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What is the R.O.I. of Storytelling?

I was a newspaper reporter 10 years ago, my first job post-college. Back then I worked at a small daily in Michigan called the Port Huron Times-Herald. It was a time when aspiring young journalists could still imagine taking the well-worn path through small town papers before, eventually, ending up at a big city daily or, if you were really good, The New York Times.

Each week my editor held meetings where we brainstormed and pitched story ideas and divvied up assignments. Sometimes those meetings were fun… and sometimes they were excruciating. You see, we couldn’t write anything unless our editor liked the idea – and, like every editor, he had strong opinions about what made for a good story. There wasn’t any formula or algorithm. He liked what he liked.

The explosion of interest around content marketing and increased demand within the industry for storytelling has me thinking about those days when I was paid to tell stories. Can the art of storytelling really be used by marketers?

Storytellers Wanted

There’s no mistaking that organizations of all sorts are creating and publishing more stuff than ever before. In fact, 70% of B2B marketers expect to create more content next year, according to recent research from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI).

The types of content being created are endless: blog posts, infographics, podcasts, short films, photos, social media posts, presentations, books and events.

This has led many experts to recommend marketers focus more on storytelling to cut through the noise. One method is hiring former journalists, video producers and others with storytelling and content creation backgrounds. Finding digital marketers with solid content development skills is a challenge 32% of marketing teams faced this year, CMI reported.

It certainly makes sense because telling stories well isn’t easy. Producing good stories is an opportunity publishers and media outlets hope to address. Most are selling “sponsored content” or “native advertising,” which is essentially advertorial for the Internet age. This trend is explained by Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President, Strategy, News Corp:

“Smart brands are creating compelling stories. They are not getting into the news business, but are getting into the storytelling business. But compelling storytelling is a craft and has a science to it and if most big publishers have had more than 100 years of experience doing that. Brands trying to create their own content will struggle to do so, and will quickly find out that creating engaging content inexpensively is going to be difficult.”

Showing Results

Storytelling is not about selling things – it’s about creating connections and sharing experiences. During his recent keynote at Content Marketing World, the actor Kevin Spacey said:

“When you strip everything away, we are all striving toward the same goal, and that is connecting with our audiences.”

Storytelling should not be crammed in a box alongside digital tools like banner ads or landing pages. The power of storytelling cannot be used to measure sales in percentages like conversions. Storytelling is about emotional connections.

When researching this blog post, I stumbled upon the research of Dr. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist. Dr. Zak found stories that follow a classic story arc are correlated with increased feelings of empathy and even changes in brain chemistry.

That’s a fascinating finding, which indicates that good stories can, in fact, help inspire actions, like buying things. But imagine explaining how this process works to a business executive who does not live in the world of marketing or academic and scientific theory.

“You want to spend $100K on a video series because studies show a good story is more likely to create psychological attachment to our brand, which we hope will result in people buying more of our product?”

“Exactly. Well, actually, that doesn’t include what we’d pay market researchers to measure the success of our storytelling.”

That’s a tough sell, especially if you work for a mid- to small-sized company. So, what do you say to your management, especially if they are not swayed by what’s trendy in the marketing world? I have a few ideas.

Making the Business Case for Stories

Convincing management that content marketing makes sense is one of the biggest challenges marketers face. Believe me: I’ve pitched a quite few big content marketing ideas that have been shot down over the years. I’ve learned that telling an interesting and relevant story for the sake of telling a story doesn’t usually fly. And unless you have big marketing budget, telling stories just to reinforce branding probably won’t, either.

First off, identify what you aim to achieve through storytelling. As a reporter, my goal was to present the public with important or interesting information about their community. As a marketer, you want to create some sort of business action. But is your content meant to reinforce your brand (like a video from Nike) or is it a value-add to potential customers that you use as bait to lure them to your website to make a sale (like the Buffer blog)?

Make sure you have a measurement plan in place. There is a lot of debate about the “best” metrics to use when measuring success of content and stories. I think it depends on what is important to you, your boss and whoever is signing off on the budget.

Secondly, don’t start your pitch using the word “storytelling” when talking to business leaders. It sounds frivolous. The last thing you need is a skeptical executive thinking you’re wasting money on an art project.

Make the connection between storytelling and a business objective. Find out what makes your leadership tick and create recommendations that address those concerns. This means creating content and telling stories that will help you achieve business goals, such as increasing registrations at an event or recruiting more members. Then, with the measurement plan you put in place from the start, quantify success.

Lastly, implement storytelling pragmatically. Rather than unleashing a grandiose content marketing plan, look at little ways you can weave storytelling into your existing marketing efforts. One of my favorite examples is Orvis, the fly fishing equipment and lifestyle brand. I follow Orvis on Facebook, and their editorial mission is very simple: you like fly fishing, so here is interesting fly fishing stuff – tips, techniques and personal stories from around the world. They post videos and links to their blog. None of it’s going to win a journalism prize but all of it is valuable to their customers. It’s really just a digital extension of the customer service you receive in their stores.

Thanks for sticking with me. If you know anyone else grappling with content marketing challenges, please share this post — and let me know what you think.

Jamie Carracher is a digital marketer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @JamieCa and read more about him at

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