Is Storytelling in Marketing Something New?

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Just as each new generation believes it’s the first to discover the wonders of sex, those who have stumbled upon the power of storytelling mistakenly believe they’ve unearthed an extraordinary innovation.

In fact, these well-meaning folks are simply learning what generations of their predecessors already knew and employed with great success.

As I explained what I do to feed myself to a pair of business owners at a recent networking event, one noted it seemed that more companies were using storytelling as a way to connect with their customers. Impressed by this apparent transition from hype and flash to more authentic messaging, he wondered whether I had observed the same trend.

I had to suppress a chuckle. I’ve seen many similar claims from other marketers and even some copywriters who should know better. Yes, storytelling appears to be on the upswing, but it’s nothing new. It’s a time-honored tactic that patiently awaited its opportunity to re-emerge.

There’s a tendency in all forms of fashion -- and yes, that includes advertising and marketing -- to throw away the established when embracing the novel. Back in my days with advertising agencies, I remember being criticized by peers for employing what they derisively dismissed as the “tried and true.” Many in the field worship at the altar of what they deem “creativity” -- in essence, everything different from anything they’ve seen before. When I’d note the abundance of existing research and best practices that informed my choices, they’d immediately reject that evidence as obsolete, vulgar, or just plain uncool.

A similar pattern occurs with the emergence of each new marketing channel. The perceived “old-timers” suggest applying the wisdom that’s been gained over generations, and the first-adopters scorn them. “This is different!” they shout. “This breaks all the rules!” And, invariably, those first-adopters eventually are excited to discover “new” tactics that are remarkably similar to what those crusty old-timers brought up.

What we call “storytelling” today is what was referred to as “copywriting” a generation or two ago. The recent discovery that “authenticity” improves the connection with prospects and customers is exactly what people like David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Joe Sugarman recognized and employed decades ago.

As humans, we’re evolutionarily wired to pay attention to stories. Whether it’s children listening to a favorite book, adults catching up on the latest office gossip, or the family stories we share at holidays and funerals, what anthropologists describe as the oral tradition continues to be our favorite channel for information. Our ears perk up when we know someone is about to tell us a story. When a coworker says, “I gotta tell you what happened to me this weekend,” they have our complete attention.

So when a company or an organization starts to tell us a story, they also capture our full attention. We’re drawn in and we do our best to block out other messages. We take the time to savor the story.

Those stories take different forms. Sometimes they’re the tale of how a new product came to be. Sometimes they’re a case study in which we learn how the company helped someone do something important, thereby demonstrating what they might be able to do for us. And sometimes they’re just an explanation of how something works.

Do they impart authenticity? Absolutely. Stories don’t make promises or scream with hype and hyperbole. They share problems, situations, and other things that are real, so we’re able to relate to them. They offer genuine ways to get to know these companies and organizations, making us view them more favorably. Most of all, they don’t sound like what we think of as advertising, so we’re less defensive and far more receptive to the messages.

Sharing stories about your company, organization, products, or services is a particularly effective way to connect with the audiences that are important to you, and that’s been the case for decades … possibly even centuries. And authenticity trumps hype every time. Both may appear to be innovative or fashionable, but that’s only because professional marketers are often distracted from proven solutions by shiny new objects.

If you have a limited budget to work with, doesn’t it make more sense to invest those dollars in strategies and tactics built upon proven knowledge and experience, instead of throwing your money at something just because it’s flashy and new? (Oh, and if you’re a marketer with an unlimited budget, I’d really like to get to know you.)

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