The Benefits of Applying Narrative and Storytelling to Content Marketing

Companies that are experts at content marketing really stand out for their memorable content and strong brand identity. When companies consistently generate great material, they gain loyal followers who remember the brand and want to contribute to its growth. The content strategy success of these companies is something every new company wants to emulate, but how do we go about doing that, and why is it so easy to fall short?

All too often, we fall short because we are not telling stories. They tell their story in a way that is engaging and caters to what their audience actually wants to listen to. Telling good stories and crafting a good narrative in content marketing can be accomplished through empathy mapping: considering what the audience thinks, sees, hears, and says. As we come to better understand our audience, we will be able to get them on board with our narrative and provide valuable content.

The Human Narrative

Throughout time, information has been handed down as stories. They frame the way we view the world and provide a foundation for the human physiological structure. Our experiences, whether they are societal, interpersonal, or personal, are shared through stories throughout our lives and begin when we are very young. Children quickly learn the skill of conveying the world around them (whether true or false) to others through the stories they tell.

Sadie F. Dingfelder of the American Psychology Association writes, “We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us.” Stories are so vital to the way humans think, that psychology has dedicated a branch of study to understand the “personal narrative” and to help rewrite it.

Applying Storytelling to Content Marketing

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Our strong affinity for a good narrative structure draws us inescapably in. When we are able to identify with truly impeccable storytelling, we are excited by it (or frustrated when the resolution is incomplete). Good stories are the lifeblood of our society, at work, in social interactions, through entertainment—we seek good stories everywhere we look and praise them when we find them.

The film industry is an excellent example of storytelling at its finest. In 2016 alone, Americans spent over $10 billion on movie tickets and $18 billion on in-home streaming services, home videos, and rentals. Books that tell good stories are also in high-demand, proven by the sale of more than 400 million copies of the Harry Potter series. If these examples show anything, it’s that people love stories and will pay for good ones.

As content creators, we have the unique ability and responsibility to create good stories through empathy mapping. Such an integral part of human thought should not be discredited when it comes to creating ideas and content that resonates with our audience. Audiences are hungry for good content and we need to take a good look and make sure we’re giving them what they want.

Narrative in Content Marketing

The use of narrative in content writing differs depending on who’s telling the story. Intel and Denny’s both have stories to tell, but they vary widely from the kind of storytelling Disney is doing. Where most of us are creating products to sell and then designing a story around the product, Disney does the opposite. Films like The Avengers or Frozen convey intriguing stories that resonate with their audience and subsequently produce sales. For those of us telling stories around existing products, if there even is a story, it is often a second thought—and it shows.  

The Disney approach to narrative in content marketing is one we could learn more from. While we don’t need to focus on telling stories in the same way as Disney, by centralizing our brand narrative we can better engage customers. And while we might not tell stories about superheroes and princesses, we should be saying more than “here we are; buy our product” to our customer base.

Standing apart from the crowd is the purpose of building a narrative in content marketing. We should strive to differentiate ourselves from our competition and prove that we are better. As Robert Rose put it, “Differentiation is not being incrementally better than our competition. It’s not telling the same story, in a slightly bigger, funnier, or more engaging way. No, that’s candidly a sequel.” We must try a little harder, expand a little more effort, and employ empathy mapping if we want to tell our brand’s unique story.   

Implementing Narratives

When building your narrative in content marketing it’s important to begin by asking what the company or organization is looking to say. Take a look at your brands, values, products, services, or organization to determine what your company already says. Your narrative in content marketing will usually be an organic growth of what your company already does. Companies like Intel have done an excellent job of sharing content that fits their company narrative. They allow their engineers, developers, and technicians to share their knowledge because they can do it better than the marketing team and are already sharing it—making it an organic outgrowth of the company’s narrative.

Once you’ve reviewed your company, it’s time to look at your audience. You can gain a better understanding of who they are through empathy mapping and considering the kind of audience you have. Empathy mapping is the keystone of role-playing and helps us discover the needs of our audience and define exactly who they are.

Narratives in Content Marketing

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Is the audience loyal? What demographic does your company cater to? Do you have a target demographic you would like to provide products or content for? Get specific about your audience and who you want to speak to so you can connect with them on a deeper level. Denny’s has done an excellent job by focusing on a very niche audience (fans of the Metroid series) and creating some jokes surrounding the show that only fans would understand. While it might seem like niching down can alienate your audience, it can often strengthen it instead. Putting together an empathy map can be especially useful in determining who your niche audience is in these instances.

Content that meets SEO objective is great, but you should be careful to stay away from the “Damsel in Distress” approach. Think of it like a summer action flick, where all the characters are pretty one-dimensional—especially the love interest. This “Damsel in Distress” is madly in love with the hero and doesn’t really have anything going for herself. She has two purposes—be pretty and get rescued. Not a very inspiring or interesting character to be sure. However, when we create our narrative in content marketing we sometimes act the same way and use a one-dimensional approach to SEO.

Sure, we pay attention to our backlinks and keywords, but we forget about the importance of creating quality content along the way. Let me tell you—we might not be paying attention, but our audience is—and they don’t like it. Thankfully, if we give our content pieces a specific purpose and objective, we can avoid falling into the trap of the “Damsel in Distress.” Empathy mapping can be used to consider what your audience is getting when they visit a page. Ask yourself if you’re answering their questions, or making them laugh. If you don’t care enough to create good content, and only care about your SEO, you’re missing out on the opportunity to create brand loyalty and engage with your customers.

