Humans are hardwired for stories. Our earliest communities used storytelling to transmit beliefs and information from one generation to the next. Even today, we teach our children to respond to stories, whether it’s The Tales of Peter Rabbit or The Time Aunt Becky Got Smashed during Christmas Dinner.
Today, marketers use stories as a powerful way to connect with consumers. You can use storytelling to sell too, if you know when and where to use it.
The Power of Storytelling
Stories are powerful because they combine fact and emotion. In marketing, you can use facts alone to make an argument: Our dish detergent cleans 15% better than the competition. But stories emotionally engage the reader:
Before I tried this dish detergent, my dinner guests were appalled at the soap scum left on my dishes. Today, I can entertain without worry or embarrassment.
So what makes for a good story? There are some common elements, such as a hero you can identify with, an obstacle to overcome, a climax or turning point, and a resolution or transformation. These elements are common to most good stories, whether it’s at the movie theatre, in a book or on the back of a cereal box.
Chanel N°5 and the Run Away Movie Star
You may remember this TV ad featuring Nicole Kidman and Chanel N°5:
The ad is like a movie plot condensed into two minutes. You have a hero to identify with (unshaven male lover or perpetually surprised movie star, your pick), the obstacle (she needs to stop dodging taxi cabs), the turning point (stick-in-the-mud manager insists she gets off the roof and back on the red carpet), and resolution (they settle on loving each other via Skype with maybe the odd naughty email).
Tell a Story or Shut Up and Make the Sale?
Part of good storytelling is knowing when to tell the story, and when to shut up. In marketing, much of it depends on the purpose of the story and what stage of the purchase decision process people are in. Have your potential customers recognized a unmet need? Are they looking for information? Are they evaluating alternatives? If so, storytelling can be a great way to persuade.
For example, the Chanel ad would work well with people who have no immediate plans to buy perfume. Even if you haven’t been thinking about buying perfume, the ad might get you started. The romance! The adventure! The smell! If you’ve been thinking about buying perfume, the ad might convince you to include Chanel N°5 in your list of perfume choices.
Incidentally, the ad also provides reassurance to consumers who’ve already bought the perfume. Look at how glamourous she is! I knew I made the right decision to buy Chanel during those five minutes at YVR duty free.
However, if the consumer has already made the decision to buy your brand, storytelling can get in the way. If you’ve ever had a beloved uncle who responds to any question with long, detailed stories about the war, you’ll know how painfully unproductive this is.
For this reason, visitors to Chanel’s website aren’t treated to stories about run away movie stars. Instead, the site has straightforward listings of products and store locations. After all, if you’re checking out the Chanel website, you’ve probably already decided to buy Chanel.
The situation is different for websites optimized for search engines. People are much more likely to land on your site as a result of conducting online research, before they’ve made a specific buying decision. In this case, storytelling can be a great way to engage visitors and generate sales.
Storytelling on About Us Pages
When you find storytelling on websites, it tends to be on the about us page. These pages often tell the story of the company’s founders, how they grew from Mom and Pop potato farmers into an international potato chip conglomerate. It allows the company to show their humble roots and values, and show how they carry these through today. McDonald’s website, for example, tells the story of founder Ray Kroc and his emphasis on quality, service, cleanliness and value.
Does your company have a story to tell? Should you tell it? Take a look at where your marketing channels intersect with consumer purchase decisions. You probably have an opportunity to tell an engaging story, one that your audience might want to share.