Tips for using storytelling to drive engagement

Want to truly engage your key audiences and make a lasting impression? One surefire way is to tell a story.

Stories are the oldest form of “mass” communication, and some researchers think we’re hardwired to respond to them. We’re certainly trained to draw messages from them—think Aesop’s fables and classic novels—and that makes them invaluable for marketing communications. Stories help people relate to what you do, and compelling stories help you get media attention.

High-tech companies have long recognized the value of the founder’s story—so much so that the inventor developing breakthrough technology in his garage (naysayers be damned!) has become a cliché.

But there seems to be an endless appetite for stories of improbable success. That’s why, when telling the story of fair trade clothing manufacturer Indigenous for our client RSF Social Finance, we started with the founders’ early days of picking burrs out of handknit South American sweaters. It’s a memorable image that shows how far the company has come—Indigenous now produces a full line of premium fashion knits sold under its own label and through major brands—and illustrates the company’s commitment to its artisan supply chain.

A few more tips for telling stories effectively:

Use story structure. Stories have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; crisis (or challenge) and resolution; and characters.

Make it personal. Have a central character your audience will relate to or be fascinated by.

Character counts. Don’t just recount the plot—include feelings, intuitions, or drive.

Remember the moral. Spell out how the story expresses your organization’s mission or value.

Download our Strategy>Shift guide 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression for more ways to help your business stand out from the crowd.

Sustainability: much more than green

Sustain: supply with sustenance, nourish.

Sustainable: of, relating to, or being a method of… using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.

One key (and obvious) aspect of sustainable communications is being environmentally responsible. We urge clients to consume as few nonrenewable resources and as little energy as possible. Use electronic media rather than print whenever possible, for example. And when paper is unavoidable, print only what’s needed and use vegetable-based inks and paper with 100 percent post-consumer recycled content (the quality and choices are getting better all the time, and recycling no longer requires bleach or harmful chemicals).

But keeping your environmental footprint as small as possible is just one part of sustainable communications. It also requires making sure your own resources maintain the ability to feed and support your programs. Before you embark on any program, honestly assess your organization’s ability to support the work over the long haul without budget strain or staff burnout, and develop communications that will serve you as well as possible for as long as possible.

For instance, a website redesign that lasts several years is far more efficient (and effective) than one that will need another update in a year, so take the extra time and care up front to nail the messaging, design and technology. You may have plans to take the social media world by storm—but you need to map out a strategy that your staff can manage and execute over time. And your organization may be well served by content marketing (such blogging, reports or a newsletter), but only if you have the time and informational resources to keep it going long enough to gain traction.

Sustainability in any arena requires commitment. But it’s worth it: If you nourish your communications programs over the long term and keep them fresh and healthy, they’ll pay you back by helping sustain your business.

Learn more about our approach and how we build sustainability into our marketing services.

D’oh! I forgot about communications

“We’re launching this program in two weeks and we need a website for it. I don’t really have a budget. I know something quick and cheap isn’t going to be the best, but we can make it better later,” the caller said, with a note of desperation. “Can you help?”

Sigh. There’s nothing more depressing (for all concerned) than a project that starts out rushed, underfunded, and ill-conceived, with the dream of better times ahead. Those times almost never arrive.

It’s best to avoid this no-win situation. Communications planning should start well before a program, product or service launch. You may not know exactly what you’ll be offering, but you know you’ll have to communicate about it, and you know which audiences you’ll need to reach. Carving out the time and budget to think through your strategy, messages and tactics ensures that you can deliver effective marketing. And remember: your audiences may not give you a second chance.

What’s Plan B?
OK, so what if you’re already at the dope-slap stage (“D’oh! I forgot about communications!”) or you’ve inherited a mess. What can you do?

Make time. See if you can squeeze more creative time from other points in your process. If other people got you into this situation, let them know they have to help you get out of it, with immediate vendor approvals, tight review times, whatever it takes. If you did this to yourself, beg for mercy.

