As the digital world struggles to define the elements of effective content marketing, it may be useful to examine some of the core concepts of storytelling to provide us with greater insight and understanding. After all, the shift to content as a marketing vehicle is really just a perspective-widening step back to storytelling — the most fundamental form of engagement experienced by humankind.
Two key storytelling devices
The principles of sound business storytelling transcend media formats, both traditional and digital. But I would like to suggest that film is a particularly good candidate for comparative examination because there is a high level of consensus among screenwriters on what a solid story structure is composed of.
Sitting at the top of this list of must-haves is what screen folk would call a theme or controlling idea. It can be expressed as a statement about cause and effect that describes what the film is really about.
For example the theme of the well-known film City Slickers, is often thought to be the following:
If you were to analyze City Slickers from a storytelling perspective, you would probably notice that pretty much every scene, in some way, ties back to this theme. All of the film’s action and dialogue (i.e., story) can be viewed as an argument designed to prove the writer’s controlling idea.
It is these concepts of controlling idea and story as argument that are now being applied to successful content marketing campaigns.
To illustrate my point, let me describe the model that these campaigns follow from a business storytelling perspective. Then, I will present some real-world examples of content marketing campaigns that have leveraged the model in a highly engaging way.
- It starts with a founder or group of founders who are struggling to do something. The struggle can be personal or professional: Build a successful blog site; be happy; find a good pet frog, etc.
- At the end of the struggle, the founder(s) emerges with a new understanding about the way to do whatever it was he was trying to do.
- This understanding develops into a strongly held belief regarding the best way to service clients, and thus it becomes the new basis for an organization’s brand mission and products.
- Through content delivered through its online outposts, the organization starts to educate its visitors about its vision and approach. Every piece of that content is now grounded in its core belief. The educational pages that the organization publishes will naturally draw readers to its products, as those products become inextricably linked to the content they are engaging with.
Just like a good film, the organization in this model centered on one idea (new understanding), and the story of its period of struggle provides the impetus for that new idea. However, in content marketing (unlike in the film analogy), there is a need for the story to continue even after the original argument has been proven — hence the potential beginning of a powerful content marketing campaign.
Ben Hunt’s web design from scratch
The concept: Ben Hunt is a well-known web design guru who operates a blog dedicated to best practices in web design. His site sells eBooks on the topic, and he also offers a professional web design course and runs his own web design firm.
Ben offers a ton of free, relevant content on all issues related to growing the value of a website through design. If you begin to read Ben’s articles you’ll quickly realize that much of what he teaches is based on the following:
The controlling idea: Web design needs to be focused on sound marketing principles that communicate your message and that are optimized for conversions, as opposed to simply including fancy graphics.
It’s hard to go too far into Ben’s site content without coming across some words that either explicitly restate his controlling idea, or at least allude to it.
The story (as argument): Ben Hunt’s story starts with a book he wrote to explain his ideas for a clean and spacious web design style. At some point, though, he was asked to provide proof that his methods were effective. Realizing that he had no data to back up his claims, he set out to test his theories empirically. To his surprise, his experiment taught him that effective site design goes well beyond simple graphic design, and it is this realization that he weaves into all of his content.
The Altucher Confidential
The concept: James Altucher is an entrepreneur and author who delivers content on his blog, emails, Twitter account, and Facebook page that teaches people about his (somewhat radical) ideas on how to live life, in an effort to drive greater interest and awareness in the books that he has written.
The controlling idea: Society and corporations blind us to what is really important in life. If you focus on building up and sustaining your basic physical/emotional/spiritual/mental health, become an entrepreneur, end your dependence on the corporate world, and be grateful and forgiving, you will be happy.
The story (as argument): James’ story is about a guy who wanted success like the rest of us. He founded numerous companies, most of which failed. Having become depressed from his failures, he then figured out how to get his life back in shape. His posts and books are brutally honest about his life, failings, and wins, and he genuinely wants to help readers learn to be happy.
In both these successful examples, we see a powerful and personal story about how a founder came to his current understanding of how best to help his audience. The story and the controlling idea are inextricably linked and provide a rich source for the content that each business shares and sells.
You may have noticed by now that this model will always demand that an organization take a stand on some issue. And this necessarily means that a certain percentage of its prospects will be turned off. That’s OK because those whose understandings do resonate with that of the organization will feel a bond that is based on trust. As Simon Sinek likes to tell us, when people have common values and beliefs, trust will emerge. And once people trust you, they fully open up to what you have to say, and they want to share it with others in their circles.
Think about this: Would you rather be known as, The Organization that Sells ‘X’ or The Organization that Believes in ‘Y’?
Finding your story
Now you see that a controlling idea is something you have to figure out, not something you make up. If you want to see if this model might work for your (or your clients’) business storytelling efforts, start by asking the following questions:
- What was the sequence of events that lead you to where you are now?
- What obstacles/challenges did you face along the way?
- What, if anything, did your experience teach you about what you now do?
- How did your past inspire you to do what you now do?
- What makes you different from the other people in your field?
- How would you advise your best friend if he was going to use your services/follow your advice?
A boon for most of us
Content marketing is very much the new “it” marketing discipline. But unfortunately, to many organizations, the concept means nothing more than sharing free content that will attract attention to the brand and fool people into thinking that the company is interested in helping them.
It’s too bad because there is tremendous opportunity here. The idea of organizations and marketing efforts that are based on a real business story and a strongly held belief about how to solve problems represents a potential boon for both businesses and consumers.
For more of the latest theories on how to build successful brand storytelling efforts, join CMI at this year’s Content Marketing World conference, September 9–11 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Cover image via Mitch Manzer