Unlike traditional marketing, which is about selling your company, your brand, your sales numbers, and your conversion rates, content marketing is about making your customers’ jobs easier and their lives better through effective storytelling.
Effective storytelling is two parts art and one part science. If you’re struggling to craft your own storylines, these 14 lessons will help. This week: Lessons 1-7. Next week: Lessons 8-14.
Lesson 1: It all starts with the narrative
Know your story. And make it great. All companies have a vision of what they want to be. Virtually all will say they want to be innovative or best in class. How they express this vision, however, makes all the difference.
Cisco is a great example of a company that understands its narrative and knows how to tell a compelling story. Cisco makes technology that touches just about every industry, ranging from education to retail to health care. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the brand’s content strategy is diverse. But the heart of that strategy stems from the company’s “There’s Never Been a Better Time” campaign—an ambitious attempt to weave the company’s different products and solutions into a single unified storyline.
To help break the sheer magnitude of that concept down into easily digestible bites (bytes?), Cisco relies on a broad range of marketing content. Rather than pushing out press releases, it came up with The Network, a digital newsroom that covers its portfolio down to the smallest detail. It has also developed an entertaining video series to showcase the role of technology in the lives of 12 entrepreneurs, titled “My Networked Life.”
Granted, Cisco is a gold standard. But I promise you that its narrative arc started with the question, “What do we want to be?” The answer was perhaps aspirational at the time, but the great stories it created made all the difference in making that vision a reality.
Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to embrace unconventional thinking
As a marketer, I’m a big believer in using data to shape strategy. But I also think that, too often, companies focus on data to the point of paralysis, refusing to make a move without almost guaranteed proof that the execution is going to succeed. When it comes to good content marketing, vision and an entrepreneur sense of spirit aren’t “nice to haves”—they’re requirements. Focusing too much on the numbers can be akin to looking in the rearview mirror and claiming what you see as your vision.
Lesson 3: Mine the mundane for magnificence
People love stories. They use stories to make sense of the world. Tell them a good one, one they can believe in, and they will reward you for enriching their lives. Just remember that, often, what gets you excited about your business may be precisely what bores others. You have to find out what interests your customers. When a business hasn’t taken the time to figure out who they are and what they do—when they haven’t figured out their story and how to tell it properly—it’s a recipe for boredom. Even worse, it wastes people’s time, which is a greater sin.
Oracle is a company that found that “thing.” Its “The Power of One” campaign is in effect, a case study of its marketing cloud, using its own platform across multiple capabilities in its stack to create a single coordinating story as an example of what potential clients can do. Although its reputation has been built on computing and database solutions, with this campaign Oracle was looking to leverage that brand power with IT people across to marketing leaders. Not only was the campaign clever, but it also stayed true to the brand narrative, explaining the innovative cloud solutions that Oracle offers. Generating thought leadership, awareness and engagement value at the same time? That’s content marketing at its finest.
Lesson 4: Never underestimate your audience
You want to surprise your audience. Surpass their expectations. Consider ways to innovatively share bite-sized information that gives them a taste of what’s to come and makes them hungry for more. Be authentic. Give them a reason to hold you in good stead. Engage them, so they can come to learn, believe and trust in you.
Don’t be afraid of creating conversations. The thoughts and opinions of your audience matter. Give them valuable ownership where you can. It may go against your instincts as a marketer, but leaving your content open to interpretation can sometimes serve as an effective strategy to create customer engagement. You don’t know it all.
Lesson 5: Create magnets, not megaphones
Here’s a fact that might surprise you: According to Google Think Insights, B2B buyers have the strongest brand attachments and make the most emotionally driven purchasing decisions. More than B2C buyers!
It makes sense if you think about it. When a consumer makes a bad purchase, the stakes are relatively low. Best case, it’s returnable. Worst case, it might require an explanation to a spouse.
Business purchases, on the other hand, can involve huge amounts of risk. The business buyers are making important million-dollar purchase decisions daily, decisions that could affect their jobs if they don’t choose wisely. Does emotion enter the fray? Damn right it does.
We B2B marketers often fail when we work so hard to push out content—white papers, sell sheets and other product-related information—that we neglect to pull in customers, to create and nurture those critical emotional attachments. We need to create the kind of content that draws people in. The kind that helps people do their jobs better. The kind that entertains and informs. The kind that knocks people’s socks off, then sells them slippers.
Align every campaign with your longer narrative arc. If a campaign or program isn’t consistent with the storyline, eliminate it. Every campaign should be another building block in the story. Failing to do so will hinder you from gaining the kind of loyalty and love from customers that will insulate them from pricing and market challenges.
Lesson 6: Facilitate addiction. Rehab is for quitters
If you maintain a strong narrative arc and have a clear vision of your customer journey, there is absolutely no reason you can’t create a consistent stream of marketing content that your audience will clamor for.
Remember that the most addictive marketing content:
- Satisfies a craving
- Often has the ending written first
- Serves the community before its creators
- Does the unexpected
- Has an unwavering commitment to be true to its characters, its story and its desired outcome
- Leaves ’em wanting more
Lesson 7: Don’t sell it unless you’d buy it
If you create the kind of content you’d enthusiastically digest, chances are, your buyers will do the same. Make customer-obsessed marketing a team sport. It’s everyone’s responsibility to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Subscribe to the fact that everything starts with the customer’s challenges, needs, prejudices, and concerns.
The rest of it is just a commitment to avoid being self-serving, undisciplined, lazy, or unimaginative. You can overcome those obstacles with a plan, a process and people to help you.
If you’ve hung with me this far, the good news is, you’re already halfway to being a great content marketer. The mere fact that your company exists and is successful means that it serves a need. And your customers are living proof that you have a story worth telling.
The trick is staying true to the people you’re trying to help, knowing where to share that information and having enough confidence in what you have to offer to take some risks, like putting a cliffhanger in the conversation so your audience has a chance to miss you a bit.
Next week: Find your passion, and six more secrets from the storytelling trenches. Stay tuned.
Jeff Cleary | Managing Director
Jeff, a University of Massachusetts grad, worked for others for many years. In 1990, Jeff teamed up with Mike Osborn to form Catalyst. Smart move. In his role as managing director, he continually strives to meet and exceed client expectations as well as his employees’, always ensuring a positive, productive workplace.