Who. What. When. Where. Why. Answer the proverbial “Five W’s” through storytelling, and you’ll build meaningful connections with your audience. Fail to do so, and you’ll likely lose their attention.
Not every piece of content needs to tell a story. Applying storytelling in the right place, at the right time, in the right way makes all the difference.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to apply the art of storytelling in your marketing initiatives to engage and grow your audience, when to use it, and when not to. We’ll also look at businesses that get it right, and why their strategy is paying off.
What is storytelling in marketing and how does it help you attract and grow your audience?
Storytelling is information sharing through a contextual narrative. It allows you to take a set of facts and ideas and communicate them to your audience in an engaging way.
If your story resonates, educates, and informs, you’ll likely build deeper connections.
In 2010, researchers at Princeton University set out to study the brain activity of both speakers and listeners under the pretext that communication is a joint activity. Using fMRI to record brain activity, they found that successful communication leads to the speakers’ and listeners’ brains entering a state of temporarily coupling and mirrored activity. The higher the neural coupling, the more successful the communication.
A great story literally binds us together. It allows us to share and relate to one another’s experiences, meaning, and perspectives. We can persuade others to see things from a different viewpoint and ultimately influence or change behavior.
Speaking to your audience’s needs, intent, goals, and desires throughout the customer journey drives desired action (e.g., traffic, engagement, conversion, sharing).
Take outdoor clothing company Patagonia, for example. They use storytelling to connect with their audience, as demonstrated above the fold on their home page:
Being a well-known $1 billion company gives them flexibility with their landing page structure. If nobody knew who they were, this vague messaging above the fold wouldn’t work.
It also demonstrates how important storytelling is to their brand identity and differentiation strategy. They even used this reputation to ask their customers not to buy their jackets in a groundbreaking anti-consumerism ad campaign:
Of course, they still want consumers to buy their jacket—but only if they need to, and with the intent of wearing it for a long time. They brilliantly communicated their mission statement (i.e. sustainability) while informing and educating their audience about joining the cause and fighting environmental change.
You can see this message in everything they promote, like this short film “We the Power” about young cooperatives leading a clean-energy revolution:
The narrative of next-generation activists fighting the establishment to save the planet, and having a good time in the process, aligns with their value proposition.
Patagonia has a clear mission, understands its target audience and voice of customer, and uses storytelling to cultivate loyalty and promote change.
To achieve a similar feat, you must understand what makes a good story and how to tell it.
Align storytelling with the marketing funnel for a seamless customer journey
A good story influences consumer motivation and behavior. It must align with the marketing funnel stages (awareness, consideration, conversion, retention) as well as the customer journey.
This is impossible without a deep understanding of your target audience, unique value proposition (UVP), and buyer journey. This article assumes you’ve completed that research and have the necessary data in hand.
That said, collecting data to fuel storytelling must be a consistent effort. Trends, needs, demands, goals, and pain points constantly shift. To deliver personalization and targeted experiences at every touch-point, consistently collect and analyze data, test, and optimize.
Storytelling, like your business, cannot survive in stasis.
Once you know where your audience is in the customer journey, you can unite an idea with emotion to drive action.
Whether that’s to:
- Intrigue (awareness);
- Educate (consideration);
- Influence a purchase (conversion);
- Or inspire engagement (retention).
At each stage, your story should present relatable struggles, goals, or situations, and how your business helps people overcome pain points, achieve success, and emulate an experience.
1. Awareness—Building intrigue
Focus on shared interests and values. Speak to passions, relatable experiences, common problems, gaps in the market—whatever makes your audience feel connected to the message at a high level.
“It actually Won’t” is a clever one-two punch. Immediately, the reader understands:
- This is a story about debt woes (a relatable problem, given that consumer debt in America reached a record high in 2020)
- Ignoring them will make it worse (debt denial and financial strain can lead to high levels of depressive symptoms)
80% of Wealthsimple’s clients are under 45. Because the familiar story is told by a peer and not a faceless brand, it works to build authority.
Many readers see themselves in this story. Living paycheck to paycheck, even with a good job, saddled by debt, and paralyzed by calls from debt collectors.
The story pulls the reader in and incites a desire to learn more. What does this company have to offer me? Have they solved the author’s problems?
2. Consideration—Educate and inform
This is where you can share your perspective a bit more. Explain why you built your business and what you’re doing to help solve the problem (or achieve a goal).
When creating a middle-of-the-funnel experience, practical information wins. Wealthsimple does just this in “The Supreme Retirement Plan: How to Become a Millionaire by Flipping Streetwear”:
They tell a story about watching entrepreneurs line up across the street from their office every Thursday to buy limited items from Supreme (and later flip for profit—upwards of 778% ROI).
