Content marketing storytelling: the hero’s journey

Everybody loves a hero! Think of any of your favourite stories and you’ll realise that there’s a hero in it that you identify with. Or, look at Britain’s love affair with football: the strong association with a team of ‘heroes’ and the chance to be part of their journey to victory creates an emotional connection and loyalty that can last a lifetime.

This is the connection that we, as marketers, actively pursue by creating a brand story based on ‘the hero’s journey’.

The hero’s journey story structure has been around for a long as stories have been told.

The basic formula is:

  • the hero embarks on a journey
  • the hero encounters and deals with obstacles
  • the hero is changed

We all hope that the hero wins at the end, and in brand stories, we want our product or service to be part of a positive change as the hero wins the day.

Who should be the hero of the story?

In a hero brand story, our hero can either be the customer or the brand. If the customer is positioned as the hero, the product or service is the helper—the sidekick or the mentor (the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the story)—that makes victory possible. If the brand is the hero, the product or service arrives and saves the day for the customer—who, at the end, identifies with, is inspired by or is influenced by the hero.

Who’s the hero in your stories? Let us know with a comment…

Make your content better by following the hero’s journey

Whether you decide to have the customer win by choosing your brand and becoming the hero, or you ride in and save the day, to take advantage of this connection with your customers, all you have to do is identify the number one obstacle your product or service helps your customer overcome.

Take that information and plug it into the simple formula of journey, obstacle, change, victory. Your brand story will position you in the customer’s hero journey, resulting in an emotional connection, potential conversion, and loyalty.

The persuaders

Have you noticed how you find certain people convincing without feeling sold to? How you find yourself nodding and weighing their view and finding yourself in agreement with hardly any effort at all? The art of persuasion isn’t such a mystery with even the ancient Greeks proffering a theory or two.

Here are a few points to hold in mind:

  • Speak like one of us. If you look like one of us and sound like one of us we’re very likely to treat you like one of us. It’s how you get a pass into the community you want to influence.
  • Believe in what you say. If you’re not convinced your words will give you away. Make sure you’ve convinced yourself first before trying to brief a writer.
  • Tell a story. A story helps bring an idea to life and put it into context for your reader, making the abstract tangible.

And, although this one is not quite as strong…

  • Remember reading is listening. Even when it’s in print tone matters. Whose voice can you hear in your head while you are reading? Does it speak with the brand’s personality?

The secret of successful storytelling?

I recently watched a DVD of a favourite TV show with commentary from one of the writers. He was arguing that it’s vital for the showrunner — the person responsible for all the creative aspects of the show, from the writing and art direction to the filming and editing — to be a writer.

Put a writer in charge

He pointed out how storytelling can fail when a writer doesn’t have the final say. TV directors, unlike movie directors, direct at most a few episodes in a season; they don’t realise how their cool piece of film affects a character’s arc or how something must happen a certain way in this episode to pay off five episodes later. And showrunners (or executive producers) without a writing background don’t understand how stories are set up, structured, pay off or entertain — so they don’t know what has to happen creatively to ensure that the story gets told well.

In marketing communications the principle of having a writer in charge is just as important. Whether it’s a white paper, a video case study, a website or a lead-generation campaign, it’s still primarily the words — the copy — that carry the story and the message.

The writer should be first in and last out

Vital as format, design, imagery, colour and music are, they need to serve the copy if the story and message are to be persuasive. And a writer — the ‘head writer’ if we continue our TV theme — is best placed to understand how the structure and tone of the copy must work to get the message across in a compelling way for the target audience.

The writer may not have the skills to deliver the other creative elements, but they’re best able to tell if those elements are failing or succeeding in serving the words. Carey (with the help of Roger Horberry) put it well in an earlier blog entry: the writer should be first in and last out on every job.

What is copywriting?

A definition that I have liked for a while now and endorsed by Roger Horberry in his interesting book ‘Brilliant Copywriting’ is that it is salesmanship in print. This is a quote from the illustrious adman John E Kennedy. We’ve long chattered on about words that sell, but what about those that persuade and incite action. Roger is right (or is it just that I agree with him?); ‘selling’ is only half the task of the copywriter. If you take the construction of a rational logical argument based on a tangible financial attributes to its extreme you end up with copy that’s cold and pretty unconvincing. People rarely buy for wholly rational reasons and charm, humour and good ol’ entertainment all have a part to play in persuading our audience to act.

Is that a drum roll I hear? Enter the copywriter: professional persuader and story teller extraordinaire.

Customer reference programmes and reputation management

Customer reference programmes have been a recurring theme at the start of 2011 for HN. Of course, case studies and testimonials have always been a valued marketing asset and so it shouldn’t be surprising that they come under scrutiny from time to time. Do we have the right stories? Are we getting the best value from them? However, for some time now, the role of customer references has been changing; perhaps that’s the case in your organisation, too.