Utilize Empathy Mapping to Create a Narrative in Content Marketing

When implementing an effective narrative in content marketing you should always start by using empathy mapping. Empathy mapping is an organized approach to empathy that involves team brainstorming sessions to discover new ideas about what will meet your audience’s emotions and needs. It is aimed at helping you and your team plan a better user experience by looking at your material from your customer’s perspective.

While empathy maps can be used in any industry, it is especially useful for UX designers, those looking to create a better customer experience, and managers looking to maximize their effectiveness as a supervisor. The key element is starting with an empathetic approach and looking at things from someone else’s perspective to understand how they feel. Empathy mapping allows us to role-play so we can engage customers in our company narrative and align our views with theirs. Here’s where it all starts.

How Do I Create an Empathy Map?

When creating an empathy map, it’s helpful to do it as a team brainstorming session so you get lots of perspective and new ideas. You can use these sessions for new products, UX and UI design, and to develop targeted content when crafting your narrative in content marketing.

Whatever you’re trying to create, the process is essentially the same. You should encourage your team members to think like someone else and use hard evidence and data to help your team get a vision of who their audience is so they can start thinking like the audience. For this exercise, you’re going to want to invest in a bunch of sticky notes to jot down and post your team’s ideas. You’re going to use a lot of sticky notes here so color-coordinating them might be a good idea.

To start, draw out your empathy map on a whiteboard or large piece of paper. A typical empathy map has four main sections labeled, “Thinking,” “Feeling,” “Seeing,” and “Doing.” While some empathy maps use more sections, simplicity is best when you’re starting out, and these four sections are really all you need for a successful brainstorming session. Here’s a simple outline from Copyblogger to give you an idea of where to start.

It doesn’t really matter whether you decide to put it up on a whiteboard or on a large piece of paper, so long as it’s visible to everyone in the room and there’s enough space for your plethora of sticky notes. Also, give your audience a bit of character so you have a better idea of who your audience is as you brainstorm. Then let the sticky notes begin!

Thinking

As you develop your narrative in content marketing through empathy mapping you should be thinking about your audiences frustrations, concerns, and decisions. Their frustrations might lead them to wonder why they can’t find answers to their questions, they might have concerns they aren’t doing something right, or they might be trying to make decisions and just want the facts.

Seeing

Considering what your audience sees is also important to effective empathy mapping. Think about what environment they are in, what environment they see your content in, and what they are looking for when they engage with your content. This will lead you to answer concerns about disagreements on topics, unsafe business practices, or increasing product costs for things they want.

Feeling

How your audience feels about the content you provide makes a big impact on whether they will engage with it or not. What does your audience want? What are they trying to avoid? And what drives and motivates them? If you ask yourself these questions you might come to some ideas that they want more time with family, are looking for new jobs, or that they are confused about the choice they should make.

Doing

The last point to consider when empathy mapping, is what your audience is actually doing. Your consideration might include what they do with their spare time, what actions they are taking to resolve their problems, or how they spend time and interact with those around them. As you do, your team might come up with ideas that they play video games, tell their friends and family about products they enjoy, or even what kind of car they drive.

Your questions and answers will vary depending on what industry you are in, and what customer base you are trying to target. Some of your sticky notes could also probably go in several sections of your empathy map—that’s okay. The goal of empathy mapping is to create a physical representation of who your audience is so you can determine their pain points and meet their needs through your narrative in content marketing.

Why Use an Empathy Map?

Everyone has experience working with a company that didn’t employ empathy in their content or design. When you use an app that is difficult to navigate, read an article that seems out of touch with the audience base, or struggle to fix or repair a simple element on your vehicle, you’re experiencing what it feels like to be the customer of a company that lacks empathy. And it’s not a good feeling. When businesses fail to meet the needs of customers or don’t consider the feelings and needs of their audience, they suffer for it.

As Dr. James Patell of Stanford d.school stated, “One of the founding tenets of the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) is human-centered design. Rather than beginning with shiny new technology, we start by trying to establish deep, personal empathy with our users to determine their needs and wants. We must fill in two blanks: Our users need a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. The because portion is a big deal.” When we create a narrative for content marketing, it can be easy to forget the target audience we’re striving to reach. If our audience feels alienated or that we don’t understand what they think, feel, see, and hear, they won’t engage with the content we provide for them.

The Importance of Identifying Your Customer

Through empathy mapping, we can be very specific and determine exactly who our audience is. If we decide our audience is anyone who’ll purchase our product, we’ll likely find that no one wants to. However, if we narrow our focus and strive to develop empathy with our audience, our customers will engage because it feels like we are speaking directly to them. They will listen, purchase products, and tell their friends. Through the careful use of narrative in content marketing we’re making stories our audience will want to hear. You don’t need to make every blog post or article a work of art, as long as you put forth the effort to engage your audience, they will appreciate the effort you put forth and will want to follow your company on its journey.

If you’re in need of some awesome content marketing services, contact Big Leap to create a content marketing strategy designed for you—and your customers.

Stephen Porritt
Content Writer
After washing out of the Academy of Mad Science and Evil Genius (AMSEG), Stephen turned his attention to content marketing, writing stories, and telling dad jokes.
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