The article acts as:
- A case study on maximizing ROI by flipping Supreme items (from an outsider’s perspective)
- A lesson on how to invest your resale profits
This works to:
- Engage, as tips on how to earn quick cash and maximize ROI (in this case, using the Supreme flipping strategy) resonates with their target audience
- Teach, specifically how to invest profits to “get rich slow” (as their USP states above the fold on their homepage)
CEO Michael Katchen told Forbes, “How do you get them to save if retirement is not even on their radar?”
Within the article, they use imagery to drive their lesson home:
The conclusion to this story is simple: “Invest your Supreme profits with Wealthsimple and be a millionaire by age 45.”
3. Conversion—Influence a purchase
Specify how your business helps solve a problem or fulfill an aspiration. Customer stories work well here, as social proof builds trust and credibility—93% of consumers state online reviews impact purchase decisions.
Customer stories answer questions like:
- Can your product or service actually do what it claims?
- If so, how?
- What makes your business better than the competition?
- Why should I care?
HubSpot’s customer success stories answer these queries well, like in this video testimonial from EZ Texting:
In two minutes we learn:
- What EZ Texting does (voice and text messaging for businesses)
- Their biggest challenge (keeping up with activity volume and prioritization)
- Their primary goals (respond to customers faster, streamline processes, and scale easily on a reasonable budget)
- How HubSpot helped (fast and easy implementation)
- Why HubSpot is better than the competition (more efficient, better collaboration, user friendly)
- The ROI (3x headcount, reps have more time to nurture relationships and sell more)
These pain points and outcomes resonate thanks to the narrative HubSpot shares:
- We see the employees interacting at work rather than in a neutral space like a studio, which makes it easier to connect and relate
- We learn their backstory, which adds character depth
- It clearly answers the Five W’s linearly (who, what, when, where, why), which makes it easy to follow and engaging
- It shows the product in action, allowing the audience to picture themselves using it
- The stories are told from the heart and do not seem rehearsed, which makes the characters easier to trust and like
Another strategy is to play on emotions by focusing your testimonial story on impact over features.
For example, Google Ads’ Success Story: Chuckling Goat showcases homegrown goat farmers that increased sales by 6000% in 4 years with their service.
Rather than explaining exactly how Google Ads helped, they highlight the outcomes in a ‘rags to riches’ storyline that makes us root for the main characters.
If it weren’t for their website designer suggesting throwing a small budget towards Google Ads, they may still be running a 1-goat operation (they’ve got 70 now).
4. Retention—Inspire engagement
Keep your customers engaged with community-based stories. Share experiences that make people feel part of something special and unique.
We seek connection and attachments. One study notes, “Our reliance on our group members has also exerted a profound influence over our motivation”. Marketers understand this well.
Tell stories that inspire engagement and make people feel like they belong. Patagonia segments their stories by audience preferences, understanding the power of sharing a hobby with like-minded people.
Their Climbing Stories, for example, showcase anecdotal experiences, often told in the first person. They’re full of tips and tricks, practical methodologies, and recommendations. Stories from the mountains, as told by Patagonia’s customers themselves.
Emotionally, they make the reader feel like they’re part of something bigger. Practically, they inspire new and improved purchases to solve a challenge (e.g. how to pack for alpine climbing).
Customer stories keep your audience engaged with and excited by your business. It’s your chance to bring your brand to life pre or post-purchase, build meaningful relationships, and maximize reach.
How to tell compelling stories that influence buying decisions
To elevate your storytelling skills, you have to understand the foundational elements of a story:
Plot and conflict
Identify and establish a protagonist and antagonist. The antagonist presents a conflict and the protagonist fights against this tension.
How this plays out is the plot.
For example, the team at Patagonia are protagonists building sustainable outerwear to save the planet from those that damage it (the antagonists). Patagonia works to inform and educate about The Conflicts and often presents ways to fight back (the solution).
This plot and conflict is interlaced in many of its stories—but not all. Sometimes telling a story about letting kids be kids and have fun outdoors is more fitting:
Here, the conflict is kids staying indoors. The solution is going outside in environmentally-friendly clothing to enjoy the planet they’ll “grow up to protect”. The plot is kids having the time of their lives in mother nature.
When and where to share each story type depends on the marketing funnel stage, as discussed earlier.
Add depth to the protagonist and antagonist. Identifying with characters is what helps the audience connect with your story. It’s why we root for heroes and boo the ‘bad guy’.
Character depth allows for emotional investment. Focus on the main character to make the story easy to follow and engaging.
Take animated short “All in a Day’s Work” by Mailchimp presents. The main character is Jason, a software developer working from home. We are led to believe he’s in an office until the camera pans down and shows his bare legs covered only by boxers. We can all relate to only dressing our top halves for Zoom meetings from home.
