How do I build an audience, or engage with customers online?
As a strategic storyteller and digital consultant, I get asked this question in some form on nearly a weekly basis.
Usually, the brand or product already exists in some form (anywhere on the spectrum between an established brand that needs to be reenergized, to a product on the verge of launch) and the business owner or entrepreneur wants answers. Urgently. Just as often, and just as urgently, they tack “using social media” onto their query.
For example, I just received this email from a new business owner:
“I’m interested in how social media marketing can be leveraged with other types of online and more traditional marketing. No need to tell me just to use LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. For those and others like them, I’d like specifics about how to use them, which groups to join, etc.”
I’ve worked with many types of clients from solopreneurs to marketing leaders for multi-national corporations who are just as adamantly convinced they need to “do social media” without ever stopping to question why.
I get it.
Social media is ubiquitous. We’ve all seen its impact on politics, love, and yes, branding. And I understand the allure of tactics: They’re tangible. They give you something to do—and doing something tends to feel like progress, at least at first.
It would be easy (and it’s sometimes quite tempting) to respond to such inquiries with a list of possible tactics and social media best practices that might generally be applied.
But the truth is, without strategic brand direction, diving into social media with a bunch of tactical executions will result in a few lucky hits at best, and a lot of expended effort and signal noise at worst.
Because social media isn’t the point.
If you’re not accustomed to thinking of your brand as an experience that is communicated through storytelling, you might think social media as an end, instead of a means. But social media is only that: A means for telling your story.
It’s storytelling that’s important.
As a culture we’re hardwired to participate in storytelling. Since the beginning of recorded time, we’ve told stories to convey the importance of events and ideas. Every culture has used stories as a means to connect, to entertain and inform, and in turn there’s plenty of research demonstrating how stories powerfully activate our brains .
For a brand, storytelling is the most authentic and relevant way to communicate who you are and what you offer.
When I use the term “storytelling” I mean the real-time narrative of your brand as it unfolds over many moments and platforms. Told well, this story will connect and emotionally engage people with your brand, and will continue to be responsive to their changing awareness, interests, and needs over time.
A key realization that changed a lot of things for us [was when] we realized writing content, at the core, is telling a story.
As Buffer has taken hold and seen incredible success, they’ve continued to tell a unique brand story that appeals to their core users: One of radical transparency, life-hacking, productivity, and incredibly useful content (making their blog one of my daily reads.)
Hello Flo continues to tell that story in a way that is equal parts hilarious and personal, (their viral Camp Gyno video), and serious and global (most of the content they share on their blog, “Period Hacks” ties them into the larger cultural story of what it means to be a woman).
What these, and many other great brands have in common is a commitment to strategic storytelling that’s embedded within their business culture.
Storytelling doesn’t exist within a specific business function. It happens cross-functionally; driven by clear strategic objectives that are aligned with the company’s core values.
Storytelling is a collaborative act.
The other thing that makes these companies great is that they entirely understand who they’re telling the story with.
Brand storytelling isn’t about a singular point of view, or a one-way broadcast. It’s about a dialog, a call-and-response, a narrative with the audience as co-author.
It’s true that storytelling has become a bit of a marketing buzz word of late. But there is no better way to describe the real-time responsiveness and participation that’s vitally important to the process of building and engaging an audience in the contemporary mediascape.
Old-school brand stories are familiar: gorgeous full-page ads and :30 spots. But technology presents a perpetually evolving palette that demands creativity, strategic intention, and agility to tell stories that matter — to the right people at the right moment in time.
Many times this is where social media comes in, but not always. Depending on your audience and objectives, social media might not be as relevant as in-depth informational content, or animated gifs (a stretch, to be sure), or podcasts, or videos, or brick-and-mortar events.
So how do you begin?
As with any good story, you can start anywhere. George Saunders has shown us that. But to do so (as Saunders so masterfully demonstrates), you must know beyond a shred of doubt exactly what the story is about, and who it is for.
Instead of starting with the tactical whens and wheres of social media or any other medium, or even with the broader logistical questions of how, start by asking why and what.
Here are a 8 things you can (and should) do to become an effective storyteller for your brand—before ever working with an agency or consultant. Instead of starting with the intent to engage on social media, begin with these questions and let the process of finding and validating your answers drive your objectives.
Developing the ability to think and act like a storyteller for your brand will take you farther towards building an authentic audience than any list of tactical recommendations ever will.
1. Begin with inquiry
Why are you in business? Whose real, but unexpressed and unmet needs are you in service of? Who are you engaging in the process of storytelling? Why?
Knowing your audience is half the story
It’s tempting to cast too broad a net when it comes to your core audience. It feels risky to stake a claim on a smaller, more discrete segment. But there’s incredible value to be had here—and your story will be better for it. Consider what segment of your audience will produce the most value for your brand over time. The more your brand is positioned around this key segment, the more effective your storytelling (and ROI) will be.
