Why Writers and Marketers Don’t Agree on the Nature of Good Storytelling

An acquaintance of mine left a lucrative career in marketing and sales to start a bakery. Her signature item is a carrot cake. Like a good marketer, she researched the competition before launching her business. “What I learned is that people have different interpretations of ‘carrot cake,’” she told me.

I feel the same about the term ‘storytelling.’

Marketing and communications professionals talk a lot about the importance of storytelling. I went to a conference a few years ago for nonprofit marketing professionals, and an entire educational track was devoted to the topic.

What I can tell you is that storytelling means something different to marketers than it means to writers. The implications are significant for organizations trying to incorporate storytelling into their strategies.

The Hero Story as an Example

Just as good marketers always think of the customer’s needs first, good writers always think of the reader’s needs first.

For some reason, marketers forget this when it comes to their version of storytelling. They think of story as something that should support brand identity, first and foremost. In keeping with this objective, marketers tend to favor stories with a defined hero, a clear conflict and a positive resolution.

An example would be an impact story, where the hero is a donor who addressed a conflict with a substantial gift, which led to the fulfillment of a need.

Stories like these are self-serving. They lack authenticity in a marketplace where authenticity is more valuable than ever.

In contrast, imagine if such a story was written for a newstand magazine. The donor would be represented with good and bad characteristics. The conflict would be complicated by mitigating circumstances. And even if the resolution is positive, the path to success would filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. The reader would be emotionally satisfied.

Imagine if your storytelling was that compelling. It’s not that far out of reach. MW

One Billion or 1B? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

I found myself eavesdropping at a cafe. Two coworkers from a nearby marketing communications firm came in for coffee and sat on the couches near me. One was an account director, the other a copywriter. They talked about content for a client’s social media campaign. The account director wanted to tout the client’s impact by citing important statistics.

One of those statistics involved the phrase “One Billion.”

It’s rare to see creative and sales departments work harmoniously, so I was impressed, but it was time to stop listening and get back to my own work.

Then this happened:

“Let’s shorten ‘billion.’ Just make it 1B,” the director said.

“You don’t want ‘billion’ spelled out? I think it’s an attention grabber,” said the copywriter.

“You do? I feel like it’s too basic. I’m not sure it’s an attention grabber for our audience.”

I’ve been in similar conversations for as long as I’ve been writing. Who do you think was right?

My opinion is that neither of them knows. At that level of detail, it’s difficult to predict which version will perform more effectively without research.

Now let’s say you have the time and money to conduct a survey or an A/B test, where everything about the posts are identical except for ‘1B’ versus ‘1 Billion.’ Let’s say your metric is ‘Likes,’ and there is a noteworthy difference in response.

I ask, what good is that knowledge? What does it matter if you go from 100 to 150 “Likes,” when you might have had 1,000 with a better message?

In other words, if you’re going to test something, make sure it matters. Start with potential key messages, then refine your copy by tinkering with details.

And finally, if you’re still not sure, trust your copywriter. MW

There’s More to Thought Leadership Than Aphorism

Aphorisms are short statements, usually in the form of observations or instructions, that express a general truth. The best aphorisms are effective attention-getters, and they’re easy to memorize.

Two of my favorite examples are “Measure twice, cut once” and “Make do, or do without.” There is a point, however, where aphorisms become clichés.

The business world is full of aphorism-clichés. You see them all the time in articles about marketing and communications. I recently did a Google search for “tips for content marketing.”

The first result was a Forbes article titled “9 Actionable Content Marketing Tips From Top Industry Experts.”

What followed was a list of ‘aphorisms’ that don’t really say anything. For instance:

Tip #1: “Be a better writer; tell better stories.”
Tip #2: “Answer the questions your prospects and customers ask.”

Whatever the merits of an article like this, it cannot be considered ‘thought leadership.’

A better example of thought leadership would be to dive deep into Tip #1. Instead of the unhelpful “Be a Better Writer,” why not walk an audience through the process of becoming better storytellers? It could be through a whitepaper, book, webinar, podcast or series of in-person workshops.

But even that is stretching the concept of thought leadership. I think that real thought leadership happens when organizations pose big-picture questions and provide big-picture answers. Think strategy, trends, research, analysis, policy solutions and so on.

More importantly, real thought leadership implies a certain objectivity. To be a successful thought leader is to put naked self-interest aside. Associations and nonprofits can be effective as thought leaders because they represent the interests of a market, cause or profession rather than an individual organization.

The last thing I want to say about thought leadership is that it involves writing. There’s no way around that. So good thought leadership and good writing go hand-in-hand. MW