Suddenly, his mother walks into view to do laundry and tidy the room. The video-call participants see her and Jason is horrified. He signals that he’s in a meeting, to which the mother realizes her mistake and panics:
Awkward moments ensue, and as she tiptoes away, she trips on the lamp cord and causes a commotion. A sock lands on Jason’s face, which seems like the penultimate mishap in a series of unfortunate events.
But wait, there’s more! A garage door opens (he’s in the garage?!) and a car barrels in, knocking down his makeshift coffee station:
The picture of Steve Jobs flies off the wall and lands on his face—his garage success story dream has gone up in flames. What else is there to do but shrug?
Mailchimp’s target audience of entrepreneurial self-starters can deeply relate to this moment. The character has a clear backstory and the plot and conflict mirror identifiable struggles.
The setting sets the mood, reveals conflict, influences behavior, and invokes an emotional response.
For “All in a Day’s Work”, the setting masterfully shifts. First, an office building. Next, a home office. Finally, a multipurpose room in the garage.
Mark DiCristina, Head of Brand at Mailchimp Studio, notes the purpose of Mailchimp Presents is to create content “around the experience of growing a business”.
Often, that experience lends to playing the role of executive director to a team of one. Pretending a home garage is a fancy office suite, therefore, is accessible.
The theme is your story’s purpose. Why are you telling it? If you don’t know, the story likely won’t achieve its purpose.
Patagonia tells stories to increase awareness and spark activism. They know a community-driven approach is the answer because they cannot save the planet alone. “We’re all in this together” rings loudly throughout their stories.
Your message should be clearly understood.
Form (or story structure/mode)
You have many options for how you tell your story, such as:
- Spoken (presentation)
- Written (blog, article, digital magazine, social media post, landing page)
- Audio (podcast, webinar)
- Digital (film, animation, imagery, infographic, video testimonial, video success story)
Choose your medium and mode depending on the customer journey and funnel stages. How and where you tell your story, and what you include, should match objectives (e.g., thought leadership, conversion, increased traffic, lead generation, etc.).
Take Dove’s Real Beauty Productions “You are more beautiful than you think” campaign. It pulls at your heartstrings by presenting a story of self-doubt: women unable to see their true beauty:
A sketch artist blindly asks several women to describe themselves, then poses the same question to strangers. The results are astounding. Each woman paints herself poorly compared to the stranger’s perspective.
Dove puts a mirror up to its target audience and empowers celebration. This video works well at both the awareness and retention stages. If you don’t buy from Dove, their #RealBeauty message may inspire a purchase. If you do buy from Dove, you’ll likely feel proud and reinforced.
Storytelling mistakes to avoid
Understanding every story element helps you craft an engaging and compelling narrative. It also helps you present as self-aware and believable, rather than inauthentic or false.
To avoid common mistakes, learning what not to do is of equal importance to top storytelling techniques.
Do not: Make it all about you instead of your customer
Client-centric businesses are 60% more profitable than those that don’t center CX. Why? People want to feel seen and heard.
51% of customers say their relationship with a brand begins the moment they feel understood. There is a time and a place for self-promotion and telling your own story (e.g. your founding story), but always tie it back to the customer and benefits.
Do not: Prioritize building connections over answering intent
This goes to aligning your story with the funnel stage. Post-purchase community stories have no place in the consideration phase. Align your stories with the customer journey to satisfy intent and drive action (e.g., click to learn more, sign up for a course, buy a new product).
Do not: Embellish the truth
In 2015, Volkswagen ran a marketing campaign touting its cars’ low emissions—but it was a lie. They were cheating US emissions tests and got caught red-handed. They lost trust, the CEO resigned, and they reported a €2.52bn pre-tax loss.
They produced a new commercial in 2019 that oozes “starting over”:
Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” plays while a montage shows a young man innovating a new car prototype. From sketch to manufacturing to final product, Volkswagen itself is rebirthed in one minute and forty-five seconds.
Whether this works is not the point. Volkswagen lost four years, credibility, and loyal customers because of a storytelling lie. This rebirth could have been avoided.
Do not: Prioritize storytelling over delivering a great product or service
Stories rooted in fantasy are a dangerous endeavor. Like the stock market, this bubble will burst if they are built on inflated expectations.
Clients that are sold features without seeing the fine print understand this well. The skewed truth (“yes, we can do that for you asap”) vs. reality (“a market-ready product will take another 6 months”) is a mood killer—one that may cost customers and damage your reputation.
If you’re going to craft a story, root it in truth and not fairy tales.
Storytelling is a powerful tool and art form. Done right, it engages, captivates, builds connection, cultivates community, and generates social proof—helping you grow your audience and sales.
But not every story is created equal. To maximize impact, craft stories that meet your target audience where they are in their journey. Understand who you are, who your audience is, and how to use data and storytelling elements effectively.
No matter what type of story you’re telling, lead from a place of truth and center the customer experience.