Some businesses are just really good at content strategy. The content they generate gets noticed; people remember it, and remember their brand as a result. People identify with the company, grow fond of it, and want to support it. We see that kind of success and want to replicate it, but so often we fall short. Why is that?
It’s because the successful companies are telling us a story. Sometimes the rest of us forget to do that.
The Human Narrative
Stories. They’re foundational in the structure of human psychology. Almost all human experience—personal, interpersonal, and societal—is framed as a narrative. We are told stories from the very beginning as children, and we quickly pick up the skill of relating a tale (true or fabricated) to others.
“We don’t just tell stories,” writes Sadie F. Dingfelder of the American Psychology Association, “stories tell us.” They’re so central to human thought, there’s a whole branch of psychology devoted to understanding and helping to rewrite an individual’s “personal narrative.”
Because of our affinity for narrative structure, we gravitate towards it. We’re excited when we find a story we identify with, and we’re frustrated when stories are left incomplete. We seek out “good” stories—in our entertainment, our social interactions, and in our work. And when we find them, we celebrate them.
Take the film industry, for example. In 2016, the American public spent over $10 billion on movie tickets alone. An additional $18 billion was spent by Americans on home video, rentals, and streaming services last year. As for stories we read, the Harry Potter series alone has sold over 400 million copies. Business is booming for stories—people want them, and they’re willing to pay for them.
So with audiences so hungry for content, we need to ask ourselves: are we doing a good job of giving them what they want?
Narrative in Content Strategy
Before we go any further, it’s probably a good idea to delineate the difference between the kind of narratives that are being told in content strategies for companies like Denny’s and Intel, and what storytellers like Disney are doing. Disney creates stories (in films like Frozen and The Avengers), then creates products around them. Most of us are doing the opposite. We already have our products/services, and our content strategy (if we have one) is supplemental, and often reactionary.
That said, we could learn a lot from companies like Disney by making our brand narrative, and the narratives of the content we produce, more central to our marketing efforts. We need not tell stories in the strictest sense, necessarily. Our narratives don’t have to have prophesied heroes or alien invasions. But we do need to be saying something more than “This is what we do; now give us money for it.”
The whole purpose behind a narrative strategy is to stand apart from the crowd. It’s differentiation. And, 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.” In other words, if we want to stand out, we have to tell a story that’s unique to us, and that requires a little bit of effort on our part.
The first step is to look at your company, its products or services, its values, its people, and the brands it already has, and ask yourself “what do we, as an organization, want to say?” Often times, a narrative will grow naturally out of what we’re already doing. Intel’s IQ blog makes sense because they’re sharing what their employees are talking about, and their employees are intelligent and knowledgeable in technology. Why have the marketing team talk about the tech when the technicians, developers, and engineers are already doing it, and doing it better?
After you’ve looked at your own company, you then have to turn your gaze towards your audience. Do you have a loyal audience? Do you have a certain demographic you cater to, or would like to cater to? Are you trying to capture a certain audience? The more specific you are about the kind of people you want to speak to, the more deeply you will connect with them. Some of Denny’s jokes cater to rather narrow niches of the audience (such as fans of the Metroid series), and it’s clearly strengthening their audience, rather than alienating it. Putting together an empathy map can be really useful here.
If you’re using content to meet SEO objectives, avoid the “Damsel in Distress.” Here’s what we mean by that. In summer action flicks, characters tend to be kind of one-dimensional. This is especially true for the love interest, a girl whose only purposes in the film are to be pretty, and to need to be rescued. They have no motivations or interests of their own outside wanting to be with the hero. Sometimes we create content the same way, focusing only on the keywords or backlinks, and giving no regard to the quality or purpose of the content. Audiences notice, and they hate it.
The best way to avoid the “Damsel in Distress” is to make sure a given piece of content has an objective of its own. When someone visits the page, what are they getting from it? Are you answering a question for them? Or are you making them laugh? Remember, every piece of content is an opportunity to connect with your audience and build brand loyalty. You’re squandering it if you’re only focusing on the SEO.
Carefully planning your content can help you avoid many mistakes, including parroting what others (or even you) have already said online. Not every article or blog post needs to be a masterpiece, but your audience will pick up on the effort you put in—or lack thereof—and will appreciate it. They’ll pick up on the story you’re telling, and they’ll want to read all the way to the end.