Storytelling: Marketing with Impact

Posted at Jan 4, 2019 6:21:00 AM by Katie Weedman | Share

Thanks to piano lessons, storytelling marketing has had a profound impact on my career. It can also have a profound impact on your business’ bottom line. 

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What Do Piano lessons and Storytelling Marketing Have in Common?

Well, it all started in college. Back then, I foolishly thought a bachelor’s degree in English would qualify me to be a professional copywriter. I studied grammar. I studied composition. I even studied linguistics. And while I learned many valuable lessons during my English studies, I didn’t learn the most important copywriting lesson of all: I didn’t learn how to sell.

At that time, the word sales made me wrinkle up my nose in disgust. Marketing was much more palatable, so I picked up a business minor with an emphasis in marketing. However, I quickly learned through my marketing classes that I couldn’t escape sales. In fact, I should really embrace it, because marketing and sales work hand in hand.

After graduating college and entering the full-time workforce, a sales colleague (go figure) of mine asked me if I had heard of the famous piano lessons ad. I had not, and maybe you haven’t either. Written by John Caples in 1926 for the U.S. School of Music, the iconic ad featured a headline that read, “They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but when I started to play!

That headline – or rather the strategy behind it – taught me the copywriting lesson I had been lacking: it taught me how to sell using storytelling marketing. Here’s the crux of what I learned.

It’s Not About Selling

Caples’ ad sold piano lessons like hotcakes. In fact, it is considered one of the most successful ads in history. Even today, the headline is mimicked in digital ads with lead-ins lines like, “They laughed when…” How is it that a headline written in 1926 still resonates with readers some 90 years later?

The headline isn’t a sales pitch in the traditional sense. It’s a succinct story about conquering adversity – about achieving greatness against the odds. The heart of the message focuses on the benefit of being able to play the piano when no one else believes it possible. This scenario triggers a complex emotional response from the reader, evoking feelings of pride in the narrator’s accomplishment, of envy in wanting to achieve the same success for oneself, and of curiosity in needing to find out how the narrator pulled off such a feat.

Therefore, Caples’ prohibition-era headline remains timeless due to its ability to inspire human emotion. Pride, envy, and curiosity transcend the decades, and tapping into powerful emotions like these can be the key to creating content that goes viral – even (or especially) in today’s day and age.

How does one produce the kind of marketing content that triggers an emotional response?

It’s the “I” Factor

Did you happen to notice that I referred to the “I” in the headline of the ad for piano lessons as the narrator? If so, you get bonus points. The reason I chose the word narrator is because the headline is a first-person narrative, or story.

Using the first-person point of view is one of the most common storytelling (and storytelling marketing) techniques. Think about it: if you were to recant a story about your latest trip to the grocery store, you would start by saying something like, “While I was at the grocery store…”

That’s the “I” factor. By using the first-person point of view, you immediately place your audience in your shoes (or in the shoes of your narrator). This intrinsically creates a more empathetic experience, allowing you to more easily tap into the emotions of your reader- or viewership.

It’s Also Science

According to research conducted by the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, stories can cause our brains to release a neurochemical called oxytocin. This neurochemical can instill feelings of closeness, trust, and sympathy. It can also increase our willingness to cooperate with others.

Why do our brains release oxytocin? Human beings are inherently social creatures: we rely on others for our survival. Thus, some posit that the neurochemical’s release is an evolutionary trait. As Charles Darwin once said, “Sympathy…will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring."

It’s no wonder that storytelling marketing is so powerful. Our brains are practically hardwired for it! But storytelling alone isn’t guaranteed to trigger an emotional response.

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Don't Forget Tension

Tension is one of the most important storytelling techniques. You’ve likely heard a book or story referred to as a nail biter, or even a page turner? These descriptions speak to an urgent sense of expectation created by the narrative. That sense is tension, and it’s the secret sauce that keeps an audience engaged.

But how do you create tension in a piece of marketing content? Very few products and services involve life-or-death stakes or even overly dramatic circumstances. The good news is, tension isn’t about the severity or importance of the event.

Any event can inspire tension. For example, in the headline of Caples’ ad for piano lessons, the story hinges upon the simple act of the narrator playing the piano. As readers, we aren’t led to believe any earth-shattering outcome hangs in the balance, yet, in the end, it’s clear that the narrator deserves to feel pride about demonstrating his piano-playing prowess.

In other words, tension is about consequence – or rather, it’s about the anticipated effect of said consequence. Being laughed at when sitting down to play a piano is tense, because the reader can anticipate how the narrator will react to the ridicule. However, what makes Caples’ headline genius is that the actual consequence isn’t the feeling of shame that the reader anticipates – it’s a feeling of triumph. By turning the anticipated consequence on its head, Caples draws us even deeper into the narrative, making us hungry for more information – namely, how was the narrator able to play so well?

Thus, your target audience is more likely to engage with your marketing content if it creates tension and leaves them wanting more.

Long Story Short

When you want to make an impact on your target audience (and on your business’ bottom line), start your marketing content with a story from the first-person point of view – one with tension. Doing so can give your prospects all the feels while stimulating their brains. It can also sell your product or service like piano lessons – er, I mean, hotcakes.

Need help crafting a compelling story for your marketing? Contact the storytelling marketing specialists at THAT Agency today – and download this free guide to digital marketing in 2019 for more tips on creating content that makes an impact.

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