“You don’t get it. You aren’t the point.”

The surprising reason why your brand sucks at storytelling, and what to do about it.

Meet the upside down triangle

Among the super simple things that they teach in journalism school there is the super simplest thing of all. It’s called the upside down triangle.

The upside down triangle is an article template.

It’s designed to maximize the article’s attractiveness.

News that speaks to the widest audience goes up top.

News that speaks to the least amount of people goes at the bottom.

So news articles tend to be written like this:

The headline is most important.

It’s written to attract the widest audience.

The kicker is least important.

It only attracts the people who’ve read the rest of the article.

In between, there’s a logical progression of information that provides deeper and deeper context.

The article is telling you a story. Taking you on a journey. First it grabs your attention, then it connects the dots.

This is the simplest concept in media.

Happily enough, everything works this way.

Consider the humble magazine.

The goal of the humble magazine is to capture as much of its desired audience’s attention as possible. The humble magazine’s humble editors build each issue by selecting stories that are relevant, timely, and interesting to their chosen audience. They lead with what appeals to the greatest number of people in their audience. This is why magazines have celebrities on their covers, and tiny book reviews somewhere else.

This is, for example, how GQ works.

And The Economist.

And Portable Restroom Operator.

Don’t judge, restrooms are a great business.

In fact, a publication is simply a collection of upside down triangles

A magazine, for example, has sections. Each section (or vertical) is designed to be maximally attractive to a subset of an audience.

And each article within each vertical within each magazine is designed to be maximally attractive.

Yes, this is an inverted Sierpinski Triangle. Isn’t it pretty.

Anyway, this is an attention strategy.

Every decision begins with the audience in mind.

The publication leads with what’s most relevant, timely, and interesting to the audience.

Who the publication is, who the editors are, where the pages are printed or the pixels positioned, why this publication may be better than another publication, all of that — it’s incidental. The publication isn’t the point. The audience is the point.

The audience is the point because what the audience cares about leads naturally to who the publication is.

That is the exact opposite of a brand

Funnel-shaped silliness aside, most brands do not function like upside down triangles. Brands are right side up.

A brand does not begin with the audience in mind, and that’s true whether you’re doing feature-based selling or solution-based selling.

A brand begins as an idea about itself (the product) and then tries to sell that idea to an audience (the market). This is why it’s called “product-market fit”.

You in the market for a horse saddle? Here’s a horse saddle.

You’re not in the market for a horse saddle? Fuck right off.

This is a conversion strategy

Conversion strategies are right and good. When there is a clear problem to be solved — i.e., when there’s an audience that knows it needs a horse saddle — then a conversion strategy works.

But when the audience doesn’t know that it needs a horse saddle — or when the market is flooded with identical horse saddles — then a conversion strategy doesn’t work as well.

That’s when brands, who know they SHOULD be “doing content”, start wondering whether now is the time to start.

The challenge is that most brands aren’t good at awareness

A brand is a selfish thing.

It was born as an idea about itself, it raised money talking about itself, it sells product talking about itself.

It rightly and correctly does SEO and programmatic advertising and targeted banner ads and webinars and cold calls and feature releases and press releases about itself.

But this is why brands aren’t good at telling stories beyond themselves.

A brand wants people to aspire to its product. To a brand, their product is the customer’s goal.

But people don’t aspire to products.

People aspire to feelings that products give them. This is true for everything from candy bars to sports cars to cloud-based document storage solutions.

You can probably see where this is going

Publications don’t sell horse saddles.

Publications sell the idea of horseback riding. (And so do brands like Slack)

They sell stories about sun-drenched Wild West prairies and glistening Lipizzaner Stallions and the ecstatic freedom of a horse at full gallop.

There are infinitely more people interested in sun-drenched Wild West prairies and glistening Lipizzaner Stallions and the ecstatic freedom of a horse at full gallop than there are people who own a horse and need a saddle.

Now if you’re a brand marketer you might say well yeah, sure, but people who are interested in sun-drenched Wild West prairies and glistening Lipizzaner Stallions and the ecstatic freedom of a horse at full gallop are an unqualified audience. Most of them will never buy a saddle. And also my bonus structure is tied to yearly sales, and this content thing sounds like it takes a long time.

All of that is true.

Content does take a long time, and tying content to sales is difficult. Bigly difficult. (Exactly why it’s difficult and how to overcome some of those difficulties is the topic of an upcoming post.)

But the desire to directly link content to sales misses the point. If you’re getting into content to make some quick sales, you’re doing it wrong and for the wrong reasons.

The point of an awareness strategy is not to capture dollars by selling a thing. The point of an awareness strategy is to capture attention by selling an idea adjacent to that thing.

By capturing attention with ideas you own that idea. By owning the idea, you own the audience.

By owning the audience you can tell the audience what to pay attention to, and thereby define the marketplace.

That is a long term play.

But that is the power of an awareness strategy, and thus the power of content.

To succeed, you just need to stop talking about yourself…and start talking about what your audience already cares about.


This post is a part of Story Stories, an occasional and totally un-calendared series that will publish every other whenever, and which explores the ups, downs, and what the actual fucks of helping brands tell stories. I run an agency called Dicks & Betties. These stories are based on conversations and consultations with some of the world’s largest brands and publishers. More from the series:

  1. People care about what they already care about."
    The importance of being relevant to your audience’s interests.
  2. You don’t get it. You are not the point."
    The surprising reason why your brand sucks at storytelling, and what to do about it.
  3. Try helping people be themselves.”
    How to find a topic and create inspiring stories for your brand’s adjacent possible.
  4. “Renting attention vs. owning attention.”
    The focused power of a dedicated audience.
  5. “Fine, can you make us three white papers?”
    Why content isn’t a number-of-articles game.
  6. “But who’s doing content right?”
    Brands who seem to know what they’re doing, and what that does (and doesn’t) mean for you.
  7. “So, like, how does content help us sell stuff?”
    Why it’s difficult and ill-advised (but not impossible) to link content to sales.