Creating quality brand stories requires skill, insight, and ongoing effort — it’s definitely not something that can be mastered overnight. But even if you had all of the time in the world, your brand’s business storytelling efforts probably won’t get any easier to develop and manage unless you have the right strategic plan in place.
What is business storytelling anyway? Definitions abound, but basically it boils down to brands sharing their messages in ways that engage audiences and drive them to take a desired action (like making a purchase, calling a sales person, downloading or subscribing to content, etc.).
It sounds a lot like content marketing — reaching audiences and prompting them to do something — doesn’t it? But while the two are similar and related, they are not synonymous. Business storytelling is a distinct content discipline that leverages well-crafted narratives in a diverse range of content types, while content marketing is much broader and speaks to the collective efforts that companies use to communicate with their audiences in informative and engaging ways. (CMI’s Chief Strategist, Robert Rose, goes into more detail on the definition of content marketing in his post, How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Are Separate but Connected.)
Precise definitions aside, when it’s done well, business storytelling can effectively support a brand, connecting it with readers, listeners, or viewers and incentivizing them to come back for more.
Great business storytelling demands that your team puts forth its best efforts. But while this level of content excellence should always be the ultimate goal, it’s important to create a business storytelling plan that allows you to experiment and test different options and decisions. It’s better to try, fail, learn, and improve, than to jump in without a plan, or to stay on the sidelines and miss out on an opportunity to build engagement over time — as your content marketing strategies, skills, and storytelling techniques improve.
How should you be looking at business storytelling before, during, and after you release your best stories? Here are some critical elements to think about as you develop and deploy your plan:
Why are you writing brand stories in the first place?
Of course you’re hoping to brand your business in the mind of the reader or, better yet, sell to them. But first you need to understand the demographics of the specific audience you’re targeting (gender, age, income, interests and more), so that you can get a clearer idea of what it will take to create and foster positive brand associations in their minds.
Reference questions like the ones below to evaluate your storytelling plan in terms of whether it will help you reach your overall business goals:
- What are you trying to achieve as a business or a division?
- How do you expect this new content to help you reach those goals?
- Who are your potential customers, and what value will your stories hold for them?
- Are you hoping to appeal to existing customers, as well as new prospects?
What types of content should be part of your storytelling plan?
When creating your business storytelling plan, you’ll need to think about the kinds of content that will be most appealing to your particular audience. For example, if you are targeting Fortune 500 businesses, what would be the best way to package the content for their consumption? Would they be most likely to engage with case studies or educational industry guides? Blog posts or videos? Or would this audience be looking for something else entirely?
For business storytelling, you’ll likely want to roll out and track different content types over time (including creating multiple versions of the same story for different formats), based on the most likely engagement scenarios for your target audiences.
Use your answers to the following questions to help determine what topics and content types should factor into your content plan:
- What specific audiences do you have in mind for your content? What types of content are already popular among these groups?
- What content have you already developed?
- Do you already have too much content about a particular product, service, or other brand initiative? Is your mix of content formats heavily biased toward certain formats? Though decisions of how much content is “too much” for a given topic or format can be subjective, start by looking at your budget. If your video projects are consuming a disproportionately large amount of your time or budget, try thinking of other ways you can be creative that might require fewer resources.
- When considering potential topics for your content, how confident are you that your content team can do justice to the topics you plan to cover? Do their skills and experiences lend themselves to writing about certain areas of your business over others?
- How will the new content primarily be used? How might you be able to reuse it afterwards?
Depending on the size of your organization, you may not have the answers in advance for every piece of storytelling content that you plan to produce. But these considerations should help you ensure that you have as firm a handle as possible on the factors that are within your control.
What talent is needed, and how will it be sourced?
Creating content takes work and a good amount of time — especially if you want stories that engage and convert. Whether your organization has an in-house team of talented writers, designers, and producers or needs to tap into external resources, there are many allocation questions you should be prepared to answer, such as:
- What resources are available for producing and distributing content?
- Are these resources internal, or will you need to rely on outsourcing?
- Are costs for the writers, designers and video production professionals you need manageable given your current budget, or will you need additional funds?
- Do your content producers have a strong track record of being successful with business storytelling?
- Will you need to adjust team roles to accommodate your storytelling requirements? If so, is this a viable option within your department/organization?
What standards and processes will you need to establish?
Business storytelling content must reflect well on your organization on the whole, which means you need to set standards for quality and acceptability. In addition, you will want to put the right processes in place to ensure that the guidelines you set are carried out for every piece of content you put your brand’s name on.
Here are just a few of the questions you can answer to gauge how well you are prepared to execute on your storytelling plan:
- How will you ensure that your stories meet your standards of quality and consistency before they are published? (At a minimum, I suggest setting your stories aside for a few days and revisiting them with fresh eyes — or getting a second set of eyes to review them and make sure you haven’t missed any typos or factual inaccuracies).
- How will your content be routed through all the team members and other stakeholders who need to sign off on it?
- Will you be using a calendar to track your content topics and processes, or are there other tools you prefer to use?
- How will you share best practice guidelines with internal writers and freelancers so that everyone is working from the same playbook?
- How will you document and track all the places where your storytelling content will exist online?
How will you measure — and learn from — your mistakes and successes?
- How will you test and evaluate which storytelling techniques and formats are working for your brand and which ones aren’t? For example, are you tracking the number of downloads, completed forms, and shares through social media or other analytics options?
- Do you have a plan in place for learning from what you find, and making adjustments based on this data? For example, how will you discover the tipping point in your content’s length, after which point readership drops off? With your blog, can you identify patterns in user engagement that indicate your audiences’ content preferences? If you produce white papers, how will you know whether shorter report summaries or lengthy case studies are driving more reader interest for your brand?
- How will you gather feedback on how well your brand messages are coming across, how high the quality of your writing is, or how relevant your stories are to your audience’s needs and experiences?
Additional business storytelling resources
CMI has looked at business storytelling from several angles — everything from movies and an original TV series to content strategy skills and significant questions that marketers must answer to produce great content that performs well.
Here are a few examples:
- “6 Enemies of Clarity in Your Business Storytelling Efforts” discusses writing and design weaknesses that can hurt your efforts.
- “Storytelling Is Not Just for Campfires” provides a good framework for business storytelling.
- “2 Little-Known Devices Behind Effective Business Storytelling” explores what the structure of a good story entails.
- “Power Your Business Storytelling by Creating a Content Brand” looks at how business storytelling can influence a business’ revenue stream in a direct way, rather than being seen as just another business expense.
- “Mapping the Next Frontier in Brand Storytelling” explores ways content marketers can map their storytelling decisions to their organization’s larger marketing goals.
- “Corporate Storytelling Lessons from Kevin Spacey” touches on the power of leveraging behavioral data in content strategy development and implementation.
- “Find the Heart of Your Brand Storytelling with These 6 Questions” dives into key business storytelling questions that all brands should address.
What tips do you have for effective business storytelling? We would like to hear from you.
For more guidance on how to create and manage compelling brand storytelling content, read Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi.