Telling stories is one of the strongest ways to build and humanise your brand to better connect and resonate with your customers. Digital marketing, however, can sometimes feel more like a numbers game, putting emphasis on commercial objectives and the analytics behind how content is performing. That’s not to say this isn’t important – it’s a fundamental step to connect the sales and marketing functions in your organisation – but it’s about getting the right balance.
In order for marketing teams to reach new customers, you need to connect what you want to say as a brand to achieve your commercial objectives, with what customers want and need to hear in order to address the challenges they are facing in their day to day business. We also need to empower the whole organisation to be storytellers and help tell your business story in an authentic way to connect directly with people. This propels digital selling using storytelling, too.
“People hear statistics,” digital analytics pro Brent Dykes once told us, “but they feel stories.”
So, how can you infuse storytelling into your content and drive a better connection with your customer base and in turn help your employees be digital sellers?
Tip 1 – Know what storytelling is
Storytelling is the idea of creating an emotional connection with your customer first; then using that to drive sales. Fundamentally, people don’t engage with brands. They engage with people. You need to make your customer the hero and think about how you can add value to them in a way that’s relevant to the challenges they are facing day to day.
Traditionally, marketing had one goal: support the sales team selling the product. Today, it’s no longer so clear-cut. According to one study, 71% of readers say they are turned off by content that seems like a sales pitch.
Very few consumers feel loyal to faceless businesses who see them only as data on a spreadsheet at the quarterly shareholders meeting.
Storytelling offers the chance to create a personality for your business that fully bonds with its values. This is where you must consider…
- Who you are? What you do? Why you do it? What is at the core of your culture too and bring that out in your storytelling.
The answers to these questions form the foundation of your ‘brand personality’. But, more importantly, they should authentically mirror your workplace culture. That culture might be laid-back, like in many young start-up organisations, or it might be the sort of professional tone employed by, for instance, medical or legal organisations. Whatever it is, embrace it. Identifying and owning your brand story is where your storytelling transformation begins.
With that determined, you can start telling that story; reinforcing your core values across every communication.
Tip 2 – Focus on the hero you deserve
What’s a hero? It’s not your business – it’s your customer, and they should be placed at the heart of all your storytelling outputs. Don’t tell them why you’re great; show them how your product or service makes them great.
It’s tempting to picture your business as the customer’s saviour. Your products and services help them, after all, which puts you front and centre. The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s really not too different to reiterating the same tired message: ‘we’re great, and that’s why you need us’. It’s like a comedian telling people ‘I am funny, laugh’ rather than telling people humorous anecdotes.
That’s a ‘story’ customers, bombarded online by brands, are beginning to ignore.
You aren’t awesome. But you help make your customers awesome.
As business adviser Chris Brogan noted, “The key is, no matter what story you tell, make the buyer the hero.”
Focus on how your product or service enriches the hero’s life. How do you help customers overcome challenges so they can rise, triumphant, at the end of the story? That’s how you create emotional connections. Potential customers also believe previous customers much more than simply hearing from the brand, all of us look at reviews these days on anything we buy or experience.
Tip 3 – Assess your current culture, connections, and commitments
Storytelling doesn’t start with ‘Once upon a time’, but with the way your company works, and what it stands for. Understanding this – and making changes where necessary – is what lets you put forward an authentic, relatable voice, no matter what industry you’re in.
Here at Microsoft, a core part of our story is the way that we empower our employees to come as they are and do what they love, embracing a ‘learn it all’ mentality. To make that story a reality, we’ve worked hard to instil a culture of empowerment within our own team. At every level of the business, we encourage our people to learn new skills and allow them to take ownership of their work. Now, because our team have the tools and autonomy needed to create great content, they’re able to empower others. It’s our culture that informs our core messaging.
Reflecting on your own company culture can help you define what your story should be.
Once you’re in an environment that nurtures you, excites you, and aligns with your own values, authentic stories write themselves. The culture lets you be yourself. And in the age of internet cynicism, honesty is a valuable asset.
A fantastic example of authenticity is our Microsoft Blogger Series. We’ve been working to transform our people into storytellers, leveraging their expertise to help us tell our brand story in a more resonant and engaging way.
Our champions aren’t trying to be anything but themselves. They come to us with an idea, or first-hand experience, and an experience no-one else can tell, and create stories that are authentic and accessible to all readers.
This forms part of our wider digital selling efforts where we’ve pulled together a full training programme to get our employees to transform their digital presence.
Tip 4 – It takes an army of many
Communicating your company’s story isn’t a solo task. One author may write a single book, but there are thousands of books on the shelf, each one written by a different person with something to say. The same goes for your business: it takes an army of many.
If our Blogger Series and digital selling programme shows us anything, it’s this: with the right support, everyone in your company can be a gifted storyteller and digital seller.
Once you’ve defined your values and your voice, you open up an opportunity for your workforce to help build your brand through employee advocacy. They all have unique stories, ideas, expertise and views that provide a truly human connection with your audience.
Content marketing is one of your strongest assets. Encourage employees to learn the skills of digital storytelling. It’s critical in making your brand stand out in today’s digitally dominant world where all successful brands are easily accessible, humanised, and personal.
Tip 5 – Dig into data
Introducing storytelling elements into your marketing doesn’t mean sacrificing data. We now live in a world dominated by data. During his Corenote speech at Microsoft Inspire, our CEO Satya Nadella mentioned that 90 percent of the data we have today was created in the last two years. Make use of it – just be sure to give it relevance and soul.
While we recognise the power of stories – a power that’s existed for as long as we’ve roamed the planet – that doesn’t mean there’s no space for it within your digital marketing strategy.
Effective content marketing balances the two. Each element complements and informs the other, and the content plans we produce here at Microsoft. This is achieved through our content resonance study (CRS) – a quarterly report which gives us real insight into what our customers are searching for and engaging with in digital spaces.
It guides us in understanding the types of content and language that resonates with them. It studies how they talk, what they’re talking about, and what they aren’t. This lets us better create and position our content, aligning commercial goals accordingly and really thinking about how we can add value to connect with our customers on a more human level.
By focusing on resonant content over irrelevant content, we find that golden spot between what we want to tell people and what they want to hear.
All businesses are here to empower customers. What the CRS prevents us doing is wasting time on content that doesn’t ignite their passion and curiosity. Instead, the data lets us speak to them on an honest, emotional level, with the help of our employee advocates, just like every good story.
I truly believe that every person and every business, has a story to tell. How will you tell yours?
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We’d love to hear how you approach storytelling in your business and to share some of our learnings. Join in the discussion and comment below.
About the author
Great stories demand heroes, emotions, and insight. As Storytelling & Digital Destinations Lead at Microsoft UK, Victoria Oakes places these principles at the heart of Microsoft UK’s content output. In this role, she’s driven to unify messaging and content across Microsoft using insights at the heart. Through her passion for engaging copy, visual storytelling, and data-driven insights, she truly cares about content being useful, interesting and easy to digest.