shared through this campaign highlighted the significant role played by Cisco’s solutions and services in leveraging technology to solve problems and simply human lives.

Stories were shared in the form of text, infographics, videos, photos, and even short films that moved people and made them realize the essential role of technology in our lives that we tend to take for granted.

Not just stories, Cisco’s entire brand narrative was slowly molded around the campaign. So, right from their website, social channels, and landing pages, all their communication reflected the same central theme and idea.

Here’s a look at some of the stories from the campaign:

cisco storytelling marketing
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cisco video marketing

In fact, they have dedicated an entire section of their blog to “never better” stories. Take a look:

cisco blogs using storytelling

Why Is Storytelling Oh-So-Important For Everyone Today?

The fact that storytelling allows you to stand out among a sea of competitors should be reason enough to get you going. Here are a few others that explain exactly why storytelling in content marketing is absolutely the need of the hour:

Improves the buying experience

Powerful storytelling is all you need to get readers to find value in your offerings as opposed to simply listing down the benefits your products offer, which no one is going to just believe.

Framing a story that takes the reader from their first touchpoint with your brand to the last allows you to create a far more valuable buying experience that your customers will appreciate and reward you for. If your buying experience is unique, fresh, engaging, and informative, you can expect a higher customer lifetime value, increased average order value, and better retention.

Adds a personal or human touch to the buying journey

As a brand, you interact with thousands of customers and your prospects know that. However, if you put in some effort to make customers’ buying journey more personalized and human, nothing like it!

As humans, we are hard-wired to respond better to personal attention, a human touch - anything that is not automated or looks robotic. And storytelling allows you to stage customer journeys that are way more personal and meaningful than an automated process that leads down the purchase funnel. It makes buyers feel important and cared for, and ultimately willing to spend more.

Improves your brand’s credibility

You cannot possibly create a worthwhile story without your thorough research and having enough authority in your niche. Therefore, a brand that uses storytelling to strengthen its content marketing efforts is automatically revered as a credible and authoritative one.

Prospects are convinced of the groundwork you have done to be able to confidently portray your expertise over an engaging narrative so you have an easier time nudging them down the sales funnel.

Compare this to a brand that just uses facts and figures to reinstate over and over again how much better their products are. Sure, they are using all the convincing data too. But, are they able to engage prospects? Probably not.

This is because people don’t believe in your credibility just because you say you are the best. They will believe so if you are able to successfully demonstrate your authority in multiple subtle ways that reinforce your expertise.

The sure short way to get there is storytelling.

Keeps you from sounding salesy

Well, here’s an obvious one for you. But isn’t it like a sweet cherry on the cake? By carefully leveraging storytelling for your brand communication, you can successfully bid adieu to those overtly salesy emails or landing page copies.

The world is literally your oyster and you get to communicate authentically with your prospects on subjects that matter to them. And once you do, you don’t need to explicitly state anymore that your brand cares.

Your prospects will trust you by then and look forward to trying out your products.

The more salesy you sound - the further you are pushed from making a sale, it’s just as simple as that!

But The Trick To Success Is Knowing When Your Storytelling Gets Boring

Let’s think about TV shows for a minute. Not all popular TV shows have had a gratifying conclusion.

What are some names that come to mind that have clearly overstayed their welcome? What are some of those shows that should have ended a while ago while the plot still captivated the audiences? But went on too long to bore them to sleep instead?

Think Game of Thrones, Scrubs, Arrested Development, or even Dexter. These are all shows that are now known for setting way too high expectations initially. And then disappointing their loyal fans with their rather unimaginative endings.

The reason is simple - the writers had a great plot point when they started out, but they simply didn’t know when to stop and ended up dragging the story for far too long.

The same can happen with brand storytelling. If you aren’t carefully looking out for signs of fatigue or end up being too pushy, you are most likely going to disappoint.

Start observing whether or not your marketing narrative is still captivating your target audience as it did in the beginning. Figure out if they think you are being too preachy. Analyze data to see if visitors have started bouncing off your site.

The key is to spend enough time reevaluating and reassessing your story once you have made it public. This way you’ll know when to stop.

A story dragged for too long, is a marketing conversion lost.

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