Why Storytellers Are Thriving in the Digital Economy

By BrainStation November 16, 2018
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As every Oscar Award ceremony will tell you, great stories have the power to inspire, enlighten, and of course, sell. This was not lost on Steve Jobs, who once said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

While that might be a tad dramatic, it’s hard to argue with the man behind the iPhone. And as companies increase their digital marketing budgets, storytelling is front and center, and for good reason.

“Storytelling helps build a relationship with your audience,” says Sarah Bugeja, Senior Director, Growth and Acquisition at Couple.co. “It’s easy to deliver a hard sell – but storytelling takes you to a whole other level. It captures the attention of your audience, and illustrates why someone should care about what you have to say,” she says.

With entire industries now investing in digital transformation initiatives, new opportunities abound for those with the ability to spin a good yarn.

Here are some reasons why storytellers are thriving in the digital economy.

They Have Access to an Unparalleled Amount of Data

The question of how to hook your reader has always been a challenge to marketers and storytellers, but that’s changing thanks to data.

2.5 quintillion bytes of data are now created every day, and by 2020, 1.7 megabytes of data will be created every second, for each person on earth. Making sense out of this kind of data is creating untold opportunities for people with data skills, but it’s also been a boon for storytellers and marketers, who can now identify which mediums are most relevant (including blog posts, podcasts, video, social media, and VR/AR), and then create content that is finely targeted to their audience.

It also lets marketers know when something is not resonating.

“Content and storytelling aren’t just about a person’s opinion anymore – there is often rock-solid data to back-up what stories you should tell and what will resonate with your audiences,” Bugeja says.  

“Doing things because someone “thinks it’s a good idea” isn’t good enough anymore. Data science empowers marketers to make strategic and informed decisions when deciding what content to build and stories to tell,” she says.

In 2015, for example, Under Armour bought the MyFitnessPal health tracker app, inheriting, in the process, a large amount of data. They used this data to discover that the fastest, most committed runners preferred shorts with seven-inch seams. The marketing team then tweaked their content strategy, creating personalized content for that niche of customers. They were able to isolate a specific group, and then tell that group a story they knew would resonate.

That sort of refinement is needed today, as consumers are bombarded with information and promotional messages. Telling a story, and telling it well, is often the only way through.

People are Looking for More From Brands

Attention spans are not what they used to be; six-second mini TV ads now command more attention per second than traditional spots, which only mirrors what’s happening online and on mobile. People have seen it all from an advertising point of view, and are looking for something different.

“It’s more about offering a lifestyle rather than just a single product. Consumers expect more from brands, they want to know what they believe in and what they stand for, beyond lip service” Bugeja says.

Jenna Kellner, the Head of Growth at Ownr, agrees but adds that a company’s brand has to be built on a story that tells consumers who the brand is, and who they aspire their consumers to be.

“I say ‘aspire’ because consumers don’t just buy a product, they buy a belief of what they could be if they buy, use, or consume your product. We tell stories to help people visualize what their life could be like – and what they could be like – if they buy whatever you’re selling,” Kellner says.

Patagonia, the “designer of outdoor clothing and gear for silent sports,” is a great example. The company’s mission statement is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” and they’ve made this part of their branding through effective storytelling.

The company’s “worn wear” initiative, for example, encourages users to trade in or repair clothing. Customers can also buy second-hand clothing that has been repaired by full-time repair technicians. “The Stories We Wear” campaign, meanwhile, gives users a chance to tell their stories of outdoor sporting and adventure, and how their Patagonia gear played a role.

These stories highlight the kind of company Patagonia is, and what people could “be” if they bought their products.

Everyone Wants to be Thought Leader

Though the origins of the term are up for debate, “thought leadership” as a concept is not new. Its relative importance, however, has skyrocketed over the last ten years, and in particular with the growth of digital marketing.

“There are a few reasons to become a ‘thought leader,’ but most of them lead back to improving the reputation of the brand to grow the business,” Kellner says.

There is evidence to suggest this works. A 2017 report from Edelman and LinkedIn found that:

  • Thought leadership has a real impact on attracting RFP (request for proposal) invitations
  • Poor quality thought leadership can lead to lost business opportunities
  • A majority of decision-makers are disappointed in the quality of available thought leadership

These findings, however, also underscore how difficult it can be to become a thought leader.

“Mediocre content and forced ‘thought leaders’ who don’t have a belief or strong position or vision for the story they are trying to craft – these are real challenges companies face,” Kellner says.

The only way to overcome this is to tell stories and to be honest.

“Tell the story of your career; the twists and turns beyond just regurgitating a resume. Showcase the big picture and lessons learned,” Bugeja says.

And if, by chance, you don’t want to relive your past, focus on giving your audience something of value. Consider GE, who have developed an archive of well-regarded thought leadership content with Txchnologist, an online magazine that offers “an optimistic, but not utopian, take on the future.”

Txchnologist does not have a face attached to it, but it contributes to the tech media landscape – without pushing products – and in the process builds trust in the brand.

They Have Access to a Much Larger Toolbox

As William Kanarick, the Chief Strategy Officer at Publicis.Sapient, once wrote, today’s  “‘digital, always-on’ world is a new Golden Age that…presents a unique opportunity to pioneer new forms of storytelling.”

According to Henry Jenkins, the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California, we’ve entered an era when media is converging, with content to flow across multiple channels. This “transmedia storytelling” allows different mediums (including video, social media, long-form writing, podcasts, and more) to contribute to the “unfolding of the story,” which can increase the size of a storyteller’s toolbox, provided they have the right digital skills.   

Airbnb’s 2014 Wall and Chain story is a good example of this kind of cross-media campaign, involving:

  • An animated film
  • An economic impact study on the local Berlin economy
  • Long-form written articles
  • Social media updates
  • Behind-the-scenes videos

The campaign generated more than eight million views across platforms, with 130 press hits in 15 countries.

And it all began with a story.

“Without a story, you’ll have a tough time connecting to your customers,” Kellner says, adding that in the end, it always comes down to one simple idea.  

“Storytelling – and marketing – is all about selling a dream.”