Storytelling is an Important Tool in the Marketing Toolbox But Not the Only One

I’m watching a delightfully quirky show right now called “Detectorists,” and it’s inspired me to think more storytelling in marketing. It’s about two guys in England who go metal detecting and call themselves “detectorists.” Your initial reaction may be, “A show about people who go metal detecting? WTF.” And yet, as the show progresses, you almost forget the premise initially seemed so goofy. Each episode is like pulling off another piece of the artichoke, satisfying, and one step closer to the heart. Sadly, I know that like all good television shows, eventually it must come to an end. Reflecting on how much story has been unearthed (no pun intended) through this offbeat premise, I am reminded of how a good story can make almost anything interesting.

Even though the show centers around the activity of metal detecting, it’s really about the human stories that are interwoven to make up a larger narrative. It’s a reminder that stories can pull people into seemingly dry subjects. Great storytelling can cause people to feel, think, and act. And that’s like marketers’ catnip, so it’s unsurprising that a lot of marketers have glommed on to the idea of storytelling.

A big part of our job as marketers is often just getting people to pay attention, so we have the chance to tell them something. It’s hard to get your message across if no one gives a sh*t and no one listens to you, so that’s kind of a first step. Most people do not care about most products and services, most of the time. So we look for different ways to make something uninteresting, interesting. We try to get people to think of our brand just a little bit more than never. One of the ways we can get people to pay attention is by telling a good story. For example, a B2B service may seem dull and uninspiring until you put it in context by telling the story of what it enables people to do and highlighting the human outcomes. A story can make an otherwise boring marketing message “easier to swallow” by making it enjoyable for people to consume. A story can also just be the way to pique your interest about something you wouldn’t normally be thinking about.

My guess is very few people were thinking about metal detectors prior to this show. But now, there are probably more people thinking and talking about metal detectors, and some people might have even bought one. It would actually be sneaky brilliant if someone at a metal detector company pitched the idea of the show.

As magical as storytelling can be, isn’t there something inherently unappealing about the use of a story for brands, given it has a beginning, middle and end? Marketers don’t want their brand story to end. They want the rise, but they don’t want the fall, and it naturally occurs as a story winds down. So it’s probably not the best fit to think of your brand as telling a single, ongoing story. What about using a campaign to tell a single story? This can be challenging, because people will come in at different times, and aren’t likely to tune into everything consecutively. This is even a problem for hit TV shows, so heaven knows if mega-popular shows have lost people over a single missed episode, it’s unlikely marketing would buck the trend. A campaign with a single message told through multiple stories is probably a better fit.

Most marketers don’t have people’s attention for anywhere near as long as 20–30 minutes, so they need to tell compelling stories in condensed formats. An image people scroll past in a feed. A few seconds of video that autoplays before the video people really want to see. A website people land on for a few seconds before they push past to get to what they really want. To capture people’s attention in these fleeting moments is not easy, particularly when often, there are other things competing for people’s attention.

Before you consider using “storytelling,” you may want to consider what people want from you, and when. Sometimes, people are in a transactional state of mind — they’re just trying to do something else — and interrupting that task to tell a story is unwelcome. If you’re doing a limited edition drop, the moment when that product goes live online is not the time to try to launch into a full-blown story, no matter how good it is. In this case, a story would make more sense in the lead-up, to build anticipation and interest. But once you open the floodgates, get out of everyone’s way. When information is needed quickly, such as when troubleshooting what to do when you have a water leak, people want to get answers, fast, not sit and wait through a story.

Storytelling works well when people want to be entertained. When you’re sitting on the couch watching television, when you pick up Instagram and mindlessly start scrolling, or when you go on YouTube looking for a funny video, you want to be entertained. The good news is people are open to hearing from you in this mindset. The bad news is a lot of different sources are competing for their attention. So if you want this to work, you’re going to have to tell a really good story.

Nike is incredibly good at telling the stories about what makes their athletes human in a way that captures a wide audience beyond the sport itself. Part of what makes them such masterful storytellers is that they find great stories to tell. The other part is that they tell them in creative and compelling ways. While they may get the most eyeballs on the stories of superstar athletes winning major titles, they’re also able to surface compelling stories about lesser-known athletes. They take someone like Irem Yaman, who is far from a global household name, and make us want to know more about her with just a few sentences and a photo.

Recently, they’ve really leaned into the available formats on Instagram. They use on-channel images and video, as well as Instagram Stories, to pique people’s interest, and once you’re hooked, they direct you to IGTV for the full-length video.

They also use the platform’s features to help them tell stories. For example, with a single headline, they hit on the emotional experience of Tiger Woods’ winning his first professional golf tournament after five years and four back surgeries. If the four words “he’s done it again” had been on a single image, it would have been an entirely different story. A simple statement. A win ad like many others. But they used the first photo with just the words “he’s done” to show how conclusive it could have felt. That his career was over. The viewer goes from the sadness of thinking about Tiger being done, to the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next, to the joy of realizing he’s not done, “he’s done it again.” All of this achieved in a single Instagram post. This much effort for a single post may not be possible, depending on your strategy. But it certainly made sense for Nike to capitalize on this newsworthy moment for one their most successful athletes.

It’s also worth noting that Nike tends to use their global @nike channel in for their bigger brand-building efforts. This is where they tell the emotional stories that connect to mass audiences. They have only posted 15 times to their feed in 2019, which suggests that even for a global behemoth like Nike, quality>quantity. Of course, they have content that go out on their regional and category channels, plus ads that aren’t on their feed, Instagram Stories, and IGTV. But the primary @nike feed serves to reach the widest possible audience, so they save their best, most universally-compelling stories for this channel.

While storytelling can be an effective way to get people’s attention and sustain it, it’s not the end-all-be-all solution. It’s a tool in the marketer’s toolbox, but like all other tools, you have to know when to use it. Just as you wouldn’t go around using a hammer for every single fix-it project around the house, marketers shouldn’t go around using storytelling for every business, communications, or brand challenge they come across.

Lots of agencies like to parade the word storytelling. Or tell you they are storytellers. Or that they craft stories. Few are regularly using storytelling as the approach to their work. There’s nothing wrong with specializing in storytelling and marketing your agency this way. But agencies who do this should actually tell stories. And, it should be recognized that these agencies are more of specialists than generalists, because not every problem should be solved with a story. Just like in healthcare, where you go to the general practitioner to get a referral to a specialist, companies needs to see the big picture and diagnose the problem before prescribING the solution of storytelling.

The great thing about stories is that they can reach people in incredibly powerful ways. The not-so-great thing about storytelling is that it’s often another BS marketing term thrown into the jargon soup, instead of a tool people know when and how to use.

A perpetually thirsty sponge. Relentless problem-solver who's not afraid to challenge the status quo.

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