Norman Guadagno / August 5, 2015

Tell Stories, Sell Outcomes

Originally published in AMA

There’s a lot of momentum in brand marketing right now for the power of storytelling. This explosion in the use of narrative is exciting, as stories are engaging and memorable, and have become the “lingua franca” of our online lives. The growth in the use of content strategy and marketing, along with the dramatic spike in the use of online video, has created an almost insatiable demand for new stories.

As more brands embrace the power of storytelling, though, it’s important that they don’t lose sight of the larger goals that they’re trying to achieve. Often, stories are very good at creating buzz, building a brand and generating memorable moments. But are they good at actually selling products and services, which remain the bread-and-butter bottom line for most marketers?

In an insightful recent piece in Advertising Age, Ken Wheaton discusses the tension that exists between push and pull marketing. He says that while people love disruption, they’re usually prompted to buy something by interruption. Wheaton’s article makes the point that disruption enthusiasts—with their soft-sell engagement campaigns, experiments in real-time marketing, and other avant-garde techniques—can do brands damage with their ridicule and reluctance for good, old-fashioned, tried-and-true, “Stop what you were doing and look at this” interruption marketing. The truth is that clever marketers need both disruption and interruption capabilities in their marketing tool chests. Are your stories disruptive but failing to interrupt—and drive sales?

To keep your efforts on track, and to create the opportunity for measurable success, keep in mind the balance between “tell” and “sell.” First, embrace the wave of powerful storytelling, and find new and interesting ways to make your brand and products come to life. Invest time and effort to go beyond the routine listing of features and benefits coupled with a compelling unique selling proposition. Carefully and thoughtfully think about the larger story that you want to tell, the emotional connections that you want to make with the audience, and the lasting impression that you want to leave.

A rich story can be told through any number of mediums, and often works best when you embrace the natural strengths of each medium (text, video, interactive) and leverage the unique characteristics of each as opportunities. Ensure that you have a rich set of content available, and that you’re thinking in terms of an editorial calendar to wisely prepare and deliver content over time.

Moving past the “tell,” remember to “sell.” Here’s where I see a lot of storytelling efforts fall short of their potential, and where marketers could do better by employing more tools from their bag of interruption techniques. If your story is highly memorable, but the audience can’t remember your product, you’re failing to sell.

Early on in the storytelling process, identify the specific outcomes that you’re delivering with your product and make sure that they’re communicated to the audience. If you’re going to keep your service and product in the background through one medium, find a way to bring it to the foreground in another.

Marketing executive and author Sergio Zyman wrote, “The goal of advertising is to sell more stuff to more people more often for more money.” That dictum is as true in our narrative-driven culture as it has been since the dawn of marketing. The difference today is that, in order to sell, we also must invest in how we tell.

Stories are the fabric of our lives, but when we use them in marketing, we must remember who pays the bills. When done well, everyone wins. Otherwise, confusion may reign.

Norman Guadagno is senior vice president of marketing strategy at  Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency based in San Francisco, Calif.