2. State your goals
This seems like it’s a no-brainer, but I’m always surprised by the number of times I’ve encountered companies that are actively putting resources towards producing content for social media, the web, or traditional media outlets, without clearly defined objectives, or metrics to measure their success.
What are the most important actions you want your audience to take as a result of engaging with your brand? How will you measure these, a what metrics will you use? (e.g.: consumption, completion, velocity, or sharing.)
3. Follow with empathy
Once you’ve clearly defined your key audience (and aligned your brand’s positioning and objectives with their needs,) you can begin to explore how you might engage with them through storytelling.
Think back to the last time someone told you a story.
Likely there were hand gestures and laughter. The person telling probably embellished or modified what they were telling you based on your responses along the way. And I bet they also added supporting information or contextual details based on what they know about you too—to make their telling more interesting, relevant or entertaining.
That is exactly what’s involved in brand storytelling too. To tell your brand story, you’ve got to be just as responsive and dialed in to your audience, as you are in a face-to-face exchange. You need to know what matters to your audience.
What’s exciting to them? Who do they trust? What do they already know? What are they bored with? What do they love?
4. Discover the context
You can begin finding this information by listening across platforms (Twitter search is a fun place to start; Google Trends is another) and participating in relevant conversations (leave comments, share content, follow influencers, etc.)
In doing this you’ll begin to gauge how your audience feels about information and content relating to the story you hope to tell, and you’ll begin to understand the bigger cultural context to.
What trends are at play here? What cultural movements is your story a part of? Who is influencing the conversation?
It’s also useful to explore analytics for any existing web properties you own, and for everything that you share online to uncover how people find and engage on your site, and respond to the content you share (Google Analytics is excellent if you’re familiar with it; Clicky is a great and simple real-time analytics tool I use; and Buffer is the best I’ve found to track and share content across the web.)
A good market research firm can provide in-depth quantitative data to support or disprove the information you’ve gathered through your own qualitative analysis, analytics and participation. But listening and participating before strategically engaging your audience is a necessary step that, in my opinion, cannot be skipped. It will help you to cultivate both empathy for your audience, and a necessary appreciation for context.
5. Know the medium
By participating in conversations that are already happening, you will also begin to get a feel for the unique value of each medium, and begin to understand the expectations for interaction, the content shared, and the devices used on each.
The most important thing I can tell you is that every medium (and every platform) has unique voice—and a given set of expectations and restrictions that dictate not only when and where we engage, but why and how.
Authentic brand storytelling is about sharing content that is native to the environment it is encountered in (Sharing the same content across every social media platform is a bit like telling the same story over and over again to everyone you meet. Lots of people will hear it, but it won’t matter to most of them.)
6. Map the experience
With a feel for your key audience, including the stories they’re sharing, the mindsets they have, the media they preference and devices they use, you can map your audience’s experience as they encounter your brand’s story across touch points.
This work often surfaces opportunities or white space within a touch point, and reveals where you might focus your storytelling activities to best meet your strategic goals.
Where will your audience hear about you for the first time? What are the touch points they’ll encounter along the way from non-awareness to full engagement? How will you empower loyal fans so that they can contribute to your story?
Then consider what actions you want your audience to take.
7. Tell your story
The real-time part of storytelling is all about tactics. The when of Twitter or LinkedIn or infographics or long-form content, the where of Pinterest or animated gifs or podcasts or mobile apps.
The tactics you choose will depend on the audience you have, the opportunities that exist, and the objectives you’ve defined. There are thousands of resources available for developing both the tactics and the mindset to navigate the constantly changing mediascape. My recent favorite is Jab Jab Right Hook (and just about anything else by Gary Vaynerchuck).
Storytelling is the most meaningful way to create an all-encompassing and valuable brand experience for your audience. At the end of the day, if your story is timely, truly dialed to the needs of your key audience, and aligned with your strategic objectives, your audience will grow. People engage with stories that matter to them.
But as with traditional storytelling, nothing is a constant. The tactics that delight or entertain today, won’t be relevant next week or in a year from now; and the content that’s meaningful in this moment, won’t matter when the context shifts—and it will.
8. Listen, interpret, and respond
Telling the story of your brand is an ongoing activity—across multiple media and platforms in real time. Adaptability, responsiveness and creativity are vital to your success in connecting story elements together to create your brand’s overarching narrative. This requires both resources and time not only to produce content — but to actively monitor engagement, to analyze your audience’s interactions, and interpret what their feedback means.
Only with insight into how your audience perceives and is responding to the story you’re telling, can you make critical and timely adjustments—so that the story you are sharing continues to be one that matters, even as your audience’s interests, needs, and media habits change over time.