Find some money. Look under the couch cushions if you have to, but don’t waste more time on the delusion that you’ll get something for nothing. Remember the rule: fast, cheap and good are all attainable qualities, but you almost never get more than two of them at once.

Think small and short term. Recognize that with a tight budget, short time frame and no planning, you are unlikely to create a website or anything else for the ages. Keep design and technical aspects simple and copy short but smart. Don’t spend an extra dime on features to build on—you don’t want to build on this; you just want to meet the immediate need.

Start fresh as soon as you can. We all have to go the down-and-dirty route at some time or another. The real mistake is trying to make the result serve your ongoing communications needs. All the swine-related clichés apply: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig, etc. You’ll get far better results if you put the pig out in the pen and build new communication tools the right way.

Making a Content Strategy Work (Hint: You Have to Actually Do the Work)

I have to make a confession: this blog post was due last week.

I noodled around with a couple of ideas, but inspiration fled. I scanned Twitter, checked recent exhortations from the marketing punditry. Got depressed over the new IPCC report (we’re doomed). Pondered Dan Ariely’s recent post, “The 3 Costs of Multitasking.” (Yep, that’s me.)

One thing led to another and in no time I was far, far away from my original task: to write about content strategy. A couple of days later, fueled by strong coffee, I snapped back to reality. I had become Exhibit A for the fact that the best content strategy in the world does you no good if you don’t execute it per plan.

Without consistent execution, a content strategy will lose momentum, you won’t meet your goals, and the whole system backs up. It’s easy to get distracted, though, and other priorities sometimes take over. Here are a few tips for overcoming the ADD tendencies most of us share and sticking to your schedule.

Don’t try to do too much. A main challenge, particularly with so many channels and media, is staying focused. Make sure you have the time and resources to deliver on your strategy. One of our mantras: It’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things badly. If you’re lagging, adjust your execution plan rather than constantly struggling to keep up.

Give yourself room to act on inspiration. Build flexibility into your plan that allows you to tackle off-schedule topics without sacrificing scheduled content. Want to blog about that new IPCC report? Do it when inspiration strikes—but make sure your planned post gets done, too.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy. Often, “good” is good enough. You don’t always have to hit it out of the ballpark—just get to first base. Have a limited video budget? Do one well and leverage the heck out of it. Don’t have enough meaty content for your newsletter? Go with what you do have (maybe toss in an old favorite from the archive) and make sure your next issue has more substance.

Keep the larger goal in mind. Content marketing is about sharing your knowledge in ways that engage others with your company so they’ll work with you or buy from you when the time is right. Keep that conversation going, and you’ll be fine.

Now, I’m going to read Ariely’s newest post. It’s about procrastination…

For more on this topic, check out our guide, Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality.

Why Sustainable Businesses Have a Brand-Building Advantage

Can you get gullible customers to buy increasingly craptastic products based purely on a fantastic brand? The answer just in: No, according to Absolute Value, a new book by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen. As New Yorker finance writer James Surowiecki puts it: “Brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.”

While it’s always gratifying to see more support for our longtime obsession with credibility, what really strikes me about Surowiecki’s column is the case this makes for sustainable business. If your business—including your marketing—is operating on the principles of transparency, accountability, community benefit and environmental care, that’s good not only for the wider world but also for long-term revenues.

It’s not that sustainable operations guarantee quality products or services (though the need to consider issues like waste and social value certainly helps), but that adhering to principles like transparency and accountability means you can’t resort to smearing lipstick on pigs. If you’re a sustainable business, you won’t claim that fat customers are the cause of yoga pants that stretch to transparency (to cite the New Yorker piece’s primary example).

Sustainable business principles pretty much demand what has always been the hallmark of durably strong brands: they’re built from the inside out. That is, the brand’s image and marketing messages express a compelling combination of personality, values and mission that’s lived within company walls. If you’re not walking the talk, no brand strategy can hide that forever.