The Blue Aspen Marketing team had the opportunity to meet Park Howell, founder and creator of “The Business of Story,” at a content marketing Meetup last month. Looking for new and unique strategies is important to us, and Howell’s methodology was a striking blend of old and new ideas.
Storytelling is a new marketing buzzword, thanks to gurus like Howell. The idea of storytelling as a marketing strategy finds its roots in the work of Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied the oral and written traditions of many historical cultures. He determined that, while details vary greatly, most of the stories that really make an impact on humanity follow a strikingly similar path. He coined this 12-step path “The Hero’s Journey,” and storytelling greats like George Lucas have used it as a guideline in their own writing processes.
Howell, not surprisingly, outlined the premises of his methodology by telling us his own story. He told us about his background in advertising, and his subsequent interest in the ads that made an impact versus those that did not. He got his hands on a textbook about Campbell from one of his son’s film classes and became fascinated by The Hero’s Journey.
Howell explained that true conversion comes from emotional, not intellectual, connection. A simple story invites immediate and total engagement, while a “listicle” shuts down that emotional connection. It distracts from the heart of what motivates people.
So, what emotions motivate people? According to Howell, the reigning feelings are disgust, sex, and the protection of our young. But others can play a role too. Love, belonging, humor, and fear are major emotional drivers as well. Making these emotions happen, and creating a connection at the same time, are powerful marketing tools.
Technology has played a major role in causing a famine of connection. While we are always connected through our devices, we are also more isolated. Real, emotional and personal connection is less common, and Howell explains that this makes it more needed. Advertising could be less personal 100 years ago because people’s connection cups were pretty full. They talked to each other, shook hands and hugged, made eye contact, and shared their stories with each other.
Now, we are starving for human connection based on emotion. Marketing using this technique can be very effective.
I had a question. How do you convert a list to a story? If you are trying to convince a person to buy something that you are selling, and you have a long list of things that are likely to be interesting to the person, how do you create a story based on that? His answer, in short, was that you don’t. Throw the list out, at least for now. Lists are somewhat narcissistic, according to Howell. They tout what YOU are and don’t spend much time on what your client or customer is.
This made sense to me. He went on to say that drawing people in with a story or experience can bring them closer to the negotiating table more effectively than a litany of facts. He suggested I look into my own memories and find a story. I immediately thought of one, and I realized that he was right. This particular story could potentially be a powerful tool in driving conversion.
The woman sitting next to me writes articles for a home improvement blog. She asked how she could turn a post about cleaning out dryer lint into a story. Howell asked her what the consequence of not changing dryer lint could be. She said it could result in a house fire. Suddenly, the most boring of tasks, the most mundane of subjects, became interesting. I could imagine the story, the fear of losing one’s house or life to a house fire, and the conversion and connection that would generate for the blogger’s readers. It’s that little hook of catastrophe averted by paying attention to the little things. That’s a solid moral to a story and one most people can connect with.
When people asked Park of his favorite examples or brands that are doing storytelling well, here’s what he referenced:
Infusing storytelling into your marketing strategy can be challenging. The traditional marketing practices of most businesses has been centered around data. Data, numbers, lists, and facts. The idea that you can spit out statistics and drive conversion is entrenched. It’s not easy to withdraw from those expensive and high minded strategies.
And they shouldn’t be abandoned completely. Introducing facts through storytelling is a great way to introduce important information in a way that keeps your audience engaged. Howell used the example of documentaries. This film style presents a lot of pertinent facts, but through a lens of storytelling. If a village in Africa is losing three children a month to water contamination, it makes more of an impact if you meet the families, see the village, and witness the real suffering with your own eyes. This is storytelling.
So, find the stories in your own marketing strategy. Maybe you sell coffee. Instead of talking about how many people you serve in a day, talk about that one man who came in after losing his job, and how having a cup of coffee at your table gave him the courage he needed to go home and tell his family. Instead of talking about the type of beans you use, tell the story of the way you found it in a little dive coffee shop in Brazil. Engage through emotion and through story, and sneak a factoid in here and there.
The old Mary Poppins adage applies, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
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