Once the mainstay of reinforcing a company’s credentials and acting as a proof of capability, customer references have moved into the front line and are being used to engage with prospects and build reputation—often well in advance of any sales visit. As a consequence, the traditional format of the case study, structured along the lines of problem, solution, results, is woefully inadequate.

What makes a good customer reference?

Modern case studies need to tell a story and engage on an emotional as well as on a logical business level. They must provide a plot and well-rounded, believable characters to draw the reader or viewer in. The formulaic writing styles and reporting of the past just won’t cut it. The story must be told from the customer’s view point with the vendor’s angle getting second billing. This can make some of our clients feel uncomfortable—until they start to get some feedback from sales and new customers about just how influential this new style of customer reference has been, that is.

How customer references support the buying process

IT decision-makers are better informed than ever and reputedly a sceptical bunch. They still value the opinion of their peers greatly and reference stories are a great way to capture this opinion. Customer references can act as powerful door-openers, but only if the content has been developed from the off to do this job.

This rule applies to every piece of content, actually, and it’s fundamental to consider where and how the communication will support the buying process so that the structure and information imparted align with the decision-making stages.

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Now for the clever bit… the storytellers’ art

I have a friend who is in movies, at least that’s how I like to introduce her hoping it boosts my street cred. The reality is not as glamorous as that first might sound as she doesn’t get to hobnob with the stars or go to many opening-night parties. This Cinderella spends a lot of time with the technology – which probably says something about why we are friends.

She told me a story about a recent meeting where they were reviewing the footage from a shoot – hours of it. Days of filming and retakes, several camera angles, different lighting positions…they would probably need to send out for pizza to help them through. At first, ‘He who needed to be impressed’ was enthusiastic: lovely; great shot; ooh I like that. After some time he fell silent and at the end said: “What are we going to do with all of this?”

The answer was a 26-minute documentary.

Just 26 minutes from terabytes of data. It could make gathering all those terabytes seem a huge waste of time and effort. But without the days of filming and the different angles the storytellers’ art couldn’t be perfected and the message would be dull and ineffective. The perfecting comes in the cutting…and that takes time and skill. Sound familiar?

There comes a time (or several times) in every working day when there is a paring down, pruning to be done and much of the earlier efforts are consigned to the cutting room floor – or the recycling bin for us copywriters.

One day I may be famous enough to remake my epic with the director’s cut but until then I make decisions about what goes and what stays on behalf of my customers, because they know what their paying public want to see: compelling stories, uncluttered by extraneous information, that deliver a persuasive message. That’s the art and science of what we do.

Size matters

I had an interesting meeting with a new client today. We often try and convince clients to try different approaches to engage their prospects and customers more. This client beat me to it. From the off they said that they wanted to tell a story to enthral the reader.

There was a time when whitepapers were long, technical pieces, often with a large element of blue-sky thinking; and case studies were quite in-depth reviews of a project. Driven by the perception of a time-poor audience, bombarded by thousands of marketing messages, we’ve seen pieces get shorter and shorter. But there are dangers in making everything shorter. Not only is there the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the message, but it can also take the human interest out of the story. Edited down to a curt list of bullet points, the customer and their story become implausible and impossible to empathise with. Simplified to appeal to a broader audience, the whitepaper can become nothing more than a glorified brochure—that’s fine, but not when you are trying to demonstrate competence and thought-leadership to technical decision makers.

At HN we aren’t bound by industry-standard terms. We look at each project and agree with the client what length, tone and level of technical detail is most appropriate to the audience and therefore be best at achieving their objectives. Why not have a look at our article The resurgence of storytelling, or give us a call and put us to the test.

Have we forgotten the sizzle?

Are you familiar with the phrase sell the sizzle not the sausage? I sometimes think that in the rush to ‘sell’, the sizzle gets overlooked. From my personal experience I remember when my desk, sited on the floor above the office cafeteria, caused me to pile on pounds in just a few weeks after they began cooking up bacon rolls at 10am. The smell sold that bacon roll to me far better than any two-for-one pricing offer or even a picture. It helped me imagine the experience of holding and tasting that bacon role. Mmmm. I got the habit under control eventually but took a lot of willpower!

The better known anecdote is that of the Mercedes car sales person who outsold his colleagues month after month yet only used up a fraction of his allotted test-drive time. How? By showing them the logo on the key fob and talking to them about craftsmanship, prestige and how it felt to be the owner of a Merc…the sizzle not the sausage.

The way you talk about your products and services is all part of the sizzle. This is the power of content. Once you remember that your customer wants to buy into the feeling and the story not just the commercials of your proposition — the ethos and pathos, not just the logos — you can truly create content that sells. Hard facts and financial offers can pique interest, but it is these softer qualities that persuade, that help your prospective customers imagine what it would be like to be the owner of one of your solutions. How important is it, therefore, that all your content, in print, online and for face-to-face communication is written in a way that helps people engage with you, almost taste your brand and fire their imagination? Of course that’s what we do so our answer’s obvious.