Marketing: Worry less about ‘content,’ more about ‘stories’

Marketing is now about stories you tell

Marketing is about to undergo either a revolution or an evolution, in large part because the majority of post-WW2 marketing in most major industries has been actually centered on advertisements. By this point in human evolution, most people know how to ignore ads — but they can’t ignore relationships. (Phrased another way: what would you care about more — an ad for a resort, or a photo of two of your good friends at that resort?) One of the major strategies that a lot of ‘marketing experts’ are bringing to organizations is ‘content marketing,’ which has been a semi-all-the-rage deal since about 2010 if not before. Content marketing seems to make a lot of sense — stories are very important to the human brain —  but in reality, there’s a big supply and demand problem in content marketing that most companies seem to ignore.

Why does that happen?

Because the obsession is with “content,” which is the wrong word in many cases. A really good book or movie or song isn’t “content;” it’s a “great film” or a “captivating story” or “uplifting.” Phrased another way? No six year-old child is asking you to read them “content” at bedtime.

So we come to this fork in the road: marketers and salespeople realize that traditional ad channels are being tuned out, so they want to turn to content/stories/narratives. But — do they actually understand what ‘content’ should mean?

Greg Satell, i.e. Digital Tonto, has a good article on Forbes about a lot of these marketing and content concepts. Here’s a key part:

Unfortunately, a marketer’s first instinct is to hone those stories to conform to the brand’s messaging strategy. They use stories to underline brand values and put positive brand attributes on display, because they see them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. The result is usually so incredibly dull, it never finds a life outside of a boardroom.

Satell nailed it in terms of the primary disconnect between ‘old-school’ marketing and ‘new-school marketing.’

Most old-school marketers are very concerned with brand, power branding, and the value of the brand. Their CEOs probably came up in the same way, so they also push that. That’s all well and good — ‘brand’ is important, and intangible enough that you can assign outrageous financial figures to it and no one can question you (see: Trump, Donald and value of his name) — but the problem is, the power of brand is declining.

What’s replacing it is customer interaction, or consumer connectedness back to what you do.

Consider the rise of social media for a second. Facebook became so valuable because it’s a way to establish connection — when the Paris attacks happened, for example, you could easily see who was safe. (You also got a lot of one-off ‘thoughts and prayers’ postings, but that’s another story.) Connection is important. Snapchat allows you to see things for what, 10 seconds? In those 10 seconds people are truly engaged, though. It’s about connection and stories and people and relationships.

What marketers do, and have done for decades, is wrap everything up in “brand guidelines” and the like. This is logical because most people, and most organizations, value process over anything else. It’s all about (a) What is the process? and (b) Who owns the process? This is important to many in terms of organizing the work and allowing people to prove their value even if they have none, but it majorly stifles logical process and creativity from emerging.

Part of the problem here, of course, is that old-school marketers are probably in their 50s — they saw the 2008 recession, and they’re worried another one is around the corner. So rather than embracing new funnels and social media and story-telling vs. story-making and other concepts they should be embracing and considering, they’re clinging desperately to the revenue models that have worked for them for two decades — power branding! Ad buys! After all, change is legitimately hard for most people — and harder for organizations.

So, what do we do about content in marketing?

We start with a semantic change. Stop talking about ‘content.’ Start talking about ‘stories,’ or perhaps even better yet — ‘value.’ As in, what’s the value of our brand or idea? And remember: that’s not about the product or service itself. It’s about what and why the product or service makes someone’s life better.

You’re not producing content, though. That just means ads, or flyers, or catalogs, or one-offs. You’re producing stories. That’s real, relevant stuff that will resonate with a human brain and eventually lead them towards buying things from you.

That word ‘eventually’ is key in this whole discussion here as well; content — er, stories — are designed as the bridge between commerce and consumer. What is this thing and why do I need it? A consumer can only figure that out via two ways, essentially:

  • Talking to their friends
  • Doing research

That works in B2B and B2C.

When you talk to your friends or do research, stories matter.

When you talk to your friends or do research, content just seems like an add-on that the person is pushing at you so you’ll buy.

But as for “eventually,” it takes time. Decisions take time. There are competing priorities. There are old-school types hanging on to conventional revenue plays. I’ve seen companies abandon ideas around ‘content’ or ‘stories’ because the bottom-line ROI isn’t showing up at the six-month mark and there are other areas where revenue growth is immediate.

That’s stupid, because relationships take time. And when done right, they lead to revenue.

I’ll drop an old marketing/sales analogy in here too: there are people you sleep with on the first date, and there are people you marry. Both have pros and cons, but the people you marry are obviously around longer. Do you want to build a business on one-night stands, or build a business on trust and commitment from others?

That’s where the rubber meets the road on the value of stories in marketing: sure, it might take a little time to develop properly as a revenue channel. But it’s going to be worth it, no?


Ted Bauer

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